In music, the art of the trio involves a delicate balance and holds the potential for great power. On Anthony Pirog's Pocket Poem, his second solo album and fifth release on D.C. based Cuneiform Records, the Washington D.C. alt
guitar hero and his rhythm section wring all the beauty, majesty, and
mayhem possible from their triumvirate. Pirog is to guitar what Michael Jordan was
to basketball — he's capable of anything he can conceive, and his
conception covers quite a bit, from ambient atmospheres and
mind-melting electronic subversions of sound to lyrical acoustic
picking and fiery fusion.
One of Pirog's most recent projects before releasing Pocket Poem was a band that redefines the rock power trio (a concept that runs all the way back to the days of Cream and The Jimi Hendrix Experience). Pirog teamed with hometown legends Brendan Canty and Joe Lally of punk rock superband Fugazi to form The Messthetics, releasing two albums on Ian MacKaye’s iconic D.C. label Dischord and delivering their post-post-punk brain/brawn merger to tens of thousands at the 2019 Coachella festival.
But rock is not the only arena in which trios hold a powerful sway. From Oscar Peterson to Wes Montgomery, some of jazz’s greatest moments were also realized by trios. And from the time Pirog was studying music at Berklee College of Music, specializing in jazz guitar, and NYU, where he received a degree in jazz performance, progressive jazz was part of his artistic DNA.
Returning to D.C. after graduation, he and local cello star Janel Leppin blended improv, ambient, and electro-acoustic sounds as Janel and Anthony, which quickly became one of the Capital City’s most in-demand live acts and released several albums, including Where Is Home (Cuneiform
2012). D.C.’s diverse music scene thrived in the new millennium, and
Pirog played with countless musicians in the city’s jazz, experimental,
rock and modern classical scenes. He also began recording with
nationally established, older musicians. Pirog's blend of
searching and searing guitar found its way into works by avant-jazz
hero William Hooker, free improv guitar giant Henry Kaiser (on 2019 Cuneiform release Five Times Surprise), and more. In The Spellcasters, which included late guitar-legend Danny Gatton’s rhythm section (John Previte, Barry Hart) and guitarists Joel Harrison and Dave Chappell, he recorded Music of the Anacostia Delta (Cuneiform 2016), which celebrated D.C.’s indigenous, hybrid guitar sound. But when Pirog partnered with acoustic bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Ches Smith for his first solo session, 2014's Palo Colorado Dream (also on Cuneiform) he happened upon a special kind of chemistry.
Formanek is a jazz vet who's recorded with Dave Liebman, Fred Hersch, and the Mingus Big Band, as well as popping up on albums by Elvis Costello and
the like. Smith is a fixture of the downtown NYC scene who's worked
with other forward-thinking guitar conceptualists like Mary Halvorson, Marc Ribot, and Elliott Sharp, in addition to making records with Tim Berne, John Zorn, and countless others.
When the three first came together, their ability to egg each other on
to fresh territory led to some lightning-in-a-bottle moments. So it
isn't hard to see why Pirog would summon Formanek and Smith back to the
studio for his second solo project. After reaching new heights with
Messthetics, he returned to the trio that first showed the world the
range and reach of his guitar gifts.
For Pocket Poem,
Pirog decided to expand the trio's palette by mixing modern technology
with vintage guitar synthesizers. "The use of guitar synths by John Abercrombie and Allan Holdsworth is
very interesting to me," he says, "and I wanted to explore the timbral
possibilities available using these instruments in the recording
Envision Adrian Belew, Tortoise, Bill Frisell, Bert Jansch, and Brian Eno squeezing into a particle accelerator. The end result after flipping the switch might sound something like Pocket Poem.
The album touches on every aspect of Pirog's musical personality —
rock, jazz, avant garde, electronic, even folk — and with his cohorts'
contributions, it all arrives at a place that's progressive in the most
literal sense. At once exploratory and reflective, subtle and
storm-brewing, organic and high-tech, Pocket Poem establishes Pirog's place not just as a major guitar threat but as a gifted composer.
The album opens on a gently ominous note with "Dog Daze," as
Pirog lays down a sprinkling of subtly disquieting textures befitting a
film noir soundtrack, before things erupt halfway through into crashing
power chords, martial rhythms, and grandly gliding, Robert Fripp-like lead lines, for a King Crimson murder mystery vibe.
Electronics drift gracefully into the mix with the pretty pointillism of "Dawn Cloud," as
they waltz with watercolor guitar melodies and Smith's impressionistic
brushwork. Meanwhile, Pirog's acoustic side slips into the spotlight
with the downright folky fingerpicking of "Sitting Under Stars," evoking a place somewhere between John Fahey's "American primitive" style and '60s Britfolk.
"The Severing" keeps the gentle arpeggios going, but with an aqueous,
electric tone complemented by ambient swells, for a feel not a million
miles from some of Terje Rypdal's legendary ECM sessions.
The trio's interdependence really comes into focus on "Adonna the Painter," as
Formanek's sustained notes and Smith's whispering cymbals become one
with Pirog's plangent splashes of color. After Pirog unfurls some
delicate melodic daubs, Formanek's tumbling bass solo carries the
conversation forward, with Smith's toms providing the perfect
At the album's midpoint, the title
track provides a kind of palate cleanser/dividing line, making the most
of wide open spaces and deftly applied dissonances. Simple lines hang
suspended in mid air, saying more than a million frenetic flurries of
notes could, as minimalism commands the moment.
On Pocket Poem's
second half, it sometimes seems like a mischievous gremlin has crept
into the inner workings of the Pirog/Formanek/Smith machine and begun
engaging in subversive hijinks. On "Mori Point" crazed
electronics crash against Smith's volcanic drumming for the distinct
impression of clock springs dramatically coming unwound.
Even the seeming calm of "Beecher" is
deceptive — amid a sea of reverb and delay, Formanek' alternately bowed
and plucked bass and Pirog's trumpet-like guitar synth suggest
something mysterious stirring beneath the water. But there's no gray
area involved in "Spinal Fusion," where frantic
electronic beats and rapid-fire guitar bursts let you know what it
would feel like to be trapped inside a video game gone insane.
About a minute into "Untitled Atlas," the
machinery-gone-wild vibe is amplified as we're thrust inside the
fraying neural networks of a crashing computer. Smith's clattering
percussion, Pirog's mad-scientist electronics, and Formanek's insistent
thrumming provide a guided tour to a complex mechanism's internal
destruction. Call it high-tech free improv.
Pocket Poem makes
concision a virtue. Tracks exceeding two minutes are in the minority,
as the trio makes its points and moves along. It's no accident. "This
collection of pieces is focused on shorter statements that don’t rely
on extended 'blowing sections,'" Pirog explains. "My aim was to explore
succinct harmonic and melodic movements that would collectively weave a
narrative and arc together." For all the album's stylistic shifts, the
trio weaves that arc expertly, and Pocket Poem provides
a wake-up call to those who've been sleeping on Pirog's status as one
of America's most promising guitar stylists.
Pocket Poem press release