Ghost Lights

Gordon Grdina, François Houle, Kenton Loewen, Benoît DelbecqGhost Lights (Songlines, 2017)

grdina-ghostA sense of mystery lingers over Ghost Lights, the product of four veteran Vancouver improvisers. They aren’t in a hurry, which gives these lengthy compositions and improvisations a feeling of carefully plotted novellas.

“Ley Land” might be the extreme example of this. The 16-minute piece emerges in small sketches, often improvised by only two or three of the players. For a time, drummer Kenton Loewen on brushes and pianist Benoît Delbecq shape the piece. Later, François Houle on clarinet and Gordon Grdina on guitar help build toward a tense, unsettling climax — one that resolves in a slow blooming rather than a burst of activity.

Delbecq loves prepared piano, and it gets put to good use. “Gold Spheres” is a deliciously slow and sparse improvisation for five minutes before Delbecq’s light tapping comes in, suggesting delicate, fantastical clockworks. Prepared piano and a bit of muted guitar add a gently clicking, percussive string sound at the end of “Waraba,” a folky piece backed by a comforting drone that Houle helps lay down, playing a role that Chris Speed so often favors.

Long, silvery clarinet tones help set the mood for the title track: an appropriately ghostly and floating backdrop set against a subtle, pleasant melody tapping away on Grdina’s guitar. Houle eventually breaks away for some more aggressive off-harmony wails.

Amid all this moodiness, there’s one downright springy track: “Soft Shadows” A touch of jazzy shuffle, a touch of blues — it’s snappy yet doesn’t clash with the album’s unhurried atmosphere. These guys went into the studio knowing what they wanted to accomplish, and they’ve produced an album with a cohesive atmosphere.

Compact in Canada

I’m on a whirlwind assignment to Ottawa, with just a couple hours at a time free to myself. Of course I used those hours to stop by a CD store.

I suspect CD Warehouse might be the place Ottawans would tell me to go, and I might sneak over there tomorrow, time permitting. This evening, though, I was downtown, and Compact Music was closer by.

Turns out they’ve got a really good jazz section, expansive, and thick with lesser-known names. Lots of CDs from the ACT label (which I know primarily through the recent Vijay Iyer recordings) and Jazzwerkstatt (going well beyond the obvious Peter Brotzmann titles). A few from Justin Time, which I’d forgotten is a Canadian label, and lots of the more obscure ECM issues. Thumbs up.

I walked out with four CDs: the one CD I saw from the Dame collective (the Ambiances Musiques folks); Bruce Cockburn‘s new one, Small Source of Comfort, because I wanted to be that sterotypical about by Canadian purchasing; one more Canadian jazz CD selected for having a promising cover (I’d gone in intending to do that) … and a surprise pull: Bunky Green’s 1990 album, Healing the Pain.

I’m not familiar with that one, but the track “Seashells” gets a good mention here from Rudresh Mahanthappa. And fwiw, there’s an endorsement on this message board.

Haven’t listened to any of them yet and probably won’t until I get home. For now, I can be content knowing I’ve found a roost in Ottawa. Compact Music is in the thick of downtown at 190 Bank St., and even better, it’s a neighborhood with a coffee place on every block.

UPDATE: I did squeeze in a visit to CD Warehouse. It turns out to be a mall store — well meaning, but reminiscent of the final days of Tower Records. DVDs and even books take up a lot of the floor space (but not a majority). Still, they had a sizable jazz section, which is more than I can say for even some indie stores in America. Most of the items-of-interest I found were obviously leftovers from the days of a freer buying policy (i.e., the avant-garde-leaning jazz was all from 2004 or earlier) but they had lots of ECM and even a couple of the Black Saint/Soul Note box sets. So, Compact Music is the place to be — but I’ll still peek into CD Warehouse next time I’m in town.

Tony Wilson Does Viola

I’ve just gotten done listening to the first section of The People Look Like Flowers at Last, the new one from the Tony Wilson Sextet (Drip Audio, 2009). I’d been meaning to pick this up anyway, but absolutely couldn’t resist after seeing that the album opens with “Lachrymae,” by Benjamin Britten. Wilson has really jazzed it up, and it works.

“Lachrymae” is a 20th-century classical-music piece for viola and piano. When I first started my irrational viola obsession, I found that the piece was everywhere. I ended up buying two versions, by violists Kim Kashkashian (on ECM and recorded pristinely, of course) and Yuri Bashmet (in a version rescripted for string orchestra rather than piano).  I’ve since seen it performed live. And now, here it is, in jazz version.

Now, my musical memory is far from perfect or even good, especially when it comes to classical. There are only three parts of “Lachrymae” that I can identify by ear or “sing” out loud. There’s the very beginning — which I don’t recall note-for-note, but I know it when I hear it. There’s the first variation that comes immediately after that: It’s where the tempo picks up and a recognizably repeated line kicks in. And late in the piece — the climax, I suppose, there’s some aggressive viola sawing — conjuring up dark, looming ghosts.

Wilson’s “Lachrymae” starts with the prelude, done up with harmonica and cello for a buzzy sound, heavier than the original. And then the first variation kicks in (“Movement #1”), with a surprisingly jazzy bassline and a kicking 7/8 rhythm (at least the first bar is 7/8; I lose track of the time after that) propelled by Dylan van der Schyf on drums and a light guitar line.  (The original is in 3/4, as you can see here.)

The quivering, sawing viola part (“Movement #10”)  is replaced by a stream of guitar notes played under dissonant chords formed by the sax and trumpet.  It seems calmer at first, with less abandon, but it goes on and on (as does the original), building tension and power not through overt means, but through the cumulative effect of all the notes. Wilson has also evened out the tempo — moving all (almost all?) the notes into eighth-note form to create a kind of robot babble, which helps push that cumulative effect forward.

Many of the movements include jazzy riffs that become ostinato backing for what I think are the viola parts: Wilson plays the viola part on guitar, and I think he wrote the riffs himself, or at least derived them himself from the original piano parts.  It’s going to be fun dissecting the original piece having heard this fresh interpretation.

To audiences that don’t know the original, “Lachrymae” probably comes across as a nice avant-jazz suite, with melody that’s nearly accesible but still angular and exploratory, and some nice moments for the cello, sax, and trumpet.

Because it’s got solos and improv segments, Wilson’s “Lachrymae” clocks in at about 30 minutes, compared with 13 or 16 minutes for the readings I’ve got.

I like Wilson’s music a lot.  I first picked up on him during a trip to his home base of Vancouver, where I picked up his album Lowest Note on a recommendation in an ad for the awesome Zulu Records store.  (Great indie store where the clerk also turned me on to Dan Bejar’s Destroyer.)  And his often rocking Pearls Before Swine (Drip Audio, 2007) includes a kick-ass version of “I Am the Walrus.”