American pianist-keyboards player Thollem McDonas, who goes by the name Thollem, describes himself as a perpetually traveling musician-composer-improviser, singer-songwriter, activist, author and teacher, who spent most of his life living on the road. The American label Astral Spirits began last year to document Thollem’s nomadic musical life during 2019 with the 25-album series «Thollem’s Astral Travelling Sessions», with 55 improvising musicians from Greece, Italy, Canada and throughout the United States. This series offers many possibilities and approaches to free-improvised music, from noise through free jazz, spontaneous songs, to post-classical and Third Stream. Among Thollem’s comrades are bass player William Parker, sax player Hafez Modirzadeh, pedal steel player Susan Alcorn, and percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani. The first three volumes are reviewed below.
The first volume in «Thollem’s Astral Travelling Sessions» series documents Thollem’s meeting with Greek drummer Christos Yermenoglou recorded Live at the Duende Jazz Bar in Thessaloniki in April 2019. Yermenoglou studied Byzantine music, classical percussion, Latin percussion and jazz, and has founded a program for the musical development of infants, toddlers, and preschoolers, which operates in Thessaloniki since 2001. He has performed with John Russell, Fred Lonberg-Holm and Akira Sakata. He has participated in international music festivals in Greece and abroad and has extensive personal discography, as well as numerous participations in albums by artists from Greece and other countries. The first piece in this session is an intense and muscular free jazz meeting, where Thollem, on the piano, and Yermenoglou keep chasing and challenging each other and only occasionally release the tension and explore a groove or a melodic vein. The second piece experiments with extended techniques, inside the piano and with various percussive objects. Mid-piece Thollem begins to improvise on a Middle-Eastern scale and gently articulates a sensual, dance-like melody, supported with wise and subtle touches of Yermenoglou. The third and last piece is a return to the muscular, free jazz mode of the first piece but now in a much more playful approach.
Canadian, Navajo Nation electronics player and educator Raven Chacon guests on the second volume of «Thollem’s Astral Travelling Sessions». He has played and recorded before with Thollem, including in a trio with guitarist John Dieterich from Deerhoof. The live set was recorded at The Array Space in Toronto in November 2019. Chacon processes Thollem’s voice and his Waldorf Blofeld synthesizer through an array of pedals. Chacon and Thollem create a dense, otherworldly yet highly nuanced texture that sounds like it was composed for an eventful sci-fi journey, full of sudden challenges, risky shifts, and noisy adventures.
The third volume of «Thollem’s Astral Travelling Sessions» meets him with members of the Sicilian Improvisers Orchestra (SIO)- flutist and vocalist Eva Geraci, violinist Alessandro Librio and the director of the Sicilian Improvisers Orchestra, double bass player Lelio Giannetto, who died recently f complications from COVID-19. This session was recorded live-in-studio at Almendra Music Studio in Palermo in March 2019. All proceeds from this recording will go to the organization that Giannetto founded, Curva Minore, which brought countless musicians to Sicily from abroad for concerts, workshops and collaborations. Giannetto and Thollem establish immediately a close affinity and an open interplay, emphasizing the humor and imagination of Giannetto. Later, Geraci and Librioadds channel this improvisation into a chamber-jazz territory with their lyrical but passionate colors and through some tense and intense segments. Thollem feels at home with SIO’s detailed, poetic aesthetics and this session is the best so far in this series of releases.
Thollem (p, synth), Christos Yermenoglou (dr, perc), Raven Chacon (elec), Eva Geraci (fl, v), Alessandro Librio (vio), Leilo Giannetto (b)