07 VoyageCoco Swirl
Ratchet Orchestra
Ambiances Magnetiques AM 248 (actuellecd.com)

From Nimmons ‘N’ Nine Plus Six to Vancouver’s NOW Orchestra, despite the economics, Canadians have somehow produced highly creative big bands. Montreal’s Ratchet Orchestra was a quintet in 1993; today its founder-composer-bassist-conductor Nic Caloia leads a 19-member ensemble with the breadth and force of Sun Ra’s Arkestra or a Charles Mingus big band. Like them, it invokes Duke Ellington’s legacy of rich textures and intense turbulence while emphasizing distinctive solo voices. It has a traditional big band’s power, with five reeds and five brass, but expands its palette with violin, two violas and the eerie profundity of bass reeds and tuba.

Caloia’s compositions range from the traditionally modernist to the avant-garde, with a band composed of individuals who define Montreal’s free-jazz community. The opening Tub features the brilliant alto saxophonist Yves Charuest, as abstractly evasive as Lee Konitz. The rousing Raise Static Backstage, fuelled by Isaiah Ciccarelli’s rampaging drum solo, might appeal to any fan of Dizzy Gillespie’s legendary bebop big band, while Blood, an atmospheric setting for Sam Shalabi’s distorted guitar, touches on the later works of Gil Evans.

Caloia’s most personal and ambitious work is saved for the conclusion, the six-part Before Is After, a weave of compound rhythms and evasive fragments knit together with unlikely matchings of instruments and forceful soloists, including violinist Joshua Zubot and bass saxophonist Jason Sharp. Ratchet Orchestra is both a distinctive Montreal institution and national standard bearer for a creative tradition

08a ClockwiseClockwise
Anna Webber
Pi Recordings P179 (pirecordings.com)

Reaching an elevated trajectory following her last CD, BC-born, New York-based tenor saxophone/flutist Anna Webber aided by a seasoned septet, re-conceptualizes impressions of 20th-century composers’ percussion works into new compostions.

Percussiveness not percussion is the major focus, even though her studio reassembling of Ches Smith’s echoing tympani on the Feldmanesque King of Denmark II is suitably staggering. Mostly though Smith sticks to drums and vibraphone to provide the precise clamour and ringing clatter that swing alongside Jacob Garchik’s emotional trombone flow; place-marking stops or sweeping glissandi from Christopher Hoffman’s cello and Chris Tordini’s bass; pulsing chromatics from pianist Matt Mitchell; and stylistic chirps or snarls from Webber and tenor saxophonist/clarinetist Jeremy Viner.

Oddly separated on opposite ends of the disc, three variations on King of Denmark and two of Korē are equally striking. Sparkling piano chords mixed with squirming saxophone riffs build up to a heraldic crescendo in the first part of King of Denmark. Meanwhile Mitchell’s intermittent comping, percussion breaks and audacious plunger vocalizing from Garchik’s trombone bring passion to the Xenakis-inspired Korē I. Webber even manages to extract a melodic groove from Array, a homage to Babbitt. Her delicate flute whistles are challenged by precision trombone glides and clarinet swells, until the piece becomes harder edged with Mitchell’s keyboard cadenzas, but still maintains unexpected warmth.

Overall the performances, which also touch on Cage, Varèse and Stockhausen influences, aren’t merely turned clockwise, but highly original creations directed by Webber.

Accomplished and profound music – especially when including a hearty slab of improvisation – can call on many inspirations and be played on an infinite number of soundmakers. Proof of these statements is discernible on these notable discs, featuring a range of traditional, novel, electric and acoustic instruments and with influences encompassing mainstream composition, wave form experimentations, and even legumes.

