The Gowanus Session
Porter Records PRCD -4068

By Ken Waxman

Turning the discreet piano-guitar-bass formation on its head are the energetic and ardent improvisations of pianist Thollem McDonas, bassist William Parker and guitarist Nels Cline. One listen to the stabbing keyboard runs, thick double bass rhythms and guitar distortions exposed during The Gowanus Session’s six selections destroys the polite-jazz label that was created for such lounge-favored trios with this instrumentation as Nat “King” Cole’s and Oscar Peterson’s in the ‘40s and ‘50s.

All three musicians here are committed free-form players. Cline may now be a member of Wilco, but has extensive history with West Coast experimenters like Vinny Golia. Parker is one of the most recorded bassist in the music, as leader or as linchpin on multiple CDs. As for San Francisco-born McDonas, his peripatetic travelling makes the bassist seem like a homebody, with sessions as likely to involve Italian or Mexican improvisers as American ones; and by playing with punk bands or drumming troupes as often as jazzers.

Strangely, for a disc dedicated to the memory of Italian improvising bassist Stefano Scodanibbio (1956-2012), Parker is upfront the least on the session. Except for some sprawling arco scratches or scene-stealing string pops with woody intonation that appear on certain tracks, the full force of his skill is directed towards connective pedal-point ostinato. Instead the exhilarating and often exhausting challenges involve mating or contrasting McDonas’ jabbing notes and wide runs with Cline’s purposely disruptive string shredding, knob-twisting and reverberating power chords. “As Many Worlds” demonstrates this, as near-romantic cascades from the pianist are sundered by Cline’s mercurial clips and drones. Elsewhere it’s up to the bassist’s brawny thumps to balance the others’ playing, as the pianist’s note clusters strain to make an impact and not be buried under the guitarist’s buzzing flanges.

Using beefy chording at kinetic speeds that would be recognized by Peterson, McDonas turns the nearly 16-minute “Lives” into the CD’s climax. High frequency and tremolo, his cumulative glissandi appear to follow their own logic before being prodded back into line by Parker’s measured slaps. Against this thickening force, Cline buzzes spiky flanges, rips scratchy tones from his guitar neck and references psychedelic drones. Eventually singular improvisations at cross purposes reach a crescendo of passing tones and then attain dual muscular lyricism, aided by Parker`s distinctive strokes.

Free jazz at its zenith, The Gowanus Session also decisively redefines the description of a trio with this instrumentation.

Tracks: There Are; As Many Worlds; In A Life; As There Are; Lives; In the World

Personnel: Thollem McDonas: piano; Nels Cline: guitar; William Parker: bass

—For The New York City Jazz Record June 2013