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Chicago Reader

On Rotational Templates (New Focus), his 2011 debut recording, New York guitarist Travis Reuter takes after saxophonist Steve Lehman: his music is likewise thorny and rigorous, full of elaborate harmonies, twisty structures, and tricky rhythms, and like Lehman he borrows from contemporary classical composers (in Reuter’s case they include “new complexity” proponent Brian Ferneyhough). Bassist Chris Tordini and Little Women drummer Jason Nazary render the album’s funky, shape-shifting grooves with pinpoint precision, while tenor saxophonist Jeremy Viner slaloms surefootedly through their knotty rhythms and electric pianist Bobby Avey drops in splashes of surprising color. Reuter, whose processed sound recalls John Abercrombie’s, alternates between oblique harmonic movement—on the opener, “Vacancy at 29,” he contributes ghostly long tones that hover over the kinetic action beneath him—and fluid, zigzagging lines as deft as Viner’s. The compositions are heady and difficult, with dizzying unison passages and shattered-glass counterpoint, and their ever-changing contexts provide a surplus of raw material for improvisation. For his local debut Reuter brings an entirely different band—tenor saxophonist Mike Bjella, bassist Karl McComas Reichl, and drummer Danny Sher (who has worked frequently with Reuter). Not only am I curious about how this music will sound live, I have to wonder how these players will tackle such challenging pieces with only a couple weeks to prepare.—Peter Margasak, Chicago Reader

Gapplegate Guitar and Bass

NY-based guitarist Travis Reuter shows us that there is more than one way to take fusion rock into more abstract territory. His Rotational Templates (New Focus 117) unfolds in long composed angular juxtipositions that start with the implications of a rock beat, then break up that beat into forward chopped segments that the rhythm section takes up. Against that are guitar-tenor-Rhodes countermelodies that fracture along the lines of the rhythm, but extend the thickness of the music and the momentum of the beat segments. Or at least that’s what I hear. It has a counterpart in the chopped bop that young trumpeter Peter Evans is putting across in such an interesting manner (see my Gapplegate Music Blog for various reviews of his work). Neither is imitating the other. The results are different as is the sound of the band. But there is a kind of convergence (and the M-Base folks have done some chopped funk over the years too, but perhaps with a little more forward thrust).

It’s a music with room for some excellently conceived solos. Travis has plenty of facility and a stretched har-melodic sense that he unleashes with drive, energy and a recognizably original sound. Jeremy Viner on tenor and Bobby Avey on electric piano bring in their own restless sorts of melodic modulations. Chris Tordini’s bass and Jason Nazary’s drums give what goes on its definition through some impressively executed chop kicks, relentless in their consistent push, building a kind of excitement that makes the plain places rough in a sort of over-all fashion.

If that sounds complicated to you, the hearing of the music is not a difficult experience. There is sense to it all. Its consistency is the key that unlocks the complexity, revealing pattern and development within a sort of sameness.Travis has something very interesting going on with this one. He plays in a kind of personal expanded tonality in ways that are exciting. His band has grabbed onto what he is into and in that way they speak as one.

Wow. If you dig the out electric thing this will hit you right in the breadbasket. It’s a winning combination of factors and Travis Reuter is a musical sensibility that bears close watching!

–Grego Applegate, Gapplegate Guitar and Bass

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Wayside Music

Everyone here remembers Danny Sher, right? Right? Sigh. Anyway, at the very beginning of 2011, Danny contacted me about carrying his self-released first album, which was a fantastic, complex electric jazz release, all by terrific musicians I had never heard of. The guitarist was Travis Reuter and here is Travis with his own debut. Featured on this disc in addition to Travis are Jeremy Viner-tenor sax, Bobby Avey-Fender Rhodes, Chris Tordini-bass and Jason Nazary-drums. This is modern electric jazz at its finest, reminiscent of some of Ben Monder’s work as a leader but with a more electric/progressive edge and also more of a ‘rehearsal intensive avant-progressive’ flair; think of electric jazz as filtered through the complexity of Blast and you have an idea of what this is about. Interesting meters and modes and inspired soloing zip by and the playing is unbelivably first rate. If intricate, really, really tricky electric jazz/rock sounds like your kind of thing, this comes HIGHLY recommended.

–Steve Feigenbaum, Wayside Music

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Lucid Culture

Hmmm…does Rotational Templates – the title of jazz guitarist Travis Reuter’s new album – mean “basic plan for solos around the horn?” No. It’s not clear what it means, but this pretty meticulously thought-out album is a great ipod listen, and as cerebral as it is, there’s feeling along with all the ideas. It’s hard to pigeonhole, a good sign: you could call it psychedelic improvisational postbop. Reuter is a thoughtful player with a tremendous command of unexpectedly non-guitarish textures. What becomes obvious only a few minutes into this album is that he really knows how to seize the moment, but also when to let the moment go because it’s over. He’s got a good band: Jeremy Viner on tenor sax, Chris Tordini on bass, Bobby Avey taking a turn on electric piano this time out and Jason Nazary on drums.

