Columbia Icefield is the quartet of Nate Wooley on trumpet, Mary Halvorson on guitar, Susan Alcorn on pedal steel, and Ryan Sawyer on drums. Their 2019 debut explored a journey to the largest icefield in the Rocky Mountains through Wooley’s compositions. In contrast, Ancient Songs of Burlap Heroes is about a return home – a place of changed expectations and odd loneliness. These emotions are juxtaposed against the magnitude of the natural world through the use of walls of sound and field recordings.
Joined on one track each by violist Mat Maneri and bassist Trevor Dunn, this hour-long offering is split across three long pieces that separate four shorter interludes. Given the resumes of the six individuals involved, one might expect a creative jazz approach, but Ancient Songs of Burlap Heroes heads in varied directions, with emphasis on soloing, textures, and electroacoustic blends of sound.
I Am the Sea That Sings of Dust is a 15-minute exploration that begins with slowly-paced thematic developments from Halvorson and Alcorn, while Wooley provides abstract, airy structures. The impression is almost geological in nature, of melting glaciers, boiling rivers, or avalanches. As Sawyer joins in, the piece evolves from outside-ish, pastoral movements to all-out chaos with generous use of angular lines and extended techniques. Ironically, after an initial crescendo just past the halfway point, we are left with introspective, folk-inflected jazz lines. A measured Wooley and Maneri dual lead takes us to completion.
A Catastrophic Legend features a more earthy opening, with the group playing an introspective motif combined with field recordings. This quickly becomes a vehicle for Halvorson to present a twisted solo before Wooley, Dunn, and Sawyer join in for a deliberately-paced and melancholy passage. Before long, the whole group has turned it up a couple of notches with firey interplay between Alcorn and Halvorson. The last third of the track couples Dunn’s riffing with Wooley playing almost straight and a touch of the aforementioned creative jazz. Returning to Drown Myself, Finally is a plaintive capstone, featuring soulful Wooley solos presented in contrast to tumultuous entropy from the rest of the group. Halvorson, Alcorn, and Sawyer each seem to be playing a different piece of music that somehow merges into Wooley’s vision.
The interludes are the least expected aspects of this work, based largely on field recordings of wind and water. They run together seamlessly with the longer pieces, with melodies or structures from the end of one being continued into the other.
Perhaps these pieces are about Wooley’s struggle to find a place in the world. He writes, “[a] burlap hero is one who marches—consciously or not—back to the sea in hopes of making no splash, who understands and embraces the imperfection of being, and in that way, stretches the definition of sainthood to fit.” Nature is majestic and awe-inspiring but lacks the intimacy of human contact. Coming to terms with one’s home and upbringing can be a mixed affair – but even around other people, the desired connections may be unavailable. Obtaining peace may require patience and modulated expectations. Regardless, Wooley once again proves himself an innovator who creates new musical languages to express deeply-hidden
Ancient Songs of Burlap Heroes will be released on July 29 by Pyroclastic Records.