Indie Jazz from Montreal and Toronto
Reviews by Ken Waxman
John Stetch Trio
Justin Time JTR 8525-2
See Through Trio
Our Own Devices
See Through Music No #
Ambiance Magnetique AM 158
Malasartes Musique MAM 004
6 Red Tree
Pet Mantis Records PMR 003
Fulfilling, extending or adapting accepted styles to unique ends are the strategies of the players featured on this set of notable jazz and improvised music releases. A perhaps obvious sub-theme is the geographical necessity of migrating to major music centres. Although all the CDs were recorded either in Montreal or Toronto, most of the participants aren’t natives. But the availability of gigs in major cities serves as sufficient lures.
In some cases talented and/or lucky improvisers also move to the United States, which even in the 21st century accrues additional status – and greater musical opportunities.
Edmonton-born pianist John Stetch, a New York state resident, is an example of such a talented émigré. His Bruxin’ is a new take on the classic jazz piano trio tradition, with the keyboardist backed by bassist Sean Smith and drummer Rodney Green. Like most stateside Canucks, Stretch doesn’t downplay his identity, and at least two of his compositions –“Inuit Talk” and “The Prairie Unfolds” – have titles that resonate more north of the 49th parallel than south of it. The first is a foot-tapping march whose repeated vamp makes the tune cool but not cold. The later is as spacious as its title, building warmly voiced, glistening arpeggios before ebbing into double time riffs and bass thump.
But perhaps the most definitive performance is “Rectangle Blues”, which the pianist has been improvising on since his first CD. Encompassing key clipping and keyboard-wide jumps, it fits securely in the groove especially when Stetch and Green trade fours at the finale.
Similarly constituted is Arkana Music’s Hyprovisation with pianist Ali Berkok, bassist Gord Mowat, drummer Jake Oelrichs plus alto saxophonist Mark Laver. First organized when the saxophonist and pianist immersed themselves in new techniques while attending the Banff Centre for the Arts in 2005, the Toronto-based combo depends on the two’s Paul Desmond-Dave Brubeck-like partnership. Berkok – who wrote all the tunes – exhibits an easy swing throughout, while Laver’s airy obbligatos are usually pretty straightahead. Probably the most interesting track is “Through Sacco’s Eyes”, where a line of cadences arrive from the pianist, while the saxman flutter- tongues and hardens his vibrato as the rhythm section maintain a steady beat.
A different side of Laver is on display on the See Through Trio (STT)’s
Our Own Devices, a chamber-jazz excursion that’s probably the most notable disc here. STT also showcases pianist Tania Gill, who sometimes plays with Oelrichs, plus subtle bassist Pete Johnston, a Windsor, N.S.-native, who, like the saxophonist, is working on his doctorate. Johnston, who composed 10 of the 12 tracks, voices each instrument equally, negating the front line-rhythm section dichotomy. Tunes range from cabaret-styled tangos to speedy rhythmic romps which show off Laver’s split tones, slurs and tongue flutters. Gill’s versatility allows her to output pseudo-rags at one points, legato formalism at others plus the bouncy tick-tock that characterizes her own “Bicycle”. Polyphonically coalescing throughout, STT impresses without pushing its collective voice beyond moderato and andante.
Even more non-categorical are the timbres and textures exposed on cellist Mélanie Auclair’s Décor Sonore, another aural stunner. Leading a seven-piece ensemble including clarinetist Lori Freedman and guitarist Antoine Berthiaume as well as musicians manipulating a laptop, a foley for sound effects, and a piano, plus narration, the Drummondville, Que.-born, Montrealer uniquely melds music and everyday sounds. With the 20 tracks encompassing, foley-created scrapes and squeaks and non-specific buzzes and wheezes as well as trilling chalumeau split tones, hollow wood cello thumping and under the bridge finger-picking, the results touch on musics New, free, concrète and folkloric. Most notable is an unintentional four-track intermezzo (“Le fils”, “Les volets mous”, “Mes cerf-volant” and “Dream alarm” which uses the cello’s shuffle bowing with a thick vibrato to joins floating, tongue-stopping reed lines, string plinks, tangled ring modulator clangs, natural thunder approximations into agitato but exhilarating patterns.
This folkloric bent, but with Asiatic and Arabic influences, is taken one step further by guitarist Jean-Marc Hébert’s Autre. Hébert, who studied classical guitar at the University of Toronto in the 1980s, orients his Montreal playing towards World Music-fusion in groups such as Ragleela and Africa Musique. The CD’s seven tracks temper European folksiness with harsher Third World textures. Hébert’s single-string frailing and picking often suggests the additional overtones available from exotic strings, while Marie-Soleil Bélanger, who also plays in Ragleela, is able to display splayed and flanged bow movement, whether playing erhu or standard violin. Pierre Tanguay, one of Montreal’s most versatile rhythm players, adds his drums and “body percussion” throughout, creating tunes that reference droning ragas, serpentine Arabic melodies and formal Cantonese operas as well as western sounds.
Although some of the tunes exhibit a certain sameness in theme-variation-and-recapitulation, the standout is “Asie Mineur”, where the percussion beats could come from tablas or talking drums, the strings’ chromatic runs from a sarod and the shrill string sluicing from the Indian classical fiddle. In addition rock music-like backbeat and note spraying improvised solos are also prominent.
In sharp contrast, Toronto guitarist Avi Granite’s 6 Red Tree eschews non-Western influences for those of contemporary jazz. But still each of the 10 tracks offers unexpected enhancements from members of the sextet. Building up from the tough rhythms and near tom-tom-like rim shots of drummer Nick Fraser and the steady lope of bassist Neal Davis, there’s enough space for the front line, which includes keening vibrato runs from tenor saxophonist Jonathan Kay, acrid undertones from alto saxophonist Chris Roberts and the reverberations and shifting, tongue-fluffing of trombonist Tom Richards. Polished and professional, Granite sounds most solid when involved in subtle dual voicing of chromatic guitar runs with trilling horns. Throughout, no one slips too far outside, with the few shrill and off-centre textures very much a sideshow to the swinging main event.
These six CDs prove that thinking players can use different aural road maps to arrive at many destinations of similar musical significance.
-- For Whole Note Vol. 13 #5
February 1, 2008