Indianapolis-based alto sax player Amanda Gardier finds musical repetition calming, and she uses the technique quite often in her compositions. On her debut album Empathy (Green Mind Records), she experiments with drone-like harmonies, repeated riffs, and cyclical melodies—to deceptively soothing effect. As a listener, it’s easy to settle into the lustrous tones and elegant structures in her compositions, remaining only subliminally aware of the tension that runs throughout her music. But that would be to miss the thrill of it.

For instance, on “Fjord,” how ominously does Charlie Ballantine’s reverb-laden guitar and Chris Parker’s emphatic drumming push against Gardier’s melodious sax solo? On “Smoke,” how eerily beautiful is singer Mina Keohane’s low-in-the-mix humming over the sound of running water, preoccupied and disconnected from pianist Clay Wulbrecht minimalist comping? And how wildly does the quintet (which also includes bassist Jesse Whitman and tenor saxophonist Rob Dixon) rally on Björk’s musical abstraction, “Joga,” before disappearing into an outro of simple trading between the tenor and the alto sax? Like Björk, Gardier navigates skillfully between dark and light, strength and weakness.  

For Gardier, empathy is finding the middle ground between two contrary forces, whether in music, in politics, or within oneself. She shows how this might work on the title cut, which features the saxophonist’s disquieting lyrics (“What does he need?/Let it shatter/Let it splatter/It doesn’t matter”) and Keohane’s forceful indie rocker vocals. To the extent that there’s violence in the vocal line there’s restoration in the horn section: after a plaintive solo Gardier falls into a harmonic duet with Dixon in a slow Latin groove, playing the same comforting lick over and over, like an incantation. In this one short redemptive phrase lies Gardier’s point about the power of empathy. Here we are again, her music says. Let’s figure it out.

(Reprinted from the September 2018 issue of Downbeat)