Having taken a total break from playing music at the onset of the pandemic, I’ve been gradually coming back to it, starting with the ukulele, and more recently picking up a bass again. I’ve found myself enjoying the total absence of any demands, in terms of gigs to play or people to play with, and I’ve started to rebuild myself as a musician from the ground up. I seem to have finally learned some lessons that my decades-long struggle to become a musician had failed to fully impress on me, foremost among them being the importance of simplicity. Simplicity is at the heart of this beautiful record by Bill MacKay and Nathan Bowles, so it’s been instructive to me to spend time with it while this process has been unfolding. These two players have clearly absorbed that lesson, without reluctance, at a fundamental level, and Keys embodies a kind of higher-level ramification of simplicity, where complexity emerges organically from the straightforward act of being human together in a musical context.
I know Bill MacKay as an electric guitar improvisor, someone who works with materials that lie somewhere on the boundary between rock and jazz, his roots watered in tradition rather than an obsession with innovation or novelty. This record is very much of a piece with that work, although it is quite removed from it stylistically. He plays acoustic here, and Nathan Bowles plays banjo, and they weave their musical voices together with a spirit of mutual respect and close listening, playing American folk material in a way that completely blurs the point at which improvisation begins and ends. Even when they play a song, like the affectingly guileless ‘I See God’, it kind of feels as though they are improvising freely, and simply making the choice to land on the song’s structure in each bar and each beat. American folk music affords some ridiculously flamboyant improvisational opportunities, but there is no uptempo bluegrass here, no flashy clawhammer pyrotechnics, and no moment in which the players’ focus on the moment and on the atmosphere they are producing seems to waver, even fractionally.
All the improvisation that moves me the most, some of which is very technical, has that in common. There’s a sense of total presence, the kind of presence that’s required to have a meaningful interaction with a small child or with a lover. No part of the musician’s attention can be elsewhere, a condition which is greatly facilitated by a sense of simplicity at the root of the music. Some of the greatest musicians can achieve that simplicity while they’re playing uptempo bebop, for example, but I see no particular reason to prefer music that combines creative simplicity with technical complexity—after all, nothing is really more complex than human experience, which is what improvisation embodies when it is truly successful. On Keys, Bill MacKay and Nathan Bowles are truly successful improvisors. This beautiful record is never complicated, never simplistic, but it is always simple, and always complex.