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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Chad Fowler – Birdsong (Mahakala, 2024)

By Don Phipps

Complexity is at times its own virtue. And the music on Chad Fowler’s Birdsong certainly is complex. Take its instrumentation – Fowler on sax and bass flute, Shanyse Strickland on French horn, flute and vocals, Sana Nagano on violin, Melanie Dyer on viola – and a standard rhythm section (Ken Filiano on bass and Aders Griffen on drums). French horn is most certainly rare in jazz and combined with the violin and viola lines, the result is a modern but uneasy interweaving of soulful bluesy jazz with abstract modern music.

Experimentation is a hallmark of modern free jazz. A willingness to take chances is certainly to be admired. But risk is always present that the experiment may not work out. And so it is with this album, where Fowler achieves uneven results from his unusual selection of voicings, bandmates, and compositions.

Fowler pens only two of the numbers on Birdsong. Three more are composed by Griffen (there are two takes of Griffen’s composition “Good and Tomorrow”). The remaining three are group improvisations. Each of the numbers allow Fowler to generate heat – abstract, bluesy, soulful heat – and this atop a string section, whose lines seem to reflect a mix of idioms – think Charles Ives meets Duke Ellington.

Strickland’s French horn solo on the opening number “Traditional Funeral Dance” bellows and blats precise articulation, but the piece doesn’t find its footing until Fowler’s powerful sax exhortations take over.

Griffen’s Ellingtonian “Out of Town,” meanders along like a slow barge on the Mississippi. And the two versions of his tune “Good and Tomorrow” explore a gentle sprawling phrase, with strings and a swooping bowed bass line. In Take Two” of this piece, Fowler enters with a bluesy soulful line which accelerates before returning to the gentle sprawl. Strickland offers up long legato French horn phrases while Filiano plucks and twists bass notes beneath. And it’s a joy to hear Fowler harmonize with Nagano’s violin near the end. Likewise, “Take One” uses the same gentle sprawling theme, but in this version, there’s a kind of remote grandness– as if gazing at an urban landscape from a vantage point across a river – the orange sun bathing the buildings in dark and light. Fowler’s solo is lighter here, while Filiano bows beneath.

Fowler certainly exhibits command of the saxophone. On the group improvisation “Theme for Someone I Probably Wouldn't Like,” Fowler cuts loose with strong blows atop the string section. And his and Strickland’s duet on “Crossing the River” has a Zen quality. Perhaps the most interesting song is Griffen’s “N-Beam,” which highlights his animated and fluid drumming and Filiano’s energetic bass. Fowler adds an elated running solo as the piece skips happily along.

The group certainly challenges itself on the improvisation “Turnoutbreak,” but the odd Strickland vocals actually seem to work against the flow of the piece, with its exciting and tumbling lines. Fowler’s talent is obvious – for example, the solo he delivers on “Turnoutbreak” sparkles. But overall, the mix of tunes, the odd instrumentation, and a juxtaposition of jarring and gentle phrases within a few of the numbers seem problematic. The music might have been more compelling if the arrangements weren’t so dense, allowing individual contributions to stand out more. As the liner notes state: “This diverse ensemble is made up of musicians with unique origins and backgrounds and a few of them were meeting for the first time.” Notwithstanding the group’s talent, Birdsong proves that making significant music while learning what makes each musician tick is a challenging task.