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Two New Jazz Albums Recall The Wide Open Spaces of The West

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Portland, Ore. tenor saxophonist Rich Halley's quartet album Crossing the Passes on his Pine Eagle label commemorates a week-long trek over the Wallowa mountain range in Northeast Oregon, where Halley's been climbing since he was a boy. We could talk about his dual obsessions with music and nature as cultivating a love of wide-open improvisational spaces; he's got one band that only plays outdoors. But all that climbing also has practical benefits: It builds lung-power. Rich Halley has a big, full-throated sound that may recall prime Sonny Rollins.

You could look at Rich Halley's interest in remote locales as a metaphor for how his music developed far from the jazz capitals. Not that he's out of touch — he's learned volumes from studying Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus and others. But one's individual voice is also a function of whom you improvise with — what you react to helps shape what you play. His colleagues come from up and down the West Coast: the great Vancouver bassist Clyde Reed, Los Angeles's brash and burly trombonist Michael Vlatkovich, and the saxophonist's son and climbing partner Carson Halley on drums. They bring clarity and counterpoint even to the improvised pieces, like the themeless blues "Journey Across the Land."

Halley's been recording for three decades — about twice as long as Chicago saxophonist Dave Rempis, who shares his interest in orderly improvising with longterm collaborators. Rempis is involved with so many bands he's started his own label, Aerophonic. One of their debut releases is by the trio Wheelhouse, with the fine non-egotistical bassist Nate McBride and one of the great vibraphonists of our time, Jason Adasiewicz.

Wheelhouse's CD is called Boss of the Plains — the original name for the broad-brimmed Stetson that evolved into the hat of choice for cowboys and Boy Scouts. The photo inside the CD sleeve depicts a vintage GMC truck cab dominating a flat landscape. There's an air of wide-open spaces about this mostly subdued music, too — but then Chicago does lie at the edge of the Central Plains. Jason Adasiewicz's vibes can evoke windchimes on a farmhouse porch when the weather changes, and light and dark clouds billowing on the horizon.

Of course Chicago's a sprawling city, too, and in Wheelhouse's music you can also hear the screech of an 'L' train rounding a curve, and the factory across the highway. The trio's music also relates to the South Side's influential AACM cooperative, whose musicians likewise favor unusual combinations and plenty of unrestricted horizontal space — as on "Song Hate"'s industrial long tones.

One of the strengths of jazz or improvised music is that it's susceptible to influences from all over. It's never about just one thing. So we're not arguing for geographical determinism. But where an artist lives does make a difference, even when the effect isn't as obvious as on these two new CDs.

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