Bill Anschell, Improbable Solutions


Bill Anschell, Improbable Solutions
Origin, January 2024


It takes all of five bars for a ring modulator to slink, unassumingly, and rather unexpectedly, into the opening track of Seattle-based pianist Bill Anschell’s newest work. A few seconds on, when guitarist Brian Monroney flicks his strings like Avi Bortnick on one of John Scofield’s Überjam records, the album title falls into place: Improbable Solutions. There’s no saying what “problem” this excellent album is bent on solving, but its methods, for an acoustically inclined artist like Anschell, are “improbable” indeed.

Released by Seattle’s Origin Records, Improbable Solutions is being trumpeted as a “stylistic departure” for Anschell.  What’s astonishing about this heady nine-song collection is how familiar the pianist sounds among electronics and how smoothly he blends traditional jazz instrumentation with disparate studio techniques.

Anschell has long dabbled in digital sounds, working hard to accomplish this record’s seamlessness. Whereas his last album was recorded in all of three and a half hours, Improbable Solutions took over three years to compose, program, and record. “I mixed the project myself so I could adjust the electronic parts to the new acoustic tracks,” Anschell says, “replacing some electronic sounds, refining others.”

“It was all seemingly endless until I forced myself to declare an ending.”

Assisted by an all-star Northwest cast – Monroney on guitar, Chris Symer on bass, Jose Martinez on drums, Jeff Busch on percussion, and KJ Sawka taking up the kit for an incendiary one-track finale – Anschell plants his flag at a satisfying endpoint. Martinez and Symer form a wonderful rhythmic bedrock, complementing the syncopated compositions around which Anschell structures his art. Busch broadens the soundscape on three tunes with his telltale Latin-inflected ostinato, most notably on “Nimbus.”

Anschell’s electroacoustic brew reaches a subtle peak on “Naked Truth,” his ponderous piano afloat on waves of modulating synthesizers. Improbable Solutions has been carefully balanced so that the electronic never supersedes the acoustic, or vice versa. That said, Anschell takes his digital horses on some memorable trots, first on “Is This Thing Even On?” and again with KJ Sawka on “Outburst.”

“In high school,” says Anschell, “when I heard synth-driven progressive rock for the first time, I suffered what felt like a musical epiphany.”

The sentiment echoes fellow pianist Brad Mehldau, whose homage to classic prog took form in 2022’s Jacob’s Ladder. There’s fertile ground for exploration here, and Anschell is a worthy discoverer, invoking Jan Hammer with classic synth tones on “Is This Thing Even On?”

The album’s prog portion comes to a romping head when local treasure KJ Sawka enters the fold on “Outburst.” Now, Anschell bows to his high school id, drawing up a juicy 7/4 bassline mirrored by Sawka’s rolling snare. Whereas “Is This Thing Even On?” echoed prog’s classic era, Anschell pulls a Marty McFly for his finale, shouldering up to Ozric Tentacles and niche British shredders.

This is an unlikely destination for Anschell, but he sticks the landing. It takes equal parts courage and ingenuity to alter one’s sound as much as he has on Improbable Solutions. Consider the problem solved.


Posted on

February 29, 2024