Ken Thomson: Restless
Cantaloupe Music/Naxos

Restless is probably as good a title as any for a recording by Ken Thomson. Certainly his music, or at least significant parts of it, is characterized by tension and agitation, and it's unpredictable, too. Freely crisscrossing consonant and dissonant lines, his compositions unfold in unexpected ways, with Thomson not so much being purposefully contrarian in challenging established compositional form but rather committed to letting his muse take him where it naturally will.

Though he's best known these days as the clarinetist in the Bang On A Can All-Stars, saxophonist in Gutbucket, and leader of Slow/Fast, Restless presents him in full composer mode, with the album's settings performed by cellist Ashley Bathgate (also a Bang On A Can All-Star) and pianist Karl Larson, the cellist featured on one and Larson both. Thomson's certainly picked the right people for the job, as they both dig into the material with passion and high energy; what they accomplish on Restless, their recording debut as a duo, is all the more impressive when one considers the demands Thomson's oft-intricate and aggressively fast music can place on the performer. The settings on Restless are also marked by the same kinds of dramatic shifts in mood and dynamics heard on other recent Thomson recordings, 2013's Thaw (featuring the JACK Quartet) and Slow/Fast's 2014 set Settle illustrative examples.

The rapport between Bathgate and Larson is consistently evident, especially when, as the composer himself has stressed, Restless isn't a cello-accompanied-by-piano piece but a duet in the truest sense. Conceived with vinyl in mind, the recording splits down the middle, each twenty-minute piece designed to be broached as an individual entity, just as it would have naturally happened years ago when vinyl was the primary format.

In being slow and pensive, the beginning section of the titular opening movement of Restless doesn't diverge radically from the chamber music norm, though the level of emotional intensity the musicians ultimately reach is extreme, and as the two gracefully modulate between loud and soft passages, that aforementioned rapport becomes especially evident. “Forge” sees them attacking Thomson's material with like-minded ferocity, even though here too dramatic contrasts in dynamics are explored. The cello and piano voice the foreboding melodies of “Remain Untold” in unison for the first minute, before following distinct yet still complementary lines in the labyrinthine and increasingly agitated sections that follow. Arriving in the wake of such turbulence, the closing movement, “Lost,” offers a welcomingly lyrical resolution, even if here too the emotional temperature gradually heats up as the piece nears its end, the cello swooping violently as it does so.

Larson's alone on the oddly titled Me Vs., the title a truncated allusion to the conflict between the pianist and the music. Thomson's relentless side comes to the fore during the first movement, “Turn of Phrase,” specifically in the way it segues between hammering chords and delicate single-line playing. The ponderous central movement, “Another Second Try,” proves his music can be just as engrossing when pitched at a quieter level and cued to a slower tempo, while the rollicking, roller-coaster ride “Me Vs.” takes the recording out on a prototypically high-wire note. Don't be fooled, incidentally, by the traditional instrumentation and classical movement form of the two pieces: Thomson's penchant for genre-bending and punk-level intensity are present, even if you would find Restless in the chamber classical section.

November 2016