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Stephen Gauci Quartet: Wisps of an Unknown Face

Tenor saxophonist Stephen Gauci seems to be making up for lost time. He didn’t step into the studio until six years ago at age 35. In the time since, the former student of Joe Lovano and George Garzone has been building up a discography that reveals a strong leader and sideman with a rugged tone and intriguing compositions. The quartet on Wisps of an Unknown Face includes trumpeter Nate Wooley and Gauci locking in with the versatile duo of bassist Ken Filiano and drummer Lou Grassi. Gauci often begins a solo with subdued bursts of melody, only to get more animated as he goes, breaking into overtones and wails, as he does on the album’s first two tracks. Grassi, always skilled at incorporating the nuances of his entire kit, turns the fire up and down as needed. After Grassi opens “my death?” with a tumbling solo, the horns play the seven-note melody over a walking bassline that yields plenty of exciting ideas coming from a simple launch pad. Wisps moves like that, sliding from free blowing into lyrical moments and concluding with a piece that at least nods toward the blues, via Filiano’s taut double stops.

On Nididhyasana, Gauci foregoes a trap kit as he and Wooley are joined by two bassists: CIMP regular Michael Bisio and Norwegian Ingerbrigt Håker Flaten (also of Ken Vandermark’s Free Fall). Each member receives writing credit for the four tracks, which, together with the pliable dynamics, imply that these were spontaneous performances. The group shows an amazing range of empathy; the bassists never get tangled up in each other or soil the sonics, even as they play in close register. The 23-minute title track sustains a slow-burning intensity with fast movement and breaks for slower pauses. Wooley’s performance is marked by open bell smears and insistent flurries blown through a Harmon mute. In “Chitta Vilasa (Play of Mind),” each horn duets with a bassist who, in turn, duets with his counterpart before everyone blows free. Between these tracks, “Duriti (Steadfastness)” evokes Charles Mingus’ “Canon” as played by Archie Shepp. This might not be an easy listen, but it’s not easy to pull off either.

Originally Published