Spirit By Wire

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I have to open this with an apology – I have been meaning to get it done and posted or awhile now. On the other hand, this may be the perfect moment. By now most of us are facing the prospect of an isolated Christmas, and as much as we respect our friends who rely on retail work to stay afloat, the numbers also mean rituals like mall-hunting and epic browsings are just not sensible this year.

We are going to be missing all of our usual friends, family and other guests extra much, and really wish to send them our love and caring not only in words and videos, but with special thoughtful tokens of our regard, chosen to amuse and stimulate them personally.  How about adding some weightless and instant gift-giving, which lifts the spirit itself – and also helps stimulate the culture we all love and miss so much in the process?

Just as so many have been suffering from shop closures during the pandemic, my musician friends have been stuck at home, deprived of their usual energizing audiences and the rent money many of them won through brilliant performance.

Time for my second apology – I know I will miss a few friends here (if you take away artists and musicians, I have no one left on my list of friends at all), but I mean no insult to any. These are folks who have active and/or underappreciated musical projects – and many of them have been bringing me useful joy in these low months. Also – to be clear, the range here is VAST. If you don’t like one selection or section, do please try the next – my pals cover a pretty big universe, buddy! ;o)

I grew up in a house full of music and books – a great blessing in itself. Not only was there a bright Heintzman upright in the living room, but a harpsichord as well! Classical scores were stacked almost as high as the old leather-tooled volumes of literature with classic engraving plates were shelved.

For all that, I never had a chance to study music formally, but I have always played every instrument I could get my hands on, and savoured their pleasures greatly. When I left home very young, I rebelled not toward rock (the standard draw at the time) but toward experimental electronic music and the improvisatory avant garde. It was a good time for that, the late 70s and 80s had some extraordinary cross pollinations and innovations – a lot of heart and daring. I was also very fortunate to have several musical mentors, all of whom were determined and brilliant improvisers. Final qualifier before I proceed to the goodies. Despite playing music of many different kinds for my whole life, I have never actually called myself a musician, because I recognize the difference between an amateur who can play with it when it’s fun, and a professional who has crafted a versatile and functionally complete skill-set. One of my most missed mentors, the wonderfully relentless Maury Coles once said, “You know, I don’t think I’ve ever played twice with anyone quite so ignorant about their instrument as you. But every damn time I come over here, we always have a fantastic session.” I’ll take it (and run). It fills my heart and moves me deeply, but I bow to the masters with the greatest respect.

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First let me tell you about a group of superb New York musicians and now friends who I discovered through facebook, and have been giving me an extraordinary amount of pleasure for a few years now. Like all irrepressible creators, they form many combinations and differently named groups between them, and each have done really fine and worthwhile solo works, as well as collaborating to create lovely unified worlds of sound. To know that this current was still alive there in its spiritual heart did my heart a lot of good. To hear these guys exploring the field with such sensitivity, mutual respect and skill, made it all the better.

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Zone (available to sample and then buy, on bandcamp) is one good place to start, to hear several of these brilliant voices together.  I’ve had their last album on my ‘pod for awhile now, and the wide ranging compositions, heartfelt performances and superb recording quality continue to delight.

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Christopher Gordon Forbes is the kind of piano player I wish I was. The living refutation of that old musicians joke: “Can you read?” (sheet music) “Yeah, but not enough to get in the way of my playing.”
Combining high intellectual scholarship about sources from classical jazz and spiritual music with the compositional insight you can only get by actually working through each of the challenges the hard way, he has granted himself the liberty to enter into or be free of such a wide range of music that his playing frequently makes me laugh out loud with delight. Like he’s constructing a brilliant witticism from ingredients that one does not ever expect to find contained in one single brain! ;o) But again, just as with the joke – this superabundance of intelligence in his playing does not get in the way of its soulfulness and genuine, sometimes outright startling beauty. Look him up and listen, then check him out again in another combo. He’s one of those people everyone wants to work with again. Too many superb projects to count!

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Tom Cabrera reminds me of Hafiz. A discovery implausibly delightful, for one at my cynical and world weary age. His drum sound is very special – deep and spacious, avoiding the crass sibilance and pyrotechnics of the egotist, for the higher mantle of the playful wanderer and generous enabler. I can’t tell you how many tracks of his playing I have listened to, and thought – “oh man do I ever wish I could have been playing with them that day!” Not just an engagingly original deep-tom swing and reliable foundation, he is always open and ready for the playful and even ecstatic moment to break out – and eager to make it bloom fully.

