Will Holshouser Trio
David Phillips (b), Ron Horton (t), Will Holshouser (acc),
The songwriter Arto Lindsay once said that it was pretensious to cite one’s influences, that to suggest a line of descent was wishful thinking. With that in mind, I ask you not to catalogue the influences of the Holshouser Trio they¹re hidden in plain sight. (If you¹re all about tracing the abstruse genealogy of some riff back through the history of tenor giants, this will disappoint). But citing, citing, citing doesn¹t get at the heart of the mystery (every great record has a mystery that keeps you coming back): how the unique mimics the familiar as a form of camouflage.
The pieces on Reed Song seem always-already known. But then memory is a tricky thing. When I try to remember where I first heard a piece of music, I am generally wrong, recalling something deeply unlikely (Fear of Music in a Chinese restaurant in deepest Brooklyn?). What I¹ve really done is soundtracked, found a memory to match the tune. So you may remember hearing some of these, perhaps in a smoky basement on your first teenage sneak-in to a jazz club. Or maybe a concert hall. A fish fry in a small town on a long-ago road trip? A drafty wooden church at the wedding of an attractive cousin you never got over a crush on? There¹s a wealth of cognitive mismatches here the singalong melodies, the majesterial sonorities. Track after track, Reed Song comes on so easy, and then gets more and more implausible.
What¹s implausible about, say, the earthy “Blue Light Special” isn¹t that it starts out an homage to Louisiana¹s legendary Canray Fontenot ends up in one of Olivier Messiaen¹s organ works. (The big free-bass accordion is capable of complex chordings in both hands, and Will Holshouser works the bellows as loud as a New York traffic jam.) Genre recombination is surely no big deal in the c21. What¹s weird is that the progression seems inevitable.
It helps to know that Holshouser knows his Fontenot from years gigging in a zydeco and Cajun band popular honky tonk, not to mention weddings, corporate functions, and parks. It helps to know that the ghost of musettes that haunts “Unfried” (et al.) has visited him since an ill-fated stint in a theme park where he played “La Vie en Rose” with a pair of feuding lovers, enduring humiliations that would make Piaf weep. That the demented syncopations of “For the Birds” were honed as a founding member of the Raymond Scott Orchestrette, which revives the work of that “outsider” swing bandleader. That he luxuriated in hymns as the child of ministers with roots in the American Baptist church. That the plangent melancholy of Bill Evans settled on him during lonely years mastering the jazz classics when the other kids joined punk and ska bands.
In other words, the varied strands Will weaves are not Lindsay¹s maligned “influences”; they¹re aspects of a life, a personality, one seemingly open and genially humorous (his delight in grade-school wordplay is well attested) but shot through with flashes of variegated, darker colors . That¹s how he is able to appropriate with neither reverence nor cheek. Like Guy Klucevsek, Holshouser¹s approach to the accordion is rooted in traditional styles, but unlike that pioneer, he¹s not so much interested in pushing the boundaries of the instrument. Virtuosity allows him to play with three hands and five emotions at once, but formalism is never allowed to get in the way of the tune.
In fact the title Reed Song doesn¹t do the record justice: even on the title cut, it¹s the trumpet that carries the lead. You could transcribe Reed Song to piano, guitar, or big band and still have a juicy set of compositions. But here the goal is to keep things simple, and Ron Horton and Dave Phillips play with loaded understatement. They meld their voicings with Holshouser¹s seamlessly, especially on the trumpeter¹s rougher exhalations and the bassist¹s long, solemn bows. (Horton can also summon Louis Armstrong and Gustav Mahler, in his lieder, without calling attention to the absurdity of such a meeting.) You realize only in passing the level of artistry needed to orchestrate “simple.”
In that mode of orchestration and in his full-bodied melodies, Will puts me in mind of Bill Frisell in the mid-90s, when he wrote rustic jazz symphonies under the star of Aaron Copland. Yet in its un-self-conscious assimilation of jazz to other cultures, Reed Song seems more European than American. The New York Times writer who associated the music with the films of Fellini was on to something, not that Will is any Nino Rota wannabe. In its approach to narrative, Reed Song seems to lie in the realm of film and theater composition. At its sourest moments Reed Song recalls Kurt Weill, and at its sweetest it gives Francis Lai a run for his melody.
There¹s a lot of space between Threepenny Opera and A Man and a Woman, and the Holshouser Trio gets busy covering it.