by Maggie Molloy
Photo by Elliott Fredouelle.
Double bassist Robert Black likes to explore uncharted territory—both literally and musically. In his new solo album Possessed, he takes his bass into the great outdoors to perform an improvised duet with the Moab Desert.
A founding member of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, Black has made a career out of pushing the boundaries of the double bass. In his new album, he uses the instrument to merge the music of man and Mother Nature, performing amid the desert winds and quiet rustlings of Moab’s sprawling landscapes. The surround-sound album also features a DVD showcasing his intimate solo performances amid the stunning grandeur of the Utah desert.
“The idea for me is to go to these different unique acoustical environments with my bass and start to improvise, and make music with the cliffs, the rocks, the canyons, the culverts,” Black said. “And then it becomes less about me improvising but more about me finding a way with the bass to make the environment start to sing.”
The album begins at sunrise with the three-part “Dawn in Hunter Canyon.” The bass grumbles and echoes amid the cavernous canyons and delicately chirping birds, building in speed and intensity until it reaches an urgent fantasia. A percussive interlude turns the bass into a drum, with Black drawing a percussive groove from every corner of the instrument as insects buzz around him. It ends with Black’s bass singing back to the birds, a sweet and tender ballad echoing across the desert air.
Photo by Elliott Fredouelle.
The piece is followed by “Morning in Pritchard Culvert,” a restless bass solo ringing and reverberating against the culvert’s rounded walls. Black saws at his bass amid a cloud of rosin and sand, exploring the instrument’s full sonic range—from the lowest, earthiest vibrations to the airiest whispers right at the bridge. As the piece wears on the echo chamber becomes an instrument itself, mimicking the long, velvety melodies of Black’s double bass and volleying back his oscillating waves of sound.
Texture is paramount in “Noon in Day Canyon,” a four-part piece that cycles through bold pizzicato and marcato riffs, soft harmonies, and sparse melodic whispers—all vibrating across the quiet hum of the desert.
That near-silence begins to grow in intensity for “Evening in Dragonfly Culvert,” a wild and stormy fantasia that pulls from the cavernous depths of the instrument. With restless energy his bass screams, skitters, grumbles, and growls like a werewolf at the moon, each stroke of his bow feverishly echoing across the empty culvert.
The day in the desert ends back where it began with the four-part “Night in Hunter Canyon.” It’s a new type of nocturne, with Black’s bass improvisations quiet and pensive in the night air, drawing midnight melodies from the gentle sparkle of the stars above—trading motives with a chorus of frogs and crickets.
The DVD portion of the release simply makes visible all the canyons, cliffs, culverts, and crickets you hear throughout the recordings. Breathtaking shots of Black and his bass amid the morning moonlight, the echoing culverts, the towering orange canyons, and the blazing desert sun highlight the vivid colors and natural grandeur that inspired the improvisations.
“Bass, environment, and I—we merge,” Black writes in his album notes. “My hands move, the bass sings, the landscape responds and directs the movements, controls the sound. The music comes…from I don’t know where. I close my eyes. I lose myself. I give in. I surrender. I am transported. I am…possessed.”