01 BartokThe most conventional of these unconventional sessions is Bartók Impressions (BMC CD 254 bmcrecords.hu) since the tracks are based on works by Béla Bartók (1881-1945). The most notable feature on this Budapest-recorded disc is that besides the double bass of Hungarian-in-France Mátyás Szandai and the violin of Paris-based Mathias Lévy, one prominent sound here is from the traditional hammered zither called the cimbalom played by Hungarian Miklós Lukács. Perhaps the program is also notable since, with two-thirds of the band Magyar and Bartóks themes sometimes based on Eastern European folk melodies, familiarity is paramount. At the same time, Lukács’ dexterous skill gives the 13 improvisations a unique quality. When struck, the cimbalom takes on vibraphone and percussion qualities; when plucked, harp or guitar-like tones. A defining instance of this is on Romanian Folk Dances No.4, where Levy’s elaboration of the melancholy theme is soon toughened by seemingly simultaneous harp-like twangs and rhythmic mallet string stabs from the cimbalom. This virtuosic versatility is expressed from the first track onwards. On that one, Reflections on New Year’s Greeting No.4, for instance, boiling double bass plucks cement the pulse as mallet lopes create a bouncy countermelody to the gorgeous tones of the fiddle’s airy narrative. The jittery, jazzy Improvisations on Romanian Folk Dances No.4 finds Lukács comping like a pianist, Szandai with well-modulated plucks and with Levy’s staccato stopping in the highest register suggesting both Transylvanian wedding music and tavern revelry. In contrast, a few other tracks are recital-like formal, at least in the expositions. They include a mellow showcase of balanced cello-like tones from the bassist on Improvisations on Romanian Christmas Carols No.7, completed by foot-tapping glissandi with klezmer overtones. The most accomplished, intricate transformation, which highlights another aspect of Lukács’ adaptability, occurs on Reflections on Six Bulgarian Rhythms. The cimbalom’s mallet reverberations turn him into a Magyar Milt Jackson, at the same time as fiddle squeaks at dog-whistle pitches amplify the pulse, and double bass plucks intensify the rhythms. Staying true to the composer’s initial vision though, the piece ends with a wide connective interlude of warm romantic timbres.

02 FullmanEven though another modern composer is involved, there are no warm romantic timbres heard during the The Air around Her (Skivbolaget 1703-3 edition-festival.com), since American composer Ellen Fullman and Korean-American cellist Okkyung Lee are concerned with the dynamic contrasts or blends produced by exposing the latter’s string techniques, with the possibilities engendered by plucking Fullman’s self-created Long String Instrument (LSI). The LSI is tuned in just intonation, and in this instance, stretched 26 metres across a room in Stockholm’s Performing Art Museum. During the performance the LSI creates a droning continuum, plus almost imperceptible timbre shifts throughout the two tracks of about 20 minutes each, subtly redefining the relentless drone with multiple layers of speed, volume and pitch. Eventually variegated cello definitions move forward to challenge the LSI’s unhurried horizontal interface with col legno-created percussive raps on wood and strings, plus stropping and slicing sul ponticello vibrations. Part II finds LSI’s organ-like tremolo grinds subsiding from taking up the entire room’s aural space so that palimpsest-like cello’s nuanced narratives are more obvious. These serrated bow jiggles and cello expansions reach a crescendo of almost identical inflated tones from both instruments before dissolving into microtones. In retrospect the recital has been enthralling without being deadening or frightening.

03 LORDespite the presence of veteran British tabletop-guitarist Keith Rowe on L’Or (Mikroton Recordings CD 68 mikroton.net), the defining sonic patterns are focused on his use of electronics, blended with the programmed patches of French computer-coder Julien Ottavi plus the modular synthesizer and cracked everyday and homemade electronics of Russian Kurt Liedwart. While faint allusions to conventional tones sporadically pierce the churning miasma produced by the trio, sound emphasis moves among voltage charges, supple thwacks and synthesized sound envelopes, underscored by waveform buzzing. Especially on the extended and defining Aurum, blurry loops of constantly pulsating whooshes and signal processing melded into a undulating drone, include few compositional transitions. When they do arrive, these textural lacerations only minimally alter volume or pitch, taking the form of thickened flanges, watery pops, windy squalls, wiggling tone fluctuations and fan-belt-like flapping. As these clips and pops harden into a sold mass followed by silence, one must accept the group’s continuously repeated drones as creating a nearly inert entity, where appreciation comes from noting the reflected sound tinctures and angles rather than an ambulatory program.

04 SnipettesWhile electronics are now accepted as instruments, some musicians have accelerated the search for innovative sounds further, creating programs from collages of already existing material. For instance, Martin Tétreault’s Plus de Snipettes!! (Ambiances Magnétiques AM 245 CD actuellecd.com), is a sprawling 77-minute program in which the Montrealer constructs a wholly original recital from audio cassettes, tape reels, short-wave static, radio soundchecks and excerpts of untouched or cut-up vinyl. With each of the 31 [!] tracks lasting from about seven seconds to around seven minutes, the collages captivate with sheer audacity. Entertaining while sometimes making sardonic comments, this homage and burlesque of recorded sound is satire mixed with love. Not adverse to snipping French or English narrations from educational or instructional discs to foreshadow subsequent noises, Tétreault’s mashups are free of cant. Snippets of a Verèse or Boulez composition are slotted next to a flute improvisation, a snatch of disco sounds or a piano picking out Polly Wolly Doodle. Crunching noises created by train movement can fuse into a drum instruction record and then the flanges of backwards-running tape. At point his manipulations make succinct inferences, as when Dave Holland’s bass solo on Emerald Tears is juxtaposed with the sounds of a man crying. Other times connection leads to spoof, as when a ponderous lecturer’s voice outlining a complex phrase with the word “basis” in it is cut to become “bass” and later “mace” and repeated numerous times, becoming an electronic-dance rhythm in the process. Manipulations in speed and pitch turn juxtaposition of Sidney Bechet’s soprano saxophone and a Dixieland drum solo into frantic microtones. And if that isn’t enough, Tétreault creates abstract sound collages by cutting several LPs into many sections, gluing together the parts and recording the results so that a chorus of Soviet military singers fades into jazz piano chording and unknown speechifying, with the entire exercise surmounted by the crackles from divided and sutured vinyl.

