This is the second Acoustic Guitar Trio album, a follow-up to their 2001 studio-recorded release on Derek Bailey’s Incus label. Vignes was recorded live in 2003 at the Downtown Playhouse (on Vignes Street, hence the title) in Los Angeles. The three pieces here represent the edited highlights from two improvised sets. Judicious editing removed such distractions as traffic noise, leaving what sounds like a pure set. Of all the live recordings of the trio, this is the only one that the trio scrutinized and unanimously agreed was ripe for release. It’s hard to disagree with them on that decision.
If an acoustic guitar trio conjures up echoes of Crosby, Stills & Nash or even McLaughlin, DiMeola & DeLucia, prepare to be surprised. This trio has few links to such paradigms; they play microtonal improvisations with no unison strumming in evidence. The trio’s members are Nels Cline, Jim McAuley and the late Rod Poole, who was murdered in the car park of a Hollywood diner. The three have very different styles of playing, but they combine and complement each other well. Poole’s microtonal tunings gave his guitar a distinctive sound, as does his occasional use of a bow. As on his solo album Gongfarmer 18, McAuley displays blues influences and employs a range of extended improvising technique, including playing below the bridge and detuning whilst playing. Although better known as an electric guitarist, Cline improvises well on acoustic, weaving fine detail around the others.
Such characterizations of the three do not fully do justice to the trio. Unlike their Incus album, on which they were clearly separated in the stereo image, here it is not possible to fully disentangle each player’s contribution from the others. No matter, at its best the trio doesn’t sound like three individuals but like one single-brained, many-handed entity. When all three are in full flow together, the results make for thrilling listening. This is not music to analyze but to wallow in. Cline tellingly describes their methodology: “make up a tuning on the spot for each improvisation, look around at each other to find the nods and grins of agreement that meant a promising tuning combination had been arrived at, and GO. For Jim McAuley and me, it was challenging yes, but more like breathing; natural, nurturing.”
Sadly, Vignes marks the end for Acoustic Guitar Trio, unless Cline decides to release more archival material. For now, this album acts as a fitting tribute to both Poole and a unique threesome.