The first track sets the stage: Viner and Tordini carry the central theme as Nazary roves and prowls, Reuter providing nebulous atmospherics via a swooshy effect. He parallels the sax and then finally comes up acidally, bouncing off the rest of the band as Avey takes a turn in the shadow position. The second cut is the first of a diptych. Residency at 20, Part 1 introduces an off-center, circular theme that Viner pokes at suspiciously, Tordini signaling an absolutely delicious, otherworldly, icily ambient guitar interlude (is that a backward masking pedal?) that eventually begins to smolder and then throw off sparks as Reuter edges his way out of the morass.

The most mathematical number here is Singular Arrays, a blippy ensemble piece featuring some sly roundabout work from Nazary and a judiciously sinuous solo from Avey imbued with his signature gravitas that gives the song some welcome muscle. When Reuter starts bobbing and weaving, the spiky thicket of notes makes it impossible to tell the guitar from the piano. Its cousin track, Flux Derivatives uses the skeletal outline of a ballad to frame resolute solos from Viner and Avey, Reuter taking his time before spiraling up and bringing up the heat. The album closes with the second part of Residency at 20, Avey left to hold this together as the drums shuffle off on their own, Reuter adding a couple of amusing quotes, with Avey rocking the boat to the point where Reuter turns it loose with an unexpected, unrestrained joy. Good ideas, good playing, five guys at the top of their game.

Lucid Culture

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Words and Music (UK)

On his debut album, ‘Rotational Templates,’ released by New Focus Recordings, guitarist Travis Reuter explicitly sets out to use techniques from modern classical music in his compositions for jazz quintet. The accompanying blurb states that he ‘draws heavily on influences from the music of composers Elliott Carter, Brian Ferneyhough, and Jason Eckardt.’ So: a brave and hazardous endeavour: this is an approach that has been tried many times, grafting classical to jazz and the history of the music, from Paul Whiteman onwards, contains, perhaps, many more failures than successes. Attempts to utilise formal devices and instrumentations from the straight music world all too often resulted in an uncool stiffness that impeded the rhythmic/melodic flows of the jazz to produce an often bloodless hybrid that was very much less than the sum of its parts. Whisper the name: ‘Thirdstream.’ So how does Reuter’s album fare, against this backdrop? Very well, actually. There is a skittery, jump-cutting intensity to the music that partakes of contemporary classical but the overall rhythmic field is expansive enough to enfold and make it flow. A small group helps, giving plenty of space and – perhaps younger musicians are not fazed by moving between genres these days? Reuter – classically trained but with an evidently superb jazz guitar technique would seem to prove that point. This is thoughtful, intelligent music, not afraid to foreground its techniques and influences, yet with enough grit and groove to lift it way beyond what could have been a stodgy mess. The distortions of electric guitar and Fender Rhodes give a rocky, funky edge, coupled with a sparing use of added electronics and a mix that moves instruments and sounds around more than would be usually found on a straightahead jazz record. If Thirdstream as was is Scylla, then Charybdis in this context would surely be: fusion/prog rock. Fusion being an attempt to make jazz more rocky and prog – well, trying to make rock more respectable and ‘complicated.’ That yearning for ‘respectability’ is what poisoned the musical oceans in times gone by. Much of the success of this album resides in the avoidance of past mistakes – the keyboard/guitar interactions hark back to Miles Davis at his electric best rather than the blandness that followed his pioneering after ‘Bitches Brew.’. Reuter and his crew negotiate safe passage through this particular Strait of Messina…


First track: ‘Vacancy at 29,’ bass leading in to be joined by flurries from Jeremy Viner’s tenor saxophone and electronic colourations back in the mix. The sax builds as slow processional Fender Rhodes chording (Bobby Avey) combines with noise granularities. Jittery music, held together by the sturdy bass of Chris Tordini as the sax stretches out into more declamatory mode. Guitar takes over to solo in a tumble of notes, building up a head of steam, veering into a distorted rocky sound world as the keyboard chases. Then: a sudden end. And all the tracks finish in the same abrupt way, as if emphasising that there will be be no rambling, that concision is all at this session. The endings, then, emblematic of the whole, where composed material is balanced by improvisation under tight rein.

