Bassist Billy Mohler’s 2019 debut Focus, hailed by Nextbop.com as “an incredibly free, unconstrained and inventive record filled with exciting twists and turns and constant detours,” marked the auspicious start of an exploratory new quartet led by one of LA’s most accomplished musicians. The quartet featured a cohort of Mohler’s close friends who happen to be jazz heavyweights: tenor saxophonist Chris Speed, trumpeter Shane Endsley and drummer Nate Wood. So inspired by the Focus session was Mohler that he wrote the material for the follow-up, Anatomy, right away. Now that fiery, sonically inventive sophomore effort is here, capturing a lineup with deeply intertwined personal and musical histories that continue to ripen and evolve.
“I’ve always loved chordless quartets or trios,” says Mohler of the band’s format with no chordal accompanying instrument (e.g., piano or guitar). “It’s a very liberating configuration, that naturally provides space within the music.” Anatomy brings that kind of loose, raw, indeterminate band chemistry to the fore, but adds a new sonic dimension to the improvisations as well. You can hear it at times during Speed’s tenor flights, or in the ghostly echoes lurking around Endsley’s angular solos: the sound of post-production effects, implemented by Mohler and producer Dan Seeff in the most organic, artistic way.
“Each horn player’s effects track was performed live,” Mohler explains. “On Chris’s solos, for instance, Dan and I would ‘play’ the Echoplex effect to the solo live. We wanted the efx tracks to enhance the performances, and build upon the lines that Chris and Shane played. We did this kind of thing on Focus but we hinted at it and kept it very, very back in the mix. For Anatomy we wanted to let it out a little more. It was a conscious effort that Dan and I took, to make the album unique and give it a voice.”
Mohler and Nate Wood grew up close friends and have experienced everything from playing arena-rock shows to the most obscure jazz and experimental music together. “Nate is the most supportive musician you could play with,” says Mohler. “He just finds that thing that is great in everybody and makes it better. He plays bass exactly the way he plays drums, and he plays guitar that way too.” Wood and Endsley also share a deep connection in the genre-defying, GRAMMY-nominated group Kneebody. Speed and Mohler play together in the Jimmy Chamberlin Complex, led by The Smashing Pumpkins drummer, as well as Black Friday TRiO, with a self-titled 2019 release.
The paths all converge in Mohler’s quartet on Anatomy, providing an ideal vehicle for the leader’s flexible, rough-hewn and insistently rhythmic compositions. “We never discussed an arrangement,” Mohler recalls of the session. “The majority of the album, the rehearsal take is the take. There was little to no discussion, as to what would be played, or how the songs would stop or start.” A similar open-endedness permeates the three “Abstract” solo bass interludes, the first of which entails a rare overdub. “The ‘Abstracts’ were all improvised, as I wanted to keep the feeling of the band songs within these pieces,” Mohler adds. The contrasting use of motion and space stands out, as does the body and resonance of Mohler’s tone. Working with the sparsest of materials, Mohler finds a way — as both a bassist and a bandleader — to forge something complete, in a category of its own.
A graduate of Berklee College of Music, Mohler attended the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz as one of only five students, studying with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and other luminaries. Along with his jazz credentials, he has amassed wide-ranging credits in the pop world as a session bassist, producer and songwriter, working with Dolly Parton, Macy Gray, Lady Gaga, Nile Rogers, Sia, Mavis Staples, Kelly Clarkson, Steven Tyler, Jon Brion and a host of others.
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