Trevor Dunn first gained widespread recognition as a founding member – along with Mike Patton – of both Mr. Bungle and Fantomas, and he’s since applied his adventurous bass playing to albums by Tomahawk, the Melvins, the Nels Cline Singers, John Zorn, Erik Friedlander, and a variety of others. In the late 1990s, he formed Trio-Convulsant, a guitar/bass/drums combo whose freewheeling compositions and performances land somewhere between prog, atonal jazz, and experimental metal.
Or maybe not. Dunn is not a fan of applying labels; the loose, anything-goes aesthetic he applies to his myriad projects certainly bears that out. Trio-Convulsant last released an album in 2004 (Sister Phantom Owl Fish), and for those pining for a follow-up, Seances is finally here. The current iteration of the trio – as on the previous album – is Dunn on bass, Mary Halvorson on guitar, and Ches Smith on drums. This time, the trio is joined by Folie a Quatre, a quartet comprised of Carla Kihlstedt on viola and violin, Oscar Noriega on clarinets, Mariel Roberts on cello, and Anna Webber on flutes. In a way, the addition of this quartet brings a slight chamber music sensibility to the album, but true to form, Dunn uses these musicians in ways that tend to go against traditional norms.
Even the textual concept behind Seances is unusual and dense. The lengthy notes on the Bandcamp page describe it in great detail, but essentially Dunn was inspired by the Convulsionnaires of Saint-Medard. This 18th-century Christian sect practiced unusual and grotesque practices and was eventually tamped down by established religious authorities, with many sent to mental asylums. As a result, the music Dunn teased out of this odd bit of Christian history is complex and often quite unhinged. “Secours Meurtriers” opens quietly enough with tentative notes on Webber’s flute, but soon enough, odd-metered beats and random soloing evoke a sort of medieval take on free jazz. As expected, classification and easy descriptions are pointless to attempt with anything Dunn touches.
Dunn’s jazz chops are at the forefront of “Restore All Things”, as his nimble upright bass plays against groaning, often playful strings in the one song that survived (in parts) from a 2015 writing session for the trio and a string quartet. The track – one of the strongest on an already stellar album – features a variety of movements that allow the combined musicians to explore and interact, with Halvorson offering up some typically deft guitar lines and a somber middle section that features morse code-type bass lines and a droning flute solo from Webber.
For every moment that seems deliberate and studied – “The Asylum’s Guilt” sees the musicians holding back ever so slightly, with Dunn employing measured parallel fifths and Halvorson contributing lovely, restrained Robert Fripp-style guitar figures – songs like “1733” embrace an engaging form of chaos, particularly as the track contains the lone bit of improvising on the entire album. Additionally, “Eschatology” has a welcome bit of unhinged soloing as Noriega’s clarinet takes off at the halfway mark for some intoxicating madness that sounds not unlike late-period John Coltrane while the band careens around him.
While it’s interesting to place this music in the context of its odd historical inspiration (and awareness of the Convulsionnaires certainly adds an arresting element to the experience), Dunn, Halvorson, Smith, and the brilliant, imaginative quartet accompanying them have created something that works spectacularly well on its own and allows the listener to travel down musical avenues that never suffer from easy categorization. Even in the relatively relaxing, languid closing piece, “Thaumaturge”, the glacially paced jazz vibe, combined with gorgeous strings and ethereal melodies, is undercut by indescribable tension. Life is too short to be bored by predictable musical ventures.