François Carrier

Travelling Lights
Justin Time

Stitch Wynston’s Modern Surfaces
Transparent Horizons

By Ken Waxman
November 14, 2005

So unfamiliar are most Americans with Canada that they think of the giant land mass north of them as a puny area with one culture and a single conception.

True, most Canadians live close to the United States border, including those in the northern country’s three largest population centres that surpass most American cities in sophistication and multiculturalism. This accident of geography makes it fairly straightforward for Canadians –comedians including Mike Meyers and Martin Short, actors including Keifer Sutherland to Kim Cattrall and entertainers including Celine Dion Young and Avril Lavigne – to list the most recent examples – to covertly become part of the American entertainment fabric. Even committed jazz fans sometimes forget that stylist as varied as trumpeter Maynard Ferguson and pianist Paul Bley, to cite two of many instances, are from Canada.

But despite this situation, Canada isn’t the United States and Canadians aren’t Americans. There’s an entire different culture up there, that takes as a given long winters and the snow – although there’s a lot less of that than American imagine. Consciously or not, many Canadian improvisers express this tinge of unhurried Northern sensibility in their work. This chilled, but not cold, calm draws these CDs together.

Arriving from the country’s largest (Toronto) and second-largest (Montreal) cities, both sessions have a faint ECM-like Nordic tint. Quartet dates, they’re also closer in conception and execution to one another than most Ontarian and Quebec improvisers imagine their musical sensibilities are.

Transparent Horizons is the second CD by drummer Stitch Wynston’s Modern Surfaces ensemble. The Toronto-born co-founder of the bop-jive Shuffle Demons band, Wynston has played with musicians as different as cult singer/songwriter Jane Siberry and alto saxophonist Julius Hemphill. Band members include guitarist Geoff Young, who teaches jazz at a local college and has played with singer Carol Welsman, plus bassist Jim Vivien and soprano and tenor saxophonist Mike Murley, both of whom are originally from the Atlantic Provinces. Versatile Murley, another original Shuffle Demon, has been in bands ranging from the electric jazz group Metalwood, to trombonist Rob McConnell’s mainstream Boss Brass.

Travelling Lights is helmed by another exceptional reedist, Montreal soprano and alto saxophonist François Carrier, whose playing associates have included American pianists Jason Moran and Uri Caine. Variations of his combo, which has been together for years, are always driven by drummer Michel Lambert, who works in both Montreal and Toronto. This CD however, features two special guests. American bassist Gary Peacock is old enough to have recorded for ECM when it was most improv-oriented, as is Montreal-born pianist Bley who did the same. Serendipitously enough, Bley also recorded with Modern Surfaces on its first CD.

With each session running more than an hour and writing duties parceled out equitably – Carrier is responsible for three of the tunes on his CD, Bley and Peacock two each, and Lambert one; six pieces on the other date are Young’s, four Wynston’s – both are memorable, mature efforts. Travelling Lights has a slight edge, possibly because of the two veterans intuit each other’s strategies after 40-odd years of collaboration. No hauteur or division occurs between the guests and the hosts however. Everyone is responsible for its success.

With a title that’s perhaps illustrative of his inspirations, Lambert’s “Europe” is an almost-14½- quartet showcase. Clattering cymbal strokes and concentrated rumbles from the lowest part of the piano soundboard introduce Bley detonating sprightly tremolo overtones, flashing note patterns and shuddering cadences. Meanwhile Carrier double tongues and flutters phrases on top of Peacock’s walking bass lines. Given his head, the bassist turns to double stopping and rising fingerboard movements while keeping the beat. Stopped piano action and dissonant chords soon give the saxophonist enough space to introduce split tones – tempered of course, with Canadian restraint and an absence of bad taste. With ringing piano chords blending with the reed output, the drummer’s metallic ratcheting is left to maintain the tune’s angularity. Climatically, Carrier offers up a theme variation, leading to a finale of ringing sonority. During the course of the piece, the four sometimes split into complementary duos: Carrier and Peacock, for instance or Bley and Lambert, and this strategy or some variation on it, is followed elsewhere.

