Since his studies with Jaki Byard at the New England Conservatory of Music (graduating in 1980) and Alan Broadbent in Los Angeles, keyboardist David Witham has earned a reputation an artful accompanist, creative composer, and superior sound painter -- and musicians, at least, have taken note. To say nothing of his position as George Benson's musical director since 1990, his versatile talents have been called upon by Lee Ritenour, Eddie Harris, Charles McPherson, and Michael and Randy Brecker. Witham appears with saxman Ernie Watts, bassist Jay Anderson, and violinist (and Cryptogramophone label-owner) Jeff Gauthier's Goatette. And yet, with all these associations, it seems like Witham has had little "spotlight time" for himself. ("Too busy" is certainly an acceptable answer.) His latest album Spinning the Circle, however, will hopefully keep his name on our lips.
Circle's eclectic sonic makeup includes shades of world music, jam-band, contemporary classical and, of course, jazz. And all the while, Witham's contributions aren't merely technical displays but aural soundscapes and unique –- and widely varied -- compositional worlds. "The Neon"'s trippy breakbeat, courtesy of Scott Amendola, skitters through an eerie wash of keyboard effects with reedman Jon Crosse and Goatette guitarist Nels Cline soaring on top. "N.O. Rising," on the other hand, is a calmly paced New Orleans second line groove with a leisurely, uplifting piano feature. Pedal steel nonpareil Greg Leisz gives some twanging, lyrical statements following Crosse's warm, pure soprano solo. We hear the darker side of the ensemble on bassist Jay Anderson's "Momentuum," with some collective improv and Witham's accordion creating some demonic new dimensions. And if you've ever seen him perform with the Goatette, you won't be caught off guard by the spontaneous yet well-constructed atmosphere that opens "Afrobeat." The warbly tones and abstract pointillism give way to a vampy dance beat and a wonderfully spacious, nocturnal Rhodes solo.
Of course, he's just as expressive in more conventional territory like the stately trio ballad "Who Knows." His harmonic colors are in glorious contrast on "Light and Life," alternately shadowed and shining with a sensitive three-way rhythm section conversation. The most infectious number here might be "The Circle," which initially struck me as a Latin-influenced cousin of "The Night Has a Thousand Eyes." His relaxed solo is a beautiful foil against Amendola's and Luis Conte's precise percussion textures.
Albums like Spinning the Circle (and there can't be that many) rightly thwart the expectations of listeners who need to understand an artist within the first few tunes. Records with depth and breadth like this one require and reward complete and multiple listenings. Witham is omnivorous, genuine, and committed to the musical search. He certainly has chops, but even more importantly, he's a purveyor of moods –- ambience uber alles. And it's an approach like this that makes Circle an album to keep returning to.
Spinning the Circle (Cryptogramophone)
David Witham (piano, keyboards, accordion, effects)
Jon Crosse (soprano sax, tenor sax, clarinet, bass clarinet, trumpet, alto flute)
Nels Cline (guitar)
Greg Leisz (pedal steel, lap steel)
Jay Anderson (bass)
Scott Amendola (drums)
Luis Conte (percussion)
Check out the beautiful Crypto website for more tunes from the album. You can also find a review round-up and two-part interview at DownBeast, the new home for Cryptoblogging.
Witham is also the host and producer of "Portable Universe," a Long Beach Community Television showcase for creative performers. And, apparently, an outlet for his obsession with neon. (I didn't even know there was such a thing as "neon art!")
[Photo by Jeff Gauthier]