Duke McVinnie is not the first bandleader and recording artist to approach textural ambiance, pattern study, and long-form cinematic soundscaping as an organic ensemble goal — the values of electronic music pursued with the old tools. What differentiates the veteran guitarist and composer’s achievement is his profound command of the roots, the source material, underneath all the immersive atmosphere. McVinnie is one of the few artists alive as likely to draw comparisons to Radiohead and Tortoise as to Ray Charles and Count Basie, a gritty traditionalist who has run that tradition through a stringently modern art-filter and genre-grinder. But the remaining traces of swing, bop, Latin, blues, funk (norteño, polka, honky tonk) in his compositions are far more than ornamental or referential. They are the whole point, or at least half it.
The Woodstock-residing California native’s resume is an irreconcilable riddle of tradition and experimentation: multi-year stints with Joan Baez and R&B legend Johnny Otis offset by experimental film scores, the avant-pop of his long-running band Shivaree, and at least a few jam sessions with free jazz icon Albert Ayler.
His roots in American music run deep. Mentored by Sam Taylor, Jr., the young McVinnie performed with Big Joe Turner and with Big Momma Thornton. As bassist and guitarist, he has worked with Exene Cervenka, Martha Wainwright, and many more. McVinnie’s vision of an experimental and globalized roots music, however, is most fully expressed and explored in his dozen solo records, many coming in rapid succession in the last few years and made with an A-list assortment of local players and producers.
Co-produced with the great Woodstock procucer and guitarist Danny Blume, Duke’s number 12 is The World’s Oldest Performing Elephant, a large ensemble record on which McVinnie (mostly) turns his back on the conventional songwriting that has always somehow managed to hold at the center of most of his records. Elephant is a fierce, supple, elegant and weird groove record, moving through various modes of desert soul, urban noir, Gypsy prog, Eastern melodic evocations, and fractalized jazz and blues, heavy on the horns.
The sandy southwestern border groove of “Brothers” slithers with elegant menace while “Wolf Spider” galumphs cartoonishly. Many tunes revel in asymmetry, dark jazz squawk, abstract and long arcs. Others, like the showpiece blues track “Detective” are rich in melodic and formal development.
McVinnie’s compositions and arrangements manage to say “jazz” and really mean it while they deconstruct and repurpose the gestures of jazz with the aesthetic of a minimalist painter. How much “happens” in these compositions? Just exactly enough, a mature and restrained balance of musical event and pure sonic materiality. Seldom has a record been more naturally congenial to such modern industry buzzwords as “sync” and “usage.” The World’s Oldest Performing Elephant tells stories and conjures visual worlds.
Don’t sleep on this amazing record, especially if you fondly remember Duke’s long-running residencies at BSP and the Bearsville Theater a little more than half a decade ago. Duke McVinnie should be recognized everywhere as an original and profound voice in serious American music, and one who only seems to get more audacious as he ages. I wish I could tell you where to get the record. Don’t give up. Work for it.