Garrison Fewell

Garrison Fewell, a Boston-based guitarist and improvising composer, writer, and educator, died on July 5, 2015. He was 61 years old. He had been fighting cancer for some time but despite his struggles self-published a book with interviews with improvisers and recorded and released several new discs. He also performed as much as he could. Although I didn’t meet Fewell, we had a lot of contact via email and social media. I was also able to see him perform a stunning duet with John Tchicai (1936-192012) at Cornelia Street Cafe a few years back. Fewell was a professor at Berklee College of Music. His education included blues, jazz and free music. He was also a generous, humble, and inquisitive man. He cited Buddhist teachings as well as things he learned from other players far ahead of any self-created method. Although Fewell has written several texts about guitar improvisation, his most recent publication is a collection interviewing musicians called Outside Music, Inside Voices. It is similar to Art Taylor’s Notes and Tones but is spiritually-centered. Fewell does not often cite his views on an artist. Instead, he prefers to reflect on the meaning of their work, engage their music and personhood, and then get down to the details of artistic process. Fewell interviewed some of his collaborators, including Tchicai, the trumpeter/flutist Roy Campbell, Jr. (1952-1914), Rosi Hertlein, trombonist Steve Swell, and a variety of modern musicians like pianist Matthew Shipp, bassist William Parker, poet Steve Dalachinsky, and Henry Threadgill, reedist Henry Threadgill, percussionist Han Bennink, among others. Fewell does not ask all musicians the same question, but he does ask them what their spirituality is. Although the questions aren’t always straight forward, Fewell does ask them about their spirituality. While some may approach the music from a secular perspective, others have deep religious connections. However, the telepathic communication and connection that improvisers engage in is universal, even if it is based in material transcendence, or unification with God. Although some interviewees don’t like the idea of using the word “spiritual”, due to its many trappings, Dave Burrell’s simple answer to the question about a relationship between spirituality, improvisation, and spirituality is very clear: “There’s a truthfulness which binds improvisation to Spirituality. Oneness is what the improviser seeks. Master improvisers have practiced until they achieved clarity that gives off a more beautiful tone. Repetition generates energy, boosting spirituality’s intensity. According to me, John Coltrane attained his spirituality through intense study. Fewell acknowledges in discussing the subject with multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee that “some musicians wrestle with the word ‘spirituality.’ It’s possible that misunderstandings have developed around the word that have unfairly earned it a poor reputation. Some might prefer to keep such matters a secret, and allow them to be expressed musically. McPhee says that’spirit’ is the root of spirituality. He believes it can be thought and experienced in many ways, with different interpretations. It’s not clear where it came from. It’s not where it comes from, I don’t know. Fewell’s generous and humble nature, which allowed him to talk about his favorite works rather than his own playing strategies, was evident in Fewell asking musicians about their peers. Tchicai, Marion Brown, David S. Ware, and Marion Brown all come up, as well as Wilber Morris and Johnny Dyani, who are also mentioned. Many musicians will be referring to Garrison Fewell in the future. Evolving Strategies with Variable Density Sound Orchestra is the most recent chapter in Fewell’s recorded presence. It was released in January 2012, but not until 2014. Reggie Nicholson joined Fewell, Tchicai and Campbell on seven compositions. These included Swell’s “Mystical Reality” in two versions. Four of these were taken from the guitarist’s handbook and two from Tchicai. Fewell’s bluesy comping is full and querying. His non-linear interjections can be both strong and not-specific. These fuzzy cells and craggy fragments tend to push his partners into passages with centered density and splayed insertion, such as Swell’s opening slinky song. They also provide a blanket for areas of spidery collectivity and muted clamber. Fewell was born in Philadelphia, where he studied with Pat Martino, a Philly guitarist whose career included greasy organ trios and Indo-jazz. He also taught college music and his playing is deeply rooted, even when it’s free music. “Thoughts For Dixon” is a series of duets, trio, and quartet sections that thematically recall Anthony Braxton and Wadada Leo Smith. Tchicai, Fewell, and Ishenko then enter into the choppy waves invention. The section of pinched boisterousness includes brass and percussion. “Return and Breathe,” on the other hand, shifts from delicate string harmonics and delicate breathing to a punchy collective improvisation with a rubbery vamp Although it is strange to think that half the musicians who made this fantastic, fresh-sounding, energetic and husky slice contemporary improvisation have since departed, the disc remains a testament to the art form’s continued gifts. Chicago composer-pianist Muhal Richard Abrams called a 1975 Delmark album Things to Come From Those Now Gone. The sentiment that there are still many nuts to crack from Fewell’s offered hand is not lost on us. from cliffordallen.blogspot

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