“We never really talked about it,” Douglas McCombs often says about his collaborative process when giving interviews. McCombs has a long history of improvisational playing, which is considered an art form that requires a gift. Still, it mostly comes from doing it and playing with as many different constellations as possible.
Black Duck is Douglas McCombs (founding member of post-rock innovators Tortoise, Brokeback, Eleventh Dream Day, and many more) on guitar. Bill Mackay (composer, improviser, and poet) on guitar and Charles Rumback (composer, bandleader, avant-garde jazz drummer) on drums. Black Duck are just two guitarists and a drummer, but you keep rechecking the credits for additional instrumentation because what you hear does not add up. The whole is far more than its parts. Black Duck are a prime example of what happens when exceptional musicians move beyond skill and technique to create an intuitive whole that defies rational belief.
Each member brought one fleshed-out tune for the session. McCombs contributed “Of the Lit Backyards”, MacKay came with “Delivery”, and “The Trees Are Dancing” is Rumback’s composition. The group improvised the rest in the studio. Each tune is an independent, self-contained movement. Movement, in every sense of the word, can happen through meticulous arrangement and writing – knowing what buttons to push and techniques to use – but mostly, it happens while being in it and staying with it while you let it move through you. Somehow Black Duck do both, sounding arranged and contained yet at the same time unconstrained and free-floating. There is a seeming simplicity of locking in with an ensemble on display here, but it’s anything but. It’s not that easy to sound this free. Black Duck set out to capture that elusive freeness while keeping the narrative engaging.
Black Duck begins in the calm, thick of it with “Of the Lit Backyards”. We enter something that feels already set in motion. McCombs’ signature guitar style and use of twang instantly put you at ease and make you feel like you’re sitting on a porch while soaking your feet in warm salty water. Rumback’s use of brushes here (and on most of the album) suits the style and mood. The brushes drag the beat because the duration of touch and contact is longer, threading the surrounding instruments.
“Foothill Daze” is an understated ambient piece that doesn’t have much in common with the rest of Black Duck at first listen, but that is what makes it stand out while also affecting the context in which it’s in – the other pieces cast a more intriguing shadow because of it. For example, the Ry Cooder echoes in “Of the Lit Backyards” become amplified in “Foothill Daze”. Cooder’s simple slide guitar themes are evoked here, but often it’s Cooder’s heavy use of ambient space that sticks with you. It’s all about opening up and letting space breathe. “Foothill Daze” does this too, and its analog way of coming about it – utilizing just guitars, natural reverb, and percussive texturing – is impressive.
A ferocious guitar motif set things off on Mackay’s “Delivery”, backed by Rumback’s inventive drum fills. In the last third, Mackay and McCombs fully release the fishing line and follow where this leads them. On “Second Guess”, Mackay subtly references Daniel Lanios’ guitar textures on top of a “setting up the drum-kit” sound. There is an in-between transmission intermission feel to the tune that sits well post-Delivery.
Rumback drives a punchy Native American drum thumb on his “The Trees Are Dancing”. This thumb is the percussive backbone on top of which Mackay and McCombs throw in an Americana twang theme that morphs into distortive bliss. “Lemon Treasure” is Rumback paying dues to the legendary Can drummer Jaki Liebezeit (with some added John Densmore from the Doors ride cymbal feel). Meanwhile, Mackay lovingly rips into AC/DC’s Angus Young-style guitar runs.
Some alchemical wonder happens to the serene closing tune, “Light’s New Measure”. It begins gently, like raindrops forming and falling, then slowly gathers momentum. High-pitched, celestial guitar figures and drum brushes open a new dimension. The guitar plucking adds presence to the percussive brushing sounds and vice versa. Guitar parts intertwine, overlap, and expand each other as the pace quickens and the band gets tighter. Barely audible atmospheric cymbal and tom-tom trickery combined with incidental guitar reverb in the background sound like waves crashing in the distance. This can seem nice, but it has a crucial emotional impact here. This is where all the independent movements of the album gather collective momentum and wash over you. It’s forceful, riveting, and calming all at once, like fronting and feeling the spray of crashing waves from the safety of the beach.
Black Duck is an intuitive and experienced meeting of seasoned players: of love for the sharing of sound, of just walking it, and of a deep trust in things turning out and turning forth as they should, naturally. Having all that experience between the three and letting the moment take precedence is a life-affirming listen. There is no coincidence in how well this turns out.