American folk music takes many forms, from the austere jangle of tautly strung banjo strings to the urban blues wail wrung from a burnished saxophone bell. Dominic Duval’s freshly minted ensemble falls somewhere in between on this admittedly slipshod spectrum of indigenous sounds. The instrumentation evinces strong chamber music connotations - strings balanced by a small bulwark of brass sans percussion and reeds. But the music and the pathos-permeated playing that suffuse the program suggest other reservoirs of creative energy. At its stylistic core this music is pure Americana, referencing the past, the present and the future of the country’s cultural quilt in a language that is far more patriotic than the jingoistic prattle, which today often passes for national pride.
The opening and closing renditions of “America” serve as somber, but richly textured bookends. Between their borders lies a sonic journey marked by familiar signposts such as the time-immemorial ode to the witching hour “Round Midnight” as well as heated forays into free improvisations such the early duet between Varner and Ulrich on the conspicuously titled “Tomastrom.” On the former piece, the standard’s melancholy hues are brought into bass relief by bucolic brass and slowly swaying arco strings. Shorter pieces evidence less cohesion than the longer ones where the tonal differences (and similarities) between the horns and strings are McPhee sticks solely to cornet, and his prowess on the round-toned bugle begs the question as to why he doesn’t hoist it to pursed lips more often. Duval is the anchor both symbolically and logistically. From behind his rosin-slicked strings he pilots his ship of partners down channels that are at once emotionally revelatory and painful. Varner is particularly adept in this regard and The Spirit Room’s submerging acoustics, at times unusually unforgiving to stringed instruments, are held largely at bay by a combination of strong musicianship and engineer Marc Rusch’s studious attention to the ensemble’s natural dynamics. Calling this music jazz, or any other label for that matter, is at best arbitrary and at worst reductionist. The sounds speak for themselves and through an eloquent gathering of voices reference values and sentiments that we seem dangerously on the verge of forgetting these days.