Liner notes for Tom Varner: Heaven and Hell (OmniTone 12210)
Tom Varner gets excited about stuff. Stuff that some people might consider "everyday," like being a husband and father, to more esoteric things like melodramatic Biblical characters and the stories of early Christians. And, of course, Tom gets excited about music — all kinds of music from in-the-pocket funk and beach-blanket boogaloo through the masters of modern jazz, to classical music from that of Renaissance sage Josquin to cosmopolitan colorist Igor Stravinsky. Titles from Tom's recordings — "Samuel Gets the Call," "Pantoum," "Watts '56," "How Does Power Work?," "Martian Affirmation," "Isaac Has a Vision on the Subway" — hint at the panoply of his inspirations. Just get him started on one of those topics, and you soon learn that words used to describe both Tom and his music — "enthusiastic," "effusive," "dramatic," "witty" — fall short of his contagious creativity.
So, it might not be surprising that the jazz French hornist, composer, bandleader, New Yorker-now-turned-Seattleite calls his first album in eight years Heaven and Hell. Could the title, given Tom's proclivities, be a nod to Dante's Inferno or Milton's Paradise Lost or, even, the non-Ozzy Ozbourne-led incarnation of Black Sabbath ... or, perhaps, something else?
"I was simply referring to the 'combo platter' in life that seems to grow stronger the older we get — the good and the bad that is all around us," explains Tom. "More specifically, Heaven and Hell is a reflection on the 'hell' that was 9/11 in NYC and, ten days later, the 'heaven' of becoming a parent when my wife and I adopted our son Jack in Hanoi, Vietnam."
The suite's title, according to Tom, occurred to him late in the process, many months after he began work on it in February 2003 while a Fellow at the oldest artists' colony in the United States, the MacDowell Colony, in Peterborough, New Hampshire. His original intent was to expand his compositional playground from the small-group setting of his earlier OmniTone and Soul Note recordings to a "double quintet," writing "a big, varied, melodic improvisatory work for a tentet," recalls Tom. "At the outset, I wasn't thinking of world or personal events — just listening to Mingus, Miles, Messiaen, and going from there. Later, I was thinking about the 'little heavens and hells' that we all go through, and the title just stuck for me."
"Heaven and Hell, " Tom continues, "is a 'looking back' at an almost-eight-year process of thinking about, composing, organizing, and executing the music, during a time of huge changes in the world and personally, as well, for many folks."
Plenty out-of-the-ordinary things have happened in the world at large and in Tom's world since he recorded Second Communion for OmniTone in September 2000, including experiencing firsthand the 9/11 terrorist attacks and dealing with their potentially psyche-drowning effluvium; the ups-and-downs of co-parenting (with his working wife) adopted children from Vietnam and China as creative musician-cum-stay-at-home dad (who also managed to earn a Masters' Degree along the way); and relocating cross-continentally (and somewhat cross-culturally) to Seattle after having lived and collaborated in New York for 26 years. Adds Tom, "to paraphrase John Lennon, 'Life happened as we were making plans,' and life took over. "
Life takes over and infuses the music of Heaven and Hell, too, from "The Daily Dance," which reminds Tom of "the morning scramble of getting kids to school," to the snapshot of "new parents at 3 AM" that is "Waltz for the Proud Tired Worriers," which Tom feels is the most heaven-like, to the bleak, twisted, smouldering "Structure Down," which is "the most 'hell'" to Tom's ears.
The sections of the entire Heaven and Hell suite, which form a dramatic arc, are tied together with short, improvisational interludes that have become a Varneresque trademark in his last few small group recordings. Tom describes the interludes as "'quiet reflections,' bits of staring into space, between more heavy events." He goes on to say, "I also think of the whole piece rather cinematically, with lots of jump-cuts from different moments in time, often from a reflective present to a turbulent past. 'The Trilling Clouds' signals a heightened awareness, and the final 'Postlude: Nine Years Later' is a kind of 'sigh from the future.'"
Given the suite's title and some of its sections' titles, the drama-mongers will inevitably ask about the 9/11 attacks and how, because of their proximity to important events in Tom's life and his writing of the piece, they must have infused Heaven and Hell with their contemptibility. However, in Tom's opinion, focusing solely on those hellish attacks might mask the totality Heaven and Hell attempts to present. As he puts it, "Yes, the sadness and rage of many New Yorkers — 'This happened here!' and 'Why is there a war now in the wrong country?' — are in the music. It's impossible for them not to be there. The bigger message? It sounds pretty trite, but simply put: 'Be aware of the bad; embrace and savor the good.'"