Jeremy Cunningham/Dustin Laurenzi/Paul Bryan

A Better Ghost
(Northern Spy)

Chalk up another one for fruitful long-distance musical relationships. What became a go-to pandemic route of file-sharing and is now a new normal amongst collaborative recording possibilities was, pre-pandemic, already a connective working process for Chicagoan drummer Jeremy Cunningham and the potent-but-subtle saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi and Los Angeles-based producer-bassist Paul Bryan. Laurenzi would sometimes phone in from the road on his gig with Bon Iver, while Bryan’s L.A. studio work kept him in close proximity to tools of the recording trade.

With their moodily poetic and genre-bending jewel A Better Ghost, the principal trio, with special guests flown in from various outposts, have transcended any sense of musical remoteness and created a magical expressive journey. The music hovers somewhere between the neighborhoods of jazz and ambient music, sometimes reminiscent of Notes With Attachments, 2021’s memorable, left-of-jazz collaboration between Blake Mills and Pino Paladino.

Horns converge in a sonorous weave on the opening “Everything” and “Worlds Turn,” alongside a bass/drums foundation and complementary surges of synth-tones in the mix, emanating from the flexible Swedish OP-1 synthesizer and sequencer tool. More conventional and unplugged jazz interplay and energy-swapping appears on “Comfort Station,” whereas acoustic aesthetics forge fresh alliances with electronics on the title track and “Ray Tracing.”

In a way, the album’s one vocal tune, “With What We Have,” is an anomaly with a cause, a moving homage to Cunningham’s late father, Jeffrey. On this ethereal etude, guest singer Katie Ernst intones a bittersweet and quasi-Celtic lyric line over a painterly swelter of sonics, both acoustic and electronic but somehow organic on its own terms. That delicate balance of qualities and attitudes figure into the resounding success and inventive emotional landscape of the enterprise, overall.

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