He also paints in a way so good it makes me ache – and miss some of my old art-pals of my youth, intensely. Feels effortless, balanced, fearless, hilarious, colourful, profound, mysterious and yet for all that, entirely unpretentious. He’s been playing for ages, but only took up painting more recently – and watching his fast development and exciting pace of work has been thrilling. Genuine uplift. Hope for every creative grey-hair out there!

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Matt Lavelle violates another old musical cliche – that the embouchure for brass interferes with the embouchure for woodwinds – which pleases me very much since Clarinet is my most intimate home, and yet I adore the buzz-muted Trumpet way too much to ever quit it! Like Eric Dolphy, one of my own great musical heroes, Matt plays the rarer Bass and Alto clarinets – and like Dolphy, he plays them all the way – extended range and technique on every outing.

His body of recorded work is so diverse that I’m still just getting my feet wet. His solo and small ensemble projects are deeply attuned and moving – we can feel the listening striving and hard-earned mutuality, where some offer only ego and blurt! He is also a talented writer and artist (see his excellent blog – and even better, sign up to be his Patron, to help him advance his work on all fronts). But the project of his which most amazes me is “The Twelve Houses Orchestra”. To put together twenty expert performers to do original avant garde work is an achievement in itself. To get that ensemble fifty gigs (and counting) remarkable!

Listen here – then seriously, go sign up to his Patreon. It is a good feeling to participate in the work of an artist with nerve and vision, and he is the real thing.  (And if you’re in a giving mood and feel inclined to sign up as my patron as well while you’re at it, I promise an inbox of variegated impishness and an assortment of clues such as no other would e’er assemble).

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Jack DeSalvo has collaborated with Matt, Chris and Tom many times – he is a superb and extraordinarily responsive guitarist – and he is also one of those beautiful people who has worked hard to provide a way for other artists to reach people with their voice. He founded Unseen Rain Records with his much missed brother Jim and Gene Gaudette, and continues to expand this brilliant catalog. If you click no other link in this article, do at least have a look at how many fine “Unseen Rain” albums you can sample and then buy on bandcamp. This is a treasure trove which deserves to delight many more of us.

Wait – I take that back. Do please click that link – but you also have to listen to this release – Lumens – one of the special treats I intend to buy for myself this Christmas. This duet (met in Matt’s Twelve Houses Orchestra) are so beautiful together. A wonderful reminder of what two people can create with heart and unity – showy artifice entirely surplus to requirements. And this is just one of no less than twenty-two Jack DeSalvo recordings now available on bandcamp. Delight the young guitarist on your list, with a head full of inspiration!

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Before I come back up north from New York, I must mention Charlie Waters (also in the Twelve Houses Orchestra) – another woodwind man of expert skill, a fine photographer and truly extraordinary composer (click that link above – brand new and astonishing release – you’ll be an instant convert). More than once he has given me a deluxe funky flashback feeling, with a rock solid intellectual root. Making brand new and valid explorations along old but inexhaustible alchemical lines of inquiry, which have been too long ignored. Some of his compositions have an extraordinary sense of the wonky beauty of urban dissonance. His perspective of witness somehow reminds me of great New Yorkers of the 50s and 70s both. An outsider take, without any of the overwrought self-importance that so often dissolves high subtle wit into low grousing.  Poise and levity, even when dancing on nothing at all!

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Naturally, as a guy who has never been to New York, I know my musical friends from Toronto better (and also get the pleasure of listening to them play live, when I am lucky). Just because I want you to enjoy some new recordings (and send them to your friends as gifts), that doesn’t mean we should forget about gigs. As soon as things open up again, everyone who entertains for a living is going to need more than nodding earphones – they’ll need butts in chairs, too. Put it on the calendar, soon as!

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The last fantastic gig Catherine and I caught together was David Woodhead’s “Confabulation” – and I wrote about how fine an experience that was, (and how sweet and also musically important a guy David is) here. His own webpage is worth bookmarking and exploring, when things are open he is always active and I have never heard him in any group that wasn’t satisfying and musically inspiring. A national treasure (a status only enhanced by his kindness and modesty).

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Like David, Arlene Bishop has played a role in many scenes over the years, bridging the gap between the “Free Times Cafe” folk scene and the classic eighties and nineties Queen W underground music circuit. Her original songs are memorable and heartfelt, and she is a great performer. I was delighted to see that she just released “Thank you Jimmy Scopes” an old bootleg tape from 1992, recorded in the much missed Cabana room. A sentimental time capsule many of my downtown musician friends will appreciate.

