Time of the Sign
Vertical Squirrels / Daniel Fischlin, Ajay Heble, Lewis Melville, Ted Warren
Ça sonne comme une sorte de mélange entre le jazz, l’improvisation libre, le post-rock, le jazz-rock et du field recordings. — Camuz, Canada
Full marks then for the concept — La Scena Musicale, Québec
Time of the Sign sees the Vertical Squirrels shift from performances as a discrete quartet to a collaborative organism working with other improvisers.
Sculpted from live-improvised performances recorded in-concert and in studio, the CD features a series of linked musical vignettes and soundscapes some of which were conducted by Dave Clark, founder of Toronto’s improvising orchestra The Woodchoppers Association.
On tracks that build from scurrying flute to dense wall-of-sound band energy, where the scraping sounds of hurdy-gurdy combine with baritone guitar and Kaoss pad delays, where voices and melodies erupt from harmonic overtones, where pedal steel and percussive intricacies interweave, and where the sound of ships in the St. John’s harbor mingle with off-centre free grooves, Time of the Sign makes a distinctive sonic statement about musical possibilities and chance encounters.
Guest artists Jane Bunnett, Ben Grossman, and Scott Merritt, all Canadian musical treasures in their own right, bring compelling new sounds into the Vertical Squirrels mix, resulting in a strange, beautiful, and genre-defying blend of evocative melodies, post-rock vibratory textures, and jazz-based minimalism. Seamless transitions, pattern interference, note-worrying, and sounds derived from collisions between old and new technologies, homemade and traditional instruments — Time of the Sign integrates all of these into a provocative sonic narrative.
- Composer(s): Daniel Fischlin, Ajay Heble, Lewis Melville, Ted Warren, Jane Bunnett, Ben Grossman, Scott Merritt, Larry Cramer
- Performer(s): Vertical Squirrels, Daniel Fischlin, Ajay Heble, Lewis Melville, Ted Warren, Jane Bunnett, Ben Grossman, Scott Merritt, Larry Cramer
CD (AM 221)
- 1Falling From the Ground Up (2012), 5:46
- 2This Is (Not What This Is) (2012), 3:59
- 3Dhwani… Avartana (Sound Stir Fusion) (2012), 10:29
- 4The Fruit Flies’ Demise (2012), 0:53
- 5Swamp Code (2012), 4:53
- 6Time of the Sign (2012), 5:33
- 7The Fragile Are Thirsty (2012), 3:22
- 8Moondog (2012), 5:22
- 9Small Hurts Gather (2012), 1:34
- 10Avec (et sans) le vent (2012), 4:48
- 11Butterflies Drink the Dead (2012), 3:56
- 12Strange Beautiful (2012), 4:25
- 13Signal Hill (2014), 9:15harbour symphonyharbour ensemble
- Label: Ambiances Magnétiques
- AM 221
- UCC 771028122127
- Total duration: 64:15
- Sympathique case
- 126 mm × 126 mm × 5 mm
- 35 g
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In the press
Cette formation porte-t-elle vraiment judicieusement son patronyme? Parce que, contrairement à ce qu’induit son nom (écureuil) dans son acceptation symbolique, elle est plutôt dépensière… Dépensière en énergie, en dynamisme, en vitalité. Il est vrai que l’animal est vif…
Ces Vertical Squirrels sont originaire de l’Ontario, d’une ville située à une soixantaine de kilomètres de Toronto (Guelph) et vivent à quatre: un guitariste percussionniste (Daniel Fischlin), un claviériste (Ajay Heble), un bassiste complétant son jeu avec des instruments inventés (Lewis Melville), élément qui titille déjà nos oreilles! — et un percussionniste, (Ted Warren). Mais dans leurs pérégrinations, il leur arrive de se mouvoir en bande, au point de combler leurs prestations avec des invités, en l’occurrence quatre, pratiquant les vents, la vielle à roue, l’ukulélé, et quelques gadgets électroniques.
Time of the Sign est leur 3e réalisation, après Hold True (accroche-toi) et Winter’s gate parus tous les deux en 2010, le premier sur le label du collectif montréalais, le second chez Barcode Free Music. Alors que Hold True (accroche-toi) abordait davantage les rivages d’un rock flamboyant, parfois répétitif et croisé avec des accents de jazz improvisé, sur le présent enregistrement l’apport des invités, la volonté de mettre davantage l’accent sur l’improvisation et le travail collectif en change l’approche. La musique joue davantage sur le registre de la transe, d’une transe libre, ponctué par les accords et les rythmes des claviers, avec une propension à véhiculer une musique aux accents festifs d’un krautrock davantage acoustique, et un ensemble plus proche d’une suite qu’une série de pièces plus individualisées comme précédemment. Le tout s’achevant sur des réminiscences de cornes de brume, au milieu des flux et reflux de vagues…
… je fus agréablement surpris par le disque Time of the Sign (Ambiances Magnétiques, 2014), troisième opus de la formation ontarienne Vertical Squirrels. Ça sonne comme une sorte de mélange entre le jazz, l’improvisation libre, le post-rock, le jazz-rock et du field recordings. Difficilement classable, ce groupe est formé de Daniel Fischlin, Ajay Heble, Lewis Melville et Ted Warren. S’ajoutent les invités Jane Bunnett, Ben Grossman, Scott Merritt et Larry Cramer.
