Jessica Ackerley is a musician whose artistic pursuits are relentless. The Canadian-born guitarist spent the last several years in New York City, tearing down musical boundaries as a member of experimental bands like Prima, Gold Dime, Jazz Bras Dot Com, and ESSi, and even found time to record some inventive, skronky jazz combo solo albums, Coalesce (2017) and A New Kind of Water (2019). In 2020, she released collaborations with Uruguayan guitarist Federico Musso and Los Angeles-based saxophonist Patrick Shiroishi. Earlier this year, Ackerley relocated to Hawaii, but not before recording her first true full-length solo album, Morning/mourning.
While she doesn’t have any other musicians backing her up on this new album, there’s plenty of outside inspiration that brought these compositions and recordings to life. Two of her greatest mentors, guitarists Vic Juris and Bobby Cairns, passed away over the last couple of years, the latter from COVID-19. As a way of dealing with these tremendous losses, Ackerley set out to pay tribute with her guitar. In an interesting twist, she was forced to self-isolate in a friend’s vacant apartment just after Christmas 2020 due to a COVID-related precaution. Under these unusual circumstances, Ackerley was able to confront the emotional impact of her losses and as a result, recorded an album of profound and unique beauty.
With just a Squier hollow body electric guitar plugged directly into a laptop with a microphone picking up the acoustic parts, Ackerley’s sound on Morning/mourning will come off as surprisingly clean to anyone more familiar with the distortion and effects she’s used with projects like ESSi. “Henry” kicks off the album as a gentle, buzzing overture, with tentative notes zigzagging back and forth and slowly rising in tension. “Inner Automation” is calmer and warmer, aided in large part to deep, inviting chords rising up above the minor cacophony of her occasionally frenzied flurry of notes.
There’s a playful, percussive noise to tracks like “Conviction”, and a wild freeform style reminiscent of Gary Lucas’ work with Captain Beefheart. But for every moment of barely contained mania, Ackerley always seems to swing back to the atonal warmth of songs like “Untitled 3”, which contains plenty of lower-register notes that keep the overall tone more low-key, not to mention an occasional twanginess that sounds like a late-night desert highway soundtrack. The intimacy projected throughout the entire album is disarming. On the deeply moving closing track, “Morning”, Ackerley uses plenty of high notes, distributed sparsely, and it almost acts as a keening hymn of deep personal loss.
Even without knowing it was all recorded alone in a Manhattan apartment, Morning/mourning feels like an exercise in solitary creativity. The overall warmth of the sound, combined with occasional moments of near silence as Ackerley contemplates her next notes, almost make the listener feel like they’re intruding on a deeply personal experience. The fact is, Morning/mourning is just that. Anyone unfamiliar with Ackerley’s deep reservoir of talent will find this album to be not just a perfect jumping off point, but a gorgeous collection of compositions that demands repeated listens.