Daniel Thatcher ‘Waterwheel’ LP/CD (Shifting Paradigm) 3/5

For his debut recording as a bandleader, Chicago bassist and composer Daniel Thatcher teams up with guitarists John Kregor and Matt Gold, and drummer Devin Drobka. Over the past couple of decades, Thatcher has quietly served as a backbone to numerous Chicago based projects. First and foremost a jazz and improvising musician, he has also ventured out into the world of contemporary chamber music and experimental rock; a good all-rounder then, more than ready to make his mark with his own quartet.

The band derives its name from a reference to the Microcosmic Orbit, a pair of meridians or energy lines that store Qi, relevant to Tai Chi and traditional Chinese medicine. Thatcher’s study of Tai Chi is reflected in his music, coming across as open natured, harmonious and balanced. There’s also a kinetic energy running through the album that suggests a freedom and positive attitude in the collaborative efforts of all four musicians.

The quartet itself works really well together. The two guitarists enjoy a keen, intuitive understanding, taking the bassist’s compositions in different directions, with Thatcher himself not only providing the source from which the other musicians take nourishment but also refreshingly taking the lead at times, his lovely bowed bass working extremely well on more than one occasion. I’m also particularly fond of Devin Drobka’s drumming. His overall contribution provides an intelligent and thoughtful range of texture and colour, adding well thought-out shades of light and dark to supplement the characterful music.

Given the fact that there are two guitarists here, and the style of music moving somewhere between Jazz and Americana, obvious comparisons can be made to the likes of Bill Frisell and John Scofield. It was in fact a collaboration between Thatcher and guitarist Kregor, and meeting guitarist Gold and drummer Nate Friedman leading a performance of Scofield and Frisell’s album ‘Grace Under Fire’ that gave the bassist the inspiration to form this quartet. “I had been writing for various configurations but knew immediately that this was the sound I was looking for in my music. What I love most about what these guys bring to the music is not only the unassuming nature of their virtuosity, but their ability to blend with, and elevate any musical moment.”

“Odds Are Even” kicks off the session with its welcoming warm sound, very similar in vein to a lovely album by bassist Marc Johnson, ‘Summer Running’ which also featured two guitarists; Pat Metheny and Bill Frisell. In fact, ‘Waterwheel’ reminds me a lot of that 1998 outing (crikey was it really that long ago!) with its breezy, easy-going yet contemporary feel. It’s noticeable throughout how the two guitarists complement one another, rather than competing for the limelight. This is key on tunes such as ‘Three Sages’ and ‘Big Ben’ where the lead instruments stretch out a bit. There’s also some nice variation on the highly original, much darker ‘Vicious’ and the softer, muse-like ‘The Lady of The Lake’.

All-in-all, “Waterwheel” is an engaging and likeable debut from Thatcher’s quartet. Consummate musicianship mixed with some fine compositions. Well worth checking out for those relaxing, cool-as-the-sun-goes-down late summer evenings ahead.

Mike Gates