When American trumpeter-composer Nate Wooley founded his Columbia Icefield (titled after Oregon’s immense icefield) quartet – with guitarist Mary Halvorson, pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn and drummer Ryan Sawyer, he was having difficulties thinking of himself as a jazz musician so he conceived the quartet as a reimagined take on a jazz group. But this great quartet evolved into something much more expansive, and now Wooley thinks about it as closer to folk music.
Wooley’s own definition of folk music relates to the storytelling tradition that expresses the tales and collective ethos of a people. This is why he dedicates the sophomore album of Columbia Icefield to «those who recognize living as a heroic act: the occupiers of sunup barstools; the cubicle-planted; the ghosts of Greyhounds; the reasonably sketchy. A burlap hero is one who marches—consciously or not—back to the sea in hopes of making no splash, who understands and embraces the imperfection of being, and in that way, stretches the definition of sainthood to fit».
In a way, «Ancient Songs of Burlap Heroes» tells about the intimacy of one’s roots, Woolley’s hometown of Clatskanie, Oregon, with all of its conflicted emotions that one inevitably brings to seeing familiar sights through changed eyes, contrasted with the vastness of the wider world. «Ancient Songs feels like a long story told in front of a huge mountain—or in a forest of sequoias—alternating with intimate moments that feel like the trumpet is right against your ear», he says. The cover image by aAron Munson, from Munson’s series Isachsen, Nunavut, cements this atmosphere.
You can immediately sense the purity and beauty of natural sounds that Wooley aimed for in the four untitled, dream-like ambient pieces, all incorporating field recordings Wooley captured in the fishing village of Machiasport, Maine, that bind the three extended compositions. The first large-scale piece «I Am the Sea That Sings of Dust» with guest violist Mat Maneri, sketches poetically the contrast between the raw and untamed natural world and the elaborate human expression. Wooley, with extended breathing techniques and amplifier effects, and together with Maneri, create hypnotic, percolating waves of intriguing sounds that soar and calm in their own accord.
«A Catastrophic Legend» was composed as a love letter to Wooley’s mentor, the later trumpeter Ron Miles (Wooley hosted Miles on his «Argonautica», Firehouse 12, 2016). This composition was conceived long before Miles’ passing, but, obviously, now stands as a heartfelt elegy to a lost friend. Each note of Wooley, Halvorson, Alcorn, Sawyer and guest bassist Trevor Dunn resonates with rare, sublime beauty and compelling emotional power. «Returning To Drown Myself, Finally» is based on a Swedish dalakoral, or religious song, «Nu är midsommar natt», and intensifies the connection of Wooley’s new compositions to folk music. Wooley’s warm, singing tone together with Alcorn’s gentle pedal steel line contests the twisted voicings of Halvorson’s guitar and sets the introspective hymn-like dynamics of this piece.
The last ambient piece «(……………)» imagines, again, the insistent sounds of waves and how these waves disintegrate into nothing, but let the continuous motion of the waves keep linger on after the music is gone. Wooley always knew how to offer insightful sonic perspectives on humanity and our lives, and «Ancient Songs of Burlap Heroes» is another beautiful and moving one, close to the Buddhist concept of emptiness.
Mary Halvorson (g), Susan Alcorn (pedal steel g), Ryan Sawyer (dr), Mat Maneri (viola), Trevor Dunn (el.b), Nate Wooley (tp, amplifier)