a column by
Stuart Broomer

In October of 2016, I spent a week listening to a special project, Roscoe Mitchell and the Montreal Toronto Art Orchestra (MTAO), a 20-piece orchestra assembled from the two cities’ communities of improvisers and new music specialists. The project was developed by Montreal bassist Nic Caloia and the Toronto trombonist (Montreal resident) Scott Thomson. I’ve already written elsewhere about the music played by the orchestra (“Roscoe Mitchell,” Musicworks 127) and there’s a CD, Conversations for Orchestra, in the works from Nessa Records, but the project has other – specifically Canadian – dimensions.

There’s a mid-20th century novel called Two Solitudes by Hugh MacLennan: the title refers to the cultural and economic distances between the French and English communities of Montreal, but in a larger sense it came to symbolize the distance between what were once the two corresponding Canadas. There’s been a similar distance among musicians in the country, but it’s been more a matter of mileage than aesthetics. In Canada, individuals travel further than bands, even small ones, though improvising orchestras are part of the national character.

The thing that made the MTAO distinctive was not its size, but its composite character: Vancouver’s ground-breaking, now dormant NOW Orchestra did extensive work with guest composers and soloists like Barry Guy, George Lewis, Marilyn Crispell, and Quebec guitarist Rene Lussier; Montreal’s Supermusique, led by reed players Jean Derome (an MTAO member) and Joane Hétu, ranges through compositional and improvisational methodologies depending on the composer involved. Derome’s pieces have involved large orchestras and often have a distinctly conceptual bent: Résistances, from 2015, is based on the North American power grid, in a sense a 60-minute paean to 60-cycle hum.

The organizers of the MTAO each have considerable experience with big bands. Nic Caloia leads a remarkable band called The Ratchet Orchestra, a group first convened in the early ‘90s. Strongly inspired by Sun Ra, Ratchet has performed with Marshall Allen as featured guest. Scott Thomson was a key organizer of the AIMToronto orchestra, a group that did projects with Anthony Braxton and Evan Parker, and he may belong to more improvising orchestras than any other Canadian, playing regularly in SuperMusique and The Ratchet Orchestra as well as appearing with GGRIL, Grand Groupe Régional d’Improvisation Libérée, the band led by bassist Éric Normand that hails from the highly unlikely Rimouski in North-Eastern Quebec.

In performing Mitchell’s Conversations for Orchestra, the Montreal Toronto Art Orchestra was largely focused on executing complex scores, achieving a collective goal. Much of the improvisation involved was also collective, submerging strong individual directions. It was the presence of one musician, however, that suggested just how much a Toronto-based writer can miss in the Montreal jazz scene, triggering this account of recent individual works by a few of the bandmembers, from Montreal and Toronto alike, whose work should travel further afield: Yves Charuest, Caloia, Thomson, Nick Fraser and Rob Clutton.

Alto saxophonist Yves Charuest has had a long involvement in free jazz. He started playing publicly in Montreal around 1980 and by 1986 was playing in Europe in the Peter Kowald trio with Louis Moholo-Moholo. In the early 2000s, he withdrew from performing, hampered by health issues, then returned around 2010. There’s something almost self-effacing in Charuest’s playing. It’s subtle, slightly off-kilter, as if he’s responding to unheard voices, different rhythms as well as the ones articulated around him. In the Mitchell project, he was one of the few musicians to get distinct solo space, and watching him in rehearsal and the ultimate recording session was a revelation as he made his way across a minefield of sudden, impulsive orchestral figures. With every take, Charuest approached the solo from a different angle, ranging from brief halting figures to fluid lines. There was no sense of a considered, thought-out approach, just pure genuine improvisation that extended to every element.   

Since returning to playing, Charuest has been involved in numerous projects, including the Ratchet Orchestra (among a host of projects with Caloia) and The Muted Note, a work combining dance, song, and an improvising quartet to interpret poems by P.K. Page, with Thomson and Susanna Hood. Charuest’s range is more apparent on the recently released Stir (Tour de Bras), a quartet that presents him with a rhythm section of Caloia and drummer Peter Valsamis (itself a trio called Still) along with pianist Agustí Fernández. It’s Fernández’ particular force, a combination of percussive attack and orchestral breadth, that puts Charuest’s lyric strength in focus, with a consistent sense of vulnerability and resilience. Early models likely included Lee Konitz and there’s a certain resemblance to the early work of John Tchicai, a line that’s at time attenuated, elliptical, even reluctant but which melds remarkably with Fernández’ forward momentum, the two together finding a distinctive ground. The empathy between these two slightly unlikely figures is such that their improvisations can actually mirror one another to the point of suggesting composed forms and phrases. Stir is one of the high points in recorded Canadian free jazz.

Nic Caloia, a strong contributor to Stir has many dimensions to his musical personality: another is evident in the group In the Sea, a string trio with cellist Tristan Honsinger, who lived in Montreal in the ‘70s before moving to Europe, and violinist Josh Zubot. They’ve recently released an eponymous CD (Relative Pitch) that documents a tour of Canada and the U.S. Honsinger’s compositions are brief melodies with still shorter spoken lyrics, or more precisely, fragmented poems. He can turn the word “haberdashery” into sworn testimony. The pieces have the quality of ancient airs, suggesting a vital folk tradition that has stretched to include Webern: the opening “Setagaya Ku” works from atonality towards dance; “Black Hills in Dakotas” has the open, clarified harmonies of Virgil Thomson. “Nine of Wasps” achieves the rare quality of joyous dissonance, and “Slow Swarm” feels momentarily like rock ‘n’ roll. Sometimes there are masses of harmonics that sound like a single instrument with 12 strings and three bows, country fiddling that comes simultaneously in regular, large and giant economy size.   

