When Dan Padley played at the Iowa City Farmer’s Market a few weeks ago, I was impressed (as always) by the liquid elegance of his playing on the jazz standard “All the things you are.” I’m sure there was effort expended, but he played effortlessly, pulling different sounds from his guitar not with pedals or electronic tricks, but with just the touch of his fingers.
Ecotones, released in January, combines Padley’s casual virtuosity with the keyboard and synthesizer of Jarrett Purdy. Ecotones takes its cues stylistically from the ambient music pioneered by Brian Eno and others. But songs like “Snowfall” cleave to more conventional jazz songwriting and performance.
If your idea of jazz is middle aged guys nodding sagely to the piano player’s tricky eleventh chords, this is something different. “Snowfall” is a delicate, sophisticated composition that invites everyone in. It has some of the satisfying, approachable sonorities of folk harmonies with some tonal changes that surprise the ear without being jarring.
“Petrichor” is just as warm but contains more electronic sounds, centered on an atonality combined with a shuffling, stuttery noise. It’s as experimental as the noisy experimentation of Fennesz, but like “Snowfall” and other tracks, there’s something familiar and harmonically satisfying for the listener to latch onto.
(It’s also all too brief. On first listen, I thought it was a one-minute vignette; its 3:09 seems fleeting.)
The liner notes say that the music is inspired by “the nature of Iowa,” but there’s nothing as on the nose as the sounds of cicadas or the wind. These echo the natural world, but are made by Padley and Purdy’s fingers.
They’re both players of assured technical skill, but there are no feats of instrumental skill for their own sake. They use those thousands of hours of practice so they don’t have to think about playing; they’re listening and reacting in real time to each other, in service of the mood they want to create.
The rubato arpeggiation of “Cloud” seems to capture the movement and stillness of clouds in the sky, the show that’s always playing in Iowa if you just look up. Since these are jazz guys, the song has surprising, deceptive cadences piled on top of each other, like a nimbus cloud climbing into the atmosphere. What makes this album special is how much the more conventional tracks like this fit so well with the more electronic, ambient pieces. They use different sonic palettes to express the same ideas differently.
It’s fitting this was recorded at Flat Black Studio, in the middle of farmland, surrounded by trees. Inspiration is all around there, literally. It’s easy to imagine Padley and Purdy taking a break outside from a session, and the sound of the wind in the trees sounds so perfectly in sync with what they’re trying to play that they have to laugh.
The warm, welcoming sound of Ecotones invokes the natural world not by literal imitation, but in the way nature supports and sustains us.
This article was originally published in Little Village’s August 2022 issues.