Watch the Walls Instead – Get the Picture Yet?
Ghosts may come and go, but haunting music is the antithesis of evanescent: it lingers. As does bassist Giacomo Merega’s new album Watch the Walls Instead. It’s a suite, an overture and a coda played with a generally quiet but riveting intensity by two generations of improvisers. Merega gets credit as bandleader for the second time on album, alongside his bandmate, saxophonist Noah Kaplan – from equally eerie art-song warpers Dollshot – plus Italian veterans Marco Cappelli on guitar and Mauro Pagani on violin, and the perennially vital, transformative Anthony Coleman on piano. It opens with a five-part piece for quartet, minus the violin, then five shorter pieces for trios, concluding with the full quintet.
The titles of the quartet pieces refer to colors, although aside from the literally ghostly, spacious Absence of Color, they’re shades of grey, dark against light and every other possible permutation. The group’s singlemindness in maintaining that mood is striking to the extreme, to the point of minimalism. Each piece segues into the next, musicians remaining in their assigned roles. Merega plays electric bass, either muted and murky, or supplying low drones that hover below Coleman’s icy atonalities, moodily terse accents and macabre chordlets. Cappelli supplies pensive single-note lines and often handles the forward motion while Merega’s down in an atmospheric swamp; Kaplan, a master of microtonalities, gets the coveted role of raising the ambience from apprehension to fullblown terror. Whispery, abbreviated conversations between voices, a wary tone poem with Cappelli’s eerie guitar pushing Coleman’s waterdrop piano to new levels of menace lead through a practically silent interlude to an elegaic passage where Kaplan finally gets to introduce an element of pure terror, straining microtonally against the center as Coleman provides bell-like tones.
They segue into the trio section seamlessly, Kaplan and Cappelli working toward a deathly, echoing space-rock scene, following with variations on brooding, simple riffs which turn out to be the suite’s most vividly melodic motifs: they’re reaching for clarity amidst the fog and far from optimistic that they’ll achieve it. The suite ends with Things We Used to Know, a coldly noirish conversation – or argument – between Kaplan and Cappelli.
After the trio finally comes to a full stop, Pagani leads the quintet up with an energetic, biting series of eight-note runs, the rest of the ensemble establising a mood of longing and tension, Kaplan and Pagani circling each other and then joining the rest of the group as they pull hard against an invisible but inescapable center that won’t let them escape. That’s the overture: the coda has Kaplan out in the cold mist playing a mournful, allusively bluesy tune against a muffled parade of voices. Ostensibly this has a sci-fi angle (the cd package has a tongue-in-cheek short story, to be continued with some future project), but it just as easily can be interpreted as a reflection on our own difficult and often menacing times. It’s best enjoyed as a whole: you can get absolutely lost in this. While this isn’t catchy music by a long shot, it’s inescapably gripping, simply one of this year’s best jazz albums. It’s a must-own for fans of free jazz, and for anyone who plays improvised music, it’s packed with inspiration.
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