Wednesday, December 16, 2020

CD Review: Nate Wooley - Seven Storey Mountain VI

Nate Wooley
Seven Storey Mountains VI

One of the first shows in Pittsburgh that was cancelled in the early days of the pandemic was to feature saxophonist Ken Vandermark, trumpeter Nate Wooley and drummer Paul Nilssen-Love. The two horn men had come to town before, creating music that was both lyrical and sonically intense, utilizing upper register wails that could, literally, vibrate the wax in your ears. 

In addition to his intense technique and perspective on his horn, Wooley also released something that avant-jazz fans might never expect in a million years: (Dance To) The Early Music (2015), a relatively straightforward tribute to Wynton Marsalis' Black Codes for the Underground and J Mood. (When interviewing Wooley for a JazzTimes article on that album, we both shared our fondness for Blood, Sweat & Tears' blockbuster self-titled album too.) These are just but a few of the many things the prolific trumpeter has done, but it reveals the vast vision that factors into his work.

Seven Storey Mountain is an extended piece - a song-cycle, in a way - that has evolved through six different iterations, with various musicians working with the trumpeter each time. This sixth one features a group of improvisors, a choir of women and an underlying message of courage and strength that filters through it. Folksinger Peggy Seeger's song "Reclaim the Night" is incorporated into the work. The album presents the music in one 45-minute track. Along with Wooley's liner notes, the CD edition comes with a graphic chart, laying out the flow of the piece and when musicians come and go. All of these present a greater perspective to what is an intense piece of work.

The notes assist in large part because it can be hard to tell how the sounds are being produced. After an opening vocal passage with the voices humming the melody, Susan Alcorn's pedal steel guitar drones gently, as a series of keyboard sounds and loops (some lifted from previous performances of SSM) resonate in the background. The first half moves languidly, with the soundscape getting wider, with more organ loops and violins (Samara Lubelski, C. Spencer Yeh) creating a feeling of anticipation as their bowing grows more intense.

By the 26-minute mark, things have reached a full boil. Drummers Chris Corsano, Ben Hall and Ryan Sawyer, who were simply brushing earlier, have begun moving over their whole kit. Guitarist Julien Desprez begins wailing like a jackhammer, with sounds panning from channel to channel. Ava Mendoza's guitar also kicks in around this time, though she isn't quite as close to the forefront as Desprez. The whole ensemble moves rapidly but together. They create a sound that resonates deeply, achieving Wooley's intention that he expressed to the players during rehearsals - "to make the room vibrate in a different way, and to make the room continue to vibrate long after we're gone." The collective vibration might sound chaotic or dense, but it's nothing compared that what comes later.

As the drummers drop out, followed by the guitarists, leaving Alcorn playing "gentle sounds" over keyboard loops, the 21 women of the choir began to rise up, first in ghostly chorus of "ah," then moving into the chorus of Seeger's song, the text of which appears on the disc's front cover. They repeat it seven times, with an echo beginning on the sixth to make it like a canon. 

Without any musical support, they begin to repeat a new line, from the folk song "Union Maid," ten times - "You can't scare me." As they reach the final repetition, the natural reverb has been stripped away, putting the women right in the face of the listener. After all the sonic frenzy, this is the most intense moment of the album, which Wooley had intended. In his liner notes, he explains that SSM6, which premiere in November 2019, was fueled by anger. "I was fucking angry watching the government attempt to wrest control of women's bodies and angry watching Black people be incarcerated and killed with impunity," he explains. The voices work as a way towards liberation from this oppresion. Wooley also is donating a portion of the royalties to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV). 

Seven Storey Mountain VI might not be an easy listen. It's definitely not one that can be put on while working around the house. My first listen came during a long car ride and parts of it sounded completely different than it did while listening on earbuds, with the booklet in front of me. And the latter setting is the way it should be experienced because these 11 musicians created something deeply engrossing that will resonate long after the disc is finished.

And, like I often say at this point, it makes me want to track down the first five installments of SSM, which incidentally derives its name from the writings of Thomas Merton. 

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