Tom Gullion – Carswell (2009)

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by Pico

We’ve heard and read so many times about how where a musician is physically has such great bearing on where he’s at musically. Some jazz musicians become vitalized, inspired, motivated by the hustle and bustle of the diverse, vibrant big city scene. Tenor saxophonist Tom Gullion is not one of those musicians.

On the contrary, Gullion finds his muse amidst the genteel, peaceful environs on a farm north of Madison, Wisconsin, where he raises a family of four kids. With good bebop credentials—he once played in a quintet founded by trombone great J.J, Johnson while attending college at Indiana University—and two albums already under his belt, Gullion sought to do something that was entirely his own this time, and not merely duplicate someone else’s music.

The resultant album that went on sale October 27, Carswell, is one that Gullion himself believes that is the first one that’s uniquely his own music. As Gullion makes clear, “The whole project is about me trying to reach deep and find something that’s uniquely mine.” Though nominally called “contemporary jazz,” Gullion’s music resides in the wide fault lines that lie between modern jazz and fusion, with a smattering of other influences that reflect the music of Gullion’s own youth. So how did Tom Gullion put forth something that is own? He wrote ten songs, which for the most part break out of the head-solo-head merry-go-round that defines the song structure for most of jazz even today. He tore down the wall dividing soloing and melodies, made the rhythm section equal partners and changed themes within songs. None of that is truly groundbreaking, and Gullion himself will be the first to tell you that. But these newer ways of thinking are more prevalent in avant-jazz circles. Gullion’s jazz, on the other hand, is groove-based and more accessible. The closest touchstone might be Weather Report, but with more structure.

The “Tom Gullion Sound” is well-defined, through all the changes in attitudes, cadence and tempos throughout Carswell. It also remains constant between two recording dates, two entirely different cities and two entirely different backing bands. In August of last year, Gullion recorded in La Crosse, WI with David Cooper on trumpet/flugelhorn, Tim Whalen on electric piano, Mark Urness on acoustic bass and Dane Richeson on drums. About five months later, Gullion laid down the other half of the ten tracks in Chicago with Vijay Tellis-Nayak on both electric and acoustic piano, Shawn Sommer on acoustic bass and Ernie Adams on drums and percussion. Guillion himself plays not only tenor sax, but occasionally picks up a soprano sax, bass clarinet or alto flute.

Gullion’s sax approach has been compared to Michael Brecker’s and though it owes much to Brecker’s style, Gullion’s is a little bit leaner and tougher, so he’s no clone of Brecker or anyone else. Maybe it’s because he sometimes electrify or modify the sound of a funky sax but I’m often reminded of Eddie Harris, too. The prominence of the electric piano is not insignificant, either. It adds certain tonalities that doesn’t on its own pull the songs out of the post-bop tradition, but serves well to alert your ears of that fact.

“Carswell,” the song, is a good example of what I’m talking about. For the first two minutes, it’s a lean, muscular rhythm that Gullion wails over, but once Tellis-Nayak enters with the Rhodes, the dynamic of the song changes, first uniting with the leader for a brief theme, then taking a solo as the rest of the band cools down to accommodate it. The original bass line remains intact, preserving continuity in a song with unexpected changes and mutated harmonics. It’s an idea that’s repeated on “Overflowing,” but the beat is slowed down and there are vast unfilled spaces in the sound. Yet, for this tune the results are just as successful.

The electric piano can also be a real mood enhancer when used properly, and no where that is done more effectively on “Mellowing Intro/Mellowing.” Whalen’s Rhodes on his intro shimmers and pulses like Joe Zawinul’s would, and sets the icy-cool tone for the proper song. Gullion harmonizes around Cooper’s main melodic line, then Cooper pours out a super-clean, logically constructed solo that still leaves room for emotion. Richeson turns up the intensity a couple of notches as Gullion performs his own solo, before bringing the song to a soft landing.

“Right On Time” is even more so a low-key tune, so Gullion hauls out the flute and Cooper mutes his horn, and both evoke the right feel. The funky “Another Place And Time” uses electronics to alter the sound of acoustic instruments, a la e.s.t., where Urness’ bass become a fuzz bass and Gullion’s bass clarinet becomes a sleek, modern wind instrument.

The closing “Uptown” (see video of live performance below) illustrates the power of Gullion’s compositions the best. Here, the electric piano is replaced by an acoustic one, leaving a standard acoustic quartet to play the song. Nevertheless, not a whit of Gullion’s imprint on it is lost; it might draw from bop but it’s not bop. It’s “Gullion.”

It’s from a rural region in the upper Midwest—as well as Chicago—that has birthed a record that’s one of the most consistently strong jazz records to come out this year. Location can be so important in instigating music that is deeply felt and immediate. For Tom Gullion, that location is somewhere in his creative mind.

Carswell is offered to us by Momentous Records.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on,, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at
S. Victor Aaron

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