13 GorillaBrain Drain
Gorilla Mask
Clean Feed CF 540 CD (cleanfeed-records.com/product/brain-drain/)

With the power of an oil derrick pumping, Gorilla Mask’s Peter Van Huffel uses his baritone saxophone throughout to unearth subterranean textures, in order to extract robust dynamics that slam against Roland Fidezius’ electric bass hammering and percussionist Rudi Fischerlehner’s comprehensive battering. All eight tracks composed for this Berlin-based band by Kingston, Ontario-native Van Huffel straddle metal force and improvisational exploration. Despite leaning towards the former, the trio never strays into excess.

Sonically defining the difference between a headbanger and a Hoser on a track named for the Ontario taunt, the narrative of sutured bass and saxophone outbursts are almost too thick to be partitioned. But the drummer’s oblique ruffs and rebounds retain a whiff of the unexpected. In the same way, Fidezius uses effects to suggest ringing guitar-like licks on tunes like Barracuda; and the saxophonist sometimes turns from baritone rumbles or altissimo squeaks to airy alto saxophone trills.

Additionally the group is versatile enough to brush against bedrock funk on Caught in a Helicopter Blade, as reed honks, drum pops and string sluices up the excitement level. But the best demonstration of balancing insight and intensity comes on the extended Drum Song where intense kinetics radiate from Fischerlehner’s cymbal clashes, bell ringing and rim shots, as electronic-fattened dual reed timbres and bass twangs steamroll the theme forward.

While Canada’s musical loss may be Germany’s gain, the result is a notable and individual band identity.

Despite the difficulty of organizing large ensembles, determined musicians strive to realize the unique mixture of expanded colours and rhythm only available from this format. Although finances mean that the groups here are either occasional or organized for specific projects, what they lack in permanence they make up for in quality presentations.

01 FireOrkCD002The most topical program, sadly related to the March 29 death at 86 of Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, is Actions (Rune Grammofon RCD 2212 runegrammofon.com). Conceived of before his death and eagerly encouraged by the composer, it’s the first performance of Penderecki’s mixture of improvisation and composition since its premiere in 1971. With the same number and almost exact instrumentation of the initial band, the 14-piece Scandinavian Fire! Orchestra, conducted by baritone saxophonist Mats Gustafsson, devises a personal interpretation. Negotiating the peaks and valleys of the creation, the group works its way from an introduction heavily weighted towards growling brass from tubist Per-Åke Holmlander and trombonist Maria Bertel to a protracted silence broached by muted tones from one of three trumpeters and propelled into a steadying groove from bassists Elsa Bergman and Torbjörn Zetterberg. From then on, until a semi-climax at the midpoint, fruitful dialogues emerge involving distorted runs from guitarist Reine Fiske and Gustafsson’s low-pitched baritone slurs. A middle section driven by kettle-drum thumps and gong resonations from Andreas Werliin plus Christer Bothén’s bass clarinet continuum is further propelled by Alexander Zethson’s ecclesiastical organ pumps that judder just below the polyphonic surface. Overblowing snorts from Gustafsson coupled with surging glossolalia from the other reeds lead to a final section of pumping guitar distortion and a capillary explosion. With the massed instruments’ layered top, middle and bottom textures equally audible as a crescendo, brief guitar frails and organ washes signal the finale.

02 BothTrueCD003Moving from the music of an older Polish composer to that of two young Canadians is Both Are True (Greenleaf Music GRE CD 1075 greenleafmusic.com) by the Webber/Morris Big Band. The 19-piece ensemble is named for its co-leaders, now Brooklyn-based. Anna Webber and Angela Morris both compose, play tenor saxophone and flute, and split conducting chores. The other players are some of New York’s top young veterans. Lighter in tone and movement than the Fire! Orchestra’s interpretation, tracks range from the chipper to the atmospheric. The brief Webber-composed Rebonds for instance, has a slinky cartoon villain-like theme personified by the slow acceleration of guitarist Dustin Carlson’s distorted pedal frails among low-pitched snorts by four trombonists. In contrast Webber’s extended Reverses is a pensive mid-range creation of reed gurgles complemented by a rococo-like brass arrangement that slides via Marc Hannaford’s piano comping into a modulated smorgasbord of swing effects, further opened up midway through. Trumpeter Kenny Warren emphasizes flutter tonguing and grace notes upfront as textures from the other sections couple and separate in the background. A complete change of pace, Morris’ And it Rolled Right Down suggests what would happen if a C&W ditty was interpreted by crack improvisers. Interpolating a marching band motif, the piece lopes along as clarinetist Adam Schneit and bass trombonist Reginald Chapman face off earnestly before a funky plunger-muted snarl from trumpeter Jake Henry confirms the piece’s links to jazz. Elsewhere brief unaccompanied sax duets confirm the co-leaders’ improvisational skills. Overall, slick arrangements make the band’s program audacious as well as animated.

