Jumpin’ In

a column by
Greg Buium

Creative-music scenes don’t naturally draw a worldwide crowd. Tiny artist-run spaces are often home. Recordings are easy to produce, and not so easy to promote. In a Canadian context, where I’ve lived for most of my life, this is especially daunting: geography, culture, and economics all conspire against you.

But creative-music festivals here have been scene shifters – beginning in the mid-1980s in British Columbia (Vancouver) and Quebec (Victoriaville), then a decade later in Ontario (Guelph). Canadian improvisers had long gone out into the world. But these annual events tugged the international community toward us. Ken Pickering’s Vancouver model – mixing and matching U.S. and European-based musicians with Canadian (mostly Vancouver-area) artists – gradually gave real cachet to a generation of West Coast players, from pianist Paul Plimley to clarinetist François Houle. In Victoriaville, Michel Levasseur’s devotion to musique actuelle, a French-Canadian catchall for new, adventurous (and often improvised) music, provided an international platform to musicians such as saxophonist Jean Derome and guitarist René Lussier, among many others, largely Montreal-based and associated with the Ambiances Magnétiques label.

It’s been a long time since Toronto was at the heart of a Canadian avant-garde. You might need to go back to the 1970s and ‘80s – to the early days of the Canadian Creative Music Collective, the CCMC, whose most prominent members included Michael Snow, John Oswald, and Paul Dutton, and its once vibrant downtown space (Music Gallery); or to Bill Smith’s powerful (and irrepressible) role as a record producer (Sackville, Onari), publisher-editor (Coda Magazine), musician (Bill Smith Ensemble), and filmmaker (Imagine the Sound). In those days, the Toronto jazz scene had a genuine infrastructure (clubs, record stores, newspaper coverage, radio shows, and a devoted, not insubstantial audience); more progressive endeavors certainly benefited from its presence.

Over the past decade, however, a Toronto scene has begun to re-emerge – coalescing around a network of venues, events, and newer, increasingly estimable voices. Last year’s appointment of Scott Thomson (trombonist-composer-producer-curator) as artistic director at the Guelph Jazz Festival was widely applauded. Toronto’s long struggle to sustain, and attract, more creative voices has gradually diminished. Things are changing.

That’s why three recent recordings – two from trumpeter Lina Allemano, one from drummer Nick Fraser – feel so notable. When you live a long way away, as I do, records really count. North American tours have perhaps never been more difficult to arrange. Albums are by nature outward looking; ideally, they are also magnets. When a festival isn’t the world’s road map to you, a recording carries immense weight.

Fraser and Allemano have been at the center of this scene since the turn of the century. Each of their new albums – Sometimes Y (by the Lina Allemano 4), Squish It! (Allemano’s Titanium Riot), and Is Life Long? (Nick Fraser Quartet) – embodies the very best in a mid-career document; these are artists at the height of their powers. These are also long-running groups (more than a decade in the case of the Allemano 4), a fact that underlines how much these records tell us – about a community that seems to know who it is, and who it wants to be.

Lina Allemano                                                                                                            ©2018 Cristina Marx

Start with Allemano. The 38-year-old trumpeter grew up out West (in Edmonton, Alberta), but she’s been based in the Ontario capital since 1993. She now splits her time between Toronto and Berlin and, despite the hurdles, has made touring a priority. European improvisers have had a palpable influence; it’s something she’s spoken of – honing extended technique, making pure open music central to her practice. She is also an accomplished jazz musician (in a more conventional sense), something with great currency in her hometown.

Sometimes Y, her quartet’s fifth album, all on her own Lumo imprint, is just this kind of work. Regrettably, some still can’t see past its configuration, or its roots; the Lina Allemano 4 is routinely described as somewhere between Ornette Coleman’s early quartets and a Dave Douglas operation. Sure, she’s deployed two horns (Allemano, alto saxophonist Brodie West), bass (Andrew Downing), and drums (Fraser). But this is far too pat.

On Sometimes Y Allemano has composed six pieces; these brief scripts inform, fuel, and frame the improvisations. The entire 42-minute performance isn’t just made up of discrete moments; it’s all of a piece, unified and labyrinthine. This is something it shares with the Titanium Riot and Nick Fraser recordings: coherence, hard-won (you suspect) after many years working in groups that favor collective improvisation. Fraser, it should be noted, is present on all of these sessions. Downing and Rob Clutton, Titanium Riot’s bassist, are in the drummer’s quartet as well.

