Essential New Music: Ava Mendoza’s “New Spells”

A title like New Spells immediately raises the question, what happened to the old ones? Ava Mendoza’s latest solo album suggests that while her old magic hasn’t lost its potency, her command of the electric guitar has progressed to the point where she needs some more powerful enchantments to cast. Two pieces are hers; the other three were devised by jazz musicians Devin Hoff, Trevor Dunn and John Dikeman. 

A veteran of the Bay Area and, now, Brooklyn music scenes, Mendoza has played jazz, punk, noise and old roots stylings, occasionally on her own, but quite often with a gallery of associates that includes Weasel Walter, Fred Frith, Malcolm Mooney, Carla Bozulich and William Parker. In any setting, she brings a knack for projecting abandon at the same time that she’s shoring up the music’s structure. Her tone is big and hard, but she maneuvers it with a speed and precision that betrays her youthful roots in classical guitar.

Patiently bruising opening track “Sun Gun” affirms that her playing still possesses all of these qualities. But Mendoza’s sound has grown more complex, so that quick flourishes and decaying notes sometimes refract like sunlight bouncing off a restless sea. On Dunn’s “Apart From,” such effects impart a mysterious instability to the fingerpicked melody. She’s also grown more willing to let technology stretch and distort her notes, so that parts of “Don’t Look” seem like funhouse reflections of the cleaner-toned passages that precede them. It’s these alchemical transformations that make New Spells so gripping.

—Bill Meyer