Ellery Eskelin – Mirage (CF 271)
For a resolutely acoustic instrumentalist, tenorist Ellery Eskelin works exceedingly well with electricity. Whether teaming with the amplified accordion and effects artist Andrea Parkins, eclectic guitarist Marc Ribot or B-3 organ genius Gary Versace, Eskelin has done some of his best work in the company of electric instruments. Through the myriad pleasures of Mirage, Susan Alcorn’s atypical pedal steel can safely be added to that select number. Stalwart bassist Michael Formanek completes the trio in an improvised program of music emphasizing communal input through the careful collaging of individual approaches.
It’s unclear whether the titular visual illusion serves as album title or ensemble moniker, but it works well in either case in communicating the arching effect of the trio’s measured music. Alcorn’s deepest musical roots rest in the rich loam of country and folk forms filtered through facets of free jazz and the “deep listening” perspectives of Pauline Oliveros. Her strategy here suggests an amalgam well removed from the twang-suffused, high velocity fireworks of classic steel pioneers like Buddy Emmons and Bud Isaacs, though a comparable trailblazing spirit abides. Single note runs regularly and gradually smear and elongate into luminous ghost-chord shapes where delicate and at times drowsy atmospherics often win out over any overt displays of virtuosity. Eskelin’s tenor similarly fixates on texture and grain over sharp edges and flashy momentum, spooling out murmuring lines that purr rather than growl, even when the collective pace quickens. Formanek frequently lays down a running contrapuntal commentary, grounding his colleagues more ethereal creations with sparse, but sturdy scaffolding that keeps the structures from straying too esoteric or soporific.
Nine tracks glide one into the next and carry terse titles like “Saturation,” “Refraction” and “Occlusion” (sans Alcorn), words ripe with unspecific contextual connotations that mirror the uncertainty in their spontaneous designs. All register in the three- to six-minute range, save “Down Burst,” which sprawls to nearly a half-hour and builds to the breadth and majesty of an extended soundtrack for a mesmerizing cinematic travelogue in-between the ears. The result is a singular sort of improvised chamber music redolent with the ambiance of high lonesome spaces. Eskelin and Formanek may have much in common stylistically, but Alcorn succeeds in repeatedly pushing them out of the safety zone of shared musical space. The disc also effectively evinces the notion of Eskelin as that relatively rare combination of loyalist and recruiter — nurturing lasting partnerships while actively seeking new ones.