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Artists Nicolas Caloia

Since 1990 Nicolas Caloia has worked at creating a contemporary music generated by using accurately composed textures to channel collective improvisation. The goal is a music that erases the lines between improvised and composed, pop and avant-garde, good and bad. He hopes this music will satisfy the body, the mind and, above all, the heart. He has worked as a performer, composer, and organizer in Montréal and has toured in North America, Europe, and Asia. He has performed and recorded in a vast array of contexts with the most important members of Montréal’s creative music community as well as with internationally renowned musicians like the ICP orchestra, Marshall Allen, John Butcher, Joe McPhee, Steve Lacy, William Parker, Hassan Hakmoun, Tristan Honsinger and Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia. His concerts and numerous recordings have been critically acclaimed both at home and abroad. Currently, the majority of his work as a composer and improviser finds a voice in: The Ratchet Orchestra — a 30-piece big band; Tilting — the Nicolas Caloia Quartet, Ring — a sextet, Spell — a 10-piece marching band, Trephining — a quintet, Mercury — a duet Lori Freedman as well in solo performances.


Nicolas Caloia

Ottawa (Ontario, Canada), 1968

Residence: Montréal (Québec)

  • Performer (double bass)
  • Improviser

Associated groups

On the web

Nicolas Caloia [Photo: Peter Gannushkin, 2012]
Nicolas Caloia [Photo: Peter Gannushkin, 2012]
  • Ensemble SuperMusique (ESM), under the direction of Jean Derome, plays Résistances [Photo: Céline Côté, Montréal (Québec), March 16, 2017]
  • Ensemble SuperMusique (ESM) plays Résistances under the direction of Jean Derome, Joane Hétu and Scott Thomson [Photo: Céline Côté, Montréal (Québec), March 16, 2017]
  • Ensemble SuperMusique (ESM): 1e rangée: Jean Derome, Ida Toninato, Joshua Zubot, Jean René, Jean-Christophe Lizotte, Danielle Palardy Roger. 2e rangée: Scott Thomson, Alexandre St-Onge, Michel F Côté, Isaiah Ceccarelli, Nicolas Caloia, Craig Pedersen, direction: Joane Hétu [Photo: Céline Côté, Montréal (Québec), February 6, 2016]
  • Ensemble SuperMusique (ESM): 1e rangée: Jean Derome, Ida Toninato, Joshua Zubot, , Joane Hétu. 2e rangée: Scott Thomson, Alexandre St-Onge, Michel F Côté, Isaiah Ceccarelli, Nicolas Caloia, Craig Pedersen, direction: Danielle Palardy Roger [Photo: Céline Côté, Montréal (Québec), February 6, 2016]
  • Ensemble SuperMusique (ESM) (left to right in front: Jean Derome; Guido Del Fabbro; Lori Freedman; Pierre-Yves Martel; Scott Thomson; Jean René, in the back: Nicolas Caloia; Philippe Melanson; Corinne René; Vergil Sharkya’, direction: Danielle Palardy Roger) [Photo: Céline Côté, Montréal (Québec), February 28, 2015]
  • Left to right: Jean Derome; Lori Freedman; Gabriel Dharmoo; Nicolas Caloia; Danielle Palardy Roger [Photo: Céline Côté, Montréal (Québec), March 13, 2014]
  • Nicolas Caloia [Photo: Céline Côté, Montréal (Québec), March 13, 2014]
  • Ensemble SuperMusique (ESM) (left to right: Corinne René; Lori Freedman; Nicolas Caloia; Pierre-Yves Martel) [Photo: Graham Ord, Montréal (Québec), February 1, 2014]

Main releases

Ambiances Magnétiques / AM 248, AM 248_NUM / 2019
Ambiances Magnétiques / AM 226, AM 226_NUM / 2016
Barnyard Records / BR 0336 / 2014
Drip Audio / DA 00820 / 2012
[Independent] / CAL 2008 / 2008
Tour de bras / TDB 9021


Nessa Records / NCD 40 / 2018
Ambiances Magnétiques / AM 235, AM 235_NUM / 2017
Mode Records / MODE 291 / 2016
Ambiances Magnétiques / AM 222 / 2015

