Essential New Music: Joshua Massad & Dylan Aycock’s “Two Improvisations”

The raga is a platonic ideal for the guitarists who founded the “Takoma school” and those who have followed in their wake while either donning or forswearing the American Primitive mantel. It’s a form to be aspired to, but not necessarily achieved. Some have delved deep into Hindustani and Carnatic music while acknowledging that they’ll never learn enough to master the tradition, and others have just appended the word “raga” to a song title and maybe recruited someone to drum along on some tablas.

Joshua Massad and Dylan Aycock have enough study between them to know how far from the formal mark the music on Two Improvisations lands. Aycock’s previous recordings under his own name and as Talk West attest to his grasp of guitar lore. And Massad, who splits his time between Oklahoma and India, has spent time studying with tabla master Zakir Hussain. They’ve previously recorded one ultra-limited cassette, but this album is their first vinyl release. Its unemphatic title tells you what they did to make the music, but not how uplifting that music is.

“One” (each side contains one numbered track) is as spontaneous as music gets. Aycock walked through the open door of a house where Massad was already playing, sat down with his 12-string guitar and joined in. After an initial flourish, the two settled into a rushing fingerpicked cadence. The guitarist started releasing one flight of spare, lyric fancy after another, each foray rising like a bird riding an updraft of wind. Massad responded by adjusting the pitch of his hand drums up and down, but he never let the groove flag. Rather than try to catch lightning twice, the duo waxed reflective on “Two.” Massad took the lead on sitar, stirring buzzing whorls of sound around Aycock’s more relaxed strumming and his brother Jesse’s pulsing synthesizer. This spacey music isn’t particularly faithful to any tradition, but it imparts an authentically transcendent spirit that can’t be faked. [Scissor Tail]

—Bill Meyer