Canadian vibesman Dan McCarthy has come a long way since the release of his already very accomplished debut album Interwords (self produced) in 2006. Since moving to Brooklyn, New York in 2004, McCarthy has been able to collaborate with some of the city's finest improvisors, such as Steve Swallow or Ben Monder who are also the musicians joining him on his first of two albums in 2019, both released on the Seattle-based label Origin Records. The quartet performing on early spring record Epoch, featuring Swallow and Monder, is completed by violinist Mark Feldman and stands in stark contrast to the late summer soundtrack City Abstract. The difference between the two outings isn't triggered merely by the change in instrumentation—the first being a drumless quartet venture—but mainly from the very dissimilar compositional approaches. Epoch's deconstructed nature and quietly broiling aesthetic come in the spirit of past achievements from the ECM label, while City Abstract leans more towards the mainstream direction and is filled with Bop-lines and Fusion-language. Both are deserving of a number of spins and attentive ears for different, and many reasons.
Six original compositions make up the tranquilly reflective journey that McCarthy and his sidemen on strings take the listener on with Epoch. Tranquil mainly in the sense of relative volume. For Opening "A Dream, Wake" greets the listener with dissonance and discord that seem everything other than calm. Fuzzy, distorted guitar droning is met by fluttering violin brushes and isolated vibraphone melodies— experimentalist Monder doesn't hesitate to go full speed on what seems to be a metal guitar riff. As soon as the storm quiets down and merges into "Fugitive Epoch" however, what seemed to be arbitrary by design becomes very carefully constructed interplay between deep bass-pulses and strikingly sad melodies. Violin, guitar and vibes share their roles in equal parts—from picking up the melody, handing it over to then framing the new leader. Feldman's emotive violin playing digs deep into the percussive register of the instrument while seamlessly gliding through the notes with little forays into the gypsy minor scale. Surprising harmonic shifts combined with soft guitar strokes from Monder let "Softly She Sings Her Song" ring echoes of John Abercrombie while "Strange Medicine on the Desert" shines a light on the patient interplay and careful arrangement between the four. The closing exercise "A Dream, Asleep" confirms that no matter in what state, to McCarthy dreams apparently are quite the roller coaster. An introverted and difficult recording that is all the more rewarding.
Performed with another quartet, the 6 months later released City Abstract shows McCarthy from his more immediate side. This time around the vibraphonist is joined by fellow Canadian musicians Ted Quinlan on guitar, Pat Collins on bass and Ted Warren on drums. A tribute to Carla Bley as well as Gary Burton, the set is made up of seven originals crafted with their inspiration in mind and the Pat Metheny composition "Midwestern Nights Dream" as well as Keith Jarrett's "Coral." The melodies come bubbling out from guitar and vibes with determination on the opening Bley homage "Bleyto" and set the mood for the record. Collins' walking bass forms a coherent rhythmic partnership with Warren's traditional drumwork while Quinlan and McCarthy trade solos and motifs in a joyful way. Both covers are treated with much attention to detail. The dreamy ballad from Metheny's chef d'oeuvre of a debut album Bright Size Life (ECM, 1976) is interpreted with much respect for the original version—the vibraphone being a perfect instrument to expand on the atmospheric nature of the tune. The liveliness of "Go beserk" comes as a welcome shift towards a more electric direction and sees Quinlan go full fusion on his distorted guitar tone while the vibraphone's sustain layers the single notes to form a harmonic whole. Drums and bass are given more room to unfold in as the album progresses and demonstrate a patient yet gripping foundation for the melodic voices to flourish in—in the quieter ballads such as "Other things of less consequence" or "Utviklingssang" as well as the mid-tempo grooves "Sparrow Lake" or "Thoughts and Reveries." The album couldn't close on a more fitting note than with the bluesy and pop-friendly Gary Burton homage "Desert Roads." City Abstract is the kind of album that will set the day's good mood and fill heads with melodies to hum to.
Friedrich Kunzmann All About Jazz
The concept of homecoming is inextricably linked to the music that Dan McCarthy presents on City Abstract. Recorded in May of 2019, shortly after he had returned to his native Toronto after fifteen years in New York, this date finds the vibraphonist bowing to two of his biggest influences: pianist Carla Bley and vibraphonist Gary Burton. Those lodestars provide solid inspiration and clear direction for McCarthy, who works his way through originals and a few choice covers with a balanced approach that speaks both to strength and poise, and the romance embedded in the act of repatriation adds a touch of nostalgic allure to the music.
Teaming up with a trio of Canada's finest—guitarist Ted Quinlan, bassist Pat Collins and drummer Ted Warren—McCarthy makes his presence felt immediately on "Bleyto (For Carla Bley)." This dynamic original finds Collins and Warren spurring their band mates on. McCarthy and Quinlan, riding the waves of energy produced from on low, spin intricate unison lines and deliver some serious solo statements. From there the vibraphonist dials it back a bit, first with a wide-eyed gaze at Pat Metheny's varicolored "Midwestern Nights Dream" that reaffirms the well-matched nature of McCarthy and Quinlan, and then with a sublimely mellow trip through Keith Jarrett's "Coral" that gives Collins a chance to shine. After delivering those two purely peaceable covers, McCarthy switches gears again, sending a clear message that finesse can be met with fire. "Go Berserk," an intense number in seven underscored by a persistent motif, burns deep during its brief lifespan.
As McCarthy moves past the swaying, straight-eighth "Sparrow Lake" occupying City Abstract's midpoint, the music looks toward more reflective and lyrical realms. "Other Things Of Less Consequence," wistful and warm as it is, proves to be one of the vibraphonist's standout compositions; Bley's "Utviklingssang" plays on a magnetic blend of introspective and seductive sentiments; and 'Thoughts And Reveries," with bossa nova inflections and a modernist's color scheme, flows on by. Then the album comes to a fitting end with "Desert Roads (For Gary Burton)." Alluding to that vibraphone pioneer's rides down country roads and other places, that number provides a solidly satisfying ending with an easy-going vibe and a touch of Southern rock in the mix.
It's tempting to say that the change of scenery has done Dan McCarthy some good, but the truth is that location may have little to do with his musical fortunes. It's a growth mindset that really deserves the credit. McCarthy keeps looking up and, in doing so, reaching new heights.Dan BilawskyAll About Jazz