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.

Sperryfest 9, and a Visitor from Vancouver

Clarinetist François Houle will be the featured player at this year’s Sperryfest, the series of concerts in honor of the late bassist Matthew Sperry. Concerts run July 13 to 15.

Part of Vancouver’s terrific jazz community, Houle has an output that covers a nice swath of experimental musics. He’s done some nice free-jazz work for the Songlines label, including a 1999 album called In the Vernacular that I remember fondly. He’s also recorded on Spool, output that I’m less familiar with but that includes some of the key Vancouver names of the last 10 to 15 years, including Peggy Lee (cello) and Dylan van der Schyf (drums).

Houle brings a fresh energy to new classical music as well. I’m thinking particularly of Double Entendre, an album of new-music pieces for multiple overdubbed clarinets and pre-recorded electronics (a.k.a. tape music). More recently, he recorded the piece, “Flirt,” a duet with accordianist Jelena Milojevic composed by Doug Schmidt. This page on his web site sets the stage and links to an MP3 recording of the upbeat, pulsing piece.

The SperryFest schedule runs as follows:

Wed. July 13, 8:00 p.m. — Houle solo, at a special dinner concert for 20 put on by In the Mood for Food. This one’s going to be hard to get into, because some spots are reserved for Sperry’s family and friends.

Thu. July 14, 8:00 p.m. — TrioShift (three musicians improvising at a time; here’s a 2010 explanation) and Cornelius Cardew’s “Treatise,” performed by Orchesperry.  At the Luggage Store Gallery (1007 Market St., San Francisco).

Fri. July 15, 8:00 p.m. — Houle performs solo, and in duets with Gino Robair. At Temescal Arts Center (511 48th St, Oakland).

Posts related to previous SperryFests (including background about why Matthew remains an inspiration, eight years on):

A Vancouver Playlist

Leave it to me to put this posting off until after the Olympics.  Oh well.

Something I considered but didn’t have time for during the Games was to play a solid hour or so of all-Vancouverite music. Some of it I’ve found through the normal radio channels — CDs sent to the station — but a bit of my knowledge comes from a trip to Vancouver about nine years ago.

I didn’t get to do many touristy things, but I saw parts of downtown and the suburbs and got to visit some really cool CD stores including Zulu. There was a French-style crepe stand, 24 hour coffee right next to our hotel (yes!), and, randomly, a comic-book store with Shannon Wheeler (Too Much Coffee Man) doing a signing. I hope to go back someday with time to do some more outdoorsy activities — or to just be in Stanley Park for a few hours.

Anyway. If you told me to do a Vancouver-themed jazz show, here’s what I’d pull:

* Tony Wilson — “I Am the Walrus” — Pearls Before Swine (Drip Audio, 2007) … This one, I actually did play. The album in general features a heavy rock influence and lots of great guitar riffage.

* ESQ — “Reaction” — Breakfast in Kamloops (self-releaesd, c. 1997) … A blind pick out of Zulu. I wanted to leave Vancouver with some unknown quantities in my pocket. This one, with its colorful cover, appeared DIY enough and edgy enough. Turns out it’s more straight than avant-garde, but with a chipper, youthful air and some crisp composing. This track’s theme is swingy and irresistable to me. I’ve seen Kevin Elaschuk (trumpet) and Dave Say (sax) mentioned in other projects since. Names worth noting.

* Now Orchestra — I love the idea of large orchestras that play long, composed pieces with lots of movements and lots of room for improvising. It’s not just that the music is awesome; it’s the sense of community and accomplishment that comes out of such an undertaking. (Note to self: Still have to check out the Oakland Active Orchestra at the Uptown one of these Tuesdays.) I happen to have their CD Wowow (Spool, 1997), but just about anything from them would do.

* Lisle Ellis/Paul PlimleyKaleidoscope (Hat Art, 1992) … Another one that I actually spun. It’s an album of Ornette Coleman covers, played on bass and piano. Crackling good stuff. Ellis hung out in the Bay Area for years. I got to see Plimley once in the ’90s, and he’s an entertaining performer: loose, and with a sense of humor.

* Peggy Lee — Cellist of note out of Vancouver. I’m running out of steam, idea-wise, but I’d definitely include something by her. In fact, I did, during last Friday’s show: Escondido Dreams, a trio CD with Wilson and Jon Bentley. There’s also the Peggy Lee Band’s self-titled album on Spool (which I haven’t heard) or the big, cinematic sweep of New Code, her recent album on Drip Audio. Dang, I’d forgotten about that one — shoulda pulled that for the show. Maybe next Friday.

