Alberto Braida/Wilbert de Joode

Reg Erg
Red Toucan RT 9332


The Bay Window

Songlines SGL SA 1560-2

James Carney Group


Songlines SGL SA 1566-2

Carl Ludwig Hübsch

Primordial Soup

Red Toucan RT 9331

Butcher/Muller/van der Schyff

Way Out Northwest

Drip Audio DA 00272

By Ken Waxman

Music transcends borders, and so does music distribution in the Internet age. Couple this with the maturation of the Canadian improvised music scene and a new phenomenon is visible: CDs recorded elsewhere, but released by Canadian labels for international distribution.

This set of recent CDs recognizes the situation. Reg Erg and Primordial Soup, respectively recorded in Milano and Köln are on Montreal’s Red Toucan label. The Bay Window and Green-Wood, recorded in Paris and Brooklyn are products of Vancouver’s Songlines imprint. Way Out Northwest characterizes a similar trend. With Canadian musicians operating at high standard, foreign players come here to record. This CD captures London-based saxophone explorer John Butcher at a Vancouver gig with German bassist Torsten Muller, a British Columbia resident since 2001 and local drummer Dylan van der Schyff.

Free improv at its finest, Way Out Northwest highlights the simpatico interaction among the three that extends to mirroring of each other’s timbres. During the unbroken improvisation you wonder if certain sounds arise from the saxophonist’s sibilant vamps, the drummer’s friction against unyielding surfaces or the bassist’s sul ponticello movements.

While van der Schyff’s smacks, rebounds and struts evolve in parallel with Muller’s unconventional tuning that makes bass movements agitato and contrapuntal, Butcher uses tongue slaps, continuous breathing and glottal punctuation for a spiky reed recital. Multiphonics arise from both soprano and tenor saxophone, as key percussion and constricted snorts pushed through his horn’s body tube meld with the bassist’s wood-bending multiple stops and the drummer’s smacks and bounces. Although a composition like “magiC CloCk maCHine” evolves as a polyphonic cloud of cymbal slaps, multiple bass stops and a humongous sax vibrato, the three conclude this recital with a legato romp encompassing pulsating bass lines, press rolls and sibilant growls.

Expanding the musical palate by adding a piano, The Bay Window deals with shorter, less atonal compositions. North American connections exist for this Paris-based band as well. Pianist Benoît Delbecq recorded his solo CD in Vancouver, while bassist Hubert Dupont and Chander Sardjoe are in a quartet with New York saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa.

Over 14 tracks, each member of the quartet impresses, with Dupont’s melodious note placement and tolling stops establishing the mood. Clattering and pumping cymbals, cowbell, snare and toms, the drummer keeps the saxophonist and pianist’s romanticism in check. Sequential organization makes “Chrysalide/Imago” a notable admixture of rondo and rhythm, as the saxman’s a capella intro gives way to the pianist’s impressionistic flourishes. “Y” proves how piano chording decorated with rolling cadences, note clusters and unexpected voicing can intersect with slices of flutter-tongued reed power.

Halving the personnel, but doubling the interplay, Italian pianist Alberto Braida and Dutch bassist Wilbert de Joode are equally expansive on Reg Erg. De Joode has recorded with van der Schyff. Braida, recorded with Canadian bassist Lisle Ellis and plays with Butcher. Both have manifold technique that negates this reduced instrumentation, as their 10 duets show them systematically following each others’ impulses with radar-like communication.

On one nocturne for instance, Braida assembles low-frequency note clusters as de Joode bows intermittent tremolo runs; on another, thick bull fiddle intensity causes the pianist to octave jump into the darker textures of his instrument. Elsewhere Braida exposes key clipping and flowing arpeggios, while the bassist constructs solos from rubber band-like plucking or by tightening and loosening his strings.

Reg Erg’s climax is “Wadi”, where the pianist escalates from pedal-muted single notes to fanning chords that emphasize the instrument’s back frame and dampers. Compatible, de Joode’s buzzing arco lines are shaped sul ponticello so that his splayed, staccato dynamism meets Braida’s near-kinetic runs.

There’s no bass or piano on Primordial Soup. Instead this potage contains ingredients from four German improvisers – trumpeter Axel Dörner, reedist Frank Gratkowski, tubaist Carl Ludwig Hübsch and percussionist Michael Griener. Compositions snake from dodecaphonic to Dixieland with variations in-between.

Take “NCG 2270 Terrier”, for instance. Painted in broad strokes, it’s a half-Swing-half-march with a sharp tempo that features Gratkowski’s clarinet riding atop Hübsch’s pedal-point blasts, while Griener rattles and slap. Dörner’s legato counterline prods Hübsch to speed up the tempo until the reverberating line descends into cymbal resonation, trumpet grace notes and chalumeau reed slithers.

Collective and organic, the quartet’s massed improvisations occasionally foreshadow later tune development – with breaths, whines, pops, growls, crackles and brays on display. Gratkowski’s alto saxophone performs tongue jujitsu, while Dörner’s half-valve reverberations create double counterpoint with the reedist or peeping contrast to the drummer’s nerve beats.

Occasional cymbal raps and sandpaper-like scrapes from Griener enliven “NGC 2276 Inspektion”. Rubato and abstract, the composition surges rhythmically due to subterranean burps from Hübsch. Although the other horns appear to be vibrating underwater textures without valve or key movements, metallic cymbal friction and low-brass rumbles solidify the tune’s airiness.

Standing apart is keyboardist James Carney’s CD. The only American session, it features the largest band – a septet – and is the most committed to melody.

Coherent and episodically thematic, there’s also sameness to the eight tunes. Dependent on looping interface and head recapitulation, many call for a tough backbeat from drummer Mark Ferber, buttressed with Latin motifs. Some display an overabundance of California cool, especially when the sweetness of Peter Epstein’s soprano saxophone lacks contrast. Moving among acoustic and electric pianos and analog synthesizer, Carney’s versatility sometimes detracts. At points he key clips, at others outputs legato pianism or gospel-like runs. His comping is fine, if anonymous, but his voicing on electric piano, leans towards instrumental rock.

With his playing sometimes masked by tutti horns, bassist Chris Lightcap is prominent when he plucks excessively powerfully. Tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby’s chesty runs are put to their best use on the aptly named “Power” and “Half the Battle”, whereas trombonist Josh Roseman’s extended glissandi enliven “Willwaw”, making common cause with thumping bass and Carney’s piano, rife with short runs and trailing left-handed jumps

A microcosm of all that’s good and bad about Green-Wood is encapsulated on the melancholy “It’s Always Cold When You’re Leaving”. Trumpeter Ralph Alessi brings understated emotion to his solo, while Roseman’s chromatic plunger tones and strengthening piano chords force Ferber to apply calming cymbal expansions. Before the vamping horns introduce the climax, Carney’s light touch alters the theme with elongated or contracted notes, scrambling the original syncopation, without straying from tonality.

— For Whole Note Vol. 13 #7