03 SupersonicCD004Another large group dedicated to the interpretation of a single composer’s work is Norwegian percussionist Gard Nilssen’s Supersonic Orchestra (ODIN CD 9572 odinrecords.com). With If You Listen Carefully the Music Is Yours, the 16-piece group blasts through six Nilssen tunes with the speed, exuberance and ferment that would have been apparent if Maynard Ferguson’s flashy big bands had included more sophisticated improvisers. The band’s cumulative textures are also idiosyncratic since the Supersonic features only two trumpets and one trombone along with seven saxophonists, some of whom double on clarinets, plus three double bassists and three drummers. Despite refined string patterning from some of Scandinavia’s most accomplished bassists, the band’s lack of chordal instruments means that melodic twists and turns are most often marked by short contemplative sequences that stand out from the lusty arrangement. At the same time a constant glaze of group stimulation permeates the live disc, from the introductory Premium Processing Fee to the concluding Bytta Bort Kua Fikk Fela Igjen. The first is notable as skyscraper-high trumpet tones and riffing reeds answer bass drum and cymbal patterns before settling into descriptive tongue slaps and slurs from baritone saxophonist André Roligheten and his section mates. Meanwhile the concluding Norwegian-language-titled track finds everyone slapping, scraping, bouncing and ratcheting additional percussion instruments alongside the drummers for a dancing Scandinavian variant on Afro-Cuban beats. Low-pitched brass stutters later push the narrative into an explosive, multi-vibrated finale. Along the way, players pilot a path that draws equally on John Coltrane’s large group work, Norwegian folk melodies, unforced Count Basie-like swing and African-oriented percussion. Almost all of the soloists distinguish themselves, but with so many playing similar instruments, it’s impossible to praise the unaccompanied bassist or bassists who bridge the rhythmic gap in the middle of a couple of numbers or to whom to ascribe the standout mellow tenor sax musings or the twists and tongue-slapping turns of higher-pitched alto saxophone excitement.

04 SoundTapcd005That isn’t the problem with Sound Tapestries (SoLyd Records SLR 0440 vladimirtarasov.com), since all soloists in the Krugly Band Orchestra (sic) are named as the 17-piece ensemble plays a multi-hued, multi-sectional composition by percussionist Vladimir Tarasov. A former member of the USSR’s legendary Ganelin Trio, the drummer now splits his time between Lithuania and California. However this complex and cadenced performance features all Russian musicians and was recorded in Tasarov’s birth place of Arkhangelsk. Although like the Supersonic Orchestra three drummers are featured, the swish of cymbal, hand patting and cross rumbles are used throughout as piquant accents rather than the whole sonic meal, and integrated within the band’s well-modulated execution of the material. Especially prominent is the funky bass line of Denis Shushkov, whose heavy gauge strokes cement the rhythmic base. While he holds the bottom, the most frequent arrangement involves contrapuntal challenges as soloists alternate with full-band responses. Another standout is pianist Grigory Sandomirsky. He’s equally adept at dense swirling dynamics, as on Tapestry #7, which mates a Latin-like groove with Eastern Bloc dance rhythms, the crushing rock-like thrums of guitarist Tim Dorofeev and the yearning tones of Anton Kotikov’s Armenian double reed, the duduk. Later, Sandomirsk’s pensive and reflective chording is accompanied with taste and sensitivity by drummer Tarasov, Oleg Yudanov and Peter Ivshin in a moderated fashion on Tapestry #3 (for S.J.F), a showpiece that opens up into a sympathetic duet between the breathy expression of tenor saxophonist Alexey Kruglov and the buttery triple-tongued affiliations of trombonist Maxim Piganov. The climactic Tapestry #6 brings the polyphonic program to a masterful close as trumpet squeals and reed spurts relax from shrill scattershot explosions to casually swinging motion alongside flexible percussion claps.

