Jim McAuley
The Ultimate Frog

(Drip Audio)

Hidden under an image that in my personal opinion is really ugly and repellent, and definitely more appropriate for a "death metal" or "morbid industrial" album anyway, The Ultimate Frog revealed itself to be a high-quality album; extra points go to its being (relatively speaking) quite accessible and very pleasant to listen to, a fact which could give it a degree of success (of the material kind) that's quite uncommon for this kind of music. (What kind, exactly? I'll talk about it in a minute.)

It all started like this: I found a small packet in my mailbox. And given the fact that's highly unlikely that most listeners have ever heard of Jim McAuley (this writer being no exception), the record company put a little friendly touch on the CD cover in the guise of a little round sticker on which is written: "with Nels Cline (Wilco) & Leroy Jenkins". The inner cover adds the names Alex Cline and Ken Filiano. Here I say that - Wilco or no Wilco - things begin to make sense. But who's Jim McAuley?

A Web search revealed Jim McAuley as a man with a quite large, and varied, background, with a long story to tell. Only a few recorded works, though. I found only two: an acoustic guitar album released in 2005, Gongfarmer18; and an album by the Acoustic Guitar Trio, with Nels Cline and Rod Poole, released by Derek Bailey's Incus. I noticed a fact that looks important to me: he was briefly signed to Takoma, at the end of the 70s, but no album was ever released. It goes without saying that defining The Ultimate Frog as mix of Takoma and Incus would be an oversimplification. But I think that for once it could do, provided we use this definition merely as a starting point, not as the whole story.

The approach that Jim McAuley chose for this album could be filed under "improvisation", as in creating "in the moment". Traits from blues, country, bluegrass, jazz, music from South-East Asia, and so on, are easy to spot, just like techniques indigenous to those musics, and to the instrument, such as arpeggios, harmonics, and bottleneck.

The Ultimate Frog features (on two CD, almost 100' long - they are gone in a flash, thanks to the quality and variety of the featured music) 23 duets coming from four different sessions: the one with Jenkins having been recorded in 2002, the Filiano sessions in 2006, those with the Cline Bros. in 2007. McAuley varies his instrumental approach a great deal, according to the chosen partner and approach, and after a while you can tell it's him. The album is well recorded, not overcompressed, quite natural-sounding, not at all fatiguing.

The nine duets with Leroy Jenkins are of the kind that any listener would file under "improvisation". Quite easy to recognize starting with the first note, the dry and anti-rhetoric-sounding violin and viola played by the late, great Jenkins make the listener experience once again the pleasure of a music concept that would have definitely deserved more recognition. Improvisation #12 opens the album with guitar arpeggios, a "chamber-blues", with country-blues echoes from the guitar. The degree of empathy is stunning, with an agitated guitar getting pizzicato and arco counterpoint from the violin (Improvisation #5), ostinatos, scales, and quite surprising unisons (Improvisation #1), long tones from the violin paired with a bottleneck guitar, the two instruments sometimes going parallel (Improvisation #6), with an almost-oriental moment with a scent of koto (Improvisation #9), and so on.

Quite beautiful, the duets with Nels Cline are obviously more related to the guitar. Telling who's who is easy (Cline is the one on the right), here they play acoustic instruments only: six and twelve string guitars, classical guitars, prepared guitars, and dobro. Sounding composed (to me), Nika's Love Ballad has a nice melodic theme played on classical guitar, and a fine use of harmonics. Froggy's Magic Twanger has prepared guitars. Il Porcellino has a fine melodic theme, and vivacious counterpoint. Jump Start has a nice recurring figure, deep bass notes, changing roles. After a tense intro, Work With Warp relaxes and gets "empty", then it's time for bottleneck and the blues.

Those duets with Alex Cline featured here are for this writer the high point of the album. The concept of percussion instruments employed by Cline, which sounds quite "classical" and "composed", has McAuley showing a different side of his artistry. November Night is a very fine "instant composition" with a slow, deliberate development, with gongs and percussion playing counterpoint to meticulous guitar arpeggios, and an intelligent use of silence. Huddie's Riff has slow arpeggios, the cymbals gradually coming in, bottleneck guitar, and two moments (at about 1' and 2' 34") where it's almost like we're listening to Fripp and Bruford. Five'll Get Ya Ten has an elegant, melodic guitar part, with little percussions as counterpoint, then at about 2' 38" a fast arpeggio, at 2' 45" the drums start playing a samba! I seemed to detect a few guitar overdubs, just like on the track titled "no snare", where dry percussion (but "no snare") gradually get frenetic, fast guitar arpeggios, and great cymbal work.

Escape Tones is a quick intro to the duo relationship with Ken Filiano's double bass (also prepared). A Ditty For NC has a nice melodic theme and a fine counterpoint from the double bass, also played arco, reminding me for a split second of Malachi Favors; this is for me one of the album's best tracks. The Zone Of Avoidance intelligently couples a light-sounding guitar with a deep-sounding double bass, the instruments traveling in an melodic-harmonic parallel dimension that reveals at least some preparatory work. Bullfrogs And Fireflies starts with a "pedal" from the double bass played arco, a succinct melody, bottleneck, a drone from the double bass, all fading into Successive Approximations. On Okie Dokie the musicians sound as they are playing "around" a well-know jazz theme (one that's totally unknown to me!), with a "comping" jazz guitar, and a double bass solo (maybe sounding a bit la Dave Holland?).

The album ends with a track recorded solo by McAuley: For Rod Poole has the sound of falling rain as its background, arpeggios, and a melodic development that in the 60s was defined as sounding very "California-style".

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2009

CloudsandClocks.net | Feb. 27, 2009