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Samuel Blaser, Francois Houle, Aram Bajakian, Torsten Mueller at Ironworks, Tuesday June 23, 2015

Aram Bajakian, Francois Houle, Samuel Blaser, Torsten Mueller
A five o’clock set at Ironworks on Tuesday opened with the duo of Swiss trombonist Samuel Blaser and Vancouverite François Houle on clarinet, playing music that skirted the boundaries between jazz-inflected improvisation and open-scored new music. This reed-and-slide (Houle’s term) instrumental combination has precedents in Albert Mangelsdorff and Lee Konitz’s Art of the Duo (1988), which built on Konitz’s 1967 Duets, and also – even earlier, and perhaps stylistically a little closer – in Jimmy Guiffre and Bob Brookmeyer’s contrapuntal interplay in trio with Jim Hall in the late 1950s. Samuel Blaser’s fleet, warm tone is closer to Brookmeyer, although he occasionally shares some of Mangelsdorff’s vocalic depth and probing polytonality. Houle, too, has acknowledged some indebtedness to Guiffre’s later, freer musical concepts, although he points to Bill Smith and to John Carter as more compelling antecedents. (Carter’s duos with cornettist Bobby Bradford might also set some textural precedents for Blaser and Houle’s reed-and-slide, as might Gerry Mulligan’s front lines with Brookmeyer and with Chet Baker.) Houle’s playing sometimes recalls Debussy and Messiaen, too, while Blaser – occasionally echoing a little Baroque sackbut – has reframed late Renaissance compositions by Monteverdi, Machaut and DuFay; he and Houle offer a multimodal, polymorphic and richly evocative music.

Francois Houle, Samuel Blaser (The camera seems to have auto-focused 
on the back of pianist Benoit Delbecq’s head — who was sitting in front of me.)

The two-horn line can seem spare and linear, but both Blaser and Houle have a fullness of tone and a sensitivity to space, as well as a willingness to let melody and line resonate and open out into the room. The music builds on close, intimate, mutual listening, mixing counterpoint with thickly vertical harmonizing; playing two clarinets at once, Houle instantaneously concocts Pythagorean-sounding harmonies that make me think of Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s Natural Black Inventions: Root Strata and Kirk’s performances with trombonists Dick Griffin and Steve Turre. I don’t mean, by mentioning all of these other players, to suggest that this music is derivative: Blaser and Houle produce music of striking originality and boldness. But I also hear a deep sense of history and of performative inheritance that locates their work alongside that of some of the greatest and most challenging improvisers of this past century.

Aram Bajakian, Samuel Blaser, Torsten Mueller

         In contrast, guitarist Aram Bajakian and bassist Torsten Müllerfollowed with a freely improvised duet that focused on mesmeric drones. They began with Derek Bailey-like sparse plucking, but soon morphed into sustained overlapping tones, Müller favouring arco to create a singing, low continuo. Aram Bajakian, sitting to the side of the stage on a piano bench, used a few delay pedals to draw looping hums from his strings. I have to say that for a few moments, or minutes, I lost a clear sense of bounded time as I listened; their interactions were hypnotic and intense, even though both had a fairly modest stage-presence, and were more interested in co-creative agency than in self-assertion.  (Interestingly, at a few points in the session police sirens bled through the walls from the streets outside; the musicians, rather than frustrated, appeared willing to respond in kind, drawing the outer world’s aural palette into their own emergent soundscapes.) Blaser joined Bajakian and Müller to make a trio, and again the group primarily concentrated on collective sounding, long, layered lines from which brief shards of melody sometimes emerged, only to submerge again is the collaborative flow. At one point, Bajakian pressed a small motorized wheel into his strings over the pickup to overcome the guitar’s natural decay, developing rich resonances and electrified overtones from the instrument reminiscent of folk violin: concordant depth. Houle returned for a final quartet, a shape-shifting shared composite of the contrapuntal and the harmonic; again, the attention to space seemed paramount, so much so that for the final minutes Müller had stopped playing, bow at his side, intently listening and letting the piece take its course toward mutual silence, as an inspiring set of exemplary, sterling and powerful improvisation drew to a hushed close.
Aram Bajakian (Torsten Mueller in the corner)

Sheila Jordan and Cameron Brown: Tuesday Night at Ironworks, 3 March 2015


Still a jazz childat eighty-six, Sheila Jordan – who performed in her duo with bassist Cameron Brownlast night at Ironworks in Vancouver – has a vitality and playful joy that show no signs of abating. Her two sets consisted of well-developed material – medleys of standards and classic bebop, peppered with a few originals – that she’s been performing for decades, emerging primarily out of her work with Harvie Swartz. That said, every song sounds thoroughly fresh, immediate and compelling. Her lower register has taken on a little grain, but her lilting scat lines, the chirrup and purl that are hallmarks of her vocals, are undiminished: the lightly off-kilter cadences of her improvisations are as intimately compelling and as warmly engaging as they have been since her stunning 1962 debut record, Portrait of Sheila (where she defines close relationship to the bass – in this case, Steve Swallow – that comes to shape her music for the subsequent half-century). 


