August 2018 Album of the Month: Kittel and Company

Kittel and Company
Fiddlestick Music/Compass

There are legions of perfectly competent musicians, but the list of great ones is much shorter. Listen to 30 seconds of “Pando,” the opening track of Whorls, and you’ll know that Jeremy Kittel soars in the rarefied air of category number two. If you’re looking to slap a genre label on him, though, that will take much longer. You’ll hear passages on “Pando” that remind you of the Penguin Orchestra and bright swoops that are faintly bluegrass, but the latter is nothing Bill Monroe would have recognized. Then comes a contemplative cello and mandolin bridge from Nathaniel Smith and Joshua Pinkham respectively. A hoedown teaser follows, then a swirl, fast-paced fiddle fill, and a fade. “Ohmsted” is another head-scratcher. It opens with a somnambulant touch and then sprints into breakdown mode.

Get used to it; Whorls is as enigmatic as it is utterly brilliant. “The Boxing Reels” is dance tempo built around Simon Chapman’s hammer dulcimer, but for a circle of faeries traipsing in the morning dew. He warms them up gently, before Kittel quickens the dance and drives them into a mad and gleeful frenzy. “Home in the World” has the feel of a formal Scottish court dance the likes of which you might hear from the strings of Alasdair Fraser, especially in the almost silent but impossibly high end of the scale.  

So is this a kind of Celtic album? On occasion, but you’d never put such a label on pastoral, meditative material such as “Alpena,” “Chrysalis,” “Interlude,” or “Nethermead.” Each of those is a mix of jazz inflection, melodic folk, and New Age ambience, though they are more structured than the first, less homespun than the second, and way more complex than the last. “Preludio” is deconstructed classical music, and that’s not a metaphor; the tune comes from Bach, who’d probably be just as stunned as Bill Monroe to behold the flowers Kittel planted in his musical garden. In still another vein, the album’s first vocal track, “Waltz,” sung by Kittel with subtle texturing from Sarah Jarosz, feels like a cross between a chant and a lullaby.

Kittel often tours as a trio with Pinkham and guitarist Quinn Bachand, who fully embrace Kittel’s artistic vision. It is no exaggeration to say that Pinkham, in particular, is one of the more innovative mandolin players of recent memory. Bachand’s role is to be the glue and occasionally let loose. Listen carefully to what he does; without him, a tune such as “Fields of Brooklyn” could easily lose its understated syncopated bounce and coherence. Kittel is a masterful composer/arranger and the king of the slow build. Although the longest piece, “Ohmsted,” is under 8 minutes, each track feels like a suite. Surrender; there is no good label for this music. It’s a collection of whorls—kaleidoscopic sound lines and colors that intersect, loop, and spiral.

Rob Weir

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