In the press

The 30th Annual Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville

Bruce Lee Gallanter, Downtown Music Gallery, June 11, 2014

[…] The second set of the night featured the Ratchet Orchestra with special guest Saturnian space-traveler Marshall Allen. The Ratchet Orchestra are a 19-piece avant/jazz orchestra from Canada who are led by bassist Nicolas Caloia and who’ve played a great set at the 2011 Victo Fest. Reeds master, Marshall Allen who is currently 89, became a member of the Sun Ra Arkestra in the late fifties and has been their leader since the passing of Sun Ra in 1993. This year is the 100 anniversary of Sun Ra’s birth on the planet earth. Considering that the Ratchet Orchestra has nearly twenty members for this concert, their sound is rarely too chaotic as Mr. Caloia is a strong leader. The orchestra sounds as if they are playing some of Sun Ra’s charts yet the music is often spacious and rarely held down to the gravity of Earth. I recognize the occasional Sun Ra melody although there are section which float in space sounding unsure of where they are going or will end up. Another Arkestra member named Pico is next to Mr. Allen and plays flute. He gets several chances to solo and is an exceptional flute player. Mr. Allen takes his time and finally solos on alto sax and an electronic wind instrument which sounds like it was being played by Sun Ra himself. There is an amazing duet between Allen on alto and Joshua Zubot on violin, free and intense as well as a couple of spirited solos from the great Lori Freedman on clarinets. Although there were several sections where the orchestra sounded a bit tentative, there were also a number of cosmic interludes when it all came together lifted off to parts unknown, most likely Saturn Sun Ra’s homeworld. […]

[…] Day Two started off up at the Pavillon with a small orchestra (13 piece) from Quebec called GGRIL (Large Regional Group of Liberated Improvisation). I had known about this group of younger Quebecois players since their leader, Éric Normand, sent me some of their discs. GGRIL have collaborated and recorded with Evan Parker and Jean Derome in the past. Their instrumentation is unique: 3 strings, 3 electric guitars, trumpet, reeds player, accordion, electric & acoustic bass and a percussionist who doubles on vibes. Each piece they performed involved different strategies or directions, some involved one or two conductors. The first piece utilized two conductors, each of whom directed half of the ensemble and occasionally trying to take the reins from each other. The players sat in a semi-circle and exchanged ideas carefully. There were always several layers going on simultaneously but it never got too dense or chaotic. The short, spirited solos seemed to fit just right. The second piece involved using a set of playing cards to direct or inspire some of the improvisations. The third piece was conducted & composed by Robert M. Lepage, Ambiances Magnétiques composer & clarinet player. I dug the way the players would repeat certain riffs with assorted shifting drones as the tempo slowly increased. There is now a long history of conducted improvisations to draw from. I could hear elements of a Butch Morris conduction or even the early John Zorn-like approach to small sound sparsity. Considering that the (Quebec-based) Ambiances Magnétiques label has been around for some thirty-plus years, great younger groups like GGRIL are pointing the way for the next generation of experimental musicians. […]

[…] The next set was a sort of Quebecois all-star quartet which featured Michel Faubert on vocals, Pierre Labbé on tenor & soprano sax, electronics & compositions, Bernard Falaise on guitar and Pierre Tanguay on drums. Aside from the vocalist, the other three musicians have long been involved in numerous bands/projects mainly for the Ambiances Magnétiques label: Labbé (solo & band-led discs, Les Projectionnistes), Falaise (Miriodor, Klaxon Gueule, solo CDs) and Tanguay (more than two dozen discs with Jean Derome, Joan Hétu & René Lussier). I wasn’t familiar with Michel Faubert who is a storyteller/vocalist and has worked with a traditional folk/a cappella bands. Mr. Labbé was the central figure here and talked or sang throughout consistently in French. Since my French speaking is minimal, I missed out on the various stories and observations that Mr. Faubert did. The response from the mostly French-speaking audience was most often giggles and laughter. So, I concentrated on the sound of his voice, his gestures and the music which was charming, quirky and consistently inventive. The music started out softly with Tanguay on a jawharp stomping his feet. The other three musicians did occasional backup vocals and there was a certain fun-loving charm that ran throughout the entire set. Each song or piece seemed to create a different mood. I liked the way the musicians used subtle gestures to evoke certain vibes, Falaise played his guitar in his lap and rubbed a cloth on it while Labbé played odd sax sounds & electronics without soloing very much to serve the story. I would’ve no doubt enjoyed the set more if I understood French but this was not the case. […]

There is now a long history of conducted improvisations to draw from.

