Essential New Music: A.F. Jones’ “A Jurist For Nothing”

Anyone who’s served a tour of duty under the waves will tell you that the sound of inrushing water is not something to ignore. So that A.F. Jones—a retired submariner as well as a currently practicing guitarist, mastering engineer and field recordist—opens A Jurist For Nothing with first a trickle and then a gush of fluid suggests that he wants our attention. 

But what comes next is more of an invitation to ponder a multitude of circumstances than a demand to acknowledge a given point. Jones layers collected sounds as near as an opening door and as far as the next neighborhood’s traffic with low-key, high-tension strumming, and he gives each piece a title that’ll send you down a rabbit hole of reading and research. He wields sound like late filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky handled light and images; by luring you in with a richly textured surface and letting a scene patiently play out, he draws you into layer upon layer of meaning. 

On “Miserere Mei,” for example, some impossible-to-source sound draws you in, sharpening your attention for a sequence of jet-engine hums and arpeggiating guitars that melt and morph into a blurry choir, which recedes into a fade full of things you can’t quite grasp. You might listen a few times before starting to wonder what this piece of music has to do with Gregorio Allegri’s setting of the 51st Psalm, which shares its name. Dig a bit, and you’ll find that the Vatican treated that music like a trade secret for a couple hundred years before a teenaged Mozart transcribed it from memory and shared it around. Step back a bit, and you might wonder how that relates to the preceding piece, “Anna Politkovskaya,” which is named for a principled journalist whose diligent documentation of Russian human-rights abuses in Chechnya earned her brutal assassination in an elevator. Step back a bit more, and you see that the album ends with a burnt-bitter cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “Rake,” a story of cruel comeuppance. Whether you take in the big picture or zero in on the details, A Jurist For Nothing has more to offer you the next time you listen. 

—Bill Meyer

Essential New Music: Tatsuya Nakatani & Shane Parish’s “Interactivity”

The title of the second recording by Tatsuya Nakatani and Shane Parish goes right to the heart of their shared concept of how to improvise music. For both aesthetic and practical reasons, the two men are committed solo performers. So, when each of them plays with another person, there has to be a point. In this instance, it’s finding ways to make their current individual approaches work together.

Nakatani is a percussionist who spends a lot of time these days playing gongs, either alone or while conducting workshops and orchestras, but while collaborating with an acoustic guitarist, he sticks mostly to his drumkit. Nakatani, however, still doles out accommodation sparingly; within seconds, he can escalate from sparse scrapes across a cymbal to massive storm clouds of sound, which change shape and texture from moment to moment. Parish, on the other hand, has pursued a solo path that involves deep dives into American folk traditions, but he also puts food on the table by teaching musicians whatever they need to learn. His challenges in this setting involve not just finding a place within Nakatani’s potentially complete-in-themselves performances, but also the right material.

Interactivity, which was recorded live at Static Age Records in Parish’s hometown of Asheville N.C., is split into three lengthy tracks. Each section feels like a negotiation. Early on, Nakatani pushies for dynamic action and Parish counters with melodies and contained figures. Their interactions create an atomic illusion in which the guitarist is the nucleus and the percussionist spins the rest of the elements around him. But then Nakatani dispels that image by paring back his activity and volume so that Parish’s playing looms large. During another sequence, Parish juggles licks plucked from folk and classical bags, then accelerates his playing into a mad blur. The percussionist matches his energy level and density, but refrains from engaging with the guitarist’s proposed genres. Ultimately, they find common ground with sounds that suggest another illusion; Parish’s six strings are rain, and the percussionist’s heaving sound field is the landscape on which it falls.

Such moments of resolution are satisfying, but also fleeting. Soon one player or the other introduces an idea that renews the music’s instability and, with it, the possibility for renewed adventure.

—Bill Meyer

Essential New Music: The Necks’ “Three”

Numerology has never seemed that important to the Necks. But the title of the Australian instrumental combo’s latest album is a numerical key that unlocks several pertinent facts. There are three men in the band and three long tracks on the album. Advancing to division, the band has released 21 records, and 2020 is the band’s 33rd year of existence. 

Moving away from whole numbers, Three also reflects a series of unfolding dualities. One is the ongoing bifurcation of the Necks’ musical practice. Onstage, they’re a totally improvisational trio that grows each set-long piece from one musician’s opening gambit. Since these first moves often open into tunes and grooves, the music can fall easily on the ears of people who would rather tune out most free improvisation. But in the studio, other aspects of the manifold talents of Chris Abrahams, Lloyd Swanton and Tony Buck have come into play, and they’re key to Three’s enduring appeal. One is multi-instrumentalism; in addition to the primary colors of piano, bass and drums, the trio layers synthesizers, organ, electric guitar and a trunk-load of percussion over each 20-plus-minute track. 

