While there’s nothing novel in celebrating Fred Lonberg-Holm’s gift for transforming the cello into the perfect vehicle for just about any genre, it may be worth pointing out that some of his projects are better suited to capturing the full extent of his masterful range than others. Where, say, does 2005’s warm and gentle Other Valentines meet last year’s hazardously caustic You Can Be Mine? Try Stirrup, Lonberg-Holm’s trio with fellow Chicagoans Nick Macri on bass and Charles Rumback on drums. On their second studio album (check out their debut, Sewn, and their follow-up live album with trumpeter Russ Johnson) the group continues grooving, crooning, and shredding, by turns and all at once.
Cut opener “Sleep Comes to Everyone” hints at the trio’s dynamic capabilities. The rhythm section’s counterbalanced light and dark—Rumback’s fluid, bouncing drums against Macri’s rich, anchoring bass—fashions an ideal stage for Lonberg-Holm, who drifts and wheels in an almost pastoral mode before virtually welding the notes down with the help of the effects pedal. While the next track, “Rodney’s Last Ride,” takes a similar overall shape, cello skidding into blister and glitch, the gloomy tension of “Then Fall Fell” comes in part from Lonberg-Holm’s just-restrained distortion, holding off the pyrotechnics. Meanwhile slightly mellower moments like the acoustic sawing on “You May Think” keep the album from overheating.
On guitar Lonberg-Holm proves equally capable if (maybe) less singular. Near the beginning of “Six Minutes to Montrose” you can actually hear an electronic sizzle just before he climbs astride Macri’s rolling ostinato. From there: searing anti-licks, splintered feedback, and pick-melting shredding, all thinning to nothing at the end like smoke from a doused blaze. “Salt Lines” and “You ‘n’ Me,” a pair of swinging 3/4 tunes near the end of the album, feature more of Lonberg-Holm’s killer guitar work.
Though on Cut I might like to see the trio push harder against the tendency to stratify along traditional lines—Macri and Rumback establishing the rhythmic foundation, Lonberg-Holm carrying the melody and soloing—it’s obviously a formula that works, and even in their relatively restrained roles, the drummer and bassist play with intention, inventiveness, and energy (besides penning a third of the album’s pieces each). Rumback has a knack for roaming the kit without sacrificing the pulse—see for instance the opener’s Afro-Cuban groove, the measured waltz swing of “Who We Were,” or the Morello-inspired solo towards the end of the final track. While this flexibility keeps Rumback adaptable to Lonberg-Holm’s shifting shapes, it might not be as convincing without Macri’s sturdy playing, the bedrock of Stirrup’s music. (Macri is, after all, the bassist holding down Audio One’s monster jams.) Still, he surfaces when he can, as in his satisfying if brief features on “Five
Ruminations” and “You ‘n’ Me” or the glittering harmonics on the “Domi’s Dream” groove.