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Friday, August 13, 2021

Guitar: Trios (part 1): Uncited, unsupported, and just gut feeling

A few weeks ago I wrote about several duo recordings featuring the guitar. Guitar and guitar, guitar and bass, guitar and flute, and several other combos. Now, I am moving into trio configurations and the definition of what makes this list gets even trickier. At first, I thought my basic approach is that the guitarist is the group's organizer, but soon realized that doesn't quite fit as I'll be presenting at least two instances where a drummer leads the trio. Sometimes, it is hard to even say who is the leader. I will instead go with the definition that the trio must be comprised of at least 1/3 guitar. This is part one of three to post over the coming weeks.

Desertion Trio -  Number Maker (Cuneiform, 2021) ****

When I began doing my 'research' for Philadelphia based - rooted, rather - guitarist Nick Millevoi's new Desertion Trio album Number Maker, I realized that somehow I had completely missed a release between 2017's Midtown Tilt  and this 2021 release from Cuneiform records. A click on the track 'Taboo' from the Bandcamp page for 2019's Twilight Time revealed a great Morricone influenced track mixing Millevoi's pitch perfect guitar work with vocalese and atmosphere to spare. I noticed that another Pennsylvanian, Ron Stabinsky, contributes piano. Fantastic stuff, but this review is not about that album, it's about this one, Numbers Maker.

Desertion Trio is, in addition to Millevoi, the New Yorkers Johnny DeBlase on bass and Jason Nazary on drums. Numbers Makers was recorded purely as a trio without additional contributors and recorded live in the studio with an audience, suffice to say that some real mid-Atlantic attitude exudes from these tracks. The album sound is more stripped back and a bit crunchier than the others. What we get is some pretty exciting, pure power trio music. The opener 'Albion' kicks things off with, well, a real kick. Then 'Powers' comes along and adds some swagger. It lurches along with a purposeful drag, while Millevoi pushes the tempo, adding tension with a searing solo. Later in the album there seems to be a reworking of 'Taboo' as well. Without the vocals and a little more roughed up, the western sounds are still there, but rawer. At some point, Millevoi seems to hit a fork in trail during his solo and decides to go both directions at once -- guitar effects adding seeming to add more than just color to his crackling lines.

Numbers Makers shows Desertion Trio's collective firepower, and it's
 great. A fantastic addition to the power trio canon  ... or perhaps cannon!

Tim Stine Trio - Fresh Demons (Astral Spirits, 2020) ****

I'm late, late, late on reviewing this one and, as always, feeling regretful about it. Tim Stein, guitarist from Chicago, releases this album in early 2020, and it has been on my mind, and in my ears, for quite awhile now. Maybe that is just what happens with some of best - they become a treasure that you subconsciously just don't really want to share. That's not good practice, as Stine's trio with Chicago based stalwarts Anton Hatwich on upright bass and Frank Rosaly on drums just hits all of the right spots for a trio based around the sound of the acoustic guitar.

The acoustic guitar is an important point, for me at least, on this album. I've may have made this assertation before -- also uncited, unsupported, and just gut feeling -- that the pluck of an acoustic guitar string carries something more than a simple note. There is an emotion behind the physical striking of the string, whether by fleshy finger or plastic pick, that conveys. In these set of knotty tunes, Stine's playing, both in quick single notes runs, and messy tonal clusters, carries such a feeling that extends to the others as well. The opening, title track features interactions between the three musicians that also seem to have a root in the unspoken connection of people and their instruments. The second track '882233', which may refer to a zip code, or the HTML color 'Shiraz' or something else entirely, begins with a syncopated and slightly off-kilter melody from Stine over an shifting groove from Hatwich and Rosaly. The track 'VVVValley' also shines. Following the uneven 'walking' bass intro, the natural dynamics of the group propel the song along, Stine delivering extended and dynamic twisting and turning passages until the track's final decrescendo. 

There are many more acoustically captivating gems in the rest of the tracks - like the quicksilver runs connecting the spacious lead lines in 'Watched Trains' and the serious, dark bass and percussion intro to the closing tune 'FADS,' which if you haven't already discovered, you are encouraged to do so!

Jakob Bro - Uma Elmo (ECM, 2021) ****

Danish guitarist traffics in the sublime. Back in 2015, reviewing his album Gefion, I wrote that it "begins like rowboat trip across a shimmering clear lake of sound." 2021's Uma Elmo begins like the parting of morning mists over that same lake. Arve Henriksen's piccolo trumpet and Bro's arpeggios work together, parting the moist atmospheric wisps. However, there is later a mounting tension, accentuated by Jorge Rossy's gentle but insistent drumming and the increasingly distorted guitar. The beauty of the song is revealed through this juxtaposition of feelings.

