Hill Spell

by Northing

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Samples 04:19 video
Enough 06:11
Hill Spell 05:55
Nap Jam 05:09
Pageant 06:00
Walk Walk 03:59


Northing is a Minnesota-based chamber ensemble that plays composed and improvised music. Formed in 2017, the quintet takes its name from the cartographic term for progress northward. Each of the composer/improviser ensemble members returned to their upper-midwest home after studying music in different ends of the country. The minimal instrumentation -- two saxophones, two trombones, and drums -- creates colorful sounds that oscillate between wind quartet and brass band. The ensemble members are: Aaron Hedenstrom - alto saxophone, Mara Syman - alto saxophone, Nick Syman - trombone, Josh Becker - bass trombone, and Pete James Johnson - drums.

Writing chamber music for such an unconventional quintet began with a lot of questions. What do two alto saxophones and two trombones sound like without a full rhythm section? Could they sound like a choir? Should they? Maybe evoke a big band? What sounds could be discovered by adjusting individual performer’s playing-to-resting and reading-to-improvising ratios? In what ways could each instrument become melodic or supportive?

The exploration of questions like these is the foundation of the compositions. A few examples. A bass trombone can’t do the job of a double bass for long, but it does propel the feel forward with playful intensity. In this specific web of overlapping horn ranges, voicing a trombone above the altos surprises with crystalline colors that easily fall apart. Drums can morph from support to melody and back again, and that demands equal and opposite reaction in the structure of horn lines. Composed horn lines constrain an improviser less than they would in a large ensemble.

As the group uncovered and internalized these moments, the joy of making this music became its own momentum. Improvisational structures with fewer comping restrictions, along with reduced instrumental range and color, summoned a deeper focus on sound and an expansion of textural palettes. There is a tension in crafting music in a space that feels simultaneously freeing and challenging. But it’s the joy of proposing solutions that Northing hopes listeners will hear.

Our first album, Hill Spell, is equal parts a presentation of working answers to our initial questions and a celebration of finding them.


released May 31, 2019

Aaron Hedenstrom – alto saxophone
Mara Syman – alto saxophone
Nick Syman – trombone
Josh Becker – bass trombone
Pete James Johnson – drums


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Shifting Paradigm Records Minneapolis, Minnesota

Twin Cities based collective label for modern jazz, instrumental, and improvised music

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