Photo: Chris Weiss / Northern Spy

Nate Wooley Explores a Frozen Interior on ‘Columbia Icefield’

Jazz trumpeter Nate Wooley's quartet tackles a big landscape, a big reaction, and a big chill on the complex and patient new album, Columbia Icefield.

Columbia Icefield
Nate Wooley
Northern Spy
22 February 2019

Trumpeter/composer Nate Wooley takes a “Romantic” approach to his latest album, Columbia Icefield. An encounter with the title structure, a massive icefield in the Rocky Mountains, provokes an experience of the sublime, of awe in something natural we’re unable to appreciate fully. The idea of the Columbia Icefield takes on the resonance here, perhaps more than the thing itself, in Wooley’s search for expressing something large and intensely other. His work on these three pieces works to map a psychic landscape inspired by a natural one, and he achieves that goal with something icier than simple cool.

The three musicians who join him make sense. Electric guitarist Mary Halvorson, pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn, and drummer Ryan Sawyer don’t show any more interest in using their instruments in normal ways than Wooley does. Halvorson and Alcorn previously figured out how to blend their approaches in Halvorson’s octet for Away With You (2016), though Wooley calls them to much spacier work here. Sawyer avoids straightforward playing for the textured moraines that help define patient movement.

Wooley stares at something old and chilly. He names his first piece “Lionel Trilling”. The tracklisting might surprise, but it suggests a web of ideas that fit. Wooley comes more from Wordsworth’s mind than a proper realist’s here, with his investment in the imaginative and emotional side of an experience that’s both physical and not. The piece itself slowly assembles its parts, the guitars steadily building a dark and anxious atmosphere. Wooley scrapes some odd sounds out of his trumpet before properly arriving much later than expected (since it was hard to see him there all along). Only a third of the way through the 20-minute track does his horn become recognizable, blowing snow in a truly eerie place.

“Seven in the Woods” offers a more normal approach, Wooley conversing with Sawyer’s rolls and hits until the guitarists enter, functioning more like as organ in tone and arrangement, presumably thanks to Alcorn’s unflagging ability find new uses for pedal steel. The track’s length offers something of a glacial expanse, and the shift from Wooley to Alcorn as the primary sound helps it develop, but it stands as an oddity, never quiet ambient or minimalist, and never quite a trek or a melodic statement. Wooley and his ensemble have found a way to convey a cold openness aurally an unobtrusively. The sound speaks to each of the musicians being willing to restrain themselves for the sake of the larger vision, controlling tone and space while letting the piece gradually unfold.

The final track, “With Condolences” uses the funereal attitude to describe an interior emptiness. Wooley’s composition makes the transition from his experience of the icefield to a mental bleakness. This track offers the clearest sense of direction even while exploring the largest breadth of silence. Eventually, the group can’t control itself, and it gets noisy. Bleak spoken word intersects with the horn, the scattered drums, and a guitar that references the opening of the album. By the time the group finishes, they’ve effectively circumscribed a literal and imaginary icefield, even while keeping the sides open enough for further geomorphology (inside or out).

RATING 8 / 10
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