Reviews Search

Jim White & Marisa Anderson, "Swallowtail"

SwallowtailThis unusual drum and guitar duo first surfaced back in the dark days of early 2020 with The Quickening, which they boldly recorded without ever having previously performed together. Obviously, both artists are seasoned improvisers and excellent musicians, but I was still taken aback by the instant and incredible chemistry on pieces like that album's title track. Given the significant hurdles like distance, touring schedules, and other collaborations, it understandably took quite some time before the opportunity to reconvene presented itself, but the duo finally managed to meet up in White's native Australia in 2022 for some recording sessions in the coastal town of Point Lonsdale. The resultant album feels a bit different from its predecessor for a couple of reasons (no acoustic guitars this time around, "big change of vibe and scenery"), but the three-part "Bitterroot Valley Suite" beautifully recaptures the magic and spontaneity of the pair's debut while also breaking some very compelling new ground.

Thrill Jockey

In the album's description, Anderson notes that Swallowtail's engineer (Nick Huggins) was an avid surfer "attuned to the cycles of tides and sunrises and sunsets and ocean rhythms" and suggests that "all of that got into the music." I could not possibly agree more with that assessment, though I would have guessed that it was actually White who was the surfing enthusiast, as his drumming throughout this album beautifully mirrors the dynamics of rolling and crashing waves. Notably, Anderson's playing evokes water as well, but I would characterize her circular arpeggio patterns as something more akin to ripples in a pond, which is a strategy that works quite well here. In fact, that magic formula runs throughout nearly all of Swallowtail's strongest pieces, such as the opening "Aerie" and the aforementioned "Bitterroot Valley Suite": Anderson's rippling and chiming arpeggio patterns are breathlessly propelled forward by the rolling, elemental power of White's drumming. That said, those pieces are considerably more dynamically and melodically complex than that sounds, as White's crescendos ebb and flow just like actual waves and Anderson's patterns often branch out into tendrils of melody in the spaces between those climaxes.

When Anderson and White veer into more conventional rhythmic or melodic terrain, however, the results can be a bit uneven. That makes sense, as it feels like a waste to relegate a world-class drummer like White to a straightforward beat if he is not playing a pre-existing song (there is a big difference between jamming and improvising, as the former is basically sonic chloroform for me). More significantly, I imagine that improvising strong melodies, hooks, and song-like passages in real-time over the shifting foundations of a free-drumming tour de force would be quite a daunting task indeed (and a counterintuitive one as well). The way I see it, if you find yourself at a beach with big waves rolling in, it makes a hell of a lot more sense to hop on a board, find your balance, and ride those waves as far as they'll take you than it does to try to impose your will upon the fucking ocean.

The intuitive grasp of dynamics like that are what make Anderson and White such a formidable improv unit: they let the music organically flow and simply go where it leads them without imposing their egos upon that flow, though such alchemy only works when both artists are on the same wavelength and have the improv chops to take their mind completely out of the equation. That said, the closing "Aurora" is quite a lovely and surprise outlier, as White sticks to a simple beat to give Anderson a chance to stretch out and weave a languorous, sun-dappled melody that evokes a scenic drive along a gorgeous coastline with the windows down.

After hearing Swallowtail, I immediately went back and listened to The Quickening again. After I finished kicking myself for sleeping on that debut, I was struck by what an impressive (and evolving) body of work Anderson and White have amassed sheerly through spontaneous improvised performances. Despite following Marisa's work for nearly a decade and being a casual fan of several Jim White projects (Dirty Three, Boxhead Ensemble, his collaboration with Nina Nastasia), I definitely did not expect this to be the duo that would finally give Bill Orcutt and Chris Corsano a run for their money, but that was entirely because I had no idea how amazing Jim White's playing could be when he is given free reign to indulge his stumbling, tumbling, and off-kilter freeform virtuosity. Thankfully, I have now been cured of my ignorance and this duo will have my full and enthusiastic attention every time they convene until the end of time.

Listen here.