12 discoveries on tracker action organsDiscoveries on tracker action organs
Veryan Weston
Emanem 5044 (emanemdisc.com)

Veryan Weston is an English improviser and composer, a brilliant free-jazz pianist whose works include Tessellations, a structure for improvisation that moves permutationally through 52 pentatonic scales. Weston is inspired by the behaviour of different keyboard instruments and by the possibilities of microtonality, two passions that came together on the 2014 Tuning Out tour with violinist Jon Rose and cellist Hannah Marshall (Emanem 5207).

In preparation, Weston visited old churches, exploring some 30 tracker action organs, small mechanical instruments in which “there is only a short gap between the touch of a key and the pipe making a sound.” Weston was concerned with the instruments’ individual characteristics: “When each stop is very gradually pulled out (or pushed back in) while a key is pressed, you can hear many stages of the sound being made; from breath to whisper…Often microtones seem to bend toward a final pitch.”

The material here has been drawn from Weston’s recorded research, exploring the sonic quirks and minutiae of various instruments, making fresh discoveries in the lightly swirling runs of Quiet Fanfare (from St. Mary the Virgin in South Croxton), the low-pitched chords with foghorn effects of Proceeding with Caution (All Saints in Horstead) and the playful, calliope-like Fair with Ground (St. Anselm Hall in Manchester). The 24-minute Numerous Discoveries (All Saints in York) is a work of sustained invention, with Weston finding sub-vocal bleats and wails as well as beat patterns between close frequencies. This is fascinating music, a fine companion to Messiaen’s improvisations and Áine O’Dwyer’s Music for Church Cleaners.

Heir to a long and prominent role in notated music, exploration of the cello as a frontline partner has a shorter history in improvised music. Yet like a visual artist’s apprentice who subsequently envisages novel ways to utilize painterly techniques that surpass earlier conventions, today improvisers’ cello showcases expose the four-string instrument in a multitude of unexpected and interactive situations.

01 Remy BelangerVirtuosity is the most universal method of expressing instrumental skill and there are 13 examples of cello prestidigitation on D’éclisses (Ambiances Magnétiques AM 233 CD actuellecd.com). Quebec City’s Rémy Bélanger de Beauport contorts the sound of his instrument into so many unexpected variables that he could be the musical equivalent of Harry Houdini and/or Mandrake the Magician. A mathematician with a fondness for dance, noise rock and electronic music, de Beauport’s skill is such that it appears as if more than one instrument is present or that his cello is amplified, while creating completely acoustic textures without overdubs. Entonnoir treize, for instance, begins with a resonation that could be from a drum set, but is quickly revealed to be a powerful string pluck. Meantime two separate tones, one strident and high-pitched, and the other moderato like Baroque continuo, move in parallel fashion across the narrative. As the piece flashes by with bullet-train-like speed, de Beauport’s techniques suggest at points he’s ripping the finish off his strings while accelerating sul ponticello sweeps that eventually reach a vibrating finale. Similar dark-light/pliable-immovable tones are on Brasier as the simultaneous timbres contrast bird-like whistles with jackhammer-like thumps. But despite these outré gestures moderato strokes are still audible and the track moves with an offbeat swing. De Beauport can perform a sequence on a single string with enough twists in it to resemble an uncoiling snake as on Meet das Berger or he can unearth his buried past as guitarist on Kokosberge where he twangs as if playing a folk song. Most of the CD’s tracks showcase not only the cellist’s ability to slice notes so quickly that he could be whittling a tree into a toothpick in record time, but also his resolute ability to maintain a narrative despite distractions. Almost all improvisations showcase partial extension as well as the notes themselves, making D’éclisses a near-textbook example of what a free-music cellist can attain.

