Canada may not seem like the very swinging-est place on the map. All that cold weather and amiability does not exactly scream “Miles Davis” or “New Orleans”.
But then again, the USA’s Neighbor to the North produced Oscar Peterson and Diana Krall. Not exactly small potatoes. It is also the home to Songlines Records, a jazz label that can legitimately be called second to none in 2009.
With Looks Like It’s Going to Snow, Songlines gives a boost to Canadian jazz. The October Trio, supplemented here by veteran Canadian trumpeter/bandleader Brad Turner, is the real deal. This release leaps to the ear with melody, groove, intelligence, and a heaping dose of personality.
The October Trio consists of three former students from a Canadian music program: Evan Arntzen on tenor sax, Josh Cole on bass, and Dan Gaucher on drums. They have made waves and won awards at home, but this release storms across the border like a band of pleasant renegades, riding on the backs of ten impressively strong compositions by Cole. They sound like they were conceived directly for the quartet that plays them, a group that seems to have attained chemistry and artistic purpose.
Of course, we expect quartets with this instrumentation to remind us of the groups led by Ornette Coleman or Gerry Mulligan. But 45 years down the road, that need not be true any more—and it isn’t here. Cole can be coolly lyrical, he can write a controlled “classical” counterpoint, he can drop in some funk, and he can also let the improvisers loose in the stratosphere.
The title track begins with a long bass solo by Cole over a mid-tempo but loose drum groove reminiscent of Dave Holland. The horns speak an interwoven written statement before the solos, which sound like feeling conversation and actually turn into a high-wire collective improvisation toward the end. It all ends with a unison theme that we haven’t heard before, a fresh approach to the jazz orthodoxy that never really sounds like it’s breaking the rules.
Among the marvelous elements of Going to Snow is the way it easily and off-handedly incorporates funk and rock elements without becoming a collection that is dominated by a backbeat aesthetic. “Springs” allows Cole to drop hard-thumped quarter notes set against a backbeat, but the melody plays out as a set of slow triplets on top of the groove, followed by a sudden two-note hiccup. As the improvisations develop, Cole and Gaucher allow more stutters and irregularities to complicate their groove, particularly during the improvised duet between the two horns. This is relatively free playing that does not neglect to let you have some fun.
Much of the fun on Going to Snow is mixed with smarts. The ambitious “Progress Suite” begins with a rubbery ostinato bassline that Gaucher accompanies with rolling, expansive drumming. It is the farthest thing from a “rock groove”, and yet it is the kind of funky playing that flows from the principles of soul music. The quartet uses this solid foundation to produce the freest playing on the record for a patch, and then Gaucher lays in a New Orleans-informed backbeat.
It’s typical of this group, however, that on the same track the rhythm players lay out for a while to create a sense of chamber delicacy. Similarly, on “Found”—initially dominated by a grooving bassline—the harmonic movement becomes increasingly interesting over time, with Turner soloing in a mournful mellow mood as the chords shift beneath him. “Give (Sydney Carton)” begins with a riveting free duet between trumpet and tenor sax that resolves into a stately theme. “Bird Colony” appears to be collectively improvised from start to finish, yet it exhibits tremendous organization and clarity. In short, this is a record of impressive—and resolved—contradictions.
This is the kind of richness and power that jazz in 2009 is boasting from so many quarters. When you realize that Canada is a hotbed of multi-pronged, original jazz, it is clear that the music is in a huge variety of good hands. Here, in the October Trio, are six more—more than ready to turn the music on its head even as they boost it up.