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CD Feature/ Jim McAuley: "The Ultimate Frog"

img  Tobias

You read an interview with Jim McAuley and it feels as though a nostalgic slide projector were being turned on inside your head: There's images of McAuley as a session musician with Pat Boone and as part of Frank Sinatra's classic return-to-form-record „Ol’ Blue Eyes is Back“. There's pictures of him sitting on the floor of a small but sunflooded Parisian appartment in the 1960s, accompanying French actor Marcel Marceau on Classical Guitar. And there's slides showing him in the concentrated pose of a student, high on Bach and getting to grips with counterpoint. You fast forward. Scheduled projects have failed. Record companies have gone bust. An entire decade has passed uneventfully. In some stores, his music is now filed away under „Black Metal“. One time, he drives around town, cranking up the radio trying to figure out who the hell produced this familiar-sounding classical Guitar sound on a Perry Como tune. He is confused to find out it is himself.

The 90s arrive. So does the internet. There is renewed activity. He enrolls at CalArts and finds new mentors. Photographs are now mostly depicting him in the cantine discussing new music over coffee. These are good times, inspiring times. Something is budding, waiting to be released. It will take another fifteen years. His debut album „Gongfamer 18“ is finally published almost at the age of 60. It is an album not all too many speak about but those whose who do speak about it speak about it in reverence. Shortly after, there are sessions with Violinist Leroy Jenkins and Bassist Ken Filiano. Suddenly, there is money for an entire project revolving around duets. McAuley records more pieces with Alex Cline (Percussion) and Nels Cline (Guitar) and hopes the album will come out in Fall of 2005. A year passes, then another. The material has grown to a staggering pile of music. Even after sorting his way through it, almost two hours remain. Some of it consists of free-form jams, some of guided improvisations, others of composed work. „I’m interested in finding different ways to communicate my intention to the performers, in exploiting the idiomatic qualities of their instruments“, he says.  Responses are positive. There is a label, there is a street date, promos are sent out and here it is.

The projector ends, you close your eyes and turn on the music. There's an upbeat and then another note, harbingers of a pattern. The tempo quickens, steadies, pulsates. Jenkins carefully joins in, claiming melodic territory as McAuley's lines grow textural and impressionist before disploding into Jazz colours and, ultimately, on-a-dime pickings and pointedly percussive use of his instrument's entire body. Jenkins follows and leads, teases and tauts, coaxes and confronts, strings resonating in warm harmony or rising to disturbing heights. There is a period of intense mutual attraction and then of antimagnetic electricity, retreat and solitary ways. The finale, however, is quiet and exhausted yet deeply satisfied, both performers slowly coming closer to one another again and fading out into the ether as friends. It is an emotional roller coaster ride, a stunning opening rocking its audience to the left and to the right, up and down and hence and forth. It is nothing you'd expected and quite a lot of what you hoped for, but it is all of this at once and it is proving hard to digest and then you realise that you can not sit there and expect the magic to just happen.

To understand why you need to go back again. There's an old silde of „Gongfarmer 18“ and it helps you to remember why this multifaceted album moved you so immediately back then: It was fresh, it sounded urgent, it was the night and the day at the same time. It was Jazz, Avantgarde and completely its own and it was the most beautiful that a paradox had ever looked to you. Importantly, too, it was the outcome of a solo setup, its pervasive and particular mood resulting from a twisted timbral coherency. On „The Ultimate Frog“, however, the already wide stylistic reach of McAuley collides and merges with four equally eclectic artistic galaxies and, moreover, equally differentiated idiosyncratic sounds: Jenkins tone has a bittersweet twang to it, hiding and embellishing nothing and establishing friction surfaces for McAuley's more discreet signature. Nels Cline, on the contrary, is a completely congenial partner, their collaborations rubick's cube-like riddles for anyone trying to determine who's playing what. On the tracks with Filiano, the record takes on the traits of a slightly more traditional Jazz-oeuvre, even though their explorations of melody, interaction and modes of improvisation take them to the very borders of what that genre nominally encompasses.

Partnering up with Alex Cline, meanwhile, opens up gateways into entirely different dimensions, building bridges to Psychedelic Rock or pure Sound Art: On the enigmatic music-made-haiku „November Night“, Cline fills the canvas of what could be a small Buddhist temple with the exactly placed and reverb-drenched metallic resonances of ancient bells, while Mcauley first fills the spaces between them with tentative Guitar motives only to grow bolder and later use them as island-like interstations to cross an ocean of finely nuanced overtones and rich bass sonorities.

So yes, it may take time and a couple of spins to adjust to „The Ultimate Frog“'s wild mood swings. But isn't that's what truly rewarding albums are always like: An oscillation between delight and confusion, a glorious struggle, an alluring invitation to hard yet worthwhile work? And lest this should lead you to wrong conclusions, don't fear: All of this has nothing to do with the album being 'difficult' or intellectual. „McAuley’s is not 'private' music in the sense of being cryptic or abstract“, after all, as Nate Dorward rightly observes in the liner notes. It is, in fact, exactly the other way round: Because it is so emotional and because it, as he has always set out to do, bypasses the brain to aim straight at the heart, this music reaches your senses unfiltered.

And we're not used to that. We're used to distance. We're used to metaphors. We're used to artists trying to keep up their cool. Effectively, we're used to pre-sliced presentation and the safety that lies in knowing that, ultimately, it's „only music“. This is where this album is different. It embodies the plethora of episodes Mcauley has passed through on the journey of his life like a diary, like temporarily confused but minutely placed chapters of a biography which gradually falls into place. And then you realise: The slide projector has never stopped rolling, its wealth of nostalgic images slowly seaguing into a sonic continuum, whose timbral contrasts are merging into a unified corona of spectrally broken sound. And it feels like coming home.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Drip Audio Records

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