Thursday, November 17, 2011

CD Review: Travis Laplante - Heart Protector

Travis Laplante
Heart Protector

Once at a Peter Brotzmann show, I ran into a saxophone player whose personal style was more in a straight ahead direction, having come up during the heyday of bop and hard bop. He, obviously, was open to other things since he was there at this show, and I asked between sets what he thought of Brotzmann's music. His reply went something like, "As an apparatus for producing sound, he really has a command of his instrument. His technique is incredible. As far as what he produces, I'm not really sure about that." It was clear he respected the German titan for what he did, because my friend could've said, "It's a bunch of noisy crap, and I'm leaving," but he didn't. (I'm pretty sure he stayed for two sets.)

This encounter came back to me while listening to Heart Protector, the solo album by Travis Laplante, a tenor saxophonist who also plays in the band Little Women and in a trio with bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Gerald Cleaver. Solo albums can be intriguing if nothing else because they can make the listener wonder what inspired the soloist. Is the musician following changes they hear in their mind? Is it completely solo? Is it spontaneous? Is s/he lost in their own thoughts? Did you have to be there - "there" being inside their head - to fully appreciate it?

Laplante comes out of the gate impressively, blowing two harmonized tones on the opening title track, and he's clearly producing them simultaneously through his sharp technique. It's not clear at first, but there is melodic structure to what he's playing, as the whole thing repeats. Still, it's long, gruff notes and nothing else so it requires focus. "Five Points" shows a different skill, since he uses circular breathing to blow a torrent of notes that gradually shift in tone with the way he manipulates his fingering. It's barbed in a very Pharoah Sanders kind of way, climaxing after six minutes with 10 low honks from the bottom of the horn, delivered slowly, like someone who can't resist adding to a point they've already made. Although once you realize he's going to keep honking, it gets more entertaining.

At this point, after two of the five tracks, the interest in Heart Protector has more to do with Laplante's chops than his compositions. Which is conflicting because this music is clearly close to him. He wrote these pieces while suffering from a severe case of vertigo that debilitated him for a whole summer. Each one represents his struggle and eventual triumph over the illness.

Of course, I know all of this because of the disc's press release, not because of the music or anything contained in the cover. "The Great Mother" doesn't sound like a triumph over adversity. It sounds like a really good imitation of guitar feedback. Which is good, but... it gets a excessive in its simplicity.

The bits of the concept do come across to some degree in the final track, "The Tear Dam." After all the squonk and squeal, Laplante plays a straight forward, meditative melody, full of pregnant pauses and it ends with a repetitive sense of triumph. He says it makes him feel "emotionally naked" and his no frills delivery conveys that open feeling so the effect is penetrating.

While Heart Protector winds up being something of a mixed experimental bag, Laplante shows a smart sense of economy: the five tracks only last a total of 30 minutes, so he doesn't wear out his welcome.

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