Then it was a matter of finding players with whom he'd be comfortable taking those first steps. One of the artists from his vast record collection was Khan Jamal, a vibist with a small discography and scant public profile. Fewell sent an e-mail to the address of a record company on the back of a CD: "I'm looking for Khan Jamal. He doesn't owe me money or anything, I just really like his music." An e-mail came back: "Okay, you found me, now what?"
Fewell visited Jamal in his Philadelphia neighborhood — Germantown, not far from where Sun Ra had lived — and the two planned a gig at the Regattabar and worked on Khan's music. Here was the kind of thing Fewell was looking for: pan-tonal and atonal experiments, one meter against another, two meters simultaneously. That was in March 2003. Later that year he'd meet Tchicai through a concert at the ICA. Good Night Songs followed, then Big Chief Dreaming with Tchicai and a quintet on the Italian Soul Note label.
Tchicai is remembered by most as one of the players on John Coltrane's free-jazz breakthrough, Ascension, though his performances with Fewell, Kohlhase, and the Either/Orchestra have made him a Boston regular in recent years. "Everyone thinks of John as being this '60s guy, totally free," says Fewell, "but he's not. He really believes strongly in composition, playing the composition correctly, and his compositions can be very difficult." But then come the improvisations, which are about "whatever you experienced in playing the composition."
Take the Variable Density opener, "Spectronomous." It begins with a short unison statement of the theme's wide leaping intervals and a long held trill, then proceeds with darting figures based on those intervals being passed from instrument to instrument in a free improvisation before returning to the sprightly theme. "The Red Pyramid" begins with a purely improvised melody by Campbell on muted trumpet that sets the mood as he's joined by "Egyptian gong sounds" and other instruments that, piece by piece, build a pyramid. By the end, the structure has been inverted, back to Campbell, now on open horn, in duet with Voigt.
Instead of providing notes for such a piece, Fewell provides "a design." In the case of "The Red Pyramid," the design was drawn on a napkin at the bar at Redbones in Davis Square — "the entrances of instruments, how they interact, who plays with whom, where it goes and how it ends."
Some pieces proceed more conventionally. The 17-minute "Venus" (the longest track on the record) opens with an appropriately spacy passage based on a long-lined theme before going into a bass vamp that everyone solos over. Succi is a particular standout here, extending from the deep baritone register of his bass clarinet to a clear, controlled altissimo. Fewell's "Ayleristic" is a reminder of the delicacy of Albert Ayler's work in his trio with Gary Peacock and Sunny Murray. Its gentle, rolling open chords are as reminiscent of In a Silent Way as of Spiritual Unity. The album closer, "Naminthi's Shadow," is a lovely, melancholy, Ornette-ish ballad by Butch Morris.