Songlines: Small Is Beautiful

Brad Shepik
Human Activity Suite

This month’s jazz quiz: Name the most underappreciated independent label in jazz.

Ooooh. Tough one. There are so many. Most jazz, these days, is released on small labels, few of which are generating any kind of boffo profits. A few, like ECM, develop a historic identity over time. Others, like Pi in New York and Cryptogramophone in California, develop a stable of players and a laser following.

But the correct answer this time around is: Songlines.

Songlines is based out of Vancouver, so its obscurity is well-earned. Sure, it features some Canadian musicians such as drummer Dylan van der Schyff and pianist Chris Gestrin. But Songlines has also released music by the luminaries of Europe (Misha Mengelborg) and the cream of the New York scene such as Dave Douglas, Marty Erlich, Chris Speed, and Tony Malaby.

In fact, in the last few years, the label has shown a knack for locating the hippest new music out there, including Green-Wood by the James Carney Group, Amor de Cosmos by the Michael Blake Sextet, Way Out East by the Wayne Horvitz Gravitas Quartet, and the Kartet’s The Bay Window. And what is undeniable about all this music is how deeply diverse it is. Carney puts funk and film music into play. Blake assayed herky-jerky grooves and watercolor ballads. Horvitz gave a new lease to classically tinged chamber-jazz. The Kartet updated avant-European jazz with cerebral dash.

On its website, Songlines boasts that it releases “jazz and world music”, specializing in “cutting edge jazz (with new music/world music influences) from New York’s downtown scene and other centres of creative music”. I don’t mean to suggest that this description is either wrong or limited, but it would be more accurate to say that Songlines has its finger on the pulse of the most important improvised music being made in North America these days. That, Jack, is the fact.

Some recent releases make the case nicely.

Brad Shepik, Human Activity Suite

Brad Shepik’s last Songlines release was Places You Go, a trio record for guitar/organ/drums that creatively referred to the jazz tradition while also dancing forward in its own direction. With Human Activity Suite: Sounding a Response to Climate Change, Shepik takes that trio—with Gary Versace on various keyboards and Tom Rainey’s drums—and supplements it with the exceptionally agile bass playing of Drew Gress and Ralph Alessi on trumpet. Shepik composed most of these pieces with a specific continent in mind and as a response to global warming, and the entire suite was commissioned by Chamber Music America—premiered and recorded in June of 2008.

The result, then, is a perfect example of how Songlines is fulfilling its mission. Shepik, in one sense, has put together a top jazz group that exists neatly in the tradition: a sharp rhythm section with three leaders-in-their-own-right who sound great together, plus two “front line” instruments (guitar and trumpet) that play with character and fire.

In another sense, Shepik is negotiating a world music agenda, as he draws on the native music of each continent to inform his compositions. In yet another way, Human Activity is textbook “downtown music”—the kind of mongrel art that takes a post-modern relish in collaging together disparate elements outside the rules.

The strength of Human Activity is in making its contrasting impulses coalesce. It is neither a self-consciously avant-garde recording nor an avatar of the tradition. Shepik and his band are capable of precision and abandon, tradition and release. But because the instrumentation is essentially the same through these different styles (with the exception of Versace switching between piano, organ, and accordion), the group brings a single—if flexible—sensibility to bear on the diversity.

How about “Waves (Asia)”, a tune that certainly sounds “foreign” to some dumb old American ears. It uses a droning electric introduction (possibly Shepik’s “electric saz”, though that is a Turkish or middle-eastern stringed instrument) to set up a syncopated groove from which arises a minor-mode melody that might seem klezmer-ish (with Versace on accordion) or maybe Indian (with the guitar warbling into quarter tones), depending on context.

But finding the proper referent is not necessary to enjoying the creativity and musicianship on display here. Shepik’s solo bends long tones up into keening, then moves back down the scale into distortion. Alessi play expressively outside the harmony, smearing his sharp tone even as he starts to jab and dart.

Human Activity Suite is about all you could ask from modern jazz — accessible, new, conscious, frequently beautiful.

The October Trio + Brad Turner, Looks Like It’s Going to Snow

With this release, Songlines simultaneously makes good on being based in Vancouver and on looking to give voice to fresh young talent. 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. Brad Turner is a veteran Canadian trumpeter, composer and bandleader. These ten compositions for piano-less quartet by Cole, however, sound like they were conceived for a longstanding group with unmistakable 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 with interwoven written statements before the solos, which sound like feeling conversation, and which 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 element 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. The ambitious “Progress Suite” begins with a deliciously 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 this same track, the rhythm players lay out for a while to create a sense of chamber delicacy. The point being simply this: on yet another Songlines disc, there is a dramatic musical variety that does not seem random or incongruous. Though this group does not trade in obvious “world music” variety, there is nevertheless incredible diversity of approach and sound.

Tony Malaby Cello Trio, Warblepeck

With Warblepeck, Songlines is playing in the same sandbox with the other small labels that document the sound of contemporary adventurous jazz in New York. Malaby is a tenor and soprano saxophonist who has been in the jazz capital since 1995, playing as a sideman with strong leaders (Charlie Haden, Tim Berne, Paul Motian) and leading/collaborating with the likes of Mark Helias, Tom Rainey, and Drew Gress. But his cello trio is like few others.

As a tenor player, Malaby goes against the grain. He is as likely to demurely whisper a meandering line as he is to blast a bluesy riff. And the cellist here, Fred Lonberg-Holm, works in the same way—capable of both delicate chamber sounds (“Anemone”) or percussively plucked tap-dancing (“Warblepeck”) and harrowing sawing that is electronically enhanced (“Two Shadows”). The drummer, John Hollenbeck, has the same kind of range, playing marimba or “small kitchen appliances” as well as his drumkit. The result is a recording of avant-garde jazz that fuses delicate whimsy with gutbucket daring.

“Sky Church”, the longest track, wiggles with variety and free jazz playfulness. Hollenbeck establishes the tone with a dancing percussion solo that eventually gives way to traded melodic lines from cello and tenor. The playing is not given specific harmonic boundary, so the musicians alternate between written sections that have specific architectural form and utterly out passages that suggest notes that can and do fly every which way, Jackson Pollack-style. The playing has none of the laziness of some “out jazz”, but it contains all of the daring forwardness of the avant-garde. Malaby, the provocateur, manages to have it both ways—witty and garrulous at once.

A four-and-a-half minute track like “Scribble Boy” is not exactly Top 40 radio, but Hollenbeck settles into a backbeat groove of enormous buoyancy. Malaby and Lonberg-Holm trade notions and blues licks above the groove like naturals. As with the October Trio recording, Warblepeck operates within a single stylistic definition, but it does so by bending (or remaking) that definition for a new era.

Mikkel Ploug/Sissel Vera Pettersen/Joachim Badenhorst, Equilibrium

Coming in April from Songlines is a unique work by this European trio. Ploug, who composed most of the themes, is a Danish guitarist with a silken touch. Pettersen, also a composer, sings and plays soprano saxophone and electronics, while Badenhorst contributes subtle patterns on clarinet, bass clarinet and tenor saxophone. There is nothing Canadian here, nothing world music-y, nothing that reeks of downtown Manhattan experimentation. In other words, it’s just another side to Songlines that demonstrates that the label can’t be pigeonholed, other than by saying that all its records are of a very high quality.

“November” is an intoxicating piece of music that seems like it could never have been released on either Blue Note or ECM. While it has a certain European precision and a lack of any rhythm section—in other words, it sounds vaguely “classical”—the track exudes textural warmth and pleasure, not the icy cool of so much ECM Euro-jazz. On the other hand, it’s near-well impossible to imagine this burbling web of reeds, subtly amplified guitar and wordless voice coming out on most any other US label. No drums, no bass, no brass—and some fairly peculiar vocal swoops and exhortations.

Some of Equilibrium sounds as a kind of hip ecclesiastical music, such as the four “Chorale”s that stack spooky sounds into haunting musical sandwiches. Other tracks (“Soft Spoken”, with its acoustic guitar) have a folky charm that brings to mind The Paul Winter Consort. All of it dodges expectation and easy category. All very Songlines.

Using just these four releases to illustrate the range and power of the Songlines catalog is semi-arbitrary. I’m tempted to write more, for example, about the 2008 release by the Wayne Horvitz Gravitas Quintet, One Dance Alone, which continues the band’s effort to blur jazz and classical boundaries like they were so much sky-writing on a windy day.

In the end, no one label could cover every kind of jazz or maintain a stable of players who exist across the full spectrum of a remarkably vast music. But, of all the labels out there these days, Songlines—from world music to classical music to the jazz classics, to well beyond—comes awfully close.

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