Bill McBirnie’s “Reflections (For Paul Horn)”

Bill McBirnie’s prodigious flute playing talents are apparent from the first song and title track of his new release Reflections (For Paul Horn). “Reflections” has a predominantly laid-back vibe befitting his chosen instrument, but McBirnie mixes in some uptempo physicality into the arrangement that broadens the track’s diversity. No one can hear this eight-song collection and accuse it of being one-note. “Reflections” encapsulates this with this varied texture, and McBirnie’s production brings it to such vivid life we hear the breathing required for the piece.

Those sorts of production details may sound minor on the surface. They contribute, however, immeasurably to each of the album’s eight compositions. “Wind & Sky” is sparser than the title track while embracing much of the same mood. The pauses between individual passages are far larger than what the title track offers. There’s an overall pensive demeanor pervading the piece. The aforementioned breathing captured by the production has a noticeable effect here, as elsewhere, providing a vocal dimension to the performance that it would otherwise lack.

“Masada Sunrise” is another highly evocative piece. Spiritual concerns were never far from the surface of many Paul Horn mid-career tracks and beyond. McBirnie pursues the same ends, albeit in his own distinctive fashion, and the moody ambiance of “Masada Sunrise” is one of his key pieces in that vein. It’s one of the album’s briefest tracks, ending a little before the three-minute mark, and it distinguishes itself thanks to its initial swell of energy gradually ebbing into a warm, meditative glow.

“Kitten & Moth”, on the other hand, rates as the album’s longest recording. Clocking in at a little over four minutes long, “Kitten & Moth” accumulates activity as it continues. It starts off, however, as a tentative, even scattershot, performance before McBirnie’s improvisational aims clarify themselves near the song’s midway point. “Awakening” and “Monk’s Strut”, the sixth and seventh tracks respectively, are far and away the busiest tunes on the release. “Awakening” sparkles with a crisp sense of renewal, and its exploratory bent ranks among the best examples of McBirnie’s improvisational gifts in full bloom.

The bright slant he brings to this track transforms into a surprising attitude and physicality with the second to last track “Monk’s Strut”. The flute isn’t an instrument you’d associate with those two attributes. However, McBirnie is an obvious dyed in the wool believer that any limitations the flute labors under are self-imposed. He foregoes the New Age-y influences prevalent in earlier tracks in favor of jazz-inflected flair, and it’s quite successful.

Bill McBirnie’s “tribute” to longtime flute, saxophone, and bandleader Paul Horn far outstrips similar well-intentioned efforts. A big reason why is because McBirnie never succumbs to slavish imitation. His personality and ideas emerge from each of the album’s eight tracks while still invoking Horn’s revolutionary spirit and irrepressible creativity. It is another glittering example of how McBirnie expands the possibilities of the instrument rather than relying on time-tested tropes, and well worth the time and effort it demands from listeners.

Chadwick Easton


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