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Thollem/Parker/Cline: The Gowanus Sessions

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It starts with a fiercely struck guitar chord, a rumble of keys and a plucked bass note. For the next 41 minutes, pianist Thollem McDonas, bassist William Parker and electric guitarist Nels Cline play seemingly indiscriminately, creating unmusical layers of sound. These are not songs. There are no melodies, no rhythms. The Gowanus Session is a sound sculpture.

It’s hard to know what to make of this record. Have these guys created a work of sound-art, or are they trying to put one over on us? This isn’t just free jazz-it’s Noise with a capital N, and it seems purposefully unlistenable. Take the names of the tracks (which cannot be called “tunes” or “compositions”). One sentence-“There are as many worlds in a life as there are lives in the world”-is divided among the six tracks, either underscoring the point that titles don’t matter or supporting the contention that this recording is one big joke.

Yet there are odd moments of pleasure. A strange rhythmic pulse develops toward the end of the second track (“as many worlds”). A thick, loud piano chord disrupts a rare quiet passage in the third track (“in a life”). McDonas seems to riff on Thelonious Monk’s “Green Chimneys” when he employs an ostinato on the dense fifth track (“lives”). The otherworldly sounds that Cline extracts from his strings are weirdly compelling when juxtaposed with Parker’s throbbing bass and McDonas’ atonal runs, which come straight out of the Cecil Taylor school of iconoclasty.

So is this a good record, or even an enjoyable one? I really don’t know, but I do know this: It’s interesting, and I keep listening to it.

Originally Published