Sunday, November 21, 2010

Rod Poole - "December 96"

December 96 [excerpt]

This album came into my life in a weird way. I stole it from my old roommate Jesse unintentionally, having somehow become convinced that it had been long-term-loaned to me by my music colleague Jake. I'd imagined this story that Jake had told me to check out this guy playing an hour long improvisation in just intonation. It sounds like something that would have happened, but Jake denies it.

And so I would look at it in my old house for months -- maybe years, I can't remember exactly. But every time I thought about finally giving it a listen, I was defeated by the cover.

And even more by the back cover.

Terrible, right? The front makes Poole look like it's some soulless Yngwie-ish music school chief, while the back looks like a stock image found by the search terms "rootsy folk." In this context, I imagined the use of just intonation was probably a gimmick that this guy was using to market himself as a new important voice in the guitar festival circuit after the failure of his prog band and the disappointing sales of his album of Bach chorales.

But so then I stole it accidentally and, only this summer decided to listen to it. . . having no idea I was in for a heavy minimalist masterpiece. This clip is from the middle of the thing, which is a 50-minute single-sitting improvisation. Poole starts off with some Derek Bailey-style dicking around, which I skip past every time, but then comes into a long section of arpeggios played with what the aforementioned Jake and I usually call True Minimal Spirit -- repetitive just to the point of sounding mechanical, but always with a rock and roll sense of not letting a chord or riff overstay its welcome. Poole varies his right hand patterns to add and subtract notes and little flourishes to and from a few base chords, moving us purposefully through an ethereal tonal field that's only made more otherworldly by his altered tuning system (see Wikipedia on just intonation). I'm also particularly inspired when he pulls out the rubato: dragging and rushing phrases in a way that I find as touching as any version of the Moonlight Sonata (as at the beginning of this excerpt, and again at about 15:55). Or more touching, since this is something I've been doing on acoustic guitars for years, but never with the minimal stamina of this recording. Or Poole's other album from the same period, The Death Adder, which I also stole from Jesse. And which I'll give back.


  1. Rod Poole is great!

    He has two albums in a trio with Nels Cline and Jim McAuley under the name "Acoustic Guitar Trio"; the second one, Vignes, is the only one I've heard and it's quite nice, three long live improvisations. I also like his album of guitar and vocal improv duos with Sasha Bogdanowitsch, but I think it's not as highly thought of in general. It's very pretty, which some find off-putting.

  2. Gold star for recommendations!

    I'll check out the guitar/vox duets, if I can find them online. I'm not off-put by pretty things. I watched a video of the trio and thought it was kind of cool as a live performance, but nothing worth hearing more than once. I'd be curious to hear the album.

    It's interesting that people know who this guy is, because none of my scores of music dude friends had ever once recommended him to me, despite years of playing acoustic guitar fake-minimalism. Also his internet presence is just about non-existent. Yes, I know he's dead.

    Glad to have you reading, Mr. Wolfson.