An oft-repeated quote about jazz, attributed to Miles Davis and borrowed by Lisa Simpson, dictates that it’s less about the notes you play than the notes you don’t play. Over time, the memes eventually took over, but the general idea behind it is such that a musician grows only by plotting their course outside the meter and phrase of the Real Book, in using improvisation less as an excuse to clutter the frame with sound than to allow the spaces around it to shape where it goes. You don’t necessarily listen to the silence, per se, but the negative space gives meaning and intention to the melody that’s actually there.
At least most of us wouldn’t listen to the silence. Eli Keszler, a New York experimental percussionist and composer who’s collaborated with the likes of Oneohtrix Point Never and Laurel Halo, is an exception, his latest album built on ideas of emptiness and absence. Keszler conceived of Icons at the height of lockdown in 2020, the near-instantaneous shutdown of a perpetually bustling Manhattan creating an eerily surreal atmosphere of quiet. “I saw something strange and beautiful happening,” he says in a press release, “power cracking and people changing.”
Icons is haunted by that acknowledgement of what isn’t there—the life and vibrancy of a city temporarily put on hold for the sake of simply surviving—but it’s neither mournful nor even necessarily uncomfortable. Its 11 tracks are otherworldly and beautiful, landing and resonating more as broadcasts from some strange yet gentle landscape rather than one struggling to hold itself together. The softly percussive unfolding of opener “All the Mornings in the World” evokes rebirth rather than decay, its gentle washes of melody emitting light and heat like sunrise over the horizon. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t moments of a kind of ghostly fragility, like the ramshackle twinkle of “God Over Money,” which is a gorgeously chilly exercise in skeletal post-rock ambiance. But when Keszler turns the heat on, as with the sputtering beats and downtempo radiance of “The Accident,” the vibe fluidly transitions from eerie to intoxicating.
There are times in which Icons feels very much as if Keszler is providing a guided tour through an abandoned landscape, but he captures it in its most flattering light—it’s not a dead city, but rather one undergoing a period of hibernation and renewal. In that sense it’s not an album specific to New York but of what we all, and the world around us, have undergone over the past 16 months and where the path forward might lead. There is promise in what we don’t hear, possibilities in what we can’t perceive, and beauty in the empty spaces.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.