Cognizant of a variety of extended strategies from seesawing tongue slaps to smears and multiphonics, Carrier never gets so technically involved that he neglects tone purity. In fact, there are places where he sounds disconcertingly like Paul Desmond. Nor is emotive melody ignored either, as he demonstrates on his own “Africa” and “Oceania”.

Simple and lilting, the second tune features harpsichord-like clanging from Bley, played off against irregular pulsations from Peacock and steadied by bell-shaking from Lambert. Joining these rondo-like interactions with trilling tongue stops, Carrier introduces a skewed swing line on top of feathery chording from the pianist, suggesting a contrafact of “Surrey with the Fringe on Top”. Confident in his solo, the reedist slides from andate to allegro before its completition.

More complex, the almost-11½-minute “Africa” brings out harder-toned arpeggios from Bley and squeaking fingerboard movements from Peacock. Half-way through, the composer begins a set of honking and smearing variations that somehow introduce quotes from a familiar Christmas theme. Piano strokes and strides underline a counter melody that is cut short by an understated drum solo. Brought back to the initial theme with kinetic pulses, Bley is almost eclipsed by a series of side-slipping obbligatos from Carrier.

This sort of close cooperation among musicians is on show from Modern Surfaces as well. Regrettably, some of the cohesion comes unglued when Wynston moves from his drums to the piano stool. One meandering interlude borders on the jejeune, while another nearly suffocates under ProgRock pretensions. Mixing an unvarying keyboard pattern, overstated drum rolls and vocoder-helped vocalizing, the track is further weakened by Jaco Pastrorius-type (electrified?) bass stabs and fusion-oriented saxophone drones.

Luckily this lack of taste is limited to a couple of tracks. Most of the compositions are framed within the parameters introduced by Wynston’s “Outward Bound” at the start and Young’s “New One” at the end of the CD. That is, well-modulated legato tones reflecting Nordic impressionism are tweaked with in-character but unique licks from Young and distinctive reed patterns from Murley.

“Caboose”, for example, is all level and horizontal lines maneuvered by push-pull guitar textures and low-pitched sax runs. Condensing and concentrating his responses, Wynston explores the rims and sides of his kit, and clatters microtones from his drum and cymbal tops rather than rattling or striking them. Turning his hands to nerve beats, cross-stick concussions and pulsating ruffs, the drummer seems to be rolling inert objects onto his skins. Are these the modern surfaces of the title? Eventually clattering cymbals and pulsing toms introduce thumping basso guitar runs and tenor saxophone torque, leading to triple counterpoint that pushes the piece into a kind of film noir expressionism,

Young’s “Existential Departures” on the other hand contrasts a sonorous vibrato-laden intro, with a theme finger-picked on a nylon-string amplified guitar. Although the brawny drum beats may be a tad overdone for the temperate harmonies of Murley’s soprano saxophone, Vivien’s shuffle bowing as well as the deliberate Julian Bream-like picking of Young fit tongue-in-groove. Eventually, as the tune advances even Wynston’s strokes get a touch less bulky. Moving from broken to lockstep cadences, the conclusion involves even gentler patterning from the percussionist.

Another stand out is “Automatic Entry”, another Young line. Vaulting from flanged guitar pulses on top of rat-tat-tat drum beats, a counter line of bowed bass is added, freeing Young to output echoing guitar licks. Murley’s serpentine soprano saxophone interlude – some of his best playing on the disc – is not only built on sophisticated double tonguing, but rubato spins that make it sound as if he’s systematically replicating the sound of unraveling a ball of wool. The guitarist provides sympathetic reverb-laden chording as both players moderate into a darker unison melody that ends with orgasmic certainty and a single, concluding cymbal shimmer.

Although the canny listener should skip over some of Wynston’s cruder attempts at producing modern surfaces on his CD, both discs effectively capture contemporary Canadian modern mainstream sounds.