02. RelephantSolo invention is one thing, but how does an improvising cellist interact with fellow players? Very well, even as in the case of Relephant (Borcian Records borcianrecords.com), the meeting is an unconventional strong-percussion mating with American cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and Polish drummer Adam Golebiewski. Although de Beauport still retains traces of so-called classical technique, Lonberg-Holm pushes that to one side, using electronic connection and extended techniques that are often as astringent as a hail storm and just as clangorous to work alongside. Involved with every manner of objects that can be banged or vibrated, the percussionist strikes rims, bells and wood blocks as often as drum tops and is more likely to be shaving jagged timbres from his cymbals than resonating them. That said, each of the four untitled selections vibrates with such a collection of airy, metallic and sometimes sheer unidentifiable timbres that it’s often a toss-up as to which instrument plays which lick. On the penultimate and longest track for instance after Lonberg-Holm’s early spiccato and sul ponticello arco strategies have extracted imaginative tones and extended partials from the mix, he begins guitar-like strums only to quickly abandon the picking for screeching shuffle bowing to challenge the drummer’s J Arthur Rank-like cymbal resonation and later rattles and shakes from percussion add-ons. Ending with a polyrhythmic sequence, percussion pops are heard alongside brass-like near-capillary sounds from Golebiewski, matched by comparable strident string slashes which also take on valve instrument colouration. Hard and thick with no leavening sweetness, the final selection brings bird-of-prey-like wheezing from the cellist and thunderstorm-like percussion reverb forward for a heightened crescendo, finally ending with drum plops and string angling that vibrate to the end.

03 Desire FreedomAnother strategy that has developed is the use of the cello in the place of a double bass in a jazz combo. That’s Miguel Mira’s contribution to tenor saxophonist Rodrigo Amado’s Motion Trio. During the selections on Desire & Freedom (NotTwo MW 946-2 nottwo.com) which also includes drummer Gabriel Ferrandini, the trio expresses itself in stream-of-consciousness improvisations with the saxophonist exploring every nuance of the sound as Sonny Rollins and Dewey Redman did in similar situations. Meanwhile Mira’s plucks, feints and squeaks follow alongside Amado’s glottal punctuation. The most telling instance of this is on the concluding Responsibility. Halfway through, the cellist creates a vibrating solo, indistinguishable from that of a walking bass line and with the rhythmic power to match the saxophonist’s propelled split tones. By the time the foot-tapping extravaganza is complete it appears that both have exposed every timbral extension possible. Here and elsewhere, Ferrandini’s unforced clanks and rattles pace the other two like a moderator faced with impassioned speakers in a political debate. On Freedom Is a Two-Edged Sword, controlled thwacks from cello and drums properly situate the reedist’s exposition which bites rodent-like into the theme. Comfortable with gopher hole-like low growls and stratospheric cries, Amado’s reed motion can also be expressed in a more moderate fashion as he demonstrates on Liberty. With his narrative shaded to a deeper tone, while still multiphonic, the plinking strings and cymbal vibrations shadow him like a resolute foxhound as he develops theme variations and helps smooth the narrative down to soothing slurs by the finale.

04 Strange AttractorsAnother variation on this theme is exhibited by Toronto’s Ugly Beauties. On Strange Attractors (marilynlerner.com), Matt Brubeck’s cello takes the double bass role as well as what’s expected from the so-called classical cello in this ten-year-old aggregation with equal input from pianist Marilyn Lerner and drummer Nick Fraser. Although the cello’s natural melancholy tone is evoked when slow motion bends connect with variable piano patterning on Blue Violins and in contrast squirms and vibrates in tandem with the spontaneous joy emanating from the keyboard on the title tune, the true test of its adaptability comes in What Now? With the cellist initially skipping through the narrative like an inspired toddler, Lerner’s confirmed adults-only rendition of jazzy variations matures Brubeck’s output enough to replicate a walking bass line. Finally the cello’s resonation becomes tough enough to intersect with Fraser’s rolls and pops. Later, in a Janus-like demonstration of four-string versatility, the cello’s low pitches create a bluesy introduction to Sniffin’ Around, adding smacks on the wood for extra percussiveness as the pianist busily speeds up her chording to suggest terpsichorean movements. While other tunes like Fragments of a Dream and Broken Glass play up the cello’s solid chamber-music-like tones, Holometabolous, the extended free improvisation which ends the set confirms that staccato string torquing and descriptive glissandi are not only atonally effective but also are the equivalent mates for the pianist’s long-lined kinetics and string stopping. Overall the material somehow manages to combine a heavyweight boxer’s rough reach with the delicacy of a ballet dancer’s jetés.

