It must be an awful headache to coordinate a performance or recording session for the Ratchet Orchestra. From the back of their CD Hemlock one counts 31 members. There are saxes, flutes, clarinets, trumpets, trombones, more low-end brass, violins and violas, cellos, bass, guitars, piano, drums and percussion, all under the leadership of chamber jazz madman Nicolas Caloia. In addition to being a logistical pain in the neck for event planning, the Ratchet Orchestra may, on paper, come across as an over-indulgent journey into the depths of neo-classical jazz with too many members to know what to do with. Happily, that’s not really the case.
The Ratchet Orchestra is capable of using its size to its advantage. In other words, their enormous roster doesn’t really sound that much like an enormous roster. The main attraction is that there is no main attraction. All of the winds, strings, and skins blend together to make for thick, experimental music in the vein of ACSM. But in the case of Hemlock, most of the music is more experimental than it is memorable. So luckily for us these dispositions for the avant-garde are persuasive enough in their own right. Instead of thinking of Hemlock as a possibility for melody, think of it as a bed — a mattress stuffed with many a miscellaneous toy and knick-knack.
The mood of the music is hard to pin down. This is not due to capriciousness but due to the fact that there is no succinct word to wrap up the meticulously steady build of horns and strings being abruptly undermined by a visceral electric guitar, as on “Dusty”. The music comes in more straightforward packages than that, especially on the subordinately catchy “Yield” and a more acrobatically-flavored vignette in “Kick” (lyrics alternate between “kick that habit, man”, “kick that man habit”, “man habit that kick”, “man kick habit that” among others — in approximately 60 seconds). And when it comes to a ten-plus minute piece like “Safety”, the sweet goes with the sour in equal quantities. At one moment, the Ratchet Orchestra will sound solitary and tender as they shimmer a barely-existent chord from their collective timbres. The next moment, Caloia will be summoning some ungodly dissonance from the whole thing.
But at the end of it all, Hemlock is more of a charting variable for the ever-expanding possibilities for large ensembles who play whacked-out jazz than it is a concise collection of songs to go down in history. This, however, is not a problem. It’s another standard set in the ongoing turf war between classical, chamber and jazz music and what it means to be playing any combination thereof. I would be lying if I said the music of Hemlock was wholly agreeable or even remotely approachable for the listener not steeped in atonal orchestrations. But sounds like this are the stuff of variety, and you all know what they say about variety. In other words, the chili doesn’t get much heavier.