Jim McAuley's The Ultimate Frog is a two-CD collection of duets between the guitarist and four great musicians: Leroy Jenkins (violin, viola), Nels Cline (guitars), Ken Filiano (bass) and Alex Cline (drums/percussion). The result of these pairings is a diverse and richly textured set of music, which includes quick-witted open improvisations, freeform folk and blues tunes, aching ballads and earthy modal pieces. McAuley is one of those few musicians who are (as Ellington put it) genuinely "beyond category"; his playing is an intensely personal distillation of a huge range of influences--from fingerpicked blues to free jazz, not to mention Arabic oud music and Renaissance lute-song. The Ultimate Frog is a long-overdue collection of work from this too rarely documented master guitarist.
Jim McAuley was born in Kansas in 1946; much to the dismay of his parents, his musical talent showed early, and as a teen he turned his attention to playing acoustic blues guitar. Classical studies, folk guitar and jazz shortly entered the mix; in later years, he also took up kora, charango and oud. In the late 1960s he was a member of a folk-rock group, Mouse; under contract to Capitol Records, the band moved to Los Angeles, only to fall apart before even recording their first album. Stranded, McAuley spent a while as part of producer Don Costa's stable of studio musicians--he's present on albums by Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, and Eydie Gorme, among others--but the experience left him disenchanted, and it wasn't long till he embarked for Europe (first Paris, then Ibiza) for an extended sojourn, concentrating on just "getting next to [his] guitar". Returning to LA in the mid-1970s, he hooked up with the many fine players on the local avant-jazz scene--most crucially, the clarinettist John Carter, who was for a time his mentor. McAuley also connected with the post-Harry Partch microtonalists Erv Wilson, Ivor Darreg and Kraig Grady, an interest that much later bore fruit in the Acoustic Guitar Trio, a collaboration with Nels Cline and Rod Poole exploring just intonation, regular temperament and many other tuning-systems (often simultaneously!). He kept a low profile, supporting himself with gigging and teaching, though one other false start towards a recording career occurred in 1976, when he was signed to John Fahey's Takoma Records, then dropped when the label was sold to Chrysalis. In the 1990s he led a series of disparate groups for Cline's Alligator Lounge series--a constantly mutating project he dubbed "The Gongfarmers" (a gong farmer, if you really must know, is a medieval latrine cleaner). Despite this, McAuley's previous release under his own name, Gongfarmer 18 (Nine Winds), is actually a solo recording. His only other CD to date is the Acoustic Guitar Trio's self-titled debut, released on Derek Bailey's Incus label.
Aside from the leader himself, the musicians on The Ultimate Frog probably need little in the way of introduction. McAuley originally met the late, great Leroy Jenkins (arguably the most important violinist to emerge from the 1960s jazz avant-garde) when the latter's trio with Myra Melford and Joseph Jarman played LA in 2002. Their performances are the closest thing here to conventional free-improv duets. There's no precomposed material: they simply seized the moment and ran, producing some exceptionally searching and fast-moving exchanges. The other three players are key figures from the Los Angeles free jazz music scene, though Ken Filiano is currently based in New York, and nowadays Nels Cline splits his schedule between avant-jazz gigs and his work as a member of Wilco. Many of these tracks involve some loose premeditation or agreed-upon exploration of a specific texture, approach or lick (including some great blues hooks); there are even a few dots-on-paper tunes. What's apparent throughout all four sessions is McAuley's love of the sheer variety and depth of sound he and his partners can create--from the spellbound hush of "Bullfrogs and Fireflies" and "November Night" to the daft hullabaloo of "Froggie's Magic Twanger." The result is a fresh, often spellbinding collection of music that celebrates the improvised moment in all its temporary pleasures and perils. - Nate Dorward (Oct, 2008)