|One Final Note Review Rob Thomas, the talented violinist who has been an integral member of Coloradan John Gunther's Axis Mundi for a couple of years now, has recently accepted the violin chair in the esteemed String Trio of New York, following Billy Bang, Charles Burnham and Regina Carter. One can only hope Thomas' new gig will not imperil the continued existence of this slightly less well-known group. Gunther's CIMP releases have been among the most attractive on that label. Accessible but not overly indebted to the formulas of AABA popular song or modal hard bop, inventive without lapsing into self-conscious idiosyncrasy or out-of-character effects, Gunther's music is pictorial without being simply picturesque.
The performances on the latest Axis Mundi release, Gone Fishin', trace a narrative—fabulistic? allegorical?—arc via the various rhythms Gunther adopts for his group's purposes. "Yes My Name Is...", which features a great opening cadenza from the leader on soprano sax, becomes a calypso in which the three main voices—Gunther, Ron Miles' rugged but golden-hearted trumpet and Thomas' pungent violin—are just ever-so-slightly out of unison step with one another, coming together only on some catchy accents from bassist Leo Huppert and drummer Jay Rosen (CIMP's MVP). As on several other pieces here, Gunther has scored accompanying parts for his lead voices, adding an element of big band drama (but not melodrama) and heft to what in less-skilled hands might sound pallidly chamber-like. The Afro-Cuban "Nino and Kiva" features a montuno bass pattern and alternating clave riffs for paired trumpet and tenor sax and bass and violin. "Brilliancy Medley" interprets the traditional Irish jig by way of both the blues and Coltrane's "Giant Steps". Here, on soprano, Gunther sounds inspired by Thomas to introduce into his solo greater dissonance and phrases remote from the harmony summarized by Huppert's bass. "Birthday Blues", a brief feature for Gunther's chalumeau clarinet, tiptoes around the anticipated swing rhythms until midway through the leader's solo, by which time its arrival is a relief. "Temporal Spasms" is a wonderful pastiche piece. It begins with the violin stating an almost painfully un-hip diatonic "Home on the Range" type melody, which is then overlaid by an Ornette-ish line from trumpet and tenor sax. Soon, bass and drums enter, and the four sub-groups—bass, drums, violin, horns—seems to be playing in four separate tempos and meters. The horns and drums grow more agitated, like unbidden memories, the trumpet squealing, the gray worsted timbre of the tenor sax bursting its seams as Gunther flexes into the instrument's uppermost registers. Thomas' violin is the catalyzing agent—alone unchanged—to which they all cleave and then from which they all diverge. The piece ends with a Rosen drum solo of concentrated power, but the violin has the piece's denouement to itself, its song going on, no doubt to be repeated again.
Now that some individual spectacles have been pointed out, it bears saying that Gone Fishin' is best appreciated whole. The leader himself indicates as much, for he sounds as if he is less interested in creating a stage for himself than he is with crafting an active, uncluttered rapport. More often than not, Gunther is not so much soloing as entering into dialogue with his fellow musicians. There are two mostly-scored pieces here, "Anthem" and "Hymn", and their titles aside, neither is generic. There is an extremely lucid quality to "Anthem"'s refrains and marching gait, while "Hymn" is almost elemental, its prayerfulness that of a Midwestern plainsong. "Catch Of The Day" and "Bait and Tackle" are the largest, most emphatic pieces. The theme of the former bounces along in piping soprano and pizzicato fiddle, sunlight dappling water. The performance invites you to consider a lazy afternoon, not to look down on it from on high, but to flop down on your back in the bottom of a boat, to gaze up and watch the birds and bugs swarm, the waves lap, the trees sway, the clouds drift and disperse, and the sun's diurnal burn, until the blue of the sky deepens and you can just begin to make out the glimmer of the constellations. "Bait And Tackle" is the session's jazziest tune, a fanfare backed by Rosen's rat-a-tat and Huppert's walking bass. But the harmony seems unresolved, and the changes indeed do alter for each soloist. Miles uncorks a really good set of choruses here, barking at one point like Lee Morgan. He spurs Rosen, earning the drummer's ire, and he soon finds he's unable to soothe the drummer, or pull in what he has hooked.
In the liner notes to an earlier CIMP release by Axis Mundi, producer Bob Rusch likens John Gunther's compositional abilities to those of Charles Mingus and Cedar Walton. An interesting coupling of antecedents, to be sure, but the thrust of Rusch's comparison is a valid one. As Gone Fishin' continues to bear out, Gunther is a writer of compositions that possess a readily identifiable character. Perhaps a better likening is to Marty Ehrlich, another multi-woodwind artist whose brawn is disguised behind the Clark Kent-ish stoop and the horn-rimmed glasses of a somewhat slick facility. Like Ehrlich, Gunther also has a unique ear for ensemble voicings (both men simultaneously lead a number of diverse groups), is a crack arranger, and possesses a love of melody that never disrespects the many source musics from which he draws inspiration. What is most immediately appealing about this music is its modesty; as the title would seem to indicate, it is about small or simple pleasures, the joys of craft and knowing your way with some intuitive sense around the many little tasks that add up to doing. And the program arranges these almost-Wordsworthian "spots of time" into unaccustomed and engaging relationships. So, despite its considerable winsomeness, this music is far from lightweight. Merely, it is free of neuroses. As Gunther himself has said in an interview, "[l]ike the frame of a painting, time is the containing boundary that everything occurs within and the composer or improviser can shape this form or boundary and in a sense the listener's emotions and thoughts." Far from naive, this counts as a refreshing perspective in a musical world in which so much experience has been pressed into an undifferentiated mass of perplexity.