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Robert Stillman - Horses

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Artist: Robert Stillman

Album: Horses

Label: Mill Pond

Review date: Feb. 19, 2006

Robert Stillman’s Horses is the sort of album cunningly designed to divide record store clerks and dismantle genre distinctions. Where does one file it in the racks? The instrumentation is decidedly jazz-like: Stillman covers tenor saxophone, piano, drums and tambourine. He’s joined at various junctures by sidemen like Jonathan Rossman who plays clarinet, alto saxophone and snare drum and R.J. Miller who handles drums, bongos and shaker. Pete Rende’s pump organ immediately brings to mind the dark carny echoes of Tom Waits. Elsewhere he plays convincingly retro Fender Rhodes. Add to this compelling evidence the all-instrumental nature of the tunes and a jazz sticker sounds like a safe bet.

But any jury rushing to reach a verdict would be prudent to consider additional testimony. The compositions corral other elements like Copeland-style classicism and a distinct patina of Americana in the alternately sweeping watercolor vistas and simple loping rhythms. Melody positions prominently in most of the pieces, with improvisation often only an afterthought to Stillman’s carefully orchestrated structures. Open prairie saxophone vies with strummed guitar, parlor piano and time-tethered drums on “The Dance 1.” I hear slight echoes of Tortoise in the chugging snare-driven rhythm and luminous unison phrasings of “Half-Luke”; it’s like the Tennessee Two meets Zoot Sims and Clare Fischer. “Love Theme” unfolds as an operatic tone poem of lushly patterned parts: spongy electric piano, shimmering cymbals, cottony swelling saxophone and rippling guitar recalling an Angelo Badalamenti score. Aptly-titled, “That’s Enough” closes the set with a cantering beat set to another gradually scrolling melody voiced by demulcent clarinet and tenor sax.

Stillman’s career thus far has traced an eclectic route akin to his music. He’s hobnobbed with the New York avant gardists and jazzbos and gone the academic route with stints at the New England Conservatory and Tufts. Then there’s his recurring gig as drummer in the NYC rock band The End of The World. The music here was taped thousands of miles away in a Seattle studio. That sort of far-perambulating spirit and sense of wide open space, both geographical and musical, funnels directly into the tracks. Stillman exhibits an enviable aptitude for quiet experimentation in his compositions, testing boundaries and taking subtle chances without alienating his audience. Perhaps most impressive of all, the music retains an aura of stylistic ambiguity that makes consignment to a single shop bin both unadvisable and erroneous.

By Derek Taylor

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