JOE MCPHEE/BILL SMITH ENSEMBLE

Visitation
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LEO SMITH/BILL SMITH ENSEMBLE
Rastafari
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Long before its present infamy — for Americans — as home for runaway TV and movie productions and North American SARS headquarters, hipper types knew that Toronto was a welcoming refuge for U.S. jazzers — from the most traditional to the most avant garde.

For the later, one particular purple patch began in the mid-1970s, when local Sackville records first took it upon itself to document the work of American experimenters such as multi-reedist Anthony Braxton. The label’s commitment to the style continued into the early 1980s — it has since turned more mainstream — when these memorable discs were cut. Woodstock, Vt.’s Boxholder label has reissued both CDs. Other outside Sackville sessions from the same time are being reissued in limited editions by the Toronto label itself.

One of the reasons Toronto was so popular among improv experimenters was that the visiting musicians could work as part of a sympathetic group of players organized by writer/photographer Bill Smith, who was an avant saxophonist as well as editor and art director of Coda magazine.

Interestingly enough, although the core group of Smith, violinist David Prentice and bassist David Lee are augmented by percussionists on both these CDs, the usual band that toured with these and other American hornmen was drummerless. True to their desire to experience new modes, no musician complained, and you wonder if the success of that configuration encouraged the Americans and Europeans who now play sans percussion to give it a try.

VISITATION is the more impressive of the two discs simply because it was one of the first that showcased the mature style of multi-hornman Joe McPhee. The Poughkeepsie, N.Y. native had been recording since 1967, but it was only around this time and in collaborations with Europeans that the saxophonist and brass player evolved from being a New Thing-oriented energy player to unveiling his unique style.

“Ghosts”, a version of Albert Ayler’s famous composition, shows this most clearly. Although the line-up superficially resembles that of Ayler’s rendition on LIVE IN GREENWHICH VILLAGE with its prominent strings, this version is no cacophonous blowout. Instead the track begins with whacks from drummer Richard Barnard’s bells, cymbals and little instruments, straight plucked octaves from Lee and a massive arpeggio attack from Prentice, who now crafts violins as well as plays them.

Eventually, McPhee’s tenor saxophone begins elaborating the familiar theme and is met with thumping drums plus soaring glissandos from both string players. Following growls and whining multiphonics, the tenor man reprises the lurching melody staccato.

Other tracks show off descending string textures that resemble Anton Webern-like chamber music leavened with Free Jazz inserts, when the bowing bassist and violinist produce defiantly atonally piercing shrills. On others saxophone McPhee produces rolling spit tones, yet on pocket trumpet at one point he double-tongues what could almost be a bebop line with the power and facility of a Dizzy Gillespie.

The session culminates in McPhee’s “Eleuthera”, blending strings and reeds into a faux classical homage, until Prentice heads for his fiddle’s highest pitch, squawking out his notes. Lee holds down the bottom, contouring grace notes in the background, while Smith and McPhee overblow in Aylerian fashion.

Shorter, with only four tracks to McPhee’s six, and vibraphonist Larry Potter in for drummer Barnard, RASAFARI is inviting, but not as cohesive as VISITATION. It’s probably because a then pre-Wadada Leo Smith has never been as focused in his music as McPhee is and was. Dizzy Gillespie Chair at the California Institute of the Arts, over the years Smith has been involved with electronics, spoken word, early sound experiments with the likes of Braxton and violinist Leroy Jenkins and recently a Miles Davis tribute disc with guitarist Henry Kaiser.

Involving himself with what he called multi-media Ritual Drama pieces at that juncture, the CD compositions — granted only one of which is written is written by trumpeter Smith — seem to meander from one style to another.

Written by Leo Smith, the title track, celebrates his conversion to Rastafarianism, and begins with the brassman’s brief vocalization of the title. A polyrhythmic piece, played andante to largo it’s carefully arranged so that the five musicians orchestrate the tonal qualities of many more. It helps, of course, that Lee plays cello as well as bass here; Bill Smith plays sopranino and soprano saxophones plus alto clarinet; and Smith solos on trumpet, flugelhorn, and percussion. At times the musicians move together for certain passages; other times each is completely on his own.

At points mellow flugelhorn grace notes mesh with the violin’s tone; elsewhere high-pitched pocket trumpet notes blast into the stratosphere. With the rhythmic underpinning again carried by the bassist, Bill Smith plays a sweet, almost semi-classical line, and Potter’s exuberant vibes reverberates in a metallic Khan Jamal-(early) Bobby Hutcherson style.

Elsewhere though, the vibes playing is so gentle and laid back that Gary Burton comes to mind; or purring trumpet lines brushing against the pulsating metal bars suggest Miles Davis with Milt Jackson. Some tunes find Smith confining himself to chirping slurs from the sopranino; and nowhere here does Prentice drop his semi-classical mode to add the same ragged, semi-roughness he exhibits with McPhee.

Pointedly, “Rituals”, a nearly 12-minute composition of Bill Smith’s, is imbued with a Third Stream cast, featuring silence broken by distant, fragrant strings and an alto clarinet line that moves portamento as it’s doubled by abstruse brass. Slow moving, with a steadily shifting background motif, the tune features string parts that are more dissonant than atonal, plus meshed reed and vibe sections that are infrequently pierced by extended, plunger grace notes supplied by trumpeter Smith.

True to their solidifying musical personalities, these reissues by Smith and McPhee are valuable because they catch the featured musicians at transitional points in their careers. They should also remind increasingly xenophobic Americans just how much good music — jazz and otherwise — was produced — and still comes from — north of the 49th parallel.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Visitation: 1. Exuma 2. Eleuthera 3. Home at Last 4. Ghosts 5. If I Don’t Fall 6. A-Configuration

Personnel: Visitation: Joe McPhee (pocket trumpet, flugelhorn, soprano and tenor saxophones); Bill Smith (sopranino, soprano and alto saxophones) David Prentice (violin); David Lee (bass); Richard Bannard (drums)

Track Listing: Rastafari: 1. Rastafari 2. Ritual 3. Madder Lake 4. Little Bits

Personnel: Rastafari: Leo Smith (trumpet, flugelhorn, harmonica, percussion); Bill Smith (sopranino and soprano saxophones, alto clarinet) David Prentice (violin); David Lee (cello and bass); Larry Potter (vibraphone)