OmniTone 11903

Although Tom Varner is probably best known as one of the very few improvising French horn players, this CD highlights his exceptional compositional and arrangement skills. Like many contemporary musicians with a convincing knowledge of jazz, classical and pop music, he's able to employ it without resorting to pastiche or forced congruency.

Take the showpiece "Seven Miniatures for Mark Feldman", for instance. Ranging from an eyeblinking one minute to two minutes and 31 seconds, these are mini-recital pieces, designed to show off the violinist's many talents and range from nearly straightforward chamber music presentations to herky-jerky carnival tunes. As expected, Feldman rises to the challenge and then some.

Elsewhere he shows he can write — and the band can tackle — a raucous, straight-ahead romper like "OmniTone Blues" with the same finesse it brings to longer, more programmatic pieces such as "Samuel Gets the Call". That one begins with otherworldy guitar licks gradually resolving itself into some smooth tenor work from Malaby and a woody excursion from Brown. Many of the other compositions are fugue-like, in whole or part, existing on a bed of massed horn parts, like a brass-and-reeds World Saxophone Quartet. There's even an acappella stop time section on "Maybe Yes". Note though, that the call-and-response sections are as apt to refer back to Bach as to Basie.

When Varner does solo as on the title track, his instrument resembles a more limber bass trombone, with its fleet glisses, on spot blending and ability to leap octaves. Never a doubler, Varner has always played French horn and studied with and was influenced by Julius Watkins, the man who made a place for the instrument in jazz in the 1950s.

Cleanly and clearly recorded, so that the inflection of every instrument is accurately reflected in the mix, SWIMMING is one session in which most jazz fans can happily immerse themselves.

—Ken Waxman

Track listing: 1. Swimming 2. Pantoum 3. Maybe Yes 4. Samuel Gets the Call 5. Seven Miniatures for Mark Feldman 5. A Waltz 6. Mark at the Circus 7. A Dream 8. Mark Goes to Work 9. A Memory of One Nashville Gig 10. Mark Goes Minimalist 11. Another Circus 12. OmniTone Blues 13. Paul Goes to Rome 14. Strident 15. Chicago Interlude

Personnel: Dave Ballou (trumpet); Tom Varner (French horn); Steve Wilson (alto saxophone); Tony Malaby (tenor saxophone); Mark Feldman (violin); Pete McCann (guitar); Cameron Brown (bass); Tom Rainey (drums)