Kent Kessler: Bull Fiddle (2003)
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.
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Track Listing: Monon Line/ Spillway/ Batum Schrag/ Word Edgewise/ Sugar Creek/ Furthermore/ Waddy Peytona/ That Is/ Central Wisconsin Double Wide/ Out of Iowa/ Gilman Chatsworth/ Pikeville Girl.
Personnel: Kent Kessler- double bass; Michael Zerang- dumbek. Recorded: June 6, 2001, Chicago.
Record Label: Okka Disk
Style: Modern Jazz