Review: Neil Welch - Sleeper

Distorting the lines between composition and improvisation.
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neil welch - sleeperSaxophonist Neil Welch’s bony approach to his instrument and to distorting the lines between composition and improvisation come into play on the elegiac Sleeper.

This is composition of slightly over 27 minutes, comprised of a constructive, distressed and emotive chain of tones, subtleties and context. Welch recorded the piece with a small ensemble in June of 2011 and released it last year. He composed it “living in seclusion” on Whidbey Island and drew up the final touches in Seattle.

Sleeper is not an “easy” or traditional listen. It is filled with flooding tones and kaleidoscopic temperaments. It is a recording of substance and of subtlety, with Welch’s ensemble exhausting the open spaces as much as the sounds and notes. Theirs is a cosmos of contrast, of fitting in the larger sense of musical dialogue.

It is hard to tell where the composition ends and the improvisation begins. Perhaps there’s no such line; perhaps the blurring of the lines is built in to Welch’s forceful variations of character and chronicle.

Sleeper was “inspired by the torture and wrongful death of an Iraqi general by U.S. forces in Iraq.” The pain and anguish of this event – along with the emotional toll it clearly took on the composer – features heavily in the extended wailing and protracted tone poetry that populates the piece.

Welch balances the instrumental brightly, using the cellists (David Balatero and Natalie Hall) to provide a elusive foil to the more “melodic” patterns carried by the wind instruments. His tenor and soprano saxophones help incite dialogue between other instruments, while the strings retain tension.

Sleeper has a very distinctive narrative, despite its precariousness. This is tinted with tempo changes, some shrewder than others, and a few surprisingly melodic portions. A break-out leads to an intensified pace about seven minutes in, while a beautiful and rather balmy sentiment materializes toward the conclusion.

This is a record of themes and cycles. Welch’s sense for drama shines in even the most anarchic of curves, lending Sleeper its deviously minimalistic air. Despite the fact that many portions seem to reprise their tendencies and tempers, there’s always something building and lying in wait for the next chance to arise.