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Kevin Norton Quartet: The Dream Catcher (For Wilber Morris)

Drummer and vibraphonist Kevin Norton has everything going now. He is recording on a regular basis, often for his own label, Barking Hoop, and features some of the best experimental musicians on his albums.

The Dream Catcher (For Wilber Morris) is powered, in part, by the spirit of the late, well-respected bassist. Morris had been selected for the date but died in August 2002, before the recording was made, and there is a somber tone to many of the

CD’s songs. The opening adventure, “Translator,” is mostly Norton on the vibes, an instrument he shows great command of throughout the album. It is just a tease, however Norton dancing methodically, going wherever he wants effortlessly, setting a slow and deliberate tempo that offers no foreshadowing of what is to come.

The title song is a different direction but a logical one. It is not much faster than “Translator,” but it does show that Norton and his band-trumpeter Roy Campbell, cellist Tomas Ulrich and bassist Hill Greene-are clever and tight. The leader’s drumming is precise and clean. Campbell is all over his trumpet on a number of songs, going against the grain, especially on “That Story About Freedom.” One of the most interesting aspects of this album is the presence of both bass and cello and their dark interplay.

Obviously, even before it was known that Morris could not accompany Norton on this fine album, Norton had in place the makings of a very emotional date. Norton fulfills that goal and also includes three Morris compositions. “Melancholy” is the best as Norton and his vibes pay homage to the late bassist with a delicate, expressive interpretation that concludes the CD.

Fortunately, on Not Only in That Golden Tree, a release by Norton with his Metaphor Quartet, Wilber Morris was on board. These are live recordings, and Norton hands the vibes over to Hitomi Tono’oka and gives himself ample space to stretch out on drums and percussion. Masahiko Kono plays trombone and electronics, and this quirky quartet, featuring darker timbre instruments, works very well.

The compositions, as the liner notes stress, “eschew traditional song forms (i.e., 32 bar AABA) for more narrative.” The four compositions are long-winded, but the band does not let you be bored. “Missed You in Coutances, Babe,” a somber speech of a tune that seems to go on forever, pushes a mood of disappointment beautifully.

Finally, where Not Only in That Golden Tree behaves like musical narrative, Norton’s Ocean of Earth, with bassist Joelle Leandre and cellist Tomas Ulrich, can be called haiku. The drummer calls it “a soundtrack of dreams,” and you get that feeling throughout the CD: many songs are short and atmospheric.

All three players spent time playing with Anthony Braxton, and they are fearless and talented musicians. Norton, to his credit, uses a myriad of percussion instruments throughout the recording to create a much different background for Ulrich and Leandre to comb through. “Goodbye Blues” one of the CD’s early notables, is brief but fierce. “Pour Eva B,” a percussion solo by Norton, is also fantastic as is “Opposite Action.” But much of the remaining ventures struggle. Though free and alive, the statements are too short and too dense to be meaningful. These moments are, in a sense, like language poetry, destined to remain aesthetically elusive seemingly by design.

Originally Published