          We all have our favourite Sheila Jordan records; aside from Portrait of Sheila, which is an indisputably essential album for any collection, I love The Crossing (1984, on Blackhawk) and her performance on Steve Swallow’s settings of Robert Creeley poems, Home (1980, ECM): I often find myself unexpectedly humming “Sure, Herbert . . . ” out of the blue. Despite what can sometimes feel like a timbre of quiet restraint, Sheila Jordan’s voice attains a peculiar resonance; it stays with you, softly plangent and quickly sonorous. The performances last night closely matched the material on Celebration (2005, High Note), which is I think the first live recording of her work with Cameron Brown, but you could never tell that this music was over a decade old. This is late work, for Jordan, certainly, but it’s also vivacious and exuberant; aside from some street noise coming through the club walls, the audience was so quiet and intensely focused on the music you could hear Cameron Brown’s fingers brush along the strings of his instrument.

A Sheila Jordan gig offers enraptured attentiveness, a focused close listening, but she’s also just so infectiously happy, laughing and larking through each song. Commenting on the flubs she sometimes makes in her “old age,” she said there was no need “to get uptight about it. As long as your heart and soul are in it, it doesn’t matter.” She and Cameron Brown started off with an introductory blues – “And so I’ll sing of joy and pain for you / With all the happiness this melody brings” – followed by a standard, “Better Than Anything.” A version of “It’s You or No One” came next, which Brown had also recomposed by adding a new, boppish melody to the changes, and re-naming it “Sheila, It’s You.” Cameron Brown is an extraordinary bassist, his fleet and virtuosic lines emerging from a depth that recalled Charles Mingus. (Shelia Jordan opened the second set with an anecdote about singing in duo with a bassist for the first time when she was sixteen and Charles Mingus called her onto the stage to do a version of “Yesterdays”; they also offered a take, amid a tribute to Billie Holiday, on Mingus’s “Goodbye Porkpie Hat.”) There was a medley of dance-themed tunes dedicated to Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire (“I loved this cat, I’d walk two miles to see him dance . . .”), and another medley of songs associated with Oscar Brown Jr. that included her wonderful version of Bobby Timmons’s “Dat Dere” (which also appears, in tribute to Sheila Jordan, on Rickie Lee Jones’s Pop Pop). To set up her “Blues Medley for Miles” (“Blue Skies,” “All Blues” and Jon Hendricks’s transcription of the trumpet solo from “Freddie Freeloader”), she told a story of Billie Holiday sitting in a dark corner of a club warbling out “Miiiiiiiiles, Miiiiiles” while Davis soundchecked in a basement club in New York: he apparently asked if a stray cat had got into the room, which she thought was hilarious. Sheila Jordan – her music and her persona – is all about jazz history, recounting stories of her encounters with musicians in the 1950s, especially Charlie Parker. She did versions of what might have been “Yardbird Suite” – I’m a little slow on the uptake sometimes – and what was definitely “Scrapple from the Apple”; Bird, sixty years after his death, was still a keen and powerful presence. She also gestured at her own Seneca heritage, vocalizing in an American Indian style to frame a version of the Jimmy Webb country ballad “The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress.” She acknowledged that the Seneca Queen Alliquippa was her great-great-great grandmother, – and so, she said, if it hadn’t been for Columbus she might have been royalty. The second set closed with an invitation to guitarist Bill Coon to join Jordan and Brown for a trio version of her anecdotal “Sheila’s Blues.” She offered her healing, restorative song of recovery, “The Crossing,” as an encore. As she left the stage, she laughed and called out to everyone: “Have a beautiful life, and if I don’t see you again, I’ll meet you in heaven.” Her music and her voice offered us all a gift of affirmation and of colloquial joy.


