Jessica Ackerley is a Canadian-born jazz guitarist who has since relocated to New York City. On Coalesce, she seems to have completely accomplished her goals. To quote her liner notes: “Coalesce is an exploration of the guitar trio. The compositions have been a three-year process of honing the perfect balance between compositional form and complete free improvisation.” It’s clear that the songs on this record are structured and planned, but the group’s flexibility is impeccable. Melodies melt into open sections of improvisation with ease; solos flip-flop between individual focus and collective conversation effortlessly; and the group finds room to embrace space and silence between their primal noisy jam sessions making for a record that offers constant surprises and a perfect balance between not only improvisation and composition, but anticipation and stimulation.
To some degree, the final track ‘merica provides the best summary of the group’s various dynamic levels and playing spaces. As the longest track of the collection, ‘merica builds up from near silence to a heavy final vamp, touching upon all the levels of the spectrum in between. Ackerley opens alone with wandering guitar melody. The line is rather simple and alters between a small handful of notes, but the delivery—especially considering the pounding heaviness of the preceding track—is quite unpredictable, drawing the listener closer for every strum. As the presence of drummer Nick Fraser and bassist Mat Muntz grows in the middle, the group offers some great textures especially when Muntz rips squealing high notes out with his bow. Towards the end of the track, Fraser rounds out the sound with frantic cymbal work as Ackerley lays down dramatic distorted pillars of guitar sound.
On other tracks, the group takes a variety of different approaches to song form, but focusses a bit more on specific levels of volume. The opener, Clockwork, offers a comfortable middle ground to introduce the band. The structure of this one is rather straight-forward as well with the group diving from main theme into a ‘solo’ section, then back to the main theme. Again, I use the term solo rather cautiously because the forms are still rather fluid and each player seems to be constantly changing their playing style to fit wherever the melody is headed.
Minneola opens with guitar solo before jumping into a head with a bunch of different sections. The end of the track doesn’t revert back to the beginning, rather Ackerley transitions from her solo to a vamp to give Fraser room to play around for the last couple minutes of the track. Because the head never comes back in full, the track has a highly improvised sensibility.
Snakes in the Grass is perhaps the most bombastic tune. Ackerley opens with some heavy-handed chords, and although there’s a bit of a digression after the initial head, madness overtakes a great deal of the track. The primal intensity of this track is well earned and keeps things pushing towards the end. Perhaps my only complaint on this record would be that the middle of the track-listing can be a bit slow, but this track and the final come together for a rousing finale.
The album shows a mastery of guitar tone from Ackerley. Her subtle array of effects always seems to place her perfectly within the context of each piece. On the introductory Clockwork, Ackerley keeps it rather clean, but when given space to her own on the aptly titled Solo Guitar, she plays around with an echo effect to fill up the room a bit more. Heavy numbers obviously inspire distortion, but as we see at the beginning of ‘merica, Ackerley also finds time to caress slow melodies with waving foot pedal action.
Coalesce is a sensible name for this project. It’s an experience that blends everything together super well, resulting in a dynamic 48-minute block with shining standout moments as well as a cohesive flow from idea to idea. New York is a crowded place, but Ackerley is sure to be one of the young stars around town in the coming years.