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January 26, 2012

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Thollem/Scodanibbio

“on Debussy’s piano and ...”

(Die Schachtel)

The collaborative album “on Debussy’s piano and…” by pianist Thollem McDonas and contrabassist Stefano Scodanibbio is a new homage to the influential turn-of-the-20th-century composer Claude Debussy and his late period, with McDonas playing on Debussy’s actual piano, used during the last 14 years of his life.  This frequently stunning and challenging album also serves as a worthy remembrance for Scodanibbio, who died in Mexico just two weeks ago.

The album is comprised of 16 improvised pieces based on a system created by McDonas for this collaboration, and, in a way, it’s like an hour-long sonic poem, with each track’s title serving as one line of the poem. Scodanibbio, although not a household name, is one of the most respected bassists in the contemporary classical world, a fearless innovator with a wide sound vocabulary.  The prolific McDonas (who recently appeared in Chattanooga at the Easy Lemon) is himself a master improviser, with an intrepid, breathless style that can switch to a tender, nuanced manner in an instant.

Throughout, there are subtle abnormal features that demonstrate the work of two artists in total control, such as Scodanibbio’s deliberate, precise wisps on “The Memory of Ourselves.”  “Now From Now To Now” features McDonas’s solemn piano alongside impassioned, heavy bowing from Scodanibbio. One of the album’s most gorgeous tracks is “Dreaming of Dreaming” with a somber piano melody and long, almost weeping bass tones, evoking a kind of solitude.  It’s an album with many complicated auras, daring to articulate a strange, new beauty.

Can

Tago Mago: 40th Anniversary Edition

(Spoon/Mute)

One of the pinnacles of the German rock band Can―often considered to be the quintessential Krautrock group―is its 1971 double-album Tago Mago; unlike much music from that decade, 40 years from now, Tago Mago will sound just as awesome, strange, and inspired as it does now and as it did back then.  Actually, it sounds a little better, thanks to this new two-disc remastered reissue, featuring a bonus disc with a previously unreleased live set from 1972.

In a way, the early ‘70s lineup of Can was a perfect band, with each member contributing a distinct musical voice.  Guitarist Michael Karoli used an unmistakable fuzz tone for his space-blues licks, and keyboardist Irmin Schmidt, who studied under avant-garde composers Stockhausen and Berio, played unconventionally, stirring up maelstroms or adding to the group’s hypnotic momentum.  Vocalist Damo Suzuki was a wildcard, with spontaneous, barely comprehensible phrases, and drummer Jaki Liebezeit took funk-rock rhythms to the next level with nimble bass-and-snare drum interplay.  However, the understated yet compelling bassist Holger Czukay is the unheralded genius of Tago Mago, for having a keen ear and superb editing skills, pasting the album together from band jams and snippets of sound experimentation.

The tumultuous and unsettling “Aumgn,” which lasts a disorienting 17 minutes, is perhaps the album’s most far-out track, demonstrating Czukay’s studio wizardry, while “Peking O” is a manic jumble, with Suzuki speed-talking like a caffeinated auctioneer and seemingly in competition with an overclocked drum machine.  “Halleluwah” is a trippy number with a head-nod-inducing funk-inflected beat, and even though it’s 18 minutes long, it could probably go on for twice as long as still be as spellbinding.  On the other hand, the live disc―while certainly welcome―wanders a bit, particularly on the 30-minute version of “Spoon,” which dissolves several times, leaving no remnant of any of its distinguishing features; “Halleluwah” fades out frustratingly, right as it starts to really heat up.  Nevertheless, Tago Mago is an essential album for adventurous listeners, and this package highlights how good performances can be transformed and shaped into great recordings.

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January 26, 2012

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