For the Record


Frank Kohl

Album Cover of Frank Kohl's Solitude

In jazz music, solo performances on piano or guitar are the noblest of ventures. No other format leaves the artist quite so vulnerable, and represents a task so daunting. The rewards are rich however, for once the player achieves a portion of success in pairing melody and harmony, the music can go in any direction that the player wishes. 

Guitarist Frank Kohl has run the proverbial gamut as a jazz guitarist. His journey has taken him from his native New York City, to the San Francisco Bay, and since 1990, to his adopted home in Seattle. All the while, he has maintained his precision playing within the great jazz guitar tradition that includes heavyweights Jim Hall, Grant Green, Barney Kessel, and Peter Bernstein. 

With Solitude, the entire sum of Kohl’s creative intuitions come to light, illuminated by the oneness of his warm, exquisite tone. His sound is barely amplified and is characterized by his mastery of the harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic elements of whatever piece he chooses to interpret. In a sense, his playing is aural, playing ideas that come to mind in the moment, as opposed to relying on set patterns his fingers may chance upon. These are the essential points that draw a listener into a solo performance, more so than the particular tunes chosen to perform. In Kohl’s case, the clarity of his technique is almost an afterthought, a vessel to carry his expressive capabilities.

Kohl composed about half of the album’s thirteen tunes, and also included standards—from Ellington’s “I Got it Bad,” to the Jobim gem, “Once I Loved.” His intimate relationship with originals truly comes through, as the lush, memorable melodies are strongly stated enough to stand on their own. “Solitude” and “Still Missing You” offer rich melodies steeped in melancholia, accentuated with grace and beauty by Kohl’s colorful voicings, and daring connecting runs. It is within his own tunes that he need not feel indebted to tradition, or past masters. In either case, he knows how to create space and pause within a tune, surrounding the listener with its beatific qualities.

The great solo guitarists are remarkably proficient at interpreting the nuances of bebop and post-bop vocabulary in an orchestral sense. Solitude presents Kohl at his introspective best, lyrically and spontaneously setting himself apart from common expectations. –Paul Rauch


Album cover of Spontanea's Quintaphonic

Consisting of Scott Schaffer (bass), Carol J. Levin (electric harp), Kenny Mandell (saxophones, flutes), Matthew Benham (guitar), and Colorado-based James Hoskins (cellist), the improvisation ensemble Spontanea has only played a handful of times live. Shortly before the pandemic, however, they were able to record a follow up to their last release, 2020’s spacey Chromasonic (also on Schaffer’s independent label Right Brain Records). Their newest presents another superb collection of improvisations—the quintet’s collective searching, charged with the taut motion of uncertainty, could not have been more timely. 

Hoskins sets the scene on the opener, “Inverted Rainbow,” with a long, melancholy arco tone. A specialist in Mediterranean string music, Hoskins provides a lyrical counterbalance to the group’s wanderings. Evoking the shakuhachi with breathy flute harmonics, Mandell adds a spray, like plays of light off water, as Benham’s eddying guitar effects return their reflections. Schaffer comes in with scratchy cords on the mandola, while the group’s caution gives way to the stream of events—almost imperceptible interactions between players that mount like leaves stuck in water. 

The quintet’s instruments intertwine on “Svaha,” a spine-tingling group drone like a glance down a chasm. Benham processes industrious shredding as Levin picks pentatonic melodies, the swirling plunge wired with Mandell’s percussion hits, until a slight chord barely marks the surprising end. Smaller group pieces like “Dos Espadas,” a slow-branching study in tonal parallels by Mandell and Hoskins, demonstrate the well-tuned camaraderie of the group. “Tres Holas” matches string timbres with fretless bass, the electric guitar’s hall of mirrors, and the sudden plucked splash of Levin’s harp. Ambitious within the small scale of their pieces, the improvisors are able to convene intricate parallels out of nowhere, a higher reason of the indeterminate.

“Primordia Discordia” dissociates this process in a clever staging of harmony’s antinomies. Beginning with a sunny dance of cello and harp, metal shreds and overblown sax squeals enter like an afterthought, only to disrupt the tranquil setting with their own jubilations. Like the group’s eclectic approach to instrumentation and timbre, the group’s sense of humor matches their collaborative concentration. Levin, who often adds effects to her instrument, easily fits the harp’s to Mandell’s classically avant-garde blowing. 

For the remarkable last track “Quintaria,” the group follows through a delicately drifting, uneasy mood, faint as semi-darkness before day’s end: as a broad cello melody slowly glistens, odd sounds set in like shapes in the dusk. It’s only from a long-sustained and developed intimacy that the quintet can summon, so gradually and carefully, the diffused gestures of this lasting instant, to show time coherent by its dispersal. Here, as in the natural world, the conditions and relationships that make this perception possible are a precious epiphany. –Ian Gwin


Posted on

March 1, 2021