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Radical Empathy Trio: Reality and Other Imaginary Places (ESP-Disk’)

A review of the live album featuring the reconvened free-improv trio

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Radical Empathy Trio, Reality and Other Imaginary Places
The cover of Reality and Other Imaginary Places by the Radical Empathy Trio

The pianist Thollem may go by a single name, but his improvisational and compositional wizardry has many dimensions. A sort of freewheeling cross between Cecil Taylor, comedian Andy Kaufman, minimalist pioneer Pauline Oliveros, and punk icons the Minutemen, he’s extended his creative reach into myriad styles from avant-garde jazz and classical to blues and rock. He’s also a road warrior, perpetually on tour, and his travels have led to collaborations with the headiest of his fellow avant-gardists, including William Parker, Susie Ibarra, Ava Mendoza, Rob Mazurek, and Henry Kaiser.

In 2017, Thollem had a residency at Brooklyn’s Pioneer Works, where he reconvened Radical Empathy Trio, the group he shares with guitarist Nels Cline (Wilco) and drummer Michael Wimberly (Charles Gayle). From that engagement comes this live album, Thollem’s latest record for the celebrated ESP-Disk’ label and fourth overall, which follows the trio’s exceptional 2015 debut Radical Empathy and confirms that Cline and Wimberly are Thollem’s greatest free-improv brothers-in-arms. From the moment the record button is pressed for the opening “Collective Tunnels,” these three virtuosos sculpt and splatter dizzying textures and patterns that are like Sonny Sharrock-meets-Unit Structures-meets-Interstellar Space. The interplay here is on musical mind-reader levels.

But although its two 18-minute-plus marathons feature plenty of mayhem, Reality and Other Imaginary Places isn’t all take-no-prisoners. In fact, there are moments of downright majesty, particularly when Thollem switches from electric piano to acoustic at the beginning of “Conscious Tunnels.” His classical-informed lines are playful and eccentric, darting and galloping before Cline and Wimberly join in. From there, it’s a breakneck space-jazz trip into the netherworld, which eventually slows down for a Cline clinic of effects-laden twang.

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