Radio I-Ching

The Fire Keeps Burning
Resonant Music 004

Paul Bley

12+6 In A Row

hatOLOGY 649

Lisle Ellis

Sucker Punch Requiem

Henceforth Records 104

Wayne Horvitz Gravitas Quartet

One Dance Alone

Songlines SGL SA1571-2

Mark O'Leary/Eyvind Kang/Dylan van der Schyff

Zemlya

Leo Records CD LR 507

Expatriate – and Homebody – Sounds

Extended Play

By Ken Waxman

Geographic proximity is responsible for the migration of gifted Canadian artists to the United States. Plus Canadian improvisers down south quickly find eager collaborators.

One of the music’s distinctive stylists with profound effects on jazz’s evolution from the early 1950s-on was a Montreal-born pianist. No, not that one … but Paul Bley. Bley’s associations with reedists Ornette Coleman and Jimmy Giuffre put him in the midst of first Energy Music than Free Form experiments. A reissue from 1990, 12+6 In A Row hatOLOGY 649 is not only a milestone in Bley’s evolution, but point out another development the pianist helped to initiate: partnership with like-mind Europeans. Bley’s associates here are Austrian flugelhornist Franz Koglmann and Swiss reedist Hans Koch. The title’s inferences to 12-tone rows are realized with sparse contrapuntal harmonies, broken counterpoint and skittering runs from the pianist, tongue slaps and chalumeau vibrations from Koch’s bass clarinet and chromatic lip burbles from Koglmann.

Yet obtuse formalism doesn’t overshadow jazz roots. Bley’s “Solo 2” includes right-handed bass syncopation, and there’s an excursion into waltz time on “Duo 2”. Meanwhile “Solo 6” channels boogie-woogie forefather Jimmy Yancy, in a Europeanized fashion, with Bley bearing down on the keys, while simultaneously tinkling higher pitches. Koch’s nasal bass clarinet encompasses a solipsistic line on “Trio 3”; while the piano-less “Duo 3” highlights intersections between Koglmann’s brassy, triple-tonguing and overblown split tones from Koch’s alto saxophone. Fulfillment of the notated-improvised mandate is obvious on pieces like “Trio 5” which harmonizes distanced piano patterns, smeary reed obbligatos and airy brass nodes.

Bley was well-established as Vancouver bassist Lisle Ellis was making his first U.S. forays in the 1970s. Over time Ellis established himself in partnerships with California-based players like pianist Mike Wofford and flutist Holly Hofmann or East Coasters like trombonist George Lewis and saxophonist Oliver Lake. Now a New Yorker, Ellis’ Sucker Punch Requiem, Henceforth Records 104 subtitled An Homage To Jean-Michel Basquiat, ruminates on the short life and creative sensibilities of the visual artist. Utilizing electronics and sound design as well as his bass, Ellis admixes Susie Ibarra’s percussion arsenal plus the vocal tones, sound samples and processing of Pamela Z. with instrumental contribution from his bi-coastal associates

Structured like a traditional mass, but with layers of sonic contributions, the program includes the musical equivalent of sfumato and grisaille painterly effects. While rough, meandering and a bit unfinished – like Basquiat’s art – the end product is true to the painter.

With an exposition and theme recapitulation that mirror one another, encompassing ghostly cries, street sounds and mumbling voices plus pulsating electronic wheezes, the purely instrumental passages still tell most of the story. Especially important are processional piano chording, aviary flute asides and the thick motions of Ellis’ plucked strings. Declarative alto saxophone, cocooning trombone slurs and watery flute burbles are often played off against one another, as are Ellis’ mellow arco lines, Wofford’s e hunt-and-peck comping and Ibarra’s pings, flams and rolls.

Transitions are evident on “Las Pulgas (Repelling Ghosts)” and “For Blues and Other Spells”. The former gives space to Lake’s multiphonic narratives, Ibarra’s backbeat plus sputtering basso flue and crystal-clear piano notes which bond several thematic variations. Encompassing textbook Hard Bop – including press rolls and cymbal-resonating drum breaks – the later evolves with multiphonics, once Lewis’s smeary theme is succeeded by a double counterpoint duet from Hoffman’s toughest blowing and Lake’s reed-twisting. Conclusion is a piano-bass double nocturne that owes more to sonatas than the blues.

