NOW Orchestra and Marilyn Crispell

Pola
VICTO cd 097

By Ken Waxman

Without a whiff of prima-donna-meets-local-musicians attitude, Woodstock, N.Y. pianist/composer Marilyn Crispell is newest out-of-town guest on this collaboration with Vancouver’s venerable creative music collective, the New Orchestra Workshop (NOW) Orchestra.

Consisting of a clutch of Vancouver’s top improvisers who also lead their own bands, the 13-piece NOW Orchestra has in the past worked with such individualistic composers as Québécois guitarist René Lussier and then California-based trombonist George Lewis. Unlike those strong personalities, Crispell – best-known for her tenure in reedist Anthony Braxton’s 1980s-1990s quartet – assumes the piano chair on Pola as if she has been part of the ensemble for years.

There are detriments as well as benefits to this approach. Performing one of her compositions, three by NOW artistic director multi-woodwind player Coat Cook and one by band member guitarist Ron Samworth, the attitude-free pianist seems to demand no more than her allotted time on each track. At the same perhaps a more dynamic and assertive stance on her part could have prevented some of the CD’s weaker spots.

Case in point is the final track, Cook’s more than 10½-minute “Suffused with Blue Light”. Although it consists of similar macro (whole band) and minimal (soloist) fluctuations as the other tunes, the overall muted, massed harmonies are some understated that you suspect aimless noodling not playing in some parts. Near the top highlight is a double double-bass solo from Paul Blarney and Clyde Reed. With one striating the strings near the pegs and the other strumming full-fingered tremolos in mid-range they are one eight-stringed monster, controlling the action with a steady drone. Downside, however, is the overly dramatic acting out of a impressionistic poem by vocalist Kate Hammett-Vaughan, whose whispering reading bring an unneeded solemnity to the proceedings.

Considering Hammett-Vaughan is one of Canada’s pre-eminent singers and appropriately showcases her improvisational talents on this disc, the decision to interpret the material that way should probably be attributed to Cooke. Considering that Cooke, who plays tenor and baritone saxophones and flute on Pola, is heavily involved in working with dancers, plus video, film and spoken word artists, the misstep is probably his.

Listing his instruments brings up another of the CD’s problems. With three flautists (Graham Ord and Saul Berson as well as Cooke); two alto saxophonists (Bruce Freeman and Berson); and Ord a tenor player along with Cooke; as well as two trumpeters – John Korsrud and Kevin Elaschuk – naming soloists on each track would make the situation more transparent.

On the upside, Crispell’s “Ying Yang” and Samworth’s “M.C.”, likely written for the pianist are two bang-up examples of what the NOW contributes at its best.

On the former the guitarist’s rough nylon string plinking circle though the tones as the orchestra slowly insinuates itself onto the track. As the accompaniment moves from being felt to being heard, successive solos are by a closely-breathed flute, sputtering bass work and contrapuntal hide-and-seek among trumpet, trombone and a vibrated tenor saxophone. After a display of near recital-like piano patterning, Hammett-Vaughan’s wordless soprano moaning brings things to a fitting end.

The vocalist’s purported speaking in tongues meets up with traffic-jam like reed squeals and clashing cymbals from drummer Dylan van der Schyff in the crescendo of “M.C.” Beginning with heraldic brass and bird-like reed squeals, the first variation on the initial elegiac line is superseded by strummed arpeggios and patterning from Crispell, unaccompanied, stretched octave final solo turns the polyrhythmic climax into a finale of measured tonality.

A good session that could have been great Pola will interest followers of both the pianist and the orchestra.