The Baliset, as Tom McMahon explains on the cover of his d'but recording, Small Talk
, is a unique eleven-string instrument that is played by tapping the strings against the frets. The large range of the Balisetover five octavesfills out the trio, as bass and treble parts are played simultaneously." Like artists including Charlie Hunter with his eight-string hybrid and Tony Levin with his Stick, McMahon's instrument requires a certain independence of thought, a certain pianistic approach that most string players don't have to consider. But consider it he does, and the result is an album that covers a diversity of approaches and is all the more remarkable for McMahon's facility on his instrument.
McMahon is joined on most tracks by violinist Sol Gunner and drummer Paul-André Lamarche. Gunner's roots are clearly in the tradition of Stephane Grappelli; in fact, the opening track, the lightly swinging "Balanceo," has some of the gypsy charm of the Quintet of the Hot Club of France, with Gunner's trills and ascending lines raising the temperature. Lamarche is a capable accompanist, ranging from the samba feel of "Summer's Dance" to the country tinge of "April 25, 2003."
But this is really McMahon's show. All the compositions are his, and they range from the gospel inflection of "Cox Creek" to the bossa of "Texada." McMahon's themes are memorable, especially on the brooding solo piece "Again" and "Far Away Friend," which closes the album with more than a slight nod to some of the classic ECM recordings of the '70s. McMahon's harmonic changes are often-times challenging, but he and Gunner navigate them with confidence and a strong lyrical sense.
The Baliset's tone is unmistakable, and its tapped nature lends it a unique texture that is curious yet appealing, with a full bottom end and a top end that, with its own electronics, can be processed subtly, as McMahon does on "Texada," where he makes it sound like an acoustic guitar. For the most part, though, McMahon lets the inherent, almost harp-like nature of the instrument shine through, especially on the tender and optimistic title track.
McMahon has been a fixture on the Ottawa, Canada music scene for fifteen years, garnering a reputation as a rock-solid yet inventive bassist and Baliset player. With Small Talk he ups the ante to reach a broader audience. As a composer and performer he manages to work within a more-or-less jazz context, but with tunes that reflect his work in a variety of genres over the years, Small Talk is an album that will appeal to more than just the traditional jazz fan; it will appeal to anyone who is interested in strongly melodic music that swings, lilts and grooves.
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Track Listing: Balanceo; Summer's Dance; Cox Creek; April 25, 2003; Nutoontu; Texada; Again; Small Talk; Sol's Swing; Far Away Friend
Personnel: Tom McMahon (Baliset), Sol Gunner (violin), Paul-Andr? Lamarche (drums)