Thollem McDonas / Michael Wimberly / Nels Cline: Radical Empathy

Dave Wayne By

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Radical Empathy is the second in a series of three musical encounters between keyboardist and musical instigator Thollem McDonas and multi-disciplinary guitar whiz Nels Cline. The first collaboration, titled simply The Gowanus Session (Porter Records, 2008), featured bassist William Parker and was notable for its resolute resistance to free jazz cliché. Uncannily, it found Cline, McDonas, and Parker, with virtually no advance preparation, on very much the same page. Instead of the expected improvisational pyrotechnics (though, with three virtuosos in the room, some of that was inevitable), the trio with Parker focused on the production of unusual timbres, overtones, slowly mutating repetitive structures, and unexpected juxtapositions of sound. The trio on Radical Empathy extends and augments the timbral experiments of The Gowanus Session while dealing with rhythms in a much more direct way. The result, at once familiar and alien, constitutes a startlingly fresh take on the free improv ethic.

Radical Empathy is more vertical than The Gowanus Session. Thirteen relatively brief tracks comprise the album. Some of these appear to be stand-alone pieces that began and ended with the tape machine rolling while others are extracts from longer performances. The temporary loss of Thollem's custom-built electric keyboard prior to the session turned out to be fortuitous, as the studio's somewhat haphazardly-tuned upright piano was pressed into service. Augmented with a host of hastily-rigged effects pedals, the treated acoustic piano has a reverb-drenched, subterranean sound which—by handcuffing Thollem's singularly well-honed technique—brings a host of other possibilities to the fore. On "Rain Drips To," the ever-versatile Cline responds to the weird aquatic-sounding piano with a dizzying variety of sounds; pinging harmonics, creepy volume swells, and harmonies that are both odd and crystalline.

Wimberly, best known for his work with Charles Gayle, might seem the odd man out but proves to be quite adept at finding interesting niches to occupy. On the title track, also the album's opener, he disrupts an organ / guitar drone with a succession of single stroke flurries, initiating a colorful, jazz-inflected trio-logue. Here, and on "Thinkers Mix," "Thought Pools" and "Pools Up," the combination of wailing unhinged B-3 organ, filthy hotrodding guitar, and hyperactive free-jazz drums is reminiscent of the original Tony Williams' Lifetime at its most outré. I was relieved to find that Fred Frith, in his brief and useful liner note, came to a similar conclusion. As it turns out, all such resemblances are merely coincidental. This group's unique vocabulary shines through in visceral glory on "To The Core," where guitar and drums dance around Thollem's slow-moving, bizarre-sounding treated acoustic like excited Rottweilers at dinnertime. Yet, the piece ends on a somber note with a succession of strange, knotty guitar and piano chords suspended in mid-air.

Radical Empathy, for all its warm bluster, has a good share of less dense, less hyperactive sound spaces. Wimberly, who also proves to be an unusually effective textural / atmospheric percussionist on "Rogue Thinkers" and "Of Being," lays out completely on a few tracks. Here, the music takes on a very different character. "Pores," a meditative guitar / piano duet, takes up some of the threads left hanging on The Gowanus Session, while "Howled Ground" is a slow-moving yet wide-ranging solo exploration of the electric piano and all of its attendant effects.

Known for his tireless nomadic global wanderings and expansive collaborations will all manner of artists and musicians, Thollem McDonas—with Michael Wimberly and Nels Cline—accomplishes something analogous on Radical Empathy. Here, he's travelling through worlds of sound, transcending and transgressing musical boundaries only to return to us the vast musical riches he's discovered.

Track Listing: Radical Empathy; Rain Drips To; Rogue Thinkers; Pores; Thinkers Mix; Howled Ground; The Middle; So To Sleep; Thought Pools; The Second Middle; To The Core; Pools Up; Of Being.

Personnel: Michael Wimberly: drums; Nels Cline: electric guitar, effects; Thollem McDonas: Electric effected acoustic piano, Analog Outfitters AO44, Modified electric piano, effects.

Title: Radical Empathy | Year Released: 2015 | Record Label: Relative Pitch Records


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