The music on The Art Spirit takes inspiration from Robert Henri, the early 20th-century American artist who spearheaded a movement known as the Ashcan School. Henri’s stance against the standards set by the relatively conservative National Academy of Design could be compared to the schism in jazz between traditionalists and free improvisers. Yet Michael Bisio (bass), Kirk Knuffke (cornet, soprano cornet), and Fred Lonberg-Holm (cello, electronics) sound more interested in having a wild time together than staging any kind of revolt.
Three tracks on the album are credited to Bisio, and the remaining five are attributed to all three players. There are moments during pieces such as “Like Your Work as Much As” where the cohesiveness of the trio sounds like they’re working from a score rather than creating on the spot. On this one, Knuffke blows and wails while Bisio walks, with Lonberg-Holm joining on a parallel line before shifting more toward the role of a second horn. The cellist’s electronics add extra color to the bass solo, eventually pulling things apart amid a flurry of cornet smears.
In many pieces, Bisio plucks firmly and rapidly in the background, leaving his comrades to run amok. But in “Use Them” and Bisio’s “Things Hum,” Lonberg-Holm proves that his delicate side has as much authority as his proclivity for free ascending runs with the bow. Knuffke makes an ideal sidekick, playing the straight man during Lonberg-Holm’s wilder excursions. Whether or not its inspiration comes across in the music, The Art Spirit embodies one element that’s often overlooked in free improvisation: joie de vivre.