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Paul Dunmall Moksha Big Band: I Wish You Peace

British reedist Paul Dunmall left school at 15 and became a touring musician by 17. Soon thereafter, he found himself living in an ashram in the U.S. and playing behind Alice Coltrane and Johnny “Guitar” Watson. After returning to England, Dunmall found work with folk groups as well as with heavyweight British free-improv ensembles the London Jazz Composers Orchestra and Mujician. Not everyone’s biography reflects on their work-particularly in a few superficial details cobbled together, as above-but in Dunmall’s case, it really does. Every bullet point on the resume seems to have made a mark on the well-traveled musician’s sound. In addition to his work on tenor, soprano and baritone saxes, the burly, bearded Dunmall plays a wicked bagpipe. As a free improviser, Dunmall packs a lot of power and sensitivity in a wide range of expression, though he’s kept an open line to bebop and folk music, which he’s increasingly apt to roll into his larger group music.

That’s certainly the case on I Wish You Peace, a big-band recording marking Dunmall’s 50th birthday. For the session, Dunmall assembled a group full of top players. Nearly all of them have played in Dunmall’s various bands. In fact, the ensemble includes every member of Mujician as well as Dunmall’s trio with guitarist John Adams and drummer Mark Sanders. The leader, who structures his music in vignettes geared around soloists or smaller ensembles, can’t help but clear the field for extended passages featuring both groups playing by themselves. That move reinforces a feeling of consolidation with this recording; Dunmall’s big band is really an extension of his smaller working ensembles running together in a three-part suite. A key ingredient throughout is Mujician pianist Keith Tippett, who always seems to pop up in support of the strongest solos here and etches fragments of structure into Dunmall’s churning passages of Ascension-like free improv or traffic-jam bebop.

A more organic, better realized tour through Dunmall’s music can be found on Bridging, a live recording of his extended suite “Bridging the Great Divide.” Dunmall’s octet rerecorded the suite, which earlier appeared as The Great Divide (Cuneiform), live in concert on a windy day in Lisbon, 2002. The recording opens with a stunning solo bagpipe passage from Dunmall, followed quickly thereafter by a passage of densely layered, ecstatic bebop-a piquant juxtaposition of ancient country and bustling city music which sets the tone for the entire recording. Again, Tippett plays a central role, though bassist Paul Rogers also deserves a nod for his very satisfying solo nearly midway through. Mujician found itself unexpectedly reconvened when all other members of the octet left them alone onstage for the encore. The group’s ornery, surprisingly boppish “Wind” caps off a solid engagement. Sections of I Wish You Peace match up to this, but for sustained energy and conception, Bridging is the better performance.

Dunmall exposes his small group efforts, though not his best personal showing, on Go Forth Duck (CIMP), which collects the leftovers from the same recording session that produced Rylickolum (CIMP, 2003). Dunmall recorded the disc with Paul Rogers and American percussionist/vibist/drummer Kevin Norton when the trio toured the East Coast a few years back. CIMP gave this CD its own artwork, but couldn’t be bothered to give it a set of liner notes different from its companion disc. But don’t let the gesture fool you into thinking this recording is a total afterthought. Duck lacks Rylickolum’s well-paced and handsomely contoured music, and Dunmall himself doesn’t sound as engaged or expansive as he does on the impressive companion volume, but his bandmates really come out shining. Rogers and Norton constantly shift backgrounds on Dunmall, pairing mallet chords and dense bow work or a charging kit with walking quarter notes, as just a few examples. Their dazzling interplay on an uneven recording is the best reason to look this up.

Originally Published