Short Take on Thumbscrew Live at Ironworks (Vancouver, 7 February 2015)

Mary Halvorson, Michael Formanek, Tomas Fujiwara (obscured behind people and a post)
Thumbscrew offered up two provocative and powerful sets at Ironworks on Saturday night. Building mostly on compositions from their eponymous album (released on Cuneiform last year), the trio’s music combines infectious come-and-go grooves with rhythmically angular, kiltering melodies and collaboratively deconstructive improvisations to create warmly engaged yet restlessly exploratory performances. Mary Halvorson’s guitar alternated between keening warbles and electrified growls, mixing bendy Johnny Smith-like chords with harder-edged Hendrixisms, cross-purposed and glassily recursive loops with tensile, open mellifluence. Her focus and calm demeanour on the bandstand seemed almost belied by the metallic, clarion fierceness of her sound. Michael Formanek’s firm, resonant bass prodded the trio forward, pushing at the leading edge of the beat. He frequently smiled, looking back and forth between his bandmates as his he drew reverberant, lithe lines from his instrument – which underlined the joyful intensity of their collaborative playing. Tomas Fujiwara’s drumming danced in and out of the pocket, by turns muscular and fleet, turbulent and tight. His body angled slightly back from his kit, he tended to face away from his bandmates, eyes closed, but only to increase what felt like his closely attentive, kinesthetic enmeshment in the group’s shared sound, their collective pulse. A few of the pieces were counted in – 1, 2, 3, 4 – but, still palpably embedded in a fixed metric, they were able to pull and surge and suspend and attenuate the beat to the extend that time itself became organically elastic, fluid, distal.  
The first set list, as far as I could make out from their announcements, started with “Line to Create Madness” (Halvorson), followed by “Buzzard’s Breath” (Formanek), “Nothing Doing” (Fujiwara), a fourth piece the name of which I missed, something called (I think) “Barn Fire Slum Brew” (Fujiwara) and “Still . . . Doesn’t Swing” (Formanek). After the break, they returned with “iThumbscrew” (Formanek), “Falling Too Far” (Halvorson), “Goddess Sparkle” (Fujiwara), a new piece by Mary Halvorson called “Convularia” – which she said had been named at her father’s suggestion after a “sweetly scented and highly poisonous plant,” the contrariety suggesting something of the tensions between the lyric and the spiky in her own and in the trio’s playing – followed by a fifth piece that might have been “Fluid Hills in Pink.” They were called back by an enthusiastic audience to play an encore – “we have exactly one more song” in their repertoire, they joked – which was an edgy ballad, to close a terrific evening of music by a brilliantly innovative trio.

Pursuing Ecstasy: Darius Jones and Tarbaby at Ironworks

Listening to improvised music can feel like chasing ecstasy: catching at those rare, first and fleeting moments of transport, of heightened attention and unadulterated joy that the performers are also after, often on our behalf – what John Coltrane might have called, following the title of one of the movements of A Love Supreme, pursuance. Last night in Vancouver in an 80-minute set, the alto saxophonist Darius Jones, buoyed up by the surging mellifluence of the piano trio Tarbaby, unleashed those spirit-heavy resonances, that deep cry, in song after song. I’m grateful to been there in the audience at the Ironworks, grateful to have heard. The compositions they played came mostly from Darius Jones’s recent album on AUM Fidelity, Book of Mae’bul, but despite being assembled as a quartet only for a current brief tour, these musicians are much, much more than featured-soloist-and-rhythm-section; they attain an audible integration, a co-creative and responsive agency that feels as if they have been together for years. The opening number reminded me a little of a David S. Ware quartet, with its roiling, keening groove, while I also heard passing echoes, I thought, of Coltrane’s late quartet, with Nasheet Waits’s multiloquent drumming calling up at times the robust, insistent textures Rashied Ali’s layered conception. Orrin Evans’s piano alternates between attenuated lyricism – his left-hand chords often feel suspended, as if holding their breath – and driving provocation. At one point in an improvisation, he appeared to find the famous melody from “I Got Rhythm,” not as an ironically knowing quote but as a means of casting our ears back over a century of foundational jazz practice, palpably reinvigorating a fragment of thoroughly worn-down standard by pulling and caressing the familiar phrase into an alternate time-frame, cross-purposing, if only for a few seconds, the known and the unknown, unsettling the given. Eric Revis’s bass playing felt charged and profound, pushing the music forward with cascading fierceness. Darius Jones’s lines negotiated between dulcet and ululating, shifting from seductive balladry to jagged yawp, before arriving at what felt to me like heartfelt psalmody. The quartet offered us a tremendous, powerful and moving set, a music that, for almost an hour and a half, bore witness to and delivered genuine, shared beauty.