Thursday, July 9, 2009
Here's yet another post on Joel's album Complete Life.
“Simplicity and cacophony” is how composer and saxophonist Joel Vanderheyden describes his debut CD, Complete Life. The album combines distinctive original compositions, skillful use of electronic effects, and solid grooves performed by a group of outstanding musicians, all of whom share the leader’s clear artistic vision and creative goal. Joel’s tenor playing throughout Complete Life showcases not only his ability to play technically demanding ideas (check out his solo on Gargoyles), but also to deliver beautiful melodies and elegant, spirited improvisations in the tradition of the great tenor players.
Born in 1980 and raised in the Twin Cities area, Vanderheyden began saxophone study at age 10. After graduating from the University of Minnesota, Morris, he completed a Master’s Degree in Jazz Studies under Chris Vadala at the University of Maryland, subsequently served as Director of Jazz at schools in Chicago and Minnesota, and eventually landed at the University of Iowa, where this project was conceived during his DMA studies in saxophone.
The band began with the assemblage of Vanderheyden on tenor, Rob Baner on drums and SPD-S sampler, Drew Morton on electric and double bass, and Brian Lewis Smith on trumpet and laptop. For almost two years this quartet worked together building repertoire and performing as Koplant No throughout their current home of Iowa City, Iowa. To complete the ensemble, veteran pianist Tim Daugherty was brought in on keyboards, as well as guitarist Steve Grismore (whose resumé includes stints with Carla Bley, Charlie Haden, Jack Walrath, Paul Scea, Billy Higgins and Matt Wilson to name a few), providing a dynamic, fusion-based drive to the group.
Upon first listen, the album immediately makes you feel good. Further auditions will begin to reveal both the simplicity and cacophony of which the leader spoke. The simplicity is evident in the melancholy melodic statements of Complete Life and Simple Elegance and through the solid rhythmic grooves of Pirate Song and Pees and Deetoo. The cacophonous “yang” manifests itself in the swinging harmonic angles of Gargoyles, the electronic samples and effects of The Fall of a Superhero and the intriguing juxtaposition of musical styles throughout Between Heaven and Hell There is a Drawer of Junk.
Each composition on this album is dedicated to a person or event in Vanderheyden’s life, and among these musical narratives, Pees and Deetoo merits particular attention. After beginning with a “feel good” vibe, a leitmotif arises in the form of an electronic sample of Vanderheyden’s young daughter Ella saying “Pees” and “Deetoo,” which is actually her infantile attempt at being polite and saying “Please” and “Thank You.” As the melodic statement shifts from laid back groove to staccato “straight-eighth” disjunction, you can imagine the toddler learning to walk on wobbly legs, teetering on the verge of toppling over. Another notable track with strong ties to the composer is Tanzania Life Project, named for Joel’s grandfather’s non-profit, whose goal is to empower small communities throughout Tanzania by providing resources, training and infrastructure improvements to its residents. The thumb piano motive that introduces the piece is transcribed from a home video of a small group of musicians playing in Tanzania.
Throughout the album each musician is given the opportunity to showcase their improvisational talent and their abilities to tastefully explore the use of electronic effects within their music. Every solo on the album is concise, expressive and to the point. No eight chorus solos here - an approach I wish more young musicians would take. Baner and Smith’s joint solo on The Fall of a Superhero brings together a body of electric and acoustic percussion sounds that cause you to rethink the sonic possibilities of the drums in an instrumental quintet. Immediately following the percussive exchange, Daugherty explodes into a Fender Rhodes solo and manipulates the timbre of the instrument electronically while continuing to present clear musical ideas. Conjuring a bit of Miles, Brian Lewis Smith stretches out on Between Heaven and Hell There is a Drawer of Junk and presents themes, building upon ideas and giving us a wonderfully constructed solo. Grismore’s guitar adds to Pees and Deetoo by solidifying the vibe right out of the gate and delivering a solo with dynamic drive. Enough cannot be said about how well these musicians all work together to create a truly cohesive sound.
Vanderheyden's tenor playing across the album is superb, but a few highlights are worth pointing out. The title track, Complete Life, features Joel throughout, playing over an ever-morphing sound palate of Morton's grounding bass, and the band’s laptop driven effects, SPD-S sampler and keyboard synth sounds. A simple and beautiful saxophone melody is presented and built upon, reaching riveting emotional peaks before being pulled back home, showcasing Vanderheyden's maturity not only on the saxophone but as a true melodist. On Pees and Deetoo Joel lets loose and gives an energizing solo that will keep little Ella grooving well into adulthood, and his brief and terpsichorean solo on Tanzania Life Project will at a minimum get your head bobbing and your toe tapping. Joel Vanderheyden’s respect for the history of the music, his dedication to his craft, and his singular creative fire have coalesced into Complete Life, an album that is sure to open the ears of many new listeners.
– Ryan Maloney, Institute of Jazz Studies - Rutgers University
Buy it here.