Gowanus Sessions II
ESP 5038


Radical Empathy

Relative Pitch RPR 1041

Final sequences in a trio project involving guitarist Nels Cline and keyboardist Thollem McDonas that has spanned the decade and four record labels, Gowanus Sessions II and Radical Empathy could almost be entitled The Two Sides of Thollem.

For the peripatetic McDonas, who has played with everyone from Michael Snow to Gino Robair during years of seemingly never-ending gigging in North America and Europe, sticks to the acoustic piano on Gowanus Sessions II, but shows up with an audio laboratory’s worth of electronics and keyboards on Radical Empathy. Cline, known for his membership in Wilco, but a long-time sound explorer with the likes of Vinny Golia, sticks to guitar and effects on both discs. The agility needed to intersect in an acoustic or electronic session also necessitates adding two different third partners. Veteran drummer Michael Wimberly, who has worked with Louie Belogenis and Charles Gayle is on the electronic set, while bassist William Parker, who has played with almost every major improviser is on the acoustic date.

Made up of two extended improvisations, “Life in the World”, the first of the Cline-Thollem tracks, demonstrates the boundaries of McDonas’ piano playing which works its way from languid and lyrical to hurried, detours into pseudo honky-tonk and then hushed fades. Along the way Cline backs the delicate patterns with glancing strokes, only to erupt into fingering so swift it resembles glissandi when the exposition heats up. Parker’s walking bass line complements rhythmic keyboard runs, while spacey oscillations from the guitar dissolve along with piano strokes at the finale. Sul tasto bass string strokes, metronomic key patterns, inner-piano string shakes and distorted guitar flanges make “World in a Life” the converse of the first track. But while each trio member ups his dynamics and pressure, perception isn’t traded for unneeded power. In the penultimate seconds spiccato bass runs and guitar feedback give way to contemplative keyboard rubbing.

With Wimerly’s measured chronograph beats making sure the tracks don’t veer off-track, McDonas, with additional electronic input and Cline with guitar and effects have more scope to mutate textures on Radical Empathy’s 13 selections. But perversely the reduced running time of each selection means that these are often idea suggestions rather than thoroughly fleshed out stories. Still, there are many appealing sequences throughout. For instance “Thinkers Mix” comes across as a mash-up of Soul-Jazz and psychedelic organ combo riffs, with tremolo keyboard wavering and crying lead guitar work framing a section of distorted t guitar echoes and free-for-all drumming. Similarly “So to Seep” transforms from an introduction of throbbing electronic cacophony and guitar flange bursts to a horizontal narrative played on acoustic piano. Additionally “Howled Ground” inflates to gruff oscillations from the electronic keyboards and astringent guitar string jabs to an ending that reverses direction with dobro-like picking from Cline and singular note pressure from the pianist. At the same time these textural leaps and loops are balanced by more delicate iterations. Warm and expressive acoustic piano patterning characterizes “Pores", with the darkened sweeps complemented by metallic guitar plinks. Meanwhile “The Second Middle’ manages the feat of equating without schism pointed piano licks with upwards oscillating flanges from the guitarist.

On their own these discs expose the numerous parts of McDonas’ playing – not just two – and do the same for the other participants. Together the series of discs may not relate as closely as the keyboardist and guitarist initially envisioned. But they’re certainly worth investigating – singly or together.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Gowanus: 1. Life in the World 2. World in a Life

Personnel: Gowanus: Thollem McDonas (piano); Nels Cline (guitar and effects) and William Parker (bass)

Track Listing: Radical: 1. Radical Empathy 2. Rain Drips to 3. Rogue Thinkers 4. Pores 5. Thinkers Mix 6. Howled Ground 7. The Middle 8. So to Seep 9. Thought Pools 10. The Second Middle 11. To the Core 12. Pools up 13, Of Being

Personnel: Radical: Thollem McDonas (electric effected acoustic piano, analog outfitters AO44, modified electric piano and effects); Nels Cline (guitar and effects) and Michael Wimberly (drums)