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The music library at my college radio station filed CDs that were avant-garde (but otherwise uncategorizable) in its “jazz” section. It was an imperfect system, to say the least, yet the magnificent Palo Colorado Dream presents much the same logic. It’s the third full-length by D.C. guitarist Anthony Pirog, who has a degree in jazz studies and is often seen on jazz bandstands. His collaborators on the disc, bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Ches Smith, have New York jazz credentials.
But Pirog is also half of the experimental duo Janel and Anthony, which has long since proven that Pirog simply doesn’t think in terms of genre. Palo Colorado Dream drives that point home: Its 11 tracks encompass what pickier ears than Pirog’s might call math-rock, post-rock, roots, minimalism, noise, psychedelia, and bop.
These styles don’t necessarily happen one at a time. “The Great Northern,” for example, has the head-solo-head configuration of a jazz tune, but a melody and rhythm that have more in common with Americana. That’s helped by Pirog’s use of reverb and dynamics, which give the piece a windswept ambiance, and by his slide-guitar fills and overdubs of acoustic against electric guitar. Then, in its second half, the track suddenly gains a rock backbeat and distorted guitar.
“Heads,” meanwhile, opens on a complicated, dissonant jazz theme with rock-solid swing from Smith and Formanek, but instead of solos, it moves to what can best be called a freakout: Pirog’s guitar and Smith’s Yamaha synthesizer making spacy sounds, with Formanek filling the gaps on his upright. “The New Electric,” a slow-flowing post-rock joint (à la Godspeed You! Black Emperor) is the closest thing to the pigeonholeable, along with “Minimalist,” a noisy collective workout that lives up to its title with its short, repetitive phrases.
The latter is less than two minutes long—the album’s longer pieces are offset by quick interludes, including the title track, a gentle wash of guitar with a few synthesized effects, and “Threshold,” a crunching industrial tidbit. These are often the most overtly experimental tracks on Palo Colorado Dream. Yet with all these experiments, the album is never inaccessible. Even “Threshold,” through its barbed soundscape, has a stomp groove that’s hard to resist; the equally atonal “Vicious Cricket,” which closes the album, is choppy speed-metal that somehow manages to be fun.
At its best, Pirog’s music is beautiful, as in the opening twofer of “Palo Colorado Dream” and “The Great Northern.” The highlight, though, is “I’m Not Coming Home,” a fingerpicked acoustic tune that evokes a banjo by dubbing mid- and high-register guitar together. Combined with Formanek’s rich pizzicato and Smith’s brushstrokes, it has a folksy texture that serves the simple but haunting melody well, but Pirog’s solo is a jazzy ride, with fast, acrobatic single-note lines and pitch bends that mesh perfectly with both Formanek and Pirog’s accompaniment.
Palo Colorado Dream establishes Pirog as one of a group of true guitar originals (along with Mary Halvorson, Marc Ribot, and Morgan Craft) intent on redefining the instrument’s possibilities for the 21st century. File it under “jazz,” but don’t expect it to rest there.
Anthony Pirog Trio plays Paperhaus on Oct. 31.