a column by
Stuart Broomer

NOW Orchestra
NOW Orchestra, Jazz em Agosto 2004                                                                  Laurence Svirchev©2009

Few North American improvised music scenes have the vigor or vision of Vancouver’s, a locale that’s valued and developed radical music for more than half a century. It may well begin with the original Cellar Club, a musician-run space that was the centre of local bop culture from 1956-63. It provided some of the first performance opportunities for Don Cherry and Ornette Coleman in late 1957, as well as booking bands led by Paul Bley and Charles Mingus, but it was also devoted to presenting local groups. There was a natural connection between Vancouver and the California Beat scene, and in 1959 pianist Al Neil, a regular bandleader at the Cellar, participated in a landmark in jazz and poetry (and Canadian jazz) when he recorded Kenneth Patchen Reads with Jazz in Canada (originally recorded for the Canadian Broadcast Company and released on Folkways, it’s currently available on Locust Records).

Both the mainstream modern and emerging radical were present among the Cellar’s performers and it would provide a launching pad for both. Vancouver has been an essential talent source for the rest of Canadian jazz, and in the early ‘60s it benefitted from bassist/pianist Don Thompson and drummer Terry Clarke, who would later provide fluid support for John Handy and Jim Hall, and then became stalwarts of the Toronto modern jazz community. Al Neil would become the central figure in the evolution of Vancouver free jazz, often fusing it with Dadaist theatrical impulses, while the Western Front, a performance gallery founded in 1973, would provide a long-term home for free jazz and its creative offshoots.
Beginning in the 1980s, the Coastal Jazz Society and the Vancouver International Jazz Festival, in large part through the visionary efforts of Ken Pickering, have managed to continue and expand the character of the old Cellar, balancing the mainstream and the avant-garde in a way that is unknown elsewhere in North America, regularly presenting both the big draws of jazz—Sonny Rollins or Pat Metheny—and the most creative forces—like John Butcher, Barry Guy or Mats Gustafsson. It’s resulted in a genuinely viable creative scene that may be most apparent in the NOW Orchestra. An artist-run society since 1977, NOW (for New Orchestra Workshop) has produced concerts and workshops.  In the late ‘70s it released the LP Up ‘til Now  by the New Orchestra Quintet, a superb band that included Paul Cram on reeds, brass instrumentalist Ralph Eppel, pianist Paul Plimley, bassist Lisle Ellis, and drummer Gregg Simpson. In 1978 NOW became home to a large experimental ensemble, the C.O.R.D. Orchestra, that gradually evolved into the NOW Orchestra itself. Now under the leadership of saxophonist/composer Coat Cooke, it’s emerged as a major creative force, developing its own vocabulary for large-scale improvisation and collaborating regularly with significant international figures. The Orchestra’s discography is studded with recordings featuring guest artists like Marilyn Crispell, Barry Guy and George Lewis.

The flourishing Vancouver scene is apparent in NOW Orchestra Records, which has released five CDs in the past two years. Many of the recordings spring from a Monday-night series curated since 2005 by Coat Cooke and Raymon Torchinsky at the Jazz Cellar. Operating since 2000, the club is run by Cory Weeds, a tenor saxophonist who has toured with Dr. Lonnie Smith and who has also developed an ambitious label called Cellar Live that covers a broad spectrum of the Vancouver jazz scene. It’s a tribute to the openness of Vancouver’s musicians that the more radical projects of NOW are distributed along with Weeds’ own label. 

In developing the label, Cooke has avoided the obvious route of simply presenting the best-known figures in Vancouver’s improvising community, instead mixing releases by a veteran like saxophonist Bruce Freedman and newcomers like guitarist Jeff Younger. It may be a throwback to that famous Kenneth Patchen/ Al Neil collaboration that the first of the NOW Orchestra records also feature voices and that poetry figures in the mix, whether written or spontaneous. Ion Zoo is a quartet with pianist Lisa Miller, singer Carol Sawyer, Steve Bagnell on reeds and metal percussion and Clyde Reed on bass. On Set Free at the Cellar, it feels like a lot of close listening is going on, a close listening that (quite legitimately) sometimes manifests itself in silence, the group evidently concentrating on what one member is doing in order to respond fully. The most prominent identity in the group is Sawyer, a singer who seems willing to stretch her voice to the limits, including gritty multiphonics. She’s least successful when working with text or improvising lyrics, most successful when approaching the inter-species Kabuki of “Big in Japan.” Reed provides a consistently sympathetic and linear thread to much of the music while Miller and Bagnell match sonic invention with subtly nuanced spontaneous melody.     