If Ellis’ homage showcases musical tangents consider Radio I-Ching’s The Fire Keeps Burning, Resonant Music 004.Among the composers represented are jazzers Thelonious Monk and Roland Kirk, Arab stylist Hamnza El Din, Hollywood’s Alfred Newman and country picker Jimmie Driftwood. The trio relies on Dee Pop’s drums and percussion, Don Fiorino’s guitar, lap steel and mandolin and the saxophone and electronics of Andy Haas. Ex-Torontonian Haas was a member of 1970s New-Wave rock band Martha & The Muffins before moving to New York.

Ching’s strength lies in adapting its instruments’ textures to unexpected ends. For instance, while Haas’ triple tonguing on El Din’s “Gala 2000” relates to Arabic properties, Fiorino produces a lotar-like pulse by using claw-hammer banjo licks. Newman’s “Moon Over Manakoora” gets the Hawaiian lounge treatment, with slack key resonations, chuffing and chiming from Pop and syrupy sax trills. Meantime Kirk probably never imagined his “Volunteered Slavery” would include junkeroo steel drum echoes with metallic steel guitar riffs elaborating the theme. Alternately Driftwood’s folksy tune gets an injection of guitar distortion and sax squeals. Eclecticism has its own rewards, however. as the trio proves on the original “Good Evening Mr. Dammers” named for a punk-rocker. Rather than punk, the sound is that of surprise with chirping reed lines doubled by electronics, sharp finger picking and conga drum pops.

Moving from eclecticism to experience, Canadian improvised music’s Brangelina is Vancouver-based married couple cellist Peggy Lee and drummer Dylan van der Schyff. Lee is featured in pianist Wayne Horvitz Gravitas Quartet on One Dance Alone, Songlines SGL SA1571-2, a charming excursion into chamber jazz featuring cornetist Ron Miles and bassoonist Sara Schoenbeck. It was recorded in Seattle, as was Zemlya, Leo Records CD LR 507, which puts van der Schyff’s drums, percussion and laptop with Irishman Mark O’Leary’s guitar and electronics plus the viola and processing of Winnipeg-born, American-resident Eyvind Kang.

As filled with pulsating and triggered oscillations as the other CD offers pastoral suggestions, Zemlya doesn’t overuse electronics. In fact when Kang picks his fiddle mandolin-like, the three approximate the sound of a rural string band. Other tunes have Carnatic overtones.

“Story of Iceland Part II” and Sorcery” bring the partnership into focus. Multi-faceted, the later features rim shots and cymbal slapping from the drummer, scrapped and strained spiccato viola lines and spidery riffs from the guitarist extended with whammy-bar finesse. While O’Leary picks angled timbres above and below the bridge, Kang slashes jagged runs, and van der Schyff adds burbling basso electronics. Elements of staccatissimo stop-time lead to a climax of fiery timbral dislocation, abated by snare pounding, with the 10 strings reaching such whirling dervish-like speeds that they almost sonically blur.

More balladic “…Iceland” evolves from van der Schyff’s ruffs and in sympathy with Kang’s contrapuntal plucks. Folksy, chromatic, and splintered with irregular drum beats, the theme produced by O’Leary’s finger-style runs is surrounded by Kang’s rococo detailing.

Chamber jazz is the watchword for the Gravitas Quartet, with intermezzos and interludes more common than riffs or vamps. Yet recital-friendly instrumentation and bucolic licks can’t mask the hard-centre of Horvitz’s compositions, nor their jazz antecedents. “A Walk in the Rain” for instance, adds Lee’s sul ponticello squeals and Schoenbeck’s burbling accents to the swinging call-and-response between trumpet tongue flutters and slippery piano licks. It ends with sped-up bassoon riffs and harmonic piano swells, which then reverse themselves into Chopinesque keyboard chording and double-reed breaths.

This CD’s neither-fish-nor-fowl program keeps the tracks interesting. With eclogue-like formalism never fully accepted, many parts are gently subversive. For every bit of open-horned, romanticism from Miles, there’s a matching squeak from Lee; and for every moderato vibration from Schoenbeck, there’s astringent dynamics from Horvitz.

These Canadian-affiliated CDs are memorable outings. The inadvertent irony is that only Lee and van der Schyff haven’t had to immigrate to build careers.

— For Whole Note Vol. 13 #10