05 AntropologyCD006The most unusual use of a large ensemble however is a two-CD set by the Anthropology Band (Discus 90 CD discus-music.co.uk). On the first disc a septet of mostly rhythm instruments interprets British saxophonist Martin Archer’s 15-part suite. On the second CD, ten brass and woodwind players, with Archer and trumpeter/flugelbornist Charlotte Keeffe the only holdovers, add carefully arranged tonal extensions to the same pieces. The upshot is two vastly dissimilar variations. Awash with Pat Thomas’ shaking keyboard inflections, Corey Mwamba’s crafty vibraphone accents, plus interconnecting rhythm stabilization from drummer Peter Fairclough and bass guitarist Dave Sturt, the effervescent first program vamps along with space made for slurry half-valve effects from Keeffe and waves of corkscrew multiphonics from Archer. Even as the theme is shattered with brief solos, a repetitive ostinato is maintained with shuffle drumbeats and chunky guitar twangs from Chris Sharkey. While forceful beats also keep the sequences spiralling with blues-jazz-rock affiliations, a snowflake sprinkle of vibe resonation and moderated flugelhorn fluttering maintain a lyrical centre. The swinging finale emphasizes both currents with aggressive drumbeats and distorted guitar runs as prominent as melodic Gabriel-styled trumpet blasts. Adding nine additional players transforms the suite. Evolving at a swifter pace, intertwined horn textures and solos fill in the spaces left by echoing bass lines and guitar splatters. With the subsequent sonic fullness taking on more obvious pastoral effects via orchestral instruments like Mick Somerset’s bubbly flutes. Later though, before altissimo reed screams and brassy emphasis make interpretations overly cacophonous, tracks are rhythmically grounded with logical forward motion. This strategy is most obvious on People Talking Blues as shaking keyboard riffs and pointed guitar patternings are subordinated by Nathan Bettany’s nasal oboe tones and Keeffe’s mellow flugelhorn until the rhythm unveils a cymbal-clashing climax. From that point on, the narratives rebound between sympathetic horn input including the trumpets’ bugle-like pitches and five-part reed section harmonies on one hand and a hypnotic bass guitar beat and chugging percussion on the other. With whistling horn slurs and stutters, frailing guitar licks and intensified tremolos from the rhythm section, the orchestral version of the concluding The Wrong Stuff 4 U is infused with the same equilibrium between rhythm and refinement as the septet variation. 

A mature demonstration of how expanded instrumental groups can illuminate and intensify a musical program is illustrated not only on this disc but on the others as well. 

01 FORTUNESFortunes
Ways + Simon Toldam
Lorna 12 (brodiewest.com)

Ways is the Toronto duo of alto saxophonist Brodie West and drummer Evan Cartwright, formed in 2012. This is the group’s first recording, and it comes from a Copenhagen session with Danish pianist Simon Toldam. West’s music has a distinct rhythmic focus. His quintet includes two drummers, the octet Eucalyptus adds an additional percussionist and a pianist, and both groups include Cartwright. If a piano might blur instrumental typologies, Toldam’s approach is definitely percussive. The strings are variously prepared to alter decays and ambiguate pitches. West even pushes the saxophone into the percussion family, often working within a restricted pitch range while creating complex staccato patterns.

This rhythmic focus links to a corresponding interest in timbre that immediately distinguishes the trio. The opening Fame contrasts passages of saxophone and prepared piano with passages of drums, with saxophone and piano sounding like next of kin, the former’s pointillist pops synched to the latter’s muffled, echoing, repeated phrase. On Love, the three create a complex pattern while sometimes reducing themselves to single notes: West’s wispy sounds are mere amplified breaths; Toldam’s notes, punctuation marks; Cartwright’s kit, a single drum. 

