The Midwestern all-star quintet Precarious Towers featuring Sharel Cassity, Johannes Wallmann, Mitchell Shiner, John Christensen and Devin Drobka releases its collective debut today.
The group that began as a brainchild of Johannes Wallmann steps into new collective compositional territory on Ten Stories with each member contributing new works.
Ten Stories is the second album by Precarious Towers, a Midwestern all-star quintet first forged during the pandemic. Alto saxophonist/flutist Sharel Cassity hails from Chicago; vibraphonist Mitchell Shiner and drummer Devin Drobka are based in Milwaukee; and bassist John Christensen and pianist Johannes Wallmann are from Madison, WI. The new album is out now.
Cassity has been named as “Rising Star Alto Saxophone” in Downbeat Magazine for the past 12 years. She has appeared on the Today Show, Good Morning America, The Colbert Show, is in the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame, and is a recipient of the ASCAP Young Jazz Composers Award. She has worked with Multi-Grammy Award-winning artist Jennifer Hudson; Top 40 hit singer-songwriter Natalie Merchant, Aretha Franklin, Vanessa Williams, Trisha Yearwood, Ruben Blades, & DJ Logic, as well as NEA Jazz Masters Herbie Hancock, Wynton Marsalis, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Jimmy Heath, and Christian McBride. Pianist Johannes Wallmann has recorded ten critically acclaimed albums as a leader. His 2021 Shifting Paradigm release, Elegy for an Undiscovered Species was named a “Best of 2021” album by DownBeat magazine. Shiner, Christensen and Drobka are all accomplished bandleaders in their own right, rounding out this powerhouse band.
The group’s first gigs were Wallmann’s brainchild, conceived in 2020, early in the Covid shutdown, when the quintet’s otherwise highly in-demand players suddenly found their schedules emptied and were looking for a new project. The creative synergy of those early performances immediately made everyone in the band want to play together more, and soon, Precarious Towers found itself in the studio, recording its eponymous first album (Shifting Paradigm, SP175), under Wallmann’s name as leader, featuring the pianist’s compositions.
With everyone in the band an experienced composer, though, the other members also started bringing their compositions to the band, and talk soon turned to recording a collaborative follow-up album, featuring everyone’s writing. Sharel Cassity describes the group dynamic, “We each bring a unique voice to the group that complements the others, and everyone is really intuitive to where the music is going and what is needed.” A project thus turned into a band, and in January 2023, Precarious Towers assembled in Cassity’s home studio to record Ten Stories, an anthology of tunes contributed by every band member.
Just as the band is greater than the sum of its accomplished parts, each piece of Ten Stories tells a unique, self-contained story. But together, they form the band’s metaphorical towers. Throughout the session, the band plays with joyful abandon, and while these towers may appear to briefly wobble under the band’s fearless musical risk-taking, they are anchored solidly in a foundation of joy, collaboration, and friendship.
The album opens with Cassity’s “Journeyer,” which she composed during a stretch of heavy touring. Structured around its 5/4 groove bass line, the piece evokes a feeling of not quite belonging to a place or time, events and places blurring together, the only constant being either in the air or in-between. The melody starts in the lower register and soars into altissimo, while the rhythm section maintains an unrelenting groove throughout, punctuated by suspenseful pauses — the waiting that is an unavoidable part of travel, no matter the occasion — culminating in a fiery drum solo.
The second story is Wallmann’s “Same River, Once,” a quirky, angular melody doubled by piano and vibes set over a hypnotic bass vamp and Drobka’s buoyant drum groove. Wallmann was inspired to write this piece immediately after his experiences recording the first album with Precarious Towers. “I wanted to write something that has a catchy groove at its core along with some harmonic grit, but that would also leave lots of space for improvisation. Everyone in this band is such a creative improviser that no piece ever sounds the same twice. So Heraclitus’s quote that ‘you can’t step in the same river twice’ was programmatic to this piece but also to the whole album.”
Next up is “Hutcherspired,” in which Shiner reworks master vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson’s 1975 composition “Montara,” expanding the short eight-chord riff of the original into a lengthy and varied harmonic cycle. Slower and more meditative than its source material, “Hutcherspired” begins with Shiner’s unaccompanied vibes, which are soon joined by Drobka’s cymbals. Christensen plays the opening melody statement on the bass. After the rest of the band enters, a once slow burn is fanned by the a spirited vibraphone solo, and soon erupts into an infernal saxophone solo, while the chant-like melody continues to be ever present.
The album continues with Wallmann’s gospel-tinged “Nice Day.” “I brought this piece to the band, hoping that it would be a good closing piece for our live sets. The first time we played it, Mitch and Sharel started trading solos, and everyone just went ‘Yeah! That’s IT!” says Wallmann. “The title refers to the experience of playing with this group, because for me, every time I get to play with this group is a nice day, and I hope it is for our audiences, as well.”
“Purpley” is an older composition that found new life when Christensen brought it to Precarious Towers. “It has a film noir feeling,” explains the bassist. “I wanted a melody that felt like it had some long-lost lyrics to it that put someone in a mood, even though it is an instrumental.” Drobka’s “Non-non” is a tune inspired by the drummer’s recent practice in Soto Zen Buddhism: “It’s not complicated at all, and I prefer to not tell people too many ideas about it and let them use their faculties in the moment to make the musical decisions. Each time it is played it is surprisingly different,” as can be heard on its reprise, the outro and final story of the album.
Cassity’s “Tone Poem” follows; it is a tranquil piece written on a recurring 8+6 vamp that sets the tone as a drone or sound mantra and features Cassity on the flute. This piece was written while Cassity was walking through the desert of Doha, Qatar, in complete darkness, over sand dunes, and looking at a full moon and starry night sky. A sense of isolation and longing permeates this piece, but not without a drive to forge ahead. The bass line remains prominent, allowing the flute and vibes to improvise over the palate set by the rhythm section. The vibes improvise over the final melody before the piece softly fades into the ethos.
“Vega” is Christensen’s shout-out to Carl Sagan’s classic sci-fi book Contact. He says, “The fabled journey to Vega was an ancient, but well-worn road that many intergalactic species made. I love that idea.” Shiner’s “Whistle in the Wind” was composed in December 2014, on what would have been his father’s 54th birthday. Two motifs develop through the composition: a fluttering six-note melodic gesture during the A sections is juxtaposed with a blustery five-over-six rhythmic figure and sideslipping harmony in the B section. The piece is dedicated to those who have lost a loved one far too soon.
Ten Stories is another tremendous outing from this fine quintet. As All About Jazz said of the first album, ”the group dynamic is near perfection.” Now that Precarious Towers has assembled as a collective, this is likely to be just the beginning of many more albums to come.