Rachel Grimes: The Clearing
Given how presumably central the chamber-rock ensemble Rachel's was to the creative life of its keyboardist Rachel Grimes, it would have been perfectly understandable had she decided to step away from music-making after the 2012 cancer-related death of the group's founding member, guitarist Jason Noble. It's especially heartening, then, to discover that not only is Grimes's creative life alive, it appears to be downright flourishing. Having earlier issued the album Book of Leaves in 2009 and the EP Compound Leaves in 2013, the Kentucky-based pianist-composer returns with the splendid neo-classical collection The Clearing, on which she's joined by guests such as Loscil (aka Scott Morgan), Rachel's violist Christian Frederickson, cellist Helen Money, and the Amsterdam Sinfonietta Trio.
She brings a similar boldness of vision to The Clearing as she did to Rachel's many recordings, something evidenced by the inclusion of a suite whose five parts appear throughout the forty-three-minute set. The first part, “The Air,” establishes the tone for the album when violinist Scott Moore emotes against a luscious backdrop of strings, something he also does in “The Air of Place.” Four of the parts are interlude-like in length, the exception being the meditative closer “The Air at Night,” which plays like a Grimes-Loscil collaboration.
Given its opening piano ostinato, the title track hints that it might be a solo Grimes setting, but soon enough the uneasy tension generated by the piano playing is intensified by equally foreboding statements by the Amsterdam Sinfonietta Trio. The unsettling character of the piece's opening minutes gradually give way, however, to delicate music of a more soothing and graceful disposition, even if “The Clearing” closes with a return to the darker mood with which it began. The two-part “Transverse Plane” setting comes closest to resurrecting Rachel's chamber orchestra sound in presenting in its opening part an expansive arrangement of strings, piano, harp, oboe, saxophone, and, courtesy of Kyle Crabtree (Shipping News), percussion. The animated drive of the “Vertical” half is countered by a gentler, strings-heavy “Horizontal” section highlighted by a particularly expressive viola solo by Frederickson.
Without putting too fine a point on it, much of the material finds Grimes stylistically carrying on Rachel's stirring mission rather than opting for something diametrically opposed to it. And similar to how she functioned in the group context, Grimes is perfectly content on her own recording to support the lead playing of other musicians as much as inhabit the spotlight herself. That's clearly evident during the live improvisation “The Herald,” where she accompanies saxophonist Jacob Duncan, and in “Further Foundation,” which grants strings a lead role. “In the Vapor with the Air Underneath,” on the other hand, places her piano front and center—until, that is, Grimes drops out and cedes the spotlight to ambient-drone vapours. But if The Clearing does capture Grimes perpetuating the melodic neo-classical style of her former group, it's no cause for disappointment. If Rachel's lives on in Grimes's solo output, we're all the more fortunate that it does so.