Jim McAuley - "Nika's Love Ballad" (The Ultimate Frog)
During the opening passages of “Improvisation #2,” as guitarist Jim McAuley’s flinty arpeggios coil around the distinctive arco shapes conjured up by the late, lamented violinist Leroy Jenkins, there’s an enigmatic hint of vernacular music. It’s not that they’re playfully referencing it, with ironic distance. Nor is it the case that the music is especially preoccupied with genre, even on pieces like “Improvisation #6,” which have plenty of slide guitar and fiddle. Rather, this is music that – as Fred Frith once wrote of Hans Reichel’s music – seems to belong unquestionably to a specific tradition, but one that’s not known to anyone but the players.
McAuley’s story, and his relation to tradition, is quite fascinating in this regard. A Kansan who moved to L.A. after his folk rock band Mouse got signed, McAuley retreated into solo woodshedding after the band got dropped. As he intensely pursued his own traditions of guitar improvisation, his playing caught the ear of John Fahey, who signed McAuley to Takoma records, a relationship that lasted only until Chrysalis bought up Takoma and cut loose much of the roster, including McAuley. After a European sojourn, McAuley’s eventual return to L.A. found him even more committed to improvisation. Known to fellow and former Angelinos – like fellow guitarist Nels Cline, percussionist Alex Cline, and bassist Ken Filiano, McAuley’s other partners on this two-disc array of (mostly) duets – McAuley has until recently been completely unknown even to improv freaks with the greatest subcultural knowledge. Aside from a stunning guitar trio set (with Cline and the senselessly murdered Rod Poole) on Incus and the wondrous solo record Gongfarmer, McAuley hasn’t enjoyed any documentation of his music. This is a damn shame, for while there are several hundred American improvisers out there who toil in similar obscurity, McAuley’s music is just too good to be so rarely heard. So hats off to violinist Jesse Zubot for putting The Ultimate Frog out on Drip Audio.
You can hear how wonderful a player McAuley is by studying “nika’s Love Ballad,” for example, and hear how he oh-so-subtly modulates the sound of his playing by shifting attack and articulation, producing tones that are sharp and spiky here, lustrous and resounding elsewhere. Cline fits right in with McAuley here, as he did on the trio session with Poole, and the two play incantations that seem to summon entire realms populated by nothing but overtones. There’s something so compelling about McAuley’s voice on his acoustic guitars, though, the way he so seamlessly combines an open – at times quite stirring – emotionalism, from sheer melody to melancholy that gives you pause, along with a wide range of tough, fractious, percussive techniques of the sort loved by Bailey devotees and other acolytes of insectoid sound (and which Jenkins inspires him to explore at length). These qualities – too often tediously cited as opposites – are simply part of McAuley’s personality, the reflective and the agitated existing naturally alongside each other, as do the joy, frustration, serenity, and anger heard elsewhere. They are also natural extensions of his honest fascination with his instrument, the sonic possibilities of wood and wire.
In this, McAuley has chosen his partners really wisely, their creations nicely paced across these discs. His 12-string playing in the forest of Alex Cline’s bells, gongs, and cymbals is riveting. The percussionist deftly matches McAuley’s intensity on “Huddie’s Bluff,” making sweet verse from thuds, slashes, and declamations. And the two get down with some sheer swaggering riffage on “Five’ll Get Ya’ Ten.” Filiano is an exceptionally vigorous and responsive bassist, with a lovely and colorful tone that enriches pieces like “Escape Tones” and the slightly spacey “A Ditty for NC.” Nels Cline’s and McAuley’s shared love of guitarists like Ralph Towner and Egberto Gismonti really comes across on “Il Porcellino,” with some deft use of detuning, and their pieces really make me hungry for an album of duos. And as I’ve noted throughout, those pieces with Jenkins are just electrifying (I’d be remiss not to mention the killer buzz and drone of “Improvisation #10”). But it’s McAuley I keep focusing on, almost without pause – not just for the creativity, the technique, or the tone, but for the authentic emotional power of his music, that grabs me from the start. And it grabs me at the finish too, on an absolutely stunning solo piece for Rod Poole. Recorded at McAuley’s home and the only non-duo here, you can hear the sound of rain as he plays, elegiac, resolute, and deeply moving.