Muskox: 5 Pieces
Toronto-based Standard Form is poised to make quite a name for itself with two noteworthy releases, the first of which calls to mind the spirit of Ornette Coleman's classic early-‘60s quartet and the other suggestive of an ambitious fusion of Tortoise and Steve Reich.
Potential Things is the debut collection from Toronto jazz quintet Canaille (pronounced “k'NAI”) formed by woodwinds player (and Feuermusik co-leader) Jeremy Strachan in 2008 as a vehicle for his own compositions. Ably supported by virtuosic help-mates Colin Fisher (tenor sax), Mike Smith (bass), Nick Buligan (trumpet), and Dan Gaucher (drums), Strachan mines the free jazz tradition and comes up with eleven succinct set-pieces for the band to fearlessly dig into. The honk of a baritone sax rolls over an elastic, loose-limbed thrust in both the opener “Francophonie” and closer “Potential Things,” while “Good Bits” in particular sounds like a veritable homage to Ornette and company: Gaucher plays with the stoked fire of Ed Blackwell, Smith contributes a rapid bass pulse reminiscent of Charlie Haden circa The Shape of Jazz to Come, Buligan blows with the bluster of Don Cherry, and the saxophonist wails with David Murray-like fire. Canaille gets the job done with admirable efficiency, dispatching tightly constructed pieces like “Francophonie” and the bluesy “Vincent Massey” in two to three minutes' time, the clear exception being “Summer Hair,” which wends a multi-directional route through slow, bluesy climes and uptempo breeziness for eleven minutes. Mention must be made of the package itself, which includes a rare treat, especially for would-be beboppers: sheet music for all eleven compositions.
One naturally is reminded of Tortoise when confronted with Muskox's intricate compositions but the Toronto-based progressive acoustic jazz outfit is hardly a one-dimensional knock-off of the Chicago group. On Muskox's debut full-length 5 Pieces, echoes of Steve Reich-influenced ‘systems music' also are audible, though the material's intricate melodic patterns call English composer Michael Torke to mind more than anything else. That's never more apparent than during the second composition, “Stat Cam,” which, like much of the material, eschews individual soloing for tight compositional structure and ensemble playing. That the album is polished can be attributed in part to the groundwork laid by three previously issued EPs. Ostensibly led by Mike Smith, who composed the material and plays banjo, harmonium, and guitar, Muskox's sound is fleshed out considerably by five others who contribute mallet instruments and percussion (Jamie Drake), double bass (Pete Johnston), alto sax (Mark Laver), cello (Erika Neilsen), and electric piano (Ali Bertok) to the concise, thirty-seven minute set; of particular note is Laver's alto sax playing, which often stands forth from the motorik background to etch out the compositions' themes. In “Humphries' Tide,” banjo, harmonium, alto saxophone, marimba, hand drums, and double bass conjure a Moroccan-meets-Manhattan vibe in a through-composed travelogue of maze-like melodic patterns and rhythms. Though the group's sound is refreshingly singular, it can at times feel a tad suffocating when every moment is so precisely mapped out; a moment or two of breathing room wouldn't be unwelcome (as occurs when Laver's saxophone glides over the changes in “Ghost Ride”). Even so, 5 Pieces' acoustic, banjo-driven mix of post-rock and classical minimalism definitely rewards one's attention.