A sense of open space is one of the hardest things to create in music. Especially in Western music, which is by and large based on the concept of counterpoint. Listen to the complex and claustrophobic intertwining of a J.S. Bach four-voice fugue. Or (jumping forward a few hundred years), we have the density of a late John Coltrane work-sheets and sheets of tenor saxophone lines with a deluge of piano glissandi spilling out right on top of them. It's a powerful effect. Even more powerful, however, is when all that sound gets swept away and we're left with the reverberating sound of openness, or even total, awesome silence. It always takes my breath away when the whole Count Basie Orchestra-swinging at full, brassy tilt-suddenly clears out on a dime, leaving just the Count, pecking away at one piano key in the highest register, the rhythm section tipping ever so lightly behind him. The evocation of space is even more impressive in larger ensembles. No one was a greater master of this type of composition than Aaron Copland, whose orchestral sound paintings of the vast American countryside helped our nation develop it's 20th century identity. We are a country that commands space. Which brings me to the music of saxophonist/composer Tim O'Dell. The liner notes to Mr. O'Dell's fine, Southport-leader debut CD Before My Life, make a great deal of the fact that he is from-and still lives on-the prairie. In fact the whole ensemble, which is mostly Chicago based, has Mid-western roots. They've all musically developed in the wide-open spaces of America's heartland, and you can hear it in their sounds and in the way Mr. O'Dell arranges his compositions. The CD's opener, "Id"-an altered rhythm changes tune with an angular profile, is a good example. After a terrific solo by bass trumpeter Ryan Schultz-which is both fluid and stabbing-the drums and guitar clear out leaving only walking bass to accompany the beginning of O'Dell's choruses. After about 16 bars the bass splits too and leaves us with the sound of saxophone in the void. And O'Dell uses the silence well. Instead of just blowing maverick through free air, he creates a series of short, angular phrases, punctuated by the negative space from which they've emerged. When the rhythm section finally comes back in to support the last couple of choruses, the tension breaks and creates the energy to carry the band through a punchy out-chorus and toward the tune's blustery finale. This attention to the way space and silence can be used dramatically is present throughout this entire set of satisfying O'Dell originals.
For the most part, Mr. O'dell's playing lives up to his ability as a composer and arranger. His soprano sound is strong, centered and pleasantly nasal. When he picks up the alto he shows his Konitz/Braxton influences, but he manages to work them into his own voice. Overall, O'Dell plays with taste and swing. Special mention must go to Ryan Schultz, whose fine performances on this CD seem to spur this ensemble on with a pale, mellow fire.
Tim O'Dell is a talented composer and player with excellent taste in sidemen. The only thing I question about this outing is whether or not two drummers were really necessary. Considering this ensemble's focus on openness, why make things more difficult by cluttering the space with percussion? Luckily, it only becomes a problem a few times when the texture degenerates into a Grateful Dead-influenced ethno-drumming-jam. The sensitivity of the rest of the band helps keep things clear. I look forward to hearing more from Mr. O'Dell and sharing in his prairie dreams.