‘Residency at 20 (Part One) starts with slow chording guitar in almost traditional jazz timbre then sax joins to spell out the melody, accents doubled and hammered into place by Jason Nazari’s drums – which are slightly back in the mix, perhaps they would have benefited from a more up front posture? But one assumes that the placement is deliberate. Much thought has gone into the production, after all – as witnessed by the next section when the guitar goes into ghostly quasi-dubstep mode drifting out of the immediate sound space into an echoing background before returning up front to spin out some fast lines alternated with crunching chords. Another ensemble passage then more distorted guitar as the drums slowly edge forward. Again, a sudden stop.

‘Singular Arrays.’ A hint of sprightly Dolphyesque angularity in the melody. Guitar briefly solos before joining the sax for unison statements. Keyboard and bass repeat a phrase as the drums come through. Keyboard solos, coming off a wobbling figure, cranked up distortion, intersected by sax reiterating that phrase again. Keyboard in freer style over sparse bass and fidgeting drums that drive it along briefly. Guitar next up, some longer linear development that really start to go just before the again abrupt end.

One uses comparisons again – ‘Flux Derivatives’ opens on unison guitar and sax that distantly evokes Pat Metheny and Ornette’s collaboration for these ears. Again, an interesting use of space – sax, guitar and spare, clipped drums, the keyboard does not arrive straight away then floats wafty chords, bass coming in last. The next section: warm sax laced with cymbals and various rhythmic shifts, Viner slowly burning to a climax propelled by cutting drums – followed by elegaic Fender Rhodes that suddenly jumps a couple of emotional notches. Guitar bubbles in, whiplash lines balanced by splayed chords. Reuter stepping out here. Viner returns very briefly, riding a note – then – you guessed it, sudden stop.

The last track: ‘Residency at 20 (Part Two).’ Opened by tenor over another stop/start bass riff, the top line proceeds to flow over busy drums, adding keyboards along the way – then a brief ensemble section as the bass riff continues. Third section: free-floating keyboards and some biting guitar as the drums bustle and push, keyboard taking it up alone. Sax and guitar back in unison, all dropping for the bass to essay a few solo bars then all together in a swirling finale. Then: that sudden stop.

‘Jazz’ just having gone through the gates of the twenty first century and approaching, perhaps, its centennial has covered so much ground during those preceding years. To riff off the Good Book: there are many mansions in the house, but no overall ‘Father’ in residence/ownership to guide/dominate in this age of suspicion/hostility towards metanarratives. The dynamic between improvisation and composition provokes many different solutions, as it always has, but the possibilities have multiplied drastically. But some things carry through. The key to all jazz, arguably, is rhythm, primarily the drums and their role in giving shape and space – and improvisational opportunity. (Jimmy Giuffre’s early free jazz attempts got round this by dropping the drummer, which proves the point, perhaps). The avant garde evolved in the sixties once drummers worked out various strategies to expand their rhythms, offering more dimensions and expanded pulses that opened new doors. With such a wider field of rhythm available, perhaps it is easier now to produce music such as this, which has intellect and energy in balanced doses. Also: much of contemporary art music is not so far away from areas that have developed in the free improvisational worlds – often in practice their sound worlds mesh. Reuter’s stated influences here – Fernyhough and Carter, Erckhardt – have all in their own ways rejected or moved on from the earlier ideology of strict twelve tone serialism which was usually a straitjacket when applied to jazz – and beyond, arguably. Their rhythmic/harmonic complexity is maybe not such a distance to travel now (think Cecil Taylor) – Fernyhough’s extensive use of the tuplet would be a bridge maybe to the overlaid rhythms and syncopations that jazz has always bounced off. Well, OK, maybe I am stretching here? But: what is exciting on this album is that those areas of previous contention/misalignment, the formal compositional devices – tone rows, counterpoint, intricately notated shifting rhythms etc – are encompassed by this wider sense of expanded rhythm so that the charts are not stodgy, nor the improvisations impeded – everything sounds right and in place. And sounds fresh. ‘Rotational Templates’ is that rarity, a novel conception that works. The discipline of five relatively short tracks also gives a feeling that less is more. Nothing meanders, all pulled up suddenly in what seems a trademark ending which seems to say: that’s it, enough has been said at this point. Reuter obviously has much confidence in his overall vision and did not feel it necessary to over-egg the pudding on his first outing. The no-doubt hand-picked ensemble helps – the ideas of individuals are there but they are bound into the greater whole of the band. My one beef? I would have liked a little more stretching out, perhaps, but that’s a minor quibble. I suspect that live shows would have more room for soloing expansion – and this is a band I would love to see… A very surefooted debut from Reuter then. We await the next chapter…

–Rod Warner, Words and Music

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