Sometimes Y often offers these short, stop-start lines, motifs that become more elaborate stop-start improvs and soon morph into winding, driving, or microscopic (insert any number of other adjectives) interplay. The initial line is often planted in the quartet’s inner ear. These players know each other so well that basic counterpoint (West and Allemano on “Tweeter”) or seemingly disparate bass-drum accompaniment (Downing and Fraser on “Ö”) become another instance of telepathy. These aren’t long pieces – half of them are just four minutes – and this only makes the improvisation that much more impressive: the control, and ease, as they move back and forth between the impromptu and the predetermined. There’s an intense energy at the record’s core – which, again to be pat, might be said to come from Downing and Fraser. It does. But deep into “Marina and Lou,” the closest Sometimes Y has to an epic, you see how the group’s underlying power, the ebb and flow of energy, is ultimately produced as a unit.

After Sometimes Y, just follow the thread to Squish It! The stop-start aesthetic is still here: Allemano’s dark tone, breaking into shards, flittering in and out of extended techniques, muted, open horn, electronics, a conventional flourish, or more avant mayhem. But this is open music, full-stop; it’s also a classic experimental group (if that oxymoronic adjective makes sense). Electric bass is added (Clutton). So, too, is analog synthesizer (Ryan Driver), to give the record an oddly antiquated texture. Time goes by and you can’t figure out why it feels like the early 1970s again. That’s inevitably Driver’s doing: dropping some strange gothic splash or dated sci-fi flourish, or just building layer upon layer of fuzz into an already anachronistic mix. Fraser is remarkably comfortable with the electronic clamor – a tight snare march here, a mad dash around the kit there. Somehow, he’s able to pull in, collect, and assimilate the sounds around him to create balance and new kinds of disorder.

Taken together, it’s all quite wonderful. Titanium Riot has mastered a weird aural space: deep, low-volume chatter, ambient sounds, video-game effects, tumult and discord, fragility and consonance. They’re the twists and turns of a free improvising ensemble bound to a particular palette, both an ode and a rewiring – of the past and, by extension, the future.

Nick Fraser                                                                                                                     ©2018 Gee Wong

Nick Fraser binds all of these projects together. Like Allemano, he, too, grew up elsewhere (Ottawa, born 1976) but he’s been on the Toronto scene for more than 20 years. If the trumpeter has sought out colleagues and mentors abroad (Allemano studied with German Axel Dörner), the drummer has drawn outsiders into his world. New York-based saxophonist Tony Malaby has been with Fraser’s quartet for more than half a decade. He and pianist Kris Davis, a Canadian expat long based in the New York area, made up Fraser’s trio on his 2015 Clean Feed debut, Too Many Continents.

Is Life Long?, his follow up for the Portuguese label, is the third recording from this fascinating four-piece: Fraser and Malaby, joined by Clutton, now on acoustic bass, and Downing, on cello. It’s commonplace for special guests to give an artist a lift; Malaby is a well-regarded voice on the American scene. But he’s here among equals, part of an evolving co-operative. The band’s chordless, bass-cello foundation could be a trap – a novelty, in which its full range of color and timbre lies dormant.

But this is no trap: Fraser’s turned this instrumentation into a full-length mirror of these men’s invention. Once again, the connection between players is everything; musical conversation happens on the spot, in carefully fashioned and impromptu ways. Fraser, the sole composer, often produces these short, jittery lines that jet in and out and are designed – in ways akin to Allemano’s – to build collective improvisation. It’s all deceptively simple.

The record is bookended by longer, multilayered tales, “Quicksand” and “The Predictor.” The opener, “Quicksand,” is filled with noise and clutter and arco moods, but by the end – Malaby’s fearsome tenor squall, Fraser’s thundering drive, Clutton’s and Downing’s racing pizzicato strings – there’s a groove of ragged, charging intensity.

For years, Toronto’s mainstream jazz community was characterized by its know-how. These were pros. They weren’t all artists, but, yes, they could play. The jazz police found an outpost on the northern shore of Lake Ontario. The city’s newer, progressive players share one element of this fading stereotype: these cats can play, too. North American improv scenes can sometimes have a ragtag quality to them; dilettantes exist. To me, the experimental is often deeply compromised when basic musicianship is thrown into doubt.

In true Toronto tradition, this under-the-radar creative community is also terrifically accomplished. These are artists, and they are real pros. Sometimes Y, Squish It!, and Is Life Long? are lasting evidence of that. They capture a scene moving into its own powerful, signature moment – where players aren’t just plugged into what’s going on in Chicago and New York, Berlin and Amsterdam, but they’re also in sync with the multitude of international musicians coming through Vancouver, Victoriaville, and Guelph. Once again, Toronto is beginning to feel like a creative-music hub.

©2018 Greg Buium

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