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A 2-CD set of Martial Solal International Jazz Piano Competition (Paris, 1989) finalist Tom Lawton's provocative compositions for duo, trio, quartet and quintet, plus solo piano versions of two jazz classics. "One of the more unjustly overlooked releases of 2005." (-Cadence)


Personnel: Tom Lawton, piano; Ben Schachter, saxophones; John Swana, trumpet; Lee Smith, bass; Jim Miller, drums.
Disc One: "Dig the Chartreuse" / "FCA" / "Grey Matter Doesn't" / "Waxing Schachterian" / "Donna Lee" / "Chrysocolla" / "Celestial Prism" / "The Norman D Invasion"
Disc Two: "Placebo Effect" / "Titled" / "JuJu" / "Cameo" / "Delusions of Adequacy" / "Island" / "Archetypal Archives"

What the critics say:

"Philadelphia pianist Tom Lawton has been piling up the pieces on 'Retrospective/Debut' for a while...as well as honing a formidably two-handed approach to the piano that slips easily between mainstream and more outside styles. Recorded over three days, this double-CD set is almost too much music to handle, packed full of ambitious, unconventional charts and committed playing. Even when the music is in a mainstream Jazz idiom, Lawtonís interest in the long form ensures itís never business-as-usual: these are some of the most elaborate heads on record since Mingus wrote 'Sueís Changes.' These structures demand a lot of the musicians, and of the listener too...though repeated listening helps make things clearer. Lawton has assembled an excellent band to perform his music (of whom only trumpeter John Swana is especially well-known): they handle its fearsome complexities with impressive ease. Swanaís big moments mostly come on the first disc, notably the trumpet/piano duet 'Grey Matter Doesnít;' on the second disc saxophonist Ben Schachter gets more of a spotlight on, and there are also two tracks for just piano and rhythm. But itís Lawton himself who consistently grabs the attention across both discs, even when heís just comping. Often he sounds merely like an admirable but conventional lyrical pianist in an Evans/Hancock vein, or a proficient Hard Bopper, but even on these occasions he smuggles in more adventurous stuff: listen, for instance, to his borrowings from Andrew Hill and Cecil Taylor on 'Waxing Schachterian.' But my favorite pieces here are those where heís at his most mercurial, inside and outside all at once: above all, the two solo pieces, a whirlwind reading of 'Donna Lee' and an extraordinary ten-minute meditation on Wayne Shorterís 'JuJu:' the pair as different yet complementary as lightning-bolt and thunder. (An all-solo disc by Lawton would be a real treat.) Three pieces include sections of free improvising, which offer some of the most dramatic and surprising music on the album. The piano/drums duet 'Celestial Prism' is delicacy itself; the other two pieces, 'The Norman D Invasion' (with guest clarinettist Norman David) and 'Archetypal Archives' are quintet performances that gradually let go of written material and take off into anything-can-happen open space. Lawton speaks in the liner notes of 'spontaneous orchestration,' and he likes to set the music spinning off in a new direction with his every gesture; this is perhaps his most significant debt to Taylor. Despite its polished surface and its general adherence to mainstream Jazz idioms, 'Retrospective/ Debut' is as exploratory as any of the other discs under review. In some ways itís the most demanding of these albums, requiring a listener whoís willing to work with it a bit; it also richly repays the effort."
- Cadence

"Lawton's works are puckish and Monklike, and often skirt the boundaries of mainstream. These takes are surprisingly free, often coasting without the usual chordal forms and featuring choice horn work from trumpeter John Swana, saxophonist Ben Schachter, and clarinetist Norman David.
Drummer Jim Miller...and bassist Lee Smith, father of bass virtuoso Christian McBride, provide the locomotion for this challenging, questing session, which huffs, splatters and confounds expectations."
- Philadelphia Inquirer


