"Solo bass album" is the sort of phrase that induces tremors and mild nausea among rock fans. Who wants to hear a guy such as Billy Sheehan spank the four-string plank into submission with endless polyphonic bubble-funk arpeggios and non sequitur slap solos? Rock bass is like a room deodorizer: It works best when you don't notice it working at all.
But Gray is not the typical rock bassist. His work with Brise-Glace, Loren MazzaCane Connors, You Fantastic! and a host of other duo/band collaborations have proved him a wily and powerful musician, able to shake foundations and make hackles rise like high-tension wires. His new collection of solo bass improvisations, St. Louis Shuffle, is not a typical album: This is the sort of album that wrecks all your weekend plans, forcing you to yield to its twists, turns, riddles, conundrums, starts and stops as you try to understand just what it is Gray and his bass are attempting to communicate.
Gray plays everything, everything, about his bass. The strings, the channel switches, the input jacks, the amp, the power switch, the silence of his instrument at rest all contribute to an expansive vocabulary of sound that Gray exploits and manipulates in puzzling, galvanizing ways. The improvisations play off each other, linked together by shared sounds and ideas reset in different settings. "Where Are You Number Seven?" is a stuttering, skittery blast cut into oblong chunks by heavy chords of silence. "T.S. Eliot" is a streak of amp hum, clicks, pops, silence (again) and a Döpplering whine that reappears, slightly mutated into a pulsing whine, six tracks later in "St. Louis Boogaloo."
The effect of Gray's total-instrument manipulation is active and absolute listening. The false endings, the long passages of silence, the fluctuations in volume and tonal range, the almost random outbursts of music interspersed with noise and sound sharpen the ears: You strain to hear, question what it is you're hearing, think about the arbitrary distinction between music and noise. St. Louis Shuffle is a challenging album that rewards repeated, careful, inquisitive listenings. At times maddening in its patience, shocking in its abruptness, it is both delicate and brusque, sudden and deliberate. It is a fitful masterpiece that frustrates and fulfills.