Jim McAuley: The Ultimate Frog
Drip Audio

Maybe all musicians who relentlessly saturate the market with new recordings should take a lesson from Jim McAuley: the sixty-two-year-old's double-disc duets collection The Ultimate Frog is only the third recording on which he's appeared as a frontman (the others being the solo recording Gongfamer 18 on Nine Winds, and the Acoustic Guitar Trio's eponymous debut on Derek Bailey's Incus). The Kansas-born and Los Angeles-based guitarist is joined by Leroy Jenkins (violin, viola), Nels Cline (guitars), Ken Filiano (bass), and Alex Cline (drums/percussion) in a rich, 100-minute collection that encompasses free improvs, ballads, and even a through-composed setting or two. Though McAuley eschews the standard electric, he gets a vast amount of tonal colour from his classical, steel-string, 12-string, and prepared Marquette parlor guitars, and dobro (the gear Nels Cline brings to his tracks—dobro too, and classical, steel-string, cigar box slide, and prepared guitars—is equally plentiful).

The tracks with Jenkins are the most frenetic and improv-like (all seven, in fact, bearing “improvisation” in their titles) with McAuley's lightning-fast picking going toe-to-toe with the violinist's free-wheeling approach. The two somersault over one another during the roller-coaster acrobatics of “Improvisation #1” while the seven-minute “Improvisation #6” pairs the bluesy twang of McAuley's slide with Jenkins' wild attack. That McAuley and Nels Cline play so naturally together isn't hurt by the time they spent as co-members in the Acoustic Guitar Trio. The two are caught in reverie, sometimes bluesily so, during the dream-like “nika's Love Ballad” while exotic influences seep into the frenetic string clusters of “Froggy's Magic Twanger.” “The Zone of Avoidance,” “Bullfrogs and Fireflies,” and “Successive Approximations” with Filiano encourage a ruminative approach, though the bassist also sneaks in some agile plucked and bowed playing during “Escape Tones” and even a few moments of traditional walking jazz at the end of “Okie Dokie.” The tracks with Alex Cline are sometimes raucous (e.g., near-cacophonous rambunction in “Huddie's Riff ”), and sometimes restrained (e.g., the quiet exploration “November Night”); “Five'll Get Ya' Ten” stands out for being both an elegant setting with atmospheric percussive colour and a swaying 5/4 folk piece. There's also a solo piece, a rain-soaked elegy that finds McAuley paying tribute to the late Rod Poole. Not only is The Ultimate Frog valuable for documenting the artistry of an under-recorded artist, it also features some of the last music Leroy Jenkins recorded, and that it's in duo format allows us to hear his playing even more clearly.

January 2009