05 RawMoving further into the abstract realm is Raw (Leo Records CD LR 766 leorecords.com). More cerebral than coarse, the CD shows how the unconventional Swiss string trio of cellist Alfred Zimmerlin, violinist Harald Kimmig and double bassist Daniel Studer adapt its variant of modern chamber music with the addition of British tenor and soprano saxophonist John Butcher. An individualistic blend of sharp angling, judders and stretched asides, Kimmig-Studer-Zimmerlin (KSZ) relates to a string trio only in the same way a cat and tiger are both felines. But its idiosyncratic variables make the saxophonist’s slurs and split tones the ideal complement to the trio-developed sound. Separated by protracted periods of near-inaudibility and silences, the results are something like the proverbial blind taste tests. Which timbres can be attributed to the reedist and which to strings? The giveaway on tracks such as the extended A Short Night with a Light Beam of the Moon are when Butcher’s circular breathing, multiphonics or tongue slaps audaciously confirm his identity. Overall though, the string trio’s angled unison allows reed trills to arise organically from within the KSZ’s practised interface. Reed-and-metal plus wood-and-strings blending demonstrate congruence most obviously on Morning Star Shining on Hydrangea, as first Zimmerlin, then Butcher, sound near-identical caustic echoes before string rubs and reed bites sweep to silence. Although less raw than imagined, a CD like this demonstrates the cello’s versatile skill in solo and group situations, just as pushing it another way on some of the other discs confirms its rhythmic function.

Using imagination and skill, cellists have found a place for themselves in improvised music that probably could never be imagined by those who support conventional techniques.

01 Andre lachanceThe Orange Challenge
Quatuor André Lachance
Independent AL201601

The Quebec City-born, Vancouver-based musical journeyman André Lachance may be better known as one of Canada’s highly prized younger bassists, but he is reincarnated as a guitarist on The Orange Challenge, which also features his dreamy and distinctive writing. The music here is fascinatingly complex. At its dizzying best, it conjures imagery of the guitar equivalent of dancing figures in ice skating, dispatched consummately by the abstract, dramatic and virtuosic ramblings of Lachance. Rush-hour momentum, caffeine highs, ennui, angst and closing-time loneliness are driven powerfully by the guitarist together with swinging, rock-solid contributions from keyboardist Brad Turner, drumming colourist Joe Poole and the sonic lightning of Chris Gestrin’s Moog bass.

It is difficult to single out any chart for special mention, but for sentimental reasons Claude shall receive exactly that. For one, its high and lonesome beauty perfectly describes its inner melancholia. Secondly, it is the perfect dedication to the legendary Canadian drummer Claude Ranger. Understandably, the spotlight is on Poole, who crowns the song with sonic wonders while Lachance caps things with the heart-stopping sadness of his playing. The rest of the music, though, is not as heavy-laden as Claude. Noteworthy are the lovely, swinging miniatures: Life Cycle and The Orange Challenge – the latter informed by an invigorating workout from Turner as well as another fine solo by Poole. The rich and sweet sound and impeccable virtuosity in a spacy and warm acoustic all combine to make this a rather memorable disc.

03 UofT Sweet Ruby SuiteSweet Ruby Suite – The Music of Kenny Wheeler
University of Toronto Jazz Orchestra
U of T Jazz (uoftjazz.ca)

The University of Toronto Jazz Orchestra is an 18-member student unit directed by Gordon Foote. On Sweet Ruby Suite, they pay tribute to the late Kenny Wheeler, Canada’s most esteemed jazz composer. The orchestra is joined by singer Norma Winstone, one of Wheeler’s closest collaborators and the distinguished American saxophonist Dave Liebman. The program also pays tribute to one of Wheeler’s finest Canadian chapters, his work as soloist, composer and orchestrator with the Maritime Jazz Orchestra: the group, which featured U of T faculty member Mike Murley, recorded two of the pieces here, the half-hour title suite and the brief W.W. in 2002, and another, Winter Sweet, in 1996.

The U of T orchestra brings admirable precision and taste to the performance, with Foote drawing lustrous brass textures from the ensemble in keeping with Wheeler’s Hindemith-inspired harmonies. Two of the trumpeters are featured as soloists on flugelhorn, Wheeler’s own frequent instrument of choice: Brad Eaton has a lively give-and-take improvisation with Liebman on the sprightly W.W., while Marie Goudy touches on Wheeler’s special lyricism, at once slightly muffled and soaring, on Winter Sweet.

Canter No.1, which Wheeler performed with both small groups and large, is effectively arranged here by Terry Promane, creating a delicate backdrop for Winstone’s brilliant wordless improvising and Liebman’s rapid, peppering soprano saxophone. The entire program is a worthy homage to Wheeler’s contributions to jazz composition and education.

