During a LiveEye TV interview in 2018, while discussing his rationale and inspiration for choosing to live a steadfastly itinerant lifestyle—he’s been perpetually on the road for over a decade—Thollem asserts that “comfort and predictability are an illusion.” This aphorism, embodied through his peripatetic daily life, is evidently consummated in his music on this album.
Thollem is a 54-year-old pianist and keyboardist who has released over 60 albums since 2005. His compositional and improvisational talents have collaborated with a prolific lineup of artists, including William Parker, Pauline Oliveros, Nels Cline, Rob Mazurek, Michael Bisio, and many others. This recording—comprising separate sessions with Alex Cline and Susan Alcorn—is from a 25-album series titled Thollem’s Astral Travelling Sessions that includes 70 improvising musicians with whom Thollem recorded during his 2019 tours. As of this writing, about 10 albums have thus far been released, and the remainder will manifest periodically through October 2021.
The first track on this album is an impressive 40-minute performance of Thollem improvising on acoustic piano with drummer/composer Alex Cline, recorded live at the Santa Monica Library in the MLK, Jr. Auditorium as part of the Soundwaves Series run by Jeff Schwartz. The remaining five tracks on the album are Thollem performing on a Waldorf Blofold Synth with the composer and pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn, recorded at her home in Baltimore. The physical CD includes all of the above recordings, but the digital formats separate into one set with Susan Alcorn and another with Alex Cline.
Take heed: this is music that casts a spell. While listening, I'm transfixed—like a passenger being driven somewhere, resolutely moving forward, yet so captured by the intricate detail of the immediate scenery on each consecutive stretch of road that I strain to recall where I just came from, and am suddenly quite unsure where I’m going. This experience is especially true during the first track with Thollem and Cline. It sounds entirely improvised, yet this duet creates nimble transitions in style and tempo and dynamic with a synchronicity that belies their commitment to deep listening. At times cinematic with sweeping romantic gestures full of emotion, other times minimalist with bells and gongs inviting the sublime expression of a quiet temple meditation, and still other times driving hard rock rhythms that resolve into startling cannon-like explosions—this piece references then supersedes many musical genres with grace and virtuosity, a thrilling listening experience!
I’m no more familiar with “astral traveling” than the average novice meditator, but the vibe of a formless journey is definitely invoked on Thollem’s zero-gravity performances with Susan Alcorn, whose album Pedernal landed on quite a few “best of 2020 jazz” lists. In Brad Cohan’s 2018 article on Thollem for Bandcamp, Thollem states that “every instance is an opportunity to rediscover the human organization of sound, energy transfer, and personal dynamics.” On these five tracks, Alcorn and he can be heard seizing opportunities for rediscovery with zeal, the results being a mesmerizing wash of diverse electronic moods and textures. The artists’ sounds complement each other exquisitely, whether they be steely and industrial, or warmly floating and brooding, or a frenzied shattering, or a hushed lullaby. These are beguiling improvisations from artists shaping a sonic space full of drifting and diving—musical gestures that impart the listener with a buoyant sense of groundlessness.