Essential New Music: Elijah McLaughlin & Caleb Willitz’s “Morning Improvisations, Evening Abstractions”

One mark of artists is that when they get really good at something, they change things up. It’s hard to know if Chicago-based guitarist Elijah McLaughlin wants to be discussed in such terms, since he doesn’t present his music in ways that invite the listener to talk about the guy who made it. He doesn’t sing, nor do his releases come overburdened with annotation. His playing doesn’t draw attention to his musicianship, even when the parts are demanding. And while his records have cool covers, suitable for pondering while you sit back and listen, their presentation inevitably draws your attention to the music in the grooves.

However, McLaughlin definitely walks the artistic walk. Each of the three LPs he has made with the Elijah McLaughlin Ensemble—bassist Jason Toth, hammered-dulcimer player Joel Styzens and McLaughlin on 12-string acoustic guitar and other instruments—has been better than the last, culminating in the lush, spaced-out beauty of last year’s Elijah McLaughlin Ensemble III. Some folks might double down and try to make another record just like their best one; instead, McLaughlin swapped instruments and accompanists.

Morning Improvisations, Evening Abstractions is the product of a leisurely collaboration with engineer, pianist and tape-delay operator Caleb Willitz. He and McLaughlin, heard mainly on electric guitar and synthesizer, got together periodically in Willitz’s studio to improvise. Then they culled the best bits, which they edited into cohesive pieces that include further spontaneously generated contributions by some guests (Edward Wilkerson Jr. and Jason Stein, reeds; Charles Rumback and Josh Johannpeter, drums) recruited from Chicago’s creative jazz scene.

The break from McLaughlin’s past is evident from the first seconds of “Vespers,” the opening track. His stuttering guitar lines, cycling in and out of the influence of a wah-wah pedal, sound much grittier than the shimmer of his acoustic instrument on earlier records. Willitz’s spare chords invest the performance with a solemn gravity that tugs the heart in one direction while Rumback’s verging-on-disordered drumming pushes in the other. This containment of contradictory impulses makes for music that is emotionally complex. It also sets the stage for a breadth of possible directions, which Willitz and McLaughlin proceed to explore over the course of Morning Improvisations, Evening Abstractions. Terse arpeggios and Johannpeter’s economical pulse breeze down a synthetic highway on “Weaving Of Smoke,” and a horn section waxes melancholic over an undulating piano figure on “Rest.” McLaughlin’s skirling guitar rises the first glimpse of the sunrise on “Good Fortune,” then turns stormy while puddling piano notes melt in tape-slowed motion. 

Morning Improvisations, Evening Abstractions synthesizes notions cribbed from ecstatic jazz, pastoral acoustic-guitar composition and turn-of-the-century art rock into an amalgam that stubbornly refuses to sound like anything other than itself. But it doesn’t really seem to be intended to draw attention to its originality. Rather, it’s at your service, ready to take you to places that you have never been. [Centripetal Force]

—Bill Meyer