The other is the Necks’ expanded sense of creative time; beyond their instincts for making something absorbing happen in the moment, the trio has a lot of good ideas about what to add to a performance. On “Bloom,” synth whorls and massed rattles accumulate like a storm head, building up and up over the cumulative mutation of an archetypal Abrahams piano motif. “Lovelock” develops more gradually, showcasing Buck’s knack for drawing out the sounds of cymbals and drumskins as well as his ability to make an electric guitar sound like a cross between a Sonic Youth coda and distant windchimes. The piano melody and bass groove on the final track, “Further,” express the yearning sway of a classic soul/jazz ballad. But even as Abrahams sketches out the tune’s implications, skirling guitar licks and churchy organ loom in the background, giving the music a three-dimensionality that’ll keep you coming back for more.  

—Bill Meyer

Essential New Music: Sir Richard Bishop’s “Oneiric Formulary”

Have you tried to reach a doctor lately? Not so easy, is it? There are good reasons why this is the case, and we should all take a moment to give thanks for the heroic efforts of the medical professionals who are on the front lines of the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic. But what do you do to deal with less urgent, but still troubling matters of the mind, body and spirit while you wait? Sir Richard Bishop is at your service with Oneiric Formulary.

Bishop may not be a doctor, but he’s been practicing diverse methods of sorcery since the 1980s, when he and the rest of Sun City Girls cast their first spells against the dulling pall of consensus reality. In more recent times, he’s traveled the world playing solo guitar, synthesizing the techniques of Django Reinhardt, Chet Atkins and Omar Khorshid into fleet instrumental expressions of visions beyond. Many of Bishop’s records are deep dives into a particular approach. His last effort for Drag City, 2015’s Tangier Sessions, explored one particular acoustic guitar’s potentialities, and fans of that record will find a lot to love on certain Oneiric Formulary pieces, particularly the wistful Roma reverie of “Black Sara” and the fleet, rustic strumming of “Enville.” 

But the album varies dramatically from track to track. Bishop has plenty of other instruments in his bag, and he handles them with practiced flexibility. Given Oneiric Formulary’s titular intent—to present a list of possible prescriptions for dreaming—you wouldn’t want to see a medic who only wields a saw, would you? “Call To Order” uses layers of digital synth voices to issue its call to stop and listen, and a host of electronic means conjure disturbing atmospheres on “Graveyard Wanderers.” Hurdy-gurdy and dumbek lead the charge into a distant, possibly a-historical past on “Dust Devils.” And “The Coming Of The Rats” layers sustained electric guitar and scrabbling effects over a down-tempo rhythm perfect for rolling the closing credits of some dystopian flick about the end times. Right about now, you might be wondering how Bishop foresaw the need to publish a comprehensive list of methods for cultivating fancy in April 2020, but that’s probably a trade secret available only to initiates. Yet to reap the benefits of his research, you need only kick back with Oneiric Formulary.

—Bill Meyer

Essential New Music: Jon Hassell’s “Vernal Equinox”

Maybe you first heard Jon Hassell on Talking Heads’ Remain In Light, Peter Gabriel’s Passion or the two records that he made in the early 1980s with a little help from Brian Eno. Wherever you first encountered him, you probably couldn’t quite tell was going on; there was precious little precedent for the soft-edged, alien sound he got out of his trumpet. While his first album, 1977’s Vernal Equinox, preceded those aforementioned efforts by several years, it had been out of print for three decades prior to this reissue on Hassell’s Ndeya label. Hearing it now, the origins of Hassel’s music are easier to perceive.

The juxtaposition of burping, distorted electric piano and electronically harmonized trumpet on “Hex” owes a lot to the music Miles Davis made between 1969 and 1974. The winding melodies that Hassel played over a droning synthesizer on “Blues Nile” transpose the forms of Hindustani vocal ragas to an electronic environment. And the bird calls and hand percussion that surround his keening lines on “Viva Shona” evoke the experience of being immersed in a rain forest. But unlike so much music made by Americans inspired by the music of other places, you don’t get the feeling that Hassell wanted to drop by and take something away. Rather, he was trying to realize a sound world in which these elements could be synthesized into something unto itself.  

—Bill Meyer