Andrew McKenna Lee: Solar/Electric
Andrew McKenna Lee

Andrew McKenna Lee made a strong impression with his early 2009 recording Gravity and Air and now makes perhaps an even stronger impression with his latest collection Solar/Electric. While the earlier release combined original compositions with a reading of J.S. Bach's Prelude for Lute, BWV 999, the new one repeats the pattern in equally bold manner by pairing a version of Steve Reich's Electric Counterpoint (most famously known in Pat Metheny's performance) with two original compositions, the longest of which, 2005's “Sunrise from the Bottom of the Sea,” pays homage to Jimi Hendrix (more specifically, the piece is Lee's response to Hendrix's 1967 song “Are You Experienced”). It's a trippy, prog-styled, fifteen-minute fantasia that pairs pre-recorded material Lee produced using instruments at his immediate disposal—sixteen tuned crystal glasses, recorders, glockenspiel, viola, Appalachian mountain dulcimer, electric guitar, electric bass, steel string and nylon string guitars, African djembe and udu drums, and a sixteen-inch frame drum—with live electric guitar playing that, in its snarl and wah-wah, occasionally recalls Hendrix's style. In short, the piece shows an unbowed Lee at his most free and the guitar playing is often blues-drenched, heavy, and raucous—a feel, of course, diametrically opposed to the ultra-controlled precision that one associates with Reich's 1987 work.

Lee offers a splendid rendition of Electric Counterpoint, even if it's one hard pressed to match Metheny's or supplant it in any significant way. If Lee's performance is similar to Metheny's, that's due to the tight compositional design of the work; what is different is the slightly more aggressive and subtly blues-inflected timbre of the guitar that comes through most noticeably in the “Fast” third movement. As other guitarists have done before him, Lee plays against a pre-recorded tape of himself that's built from ten guitar and two bass parts. Anyone unfamiliar with the piece will automatically identify it as a Reich work by its pulsation and contrapuntal, interlocking weave of melodic patterns. Lee nicely rounds out the album by returning to the psychedelic ambiance with which it began via the limpid, five-minute closer “One Thought Among Many.” A loose and drifting feel pervades the piece as Lee generates a rootless swirl from washes and loops, and what results is a coda of rather aquatic and liquidy character.

Though the recording's only thirty-five minutes long, it feels more substantial, perhaps because the opener in particular is so densely packed with sounds. What distinguishes Solar/Electric most, however, is the contrast that emerges when the raw unpredictability of the Hendrix homage is juxtaposed against the cerebral lockstep of the Reich piece. Hearing the one immediately after the other may be jarring but not unappealingly so. Instead, the radical shift in tone brings into sharp relief Lee's range and the ease with which he's able to excel in different contexts.

January 2010