Dan Willis - Hand to Mouth

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Dan Willis
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'Hand To Mouth Liner Notes by Bob Belden   Dan Willis is a young musician who has to deal with the realities of the modern jazz world. As most young musicians will tell you, today the deck is stacked against them. Too many musicians have flooded the market with recordings that are totally derivative of some jazz great of the past. And most of the modern young musicians who have emerged from the wasteland of the 'acoustic jazz renaissance' of the last twenty years or so, have done so armed with a different approach to improvisation and composition. Dan Willis has moved forward from his initial release on A-Records (Dan Willis Quartet) and has gone into a form of expression that he is personalizing. His music comes from his wide variety of sources. He also has the background that most jazz musicians from the 'golden era of jazz' never had-a concise education. Dan graduated from the Eastman School Of Music with a degree in music performance (as an Oboist). The curriculum at Eastman is demanding and most who graduate have a sense of what music means to them. They have dealt with Jazz and Classical music on equal levels and have entered the professional world as few do-totally equipped to handle almost any musical situation. As Dan Willis has entered the professional jazz milieu, he has combined his education with the experience of living in New York City. Manhattan is a difficult place for jazz musicians to find their place. The City is filled with many musicians who are struggling to find a niche in this insane Mecca for creative artists but are constantly challenged by things that were never taught in school. There is an element of exclusion in New York City which will discourage even the most accomplished musician, and the only rules are the ones that are made and changed by people who cannot play an instrument at any level. You see many young musicians come in to this scene with an idealistic and somewhat naive approach to the jazz business and soon are caught up in the politics of the jazz world. Only musicians who have a strong sense of what kind of music they want to play will flourish in this environment. Dan Willis has a strong sense of who he is as a musician and the kind of music he wants to compose and record that will define him. The music on this CD is beautiful music, not filled with anger and frustration, not derivative of anyone in particular but nonetheless paying homage to the artists who have influenced Dan. There is a hint of serenity in many of these tracks, which is in direct contrast to the intense atmosphere in New York City. Dan doesn't have to play into the City's philosophy of having to justify his music by comparisons to jazz's tradition. This hang-up on tradition causes problems from a creative and sensitive artist like Dan. It is unfair to assume that any one of this generation will ever be able to surpass the accomplishments of the great jazz artists of the past, and they should not be penalized for this. It is impossible for any musician, jazz of otherwise, to surpass what society has built a monument around. Musicians today must be listened to with fresh ears, with ears that only want to hear the soul of the artist come rushing out from the speakers. Dan has surrounded himself with players of the highest caliber. These musicians share similar feelings about music and the sensitivity is apparent from the first notes to the last. Larry Goldings is one of our era's great unsung heroes. His contributions to any recording session are always first rate and spectacular. He can hold his own with anyone who plays the piano and organ (and it is a rare combination to play both instruments with any real authenticity). Ben Monder is one of today's guitar voices on both acoustic and electric. Ben knows how to orchestrate the guitar in small groups as well as anyone. Pete McCann is a young musician who, like Dan, comes from a serious educational background. He adds just the right touches to Dan's music. Drew Gress is fast becoming one of New York's first call bassists. He is rooted in playing the groove but has a looseness that makes him very flexible. He makes music in any situation. John Hollenbeck is a young drummer who is a rising star on the scene and it's because he plays with adventurousness and with a lot of taste. He does not bash and thrash unless the music demands it. He has a strong sense of form and dynamics. The opening song 'Forgiven' is a very pastoral piece which exposes the colors of Pete McCann's acoustic guitar and Ben Monder's haunting electric guitar. The two guitarists compliment each other, never getting in each other's way. The song is beautiful and is a perfect example of Dan's sense of taste. John Hollenbeck's drumming is tasteful and sensitive and as I mentioned above, is filled with wonderful dynamic shapes. 'Landscape In A Dream' is a funky hip-hop groove which is punctuated by Goldings rhythmic organ comping. The second section of the song goes to the 'dream' idea of the song, using the electric guitar to great effect. Drew Gress has a beautiful solo spot. 