By Kenny Berkowitz
In the two years since their first album, the Elijah McLaughlin Ensemble’s three players have drawn closer together, and their sound has grown deeper, subtler, more sympathetic. They’ve become less like a trio and more like a gamelan, with their separate voices—guitar, hammered dulcimer, and bowed bass—combining into a mid-range orchestra of ringing steel strings. In McLaughlin’s case the guitars include a Martin DM-12, a Guild D-25M, and a Martin OMC-15E.
Elijah McLaughlin Ensemble
Elijah McLaughlin Ensemble II
On “Spring,” the group starts mid-measure and at full-throttle, with a flurry of notes on dulcimer, a wavering legato on bass, and a strummed-and-picked acoustic guitar that ranges restlessly in between. Over the next five minutes, there are moments that sound like American Primitive, moments that sound like chamber music, and moments that sound like rush hour outside their Chicago recording studio—a heart-pounding cacophony of traffic, footsteps, trees, leaves, grasses, birds, and cool winds welcoming the Midwest change of season.
That’s followed by “Interlude,” the album’s quietest track, and “Blind Valley,” which builds from light,meditative guitar to a full-bodied crescendo of thrumming pizzicato bass, pinging dulcimer, strumming guitar tremolo, and hands hitting hard against the sides of their wooden instruments. The album ends with “Confluence,” the most ambitious, orchestral piece here, another celebration of the natural world in all its crowded, pulsating, chaotic glory, where guitar and dulcimer merge and separate, tensions rise and fall, ideas pass from player to player, and themes shift direction until the whole mess finally resolves itself in a rush of notes—a testimonial to the power of first takes, in-studio improvisation, and the post-pandemic persistence of nature and art.