If you were to listen blind to this debut by The Unsemble and take a wild guess as to which musicians are in the band, chances are that Alexander Hacke and longtime Nashville transplants Duane Denison and Brian Kotzur wouldn’t even make your list. Typically, when groupings such as this form, we can reasonably expect the results to sound like an amalgamation of the constituent bands that each player represents — only not as captivating, because the combination of multiple elements tends to lose something by adding them together. In this case, guitarist Denison, bassist Hacke and drummer Kotzur sidestepped that pitfall by coming up with all-instrumental music that bears little to no resemblance to the work each participant is best known for — The Jesus Lizard, Einstürzende Neubauten and Silver Jews, respectively. (Denison currently leads the Mike Patton-fronted quartet Tomahawk, but has also played together with Kotzur in Silver Jews, as well as with Nashville’s own Bobby Bare Jr. and British soul singer Beverly Knight.)
With this album (recorded mostly over a two-week period at Denison’s rehearsal space in the Bordeaux area of North Nashville), the trio boldly ventures out on a number of limbs. Rare is the case in which artists can successfully reinvent themselves without exposing their limitations and reinforcing how their individual gifts only shine within a specific set of parameters. And given that The Jesus Lizard, Neubauten and Silver Jews each pretty much represents a musical archetype unto itself, it’s all the more impressive that Denison, Hacke and Kotzur were able to establish what sounds like a limitless palette to build from. It’s not like Hacke, who produced the album, hasn’t stretched his boundaries in his extensive body of work outside of Neubauten (or for that matter, in latter-day Neubauten as well). Ditto for Denison and Kotzur. But even their most devoted fans should expect to be surprised at The Unsemble’s subtlety of touch.
Loosely speaking, The Unsemble can be described as a form of modern experimental jazz-cum-chamber music with distant (and rather warped) traces of lounge — but thinking within that framework doesn’t prepare you for the wealth of stylistic shadings the band draws from while at the same time remaining faithful to no particular genre’s rules. For example, though the band challenges genre conventions at almost every turn, the music shies away from abrasion and explosiveness as Hacke, Denison and Kotzur work primarily in quiet, downtempo dynamics. By the same token, they don’t exactly let listeners off easy either, never quite giving your brain a reason to file the music away as background/soundtrack fodder. On the contrary, the band packs a rather powerful punch via nimble chord structures and moody twists.
It’s telling that, although there are five selections titled “Improv,” it’s difficult to pick apart which pieces were composed versus made up on the spot. While The Unsemble certainly lets its experimental muse run wild throughout, it also keeps each piece reined in to a concise playing time. This combined sense of adventure and economy gives the impression that The Unsemble is trying to take you to new places without making it a chore to get there. Sometimes, of course, music that makes you work hard to appreciate it can be hugely rewarding. On the other hand, The Unsemble’s manner of pushing your limits without being too pushy in some ways takes more audacity — and certainly more cunning — to pull off. Not to mention that The Unsemble uses a steel drum without ever succumbing to Paul Simon-style “worldbeat” tourism. Need we say more?