Originally an experimental duo featuring drummer Bobby Previte and guitarist Charlie Hunter (documented in 2003 on their first recorded collaboration, Come in Red Dog, This is Tango Leader on Ropeadope), the Groundtruther project evolved over a series of regular gigs at the Knitting Factory’s Tap Bar into an evermore adventurous platform for pure improvising by rotating a different third player into the mix each week. Over the last few years, Previte and Hunter tapped an illustrious pool of players for their freewheeling jams, including saxophonists Jane Ira Bloom, Peter Apfelbaum, Seamus Blake and Oliver Lake; trumpeters Steven Bernstein, Randy Brecker and Lew Soloff; and keyboardists Uri Caine and Wayne Horvitz. Altitude, a double-CD set featuring keyboardist John Medeski as special guest, is the final leg in a trilogy of Groundtruther recordings for Thirsty Ear (the other two were 2004’s Latitude with alto saxophonist Greg Osby and 2005’s Longitude with DJ Logic).
Medeski, a founding member of the renegade jam-band Medeski, Martin & Wood, is naturally quite comfortable with this concept of riff-based improvisation and pure sonic experimentation. On the first CD, entitled Above Sea Level, he adds some traditional Hammond B3 fire to the funky surf-band boogaloo number “Seoul Tower,” which also features scorching grunge-laden guitar licks from Hunter. Medeski contributes to the textural mayhem on the caustic opener, “Taipei 101,” then adds to the spooky ambiance of “Everest” with spacious use of Mellotron and heavily effected clavinet. “Pyramid of Giza” is a clever extrapolation on Iron Butterfly’s classic hippie anthem “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” with Hunter providing a hypnotic bass drone on the low end of his eight-string guitar while simultaneously wailing in the high register with the sonic fury of the late Sonny Sharrock. Previte delves into some creative use of his electronic drum set throughout, particularly on noise barrages like “Warsaw Radio Mast” and “Taipei 101.” But on tunes like the raucous nearly 16-minute closer “Empire State,” he slams his acoustic kit like he’s playing “Whipping Post” at the Fillmore East, circa 1971.
The second CD, entitled Below Sea Level, is a collection of striking, avant-gardish vignettes performed strictly on acoustic instruments, with Medeski alternating between piano and melodica, Hunter playing nylon-string acoustic guitar and Previte playing an acoustic set. Both CDs would fall under the category of “difficult listening.” But for the adventurous and open-minded, there are plenty of brilliantly crafted audacious moments to savor here.