The follow up 'To Stanko' is, of course, dedicated to the late trumpeter Tomasz Stanko with whom Bro played on 2009's Dark Eyes (also ECM). The track starts with a gentle drum intro and into an undulating finger picked figure. Henricksen's trumpet playing is somewhat subdued, but sharp, and his melody weaves through the guitar latticework like a vine. Elements of Eastern European folk figures pop up like small flowering buds, then quietly fade away. 'Beautiful Day' shows a different side of the guitarist's work, while Bro is still using purposefully plucked notes, there is an underlying tension built through effects,  while Henricksen's brass works a more abstract melody with big intervallic jumps.  'Sound Flower' on the other hand trends towards bittersweet beauty. After a signature build up of sound, Henricksen plays sweeping arcs that resolve into a tender melody, while Bro lifts the trumpeter's lines with swells of chords, and a quiet blubber of electronics.

The songs on Uma Elmo (which is apparently named after Bro's two young children's middle names) are pulled from different points of his musical life. Some compositions, like 'Beautiful Day' which was composed in 1998 or 'Sound Flower', which is similar old, stand up just as strongly as the melancholic and newly composed 'Morning Song', a testament to good compositions as well as Bro's choice of bandmates to help interpret his ideas. A lovely, evocative album.

Wolfgang Muthspiel - Angular Blues (ECM, 2020) ****

We may as well stay in ECM-land for the moment, as Austrian guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel's Angular Blues from 2020 is a fitting companion to Bro (musically as well as label-based). Whereas Bro uses carefully curated air to suspend his delicate compositions, Muthspiel uses denser elements, like busier basslines and fuller melodies, however, there is a similar mindfulness flowing through both guitarists work.

Angular Blues begins with 'Wondering' and right away a kinetic bassline is front and center, establishing the mid-tempo energy of the piece. Muthspiel's acoustic guitar work builds off of a mix of quick runs and chordal fragments. The mood is upbeat and the guitarist kicks over the attention to bassist Scott Colley. The trio is rounded out by drummer Brian Blade, whose strong but unobtrusive drumming adds a definite punch to the energy. The title track is one that sticks. After repeated listens to the album, it has become the 'hit' to my ears, as I find myself mentally scatting along with the melody. The acoustic guitar sound is key, it's wholesome, bright, and - yeah, this is a cheesy word - pure. The sound itself compliments the energetic bass solo and the titillating drum fills, and characterizes the catchy arpeggios that serve as both harmonic and melodic components. 'Huettengriff' is a slow moving tune, full of gravitas, while 'Camino' introduces the electric guitar to the album. The tone becomes a bit sharper and incisive on this slice of  mid-tempo modern jazz. 'Ride,' the following track, is a tasty, uptempo slice.  Overall, Angular Blues is  an inviting, enjoyable, and accessible guitar led trio album. Muthspiel's delicate, precise playing is well served by his A-team colleagues and ECM's crystal clear recording.

John Zorn - Teresa De Ávila (Tzadic, 2021) ****½

Saxophonist and composer John Zorn's Teresa De Ávila is the third in a triology of compositions based on figures from Christian myths, preceded by Nove Cantici per Francesco d’Assis and Virtue (for Julian of Norwich). Listening to the recording, it is not clear how much these figures imbue the work, as what we hear could easily be regarded as a gorgeous collection of songs, performed on acoustic guitar, that borrow elements of classical, Klezmer, bluegrass, jazz and the ever ambiguous Americana, performed by a trio of masterful guitarists: Bill Frisell, Gyan Riley, and Julian Lage.

Zorn's unbelievably prolific output is dotted with such albums, Masada Guitars with Marc Ribot, Bill Frisell, and Tim Sparks was a collection of beautiful solo guitar renditions of tunes from the Masada book, 2017's Midsummer Moons with Lage and Riley, and of course the others in this trilogy: 2018's Virtue and 2019's Nove Cantici Per Francesco D’Assisi. I suspect that there are more that I just am not aware of as well. What all of these share, besides the impeccable technical expertise of the musicians, is a delicate sense of the strengths of the instrument.

The album begins with the track 'Devotion', which seems apt in terms of St. Teresa who was characterized by her dedication to a purer and aesthetic religious devotion (she was critical figure in church reform in the fifteen hundreds). The song begins on a hopeful note, a major chord and a melody that has a folk-like simplicity, as well as surprising depth. The structure of the song is very much tied to the chord progression. Though there are bluegrass elements to the guitar lines and note choices, the chords move in a more classical manner. The allure of the song is apparent from the start, and its openness still contains a shroud of mystery. The next track, 'El Castillo Interior,' is named after St. Teresa's book of spiritual guidance, in which she saw the soul as a diamond (it's more complex than that, but I deal in the simple). The essence of the metaphor is captured in the slowly developing song - imagine holding a diamond in your hands, turning the sides, inspecting the cuts, the angles, the flaws, the resilient beauty. Now hear the crystalline melodic lines forming such cut shapes. The track 'Teresa' begins reflective and inward looking, however it picks up with a rhythmic chordal vamp, over which a very modern sounding melody is overlaid. 'El Camino,' the title of another of St. Teresa's books, seems to actually have a bit of  bluegrass feel to it, but with a streak of something darker through it.

Absolutely absorbing music that grows deeper on each listen.