The Chicago-based guitarist plays a June 21 solo show at Indie Coffee. (photo by Michael Vallera.)
“A Man & His Panic,” from Bill MacKay’s 2019 album Fountain Fire, blends together a few different approaches to the guitar at an unhurried pace. The main acoustic guitar on the track uses the rippling phrasing of a blissed-out folk track and the harmonic tension of a dense jazz improvisation. Over that, MacKay plays a lead on requinto, a smaller and usually higher-tuned guitar that cuts through with a prickly warble. As the guitar chords become more dissonant, the requinto accelerates, bringing the two instruments into a jagged but graceful dance. The instrumentation throughout the album switches up from track to track—MacKay often plays a few lush layers of electric guitar, and a few songs on Fountain Fire include vocals, a surprise in his largely instrumental output—but it always plays as a search for through-lines among different musical universes.
MacKay has spent his decades as a guitarist fluidly reaching across jazz, folk, and experimental rock. He’s become very adept at making it sound natural, with help from a Chicago music community that encourages genres to bleed together. MacKay will play a June 21 solo-electric show at Indie Coffee on Regent Street, where he plans to perform songs from Fountain Fire and perform some improvised pieces.
“Always in my mind is this balance of things, between what’s refined and what’s raw, what’s aggressive and what’s introspective,” MacKay says.
A solo performance might bring out a bit more of the raw side, if MacKay’s 2014 EP Chatham Park is any indication. The record’s opening track, “Stay True,” finds MacKay coaxing bright but volatile figures from his electric guitar, with a scratchy attack and a balance of structure and openness that reflects his fascination with North Indian ragas.
MacKay has released three duo albums with guitarist/songwriter Ryley Walker and played on Walker’s 2018 album Deafman Glance, which pulled strands of jazz and folk into an unfamiliar, almost insular new fabric. His other collaborators have included Chicago experimental project Flux Bikes and classical cellist Kantinka Kleijn. He’s also released several albums as leader of the instrumental band Darts & Arrows. One track, “Black Leaves,” on that band’s self-titled 2010 album features clarinet from Chicago saxophonist/multi-reedist Greg Ward, who’s played Madison recently in several configurations. That’s just one credit among many, but it’s an example of how MacKay has found a collaborative environment that lends itself to blurring musical boundaries.
“He was so supportive and encouraging about the stuff I was writing, because people would recognize that it was not really in this pure jazz vein at all,” MacKay says of Ward. “To me, my sensibility never changed, it’s just that the instrumentation around it changed. So often there’d be a composition that seemed to be coming from a folk or experimental rock kind of angle, and then maybe a more traditional jazz quartet was playing it, and that gave it a particular spin. Greg was really down for all of that.”
As MacKay prepares for a run of tour dates opening for Bill Callahan and a subsequent leg opening for Steve Gunn, he’s also still thinking a lot about how he approaches solo performances.
“One of the things I try to watch out for now is just leaving more space,” he says. “As a soloist, sometimes you’re inclined to try to fill too much space, because in the back of your mind you want to try to keep the whole thing going like a band would. But people understand that you’re a soloist. I’m surprised sometimes, seeing other people, how much they still leave, and it’ll be a really good lesson for me. I’ll think, ‘Wow, that’s amazing, people will just stay with you.’ You can utilize your breath that way and really have these open moments. I love the trust in oneself that it seems to reveal.”
Along with the freedom and challenge of solo work comes the challenge of exploring all the different ways MacKay might play widely scattered impulses and influences off of each other. It’s a process that he seems to approach as an ever-expanding conversation among varied elements, not a search for one final or definitive mix.
“It seems so organic to me, the process of songs slowly assembling themselves, and writing,” MacKay says. “I feel like they’re all facets of your personality. They’re all shards of you, and your intuitions and all these approaches, your psychology and everything.”