Soirée «Beat Generation» chez Supermusique

Normand Babin, Montréalistement, March 14, 2014

De plus en plus et depuis bientôt longtemps, les genres musicaux se mélangent et s’influencent les uns les autres. Le compositeur, contrebassiste et improvisateur Nicolas Caloia présentait hier soir en première une suite de sept mises en musique de textes poétiques de Geneviève Letarte: Les bonnes histoires. À peu près tout ce qui a marqué la musique au cours des 50 dernières années pouvait être soutiré de cet immense mash-up éclectique. Le jazz, du be-bop au free-jazz, la techno déconstructiviste ou funky, la musique de cabaret couleur berlinoise ou stravinskienne, le théâtre musical, la comédie musicale et j’en passe et j’en oublie. Tous étaient conviés dans une sorte de musique fusion, comme on parlerait de cuisine fusion.

En apéro, on entend d’abord un Prologue ou chacun est mis à nu dans un contre-emploi. Les maîtres improvisateurs que sont Lori Freedman et Jean Derome s’astreignent à une petite ritournelle de foire circassienne, tandis que le vocaliste Gabriel Dharmoo qui n’a pas nécessairement la formation vocale pour ce type de technique, chante en voix de tête à tue-tête. Dérangeant, ce premier volet trouve sa résolution dans le dernier, Soir Bleu, où les deux improvisateurs, Derome au saxophone et Freedman à la clarinette basse, transforment leurs sons en cris d’animal blessé dans une poursuite vers l’abîme inénarrable. Ça fait mal au ventre. Le vocaliste semble réellement inquiet de ce qui se passe sur scène. Il reprend sa mélopée en voix de tête, qui trouve ici tout son sens.

Entre les deux, de très belles musiques aussi. Dans le troisième mouvement, Fragment de ciel, un blues où le contrebasiste, Caloia, installe un léger problème d’arythmie cardiaque, tous les musiciens improvisent et se libèrent de la partition. On y ressent une réelle poésie. Le compositeur nous convie finalement, on commence à le comprendre, à une soirée de lecture musicale poétique. Un peu comme Allan Ginsberg pouvait le faire avec un Thelenious Monk dans les années 60, les musiciens collent leurs rythmes et leurs mélodies aux sons des mots. À moitié récité et chanté par Gabriel Dharmoo et Jean Derome, le texte est déconstruit. Ici le compositeur semble avoir appliqué les techniques d’écriture musicale de l’époque baroque au texte contemporain. Contrepoint textuel, mouvement de mots en fusée, spirale de syllabes, cette partie était une des plus réussies de toute la soirée.

Également notable et merveilleux, le cinquième mouvement, Se répand au soleil, un mouvement exclusivement musical, au fait un duo pour électronique et piccolo. Un groove funky, presque pas atypique donne une base merveilleusement solide pour que Jean Derome déploie de façon magistrale un scat flûté, une partie de jambe en l’air de sons aigus. Les trop peu nombreux spectateurs sont rentrés chez eux avec, encore en bouche, ces petits moments de pure alchimie poético-musicale.

… ces petits moments de pure alchimie poético-musicale.

Ratchet? Orchestra?

Alain Brunet, La Presse, May 19, 2011

Et pourquoi Ratchet? «Pour rien», répond le principal intéressé, haussant les épaules avant que son interlocuteur lui serre la main et passe à un autre sujet.

Pourquoi donc Orchestra? Sans se faire prier, il avait tout expliqué.

Le contrebassiste Nicolas Caloia est le leader et compositeur du Ratchet Orchestra, qui réunit une trentaine de musiciens montréalais et pas les moindres. Osons croire que ce grand ensemble est représentatif de ce que le Festival de Victoriaville a jadis identifié comme étant la musique actuelle. Une notion qui a certes progressé depuis les années 80. D’où l’invitation du Ratchet Orchestra ce samedi.

