Pat Thomas/Oxford Improvisers Orchestra

4 Compositions for Orchestra
FMR CD 293-0810

AIM Toronto Orchestra

Year of the Boar

Barnyard Records BR0322

Spurred by the world-wide conduction projects of Butch Morris and their results, improvising ensembles in Europe and North America have been organized to advance the concept of playing free music on a larger scale.

Although there are notable orchestras in expected places such as London, New York and Berlin, often the most remarkable, and certainly the most original, large group interpretations come from bands in smaller centres. Working with a group of like-minded musicians in his hometown, for instance, British pianist/electronics manipulator Pat Thomas has composed dissimilar pieces for the Oxford Improvisers Orchestra (OIO) on this CD. Involving voices, non-Western instruments, a tribute to a Jazz master and a literal violin concerto, each moves in a different fashion. Toronto’s AIM Toronto Orchestra (AIMTO) on the other hand plays pieces by four different composers on its seven-track CD. However under the direction of artistic director/soprano saxophonist Kyle Brenders, who penned the two lengthiest pieces, a harmonic uniformity exists.

Odd for someone who studied with Anthony Braxton, Brenders AIMToronto Orchestra compositions, unlike his Jazz-inflected small group work, appear to avoid Jazz influences in favor of tropes from notated music and elsewhere. For example, a piece such as “Thru and Through”, shoehorns wordless vocalizing from Christine Duncan, Scruggs-style banjo-picking from Rob Clutton into an exposition initially stated by quivering strings, harmonized woodwinds and stacked brass extrusions. Meanwhile tenor saxophonist Christopher Willis advances the theme as three percussions clank and clip alongside. With brief sequences parceled out among many orchestra members, it’s Simeon Abbott’s piano passages which mark important transitions, making room at different intervals for Steve Ward’s trombone guffaws, Rob Pilonen’s flute harmonies and Nicole Rampersaud’s trumpeting grace notes. As the often polyphonic work advances, it’s the restated solo variants which reference the initial narrative rather than showier tutti passages that impress.

Similarly “Follow Line Flow Line Follow” is built up from concentric orchestral timbres that foreshadow the contrapuntal divisions among the vocalist’s nonsense syllables plus swelling and vibrating slurs and pumps from the horns. Single variations involve bass clarinet lines, cymbal cracks, bell ringing and tough guitar scrubs, with a later combination finally modulating into a languid climax that trades previously inchoate hocketing and expanding runs for popped vibrations and near silences

Meanwhile the opening “Year of the Boar” brings a Jazz sensibility to the proceedings. Yet ironically or not, its composer, guitarist Justin Haynes, isn’t featured on the disc. Operating off a steady vamp with heavy syncopation from dual drummers Nick Fraser and Joe Sorbara, the tune encompasses a swing section, and a lyrical alto solo from Evan Shaw.

Although Thomas did all the writing on 4 Compositions, the pieces are as different as Oxford is to Toronto. Most accessible is “Shock Tactics”, an extended recasting of “Cherokee” filtered through orchestrations reminiscent of Charles Mingus’ work. Set up as a showcase for pianist Alexander Hawkins, his broken-octave pumps characterize improvising that is both layered and lyrical. As one tenor saxophonist – probably Pete McPhail – and one alto saxophonist play in tandem, the other horns modulate impressionistic vibrations up and down in background sympathy. Finally the piece ends with an unaccompanied tenor cadence.

Conversely, Thomas’ “Composition 786” works to integrate the sounds of non-Western instruments into an orchestral context. Although the crying textures from Ahmed Abdul Rahman’s erhu and the measured smacks from Hafeez al-Karrar’s darbuka add a not-unpleasant exoticism to the piece, its real strength lies in the polytonal capacities of the OIO which already includes steel drums and tablas. In fact, Orphy Robinson’s echoing pan timbres mixed with Steve Williamson’s somewhat Balkan-pointing soprano saxophone lines as well as wordless vocals and irregular string stops make more of a case for cross-cultural melding than the use of Eastern and Middle Eastern instruments.

Overall, Thomas’ “Concerto for Philipp Wachsmann” may be the CD’s most successful track, but much of that can be attributed to the veteran improvising violinist who often plays with the pianist/composer in smaller formations and as members of the London Improvisers Orchestra. With the other strings providing cushioning glissandi, the pianist comping and bassist pumping, Wachsmann’s string set moves from splayed shuffle bowing to sobbing multiphonics. Lyrical at junctures, rugged at others while outputting staccato scrubs, the fiddler’s speedy stopping is joined by fluttering flute lines in the middle and balanced by plunger trombone lines and vibrated voices by the finale.

Both the OIO and AIMTO attempt particular sound variations to re-define – or perhaps it’s to define – the parameters of large improvising ensembles. Although not everything tried is successful, the spirit of experimentation expressed by both will go far to make similar-sized groups viable as the shape of 21st Century music unfolds.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 4: 1. Composition 786* 2. Tales (for Story Teller, Female Voice & Orchestra)+ 3. Shock Tactics* 4. Concerto for Philipp Wachsmann+

Personnel: 4: Steve Wiliamson (soprano saxophone); Pete McPhail (tenor saxophone and flute); Trish Elphinstone, Nick Sorensen (alto and soprano saxophones); Paul Medley (tenor saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet); Malcolm Atkins, Philipp Wachsmann (violin); Hannah Marshall, Bruno Guastalla (cello); Camilla Cancantata, Alexander Hawkins*, Francesco Serpetti+, (piano); Evan Thomas, David Stent (guitar); Tunde Jegede (kora); Ahmed Abdul Rahman (erhu); Dominic Lash (bass); Hafeez al-Karrar (darbuka); Chris Hills, Harvir Sohata (tabla); Orphy Robinson (steel pan); Darren Hasson-Davies (drums); Chris Stubbs (electronics);) Vida Kahshizadeh (voice); Miles Doubleday (synthesizer, story teller) and Pat Thomas (conductor)

Track Listing: Year: 1. Year of the Boar 2. Fields 3. Rendered in Desperation 4. Follow Line Flow Line Follow 5. Cross Fading Accents 6. Thru and Through 7. Is it better when I do it like this?

Personnel: Year: Nicole Rampersaud (trumpet); Steve Ward (trombone); Kyle Brenders (soprano saxophone); Evan Shaw (alto saxophone); Christopher Willes (tenor saxophone); Ronda Rindone (clarinet and bass clarinet); Rob Pilonen (flute); Mika Posen (violin); Ken Aldcroft (guitar); Simeon Abbott (piano and organ); Tilman Lewis (cello); Pete Johnston (bass); Rob Clutton (bass and banjo); Germaine Liu (vibraphone and percussion); Nick Fraser and Joe Sorbara (drums and percussion) and Christine Duncan (voice and theremin)