Playlist: February 12, 2010

Click here for the full KZSU playlist for Friday, Feb. 12, 8:00 to 10:00 a.m.

The first half hour was dominated by free improv from Grosse Abfahrt (more info in a post to come, or read the review in the East Bay Express, *or* go see them live on Wednesday at 21 Grand).

Other notes:

* Jerry Granelli V16 — “Unnamed” — Vancouver ’08 (Songlines, 2009) … Had to play something from Vancouver to commemorate the Olympics opening, and this one did the trick nicely.  The album is another set of what you might call avant-blues, a rock-influenced jazz with rock/blues guitars up front but a penchant for jazzlike composing.  Some tracks, like this one, even get pretty far out there in terms of free soloing, but the guitars stick to blues-club sounds, as opposed to jazz guitar. It’s got punch. Plenty of grooves and sweat involved here.

* Matthew Welch — “Bagpipe Quintet” — Luminosity (Porter, 2009) As threatened, I played the five-bagpipe composition from Welch, warning listeners ahead of time that the sound can get shrill.  See, when we, the DJs,  preview the next sets of music we’re going to play, we can listen to it on “cue” speakers — which, in our case, happen to be cheap but resilient little things. The sound is tinny. When you’ve got five bagpipes hitting those high notes, it’s really tinny.  Anyway, the piece is only four minutes long and turns out to be less grating when heard through decent speakers.  It’s in a droney mode, with some interesting slow ostinato patterns that crop up.

* Helmut Lachemann — “Grido” [excerpt] — Streichquartette (Kairos, 2009) … I followed Welch with some harshness from the Arditti String Quartet, although this piece quickly settles into a busy and low-volume level of activity. Lachemann, we’re told, is very highly for his post-tonal work.  The CD consists of three quartet pieces, all about 20 minutes long.

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.”

Vancouver Heights

source: drip audioPeggy Lee Band — New Code (Drip Audio, 2008)

If you’re reading this at all, then you know Peggy Lee refers not to the singer, but to a cellist who’s been a standout part of the Vancouver creative-jazz scene. Her band has been around for four albums now, previously as a sextet but expanded to an octet this time.

I haven’t heard the previous three albums, so I don’t know if it’s a result of the octet expansion, but: There’s a bigness to the sound, the kind of ambitious writing that’s made “cinematic” the de facto critics’ word for Pat Metheny. But Lee’s music isn’t as slick and airy as Metheny’s, in a good way; there’s a warmer, down-to-earth quality to the pretty melodies on her album, and a fresher, more raw feel to the avant-garde colorings on the edges — particularly from the two guitars in the lineup.

The album opens in inspiring fashion, with Bob Dylan’s “All I Really Want To Do” bursting forth like a cinematic helicopter shot of the Great Plains at sunrise. Brassy horns play a brightly comforting melody with just a tinge of sadness. Subsequent solos — especially Brad Turner on trumpet — keep feeding that mood. And when Lee’s cello finally gets some space of its own, alongside an elegant guitar solo (either Ron Samworth or Tony Wilson), it’s a bold and beautiful stroke.

Then, like a practical joke, the track collapses completely into free noodling! Always leave ’em off balance.

As if to show off avant-garde improv cred, the second track, “Preparations,” goes for small cave noises: ghostly wisps of cello; squeaked and scraped bowing; tiny, curled guitar sounds. A slow melody comes forth, decorated by strongly toned, hard-sawed cello lines. Eventually, the horns pick up another strong, wistful theme, played slowly under an emotionally punched duet of cello and drums.

“Shifting Tide” unfolds slowly into a nice melody led by cello and trumpet in unison. Jon Bentley on sax glides through the music, sometimes stepping outside the changes for some interesting corner turns, making for a grand and colorful solo overall. “Tug” uses more soaring melody lines to set up a very nice trumpet solo.

It all closes with another soundtrack-y showcase, the Kurt Weill song, “Lost in the Stars.” It’s a soft denouement, a peaceful closing-credits goodnight.

OK, so I’m about eight months behind the curve on this one. I admit it. Just look at the stack of reviews linked from the Drip Audio site. But it really is one terrific album, and I’m really happy to have finally gotten an earful of it.