More than any other instrument, double basses tend to show the miles logged by their owners. At the mercy of malevolent baggage handlers, trundled endlessly to and fro, these whales of the instrument world register each mishandling with legions of scratches, notches and splinters etched into their lacquered skins. Kent Kessler has certainly put some miles on his instrument, criss-crossing the Atlantic with Ken Vandermark’s constellation of ensembles. The close-up snapshot of his bass that adorns the cover of this, his first solo venture, reveals all manner of minute macula - edges eroded, surfaces scraped and pitted. In the larger scheme the specimen is in a lot better shape than most, and hearing Kessler have at it on this disc its easy to chalk up most of the wear and tear to hours upon hours of vigorous and passionate playing. From an early nineties tenure with Hal Russell’s NRG Ensemble through road movie-worthy safaris with Peter Brötzman’s big bands, Kessler and his bass have shown both stamina and consistency when it comes to the rigors of superlative musicianship.
Choosing the challenging path already traveled by peers before him such as William Parker and Paul Rogers, Kessler wraps his tautly strung strings around a program of highly intimate improvisations. Percussionist and Chicago colleague Michael Zerang joins in on three cuts adding subtle rhythmic counterpoint on briskly palmed dumbek with mixed success. Kessler rides his bull fiddle with a steady finesse and practiced prowess that immediately lassoes the ear from the sternum-rattling strains of “Monon Line.” Scraping arco sparks shower the sound floor on “Spillway,” illuminating the silence for exactly sixty seconds and marking the norm for a recital where nine out of the dozen pieces clock in at fewer than five minutes. Fortunately brevity doesn’t equate to paucity, and Kessler crams as much musical equity as possible into the tersest durations.
There are also the exceptions to this self-imposed economy, such as “Central Wisconsin Double Wide,” a piece that sprawls out in prickly waves of densely bowed dissonance and drags on for a bit too long. Kessler whips up quite a racket on the enigmatically titled “Batum Schrag,” worrying his strings with manically scything bow and callused fingers across a pattering underpinning advanced by Zerang’s hyperactive palms swatting stretched dumbek skin. Seesawing harmonics are on febrile display for “Word Edgewise” as bow cantilevers against turgid strings. “Furthermore” posits a similar course adding plucked accents and string snaps to canvas of stringent arco streaks. Mapping different sonic regions entirely, the decidedly linear improvisations of “Sugar Creek” and “Out of Iowa” evoke pastoral scenes while reveling in the rewards of deeply voiced pizzicato clusters. Closing with the lyrical but muscular melancholy of “Pikeville Girl,” Kessler again mines the rich subterranean tones that lie along the lower regions of his fingerboard and strikes gold.
Through it all Kessler comes across as an improvisor genuinely and profoundly infatuated with his instrument and the breadth of music its manipulated surfaces can unlock. He couples an academician’s awe with a guiding desire for more visceral pleasures. Hence agile and intricate harmonic swathes coexist alongside the relative simplicities of single plucked notes, which hang in the air like slowly dissipating smoke rings. The bull fiddle isn’t a beast to be approached casually. It demands respect and concentration particularly if it’s to be tamed in a solo setting. Kessler succeeds in doing just that, and in the process creates a body of music imbued with a startling and satisfying personal stamp. Double basses may be destined for lives of hard knocks and recurring abuse, but any damage done to the anatomy seems warranted if sounds such as these result.