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Kent Kessler - Bull Fiddle

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Artist: Kent Kessler

Album: Bull Fiddle

Label: Okkadisk

Review date: Apr. 2, 2003

Stepping Into the Spotlight

Any improv who hasn’t been under a rock for the last decade knows Kent Kessler’s sound. You may not have focused too much on his playing, which is your loss, but Kessler drives the acoustic machine that is the Vandermark Five, in addition to innumerable projects coming out of the busy Chicago improvised music scene, from Hal Russell’s NRG Ensemble all the way to the Brötzmann Tentet. A powerful player, Kessler isn’t pushy, showy, or excessive; he’s the improv version of what Mike Watt calls a boilerman, a guy who sweats and muscles but isn’t averse to either the lyrical or the experimental. So it’s not really a surprise that Kessler's first solo disc has been so long in coming; still, it’s a more than welcome arrival.

The names of the tracks – “Monon Line,” “Out of Iowa,” or “Central Wisconsin Double Wide” – testify to Kessler’s Midwestern upbringing and also to his time logged in tour vehicles of various sorts. But his playing gives the impression of a sound and a concept that is sturdy and steadfast amid all the motion. The ragged “Spillway” demonstrates the intensity of Kessler’s arco technique. He uses "Spillway" and many of the album’s other miniatures (the moaning talking-bass of “Word Edgewise,” for example), to explore one particular area of his extended technique. “Central Wisconsin Double Wide,” which features over ten minutes of bowed overtones and slashing chords (and which also appears on the previous Okkadisk album A Meeting in Chicago), is the only longer track where Kessler explores extended techniques so singlemindedly.

Many of the rich plucked statements on the album recall the passion of Fred Hopkins. The woody lower register of “Sugar Creek” is wonderful, while on the closing “Pikesville Girl,” where Kessler's playing is slow and intimate. The loveliest of these sad, folksy pieces is “Out of Iowa.”

Also, Michael Zerang plays dumbek on three stellar tracks: the high-speed “Batum Schrag” (where Kessler’s mad arco constructs parallels to Zerang's rhythmic momentum), the sparse and mournful “Waddy Peytona,” and “Gilman Chatsworth.”

Set alongside the solo recordings of Barry Guy, Peter Kowald, or William Parker, Kessler’s voice emerges very distinctly; his playing is often more idiomatic and lyrical than some of those folks, but the highly personal nature of these pieces will win over most every listener.

By Jason Bivins

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