Wendy Atkinson, Trim (Smarten Up!)

Musical virtuosity is generally defined as something that happens by way of a performer's fingers. It's the ability to negotiate tricky instrumental passages with ease, or to play quickly with conviction. But another kind of virtuosity is gaining in importance: the ability to hear and realize a personalized musical landscape. Beginning with the renaissance of the composer-performer in the 1960s and accelerating with the rise of computer-based home recording, conventional notions of virtuosity are giving way to this more thoughtful mode, and music is likely to be better off for that.

By earlier standards, Wendy Atkinson is no virtuoso. She's skilled, sure, but it's unlikely that she knows her scales backward and forward, or that she can whip off a dazzling set of variations on a theme by John Coltrane or Johannes Brahms. What she can do, though, is concoct a three-minute world that's all her own, and she offers several of these on her solo debut, Trim. Even more remarkable is that her tools of choice are electric, acoustic, and upright basses, instruments more generally featured in an accompanying role than up-front.

Trim's low-end focus means that most of its pieces are somewhat sombre, but within this context Atkinson offers considerable variety, even throwing in some brief spoken-word vignettes for spice. She's at her best, though, when she composes by setting several different bass sounds against each other, as she does on "Somehow Dissolves", "Stumble", and "New Terrorism". Plucking some notes while letting others swell up from silence, concocting thick, bowed drones and slow-moving fuzz-toned atmospheres, deploying radio static and seasick glissandos, she takes us places no chops monster could ever access--and although dark, the ride is fascinating.