Sur le portail du studio Hotel2Tango, clope au bec, Nicolas Caloia parle calmement. Le ton est doux, le registre plutôt grave. Ne manifeste ni montée soudaine ni forte ponctuation. On a tôt fait de deviner la détermination que recouvre cette apparente linéarité. La rhétorique se déploie lentement, sûrement, à l’instar des orchestrations du Ratchet. Les phrases s’articulent, on en ressent l’intensité croissante.

Nicolas Caloia a appris sur le tard. Même si on a fait dans le punk rock au cours de l’adolescence, commencer à jouer de la contrebasse à 18 ans, c’est tard pour un musicien désireux d’en faire une profession. S’attaquer à une telle bête implique illico une forte personnalité dans le jeu comme dans le style.

«Je ne m’étais pas installé à Montréal pour la musique. J’y étais venu parce qu’était venu le temps pour moi de quitter Ottawa… J’ai alors rencontré le contrebassiste Lisle Ellis qui m’a initié à l’instrument et au jazz contemporain. Lisle fut très important pour moi. Depuis ce temps, je n’ai jamais cessé de jouer. J’ai eu la chance de côtoyer plusieurs excellents musiciens, issus de différents horizons. Jean Derome a aussi été une grande influence, tant pour sa musique que pour son humanité. Aussi j’ai beaucoup aimé NOMA du tromboniste Tom Walsh et le groupe Wreck Progress du batteur Michel Ratté. Plus récemment, j’ai joué entre autres avec Lori Freedman, Isaiah Ceccarrelli, John Heward, Sam Shalabi, etc.

Au fil du temps, les ensembles de Nicolas Caloia ont changé de configuration; d’abord un quatuor, puis un septuor, et un octuor.

«Dans les années 90, j’avais repris les arrangements de Sun Râ afin de les jouer avec mon groupe. Pour ce, j’avais rencontré l’homme. La découverte de cette musique et de cette communauté de Sun Râ m’avait donné plein de permissions, si ce n’est que celle de réunir des musiciens de styles très différents.

«Fin des années 90, j’ai fait moins de concerts, je trouvais le contexte trop conservateur à Montréal. Les choses ont changé depuis, car je trouve la scène d’aujourd’hui beaucoup plus vibrante. L’esprit y est plus ouvert, il y a plus d’endroits pour jouer et les musiciens que je côtoie n’ont pas qu’un genre musical à l’esprit. Enfin, je me sens plus apte à écrire, arranger, organiser, produire.»

Sans faire de vagues, un premier album du Ratchet Orchestra a été lancé en 2007. «Là, je suis plus sérieux», affirme Caloia, sourire en coin… et conscient des contraintes inhérentes à une telle entreprise.

«Pour le nouvel album que nous enregistrons cette semaine, je profite d’un programme de subventions qui vient d’être éradiqué. Je veux donc faire quelque chose qui va durer. Un grand ensemble, vous savez, c’est compliqué. Jouer une ou deux fois par an, honnêtement ça me suffit! Si on pouvait en vivre, ce serait autrement… Or les orchestres de cette taille qui jouent régulièrement hors du milieu classique, ça n’existe plus. Alors? Pour faire bien sonner un groupe en de rares occasions, il faut que tes partitions et consignes soient très claires. Il faut aussi savoir avec qui tu travailles, il te faut écrire pour chacune des personnalités.»

The Ratchet Orchestra n’est pas un big band de jazz, insiste son leader.

«Je préfère l’expression grand ensemble. D’ailleurs, j’aime autant les orchestres symphoniques et les orchestres de chambre que les big bands. Ma musique ne se fonde pas sur le swing. Ma musique est une succession de phases et décalages qui me permettent de créer un environnement sonore qui m’est propre.»

Ma musique ne se fonde pas sur le swing. Ma musique est une succession de phases et décalages qui me permettent de créer un environnement sonore qui m’est propre.

