It takes little imagination to associate the glacial, alienly beautiful soundscapes of trumpeter Nate Wooley on his album Columbia Icefield with the titular glacial, alienly beautiful landscape that graces the CD cover. The musical part of the equation is remarkably accessible—certainly more than its forbidding physical counterpart. Accessibility, however, can’t diminish its mystery.
If anything, the album’s three tracks amplify the mystery, before the listener even presses play. The 20-minute opener, “Lionel Trilling,” is named for the mid-century New York critic and intellectual. What’s his relation to a millennia-old icefield in the Pacific Northwest? The other two titles, “Seven in the Woods” and “With Condolences,” aren’t any more obviously relevant. And when the music starts, Wooley seems to hide from providing answers, whispering and thumping as guitarist Mary Halvorson, pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn, and drummer Ryan Sawyer lay out a thorny, polyrhythmic bed of vamps in “Lionel Trilling”’s first and last third, then tucking slow, long-note lyricisms (soaked in reverb, à la Bitches Brew-era Miles) into the middle section.
Wooley’s trumpet is more present on the two remaining tracks, yet points no further toward answers than “Lionel Trilling.” That said, both of them ably evoke broad expanses of ice with long, widely spaced notes from Wooley and Alcorn; Halvorson’s gnarled guitar figures suggest oddities along those expanses; and Sawyer creating tension with his quick hits. Each, though, is interrupted before its end—“Seven in the Woods” by a sinister plane of distorted timbres; “With Condolences” by fragmentary, half-sung vocals from Sawyer, with his drums and Wooley’s Harmon-muted trumpet responding.
Columbia Icefield, with its long stretches of atmosphere interrupted by jarring dissonances, deftly provokes the same question one might have while standing in its yawning namesake: What is this? Whatever it is, it’s something weird, haunting, lonely, and endlessly fascinating.Originally Published