To call what Garrison Fewell does with his Variable Density Sound Orchestra "free jazz" doesn't quite fit the bill. Sure, there are plenty of unfixed meters and tonalities and multi-horn improvs. But Fewell likes to contain that freedom within the boundaries of some clear designs — even if those designs aren't conventionally notated. So "The Red Pyramid," from the band's homonymous 2009 album, fits the description of the title — the gradual accretion of musical material to a peak, and then a subtraction. Base to summit and back again.
At Johnny D's on Wednesday night, the band played from that album and the new Sound Particle 47 (Creative Nation Music). Personnel can be variable as well, but in this case the line-up included the great Afro-Dutch saxophonist and flutist John Tchicai, whose compositions are on the new album and whom Fewell called "the fonte — the fountain of tunes we can unite around." Tchicai's credentials go all the way back to John Coltrane's landmark free-jazz record Ascension, on which he played. Ever since, he's combined compositional deliberation with improvisational freedom.
At Johnny D's, the second tune of the first set was typical — "One of Those," which Fewell described as a collective improvisation. And yet, surely there was a predetermined agreement regarding the dynamics of the introductory soft cloud of free fluttering horns. (Tchicai was joined on the front line by tenor-sax Kelly Roberge, bass-clarinettest Todd Brunel, and trumpeter Jerry Sabatini.) The cloud would clear for solo passages or subdivided groupings of the entire band. For much of the night, Fewell and Eric Hofbauer both played understated guitar — a constant weave of lines and chords. In essence, two lead guitars.
By the beginning of the second set, on "Spectronomous," I was worrying that the band's strategy for unison statements had begun to wear: fast phrase, rest, fast phrase, rest, long-held tone. Repeat. But soon they were into a vamp, and then "Betty's Bounce" from the new album — a bebop line and the first walking-bass swing of the night. Hofbauer even played some octave phrases in the Wes Montgomery manner. Then came Fewell's dark, majestic "Ayleristic," from the first album, its open chords and mournful melody somehow combining Miles and Zawinul's "In a Silent Way" with Ornette's "Lonely Woman," Albert Ayler splitting the difference.
Sabatini was a marvel all night, even at one point when the mute dropped out of his horn and onto the music stand. His sharp articulation and sudden darts up and down the register upped the temperature. Brunel maintained a beautiful tone through all the registers (not easy when playing jazz on bass clarinet) and, like Roberge, he seemed to draw inspiration from Tchicai's long, free, melodic inventions generated from repeated rhythmic riffs. Bassist Dmitry Ishenko took a solo that was old-school avant-garde — leaping intervals, fast, clean flurries of notes, slamming flamenco chords, rattling double stops. Drummer Miki Matsuki used rims, cymbal washes, and mallets to create a dynamically controlled accompaniment that was about timbre as much as time. Toward the end of the set, the band played another medium-tempo, long-lined melody that Fewell said he and Tchicai had written via email, adding, "We don't use Finale."