Joshua Kwassman – Songs of the Brother Spirit – Songs of the Brother Spirit True Revolution/ Squareast 43456, 65:51 ****:
(Joshua Kwassman – alto & soprano sax, clarinet, flute, melodica, piano (track 4), producer; Arielle Feinman – voice, glockenspiel (track 5); Gilad Hekselman – guitar (tracks 1-4, 7-8); Jeff Miles – guitar (track 6); Angelo Di Loreto – piano (tracks 5-8); Adam Kromelow – piano (tracks 1-3); Craig Akin – bass; Rodrigo Recabarren – drums & percussion)
Multi-instrumentalist and composer Joshua Kwassman has a few stories to tell. On his eight-track, hour-long debut, Songs of the Brother Spirit, the 20-something artist musically recounts a disastrous bike trip with a friend and idol; the childhood nostalgia of growing up in New England; the loss of a teacher and mentor; the optimistic outlook of becoming an uncle; and the realization of parental mortality. All of these autobiographical anecdotes psychologically and emotionally flicker through Kwassman’s instrumentals, and carry a meaningful foundation to his memorable all-original material.
Kwassman’s music, recorded in 2011 but not issued until this year, utilizes an accomplished crew who bring expertise, talent and aptitude. Kwassman plays alto & soprano sax, clarinet, flute, melodica, and piano, and gets excellent and integral support from musical allies who include classically-trained singer Arielle Feinman; sharp-witted guitarist Gilad Hekselman (Jeff Miles replaces Hekselman on one cut); two pianists (Angelo Di Loreto and Adam Kromelow, who perform separately); and the ace rhythm team of bassist Craig Akin and drummer Rodrigo Recabarren.
Kwassman cites early Pat Metheny, as well as Maria Schneider and Vince Mendoza’s complex arrangements and constructions as influences, but states his biggest inspiration is the Brian Blade Fellowship, which is known for sculpted soundscapes, lithe and ambitious creations, and for employing memory as a muse. A solid portion of the program focuses on Kwassman’s longtime acquaintance, Justin. Opener “Our Land” centers on their friendship in pleasanter times when the two bonded over Miles Davis, John Coltrane and likeminded icons, before tension and maturation colored the friends’ relationship. Kwassman’s supple melody and relaxed arrangement is steered by Kromelow, who provides a shimmering keyboard improvisation; Feinman’s wordless vocals (she uses her voice like a horn to fashion ethereal textures for this and other tunes); and Hekselman’s sometimes Metheny-esque contributions. The cut begins serenely but closes over nine minutes later with a knotty, rock-fusion slant. A similar mood pervades “We Were Kids,” which starts with a wistful sensitivity, then enters a more forceful interval as Hekselman’s six-string dexterity heightens the descriptive characteristics, mirroring the slippage from adolescence into young adulthood: that awkward period, when life stretches toward choppier waters on the horizon, is also echoed by Kwassman’s unanticipated melodica solo.
However, the album’s largest Justin chronicle comes at the end, with the triple-part suite, “The Nowhere Trail,” broken into three distinct numbers, each one related to one day of an ill-fated, three-day bicycle journey, which disintegrated into turmoil, and splintered Kwassman’s youthful misconceptions. The nearly 12-minute “Part I” illustrates the chaotic, ill-planned trip: from exhilaration into uncertainty, and unfolds with segments of turbulence contrasted with gentler moments. Kwassman’s occasional melodica supplies a rustic dynamism, whereas Feinman, Miles and Kwassman (on sax as well) present dissonance and discord. “Part II” is tranquil and commences with Hekselman’s willowy acoustic guitar, where he exhibits a Ralph Towner-like engagement. The music gradually climbs, but mostly remains ghostly, highlighted by Feinman’s atmospheric vocalizing, and the pairing of counterpoint guitar and haunting melodica: there is a definite cinematic property. The nine-minute concluding “Part III” symbolizes how Joshua and Justin’s companionship changed, and the eventual relief of returning home from the tumultuous trip. “Part III” initiates quietly but progresses into a fervid setting, with Kwassman erupting on alto sax, followed by voice, guitar, piano, and soprano sax, the instruments blending into a heady concoction, only to ebb back into individual paths, and by the wind-up there is only an introspective acoustic guitar which sustains the graceful melody.
Another standout is the aptly-titled “Meditation,” an elegy and contemplation on death, stimulated by Kwassman’s recognition during a family vacation that someday his parents would no longer be with him. It’s a beautiful piece which deftly combines lingering, nonverbal singing, with congruent clarinet, piano and glockenspiel. This and the other tunes were engineered (by Drew Guido and two assistants) and mixed (by Kwassman) with meticulous organization and attention to detail (some of the recording process can be viewed during a five-minute promotional video), which results in compositions which emphasize nuances, and sound wonderful. Kwassman is still a relatively young musician, but his entrance as a bandleader bodes well for future projects.
TrackList: Our Land; We Were Kids; In Light There Is Song; 2/22; Meditation; The Nowhere Trail (Parts I-III.