Working out of the Toronto area, this collectively-named sextet is a new entry to the label. Its music, like its moniker, is an intriguing one. Describing it is not easy, save to say that it unfurls in an improvisatory fashion, yet it also relies on familiar compositional devices. For one, defined tonal areas recur throughout the 13 tracks, underscored by ostinato figures (most of which are played by pianist Ajay Heble, best known as the artistic director of the Guelph Jazz Festival). Revolving mainly around strings and percussion, the group is bolstered here by some added guests, most notably Jane Bunnett, in one of her rare detours from her latin bag. For wont of a better term, this ensemble’s music could be labelled as ‘world improv’, whereby all participants serve the whole rather than projecting themselves in front of it (as in jazz). Full marks then for the concept, but still a little too reliant on its devices.
Time of the Sign, the third album from the improvising collective Vertical Squirrels (and their second on Montreal’s Ambiances Magnétiques label), is a modest masterpiece, and ranks for me among the very best recordings of 2014. Vertical Squirrels formed as a quartet in 2008 in Guelph; its core members are faculty at the university there, three of them researchers with the Improvisation, Community and Social Practice (ICaSP) research initiative. Pianist Ajay Heble is the founder and (until this year) Artistic Director of the Guelph Jazz Festival, and his academic and curatorial work have brought him into close contact with some of the finest free improvisers in contemporary music. Guitarist Daniel Fischlin has collaborated with Heble on key works in improvisation scholarship (including The Other Side of Nowhere [Wesleyan, 2004] and The Fierce Urgency of Now [Duke, 2013]) and is an eminent Shakespearean. Electric bassist Lewis Melville taught in the Department of Botany (now Molecular and Cell Biology), and the quartet’s original percussionist Rob Wallace was an ICaSP postdoctoral fellow. In the years leading up to the recording of Time of the Sign in June, 2012, Wallace moved on to other academic employment, and was replaced by drummer Ted Warren.
The band is expanded to a septet for this recording, and includes Jane Bunnett (on flute and soprano saxophone), Scott Merritt (on guitar) and Ben Grossman (on hurdy-gurdy), with contributions from Larry Cramer (on trumpet) and — not, perhaps, to be underestimated — Dave Clark (improvised conduction). Many of the musicians double on miscellaneous electronic and little instruments, an echo of some of the performance practices of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in Chicago. The Vertical Squirrels’ electronic press kit suggests that the group was “initially conceived as an informal outlet to get Heble back into playing piano after years of curating the Guelph Jazz Festival (but rarely performing himself),” but the music doesn’t centre on Heble. Lewis Melville also (on this and the other recordings) is credited as the principal producer, and seems to be something of the instigator for the group. (A recording of his composition for foghorns at the Sound Symposium in St. Johns Newfoundland is also used as a sonic underlay for the last track on the album.) But I think it’s important to emphasize the decentred character of this music: not that it’s ever incoherent, but that no single voice ever predominates or directs. There are no solos on this record, which is partly why I wanted to emphasize something like its modesty: not to say that any of the players is ever diffident or deferential; if anything, each contributor’s line or instrumental texture only adds to the gathering energies, the obvious vitality and shared dynamism that every track evinces. But there is also a proactive humility, a thoroughly engaged mutual practice of listening, that informs this music: each player seems instinctively to know when to sound and when to lay out, and what results is a set of warmly shifting, variegated accretions, folds of resonance and dehiscence, an electro-acoustic version of what Byron, of all poets, once called “voluptuous swell.”
By saying that there are no solos, I don’t mean to indicate as absence of melodic line or improvisational drive, but rather that this music emerges from simultaneous reciprocities, layers of polymorphic call-and-response but also of departures and excursuses that loop in and out of the general, generative flow. (The music was recorded live, open to the public, over the course of two days: the session announcement is still on Facebook.) The press kit, again, compares their music to some of the improvisational jams of Frank Zappa, and I can hear that, certainly, in their communal emphasis on rock ostinato, riff and groove. But I hear a collation of influences, closer at times to, say, Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time group around Virgin Beauty (1988) — without the insistently spiky harmolodic angles of the leader’s alto — or, at other moments, echoes of the audio-Americana of Lyle Mays and Pat Metheny. (Ted Warren’s electronically treated vocals on the title track closely recall Mark Ledford’s melodic doublings with the PMG.) The compiled electric pianos of Miles Davis’s In a Silent Way sometimes feel present, and the opening track, Falling from the Ground Up, recalls as it unfolds McCoy Tyner’s work from the early 1970s, while Lewis Melville basslines fall at several points into a Tinariwen-like pulse. None of these audible influences ever quite settles or takes hold for more than a minute or two, however, and what emerges as each cut builds is a buoyant, unstable and living audio organism, a porosity. Each time I listen, I hear new things, other textures: the shifting mesh, for instance, of Fischlin’s and Merritt’s guitars set against the phasing, metallic stringiness of Grossman’s hurdy-gurdy and Heble’s roiling and gangly piano makes for a rich differential polyphony. This music is essentially collaborative not because it demands agreement but because it honours co-creative multiplicity, a coming together apart, not to produce community in difference, not to overcome a plural and sometimes unruly lived humanity, but a community of differences, a soundscape that embraces and welcomes the open auditory field of the many, of disenclosure, of more. Time of the Sign is one of the great recordings of committed collective improvisation.
Vertical Squirrels is a Canadian quartet — Daniel Fischlin, Ajay Heble, Lewis Melville and Ted Warren — that loves to work with other musicians, as confirmed on their latest album, Time of the Sign. The album includes organic sounds, hurdy-gurdy, guitar, flute, percussion, and wind instruments all merged in a very interesting way of improvising that comprises minimalism, post-rock, free jazz, and spiritual jazz. This is not reminiscent [as per their first album with AM] of the work of Frank Zappa, foreign, or German rock bands from the 70s — and I think fans of The Necks will love the album Time of the Sign.