Time to Mind the Mystics
Street Date: April 29, 2022
Label: Shifting Paradigm Records
Guitarist Dan Bruce and his :beta collective presents their second album, Time to Mind the Mystics, a twisting collection of compositions, intriguing narratives and a colorful timbral palette that establishes Bruce as a distinct voice in large ensemble writing. Bruce’s :beta collective features Chris Coles on alto and tenor saxophone and vocoder, Brad Wagner on soprano and tenor saxophones and bass clarinet, trombonist Caleb Smith, vibraphonist Will Wedmedyk, Theron Brown on keys, Aidan Plank on bass, drummer Anthony Taddeo and Joel Negus on synthesizers on two tracks.
:beta collective is a powerhouse group founded by Bruce that features some of the Midwest’s top improvisers. The group’s debut record Earthshine was released in 2017 and received critical acclaim; Troy Dostert (All About Jazz) commented that ‘Bruce brings a finely-polished technique that is at the same time subtly discontent, searching for new expressions and willing to take some chances along the way,’ a facet the guitarist expands on as he works his way through :beta collective’s comprehensive second offering.
Bruce describes Time to Mind the Mystics as a collection of thought experiments that revolve around the intertwined future of humanity and technology. Bruce explains: “At the core is the idea that our embrace of technological innovation cannot come at the sacrifice of generational knowledge and ancient wisdom. Our humanity needs to be celebrated, and technology should play a supporting role”. These ideas are represented in both concrete musical ideas (whirling vocoders, ring modulators, synthesizers and electronic programming on acoustic instruments) and overarching philosophies, as the group becomes a vehicle for exploring the nexus between composition and improvisation, tradition and future, constraint and freedom.
Bruce’s growth as a composer is immediately evident on Mystics. He explains: “The approach on this album is similar to the last; write music with specific people in mind and leave enough space in the music for them to stretch out and make it their own.” That development is ablaze in minute one, as Bruce launches into a guitar soliloquy full of crunchy overtones. He continues: “I’ve expanded the textural palette by adding trombone, vibraphone, and synthesizers and group members are doubling on more instruments like bass clarinet and melodica. It really provided a ridiculous amount of timbral variation to work with, and I’m very excited about how it turned out.” The wide range of textures give the soundscape a cinematic feel, complemented by its returning grooves – distinctive, forceful and persuasive.
The title track “Time to Mind the Mystics” is, in Bruce’s words, “the opening celebration of modern life on earth, including technological achievements. It represents the harmony and excitement that can be achieved if we maintain a respect for our humanity as we continue to discover amazing new things.” The song employs ring modulators, distortion and multiple synthesizers to accentuate this concept as improvisation succumbs to the power of Bruce’s fiery, urgent grooves.
“Blueprint” is a twinkling reflection on life that embraces all of its beauty and pain. “The bass and left-hand of the piano represent the dissonances that are under the surface but eventually take over and become an integral part of the overall experience.” On a personal note, Bruce adds “I’ve had several friends, and my wife, tell me while we are hanging out around campfires that I need to learn more three chord songs. This is my three-chord song. It just stretches the rules a little”.
“Insignificance (A Love Song)” expresses the joy to be found from realizing our tiny part in this universe. Dan explains, “This thought keeps me very grounded and reminds me not to take myself too seriously.” It’s an essay in acoustic sounds, opening with bright acoustic guitar, fizzing along and buoyed by shuffling percussion that gives it a Latin flavor.
Narrative plays a significant part in the way Bruce dreams up his compositions: “Slant” is set in a future controlled by technology; there, a human longs for deeper connections with fellow humans, tired of maintaining a façade. They are being counseled by a computer algorithm (Chris Coles on vocoder) on how to be more sincere and genuine. Lyrics like “you can know what you can feel to be underneath it all…and what is left to hide” depict a human looking for meaning.
“The Walk” is tied together by a story, too, as Bruce explains. “During a time of some medical issues I was going to physical therapy every week that involved dry needling. When I left the appointment, I could hardly walk. Soon I realized that the pain also kept me more in the moment than usual, so I began taking long walks immediately after my therapy each week. Around that time, I read an article claiming that people relate most to music that matches the speed of their stride. This piece is based on my gait, which at the time had some hiccups in it. This is also the soundtrack for my wonderful, painful, mindful walks.”
“You vs. You” is quirkier; band members switch roles, the horn makes up the groove, and melodica, vibraphone and guitar direct the emotional energy of the piece. It’s also borne of Bruce’s personal experience: ”I am an obsessive overthinker and often make things much more complicated than needed. It’s about learning to get out of my own road.”
The album concludes with the searching grooves of “Not Knowing” (“the state where we are most available to deeply listen to others”) and “Moth/Flame Blues”, an off-kilter blues that conveys Bruce’s cautious optimism for the future: “I think as a society we can get beyond the things that pull us apart and work towards the greater good. Hopefully…” Bruce’s creation melds personal experience with sterling improvisation – a combination that brings winning results.
Street Date: October 20th, 2017
“Earthshine”, released on ears&eyes Records, is performed and presented by innovative Chicago-based guitarist Dan Bruce's beta collective. This ensemble exhibits the versatility, creativity and prowess of some of Chicago’s finest improvisers on today’s jazz scene. With Russ Johnson on trumpet, Chris Madsen on tenor saxophone, Rob Clearfield on piano/fender rhodes, Clark Sommers on bass and Jon Deitemyer on drums, the beguiling Dan Bruce is excited to present this project which highlights the relationship between order and chaos, and the importance of truly accepting both in one moment.
