One can imagine that a combination of North African-inspired modes, folk guitar, and open jazz drumming would have turned more than a few heads in the New York coffee shop scene of the early- to mid-1960s. Guitarist, banjoist, and oud player Sandy Bull recorded a couple of sessions with drummer Billy Higgins for the Vanguard label in 1963 and 1965, and apparently they performed together frequently, sometimes with the addition of Higgins’ frequent confrere, trumpeter Don Cherry. Although perhaps too much could be made of a comparison, Philly/Brooklyn guitarist Steve Gunn seems like the heir apparent to Bull’s introspective, seeker’s legacy. Ocean Parkway is his second album in duet with drummer John Truscinski for Three Lobed (after 2010’s Sand City) and follows in the footsteps of a plugged-in Sandy Bull, perhaps re-imagined with wiry, noise-rock grit. Research including Moroccan music, punk, Sun Ra, psychedelia, and his own overdubbed inventions has brought Gunn to an interesting place within modern guitar music, and with chops to spare.
As a duo, Gunn and Truscinski are strikingly unadorned, and while the music is extraordinarily nuanced, it’s the result of a plug-in-and-play simplicity. The opening title piece begins in a rumbling alap of free-time cymbals and glassy, droning santur-like overlays, before splaying out into a country-rock raga. Gunn’s electric guitar is swathed in a dusty midrange, twangy but reveling in a haunting swirl of overtones and bent notes. Truscinski’s percussion work is metallic and anchoring, providing a robust, insistent swing to a network of psych-rock chords and modal exploration. (The drummer’s Sunny Murray-like wash on “County Fair Getaway” is especially indicative of his keyed-in-ness.) “Banh Mi Ringtones” is gorgeously slinky, blending fuzzed minimalism, Fred McDowell, and ornate circularity with a muted, tom-heavy undertow. At times reverent, at other times almost shit-kicking, Gunn’s improvisations tread a delicate line between seemingly oppositional aesthetics, both down-home and otherworldly.
“Don’t Lean on Door” is the only acoustic number in this five-tune set, positing a different level of detail in its lush six-string reverie. While certainly echoing the acidic tones of the electric raga-like pieces, this track also has a bright, sashaying urgency that, combined with Truscinski’s spare mallet work, renders Moorish scales with sunny intricacy. The closing “Minetta River” finds the duo ensconced in a noisy free blues, Truscinski elaborating on a controlled thrash against Gunn’s folksy wallow. Ocean Parkway presents an urbane and often tense variant on the timeless “guitar raga” tradition, shot through with post-punk efficiency and regular nods to free improvisation. In fact, Steve Gunn’s music — and that of this duo — is entirely too personal to be accurately called “folk” music. Sure, it’s been carved from various strains of popular expression, but the essence is prickly and decidedly his own.