05 VegetableShould Tétreault’s experiments not be organic enough, then an established Viennese ensemble can provide the antidote. On Green Album (Transacoustic Research tres 009 transacoustic-research.com), the ten-piece Vegetable Orchestra performs music on instruments that are made entirely from vegetable parts. On highly rhythmic tracks such as Fasern and Beet-L for instance, the funk arises from the beats of calabash bass and celery bongos with the vamping melody courtesy of a carrot marimba. Or multiphonic whistles from the carrot recorder evolve alongside the beanbag shaker and calabash bass on Bamako. While elastic sound animation is maintained throughout the 14 tracks, that doesn’t mean there aren’t serious sounds in this vegetable stew. The hissing counterpoint that enlivens tracks such as Schwarzmooskogel, for example, could be part of the recipe for any advanced music program, even if the horizontal swirls are from a leek violin, the high-pitched peeps from a radish horn and the beat propelled by a pumpkin bass drum.

While only the final disc could in some circumstances provide nourishment for the stomach as well as the mind, each of these CDs captures a way of using unusual instruments to create profound sounds.

01 Sheila SoaresAll There Is
Sheila Soares
Independent (sheilasoaresmusic.com) 

Gifted vocalist and composer Sheila Soares’ new recording is one of the freshest, most engaging and thoroughly musical CDs to be released this year. Although Soares is no unseasoned debutante, her debut offering is rife with new, intriguing, genre-blurring original material and fine musicianship. Deftly produced by talented guitarist Eric St-Laurent, Soares’ excellent collaborators also include Jeff McLeod on piano and organ, Jordan O’Connor on acoustic bass and Chris Wallace on drums.

At first blush, there is an obvious sonic similarity between the vocal timbre of Soares and the late Blossom Dearie; however, Dearie (with her quirky, narcissistic performances) never came near Soares’ interpretive sensitivity and jaunty songwriting style. It may be that good tunesmiths (such as Soares) are just “born” when the creative stars align, and they can enter our consciousness at any point along their journey – it’s inevitable… and as Soares says, “Music is like breathing to me.”

Highlights include the lovely title track, as well as the stunning Les Fraises Sur La Lune (Strawberries on the Moon), which displays Soares’ skilled, pitch-pure vocal instrument and considerable ability to swing. The romantic Constellation boasts not only beautiful chord changes, but also a lilting melody and a gentle, rhythmic jazz sensibility that make this gorgeous track a total standout. Jazz has many faces and expressions, and happily for all of us, Soares will no doubt be delighting us with her jazz eclecticism and irresistible perspective for a very long time to come.

02 Marc JordanBoth Sides
Marc Jordan
Linus 270389 (marcjordan.com)

Listing all of Marc Jordan’s songwriting credits, awards and accolades would take up the whole word count of this review, so let me simply say that the man knows his way around a song. And since this album is mostly covers – only two of the tracks are originals – his mighty interpretative skills are a key component here. The other key component of Both Sides is Lou Pomanti, who produced, arranged and orchestrated all the tracks. These two men are at the top of their games and we are the beneficiaries. The album is rich with instrumentation courtesy of the Prague Symphony Orchestra and guest appearances by international heavies like Randy Brecker and Tommy Emmanuel, and local luminaries like Kevin Breit and Larnell Lewis. 

Although he covers a couple of standards from the Great American Songbook, it’s the reinterpretations of classic folk/rock songs that are standouts for me. In particular, Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side shines with its many layers and gorgeous woodwinds, courtesy of Toronto’s own, John Johnson. Although the soft, groovy treatment of the tune is antithetical to its subject matter, it works. Beautifully. Jordan’s thoughtful handling of the title tune also caused me to hear these familiar lyrics with fresh ears and I was struck by how mature Joni Mitchell’s writing was for one so young. (She was in her early 20s when she wrote Both Sides Now.) Overall, the album reflects a full-grown artist who has lived completely, and well.

