Rat-Drifting R-D 9

Ela’s Dream
Splasc(h) Records CDH 869.2

Contemporary efforts that lope along smartly, these combo show that intelligent, original music is accepted by audiences world-wide despite the retrogressive efforts of the neo-cons.

Recorded live in August 2004, Drumheller is a quintet featuring five of Toronto’s busiest non-mainstream musicians – alto saxophonist Brodie West, who has recorded with drummer Han Bennink; former rock guitarist Eric Chenaux; bassist Rob Clutton who has been in the Neufeld-Occhipinti Jazz Orchestra; drummer Nick Fraser who was in This Moment band with Clutton; and trombonist Doug Tielli who was in The Draperies with Chenaux. Compositions are divided among the band members.

ELA’S DREAM was recorded four months before that at the Ljubljana Jazz Festival. Based around the compositions of Slovenian guitarist Samo Šalamon, the sextet is decidedly international. Maribor-born Šalamon has studied and recorded in New York with bands featuring bassist Mark Helias, drummer Tom Rainey and alto saxophonist Dave Binney, the last of whom is also present here. Sharing the front line is Indianapolis-born, Verona-resident trumpeter Kyle Gregory, who is also in baritone saxophonist Alberto Pinton’s Clear Now group, and alto saxophonist and bass clarinetist Achille Succi, who plays in a variety of bands including The Italian Instabile Orchestra. Bassist Paolino Dalla Porta is one of the busiest accompanists in Italy, while fellow percussionist Zlatko Kaučič is a well-traveled Slovenian, who works throughout Europe and recorded an interesting duo session with reedist Mauro Negri.

Drumheller’s episodic and march-like compositions are very much of a piece, leading to a certain sameness in execution – but not one that offends. In contrast, perhaps because of festival excitement, Šalamon’s pieces, which are invested with high spirits as those on RAT-DRIFTING, are allowed to run on a little too long. Twenty minutes more lengthy than the other CD, ELA’S DREAM could have been far superior with judicious self-editing on the stand.

As it is, with the exception of “Broken Windows”, which is less than 10½-minutes in length, all the other tracks read out at more than 15 minutes each, with the title track nearly 20 on its own. Unfortunately much of the skill exhibited by different band members is dissipated at the beginning of “Ela’s Dream” when Kaučič’s blunt and reverberating solo stretches past five minutes, having started to wear out its welcome at the four-minute mark. Although his ratamacues, rumbles and ruffs have subsided into focused accompaniment by then, the light-hearted scampering theme doesn’t really put things on an even keel.

After that, to darting bass accompaniment, Binney begins flutter tonguing a theme variation which soon works its way to side slipping spetrofluctuation, split tones, squeaks and smears. Kaučič’s flashy flams segment another variation, after which the saxman’s repetitive four-note phrase turns to carefully splayed grace notes, backed by melodious double-stopping from the bass. Bugle-like crescendos from the trumpeter, plus double counterpoint from Binney’s alto and Succi’s sonorous bass clarinet lead to sweeping licks from Šalamon with a finale of altissimo and tremolo passages from all the horns.

“There's Still Dog Food Left In It” suffers from similar solo excess, although this time it’s the rubbed and struck rhythmic output of Dalla Porta that is over-extended. Showcasing his skill for over eight minutes can only impress bass-playing fan boys. This excess seems to have affected the others as well, since the harmonics used by the trumpeter and guitarist to take out the piece have an unfortunate resemblance to lines played by pop-jazz bands of the 1970s.

Much more palatable are the other tunes, including “Coffee With A Girl”, which probably by the virtue of opening the program, is memorable almost throughout its 18¼-minute length. Deliberately episodic and influenced by Ornette Coleman’s later style, its motion is refocused rather than slowed by contributions from all the band members.

Its expository theme stated by trumpet squeaks, alto smears and extended double picked guitar lines, Šalamon’s chording frenzy is soon cut by bass clarinet snorts and brassy trumpet flares. A new variation turns the theme from andante to allegro, as the guitarist’s quick figures turn to crunches and snaps. Using his effects pedal, Šalamon’s line upturns to rock-like interface, accompanied by stentorian banging from Kaučič, as if the two of them were Ginger Baker and Eric Clapton in their Cream prime, turning their hands to jazz improvising.