The activity gradually expands: Money II is a virtual explosion of anxious, rapid-fire saxophone ricocheting through harpsichord-like piano figures and suddenly dense drums, yet still as closely knit as to suggest a single organizing mind on works credited to all three musicians. The ultimate results are as invigorating as they are unusual.

02a GGRIL LaubrockGGRIL Plays Ingrid Laubrock
GGRIL; Ingrid Laubrock
Tour de Bras TDB900039 / Circumdisc microcidi015 (tourdebras.com ; www.circum-disc.com)

Le Rnst
Xavier Charles; Pierre-Yves Martell; Éric Normand; Matija Schellander
Ambiances Magnétiques AM254 CD (actuellecd.com)

Since 2003, Éric Normand has been building a unique musical empire, a thriving hub of free improvisation in the city of Rimouski on the Gaspé Peninsula. There he’s assembled an orchestra, created a record label and festival, and brought major figures to appear as guest soloists and conductors. He’s also managed to arrange performances for that orchestra, GGRIL, or Grande Groupe Régional d’Improvisation Libérée as far afield as Europe, building increasingly strong links.

The measure of Normand’s Rimouski achievement is apparent immediately on GGRIL Plays Laubrock, with the orchestra hosting German-born, New York-resident Ingrid Laubrock, a brilliant saxophonist and improviser whose work extends to conducting Ligeti’s Poème Symphonique for 100 metronomes and her own large ensemble pieces released as Contemporary Chaos Practices (Intakt). Here she leads a 16-member GGRIL in three pieces, covering a series of divergent methodologies.  

It’s a heterodox ensemble mixing electric guitars and bass with winds, strings, a harp and assorted percussion; a lightly plucked cello can share space with droning feedback, but it’s a group in which sharp contrasts take on a unity of their own. The opening Silent Light is a graphic score with inserted conductions, moving between spacious textures and sudden forceful interludes, its delicately plucked strings merging with dense explosions and structural trumpet blasts. Laubrock’s tenor saxophone comes forcefully to the fore in its later moments. Strak Dark is composed, developing passages of muted electronics and pensive bowed strings, while the concluding Palindrome is a collective improvisation with set dynamic markings. The intense performance testifies both to the orchestra’s creative range and Laubrock’s inventiveness with minimalist structural inputs.

02b Le RnstAnother side of Normand is evident in Le Rnst, a single 34-minute improvisation that combines two Quebecois musicians with two Europeans, Austrian Matija Schellander is playing an acoustic double bass, Normand is playing his homemade electric bass as well as objects and fellow Quebecer Pierre-Yves Martel is playing viola de gamba as well as harmonicas. French clarinetist Xavier Charles completes the group.

Recorded in l’église Saint-Merry in Paris, the church’s resonance performs a major role in the performance, adding scale and a special depth, and highlighting a gradual and detailed interaction in which the instruments’ harmonics take on a life of their own. Charles is a great sonic explorer, summoning unknown avian species within the confines of his clarinet, even creating the illusion of an alto or even a bass version of the instrument. The various bass string players are similarly resourceful, sometimes functioning as electronic drones or hand drums, depending on an individual instrument’s characteristics, while an extended passage of spacious long tones manages even to blur their identities with Charles’ clarinet. It’s free improvisation of a rare, sustained and tranquil beauty.

03 Jacek KochanOccupational Hazard
Jacek Kochan & musiConspiracy
Roots 2 Boot Roots2Boot 1912 (jacekkochan.com)

Polish-Canadian drummer, composer, bandleader, arranger and producer Jacek Kochan has gathered several well-renowned musicians together for his newest release – talents such as vocalist and pianist Elizabeth Shepherd, bassists Rich Brown and Adrian Vedady, alto saxophonist Luis Deniz among a long list of other fantastic musicians. This unique album is highly recommended for any jazz fans looking for an interesting take on mixing jazz, improvisation and rock together into an eccentric musical jambalaya. All compositions are written and arranged by Kochan himself, with Marta Kochan penning the lyrics. For anyone looking for a true musical adventure, the album “weaves rhythms and harmonies from around the world into an eclectic and infectious mix sure to please the ears of any adventurous listener.”

