It’s not like this is entirely out of left field — we’ve been hearing Tom Jenkinson’s experiments with live instrumentation since Music Is Rotted One Note, an album now heralded as one of the Squarepusher classics. His electric bass playing was a central part of Ultravisitor as well, and is one of the reasons that Jenkinson tends to be put on a pedestal above many other electronic artists — despite the fact that he’s a hell of a beat programmer, he can also play what people consider a “real instrument”. In fact, as Music Is Rotted One Note showed us over ten years ago, he can play a few.
Obviously, Jenkinson knows he can play as well. It takes some serious belief in oneself to release an album that is entirely made up of live performance of a single instrument. Yet, that’s exactly what we have here, in the form of Solo Electric Bass 1, the most obvious foray into jazz music that Jenkinson has yet attempted.
Solo Electric Bass 1 sounds exactly as you’d expect it to. It effortlessly careens from frenetic rhythmic études to moody atmospheric pieces that veer dangerously close to random instrument plucking, and seems to make perfect sense while doing so, if only because anyone who hears it will already be familiar with the frenetic style Jenkinson brings to his electronic music.
Still, the purity of approach is what could most surprise someone hearing Solo Electric Bass 1 for the first time. Despite the fact that it is, as the title would indicate, an electric bass, Jenkinson makes the conscious decision not to put any effects on it. This is not, say, a Tim Reynolds, whose solo work uses pedals and effect boards to turn his guitar into instruments not immediately identifiable to the human ear, often relying on the sound of many hands playing through expertly-timed delay loops. There’s no doubt that Jenkinson knows how to pull off tricks like this, but he chooses not to. What his audience hears doesn’t sound all that different from what they would hear if he unplugged, despite the obvious volume difference.
The tracks themselves are nameless save for numbers, giving the impression that Jenkinson’s creation was an impromptu one. Further confusing matters is that the numbers are non-sequential, which may or may not mean that one would have to rearrange them to hear the order in which they were actually played. Given the opacity of approach, however, Solo Electric Bass 1 flows like an album should flow, what with highs, lows, and lots of pseudomelodic jazzy noodling in between.
There are some highlights, particularly the moments in which Jenkinson’s celebrated sense of rhythm comes out to play — the seventh track, “Seb-1.03”, builds subtly to the one place on the album that could truly get your head nodding. Opener “Seb-1.01” is lovely and melodic, lulling listeners into a meditative zen state before jarring them out of it with dissonance, and closer “Seb-1.12” hits the fasts and the slows with equal ease, summarizing the album nicely.
Still, it’s impossible throughout Solo Electric Bass 1 to escape the spectre of the “vanity project”, given that the music contained on the album has such potential to alienate the typical Squarepusher listener. It’s just as likely to bore as to thrill, and while Jenkinson is clearly demonstrating his love for his instrument, he’s not displaying an awful lot of emotion for anything else. It’s not an album that goes deep into the psyche, it’s an album that makes a case for appreciation of the purest manifestation of the electric bass. Some of Jenkinson’s fans will find it endlessly fascinating, and some might swear never to buy another of his albums without hearing it first.
Most, however, will hear it, shrug an indifferent shrug, and let it collect dust on the shelf between Music Is Rotted One Note and Ultravisitor.