Thursday, March 19, 2020

CD Review: Thollem/Parker/Cline - Gowanus Sessions II & Radical Empathy Trio - Reality and Other Imaginary Places

Gowanus Sessions II

Radical Empathy Trio
Reality and Other Imaginary Places

Part of free improvisation's appeal (for those who dig it) arguably comes from the immediacy of a performance. Whether it explodes without inhibitions or sits in its place slowly and comes to life, the music is alive and sprouting up before your ears. That also explains why seeing a live performance can offer sensory experiences can sometimes be missed when listening to a recording, where other distractions get in the way of the listening experience.

Gowanus Sessions II finds the trio of Thollem McDonas (piano), William Parker (bass) and Nels Cline (guitar/effects) creating two spontaneous tracks, each clocking in just under 19 minutes, which in some ways is a relatively short time span for this kind of music. McDonas has appeared on ESP in several settings, including the Radical Empathy Trio (more on them below) and the excellent Live In Our Time, an equally free session with drummer Tim DuRoche and the late bassist Andre Stjames.

Like other ESP artists such as Alan Sondheim, McDonas isn't exactly a jazz improviser but that's no slag against his musical mind. "Life In the World" opens with some inquisitive piano chords while the bass moves on the outer edges and Cline's guitar unleashes sounds that go beyond the neck's highest register. Some free sessions tend to capture a group's sound without any production filters, but there are moments in the track - when either the bass or the frame of the piano are struck percussively - where an echo resonates. It sounds like a post-production move and it adds to the music, giving the whole thing some extra depth and making it feel more like a piece than three musicians playing in a room. Coupled with a moment towards the end, where McDonas immediately follows Cline's string scratch with a piano crash, it gives "Life In the World" a unified sound.

"World In a Life," the second track, moves with heavier force, compared to the subdued previous track. Tremolo piano keys combine with bowed bass while guitar scratches and feedback ease in behind them. Parker and Cline really complement each other, making it hard to say who's really distorted. Cline also sounds as if he barely touches his fretboard for the first nine minutes, relying on controlled feedback and effects. Things are loose but not so loose that the musicians get lost in their own world.

Gowanus Sessions II was actually recorded in 2012, along with Sessions I which was released by Porter Records that same year. Radical Empathy Trio's Reality and Other Imaginary Places came out earlier (last October) but it comes from 2017 during McDonas' residency at Brooklyn's multi-discipline locale Pioneer Works. This time, he and Cline join forces with drummer Michael Wimberly (who has played with Charles Gayle and Steve Coleman & Five Elements).

Again, they play two 18-minute tracks (ideal for the vinyl format) and freedom is key. But McDonas doesn't stick to acoustic piano exclusively. "Collective Tunnels" features electronic keyboards that evoke noises straight out of a horror movie in the first half, while Cline adds some metal wails on top. The whole thing reaches a fevered pitch right around nine minutes, and once again, roles aren't always clear: Sometimes it's hard to tell Cline from McDonas, until things reveal themselves by the end of track.

"Conscious Tunnels" begins with acoustic piano, single notes in the right hand and chordal patterns in the left. When McDonas gets electric again, the trio sounds like Stereolab playing "In a Silent Way," if just for a moment. Wimberly works himself into the discussion tastefully, never succumbing to free freakouts but working all over his kit when it feels best. The track closes with something that might seem unthinkable on either of these albums: McDonas' keyboard plays a fragment of a melody while Cline adds a shell of a chord change underneath. In other words, they close with a riff! This final touch gives an element of surprise that reevaluates all that preceded it. Adventurous ears will be piqued for a second examination.

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