Listen to 'Both Sides' Now in the Listening Room

03 Karin PlatoThis Could Be The One
Karin Plato
Independent KP0418 (karinplato.com)

Released worldwide on April 12 through Stikjazz Music, This Could Be The One is Vancouver-based vocalist Karin Plato’s eighth studio album, and the culmination of ten years of work with her quintet, which includes herself, clarinetist James Danderfer, pianist Chris Gestrin, bassist Laurence Mollerup and drummer Joe Poole. This Could Be The One also features three special guests: blues musician Jim Byrnes, singer Rebecca Shoichet and trombonist Rod Murray. Recorded live off the floor by Sheldon Zaharko in Vancouver at Warehouse Studio, the album has a warm, inviting vibe, emulating, to a certain degree, the experience of hearing acoustic jazz from a good seat in a well-appointed venue.

This Could Be The One is largely made up of Plato’s original material, with a few re-arranged exceptions: the Lennon/McCartney-penned I’ve Just Seen A Face, Hank Williams’ I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry, and the ubiquitous Heart And Soul. Byrnes joins Plato on What Came Before, Plato’s loping, 3/4 ode to empathy; though they represent different vocal traditions, the two singers’ voices blend well, with Byrnes’ big, woolly voice complementing Plato’s controlled clarity. Shoichet and Plato sing together on Sorrow, another Plato original, a bittersweet, straight-eighths song that serves as the album’s final entry.

With an overall mood that tends toward the calm and communicative, even during its more bombastic moments, This Could Be The One is a worthy addition to the canon of modern Canadian vocal jazz.

Listen to 'This Could Be The One' Now in the Listening Room

Le way qu’a do
Les Surruralists
Tour de Bras TDB90033CD
(tourdebras.com)

Spine
Monicker (Arthur Bull; Scott Thomson; Roger Turner)
Ambiances Magnétiques AM 246 CD (actuellecd.com)

04a Arthur Bull SURRURALISTGuitarist and poet, Toronto-born, Nova Scotia resident Arthur Bull enjoys a compound musical identity. He has been a part of the Canadian improvising community for decades, developing a personal idiom that draws in equal parts from the extended techniques of free improvisation and the slide and finger-style traditions of blues and folk idioms. These two CDs, from Spring 2018, present Bull in radically different, if equally radical settings.

The Surruralists is essentially a duo of Bull and electric bassist Éric Normand, though guests sometimes contribute to a music that’s at once timeless and timely. The two (sometimes subtly, sometimes not) merge free improvisation with folk singing, mixing French and English traditions to craft a primal music in which country tunes and proto-rhythm ‘n’ blues collide with flashes of an unearthly sound art. Bull’s raw baritone and slide guitar drive Jack o’ Diamonds and Frankie (and Johnny), while his gift for epigram emerges on the spoken Skidmarks: “I couldn’t count how many ways the woodpecker could divide the beat.” Normand adds weird electronic burbles to condition familiar themes, and he’s eloquent on the dirge La courtisane brûlée, with Bull adding plaintive harmonica and Ben Grossman a funereal vielle à roue (hurdy-gurdy).

04b Arthur Bull MonickerAmong Bull’s international associations is one formed in 2002 with drummer Roger Turner, a charter member of the British school of free improvisation. Turner’s sometimes machine-like approach can be traced directly to an early appreciation of the brilliant precision of Dave Tough, the drummer who propelled the rise of Chicago jazz over 90 years ago. Anyone who imagines free improvisation to be somehow vague in its contours simply hasn’t heard Roger Turner. In 2018 Bull and Turner expanded their duo with the addition of trombonist Scott Thomson for a tour (as Monicker) that stretched from Southern Ontario to Nova Scotia.

No blow-by-blow description could do justice to Spine: the music is mercurial, each of the CD’s six tracks a continuum of shifting, permutating relationships and voices, much of it conducted at incredible speed, from Thomson’s burbling register leaps and runs, squeezed through a metal mute, to Turner’s high-pitched clatter. Bull’s voices range from long, wandering bass glissandi to high-speed flurries of metallic scattershot, liable to be confused with some of Thomson and Turner’s own voicings; but the very determination with which the three proceed soon destroys any identikit game of “he said, he said” with a conclusive “When was that?” It’s a high-water mark in Canadian free improvisation.

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