Varner’s dulcet tones grace Neo Neo, an intriguing quartet that deftly blends a chamber aesthetic with wide-open improvising tendencies. On tightly arranged pieces like trumpeter Ron Horton’s “Carla Blake,” cellist Tomas Ulrich’s “Louless” and Varner’s “Hemoglobin,” the role of each musician shifts from precision unison lines to purposeful counterpoint to freewheeling improv. Horton’s bright, bold trumpet strikes a poignant note on his melancholy ode “For Thomas Chapin,” then he plays it skittish and Don Cherry-ish against Grassi’s rolling pulse on the adventurous “Genius Envy,” also the title track of the trumpeter’s brilliant debut for OmniTone last year. Varner’s warm, expressive French horn mingles in haunting fashion with Horton’s trumpet on the dirgelike title track and the two are also paired in a playful duet on the brief, bluesy “Lopey Part 1,” which sounds like a tongue-in-cheek jam between Dizzy Gillespie and Julius Watkins. Varner also contributes two other memorable pieces in the quiet soundscape, “Underbearable Being of Lightness” and the minimalist “Meditation Sketch,” basically a series of shifting ostinatos played in unison by Horton and Varner, which frees up Grassi to unleash on the kit with percussive abandon.
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