The album starts off with the track Fear No More, a slightly haunting piano riff amplified by Shepherd’s vocals. The song progresses into a foot-tapping number with Kochan’s constant drum groove and sizzling solos by Brown on electric bass, Deniz and Petr Cancura on saxophones and Jerry De Villiers Jr. on electric guitar. The title track of the record features a very captivating vocal duet by Shepherd and Sari Dajani and a positively groovy riff thanks to Mo Boo on electric bass. Soliloquy is perfectly fitting for spring with its intense energy and infectious drum and bass rhythms. This record is a perfect mix of contemporary with just enough structure to each piece mixed in to keep the listener enraptured.

04 Mark SeggerLift Off
Mark Segger Sextet
18th Note Records 18-2018-3 (marksegger.com)

Sophisticated, supple and swinging sextet sounds, Lift Off shows off the advanced compositional and arranging skills of Edmonton-based drummer Mark Segger, helped immeasurably by contributions from his five GTA associates. With echoes of feathery neo-classicism mixed with technical explorations, Segger’s eight tunes become even more animated when filtered through brassy provocation from trombonist Heather Saumer and trumpeter Jim Lewis; the expressive inflections of tenor saxophonist/clarinetist Peter Lutek; keyboardist Tania Gill’s note-perfect comping; and the solid grounding of bassist Rob Clutton.

Case in point is For the Bees, with the horns providing the buzzing motif as the theme evolves from a canon with a West Coast Jazz-like feel into more solid sound expressions helped by swirling piano lines and as the climax, pinched notes from Lewis. Meanwhile, despite its title, the concluding Bassline is actually a trombone feature with a mixture of rapid-fire blasts and slinky slurps from Saumer. After the trumpeter’s Mariachi inflections and thick piano patterns expand the tune, a jumpy finale confirms its unforced jollity. Meanwhile, One Note is more complex than imagined, since the emphasis is on each player creating a distinctive variation without violating the unfolding limitations of the slow-motion idea.

Limiting his playing to timekeeping and distinctive accents that help propel the peeps, slurs and trills that personalize his creations, there’s no question of Segger’s mastery of his triple role. The only question is why this authoritative 2016 date took so long to be released.

05 Alain BedardExalta Calma
Alain Bédard Auguste Quartet
Effendi Records FND158 (effendirecords.com)

Gifted Quebecois jazz bassist, composer and president of the forward-thinking Effendi Records, Alain Bédard, has just released the latest project from his Auguste Quartet, which features the equally gifted Félix Stüssi on piano, Mario Allard on soprano and alto saxophones and the facile Michel Lambert on drums. The majority of the intriguing compositions here have been penned by Bédard, with two fine contributions from Stüssi (the evocative Debout au bout du Bout-du-Bank and Insomnia), as well as one gem from J.P. Viret (NY – Pas encore).

The opener, PouTiti, begins with a subtle Afro-Creole beat that underscores the quirky melody, with delightful and melodic soprano sax contributions from Allard. Bédard establishes the steady pulse with his undulating bass lines, while Lambert develops an intricate second-line-inspired framework, and on La Silva Major ll, Bédard’s nimble bass exploration leads the way into an exotic, sonic journey.

On Stüssi’s Debout au Bout du Bout-du-Bank, a unison piano/sax intro segues into a groovy, boppish construct, written to delight the ear and stimulate the imagination. A standout is Queen Ketchup, where a concentric swing propels the players into a symbiotic dance that fully illustrates not only the ego-less democracy of this ensemble, but their ability to communicate almost telepathically. An inspired bass solo punctuates the piece brilliantly. The closer, Insomnia, is the perfect postscript to a thoroughly gorgeous, well-recorded, conceived and performed contemporary jazz recording. With an almost futuristic West Coast Jazz feel, this final track again displays the wide skills of all of the players, captured in the act of creation. Vive Montréal! Vive Québec!

Back to top