The Cellar and Point – Ambit (2014)

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What is this? Post-rock? Experimental chamber music? Out-jazz? The septet The Cellar and Point are elegant but enigmatic practitioners of instrumental music. The Cellar and Point’s main protagonists, Joseph Branciforte, a drummer and producer, and Christopher Botta, a guitarist, grew up together in New Jersey and absorbed, in Branciforte’s words, everything “from Autechre to Morton Feldman to Wu-Tang Clan to J.S. Bach.” Their backgrounds only deepen this mystery. (Branciforte, by the way, has worked with Tim Berne, Vijay Iyer, Ben Monder and Nels Cline, artists who all thrive on elusiveness).

Assembling a group that supplements their guitar and drums with bass (Rufus Philpot), vibraphone (Joe Bergen), Violin (Christopher Otto), cello (Kevin McFarland) and another guitarist (Terrence McManus), their debut album Ambit is poised for release by Cuneiform on October 14, 2014, and is “debut” in name only, because Branciforte and Botta don’t behave like rookies at all.

Compositional savvy and improvisation do exist on these songs, but texturing and flow reign; the production and arrangements are the art. “Purple Octagon” provides a case in point. The backward looping of electric guitar approximates a steel guitar, not Jimi Hendrix. The alternately plucked/bowing of strings, guitar chimes, vibraphones, and a brushed snare hints at everything from bluegrass to Bach. There’s even a hint of fuzzy guitar prowling just underneath the surface that ever-so-slightly disturbs the gentle vibe of all this. You might say that’s a point where the post-rock part of this band’s long description of their music comes in. Critically, it all comes together naturally.

The banjo plucked by Botta on “0852” among the swirling strings and complex rhythms sound more like a programmed synth bit than a backwoods rural instrument in this setting. “Tabletop,” parts ‘a’ and ‘b’, suggests avant-classical but before you know it, it’s morphed into something akin to math rock and goes across several more movements along a single thread but multiple moods. There’s even a rock guitar solo thrown in for good measure. I could listen to this song pair ten more times and find at least ten more things to say about it, there must be a dozen sections in it, and each section seems fussed over.

With all these surprising ingredients applied to each song, I still wasn’t expecting the stilted drum ‘n’ bass of “White Cylinder,” — again, divided into parts ‘a’ and ‘b’ — where the cello/violin, electric guitar and vibes combine leading on a heavily stuffed melody line, their roles eventually splintering apart into several harmony zones. Here, that rock guitar solo is gotten out of the way right at the beginning of the song.

It’s alternately knotty and straightforward, smooth and at times a little abrasive, tonal and dissonant. Anyone can do that. But can they put all these together into a consistent, connected whole like The Cellar and Point does? I doubt it.

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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