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  • Glenn Siegel

Standing On Giant Shoulders: Nate Wooley's Columbia Icefield in Concert

Inspiration serves as a powerful engine in the creative process, and paying tribute to mentors and past masters provides common source material for all the arts. So trumpeter and composer Nate Wooley’s decision to write a work in honor of Ron Miles is not unusual, but it yielded unexpected results on May 16, as Wooley’s Columbia Icefield debuted new material before a full house at CitySpace’s Blue Room in Easthampton, MA.


The Jazz Shares concert, featuring Wooley alongside Ava Mendoza, guitar, Susan Alcorn, pedal steel guitar and Ryan Sawyer, drums, used bits of melodic material gleaned from Miles’ recordings and performances refashioned and expanded by Wooley’s fertile imagination.


Wooley was familiar with Miles’ music even before he spent the late 1990s in Denver with the late cornetist. In his pre-concert remarks, he called Miles’ My Cruel Heart one of the greatest recordings of all time. This was not the first time he has used Miles as inspiration. Wooley’s group Argonautica gave him a chance to perform with Miles, and “A Catastrophic Legend”, part of Wooley’s 2022 release, Ancient Songs of Burlap Heroes, was penned as a love letter to his mentor.


“I spent a lot of time with Ron,” Wooley says in an interview in PostGenre. “I don’t think he would have ever allowed me to call myself his student, just because he was incredibly humble. But even without the label ‘student’, I learned so much from him. I watched him devote his life to the sound in his head. Sometimes these came across as long conversations about trumpet technique. He was incredibly virtuosic. I’m not sure most people truly knew how gifted he was on the trumpet. Ron was also constantly curious about not only music but also art, books, and really anything he could find a way to incorporate into his music. I think what I learned most from him was to be a good human being first. Work at treating people ethically. Be a good friend. Care for other people. Bring love and joy into the world. Those things must come first before you work on your music. I always got the feeling that was the order of operations for Ron. I try to live up to that example.”


Wooley told 75 audience members that the concert was a meditation on loss and the ways we mourn, both quietly and loudly. He began his evening-length suite with an understated unaccompanied solo that only hinted at his prodigious ability to extend the conventional parameters of his instrument. It was a subdued and heartfelt soliloquy. Over the course of the evening the band filled the Blue Room with rock intensity, complete with back-beats and fuzz guitar. At other times, pedal steel twang and cicada-like maracas held our attention. One of the themes the band explored was “Wildwood Flower”, made famous almost 100 years ago by the Carter family. The country classic was a favorite of Miles, and Columbia Icefield dealt at length with its beautiful melody. The concert ended as it began, with delicate trumpet eloquence.


The members of Columbia Icefield inhabit a transformed hybridized space. Alcorn has taken an instrument firmly rooted in a very specific genre and catapulted it into a completely new realm. Mendoza, whose parents are Bolivian and Bosnian, and Sawyer, who has Mexican and Anglo roots, are artists able to mix multiple styles into a joyful blend. Whether it is Mendoza’s 21st century progressive rock vibe on her new recording, Echolocation, Alcorn’s mash-up of Chilean folk and nueva cancion with free improvisation on her new recording, Canto, or Ryan Sawyer’s cassette releases, Baby Rattle and Death Rattle, where he plays maracas exclusively, these are musicians who are comfortable operating in in-between places.


The band was in Philadelphia and New York before coming to Easthampton. They were making their way to Toronto and Quebec’s Festival International de Musique Actuelle in Victoriaville. There are plans for the quartet to reconvene in the fall to record the material we just heard. While on a personal level it is important for Nate Wooley to memorialize the legacy of Ron Miles, making sure the jazz public understands Miles’ contribution to the music is equally critical. This project will have the added benefit of solidifying the reputation of one of Miles’ most important progenitors.











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