Scott Thomson has ranged from The Rent, a group devoted to Steve Lacy repertoire, to site-specific compositions for a brass ensemble. In 2014-15 he had regular access to La Poêle, a Montreal dance studio, and launched a series of 30-minute concerts, Trombone Solos at Odd Hours (Solos de trombone à heures indues), six days a week – e.g., “19 May, 11:11am.” The resultant CD, Heures Indues (bug incision), has three pieces, each dedicated to an individual, each the sole listener for the performance. Thomson is an exceptional soloist, the beneficiary of close study of Paul Rutherford and studies with Roswell Rudd who has developed his own voice. He uses the whole instrument and has a keen sense of focus and development. “For Elizabeth Miller” begins in an extreme upper register, with little wisps of sound, from micro-glissandi that suggest animal voices to fragmented bugle calls. “For Jacques Gravel” explores multiphonics and muting, developing at one point a swing both vigorous and light. “For Lin Snelling,” the longest of the three pieces, adds the rattle of the metal mute against the bell and rapid runs, but Thomson also has something of the lyric upper register of Tommy Dorsey in his collection of sounds. What stands out most in these performances by appointment is Thomson’s sense of calm construction, every shift an organic evolution, akin to the solo work of Conrad Bauer.  

Drummer Nick Fraser and bassist Rob Clutton, alone and together, are indispensable parts of Toronto jazz, highly skilled, imaginative musicians whose broad swath ranges from mainstream jazz through free jazz and electro-acoustic improvisation. They’re both members of Drumheller, a long-standing free jazz quintet, and Lina Allemano’s recent Kiss the Brain, devoted to electro-acoustic free improvisation.

Fraser plays drums with an aggressive musicality and consistent invention, and he’s recently emerged internationally as a bandleader with Too Many Continents, a trio with expatriate Canadian pianist Kris Davis and saxophonist Tony Malaby (Clean Feed). He also leads the Nick Fraser Quartet with Malaby, Clutton and cellist Andrew Downing. The group debuted in 2013 with Towns and Villages (Barnyard) and recently released Starer. Fraser’s compositions here, often titled simply “Sketch” with a number following, are literally that, brief devices or figures to be elaborated in improvisation. Their character and usefulness is apparent from the opening “minimalism/ 416-538-7149” in which Frazer offers random high-pitched taps as Downing and Clutton establish a tense polyrhythmic field. “Sketch #29” begins as an elegiac ballad, bowed by Downing and Clutton as a miniature string section in advance of Malaby’s entry; “Jupiter (Sketch #15)” develops complex, abstract, intersecting lines between cello and soprano saxophone. On one occasion Fraser’s sketches come as a pair, maximizing contrast in a single piece: in its initial segment, “Sketch #20/22” includes a playful pointillist dialogue between cello and drums; the concluding phase presents tenor saxophone as high-speed drill, Malaby approaching maximum intensity. The concluding “Sketch #21” provides a tranquil contrast with Malaby on soprano, touching on multiphonics and a flute-like sonority. It’s a testament to the effectiveness of Fraser’s loose, player-friendly compositions, as well as the musicianship, that the quartet sounds like a working band with relatively little playing time together.

Rob Clutton is a quirky, highly creative bandleader when he assumes the role, something that he’s been doing occasionally for the past fifteen years with a band called the Cluttertones. It’s a group that resists any kind of categorization, happily amalgamating elements of free improvisation, electronica, folk music and songs. They’re all evident on Ordinary Joy (Healing Power Records), sometimes on a single track. Working with long time associates Lina Allemano on trumpet; Ryan Driver on analog synthesizer, piano and voice (a reedy high tenor reminiscent of Robert Wyatt); and Tim Posgate on guitar and banjo, Clutton composes pieces that begin with the improbable and sometimes approach the uncanny, strange states of musical mind in which the heterodox elements seem to tune calmly to a new standard. The nine-minute “Agosto” is a fine example, Clutton’s warm, springy, lyrical pizzicato blending through and linking the divergent impulses of banjo, trumpet and synth. “Webbed” presents an extreme minimalism, while “Bison” starts from delicate song, then adds parts until it gradually deforms into the most delicate of free improvisations. Returning to song, Allemano weaves in a gallery of extended techniques.

That only scratches the surface of the rich musical streams that run from and between Montreal and Toronto. Other members of the Montreal Toronto Art Orchestra stood out as well. Among them were the Montreal-born, Toronto-resident pianist Marilyn Lerner and clarinetist Lori Freedman, two thirds of the Queen Mab Trio with Amsterdam-based violist Ig Henneman. The group recently released Réunion (Mikroclimat), documenting an all-improvised 2016 Toronto concert. Montrealer Jason Sharp has put out A Boat Upon Its Blood (Constellation), combining his bass and baritone saxophones with synthesizers, percussion, steel guitar, violin and the sounds of his own heart in minimalist work of great resonance that defies easy description. Percussionist Isaiah Ceccarelli has a disc of his compositions in Another Timbre’s recent series of Canadian composers: Bow, at107. The CD includes both composed works for string quartet and trio and a series of pieces in which Ceccarelli performs semi-improvised duets with violinist Mira Benjamin and Katelyn Clark, who plays a medieval organetto. Trumpeter Craig Pedersen has a forthcoming quintet CD called Approaching the Absence of Doing (Mystery & Wonder), a taut work in which composition and improvisation engage almost violently at times, the music winning.

Stuart Broomer © 2017

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