13 January


SOLO/DUO – Eli Wallace and Beth McDonald (2020, Eschatology)


With 2020 now firmly situated in what historians call ‘the past’ we can collectively look forward to 2021 (‘look forward’ is a generous charge — hip-hip! more isolation, exhaustion, and frustration as capital bristles when it is revealed that — wait for it — the market cannot solve everything!). Aye, that 2020 sure was a year to remember! Yes, that’s right it was the year that Brooklyn heart throbs-cum-movers ’n shakers Eschatology Records churned out five (count ‘em, five) tasty releases. It’s no surprise then, that they’d crank out the last one just in time for your ‘year in review’ retrospectives and improv hungry ears.

And no surprises here, Marginal Brev is just getting around to shuffling the paltry tree, shedding needles like there’s no tomorrow (is there?), to the corner and scooping the dried out panettone into the bin… New Year? Take a number and take seat. No matter, all reviews will get served after a swift arm across the desk to clear off detritus and rubbish onto the floor where it belongs!

The final release of MMXX, SOLO/DUO comes courtesy of label mainstay pianist Eli Wallace and tubist Beth McDonald. As its title implies, the work is comprised of two tracks: a solo piano piece by Wallace and a piano/tuba duo featuring McDonald. Having thunk Wallace’s pianee was a bit harsh in previous Eschatology releases, this listener is happy to hear his work as recorded on this release. The mixing is a bit more rounded and less unrelenting, allowing one to absorb the great tinkling, trickling, toying, thumbing of the piano without sufferin’ a mild bout of ear fatigue.

‘Solo’ begins in typical Wallace-ian form— prodding, staccato stabs of the piano — but within the first 10 seconds the listener is treated to a flipping egg-sell-ant squawk — tinny, husky, saxophone-like —emanating from the deep vestiges of the piano or thereabouts. The piece begins in a vein that is jittery and percussive, 2’26” – 4’27” is particularly note worthy. Panned right: apoplectic scraping and teasing, of what is presumably the inner wires of the piano. Panned left: something vaguely metallic is (ostensibly) rigged up inside, coming off all wind-up toy-monkey going to town. Marvelous interplay that ain’t yr standard left hand/ right hand playing (not that Marginal Brevity is against that sort of thing, mind). When the smoke settles, Wallace coaxes even more of the nails on Ornette’s chalkboard sorta vibes and lets some space do the talking. Tasty.

As the piece continues to unfurl, Wallace manages to display flashes of playfulness (in that sleet tickling the shingling, crab claws pinching sort of way) whilst also displaying something best described as a cameral solemnity. How ever does one reconcile chamber music and precocious prodding? By Jove, Wallace does it! Just shy of 15’30”, Wallace’s playing becomes some of its most percussive. The listener is treated to something akin to a ticking, tocking perverse mbira. Despite its clear sonic differences, several moments call to mind a similar spirit that underpins Chris Corsano’s The Young Cricketer.

The McDonald/Wallace duo is, unsurprisingly, a quite different affair from the album’s opening solo sortie (incidentally, the duo recording is also my favourite bit of Wallace’s work). The pair weave hypnotic and subdued patterns to produce the stronger piece on the album. The interplay, space, and dynamics contained therewithin are more clearly reminiscent of the type of improvisation one witness in a live environment. McDonald’s playing in particular, provides a satisfying foil to Wallace’s often bombastic approach, which reigns in the pianists more percussive and/or outlandish bits.

Starting just after the 14′ mark, the pair combine to produce a string-like meditative sequence: droning tuba seamlessly blends with swishing manipulations of piano strings resulting in a strange, murky mixture that lands somewhere between Ellen Fullman and A Handful of Dust. This stretch of playing is far and away the most arresting and truly well worth the price of entry alone.

Admittedly unfamiliar with Beth McDonald’s playing prior to the release, MxBx (™) encourages all forward thinking/hearing listeners to get her on yr radar sharpish. Of all of Eschatology’s thrilling 2020 releases, both the pairing of McDonald and Wallace, and this produced work is arguably the strongest of the Brookyln label’s output this — no small feat.

Microtonal maniacs, piano prodders, or anyone looking to re-live relieve the doldrums of 2020 take heed.