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Music Review: Dan Willis and Velvet Gentlemen – The Satie Project

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Dan Willis and his band, Velvet Gentlemen, take to the work of the late composer Erik Satie with exuberance and pure joy. They surge easily through Willis’ reimagined interpretations of the French artist’s work, celebrating the art form with jazz and classical interpretations.

Willis actually came into contact with the music of Satie after recovering from a car accident. Suffering severe headaches and back pain, the saxophonist heard the music during acupuncture sessions. The introduction had an obvious and profound impact on Willis and he was quick to integrate arrangements of various Satie pieces at his live gigs.

Now, with the Velvet Gentlemen, Willis presents his admiration and love for the music of Erik Satie with 15 beautiful and adventurous pieces of music.

Willis is considered one of New York City’s most versatile woodwind artists. He can be heard on Broadway currently in West Side Story and features frequently in many of Manhattan’s hottest jazz venues. He is a reed doubler and has no problem hopping genres to take the musical train wherever it leads.

Beginning with “Second Gymnopedie,” a seven-and-a-half minute jazz sextet arrangement, The Satie Project never feels confined by a particular style or pace. Instead, it goes exactly where Willis wants it to go and his homage to the music of Satie feels natural and fondly compiled.

To reflect the left hand/right hand nature of Satie’s piano work, Willis’ “Nocturne #2” adapts Satie’s original work and delves headfirst into classical music. The piece resembles a clear shift from the jazz of the record’s opening number and introduces us to the 12/8 playing of bassist Richard Sosinsky. Willis actually includes the other five “Nocturne” arrangements on the record, with each one taking the listener on a different musical voyage.

“I Idylle” is a funky rock-tinged track that builds from Kermit Driscoll’s bass line into an untamed 70s-inspired throwdown between guitar and a warped, wild trumpet.

“Il Aubade” is a song that ventures in another direction altogether. Working a melody with tenor sax and bass, the piece loads an accordion accompaniment from Ron Oswanski and lets Willis pull double duty with both tenor and soprano saxophones. His improv work is stellar, too.

While some listeners may not be overly familiar with the work of Erik Satie, The Satie Project serves as an exhilarating, dynamic, affecting piece of work from Willis and the Velvet Gentlemen. It opens new doors with every sitting, allowing the work of a great musician to flow through the talents of many other talented performers.

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About Jordan Richardson

  • Meena

    I happened upon this article while reading Barbara Barnett’s blog on House, MD…(Welcome to the End of the Thought Process). What a great surprise!

    I am incredibly delighted whenever the work of Erik Satie gets any publicity, he is the ultimate composer for me. Whenever I play him on the piano, I might think in the back of my mind that his pieces would be the perfect building block for jazz and improvisation (unfortunately, skills not really in my repertoire). And here it is! I will definitely check this out.

    Satie’s pieces seem so simple, and yet I feel they take years to actually play like you mean it. They are Cubist, flat, and then suddenly four-dimensional. They are Mannerist, working against what shouldn’t. Ah, so pretty, so unexpected, light and dark and witty.

    I am disheartened that my all-time favorite Gnossienne, no. 5, is not included – a piece I still take such delight in figuring out. But that’s what second albums are for I guess…