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Breathe by Nicholas Gunn

I have to begin with a caveat. Most readers access because they are interested in jazz. So it is my responsibility to evaluate at the outset whether a recording demonstrates the general characteristics of the genre: blues tonality; rhythmic drive; improvisation (including live interaction among the musicians); jazz standards and/or original compositions; and so forth. This does not mean that if something is not jazz it has no value. It just means the criteria for evaluating the music have to be different. Of course it goes without saying that jazz is a large and ever-expanding genre, encompassing a multitude of sub-genres, overlapping with others, running a culturally diverse gamut from the popular song to the most serious classical music.

When I reached Nicholas Gunn for a brief interview he expressed a preference for World Music as the best category for his work. Whatever the best description may be, Breathe, which is Gunn's eleventh release, demonstrates the scope of Gunn's talent and dedication to his craft. His arrangements exhibit both melodic interest and rhythmic vitality. His flute sound confirms his classical training. And the album is very well recorded, itself a tribute to Gunn's skill as both producer and engineer. How much improvisation goes into each track is hard to tell; Gunn tells me that there is a good deal, but certainly, in this kind of studio environment, there is little of the mutual, real-time interplay on which jazz thrives. Such production techniques, with tracks layered on top of each other, always run the risk of creating an artificial ambiance, and often a curious lack of depth, something I can attest to from my own experience of studio work.

Breathe suffers from this to some degree, but does manage to break out of it more frequently than many similar recordings. The title track is a case-in-point with some fine flute soloing over driving Afro-Cuban rhythms. From this beginning the program unfolds through a variety of moods and colors, with Gunn's flute at the forefront and subtle Latin underpinnings most of the way. There are hints of Flamenco on Prelude, an overdubbed flute melody over a back beat on Embrace, a fast Samba-type beat on La Morada, the somewhat inevitable Andean-flute synthesizer sound on The Yearning, and plenty of orchestral washes, hand clapping, etc. But descriptions are difficult as genres are drawn upon or hinted at without ever being explored directly. For me, in the final analysis, I would like to hear less production and more of Gunn's fine flute playing. He needs to come out from behind the production values and cut loose. I suggested that he try a live album and that would be something to look forward to.

Is this World Music? My original impulse was to classify Breathe as jazz-oriented New Age; unfortunately, allows for no such category. Moreover, for many people this is an instant turn-off. Keith Jarrett, for example, refers to New Age music as "lobotomy music." On the other hand, Paul Horn, whom I interviewed for my forthcoming book The Flute in Jazz:Window on World Music, and who practically invented the genre with his Inside recordings, has a different perspective. "To me," as he put it, "New Age music-and we use that because we have to categorize things-the way it was originally meant, that is music that was not intellectual, and it was just coming straight from the heart, and without bypassing the intellect. It's right brain totally, and that's healing, and that's coming back." Nicholas Gunn seems to agree. "This new release," we read on the liner notes, "celebrates and reminds us to embrace every moment with each breath. Our breath, like our heartbeat, serves as our center, and continuously restores our deep energy. Here, Nicholas' dynamic flute melodies are fused with passionate Latin and world rhythms to inspire and uplift." This seems as good a description of the music as any I can supply. Pure mainstream jazz this is not; if you are seeking that you might want to look elsewhere. (If it is jazz flute you seek there is a wealth of material, try Flutology with Ali Ryerson, Holly Hoffman and Frank Wess.) But if you like this genre you will undoubtedly enjoy this recording.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Nicholas Gunn
  • CD Title: Breathe
  • Genre: World Music
  • Year Released: 2004
  • Record Label: Gemini Sun Records
  • Tracks: 1. Breathe, 2. Prelude, 3. Embrace, 4. Viaje Sagrado (Sacred Journey), 5. En El Templo Antiguo, (Into The Ancient Temple), 6. La Morada en el Templo Antiguo (Dwelling in The Ancient Tempo), 7. The Yearning, 8. Deep Water Island, 9. Rosarita Sunset, 10. Apassionado Uno (Passionate One), 11. Bamboo
  • Musicians: Nicholas Gunn - flutes, percussion, keyboards, vocals, all compositions and arrangements; John Bishoff - acoustic guitar; Rachel Handlin - violin
  • Rating: Three Stars
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