Thollem’s Astral Travelling Sessions

With Alex Cline and Susan Alcorn
Astral Spirits AS 153-08

Putting the pizzazz into peripatetic, keyboardist Thollem McDonas spent 2019 touring the US, recording with fellow improvisers along the way to eventually put out 25 albums. One of the first, this double duo disc, is illuminating as it shows McDonas’ reaction to contrasting situations using different instruments. Recorded in Santa Monica, the almost 38½-minute set with drummer Alex Cline is intense Free Jazz highlighting his kinetic piano undulations. The five tracks with Baltimore pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn in contrast are free-flowing and almost relaxed. Yet the dimensions of his synthesizer tones produce a texture that floats midway between prairie outskirts and outer space.

Cline’s metallic slap cymbals and drum shuffles effectively set the pace with McDonas sounding melodic asides before working up to high pitched splayed glissandi. From that point on the broken octave evolution goes through numerous crescendos and climaxes. Often the pianist’s galloping chords are as percussive as the drummer’s rustles and rumbles. Contrapuntal and affiliated the intersection is connected through echoing cymbal rustles, as stopped piano key and plucked internal strings vibrate at the same time. As the swirling sequences continues, they become nearly opaque with only temporary respites from the pressure through treble piano key plinks and drum clashes. It’s only in the final few minutes that a sonic definition is reached. Slowed down to a swaying adagio pulse, individual identity is defined with gong-like cymbal echoes and Mylar top vibrations. By digging deep into the piano’s lowest pulses McDonas makes piano string drones the improvisation’s variable finale.

Drones, but mechanized also figure in the Alcorn duo tracks, but the granular synthesis serves more as tremolo shadowing for the eerie string guitar twangs than individualized. Alcorn’s metronomic echoes and distinctive frails create supple mandolin-like expositions as McDonas’ programming moves in and out of aural focus. While there are sometime connections, the way both improvisational strands are maintained is that musical projections evolve in dual counterpoint which touch but rarely intersect.

Disposed to displaying varieties of interactive improvisation during his journey, the keyboardist has set up a daunting challenge. Captured in real time it appears as if some meetings work out better than others. The evidence here points to the primacy of ecstatic piano-affiliated free sounds. Subsequent volumes will determine the truth of this thesis.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Thollem/Alex Cline* 2. Intermission 3. Thollem/Alcorn 1 4. Thollem/Alcorn 2 5. Thollem/Alcorn 3 6. Thollem/Alcorn 4 7. Thollem/Alcorn 5 8. Thollem/Alcorn 6 9. Thollem/Alcorn 7

Personnel: Thollem McDonas (piano* or synthesizer); Susan Alcorn (pedal steel guitar) or Alex Cline* (drums and percussion)