Robert Matheson: Day's End
Robert Matheson

Go to Robert Matheson's website and the first thing you see is a photo of a nattily dressed acoustic bassist seemingly prepped for an upcoming gig at the Blue Note. But appearances are deceiving: Matheson, who both teaches at Dixie State University and plays in the orchestra at the Tuacahn Center for the Arts, isn't a jazz player but rather an innovative electro-acoustic composer who performs solo works for double bass and computer—and not just any double bass but a self-designed and custom-built MIDI double bass. Specifically, he created a polyphonic pickup that's embedded in the bridge of the instrument and that grants him real-time, interactive control over the electronic and acoustic aspects of a performance. It's a flexible set-up that allows the Utah-based musician to translate double bass-related gestures such as glissandi and string tapping into electronic effects whilst also retaining the natural, acoustic sonorities of the bass—the best of both worlds, it would seem.

Day's End, of course, provides a superb opportunity to hear Matheson's instrument in action, but the recording is also notable for the approach he took to the recording itself: it developed out of a month-long improvisation project he undertook between September and October 2013, the idea being to record on each weekday a live improvisation that was then posted to his website. Working with Reason, Sooperlooper, and Ableton Live and refraining from editing or multi-tracking, Matheson pressed record, played, and posted the outcome. The first nine tracks on the release derive from the project; the other three are collected under the title “Zion Landscapes,” Zion National Park having provided the source of inspiration in this case.

The sinuous lines of the opener “Day One” offer a seductive way into the recording, but the dynamic range of Matheson's vision quickly declares itself when an insistent, multi-layered backdrop provides a base for the bassist to aggressively solo against. Six minutes into the piece, the music takes a startling turn when high-pitched shrieks abruptly appear, compelling proof that Day's End wasn't conceived as a wallflower collection of innocuous solo bass settings. “Day One” shows that Matheson isn't afraid to tear it up, but neither is he afraid to let the natural sound of the double bass appear as it does at the start of “Ticker Tape.”

His range of expression is impressive, as evidenced by the emotional outpouring captured during “Dies Irae” and “Weeping Rock,” and “Duet” parts company with this otherwise solo recording by threading glassy vibraphone effects by percussionist Glenn Webb (a Dixie State University colleague of Matheson's) into the mix. External sounds work their way into the material at various times (perhaps most conspicuously in the manipulated speaking voice running through “America”), but truth be told they're not really needed when his playing in its natural presentation commands attention, something never more apparent than during “Charlie” (a Haden homage?). While Matheson presumably didn't intend for Day's End to highlight his virtuosity, one definitely comes way from the recording suitably impressed by the high calibre of his playing.

October 2015