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Monday, January 24, 2022

Chris Schlarb & Chad Taylor - Time No Changes (Big Ego/Astral Spirits, 2021) ****

Now I'll say it right up front, this isn't free jazz, more like free folk or some other well intentioned misnomer, but certainly not jazz. On Time No Change Chicago composer and skinsman Chad Taylor collaborates with guitarist, producer, and BIG EGO studio/label head Chris Schlarb who is best known as the leader of the band Psychic Temple. The label's description evokes the work of guitarist Sandy Bull and drummer Billy Higgins, namely their early 60's arrangements Blend and Blend II on Vanguard which found the pair freely meshing various styles and traditions within their longform improvisations. Schlarb plays 6-and-12-string guitars tuned to EEEEBE, a tuning that the liner notes mention was made famous by the likes of Steven Stills and Buffalo Springfield’s Bruce Palmer back in the heyday of the 60’s folk revival, which lends a tint of nostalgia to the arrangements. The duo further spice up the guitar/drums format with Taylor's beautiful mbira interludes and Schlarb’s easy washes of synth and organ drift, elevating their earthy sound into something very rich and nuanced.

On the album opener “Time No Changes 1 (Part One)” Schlarb plays in pastoral progressions. Effortlessly strummed chords and plucked arpeggios sharpen into more concise, assertive statements. Much of the ebb and flow is driven by Taylor, whose current influences Schlarbs tempo and intensity like a leaf floating the river. Nice and easy, with the last few minutes reserved for Taylor’s mbira poetry. The next track “Creedmoor” builds up from a nice riff, hypnotizing the listener as the synth wash fades in. Then Taylor drops the beat, and it’s a spot-on perfect accompaniment, I think in 4/4 but it doesn’t play out that simply. On “Time No Changes (Part Two)” the duo continue the skyward trajectory. Taylor is busy here, pushing the tempo and adding all sorts of little sounds to his rhythm. More acoustic shimmer and synth drift from Schlarb who is the endless skyway to Taylor’s golden valley before the piece folds up into another peaceful mbira interlude. On the next track “Mother and Child” Schlarb goes it alone on a pretty and tidy little number that's heavy on sentiment. Sometimes a little melody and a suggestive song title can take you places. The closer “Sassafras” is the perfect combination of folksy probing and understated polyrhythm that lingers for a fleeting moment before quickening to a gallop and disappearing over the horizon

I’m way late writing this review, as my peak listening period for this album was this past summer, particularly during a trip to Southern Tennessee in late June/early July. I bring this up because as I listen to it now, even in the midst of winter, memories of the almost overwhelming, towering greenness of Appalachian summer come streaming back. I recall listening to the album on a drive between Townsend and Knoxville, where the mimosa trees offered a gauzy color contrast to the Big Green, and the roadsides were heavy with coneflower, chicory, and Queen Anne’s lace all stirred by the breeze of passing traffic. I probably don’t need to note the overarching influence of Appalachian folk and hillbilly music on this album, but I will say that Sandy Bull was something of a minor enthusiast (sarcasm if you didn’t catch it). All in all it’s a very good, listenable album that was a nice change up to the heavy jazz fare that makes up my/our usual listening. I enjoyed getting acquainted with Schlarb’s work and learning more about his efforts and was again completely blown away on coming across yet another wrinkle in the incredible fabric of Chad Taylor’s talents. The OG’s have returned indeed.