With the thematic focus of order and chaos at the forefront, Bruce explains that “Earthshine” showcases the “significance of entwining deftly composed music with free improvisation, while constantly incorporating expansive and driving grooves.” As the term “earthshine” refers to the glow caused by sunlight reflected off the earth, Bruce explains that, for him, looking up at the moon once a day is an easy way to remember his place and to stay grounded and in the moment. The bandleader makes a conscious effort to know his surroundings and point his creative compass in the right direction. However, he also has a particularly strong ability to accept chaos, or rather moments of improvisation, when they happen and when they work.
“So when I am fortunate to make music with people on the level of this group, I can just tell myself ‘look up and remember you are not in control’.”
From the outset the title track invokes the feeling, which Bruce refers to as a spiritual experience, of standing alone in a vast open landscape. “I’ve been lucky to experience a number of breathtaking places on Earth, whether in Scandinavia, the Mediterranean, Africa, Canada, or the American West. Standing in these places I am always deeply impacted by the dual feelings of insignificance and joyous gratitude.” In the piece, meandering melodic phrases overlap into each other, masking cadences and creating a feeling of searching and longing. This builds and eventually culminates in a meditative rhythmic vamp with traces of Arabic traditional music.
“Ice no.2” is dedicated to the artwork of Gerhard Richter. His series of four paintings titled Ice is in the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago. Bruce explains, “When I first sat in the room with these paintings I was brought to tears. Richter uses layers and motion in the paintings to give us glimpses of vibrant colors coming through the top layer of stillness and cold. For me, the pairing of the nylon string guitar and Fender Rhodes achieves a similar effect. The two instruments have very different timbres, but go together beautifully.” Bruce’s guitar sets the tone in this piece with a repeated rhythmic motive, and Clearfield’s casual melody line breaks through that texture.
Not every piece has such a profound back-story. “Sofa” is a haunting track that invokes a trance-like, semi-conscious, lethargic state of being and is dedicated to a wonderful couch that Dan and his wife once owned.
Dan’s debut album as a leader, “A Single Thread” was released to critical acclaim in 2007, with Martin Gladu of All About Jazz noting that the album “…combines his learned guitar work, which is at times reminiscent of Ben Monder, with substantive yet airy, contemporary sounding compositions.” Ten years later, this highly-anticipated new project, with the help of a melting pot of musicians, opens an exciting new chapter in Bruce’s career as a writer and guitarist. Dan assembled this particular ensemble knowing that each member would bring the risk, immediacy and spontaneity that was crucial to “Earthshine”’s core hallmark. Throughout the composition, arrangement and recording of “Earthshine”, Bruce made a conscious decision to approach the project as a composer first and guitarist second. The pieces are written to utilize the various textures available within the sextet instrumentation, and a number of the pieces were written to highlight specific group members. Although listeners will hear a good deal of his guitar playing on the album, the overall sound as a group is of paramount importance to Bruce. His principal goal as a composer is to “get out of his own way, take himself out of the driver’s seat and see what happens”. With this compositional approach and the incredible lineup, “Earthshine” achieves a staggering range of texture and impressive variety of orchestration, while maintaining a steady and relatable lyricism throughout.
for Time to Mind the Mystics
"In Eastern philosophical systems, time isn’t linear as we think of it in the West. It’s an endlessly looping circle. Musicians can appreciate this concept better than most of us, on and off the bandstand." Read the article here.
DEE DEE MCNEIL
"..Dan Bruce has discovered a happy balance in both his concept (humanity and technology) and his modern jazz music." Read the complete review here.
"Dan’s jazz guitar on this brilliant October 2017 release is in exploratory mode, no doubt… he and his players (Russ Johnson: trumpet; Chris Madsen: tenor saxophone; Rob Clearfield: piano, Fender Rhodes; Clark Sommers: bass; Jon Deitemyer: drums) pull out all the stops to entertain your ears." Read the full feature here.
"Bruce smartly eschews overcomplicated procedures on Earthshine. He rather plays slick and tight, punching out inviting textures with an irresistible flexibility." Read the full review here.
ALL ABOUT JAZZ
"It's not just the tight rapport and strong solos that give this album its distinctive flavor. Bruce's willingness to open up the music in unexpected ways allows "Major_Chord" to transition from bouncy swing to an unstructured section in which Madsen and Johnson can engage in a free exchange of ideas, before the rest of the band re-enters and Bruce spurs the two to even greater heights with some gritty interjections of his own." Read the full 4 star review here.
ALL ABOUT JAZZ
"Earthshine is a unique offering that can be savored with patience and special attention just as well as in the background. To craft this versatility in such homogeneous context is a rare art, that Dan Bruce has clearly mastered." Read the full 4.5 star review here.
“The consistently amazing chops on display will dazzle any adventurous ear.” Read the full feature here.
"This is a group that can both dial it down and ramp it up, though such shifts in dynamics never happen abruptly or awkwardly. Throughout this fine recording, the beta collective functions as a smoothly operating unit that adjusts itself according to the music's demands." Check out the full review here.