The folk singer enlists an elite, dynamic group of players for an album deconstructed from a master jam session, naturally creating his most jazz-forward release to date.
You can rely on Sam Amidon’s albums for heavily reworked American traditionals and a bit of Irish folk, mixed with a heartfelt pop cover or two—and always that beseeching voice, with its dusky bronze hue, elongating syllables like whale song. But only the last is present on The Following Mountain, his first record of mostly original material, save for a few stray citations: the lyrics of “Blackbird,” a Kentucky fiddle tune, and some lines from a 17th-century poem. It is also, as foreshadowed by the presence of the electric jazz guitarist Bill Frisell on his last record, Amidon’s most jazz-forward release to date.
Amidon inspires deep personal identification in his fans, but his sixth album sometimes courts admiration more than cathexis, at least compared to its most crushable predecessors. He usually spins old-time music into jazzy flights and neoclassical compositions, stitching rustic motifs and lyrics into postmodern Appalachian pastiches. Here, he’s done the opposite, extracting folk songs from his own improvisations. Free-jazz finale “April” is the album’s keystone, the final twelve minutes of an epic sesh with some prodigious players along for the jam including percussionist luminary Milford Graves. The spiritual saxophonist Sam Gendel, the eclectic instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily, and other younger musicians also add fine playing throughout
Amidon and producer Leo Abrahams reverse engineered songs from individual moments of the master jam, and drew out a unifying, gently driving rhythm across the album. The resultant music rolls and shimmers, with hard little fillips of guitar glinting in waves of woodwinds and violins, organs and electric basses. The bright purity of beloved songs like “Saro” are absent. Instead, imagine if Amidon’s best record, I See the Sign, had been all “Kedron” and “How Come That Blood”—all understated dynamics and trotting rhythm—and no “Johanna The Row-di” or “Pretty Fair Damsel.”
It’s not a bad look, but the record has a rocky start. “Fortune” is simply underdeveloped, a sketch. “Ghosts,” though, is a real stumbling block. Amidon drags ear-splitting squalls across his violin and howls almost tunelessly, as if the music were a thicket he’s trying to claw out of. But things quickly settle down, and familiar dreamlike pastorals reign, with an effect like looking at an Andrew Wyeth painting while—not tripping, exactly, but gently hallucinating as from sleep deprivation.
The Following Mountain is more a musician’s record than an art object. “Another Story Told” emphasizes, however archly, the gestures of live-in-a-room playing (“Fiddles,” announces a carefully tracked-in voice); other song titles also shout out their players (Sultan’s elegant congas propel the entrancing “Juma Mountain” and Gendel leads the mythic “Gendel in 5” with force and clarity). The cold-burning blues of “Warren,” blending an old shape-note song and a Chinese poem, matches these highlights in sultry, solemn grit.
But what to do with “April”? It’s a juicier voyage through extended techniques than “Ghosts,” but it’s also an undeniably jarring ending for a placid record, and I’m not sure one can even appreciate the end of a long improv out of context. It’s interesting that it is the master document for the other songs, but that doesn’t make listening to them side by side feel intelligible. It’s no knock on the great drummer Graves, who once gigged with Albert Ayler and Sonny Sharrock, to wonder who would ever put on a Sam Amidon record when they were in the mood for some rowdy jazz. But, a few odd decisions aside, there’s enough between the unforgiving slopes to make this essential for Amidon’s present devotees, if not the perfect mountain for prospective new ones to climb.