Ratchet Orchestra

Mathieu Bélanger, Panpot, July 4, 2008

A look at the most recent Ratchet Orchestra performance, and for good measure, a history lesson on the project led by Nicolas Caloia.

Anyone familiar with Montréal’s “musiques actuelles” scene should already be familiar with Nicolas Caloia. The bassist and sometimes cellist is a member of multiple projects such as FReC – a trio with Lori Freedman and Danielle Palardy Roger – and the Murray Street Band. Moreover, he can frequently be heard and seen as part of ad hoc improvising groupings. On the other hand, very few people know Nicolas Caloia for his own projects. The reason for this is very simple: in past years, Caloia has presented those on a handful of occasions.

This affair actually conferred an almost mythical status to the Ratchet Orchestra, for Caloia’s biography always mentions it, yet very few really knew what the Ratchet Orchestra was. Truth is, the Ratchet Orchestra really exists and has for some ten years. The first CD of the Ratchet Orchestra – recorded as a quartet by the way – suggests it was put together in the mid or late 1990’s. On the other hand, its long history did not exactly translate into an overdose of public activity: its Suoni Per Il Popolo appearance was apparently its fourth ever!

On June 24th, the Ratchet Orchestra performed at La Sala Rossa as a 26-piece band. The orchestra was made of a string section – two violins, two violas, two cellos and Caloia’s double bass, a 12-piece reed and horn section ranging from sopranino saxophone to sousaphone, two electric guitarists, one pianist and four percussionists. The personnel itself featured some of Montréal’s most active musicians such as Jean Derome (flute and alto saxophone), Sam Shalabi (guitar) and Gordon Allen (trumpet), some well-established, but infrequently seen figures like Guillaume Dostaler on piano, Norsola Johnson on cello and Bruce Cawdron on glockenspiel, claves and other percussion, but also some who perform infrequently such as Thea Pratt on French horn or Ken Doolittle on percussion.

The Ratchet Orchestra interpreted some compositions of Caloia in addition to Sun Ra originals. The music performed showed the specificities of Caloia’s approach to orchestral jazz. Indeed, from the traditional big bands to the London Improvisers Orchestra by way of the Sun Ra Arkestra and William Parker’s Little Huey Creative Orchestra, the history of jazz and improvised music has seen many large ensembles and as many different conceptions of the orchestra. Yet, the concert proved that the Ratchet Orchestra has an identity of its own. First, the songs are based on melodies. However, one song will sometimes incorporate two or three melodies played simultaneously by the ensemble. For example, the end of Soak featured the reed and horn section playing a melody while the strings played a different although complementary progression. Second, the music leaves a lot of room for solos. However, the pieces are not organized around a succession of solos. Some large ensemble will start with a theme after which the rhythm section will establish and maintain a pulse over which various solos will happen. In the Ratchet Orchestra, a musician rarely solos over the rhythm section. There is usually something else happening: the strings will punctuate the rhythm, some subset will play a melody in the background, etc. For example, Jean René’s viola solo in T(h)rust built up into a crescendo that involved the whole orchestra. Third, Caloia has found a good way to mix composed and improvised moments. Indeed, the improvisational dimension is not restricted to the solos in that some compositions present some free sections.

The main criticism one could formulate relates to the pacing of the concert itself. One long 80-minute set instead of two sets, as they did on June 24th, might have worked better. Indeed, the first set ended on a high note with Wish and T(h)rust, two pieces whose finale feature all 26 musicians playing at high power. The 30-something minute intermission interrupted an “air d’aller” the group had acquired by the end of the first set. At the beginning of Tiny Pyramids, the piece that opened the second set, it was obvious the Ratchet Orchestra had to gain back its focus. Let’s say things were a little looser… The same applies to the audience who had to get into it again.

For those who missed the concert, but would like to hear the Ratchet Orchestra, a CDR was recently self-released by Nicolas Caloia. Entitled “Live at the Sala Rosa [sic] November 28, 2007,” it features, as one can easily guess, most of the concert played by the ensemble on the given date. It might be the next best thing to hearing the 26-piece ensemble from a few meters… until the next Ratchet Orchestra concert of course!

… 26 musicians playing at high power.