04 trioTrio
Arthur Bull; John Heward; Adam Linson
Ambiance magnetiques AM 229 CD (actuellecd.com)

The title Trio celebrates the special unity of these three improvisers. Nova Scotia-based guitarist Arthur Bull has worked in contexts from folk to free jazz, including the avant-folk Surruralists with Éric Normand. Montrealer John Heward, now 82, is best known as a painter of minimalist abstractions: his drumming, which has led to partnerships with saxophonists Glenn Spearman and Joe McPhee, possesses the same qualities as his paintings – a series of subtle and definitive gestures. Los Angeles-born bassist Adam Linson, about half Heward’s age (Bull is in the middle), has wide experience in European free improvisation alongside esteemed musicians like Evan Parker and Axel Dörner.

Recorded in a stone studio in Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia, this music has a quality of elemental life. Bull brings something of country blues to it, a vocabulary of bending tones and percussive attacks rather than specific harmonies or rhythms. That helps root the music, contributing to a central stream, an emotional and dynamic continuum, to which Heward and Linson also subscribe. It’s improvised music in which the three are so in tune that it never seems responsive, resembling instead the inevitability, consistency and variegation of water, stone, earth or air.

Given that, there’s still development from piece to piece. There’s a general build in intensity and density as the program progresses: lines become thicker, pitches higher, attacks more percussive; the degree of abstraction grows as it becomes more animated, the notion of a lead voice becomes less appropriate. The absence of ego along with the heightened sense of communion and consistency make this an ideal introduction to improvised music, a kind of folk music of the future.

06 David RestivoThe Waves
David Restivo
Modica Music MM0015

David Restivo, one of the country’s most forward-thinking pianists, has employed a time-honoured format for his latest CD, The Waves. The music he has composed for the classic lineup of trumpet, tenor saxophone, piano, bass and drums is modern, challenging and beautiful. The album’s eight tracks are arranged like a suite and reward being listened to in one uninterrupted session.

The opening compositions provide a series of quick segues into the main body of music. The aptly titled Piano Intro showcases Restivo’s harmonically lush and adventurous playing in a solo context and perfectly sets up the band’s entrance on the short piece The Bull and the Roses. Honeydew Harbour settles into a straight eighth, odd-time groove and features Restivo on the Fender Rhodes piano. Trumpet player Alexander Brown builds from a relaxed approach into beautifully sculpted lines and Restivo solos with great energy and fluidity. The graceful ease of the ensemble’s performance belies the complexity of the music.

 The title track features Brown and tenor saxophonist Kelly Jefferson in a counterpoint line with Restivo and bassist Luke Sellick that gives way to a deep four-four swing courtesy of drummer Maxwell Roach. Restivo tastefully crafts lines that move in and out of double time. Jefferson starts sparsely, exploring the lower register of his horn and incorporating a restrained yet intense bluesiness. Kurt and Mark, a tribute to guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel and saxophonist Mark Turner, captures the spirit of the two musical comrades from the point of view of a very like-minded peer.

07 KMJO Common GroundCommon Ground
KMJO (Kirk MacDonald Jazz Orchestra)
Addo Records AJR032 (addorecords.com)

Common Ground, the latest offering from saxophonist/composer Kirk MacDonald, is a major work of uncommon scope and depth. The double-CD set is also somewhat of a retrospective of material drawn from his impressive body of work, set this time in a big-band format by longtime collaborator, arranger and trumpeter Joe Sullivan. Sullivan, who has often worked with MacDonald in both large and small groups, displays an uncanny ability to interpret the composer’s tunes on a grand scale and the results here are outstanding. MacDonald has been generous in his allotment of solo space and the casting on this album is extraordinary, featuring a stellar lineup of Canada’s top jazz musicians.

PJ Perry and Pat LaBarbera are an inspired pairing on the title track. Perry’s beautiful alto tone and bop-ish sensibility sound perfectly at home in the contemporary harmonic context of MacDonald’s music. LaBarbera brings his huge tenor sound to a duet with bassist Neil Swainson for the opening of his solo. It’s a nice dynamic shift and the two master musicians take full advantage of the space it affords before the rest of the rhythm section kicks in and LaBarbera lets loose with impassioned, angular lines.

There are too many similarly brilliant moments to mention here. MacDonald’s rich tenor tone and deep linear concept can be heard several times throughout the album perhaps most notably on the final track Vanda Justina where he shares solo responsibilities with his daughter, the excellent clarinetist, Virginia Frigault-MacDonald.

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