'Sunfather' is clearly a track on which one can fully judge Dan's heart and mind. It is quite simply a beautiful melody given a quiet orchestration. The mood of the song is both joyous and mournful-this is the best of what modern jazz can deliver. The composition is not just a vehicle for 'blowing' but a disciplined construction of a melody and a mood. This clearly marks Dan's place as a composer of modern jazz (as well as modern music). Dan's soprano sound is totally his own and he controls the instrument (which is the hardest of all the saxophones to play well and in tune) to create a heartfelt performance. 'Saving The World' is a 4/4 burner, which is used to showcase Dan's understanding of how jazz music has progressed from the 'I Got Rhythm' world of bebop to the modern approach of fast tempos in the context of modern jazz. The form is complex and allows the soloist to have 'signposts' to shape his improvisations. Most musicians play fast tempos flat out with no obligation to play on the form, and Dan has gone past that way of composing and playing. Ben Monder plays a nice solo against Hollenbeck's sensitive cymbal work. Hollenbeck strives to get a tone out of his ride cymbals that do not wash together while playing a fast tempo. There is more of a Nawlin's feeling in 'Hand To Mouth.' This is a feel-good composition, hearkening back to the day when the tenor sax-guitar-organ-drums format was the king of the neighborhood. Goldings gets 'down' on the B-3 and Dan floats above the groove. Monder rips on the distortion pedal for his solo, pushing the groove into heavy-metal land. 'Smiles Passing By' returns to a pastoral landscape, another pretty and romantic melody composed by Dan. With the bells accenting the melody, this composition will bring a smile to any listener's face. Hollenbeck is the model of control, never overpowering the mood and texture of the composition. 'If We' is a lovely acoustic composition for tenor sax and guitar. Pete McCann has a such a nice control over what is a very difficult instrument to control. The notes are all even and each part can be heard. Pete knows how to play voices within a composition that are natural for the acoustic guitar and give the composition it's individual flavor. Again, Dan reaches into his heart and composes something that is pure melody. The only tenor saxophonist who ever could play this tender was Charles Lloyd (when he was accompanied by Gabor Szabo on acoustic guitar). Dan takes his place alongside Lloyd in the pantheon of tender tenor saxophonists with this lovely composition and performance. 'Aw Shucks' is a composition based on the form of 'I Got Rhythm' (A-A-B-A) and is a free wheeling blowing vehicle. Hollenbeck explodes with joy as Dan kicks into the solo form. Gress holds down the time and the combination of Gress and Hollenbeck creates a Ferrari-on-the-autobahn-like experience. Ben Monder hits with his solo, crafting snaky lines that play above and below the form and changes. Hollenbeck gets a chance to play a chorus before the melody enters which creates a feeling that you have been taken for a ride down a New York City Avenue. 'The Nearness Of You' is the only song not composed by Dan. It was composed by the classic songwriters Ned Washington and Hoagie Carmichael. But Dan uses this, a set closer, to give the listener a calm end to his recording. Larry Goldings plays a soulful and sensitive introduction that reintroduces Dan's tender side. Dan sticks close to the melody (as he wants the beauty of the melody to come through). The rhythm section double-times the solo choruses for Dan to pick up the groove. Goldings plays one chorus before Dan picks up the melody on the bridge and takes the song home. All in all a superlative performance. With this, Dan's second recording as a leader, he should now be ready to expand his musical language. This recording will solidify his credentials in the jazz world but should not by any means show all that he can do. Most musicians who have made their second recording will tend to repeat the format but I think Dan should look beyond the quartet-quintet format, and explore the possibilities that orchestration will encourage. He can play the saxophone. He can play the Oboe. He can write beautiful, well constructed compositions. He now has to go forward from this point and take his language into new territories, and hopefully this recording will encourage him to find his voice within the larger context of music. One note for the listener: the recording quality is superb due to the engineering of Todd Whitelock and the production of Brian McKenna, both from Sony Music studios in New York. Dan has chosen his team members well and the results are both impressive and satisfying. BOB BELDEN.

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Dan Willis - Hand to Mouth.

1) Forgiven
2) Landscape in a Dream
3) Sunfather
4) Saving the World
5) Hand to Mouth
6) Smiles Passing By
7) If We
8) Aw Shucks
9) Nearness of You

Hand to Mouth
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Hand to Mouth | Dan Willis