Wayne Horvitz Gravitas Quartet: One Dance Alone

Wayne Horvitz and Sweeter Than the Day: A Walk in the Dark
Wayne Horvitz

These two collections of keyboardist and composer Wayne Horvitz's music clearly differ with respect to instrumentation (on A Walk in the Dark, the pianist is accompanied by guitar, bass, and drums; One Dance Alone replaces that trio with trumpet, cello, and bassoon). But there are similarities too beyond the obvious imprimatur of Horvitz on the material played: the two recordings were laid down in the same week and even feature several of the same songs.

Sweeter Than the Day actually began in 1999 as an acoustic incarnation of Zony Mash, in which Horvitz played Hammond B-3 organ, synthesizer, and Fender Rhodes. Listening to A Walk in the Dark, the group's third album and follow-up to 2002's Sweeter Than the Day, one of the first things one notices is the skewed melodic sensibility pervading Horvitz's tunes. The Monkish title piece, for example, feels as bluesy and oblique as a prototypical John Scofield composition while other songs are unusual in a manner that recalls Bill Frisell's composing style too. Some of the material exposes a lightly swinging, boppish side to the group (e.g., “Between the Floors,” “Inference”), and one piece (“A Moment for Andrew”) was even inspired by the “open swing” of the late pianist Andrew Hill; the quartet also digs into some delicate ballads during the hour-long set (e.g., “We Never Met,” “Undecided”). The album is not only a showcase for Horvitz's composing talents but is also a relatively loose blowing session that allows the pianist, guitarist Tim Young, acoustic bassist Keith Lowe, and Eric Eagle ample room to maneuver. Young in particular stretches out, and it's hard not think of Scofield when listening to Young's clean yet bluesy and occasionally fiery attack (check out his biting and burning tone in “A Walk in the Rain” and “The 29 th Day of May,” respectively) and, yes, of Frisell too when Young adds his own twang to the stately mood pieces “Waltz from Woman of Tokyo” (an excerpt from a score Horvitz composed for the silent film of the same name by Yasujiro Ozu) and “Good Shepherd.” On this recording at least, Horvitz shows himself to be a rather self-effacing soloist who eschews flash, but attend closely and you'll hear many moments of lyrical understatement.

One Dance Alone, the second album by Horvitz's “Gravitas Quartet” (the pianist accompanied by cellist Peggy Lee, cornetist Ron Miles, and bassoonist Sara Schoenbeck) defies easy categorization, despite its obvious association with classical chamber music. For one, the compositions are again Horvitz's (one exception: “A Fond Farewell” by the late Elliott Smith) and retain his personal stamp (by his own admission, jazz and blues, being so inescapably and fundamental a part of his language as an American composer, invariably emerge) and, secondly, improvisation is a strong component of the album too. Miles is an admired and established figure in jazz circles while Lee and Schoenbeck prove themselves adaptable players, equally capable of navigating atonal and jazzier waters. Naturally, the absence of drums means that the album doesn't swing with the immediacy and intensity of A Walk in the Dark but Miles' playing in particular ensures that a jazz sensibility reigns throughout. The three “July” pieces bring to the album an atonal angularity associated with Schoenberg and Webern; “A Walk in the Rain,” on the other hand, is clearly more bluesy jazz than classical with Miles and Horvitz nimbly riding over the bassoon's bass-like honk. Ever the gentleman, the pianist gives the others turns in the spotlight—Schoenbeck in “To Say Your Name” and Lee in “Waltz from Woman of Tokyo” (which sounds even lovelier in the “chamber” context)—but in a sense all four solo occupy center stage with each stepping forth at various times throughout the eleven settings. Incidentally, if the stylistic range of these two recordings strikes listeners as surprising, it's business as usual for Horvitz who studied Bartok in college while also immersing himself in the music of electric Miles Davis, Cecil Taylor, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago and has thrown himself into any number of configurations in the years since.

June 2008