March 1, 2009
Antoine Berthiaume/Elliott Sharp
Ambiances Magnétiques AM 178
United Brassworkers Front
In Between Stories
Evander Music EM 040
Quinsin Nachoff/Bruno Tocanne Project
5 New Dreams
Cristal CD 0824
Michel Lambert-Rakalam Bob Moses
Meditations on Grace
FMR Records CD 256-0108
Face Off –Extended Play
By Ken Waxman
Sonic battles involving musicians who play the same instrument facing off against one another are part of a tradition that goes back to Kansas City jam sessions. This sort of competition isn’t unique to jazz. Probably the first cutting contest took place when one medieval troubadour restrung his lute to best others playing “Greensleeves”.
Now that improvised music is international however, players can test themselves against musicians from other countries. That’s what four Canadians do here. Two, former Torontonian reedist Quinsin Nachoff and ex-Burlington, Ont. trumpeter Darren Johnston do so in group situations. Two others – both Montrealers: guitarist Antoine Berthiaume and drummer Michael Lambert – go mano a mano.
Results are particularly spectacular in Berthiaume’s case. On Base
Ambiances Magnétiques AM 178, his partner is New York guitarist/composer Elliott Sharp whose instrumental prowess involves equal facility in blues, noise, rock, jazz, improvised and notated music. Raging over 11 free improvisations, the two use the tactile capabilities of guitars’ attachments and properties as much as its strings to tell stories.
In cahoots not conflict, Sharp and Berthiaume crunch, crash and pan across the sound field, combining watery flanges, slurred fingering and twanging resonation into pulsations that are simultaneously wedded to electronic distortion and acoustic elaborations. When Sharp’s bottle-neck facility is mixed with clawing oscillated tones, “Station” could be Delta Blues on Mars. “Freed” on the other hand, manages to work inchoate fuzz-tone delay and dial twisting into lyrical sprays of sound.
The duo’s essence is best expressed on “Essence”. Here one intermittently plunks bass strings alongside jagged resonation created by scratching strings below the bridge, until the piece concludes with throbbing drones reaching needle-in-the-groove concordance.
Similarly blending rhythms so there are no perceptible transition between one and another’s improvising on Meditations on Grace FMR Records CD 256-0108 are percussionists Lambert and Boston’s veteran Rakalam Bob Moses, both of whom are also visual artists. Overlaying a Pop-Art-like jumble of beats they reference ethic rhythms as frequently as those associated with conventions of so-called legit music and jazz.
Cunningly blending in double counterpoint the throbs and tinkles available from cross patterning and inverted sticking, octave jumps, staccato runs, march tempos and sudden rebounds, they understate, but never abandon heart-beat rhythms. Meanwhile bell trees are sounded, maracas shaken, ride cymbals scratched, steel pans popped and tension lugs tightened and loosened to produce multi-colours.
Subtlety is the watchword here with whisks and brushes in use more than sticks and mallets. Cognizant of each other every second, one drummer produces rim shots when the other ratchets; or one bluntly whack the bass drum when the other pounds Indian tom-toms. Chromatically shifting the tonal centre, they advance left-and-right in tandem. Gauge the joy in the proceeding, by noting the ecstatic shouts frequently heard from the participants.
This joy is also apparent on Johnston’s United Brassworkers Front In Between Stories Evander Music EM 040. This Bay- area band of two trumpets, two trombones, tuba, guitar, bass and drums plays mostly Johnston’s compositions, while echoes of Balkan marches, brass chorals, Dixieland and mariachi music abound. As burbling tuba provides the pedal-point bottom, shuffle drum beats and walking bass lines add an R&B feel.
Johnston is surprisingly expressive and romantic on the sardonic “Long Live the Yes Men”, yet breaks up the initially stately “In Between Stories” with splattering triple-tonguing, jazz shakes and rubato slurs. Chunky rhythm guitar licks and half-honk/half-hip-hop from tuba adds to the transformation. Elsewhere Johnston’s arranging skills showcase polyphonic undulations, ensuring the massed brass braying is neither protracted nor gratuitous.
Brass band-inflected jazz is also the raison d’etre on Quinsin Nachoff/Bruno Tocanne Project 5 New Dreams Cristal CD 0824, although clarinetist/tenor saxophonist Nachoff’s co-leader is a French drummer, as are the other two trumpeters and another saxophonist. Eschewing chordal instruments the unbridled power of Tocanne’s drumming manages makes the band evoke drummer Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. With nearly every tune a foot-tapper, Tocanne’s ruffs and flams encourage doubled brass triplet, so that the trumpeters often sound like an intertwined Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard.
Lionel Martin often confines himself to ostinato slurps from the baritone saxophone, except for some flutter-tongued exchanges with Nachoff. Otherwise space is left open for the Canadian who makes good use of it. On “Soulèvement” he plumbs his tenor saxophone’s depth with a wide vibrato and irregular diaphragm breaths, buzzing upwards into waves of altissimo before Tocanne’s press rolls surgically cut off the exposition. In contrast, “Goodbye Lullaby” benefits from the baritone saxophone’s bass undercurrent as Nachoff shades the andante melody with coloratura and moderato clarinet obbligatos.
While cutting contests may be a relic of the past, international musical cooperation continues to set high standards.
— For Whole Note Vol. 14 #6