Tim Kuhl – St. Helena (2012)

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When first writing about composer, bandleader and drummer Tim Kuhl two and a half years ago, I took note of his diversity within complex, abstract and challenging styles. Since then, he’s made more records that wipe the slate clean from what he’s made before and starts again with a whole new approach. A real musical chameleon, the common theme in Kuhl’s music is his penchant for taking on demanding situations, and his discreet, tasteful drumming that does not require drum solos to call attention to himself, preferring instead to make a decent song into a really good one.

Following the indie rock-kissed jazz of King (2009), the dense wild free-jazz of Doomsayer and the avant garde trio take on Bartok (Little Worlds), there’s no telling what Kuhl is going to do next, except knowing it won’t sound like those other records. St. Helena, that next record is sure enough predictably unpredictable.

Kuhl could be nominally called a jazz musician given his training and his improvisational flair, but his latest project leaves behind any pretense of bop. St. Helena is Kuhl’s “rock” album, but with Kuhl, nothing ever really fits in a slot as neatly as that. With a heavy use of electric and electronic instruments, and sharply identifiable harmonies compared to before, it would be easier for a casual listener to call it that.

But as with his other projects, all is not what it seems to be. The seven tracks play as discreet acts of some imaginary play. Kuhl’s presence isn’t even felt on the introductory “3612 (a sparkling sapphire),” an ambient piece of a single chord droned over six minutes emanating from Ryan Ferreira’s electric guitar. The dreamy “St. Helena” wouldn’t be out of place in a prog rock album by Pink Floyd disciples. Kuhl creates a hypnotic repeating figure grounded by Jared Samuei’s bass, and gently folds in an odd variety of instruments like trombone (Rick Parker), pedal steel guitar (Philip Sterk), guitars (Grey McMurray), Wurlitzer (Joshua Vaileau) and effects, all swirling around this ostinato in a collective drawing in and drawing out of musical breathing. In his subtle ways, Kuhl carefully manages the ebb and flow of the song from behind is kit, setting off small changes in directions in mood by mini-fills or cymbal rides.

Kuhl gets out front more for “Pandora’s Box,” letting the rest of the band catch up with his intensity gradually. The minute-long, similar sounding “Dead Bell” is intense from the start, punctuated by short breaks in the action. His cyclical, hypnotic rhythmic pattern sets the tone for “Emperor Butterfly,” set against celestial soundscapes and electronic noise. For “Tales Of Transformation,” Kuhl’s glockenspiel and Samuel’s bass mimic the ticking of a clock while odd sounds from drums and electronic effects appear and disappear at random. The set ends with the most straightforward song, a slow grooving “Indigo Blue,” as a trombone, electric guitar and steel guitar ride along Kuhl’s and Samuel’s steady vibe.

Clocking in at less than 32 minutes, St. Helena is over before you know it, but the songs individually end at the times where it feels they should end. These ideas explored by Kuhl are tidier, concise ideas, and he wisely didn’t press his luck by making them overlong. Another interesting change in direction by Tim Kuhl gives his fans a lot to ponder and solve in those thirty minutes, until he comes back again with another clean slate and a one-eighty degree turn for his next project.

St. Helena became available for sale July 10. Visit Tim Kuhl’s site for more info.

There’s more Tim Kuhl well worth exploring, and we’ve done a little of that lately. Click through the titles for complete reviews …

Tim Kuhl – King: Straddling a no-man’s land between rock and jazz, Kuhl devises subtle and complex compositions that guys like Nir Felder and Jon Irabagon thrive on.

Tim Kuhl – DoomSayer: A mind-blowing free-jazz encounter that includes fellow Baltimore native Michael Formanek.

Little Worlds – Book One: Kuhl in a trombone/guitar/drums trio interpreting Bartok miniatures with an avant rock-jazz bent. The results are intriguing and imaginative.

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S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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