Train Song
Songlines SJ-1546-SACD

With a name that’s defined as “ring” or “loop” in Spanish or working on the land in Greek, the six-piece Euro-Canadian Aros combo sees itself as the globalized wave of the future, musical division.

In fact, it’s an amalgamation of males and females featuring a London-based Pakistani/Scottish violinist and a Canadian-born and based trumpeter, plus a Scottish percussionist, a German bassist, an Austrian pianist and a Canadian reedist — all of whom live in Holland. Brought to the combo is experience in classical, pop, theatrical, improvised and ethnic sounds.

Because of this there are many intriguing moments in the disc, organized by Canadian tenor saxophonist Rob Armus and Austrian pianist Marion von Tilzer as a notable attempt to meld notated and improvised musics. But TRAIN SONG provides its share of frustrations as well. For a start, a clutch of players and composers have been working on classical-jazz fusion since at least the late 1950s, some more successfully than others. More seriously the six players here are so well schooled and such exemplary technicians that nearly every one of the 11 composition seems overly formal. Loosen up, you want to shout more than a few times.

Chivalry aside, the main culprits appear to be the pianist and violinist Anne Wood. Von Tilzer, whose experience encompasses musical theatre and Dutch New music, writes and plays with the sort of note-perfect precision that’s off putting at best, and precious at worse, especially when the band sound should be looser.

Wood, who has been involved with pop singers like Morrissey and The Raincoats, as well as different sized string ensembles, is a consummate craftswoman. But in an improvising setting perfectly balanced notes can suggest banality. You wonder if she has ever heard Billy Bang or Stuff Smith.

“Ostinato”, for instance, written by von Tilzer, lacks the throbbing repetition that this figure can bring to more rhythmic improvised pieces. And her other compositions suffer from similar weaknesses. “Ostinato” begins with a portamento splash across the insides of the piano, which introduces a processional horn line that could be played by a Bach trumpet, legato bowing from the fiddle and ceremonial cymbal movements. The whole thing is wrapped up with low-frequency piano cadenzas and wavering brass grace notes. Another of her compositions, “Song of the Heart” dispels the violinist’s almost 19th century romanticism with a tiny bit of keyboard dissonance. But if there’s any improviser the pianist’s playing resembles here, it’s that of Bill Evans, at his most classical.

This low frequency impressionism may be OK in a formal concert setting, but it’s less satisfying with improvisers around. Considering Vancouver-based trumpeter John Korsrud has performed with artists such as American trombonist George Lewis and British bassist Barry Guy as well as leading The Hard Rubber Orchestra, his parts may be a little limiting. Ditto for percussionist Alan Purves, who has played rock ‘n’ roll, reggae, jazz and improvised music, in American composer John Zorn’s projects and with South African reedist Sean Bergin.

Armus’ writing sometimes suffers from preciousness as well. Compositions like “Tango” and “Road Song” , for example, combine an overlay of fiddle glissandos with what sounds like written lead lines for Korsrud. At least on the former, among the harmonically attractive classicism, there’s room for some hocketing hollow percussion, while surprisingly enough, Wood introduces melancholy Balkan tones. But actions are even more legit on the second piece, with semi-classical violin and trumpet lines, Purves restrained with non-upsetting clip-clops and von Tilzer contributing a slight, descending piano figure.

It’s the same story with the title track. Despite a modulated caprice from Wood, and thematic variations, strong individual personalities aren’t established by anyone. Bassist Sven Schuster, who has played with musicians as different as mainstream American guitarist Jim Hall and Australian hard bop saxist Dale Barlow, is nearly lost in the mix.

That’s why the saxman’s “30” and “Rocket Song” are such pleasant surprises. Not only do the six players bounce along with the circus-like melody of the first tune, but Armus also gets to show off overblowing, metallic split tones and multiphonics.

“Rocket Song”. which ends the CD, gives Schuster a showcase for his slap style, Purves a chance to play his percussion “bones”, von Tilzer to contribute chiming right-handed color, and the horns to riff like the Savoy Sultans. While the polyrhythmic tune does sound a little generic, at least it’s fun and suggests the band is doing more than reading.

Followers of the written-improvised détente may rate this CD more highly — and it’s certainly worth investigating. But one recommendation for the two co-leaders would be to concentrate more on the rhythm and less on note perfection. That way Aros’ subsequent projects could be memorable from beginning to end.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Zimbabwe 2. Road Song 3. Four ‘n a half 4. Tango 5. Ostinato 6. Train Song 7. Fugatisme 8. One for Charlie 9. 30 10. Song of The Heart 11.Rocket Song

Personnel: John Korsrud (trumpet); Rob Armus (tenor saxophone); Marion von Tilzer (piano); Anne Wood (violin); Sven Schuster (bass); Alan Purves (percussion)