When your resume ranges from being the musical director/pianist for George Benson for the past two decades to charter member with intrepid Cryptogramophone label head/violinist Jeff Gauthier's Goatette, what do you do for your very first album as a leader? In the case of David Witham, it’s to collect friends from across the musical spectrum he’s worked in for his entire career and bring them together for a first meeting that’s as eclectic and unpredictable as one might expect.
Guest appearances from stalwart Cryptogramophone guitarist Nels Cline and ubiquitous steel guitarist Greg Leisz aside, Witham's core quintet on Spinning the Circle might seem, on paper, to be one headed for a train wreck, but only if you're not familiar with their full breadth of expertise and ability to mold into any context. Witham, who contributes all but two of the disc’s eight tracks, provides plenty of contextual diversity for his band mates.
Drummer Scott Amendola's work with Nels Cline Singers and his own Crypto releases including 2005's Believe is decidedly left-of-center, but his lazy, behind-the-beat groove provides an evolving momentum to the simple melodic premise of Witham’s "N.O. Rising." Jay Anderson may be best known as a contemporary mainstreamer with artists including Bob Mintzer, and Lynne Arriale, but on the abstract angularity of his own "Momentuum" and the free-form opener to what ultimately becomes a more infectiously grooving "Afrobeat," he demonstrates an unexpected side that will surprise more than a few listeners.
Like Witham, woodwind multi-instrumentalist Jon Crosse is a name few will know, but he’s had an active career for forty years, playing behind everyone from Carmen McRae to Paul Anka. A lyrical player comfortable on
saxophones, clarinets, flute and even trumpet, his focus is on developing richly thematic solos, though he lets a little of his unassailable virtuosity peep out on polyrhythmic and quirkily Latinesque "The Circle."
Cline adds edge to the electronica-tinged "The Neon," where his thick-toned, effected solo is in sharp contrast to Crosse's economical tenor, both bolstered by Amendola’s frenetic propulsion and Anderson's warm-bodied straddling of rhythm anchor and responsive equal.
Witham's capabilities range from texturally dense ("The Neon") to expansive yet spare (the Americana-tinged "Con Quien," featuring gorgeous ambient swells from Leisz). While comfortable with the more jagged
extremes of "Momentuum," he's at his best on the rubato tone poem "Light and Life" and purely lyrical "Who Knows," where he demonstrates the kind of attention to space that turns relatively simple ideas into pieces
of elegant beauty.
Spinning the Circle is a long-overdue debut from Witham, an artist who has spent a lifetime in the service of others; now it's time for him to get some of the attention he so richly deserves.
By John Kelman