In the ideal world of astute journalism a writer should never use personal implications while reviewing a record, but there’s something in Jim McAuley’s The Ultimate Frog that puts into instant comfort mode, a “that’s right” sensation accompanying this listener ever since the very first track. The 2-CD set is a collection of solo pieces for guitar (classical, steel-string, 12-string, dobro, “prepared Marquette parlor” and “marxophone”, to be precise) and, especially, duos with the likes of violinist Leroy Jenkins, percussionist Alex Cline, double bassist Ken Filiano and fellow guitarist Nels Cline.
Talking about comfortableness, McAuley is that specimen of musician whose open-mindedness makes you feel at home whatever the subject of his creativity that he decides to deepen. When improvising, a theoretical configuration is still available for the mind to clutch at, shutting mystifications and infertility out of the room; contrariwise, approaching a solitary Towner-esque piece on the classical, infinitesimal fissures in the general architecture of the composition transform a possible stiffness into a delicate portrayal of fragility. McAuley interacts splendidly with his comrades, too: the duets with Jenkins range from tenderly embracing to nearly impenetrable, the intricate conversations with Nels Cline often touching semi-pernicious topics (always with an ironic wink at the end, though). Jazz is barely present – at times, Filiano tries to lay some serious swinging in there, yet the Carter/Hall duo this ain’t – and the percussive universe of Alex Cline is more functional to the protagonist’s voice when things remain on the ethereal side.
The quality of the recording is often so good that we can almost put the finger on the musicians: the nails on the strings, the tiny imperfections, above all the deep breathing characterizing intense moments of near-silence. Overall, what remains after these two discs have ended their spinning cycle is the picture of an extremely perceptive artist who elevates the art of making music to a level where having to do with the profound aspects of creation equals the feeling of sitting in peace while watching your cat playing. An intimate experience that surpasses any kind of vacuous virtuosity one might encounter and get fooled by.