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February 14, 2013

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Brokeback Brokeback and the Black Rock (Thrill Jockey)

Douglas McCombs is best known as the bassist of two Chicago bands, the rhythm-section-heavy instrumental ensemble Tortoise and fiery rock group Eleventh Dream Day, but his outfit Brokeback, which began in 1995 as a solo project, has its own long-running history and evolution.

Beginning as a sparse, melodic examination of the sound of the six-string Fender Bass VI, Brokeback has since expanded its sonic methods, featuring collaborations with label mates and friends and improvisational pieces. In 2010, McCombs assembled its current lineup—bassist Pete Croke, drummer and multi-instrumentalist James Elkington and guitarist Chris Hansen—and it features a more defined style, evoking the spaghetti-western soundtracks of Italian composer Ennio Morricone.

Regarding Brokeback’s latest instrumental album, Brokeback and the Black Rock, one comparison that comes to mind is the first Tortoise album, which had its own unique, patient aesthetic before the group went into more electronically inclined territories. The new eight-track album might not be immediately engaging when first hearing it, but it has a way of slithering into the listener’s system as its pieces unfurl.

The most striking things about the opening track “Will Be Arriving” are its electric guitar tone, oozing with personality, and its measured, slowly burning pace; it leads to a liberating payoff, opening up to reveal a sort of dusty majesty. Brokeback’s approach favors a studied execution rather than the more exploratory side of latter-day Tortoise, but several elements emerge for variety, like the funk-influenced drumming of “The Wire, the Rag, and the Payoff” and the tango-esque spirit of “Tonight at Ten.”

The album’s best tracks are on its second half, with the compelling “Don’t Worry Pigeon,” featuring a silky guitar and bass counterpoint, enhanced by tremolo guitar chords, and the closing eleven-minute journey “Colossus of Roads,” reprising its theme repeatedly as a sort of epic announcement. While the album requires patience and could stand to have a few more ideas, what it does it does well, transporting the listener to the American West.

Rudresh Mahanthappa Gamak (ACT Music + Vision)

The Italian-born, American-raised saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa was inspired during his studies to merge Carnatic—south Indian classical—music with jazz of the western world, practicing cultural internationalism; this is similar to what saxophonist John Zorn did starting in the early ’90s, who shifted from Ornette Coleman-influenced thrash-jazz to his own avant-jazz methods based on Jewish scales. Mahanthappa is a performer with mighty chops and an immediately recognizable playing style that doesn’t stay in one place for very long. It may be wearying to newcomers, characterized by speedy fluttering with an edge, and Muhammed Ali’s catchphrase “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” comes to mind.

Mahanthappa’s latest album, Gamak, does bear an Indian influence, but it doesn’t ooze out of the speakers. His approach is more cunning and this writer hesitates to call it “subtle,” because this album is anything but subtle. Mahanthappa has assembled a formidable quartet, with hard-plucking bassist François Moutin and drummer Dan Weiss, who seems to have more of a rock-funk inclination than traditional jazz leanings. “Jazz-punk” double-necked-guitarist David Fiuczynski (of Screaming Headless Torsos) matches Mahanthappa’s dexterity and shares the spotlight with him with tight, rigorous runs.

The album is a complex amalgam of Indian scales and aggressive, breathtaking jazz-rock fusion run through a downtown-New York City and post-Bitches Brew filter, with a Mahavishnu Orchestra spirit that’s less outwardly prog-rock. The album alternates between expansive jaunts and quick hits like the closing, assertive stomper “Majesty of the Blues,” and the unusual “Abhogi.” All things considered, the intense musicianship, open and inclusive approach, and experimentation make it pleasingly confusing and consistently fascinating.

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February 14, 2013

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