"When people talk about jazz meccas in the US..., rarely does Philadelphia come up, which is surprising as there have been a number of great artists to emerge from that city including Pat Martino, Uri Caine and Mickey Roker. With a vibrant scene that includes such outstanding players as pianist Jim Ridl, trumpeter John Swana..., the Dreambox Media label has been devoted to bringing news from the Philadelphia front to a larger audience. With 'retrospective/debut' pianist Tom Lawton, educator and fixture on that scene, finally comes forward with a recording that combines the angularity of Thelonious Monk with a modern compositional edge that avoids the standard 'head-solo-head' format, instead aiming for loftier territory.
With over two hours of compositions dating as early as '74 and as recent as '03, Lawton runs the gamut from straightforward ballad ('Titled') to edgy, irregular-metered intensity ('Placebo Effect'). Breaking the programme up by interspersing solo, duo, trio, quartet and quintet tracks, Lawton writes often-intriguing compositions that can be deceptive. 'Dig the Chartreuse' moves along with a tenor/trumpet frontline that recalls Blakey's Jazz Messengers with a hard-swinging, but ultimately less in-your-face approach; 'FCA' alternates between a straight-time, medium-tempo lope and more ambitious double-time passages. 'The Norman D Invasion' uses a boppish head to trigger freer improvisations; The free improvisations he refers to are not totally out of the ether; they are rooted in established melodic, rhythmic or even textural motifs...The result is free music with a sense of purpose.
This would all be academic stuff if Lawton weren't the pianist that he is. Quirky at times, but with the sense of abstraction that Hancock made so attractive during his time with Miles; he is an inventive soloist with a vivid imagination. On 'Celestial Prism,' in duet with drummer Jim Miller, who is as much about colour and texture as he is about rhythm, Lawton reveals his roots in contemporary classical music as he creates a tone poem that may be essentially spontaneous, but ultimately tells a compelling story.
The rest of the album is filled with clever themes that are developed by the rich playing of everyone involved. Trumpeter John Swana is a standout with a smoky tone and penchant for extended phrasing. Saxophonist Ben Schachter leans towards alternating blustery long tones with oblique phrases that build into flurries of notes.
'retrospective/debut' is an appropriate title as it represents a look back on Lawton's twenty-five year career. A diverse affair that mixes post bop with free jazz that leans to the expressionistic, it is also an overdue introduction to Lawton, and highlights a group of fine Philadelphia players who are every bit as vital and independent-thinking as their counterparts in more considered jazz centres."
- allaboutjazz.com

"Having written too much excellent material to be contained within a single CD of 60 minutes or so, Retrospective/Debut covers some of Lawton's compositions from 20 years ago, as well as his more recent works written for its release. One suspects that even more of Lawton's works remain unrecorded, for the variety of the tracks imply that the CDs contain just a small portion of the products of Lawton's imagination. Performing in shifting configurations, Lawton has fashioned some of his compositions for quintet, such as the astounding 'Archetypal Archives,' which creates the occasion for free-flowing improvisations after bassist Lee Smith's commanding introduction. On other tracks, Lawton may play solo as on his tour de force of 'Donna Lee'; in duo with trumpeter John Swana on 'Grey Doesn't Matter' or with drummer Jim Miller on 'Celestial Prism'; in piano trio on the ruminative 'Island'; or with his quartet on 'FCA,' which features Ben Schachter's engaging changes of mood on soprano sax throughout the course of the tune.
Lawton appears to compose by using a mental concept or visual image as the basis for expression, the inexhaustibility of concepts being the reason for the startling variations of sound between tracks; not one of the 15 tracks is similar to another. In fact, at the end of the first disk, the listener may think that everything that Lawton has to say musically has been said. The listener would be wrong. As if to prove the point, Lawton starts the second disk with the strongly accented vamp of 'Placebo Effect,' seemingly at odds with the overriding time signature. And this is the first time we've heard such a martial feel, even after hearing the first eight tracks on the first disk. Another exploration in free improvisation occurs on 'The Norman D Invasion,' which recalls some of (Don) Byron's work on clarinet, and which introduces to non-Philadelphia jazz enthusiasts the featured soloist, clarinet player Norman David.
The many delights of Retrospective/Debut abound, too plentiful for the short space of this review. But Tom Lawton's work on the CDs remains superbly performed, full of complex textures, exciting solos and imminent discoveries."
- jazzreview.com

...an arresting, artful piece with classical overtones..."
- The Metro



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