4 1/2 STARS
Pianist and composer Bill Anschell has made his mark in jazz as a distinctive pianist with a notable body of work. His time in Atlanta, and his extensive residency in Seattle, has produced ten recordings as a leader or co-leader, and a well-deserved following on live dates with two distinctive trios, plus his "Rumbler" band. His previous two recordings define the past decade of his career, with Shifting Standards (Origin, 2018) bearing witness to his trio prowess with partners Jeff Johnson and D'Vonne Lewis. Rumbler
(Origin, 2017) was a collection of quirky Anschell compositions sandwiched between two classics penned by Monk and Ellington, which featured bassist Chris Symer, drummer Jose Martinez and guitarist Brian Monroney—the core of the crew for Improbable Solutions (Origin, 2024).
Throughout his time in Seattle, Anschell has told stories of his fascination with electronic music. Friends in the jazz community often referred to this as his "dark side," with good humor attached, of course. Still, Anschell was searching for a way to connect his electronic explorations with his core values as a jazz pianist.
When the pandemic shutdown hit in 2020, it amounted to a creative gut punch for musicians, especially in jazz where live, in-the- moment performance represents the height of artistry. For Anschell, it was more like a creative and emotional disarmament, allowing him to dive head first into the lost universe of electronic music. It became apparent that these expressions of his alleged alter ego were, in fact, a tangible part of his musical self, exposing avenues of connection which allowed him to direct his artistic worlds to collide in such a way as to express beauty and spirituality in virtually the same way as his acoustic efforts.
The process was long and, as Anschell describes it, "personal." He first composed pieces for the project and recorded them, programming the bass, drums and all other instruments. In a live studio session, Anschell, Symer and Martinez replaced their electronic counterparts. Anschell then mixed the album himself, adjusting the electronic parts with the new acoustic recordings. He added guitar parts from Monroney and percussion from Jeff Busch. Drummer KJ Sawka added explosive drumming on the final track.
The opener, "Ambulator" exemplifies this surgical fusion of sounds and dual consciousness as a one-mind solution. The electronics are orchestrally layered to create an ambient vibe to the session within the solid acoustic framework of what amounts to his Rumbler band. Recording engineer Reed Ruddy's prowess comes to light too, with Martinez' bright cymbal work and Anschell's virtuosic piano work coming across as if the musicians are in the room directly with the listener. The quality is especially striking with the electronic sounds coming across as vital and organic as the acoustic live session sounds.
Busch's presence on "Nimbus" and "Naked Truth" adds weight to the overall sound. It is as if his work is directing the electronic orchestral aspects of the tunes to follow his lead. How is this possible, considering how the pieces were tailored in the studio?
"Is This Thing Even On" is the full-on "crux of the biscuit" concerning the unveiling of Anschell's mad dive into electronics. Blended with his trademark jazz piano style, it sounds like, well, Bill Anschell. Those who are familiar with his acoustic playing have heard this side of the artist before, with a powerful left hand paving the harmonic way for thrilling, melodic runs from his right. Martinez is in push-mode here, disallowing any lapse in energy. "Hidden Nobility" returns to the more ambient quality of Anschell's electronic style, coloring the harmonic and rhythmic pockets of sound within Anschell's notated and improvised work.
The last track, "Outburst," is just that. Drummer KJ Sawka is in overdrive for this heavy ended, up tempo, fusion gem. Monroney supplies some electronics of his own, while Symer transitions to electric bass, side by side with the energetic impulses of Sawka. The versatile, marvelous guitar work of Monroney blows through this piece with a joy ride of a solo.
Kudos go to Origin Records for releasing this album which defies category. It shows their faith in one of the label's mainstays in Anschell. While the pandemic produced a plethora of recorded works growing out of isolation and the unknown, Anschell has risen from the same emotional ashes to produce a work which needed to be heard. It represents a moment of clarity in the ever-evolving career of a Northwest jazz treasure.