 If there’s little of traditional jazz about Ion Zoo except the instrumentation, there’s even less on La Belle et la Bête by Viviane Houle on voice and Stefan Smulovitz on viola and laptop. While I’ll confess to being unmoved by “The Whirling Mind,” a melodramatic rant on dog-walking, grocery shopping, Japanese restaurants and grant writing (a rare moment in Canadian culture when even the applicant complains), Smulovitz constructs brilliant sonic environments out of spontaneously layered electronics and rich-toned viola figures, while Houle can be a powerful presence.

The label moves inside with Live at the Cellar by The Bruce Freedman African Groove Band, certainly the easiest group to listen to. Freedman is a charter member of the NOW Orchestra, a talented alto and soprano saxophonist who can contribute moments of peak intensity to the orchestra. On his own, the scale of his debt to John Coltrane’s modal period circa 1961 can be a bit distracting. The African Groove Band certainly falls into the Coltrane rubric but develops its own sound and a gentler musical terrain, as Freedman plays only soprano in company with accordion player Tyson Naylor, bassists Tommy Babin and Dave Chokroun, drummer Dan Gaucher and Russell Shumsky on African drums. There’s an effervescent lilt to much of the music, the themes and solos rolling happily along atop all that moving rhythm. It won’t get high marks for originality—it also bears a striking resemblance to some of Trevor Watts’ ensembles—but it’s consistently engaging.

The two most recent releases on the label are excellent. Jeff Younger’s Sandbox is a fairly standard quintet configuration, trumpet, tenor, bass and drums, plus the leader’s guitar and electronics, and on The Nudger the band creates an intriguing middle-ground between free jazz and improvised music, moving through rapidly changing events in which the musicians seem likely to genuinely surprise one another. Younger is a minimalist both as a guitarist and a composer, emphasizing subtle electronic undersounds and evasive notes that seem to arise with the turn of a volume knob. Drawn from two performances at the Cellar, the band sometimes seems suspended between the slowness of soundscape and the slowness of dirge, the former the province of Younger and bassist Dave Chokroun, the latter (with sources in Albert Ayler) coming from the drums of Ben Wilson and the horns of trumpeter Kristian Naso and the tenor player Darren Williams, a raw, vocal explorer with an almost braying sound who is the real discovery among these CDs.      

As interesting and varied as this music is, the highpoint of the label so far is Animal Tales by the NOW Orchestra itself, or rather by very different incarnations of the NOW Orchestra drawn from three concerts between November 2006 and November 2008. Four of the CD’s seven tracks (some37 minutes) of the CD come from the earlier date, with a sixteen-member version of the ensemble augmented by three special guests from eastern Canada: Quebecois Diane Labrosse on sampler and Pierre Tanguay on percussion   and John Oswald from Toronto on alto saxophone. Labrosses’s title piece makes fine use of the large ensemble’s potential for contrast, blurring composition and improvisational processes in a shifting terrain that can emphasize the sheer heft of the two trombones or the contrasting delicacy of a string section that includes two violins, two cellos and two basses. Tanguay’s “d’une mare à l’autre” is an affecting treatment of an anthem, first sung and them repeated and gradually expanded with growing intensity by the entire ensemble, including Coat Cooke’s powerful baritone saxophone. Clearly akin to Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, it’s a brilliant departure for the band. The other concerts represent a recent incarnation of the NOW, with the band reduced in scale with more emphasis on electronics. Chicago flutist Nicole Mitchell is an effective participant on two of Cooke’s compositions in which electronics fields can give way to free-bop anthems and propulsive backbeats. The third concert has Montreal saxophonist Jean Derome as guest on another Cooke piece. A hoe-down like figure leads to segments that suggest Ornette Coleman’s PrimeTime with sudden digressions into vocal undercurrents and squalling electric guitar in a thoroughly creative use of materials from jazz, rock and electronic music. As such, it’s emblematic of the Vancouver scene itself, The NOW Orchestra a band in creative flux.

Additional Resources:

Trumpeter John Dawe’s extensive history of the original Cellar is available at www.greggsimpson.com 

Bill Smith’s accounts of the life and work of Al Neil are available at www.vancouverjazz.com

Stuart Broomer©2009


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