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Tom Kessler
Ajolote Antonio Poscic , June 28th, 2023 08:39

Glitching electronics and contemporary jazz come together in this singular record from the Berlin-via-Guadalajara guitar player

Analogue synthesisers, digital instruments, and various other electronics offer such a gamut of timbral, textural, and rhythmic constructs otherwise unattainable via acoustic means that their adoption by genres in love with extended techniques like free jazz and free improvisation has always been just a question of when, not if. From Rob Mazurek’s various ensembles that took Chicagoan avant jazz down electronic paths to the wild electroacoustic studies of Jorrit Dijkstra (see Music For Reeds And Electronics: Oakland), the possibilities of expression are nearly endless. Nonetheless, listening to Tom Kessler’s Ajolote, the Mexican improviser and composer’s strange medley of free improv and electronics doesn’t quite belong in any existing drawer.

Born in Guadalajara, Kessler was an active participant in Mexico City’s contemporary jazz and improvisation scene in the 2010s, only to then relocate to Berlin at the turn of the decade. And his music on Ajolote sounds just as these biographical facts suggest. Non-idiomatic guitar articulations, Berlin-influenced electronic music and Latin traditions coexist across the album, assembling in fluctuating arrangements from one cut to the next. A smooth, Bill Frisell-evoking guitar line announces the album opener ‘Río’. But this fairly familiar, jazz fusion aesthetic soon takes on a dusty quality usually found in Sun Araw’s twangy desert rock, attracting a swarm of glitching electronic insects and bouncing, irregular rhythms. As these elements dance around each other, the effect is ineffably alien yet entirely captivating.

While pupae of this sound can be heard combing through Kessler’s catalogue of works released as a leader and sideman – 2019’s Nuevo Valso with bassist Eivind Opsvik and drummer Jochen Rückert is a great piece of post-bop – none quite suggested the creative pulse felt here. It’s as if relying only on his guitar, self-programmed drum machines and synths allowed him the freedom he had always craved. On ‘Cincuenta y Cinco’, this vision materialises in the form of Meridian Brothers gone minimal, with cumbia-like phrases clashing against four-on-the-floor patterns and grooves. Despite the proper hard rhythm of the piece, the overall mood is jazzier as guitar licks and synth rays engage in a swirling improv dialogue.

Elsewhere, ‘Carraca’ is all percussive in its shy demeanour. Digital noises sneak around pointillistic cymbal, hi-hat, snare and tom hits, akin to fingers grasping the air, trying to feel their way down an unlit corridor. When they finally reach the door at its end, they find themselves in the middle of an intense party fuelled by salsa, rumba, and every other Latin dance music imaginable. The same sense of joy and creative fun infects the remaining cuts, from the festive elation imbued in ‘Festín’ to the sensation of endless summer of the folksy ‘San Juan Cosala’. ‘Viogani Rifegoa’ then wraps up this ingenious, quite delicious album with hints of robust avant rock composed of disassembled beats and guitar grunts in the vein of Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog.