The Ratchet Orchestra resolves itself as an exercise in short-term showmanship, in which respect it fulfils its mandate admirably. Appreciate this detail and you’ll walk away the winner. — The Sound Projector, UK
Each of these notable discs could destroy any outsider’s supposition about the conventionality of Canadian created music. As a matter of fact it may cause jazzers to wonder just what a Canuck has in his or her instrument case. — The New York City Jazz Record, USA
The eclectic astounding and sometimes mystifying Ratchet Orchestra continue to attract attention with the release of their third recording Hemlock. Recorded by Godspeed you! Black Emperor bassist Thierry Amar and released on the Vancouver label Drip Audio, the Ratchet Orchestra is a who’s who of Montréal’s edgiest musicians. Director Nicolas Caloia’s compositions provide a structure to showcase fierce talents like Tom Walsh, Jean Derome, Lori Freedman, Sam Shalabi, and Christopher Cauley. The Ratchet Orchestra has existed since the early 1990s when Caloia started experimenting with improvised chamber jazz. In 1998 the size of the band began to swell for a legendary birthday tribute to the inspirational SunRa and it has continued expanding to it’s current membership of 30 strong. This band makes a powerful sound but is not designed to be a demonstration of force, rather, it embraces human frailty. The Ratchet Orchestra does not resemble a sports team or an army, it’s members do not have to march in perfect formation. They are pirates, not the navy. The group defies reason.
- Composer(s): Nicolas Caloia
- Performer(s): Jean Derome, Craig Dionne, Lori Freedman, Gordon Krieger, Christopher Cauley, Louisa Sage, Damián Nisenson, Jason Sharp, Ellwood Epps, Philippe Battikha, Tom Walsh, Scott Thomson, Jacques Gravel, Thea Pratt, Eric Lewis, Noah Countability, Gabriel Rivest, Joshua Zubot, Guido Del Fabbro, Brigitte Dajczer, Jean René, Gen Heistek, Norsola Johnson, Nicolas Caloia, Chris Burns, Sam Shalabi, Guillaume Dostaler, Ken Doolittle, Michel Bonneau, Isaiah Ceccarelli, John Heward
CD (DA 00820)
- Label: Drip Audio
- DA 00820 / 2012
- UCC 875531008203
- Total duration: 52:51
- 35 g
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In Ken Kesey’s widely-read One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, the antagonist — the hatchet faced Nurse Ratched — is depicted as a spider, ‘in the centre of her web (of) wires like a watchful robot… with mechanical insect skill, (knowing) every second which wire runs where and just what current to send up to get what she wants…’. Just one letter (and much sadism) removed from this creation, the Ratchet Orchestra resembles a similarly organised regime.
As exercises in man-management go, this chamber jazz band is an ambitious proposition indeed. Having burgeoned from a handful to some 30 Montréal musicians of the first water over the last decade and a half, the logistical and democratic considerations of distributing them evenly over a mere 9 pieces (most of which hover around the 5-minute mark) fries my mental circuits. But the task is ably executed by leader Nicolas Caloia as he provides a showcase for all but preferential treatment to none. As a result of such exacting exigencies, there’s nary a moment wasted by this muscular unit: from careful canter to clattering cacophony, the only sound phenomenon left unexplored is silence, though you’ll probably look into that one once the CD has ended.
Being a big band jazz unit with an unabashed devotion to Sun Ra (they first celebrated his birthday in 1998), their sound will evoke little surprise: loping woodwinds provide a launchpad for the shriller excesses of the horn section; a soaring string section melts in the warm buzz and burble of a mute trumpet while an electric piano takes the stairs; a spidery, skittering fuzz guitar becomes swiftly serrated from climbing too many grass blades — hacks and slices at everything around it. Walt Disney is invoked and banished. Keeping shy of the minute barrier, a roustabout plays the cup & ball game with the words KICK, MAN & HABIT. Everything roars and fades with finality.
Though the musical motifs of Sun Ra, Alice Coltrane and the like are distinctive, this is not to say it’s an exercise in emulation — far from it. That said, if the group’s star-bound curiosity fails to ignite the transcendent inner dimensions of its forbearers, it’s precisely for the reason that it lacks the spiritual discipline: working to a timetable, no one has more than their allotted 5 minutes to shine, both as individuals and team players. The 9 tracks constitute a collection (a very varied one, albeit), rather than a narrative. Thus, the Ratchet Orchestra resolves itself as an exercise in short-term showmanship, in which respect it fulfils its mandate admirably. Appreciate this detail and you’ll walk away the winner.
Characterized by Americans as polite northern cousins who enjoy universal health care and little gun violence, Yanks don’t appreciate the current of outright quirkiness that courses through many Canadian endeavors, especially when it comes to creative music. It may be because Canuck popsters from Paul Anka to Justin Bieber as well as the likes of Rush and Joni Mitchell are quickly subsumed into the Yank music industry, but remembering that comedians such as Jim Carrey and Mike Myers hail from North of the 49th parallel may provide a glimpse of some Canadians’ mindsets.
Take for instance the releases here. During the performance by Montréal’s Ratchet Orchestra conducted by Nicolas Caloia, the group wraps textures from a legato string section around not only multifold rhythms referencing rock and Latin music, but strong soloists and eccentric arrangements that would be at home in any contemporary big band. Often intimations of one genre are quickly superseded by the next. Dusty for instance appears ready to become A Train until altissimo reed squeals that could come from Sun Ra’s Arkestra meld with gutbucket trombone slurs and cross-pulsed guitar passages to dissolve and reconfigure the theme. Similarly near-baroque flute flutters, harmonized with linear clarinet puffs and vibraharp pulsations which make up the moderato and legato melody on Safety move out of their safety zone as quivering horn vibrations or string glissandi menacingly and contrapuntally color or comment on the exposition. Although other tracks centre around exciting strategies ranging from marching-band replications to a face-off between Afro-Cuban percussion and triple spiccato string lines, the session-defining showcase is the two-part title track. Resounding from earth-shaking vibrations to those which could baffle a dog’s hearing, cacophonous and multiphonic smears, screeches and whistles pull back to reveal nuanced finger-style guitar licks and vibrating electric piano lines. Hearty percussion thumps are muted and horn squeaks fades until a final spiritual-like lyric line from a single violinist signals the end point. (…)
Each of these notable discs could destroy any outsider’s supposition about the conventionality of Canadian created music. As a matter of fact it may cause jazzers to wonder just what a Canuck has in his or her instrument case.
I thought I knew most improvisers and composers that are around in Montréal, because of the numerous CDs by Ambiances Magnétiques that slipped through my hands over the years. However the name Nicolas Caloia is new to me. He works as a performer, composer and organizer in this city. The Ratchet Orchestra is one of his projects and also his best known one, since he started it around 1990. It is a big orchestra of 30 musicians: Jean Derome (bass flute, piccolo, flute), Craig Dionne (flute), Lori Freedman (clarinet), Gordon Krieger (bass clarinet), Christopher Cauley (soprano sax), Louisa Sage (alto sax), Damián Nisenson (tenor sax), Jason Sharp (bass sax), Ellwood Epps (trumpet), Philippe Battikha (trumpet), Tom Walsh (trombone), Scott Thomson (trombone), Jacques Gravel (trombone), Thea Pratt (E flat horn), Eric Lewis (huphonium), Noah Countability (sousaphone), Gabriel Rivest (tuba), Joshua Zubot (violin), Guido Del Fabbro (violin), Brigitte Dajczer (violin), Jean René (viola), Gen Heistek (viola), Norsola Johnson (cello), Nicolas Caloia (bass), Chris Burns (guitar), Sam Shalabi (guitar), Guillaume Dostaler (piano), Ken Doolittle (percussion), Michel Bonneau (conga), Isaiah Ceccarelli (drums), John Heward (drums). Yes, one needs to be a hell of an organizer to bring together so many musicians! With this orchestra Caloia experiments with improvised chamber music and jazz. Hemlock is the third release of this project that started as a quintet. Recorded in three days in May, 2011. For the Sun Ra tribute in 2007 Live at the Sala Rossa Caloia expanded the line up to what it is now. The compositions by Caloia are well-constructed and move within known territories. Some parts are very open for improvisation, others not. Some compositions — Winnow and Yield — are not very surprising, others however are very appealing like Dusty and the title track. The recording and mixing is ok. One hear and enjoy all participants, all sounds and colors coming from their instruments. Although this music is consumed best in a live performance. Caloia uses a wide spectrum of sounds by continuously making different combinations of instruments and arrangements. The full span of possibilities that are contained in this big band of reputed players come into being.
I felt that once I’ve copied the band’s members list my work is close to finished. The Ratchet Orchestra is led by Montréal based bass player Nicolas Caloia who composed all the tunes on Hemlock which is the big band’s second release. Just one look at the line-up gives you some idea about how huge might be the sound of this music.
It is colourfull and rich and mesmerizes with the palette of shades and lights. Winnow starts the cd gently and peacefully, broad orchestral strokes paint a delicate landscape, strings’ cadenza rises like a sunshine and the trombone solo is like a children’s song. Captivating and enchanting as the morning’s gentle light.
Dusty resembles in the beginning an african song, light melody dances glides over the steady slow beat, rhythmic ctrucutre filled with guitars, percussion, occasional riff by the brass section. Couple minutes into the track the guitar starts to stirr the pot with a distored solo and the music becomes frenzy as the other instuments join in, the third part of the piece the airy mood is brought upon a built-up orchestral chord.
Yield brings back the joyfull and rhythmic african influences with a sudden if short waltz motive inbeetween.
And there’s so much more to enjoy on the cd. Wish with its soulfull saxophone solo in the first part and frenetic fender piano-based groove in the second. A short yet to the point Kick which is an orchestral reading of jazz poetry (chords based on the repeated rhythmically in various order words: kick, that, habit, man). The peacefull Safety. The misterious Hemlock.
The music on this cd is majestic, a constant flow of coulourfull images in high-resolution, it charms with the melodious substance but captivates with the harmonic depth and greandeur. It sweeps you with the reach and richness of musical vision. It’s scope far beyond jazz but improvisation remains one of the main ingredients. The about this 30-piece (sic!) unit is that the instruments don’t top each other, the goal is not to add “above” to the sound, cumulate it but rather broaden and enrich it. To hear 30 minds coexist in one space and cocreate is, to simply put it, infinitely inspiring. Bordering on jazz, classic orchestra music and movies score this is music of rare beauty and magnitude.
I thoroughly enjoy orchestral music, big bands, symphonic adventures and daring arrangements, but I sometimes wonder, how do you pull off balancing writing and arranging with the spontaneity and subtle interactions found in smaller ensembles?
To present an entirely non-scientific and inconclusive answer, I offer two case studies, the 30 piece Ratchet Orchestra from Montréal and the sprawling Sonic Liberation Front from Philadelphia.
According to a short bio, Canada’s Ratchet Orchestra leader Nicolas Caloia has for over 20 years, “worked at creating a contemporary music generated by using accurately composed textures to channel collective improvisation.”
If the guitar break about a quarter of the way into Dusty can be used as illustration, Caloia succeeds astoundingly well. From a prickly drip of melodic snippets to a full on skronk, joined by other woodwind voices, to some classic Fender Rhodes comping, the delicate orchestration that kick off the album (Winnow) give way to a full bodied group improvization. This is followed by the thoroughly composed and orchestrated snippet Yield, which is kind of fun light classical-pastiche. And so on through different approaches and styles, like Wish-Part 1 which is a avant-fusiony gem. While my attention drifted a tad towards the end, the closing Hemlock — part 2 snapped me back to attention.
There is a great deal of variety on Hemlock. It is thoughtfully constructed and there are moments of inspiration and spontaneity throughout. (…)
So, do I answer my original question? Honestly, I’m not sure. Elements of composition and free playing are approached here in two very different ways, from the quiet sonic constructions of Hemlock to the Afro-Cuban stylistics of Jetway Confidential, all I can definitively say is that there is indeed a lot of room under the free jazz tent and the music is fantastic.
Finally, a Ratchet Orchestra release that gives the full measure of this gigantic band. Recorded at Hotel2Tango over three days, right before Ratchet’s performance at FIMAV 2011, Hemlock features a strong and well-rehearsed repertoire. Thirty musicians perform the compositions of bassist/leader Nicolas Caloia. Yes, thirty, and the instrumentarium is pure big-band — the only electricity found here is two guitars. And almost all of creative music Montréal is on this: Jean Derome, Lori Freedman, Damien Nisenson, Gordon Allen, Tom Walsh, Joshua Zubot, Guido del Fabbro, Jean René, Sam Shalabi, Guillaume Dostaler, John Heward — and that’s obviously only a few. I’m very happy to see Caloia and his band finally being given the means to release a record of this quality.
