This box set should include a warning sticker — something along the lines of “Caution: if you’re already on the verge of giving up your career to bask in the glow of Montréal’s music scene, proceed with caution.” It’s already too late for me. Consider yourselves warned.
Perhaps you’ve dismissed it as a bunch of perpetual wrong notes, compensation for poor technique or just a glorified warm-up, but free improvisation is not leaving our universe any time soon. It’s a “style” that demands your attention, as it can be beautiful, brash, cold, confusing, spiritual, frightening and soothing all at once — and regardless of whether he likes it or not, every self-respecting jazz musician must react to its gulf at some point in his life.
This four-disc collection from Montréal label No Type is a beyond-stellar example of the “genre” — there’s that attempt at description once again. Culled from the work of regular performers at Montréal’s Casa del Popolo (managed by Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Mauro Pezzente and Kiva Stimac), the discs represent four different experimental ensembles — each of whom, though they generally adhere to an acoustic instrumentation and aesthetic, explore the furthest possible reaches of their instruments, essentially eschewing any bit of history and tradition that existed before the first note hits the practice space. Oh, it’s obvious that everyone involved knows his theory and exactly what he should play, but they’ve rid their systems of conformity and convention and replaced them with instinct.
To the uninitiated, this music may sound similar; you have to experience all four discs back-to-back in order to really appreciate, understand and experience each act’s subtlety, sublime nature and uniqueness. That might seem like lethal hazing, but if you don’t suffer a psychotic episode, you’re officially in the club.
The first disc introduces PO (“Provocative Operations”), a quartet of drums, contrabass, electric guitar and (!) prepared guitars (i.e. putting screws in the strings, tuning down to C with rubber shoved under the nut, soaking them in turpentine then throwing them down a hill into a swamp, etc.), who offer a minimalistic performance and a focus on color. I sounds as if everyone were given a bow and told to not play his instrument in any previously-established manner. A semblance of style becomes evident on the bluesy III: there is an actual developing rhythmic ostinato and fixed tempi for a great deal of the tune, but it’s dark jazz in the vein of… no, it’s too skewed for even a David Lynch film. VII presents a complex weaving of strong gamelan overtones, including windchime-like sounds and microtonal string squeaks and melodies — a la something out of George Crumb’s Black Angels.
Duo ’Gypt Gore (also featuring Godspeed’s Thierry Amar and guitarist Andrew Dickson) open disc two with Angular Momentum, a complete shift from the previous disc; a duet of sax and guitar skitters in a series of scales that become increasingly busy and intricate over the course of eight and a half minutes. As with a number of tracks on this collection, Flakes combines and parodies several elements of what we’ve heard from the past: Wes Montgomery style octaves with hyperactive-and-hopped-up-on-smack Coltrane performances. ’Gypt Gore’s lack of skinned percussion is a bit unnerving at first, but after a spell seems natural — you’ll find yourself wondering why more artists don’t ditch their drummers.
The Chris Burns, Nicolas Caloia, John Heward trio is like nothing you’d expect from a guitar/bass/drums trio outfit — even after submitting to the previous discs. There are shades of rockabilly, Joe Pass’s legacy, Bossa, rock and funk that emerge, disappear within seconds and repeat over the course of tracks such as presence #2. presence #3 and presence #4 present themselves in a sly, unassuming sort of way: it’s as if the band wants to fool you into thinking they’re not actually playing, but simply tinkering in the studio. Both tracks have the power to send you into a trance. After fifteen minutes you might not have noticed the sparse bass bowing or occasional plucked guitar swirling around your skull, but you’ll remember that it was a good experience, and one that you want to repeat.
The honor of ending this set goes to Balai Méchanique, and what a bombastic finish it is. This sextet is heavy on actual fixed rhythms and locked grooves, blasting pure noise over the top in a very aggressive manner. Les élephants n’oublient jamais borrows twenty minutes of your life and returns the favor with a history of 20th century performance techniques — Stravinsky through Carter through Cage through Varèse through Nono and so on. Racines, the disc’s climax, builds with the elegance of a football team in a swirl of horn splats, otherworldly electronics, distorted guitars and manipulated pianos, then gradually exits in a cloud of ether.
A conclusion for the masses: Admittedly, a box set of this type of material is daunting. The lack of boundaries and anything concrete to grasp, as far as such traditional elements as harmony and meter are concerned, can be intimidating for even five minutes — and you have 228 minutes here. But isn’t music supposed to be a new experience that challenges your way of thinking? Hopefully indie rock and The Beatles and the melting pot of music you’ve sampled through the years has prepared you to handle it.
A conclusion for the converted: Buy it. I mean it. I’ve said enough and hopefully pushed the right buttons so you’ll understand that this is the shit. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more talented and knowledgeable group of musicians in the field of free improv — guys who live and breathe this stuff. And yes, you’ll wish there was more time in the day to listen to it while you daydream about eking out a living as part of Montréal’s glorious improv scene…