Without question one of jazz’s most representative records is of a 1953 concert with bop masters Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus and Max Roach in their only performance together. That the session was recorded in Toronto’s Massey Hall makes it distinctive as well as irreplaceable. But Jazz at Massey Hall isn’t the only instance of jazz history being made north of the border. Precisely because of gig opportunities for committed international improvisers discs recorded at Canadian gigs or festivals are an important part of the music’s fabric.
One of the most significant recent sessions recorded in similar circumstances is Anthony Braxton’s Echo Echo Mirror House (Vict o cd 125, victo.qc.ca). Featuring the composer’s septet, this 2011 premiere at the annual Festival International de Musique Actuelle from Victoriaville, Quebec rolls controlled cacophony and fragmented polyphony into an hour-long protoplasmic performance that sounds as if it’s emanating from two orchestras playing simultaneously, although there are only seven musicians on stage. Having long dispensed with the idea of solo and accompaniment, Braxton’s composition allows the two brass players, percussion, three string players plus the composer’s saxophones to enter and exit the sequences at will. Miraculously all the parts hang together. This situation is even more remarkable when you consider that several of the players double or triple, and always conversant with technology, all are equipped with iPods. The latter adds snatches of pre-recorded voices, vocal and instrumental music to the mix and use live processing to integrate sequences recorded during performance back into the composition. While this description may appear formidable, the music isn’t that difficult. The initial theme reappears at junctures, while at all times motifs, such as Mary Halvorson’s guitar twangs or Jay Rozen’s tuba blasts, provide the continuum. Meanwhile the pressurized polytonal narrative recedes enough in spots so that Braxton’s alto saxophone yelps, Taylor Ho Bynum’s wispy flugelhorn grace notes or the polyrhythmic strokes uniting Jessica Pavone’s viola and Aaron Siegel’s vibes are clearly audible. Midway through, as the tension dissipates a bit, cutting reed bites and ringing vibes separately presage the addition of iPod samples featuring female speaking voices and a male vocal chorus. Later, following subtle reprises of the theme, pre-recorded piano recital-like dynamics threaten to unduly soften the performance until Carl Testa’s whapping percussion, Bynum’s plunger work and Braxton’s strident sax lines, shatter any tendencies towards sweetness. With every musician and every iPod producing climatic timbres, and when it appears as if the rattling, staccato undulations can’t become any more overwrought, conductor Braxton abruptly ends the performance. The effect is as if a harrowing but pleasurable journey has been completed.
It’s this sort of journey that leads to other CDs, as foreign musicians come to this country to record with local players who have international reputations. So it is with Aves (Songlines SGL 1601-2, songlines.com) that matches Vancouver clarinetist François Houle, who has played with many members of the European avant-garde, with Norwegian pianist Håvard Wiik, known for his work with the band Atomic. During a series of shorter tracks, the two present a program that epitomizes chamber jazz, with Houle’s extensive technical facility ensuring the interface doesn’t list too far in the direction of so-called classical music. When the pianist plays alone, as he does on “Zirma,” his stylistic ticks lead to baroque and impressionistic vibrations. In contrast, a piece such as “Aporetic Dreams,” despite its obvious germination in the European classical tradition, finds Houle’s intense pressurized vibrations toughening the pianist’s showy glissandi. Even as the clarinetist uses tongue slaps and circular breathing to make his points, the most significant tracks are those where improvisation and composition are balanced. Wiik’s exquisite low-pitched soundboard echo on “Sparrowhawk” for instance, is sympathetically underscored by timbres from two clarinets played simultaneously, with new reed notes appearing each time a keyboard fantasia is heard. “Meeting on a Line” is turned into a clarinet tone rollercoaster as altissimo trills and downward runs reach a slurred crescendo as the piano keys alternately chime and clash. Circular colouration resulting from slapped piano keys and internal string plucking on “Ursula’s Dream” is elevated with Houle’s triple tonguing and screeching before the final fade out. Nonetheless, Wiik’s expertise creating urbane swing on tracks such as the concluding “Strobe” means that unpleasant atonality is prevented from taking centre stage.
Another improviser who can sophisticatedly mix delicacy and toughness in his music is saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell. Almost 40 years ago he and other advanced players frequently visited and recorded in Canada because their talent was more appreciated here than in their home countries. Live at A Space 1975 (Sackville-Delmark SK 2080, delmark.com), done in Toronto, has just been reissued, containing additional material from the same live date and making the CD 50 percent lengthier. The four new tracks give a more complete picture of the Toronto performance that also involves trombonist George Lewis, guitarist Spencer Barefield and pianist Muhal Richard Abrams. Previously the emphasis on the truncated disc was on pieces such as “Tnoona” and “Cards,” mostly dissonant performances whose sonic tension mixed with concentrated forward motion demonstrated the quartet’s familiarity with spiky avant-garde sounds. Now however the additional tracks give clues as to why the experiments brought forward by the likes of Mitchell and Lewis have been accepted as a part of jazz’s body politic. Both “Prelude to Naima” and “Dastura” are almost gentle, with the former harmonizing near-pastoral flute, processional piano and a lowing trombone ostinato in such a way that the subsequent playing of John Coltrane’s “Naima” is inevitable and balanced. Ditto for “Dastura,” which demonstrated in 1975, as it does now, the versatility of the players. Moreover, the quick runthrough of Mitchell’s “Noonaah,” now the CD’s final track, ends with unison horn blasts arising organically from the band’s narrative of extroverted gutbucket slurs and cascading piano chords that demonstrate its context.
Of course high quality discs are still made in Canada ... by Canadians, simply because they live here, as Montreal percussionist Evan Tighe’s Threadcount (ETC 0001, evantighe.com) proves. Tighe who composed all eight tracks, and who also plays melodica and toy piano here, leads a top-flight local band with saxophonists Erik Hove and Adam Kinner, violinist Joshua Zubot and Rémi-Jean LeBlanc on bass. Tighe’s penchant for experimentation can be heard on “We/System,” where the head is recapped as if it was being played by the Jazz Messengers, but begins with the line contrasted between the tenor saxophone’s breathy low tones and the vibrating high pitches of the toy piano. Shifting throughout between romantic and riotous, the serpentine narrative makes space for pummelling double bass thumps, pizzicato fiddle plucks and drum pops. More spaciously constructed “Think Hard Enough” and “You Can Forget Nearly Anything” moves every which way without ever becoming a free-for-all. Call-and-response balance is maintained with tough reed bites or barely there blowing, while Zubot’s skittering staccato rubs surmount both. Eventually a climax is reached via positioned cracks and smacks from Tighe. Vigorous, contrapuntal and swinging, the drummer’s sensitively explosive playing and that of his band members, suggest why outsiders may want to record with Canadians or bring their whole band here.