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Fred Lonberg-Holm and the Amphibians of the Everglades: Bow Hard at the Frog

Fred Lonberg-Holm and the Amphibians of the Everglades: Bow Hard at the Frog

A serious, if playful endeavor.

Fred Lonberg-Holm and the Amphibians of the Everglades: Bow Hard at the Frog

3.25 / 5

Cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, who has played with such jazz legends as Joe McPhee, Peter Brötzmann and Ken Vandermark and has even recorded with Wilco, meets what are perhaps his most challenging accompanists on his new album,Bow Hard at the Frog. But he has not simply chosen an unusual anthropomorphic name for his band; taking its title from score instructions in Iannis Xenakis’s piece “Kottos,” the album in fact features Lonberg-Holm accompanying frogs and other creatures residing in the Florida Everglades. If this sounds like a joke, note that label co-founder John Corbett is author of A Listener’s Guide to Free Improvisation, so this is a serious, if playful endeavor. Adventurous listeners looking for unusual sounds will not be disappointed.

The album’s six tracks are titled with variations on “Far” and “Near.” “Far 1” opens the set with the sound of crickets, establishing location before Lonberg-Holm bows a first note (hard), to which a frog responds with a single, sonorous croak and the cellist then launches into a two-minute drone. These are field recordings (made by Gustavo Matamoros, who gets a “featuring” credit in the manner of a hip-hop showcase) in the study of man vs. nature, with the manmade music in the distance almost serving as texture amid the main attraction of swamp sounds, the frogs occasionally letting out double-croaks that sound like a sparely burping lower-register brass instrument.

The cellist reaches for deeper timbres on “Near 2,” which doesn’t place his instrument much more in the foreground but does in a sense lead the organic orchestra, whose rippling din at times sounds like abstract tape loops. When a swamp creature lets out a shriek, the effect is startling. While the human interplay with nature sounds is what lures the curious to these less-travelled parts, it’s hard not to project human agency onto the swampy denizens, especially when the chorus squawks like a free-improv alto saxophone.

“Near 1,” which at over 16 minutes is the longest track here, is the most prominent feature for the bandleader. Lonberg-Holm sets out with a dramatic, scratchy vibrato, leaving room for his slimy-skinned bandmates to respond with bleats and brassy warbles. It’s as if John Zorn took his game piece Cobra and instead of assembling all-star players from the Downtown jazz scene took his show into the dark heart of nature; Bow Hard at the Frog makes you wonder if it ever occurred to Zorn to perform with live snakes.

It’s too bad a tour isn’t possible—the logistics would probably require permission from the National Park Service and copious amounts of mosquito repellent for attendees. But Lonberg-Holm’s experiment suggests the ultimate outdoor music festival—one in which musicians play second fiddle to the sounds of nature. From a recording that’s “noisy” by design to an approach that’s unconventional even in the context of its milieu, Bow Hard at the Frog obviously isn’t for everyone, and may not reward the repeated listening earned by the exemplars of the avant garde. But doesn’t the concept make you at least a little bit curious?

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