John Heward

Quintet
Mode/Avant 19

By Ken Waxman

A fitting memorial for Montreal visual artist John Heward (1932-2018), who was as proficient in free music as painting and sculpture, this 2014 77-minute improvisation shows how his sensitive and sophisticated approach applied proper percussion accents without bluster. Veteran American improvisers, bassist Barre Phillips and alto/soprano saxophonist Joe McPhee plus locals, bass clarinetist Lori Freedman and pianist Dana Reason are featured with no thought of hierarchy and ample space for each.

Matched in flutter tonguing, trilling or excavating basso tones from their instruments, the reed players are frequently involved in interchanges or doubling with either the bassist or pianist. Showcased on “Improvisation 1” though, there’s no mistaking Freedman’s snorts or top-of-range squeals for McPhee’s shaded vibrations, even in altissimo mode, Often setting up sequences, Phillips’ angled bow strokes or measured pizzicato runs seem to always find the sweet spot between efficiency and encouragement. Meanwhile Reason’s feature on “Improvisation 3”, backed by brooding double-bass lines and drum rat-tat-tats, reveals a stylist whose methodical chromatic comping doesn’t stop her from challenging moody soprano saxophone vibrations with rubato cross pulses and inner piano-string scratches.

Unfazed by whatever sound challenges are posed, Heward reacts like a cultivated artist. For instance he extends McPhee’s pinched soprano tones with patterning paradiddles to achieve the proper color balance; or elsewhere adds a martial beat to physically shape Freedman’s octave jumps to proper angles. Quintet posits that Heward may be remembered as much for his music as for his art.

-for The Whole Note May 2019