Building on the success of his 2021 solo debut Dio C’è (“wildly ambitious” — AllMusic) and his co-led 2018 effort with pianist Jason Yeager All at Onceness, alto saxophonist Randal Despommier returns with A Midsummer Odyssey, a captivating duo session with guitarist extraordinaire Ben Monder. The central focus is the highly accessible yet always enigmatic music of Swedish baritone saxophonist Lars Gullin (1928-1976). Alternately boppish, cool, bluesy, folkish and chamber-like, Gullin’s pieces afford the Despommier/Monder duo endless opportunities for fresh reinvention. “The goal of this project,” writes Despommier in the liner notes, “was to tap into the spirit of Gullin’s music and present it in a new way. I’m grateful to Ben Monder for joining me on this journey. He helped me hear Gullin’s music differently and added a richness and depth I did not think possible.”
Electric bass master Jimmy Haslip, who played on Dio C’è, returns on A Midsummer Odyssey in the role of co-producer, which explains the album’s sparkling, three-dimensional sound and overall narrative coherence. Monder appeared on Dio C’è as well, specifically on Despommier’s unique treatment of Stone Temple Pilots’ “Big Empty.” Known for his ethereal yet hard-edged solo-guitar recitals and inimitable work with Dan Weiss’ Starebaby, Guillermo Klein’s Los Guachos, Donny McCaslin and so many others, Monder swings hard on A Midsummer Odyssey — something that Gullin’s compositions readily invite. Walking bass lines, tight chord-melody solos and in-the-pocket choruses of blues and rhythm changes are solidly in Monder’s wheelhouse, even as he brings to the idiom his own inimitable sound and approach. And yet Monder can elevate Gullin’s harmony to another plane at the drop of a hat, for instance on Gullin’s lilting waltz “Dyningar.”
It was a chance encounter with “Danny’s Dream,” a lithe and melodic piece played for Despommier by his friend Olof Lövmo in Italy in 2005, that sparked the altoist’s deep and longstanding interest in Gullin. Despommier describes the tune as “a mix between a Norse folk-song arrangement by Edvard Grieg and a Billy Strayhorn ballad.” Having triggered the process that would ultimately lead to A Midsummer Odyssey, Lövmo fittingly took on the role of assistant producer.
In this intimate context, Despommier’s poise and inventiveness on alto recalls the late Lee Konitz, one of Gullin’s collaborators. His effortless blend with Monder leads to many magical moments, such as the rubato reverie “Mazurka” and the lush ballads “Silhouette” and “I Hope It’s Spring for You.” Noting that Gullin never traveled to the United States, Despommier argues that “Gullin was drawing on Swedish folk music the same way American jazz musicians were feeding off blues and spirituals. Whether goatherders or sheep come to mind, this Swedish tinge gives Gullin’s music unique flavor and identity. It permeates his music in a way that feels soulful and authentic.” Those qualities ring out clear in the hands of Despommier and Monder, who have created a transcendent space for Gullin’s subtle writing in the lexicon of 21st-century jazz.
New Orleans-born, New York-based alto saxophonist Randal Despommier “blends the suavity of Paul Desmond with the intensity of Dave Binney” (Musically Speaking). In addition to his work as a composer and bandleader, he is a passionate educator with a focus on global music, having directed the music program at Bard High School Early College (Manhattan). He has also taught jazz history with the Bard College Prison Initiative and currently teaches music theory at Third Street Music Settlement in New York City.
released July 15, 2022
Randal Despommier - alto saxophone
Ben Monder - guitar
supported by 9 fans who also own “A Midsummer Odyssey”
Pretty much everything. The playing is incredible and the compositions lovely. But most of all I love the intensity of listening, joy and collaboration that oozes from every piece. Three of today's finest jazz musicians who were clearly thirsting for live co-creation and pull off a masterpiece on this album. tjsimon1