Canadian vibesman Dan McCarthy has come a long way since the release of his already very accomplished debut album Interwords (self produced) in 2006. Since moving to Brooklyn, New York in 2004, McCarthy has been able to collaborate with some of the city's finest improvisors, such as Steve Swallow or Ben Monder who are also the musicians joining him on his first of two albums in 2019, both released on the Seattle-based label Origin Records. The quartet performing on early spring record Epoch, featuring Swallow and Monder, is completed by violinist Mark Feldman and stands in stark contrast to the late summer soundtrack City Abstract. The difference between the two outings isn't triggered merely by the change in instrumentation—the first being a drumless quartet venture—but mainly from the very dissimilar compositional approaches. Epoch's deconstructed nature and quietly broiling aesthetic come in the spirit of past achievements from the ECM label, while City Abstract leans more towards the mainstream direction and is filled with Bop-lines and Fusion-language. Both are deserving of a number of spins and attentive ears for different, and many reasons.
Six original compositions make up the tranquilly reflective journey that McCarthy and his sidemen on strings take the listener on with Epoch
. Tranquil mainly in the sense of relative volume. For Opening "A Dream, Wake" greets the listener with dissonance and discord that seem everything other than calm. Fuzzy, distorted guitar droning is met by fluttering violin brushes and isolated vibraphone melodies— experimentalist Monder doesn't hesitate to go full speed on what seems to be a metal guitar riff. As soon as the storm quiets down and merges into "Fugitive Epoch" however, what seemed to be arbitrary by design becomes very carefully constructed interplay between deep bass-pulses and strikingly sad melodies. Violin, guitar and vibes share their roles in equal parts—from picking up the melody, handing it over to then framing the new leader. Feldman's emotive violin playing digs deep into the percussive register of the instrument while seamlessly gliding through the notes with little forays into the gypsy minor scale. Surprising harmonic shifts combined with soft guitar strokes from Monder let "Softly She Sings Her Song" ring echoes of John Abercrombie while "Strange Medicine on the Desert" shines a light on the patient interplay and careful arrangement between the four. The closing exercise "A Dream, Asleep" confirms that no matter in what state, to McCarthy dreams apparently are quite the roller coaster. An introverted and difficult recording that is all the more rewarding.