Dan McCarthy: A Place Where We Once Lived

Friedrich Kunzmann BY

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Dan McCarthy: A Place Where We Once Lived
In light of Dan McCarthy's stunning new effort, the vibraphonist's last two outings, Abstract City (Origin Records, 2019) and Epoch (Origin Records, 2019), can be regarded as statements of intent. Both more than noteworthy musical offerings at opposite ends of the jazz spectrum (discussed on All About Jazz here ), the two albums give followers a good idea of Dan McCarthy's flawless craftsmanship and wide range. On A Place Where We Once Lived the Canadian vibraphonist combines the lyrical melodic approach and wide-open broken structures of Epoch with Abstract City's mainstream appeal. Brought to the hands of veteran sidemen bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Rudy Royston, who coincidentally also work as Bill Frisell's latest rhythm section, the result is a display of grand artistic vision and musical excellence. Dan McCarthy's catchy compositions sound like modern day standards, recalling the timeless sophistication of Gary Burton on the one hand and the Americana-infused harmony of Pat Metheny on the other.

For an instrument of such hazy sonic characteristics, McCarthy's vibraphone sounds surprisingly grounded and impressively serene within the trio interplay here. There's no question that Burton, the instrument's modern vanguard, has left a mark on McCarthy's technical approach. And like Burton, compositionally the leader largely borrows from Steve Swallow—the prolific and unique bassist who joined McCarthy on his chamber jazz effort Epoch and whom the vibraphonist pays homage to in the second half of these proceedings.

McCarthy's backers are in exceptional form throughout and crucial for the music's animated vibrancy. Royston is a nimble drummer and proves livelier and more nuanced than ever— outperforming even his stellar contribution to Bill Frisell's last trio effort, Valentine (Blue Note, 2020). He finds a firm cohort in Morgan, whose characteristic bass plucking acts as both melodic leader and accompanying backbone, in alternating fashion and steady accordance to the need. At the end, the trio's playing amounts to much more than the sum of its parts.

The album's intricate appeal lies within the sensitive way the three musicians interact with and react to each other, not necessarily in compositional complexity. On the contrary, McCarthy's scores rest on rather minimal harmonic foundations and melodic hooks which please rather than provoke the mind. In several sequences across this set, the trio lingers on a harmonic pendulum, swaying back and forth between a two-chord vamp that is gracefully embellished by the respective soloists. "Trail Marker," "Cloud Hopping" and "Desert Roads" are examples that feature such instances, but the suspenseful compositions also offer so much more.

Grounded in a firm bass line, recalling stylistic traits of Dave Holland, "Trail Marker" reveals a mesmerizing process of percussive layering and dynamic development which leads into a tranquil double bass rumination, remarkably accompanied by Royston and McCarthy alike. McCarthy's own solos are modest, and discreetly assume their leading role in the effortless way bird wings caress air or Dolphins break waves—both impressions which come to mind within "Cloud Hopping"'s dreamscape. The song's seemingly obvious head is not one that will be easily forgotten, and the tasteful vibraphone solo that follows even less so. McCarthy manoeuvres through the changes in consonance with the composition's title—apparently skipping from cloud to cloud without leaving any tracks, except for the euphoric echo that lingers until the next moment of brilliance replaces it.

Three intermezzos, each a short story of its own, are spread across the record, playing a similar role to that of recitatives in operas—connecting bits of the album with a strong focus on narrative. The first, "A Short Story About Birds," is enveloped by a mystic fog through which bass and vibraphone pierce with slow unison lines. "A Short Story About Distance," on the other hand, manifests a rhythmical exercise, based on a slowly ascending pattern counted in four. Royston's plain drum beat —a dry assemblage of sparse bass drum, snare and closed hi-hat hits—proves the second story's main drive. On the third and last brief cut, "A Short Story About Quiet," the drums retract to a stirring wall of cymbals, joined by pulsating bass and vibraphone notes. Blissful exhibitions of sonic elaboration in their own right, these segments tie together the more expansive pieces of the album to a round whole, and serve the specific context surrounding them.

For example, "A Short Story About Quiet" is preceded by the introspectively brooding "Somber Sleep." It is a quietly adventurous number which relies on the improvisational strength of McCarthy's sidemen to navigate through waves of fragile rubato which tend to elegantly stumble through the changes instead of straightforwardly leading into the next harmonic situation. Royston and Morgan easily live up to the task. In this context, the succeeding short story works as an epilogue to or extension of sleep. In the same way, the follow-up "Go Beserk" operates as the consequent wake up call. Royston again deserves special mention for his impeccable chops which lean towards the more physical side of the spectrum this time around.

But all the remarkable drumming and technically impeccable basslines in the world would be for nothing if they were not given fertile ground in which to blossom. McCarthy's compositions are that fertile ground, and are certainly an impetus for his partners' exceptional performances. Cool elaborations in the vein of "Sonder" or the title track highlight the record's translucid production values while simultaneously shining a light on the trio's patient stride and humble attentiveness to each other. In contrast, "Desert Road" is a concentrated essay in the folkier variety of jazz, accumulating the occasional inkling of Americana throughout the record to a straight-out celebration of its kind. The fact that Steve Swallow's "I'm your Pal" almost seamlessly joins the set list, on a par with its compositional surrounding, speaks volumes and attests to McCarthy's grand achievement.

After the last vibraphone strokes of the melancholic closer "Goodnight Sweet Cat" have concluded on the dominant chord, nothing else needs to be said. The tonic is obvious, and returning to it would prove redundant. In the same way, it feels redundant to state how accomplished this record is. After one spin, it is evident.

Track Listing

Sonder; Trail Marker; A Short Story About Birds; Cloud Hopping; A Place Where We Once Lived; A Short Story About Distance; Desert Roads; I'm Your Pal; Sombre Sleep; A Short Story About Quiet; Go Beserk; Goodnight Sweet Cat.


Dan McCarthy: vibraphone; Rudy Royston: drums; Thomas Morgan: bass, acoustic.

Album information

Title: A Place Where We Once Lived | Year Released: 2021 | Record Label: Self Produced

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