While some musicians find innovation in doing things that are drastically removed from anything that has been happening -- and I think the Goat Rodeo sessions is an example of that -- Anger's approach is more refined, and I'd say ultimately more musical.
There are so many examples of his quiet mastery out there, and you can certainly take your pick, but one that stands out in memory is a video that he did with Mike Marshall in order to demonstrate some of the concepts of playing and improvising as a duo. They take a typical piece, "Whiskey Before Breakfast," and make a bit of magic with it.
What's nice about that video is, after the performance, they describe some of the decisions that they made. If you needed one -- and those coming at this recording without a good sense of the genres involved just might -- that video is like a Rosetta stone, allowing you to see what is going on in this latest project from Anger, called "E-and'a." In both instances the musicians are playing very close to the traditional sounds of Appalachian Americana, namely old-time and bluegrass. But they're playing with the form, too, and there is a delight in the details. The chops are there (Sharon Gilchrist, on mandolin, in particular stands out) but listen for some of the long notes, the interesting chord choices, the counterpoint.
At the beginning of some of these pieces you think you know pretty much where you are, but then a whole journey unfolds before you. "Fiddler's Pastime" is a great example of that. It's an old-timey fiddle tune, or at least written to sound like one. And then, it's not, or at least it doesn't progress in the way we might otherwise expect it to. It dips and dives, changes key, takes a walk over this way, then goes for a hike over that way. This piece wouldn't exist without jazz, though more importantly it wouldn't exist without old-time music either. It's not an attempt to elevate a baser form of music (and as much as I love it, we're all aware of the unfair assumptions made of the genre) but to celebrate the fact that here we are, in 2014, and it's a fluid, vital genre of music that is just as alive and vibrant as, well, jazz. Anger shows us that the precedents for this recording -- and all of it is new music -- are still very much with us today, not just a moment in the past.
The mood changes as we move from piece to piece, such as the pointillist entry to "La Ville Des Manteaux" or "Canyon Moonrise." Unlike some of the other pieces, with these it's easy to have a moment of wondering where we are, exactly. And then we realize as the piece opens up that we've been here before, that we're entering a room that is familiar to us even though the furniture may have been moved around a bit since we were last here.
Here's a little beef of mine: so many musicians seek to challenge us, though they do so by first alienating us. They make it hard to approach the music, to find a way in. They make us work for it. That's fine, I guess, though Anger has shown throughout his career that he is a gentler guide, and ultimately he's more successful. And the environment he has always been most interested in is American music. He lives there, and he wants us to live there too. He's spent his career showing us why we should.
I realize it's only March, but if you give it some honest attention, "E-and'a" just might be one of the best albums you'll hear this year.