Ratchet Orchestra’s latest release Hemlock, like its namesake, can be difficult to ingest. This Montréal based collective of over 30 musicians present the listener with a fascinating yet puzzling set of free form orchestra jazz numbers. Recorded by Godspeed You! Black Emperor bassist Thierry Amar and produced by Nicolas Caloia, Ratchet Orchestra blends a variety of incongruent musical elements together with mixed results as a listening experience.
Winnow eases the listener into the album with its dreamy introduction, punctuated by a pair of masterfully executed saxophone and trombone solos respectively. This slowing burning cut is easily one of the most sonically relaxed of the album. The arrival of a jarring string movement is the track’s only moment of unease. Ratchet Orchestra generally come off stronger on their shorter compositions, particularly on Yield, which bounces along in a stately manner on a rhythm infusing both elements of swing and waltz.
The longer, more improvisational selections from Hemlock will likely be the sticking point for many listeners in terms of appreciating this album as a complete experience. The loose arrangements on tracks like Dusty and Safety highlight different sections of the orchestra and to showcase the undeniably impressive musical talent at play here. What gets lost in translation is a sense of purpose. At their best, these free form sound experiments can be mystifying in their absurdity. At their worst, these tracks can sound aimless, meandering, and unnecessarily cacophonous.
Hemlock is an interesting listen to be sure. There’s enough going on to keep one attentive to all the different instruments, moods, and rhythms at play here. Its indulgences do add up after a while, resulting in a somewhat uneven album as a whole. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but it can be said that Ratchet Orchestra are definitely stretching and playing with the boundaries and taboos of jazz and orchestrated music.
After 18 years of existence, bassist and composer Nicolas Caloia’s Ratchet Orchestra qualifies as a Montréal free jazz institution, despite sparse recordings and performances. The unit has grown exponentially over the years, from humble quartet beginnings to the current 31 member outfit. Musique actuelle stalwarts like flutist Jean Derome, clarinetist Lori Freedman and drummer John Heward all contribute here, and just about every other member also leads important ensembles in their own right.
The Ratchet’s first quartet CD from 1994 covered Christian Wolff’s Burdocks, providing some early clues into Ratchet philosophy. Burdocks is a non-hierarchical piece of distinct components using only minimal music notation, from which a collective work can be assembled. Which more or less describes the nine cuts here, cleverly constructed with composed parts lying alongside improvised lines, so that strong readers seamlessly mesh with the less formally schooled.
While there is much freedom, it never descends into chaos. There is a strong sense of composition and structure throughout, although more Sun Ra than Count Basie. Each song is built around a memorable theme, and care is taken in orchestration, not just during the ensemble parts, but also backing each solo. Like Ra, the stylistic range spans big band history from ’40s swing to avant swarm.
Winnow starts things off with a mysterious but sweet series of chords, followed by melancholic winding sax and growling trumpet solos which lead back to the theme. Dusty begins with a clocklike rhythm, but soon gives way to a distorted bent note guitar solo that kicks the band into swirling overdrive around a demented clarinet solo. This exemplifies the variety not just between, but also within, each song.
The 24 possible permutations of the words in the phrase “kick that habit man,” (“kick that man habit,” “habit that kick man,” etc.) are each stated exactly once within Kick. That track provides some comic relief and is the only track with vocals, but the Ratchet keep things moving throughout. Classical lushness and avant garde edginess coalesce into a sharp-witted yet delicate set, one of the year’s best releases.
If you make music in Montréal, there’s a good chance you know one of the 30-odd members of this behemoth, irregularly convened by Nicolas Caiola. Since 1997, he’s gradually figured out how to make the most of all the possible instrumental colours and playing styles of each member, and it’s never sounded better (on record) than on Hemlock. How lucky to have at one’s disposal an entire flock of flutes playing with a gaggle of strings and several bass-oriented saxophones, as on Yield. The ascending notes of Hemlock — part 1 gather another strange collection of instrumental colours into wild fanfare, which leads into the deep, dark groove of the song’s second part. Every track yields a sumptuous variety of music that continues to reference the warped big band charts and sounds of Sun Ra, as they always have, while at the same time realizing the potential of this large group of talented musicians. With Hemlock, Rachet Orchestra have finally found their sound, and it’s splendid. (9/10)