The name of John O’Gallagher was not a familiar one to me when I took his new CD, The Anton Webern Project, out of the packet and slid it into the player. O’Gallagher is a 48-year-old alto saxophonist who was born in California and raised in Washington State; he has spent the last 20 years in New York scene, playing with the likes of Maria Schneider, Tony Malaby and Richie Beirach while pursuing a parallel career as an educator (he has conducted workshops at institutions including the New England Conservatory and the Royal Academy of Music). His speciality appears to be the integration of jazz and serial composition, something I wrote about on this blog back in March while recommending a new recording based on Stockhausen’s Tierkreis by the pianist Brun0 Heinen.
Earlier this year O’Gallagher’s book Twelve Tone Improvisation was published in Germany, and it seems that The Anton Webern Project , released on the Whirlwind label, is a practical demonstration of his theories concerning improvisation on tone rows. If that makes it sound forbidding, it isn’t. I can personally testify that you don’t need an intimate familiarity with the Webern compositions on which these eight pieces are based, or even with dodecaphony in general, in order to enjoy a very stimulating experience.
O’Gallagher’s band consists of himself plus Matt Moran (vibes), Pete McCann (guitar), Russ Lossing (keyboards), Johannes Weidenmuller (bass), Tyshawn Sorey (drums) and Margaret Grebowicz (voice). I’m not sure I’d be able to pick the leader’s playing out of a crowd of contemporary altoists — the closest I can get to a description of his tone is to say that he sounds something like a cross between Ornette Coleman and Phil Woods — but his solos are full of substance and his sidemen are excellent, with Lossing’s imaginative contributions on Hammond organ and Fender-Rhodes electric piano and Sorey’s finely textured work being outstanding. As you might expect, given the source of its inspiration, the music is intense and highly detailed, but it never sounds overwritten or corsetted. Quite often the chamber-jazz mood is completely dispelled: on something like “Five Pieces”, for instance, the players are free to produce something that might have come from Dark Magus-period Miles Davis or even Tony Williams’ Lifetime. On parts of “The Secret Code”, the longest piece of the set, there’s an enormous amount going on, without any sense of overcrowding. The essential spontaneity of jazz pervades this music — which, given the degree of preparation involved, is quite an achievement.
* The photograph of John O’Gallagher is taken from the sleeve of The Anton Webern Project, for which Don Mount and Ben Lieberman took the images.
* On its first publication, thanks to a bit of authorial brain-fade, this piece said that Tierkreis was composed by Schoenberg rather than Stockhausen. I’ve corrected it.