Robin Holcomb & Talking Pictures with Wayne Horvitz: The Point of It All

This collaborative outing between long-time partners Robin Holcomb and Wayne Horvitz and Vancouver guitarist Ron Samworth's quartet Talking Pictures has been a long time coming. Already a champion of Holcomb's work, Samworth invited her and Horvitz to participate in a 2006 concert in Vancouver featuring pieces by her, an event that in turn prompted a follow-up concert in 2009 and recording session. With pieces ranging from free improvs and cover versions to chamber settings and vocal laments, the wide-ranging set pairs Holcomb (piano and vocals) and Horvitz (Hammond M-3) with Samworth's group—the guitarist joined by trumpeter Bill Clark, cellist Peggy Lee, and drummer Dylan van der Schyff—on original compositions (nine of them by Holcomb) plus a few covers (among them Neil Young's “After the Gold Rush”). The recording itself accommodates Holcomb's penchant for distinctive, through-composed structures and Talking Pictures talent for generating rich, improv-based ensemble support. One hears such seemingly different strands weave together naturally during the title track, when its vocal balladry is complemented by the textural shadings of the close-listening instrumentalists.

Following a spirited free intro, “Interlude” settles into a characteristic Holcomb composition where a wistful main theme forms the glue holding the disparate voices together. Holcomb's unmistakable voice trills alongside Clark's muted horn during the meditative ballad “The Sweetest Thing,” which, like many a Holcomb song, feels as timeless as a Civil War song. Here and elsewhere (“Johnny Has Gone for a Solider” and “After the Gold Rush,” for example), her vibrato-heavy vocal delivery might be, for first-time listeners at least, a bit of an acquired taste but one quickly warms to it, no matter its idiosyncratic warble. If “Buttermilk Hill Suite” feels at times like a stately, time-weathered traditional, so it should, given that it's a medley that includes “Johnny Has Gone for a Solider” (which, in fact, dates from the American War of Independence) and the Shel Silverstein-Jim Friedman piece “In the Hills of Shiloh.” Buoyed by a lilting melodic arc, Lee's bluesy vocal ballad “Against the Drift” is perhaps the most radio-friendly of the album's thirteen pieces. No radical re-invention is attempted of Young's “After the Gold Rush,” as the musicians flesh out the arrangment with textural colour in support of Holcomb's vocal. Samworth's piece “The Rain” closes the album on an initially freer note, with Horvitz's organ taking the spotlight for a few moments before a final vocal episode by Holcomb gently eases the listener out.

Of course, one of the major selling points of any Holcomb album is the compositions, and The Point of It All includes many of note, such as the “Sad Waltz,” an elegant, chamber-like setting that's as lovely as it is melancholy. The recording's feel is unhurried and the mood intimate, as if the listener has been invited to spend an hour in the company of Holcomb and friends. Players like Lee, Clark, and van der Schyff are top-notch, of course, and so it hardly surprises that their empathetic contributions enliven Holcomb's music and complement her own piano playing so well.

November 2010