Not that the other musicians mark time however. Binney’s alto saxophone turns from double tonguing and snorting in its lower registers to moving forward with accented trills and repeated arpeggios, to explode into fizzy and overblown pitch vibrato backed by bounces from the drummer. Subsequently, Succi’s appropriately tonal bass clarinet lines, backed by a steady walking pace from Dalla Porto ratchet up to altissimo reed-biting squeaks, then modulates down to Dolphy-like phrasing. Counter lines from the other horns bring forward another theme variation and the piece climaxes with elliptical buzzes from Succi, sprightly grace notes from Gregory and an ending that’s mostly polyphonic counterpoint

Performed with enough polytonality, elastic time sense and extended techniques to be 21st century modern, the rhythmic and melodic implication of Šalamon’s tunes recall classic well-constructed anthems. He’s no Gigi Gryce or Benny Golson, but the combination of his supple lines and first -class blowing makes most of the work here memorable.

Commendable as well, but with the blowing trimmed to bypass excesses are the 11 compositions on DRUMHELLER. Although each player has written for the project, a consistency in vision and execution remains. Moreover, while the Drumhellers pride themselves on being some of Toronto’s most experimental musicians, carefully listening reveals that they know their jazz history.

Chenaux’s “It Must Be So Easy” manages to sound both like post-rock and a mutant Ellington small group. As the guitarist uses his wah-wah pedal throughout, Fraser’s rickety-tick drums and Clutton’s slap bass shuffle along and West’s vibrato makes his solo sound closer to Pete Brown, then, say, Rob Brown. Following a Swing Era style drum break you start to wonder if the piece is a contrafact of “Ain’t Misbehaving”.

Fraser’s “Again” is more of the same, with Tielli’s Dicky Wells-like harmonics adding to West’s avant-retro take. Clutton’s bass line maintains the pace, allowing enough room for the guitarist to explore tremolo distortion below the bridge and some chicken picking. Coda finds the horns riffing a stop-and-start chorus that could have come from one of Archie Shepp’s 1960s LPs.

This light-hearted streak can also be discerned in pieces like West’s “To Live” and the guitarist’s “Am I Lonely.” The former moves from a burlesque of a TV detective show theme with chirping alto lines and lively drum beats, to a section with sharp, resonating guitar notes. The later includes effects pedal pops from Chenaux, slinky vibrato from West and Roswell Rudd-like chromatic trills from Tielli. A walking bass solo then gives way to sliding treble scratches from the guitarist who seems to be almost turning his axe inside-out to procure the proper echoing metallic flanges. Finally the theme is recapitulated by harmonized ‘bone and alto, as Clutton continues slapping behind them.

Throughout, the bassist’s steady, unprepossessing work keeps the compositions grounded. On “Beach House”, the longest – at slightly more than 10 minutes – tune, the moderato theme harmonized by the horns opens up for saxophone and trombone solos with Fraser’s intricate cantilevering provides a proper foundation. Here the horns toss phrases, notes and octaves at one another in double counterpoint, with West often in high-pitched squeak mode and Tielli’s grace notes are amplified by stentorian slides. Before the finale, Chenaux sneaks in some wavering echoes that almost sound as if they come from an accordion or organ.

Anyone interested in testing out the scene in Toronto, Italy or Slovenia, should enter the names of the musicians here into their iPod database. Both CDs provide notable listening experiences, with DRUMHELLER gaining the edge through brevity.

— Ken Waxman


Track Listing: Ela’s:1. Coffee With A Girl 2. Emotional Playground 3. There's Still Dog Food Left In It 4. Ela’s Dream 5. Broken Windows

Personnel: Ela’s: Kyle Gregory (trumpet); Dave Binney (alto saxophone); Achille Succi (alto saxophone and bass clarinet); Samo Šalamon (guitar); Paolino Dalla Porta (bass); Zlatko Kaučič (drums and percussion)

Track Listing: Drumheller: 1. Quartet Theme 2. Sketch #3 3. Am I Lonely 4. For the (Cosmic) Whistler 5. Again 6. Beach House 7. It Must Be So Easy 8. Shrinkwrap 9. To Live 10. Duck Duck Goose 11. Wormbird

Personnel: Drumheller: Doug Tielli (trombone); Brodie West (alto saxophone); Eric Chenaux (guitar); Rob Clutton (bass); Nick Fraser (drums)