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Maryem and Ernie Tollar are one of those couples you want to describe both together and apart. Each of them are at the very highest level of accomplishment in terms of musicianship – Maryem not only has an extraordinary natural vocal instrument, but the deep knowledge of ancient song to bring us across worlds and centuries for dramatic and often well-judged (that is never heavy-handed) political or educational effect. Ernie is no less brilliant, but somehow when he is playing he reminds me of Papageno from the magic flute – completely transported by the joyous capacity of the instrument and music itself. Put them together and of course you have a unique rich and powerful musical unit – but best of all, as people they are as fun and down to earth as can be. Check out this short concert.

Al Qahwa and Turkwaz are two superb ongoing ensembles to watch – as well as gigs to watch for, when all of this nonsense is finally over and we can again have FUN.

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The last time I saw the brilliant Glenn Hall we were the dinner guests of my much missed friend and improvising mentor Maury Coles. The last time I played with them both was in the 80s in my low-ceilinged basement apartment, before Catherine and I were even married. He was relentlessly and energetically original then, and has never stopped creating. Glenn has been actively improvising, recording and composing since the early seventies without ever once sticking to the safe established ground. Which is itself an extraordinarily difficult thing to achieve. He has done challenging and excellent work with super talented ensembles, and also taught mystical literature at a college level – which one can’t help feeling informs his work.

This sample (from a duet project with another Glenn Hall on piano) is tamer than much of his work, but irresistibly beautiful – something we can all use a dose of nowadays. Check out his discography. Registering courage, decade after decade, and generously sharing what he has found with us.

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Daniel Barnes was made for the drums. I don’t want this piece to start sounding like slumdog millionaire, but I do have strange oblique connections to a lot of musical people. In Daniel’s case I actually attended the same grade school – Huron St – and I can remember that one day he set up his drums in a supply room and did little recitals all day long for other kids. It really was a startling demonstration of what could be accomplished with discipline and practise – already he was witty and musical (we all know how many musician’s jokes end with ‘drum solo’ as the horrifying punchline), interesting, and to a surprising extent in command of his instrument. I only wish I was mature enough (seven at the time, like him) to take the lesson to heart. Alas, such useful discipline eluded me for several more decades!

Most gratifyingly, Daniel has been able to put this natural gift and affinity to superb use ever since. I can remember hearing several excellent recordings of his work years ago, then lost touch with his output for awhile. Then a couple of years ago, Nada and I were drawn to a lakeside gazebo by the most compelling tunes and sure enough, there he was playing with his musical partner Girma Woldemichael and their fine ensemble.

It was a really great full circle witness thing for me. Especially because as a writer, I can’t help but notice how many life-arcs go off the rails somewhere between promise and realization. But I have to say, what I liked best was his obvious pleasure in playing. This is no child star pushed by parents – like I say, the guy was just plain made for it – and his compositions and his playing always sound like it, too!  Joyful.  

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Do you have an underground electronica club kid on your list? You might want to grab an album or two by Orphx, who are Rich Oddie and Christina Sealy. Christina is also a superb painter (one of the best currently working in Ontario, IMHO) and a superior art teacher, with a rare gift for enabling inspiration and example. I wrote about one of her exhibitions a couple of years ago here. And her own site shows both exquisite art and a humbling level of productivity.

Orphx has been developing their sound since 1993 – and speaking as a lover of synthesizers and former club kid myself, I have to say, listening to their stuff always makes me feel I ought to be bopping around the house laying out my makeup and hairspray, and polishing up my dancing shoes for the evening to come. Seriously, just try to keep your hips still…

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Maybe you’re more of an ambient metal person – or have a Philip K fan on your list who suspects we all actually live inside Blade Runner, and not the world we think we see. My old friend Jim Field has got you covered. He’s been working with the creative edge between guitar and electronics for many years, giving his current duo project ‘Northumbria’ a luscious and well refined edge.

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What about a bit of classic, cleverly arranged and tightly played rock and roll – no holds barred? My ultra-sweet friend Ryan Gassi is the drummer for Public Animal – and they satisfy that need beautifully, somehow blending elements we enjoyed from many decades of great rock, while leaving behind the tired shite – brilliant energetic and fun as hell! I only wish my old man bones could still handle midnight gigs. I bet they make the classic stage at the old (horse)’shoe absolutely throb, every time they play.

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Ah – but there is another kind of classic sound we don’t expect to hear delivered with full voice live anymore, the way we’d really like it. Yet another funny link – one of Catherine’s childhood friends is married to one of the most talented arrangers and bandleaders in the region – Lou Pomanti. How good is Lou? Well, when his band ‘Oakland Stroke’ does a cover of Spinning Wheel – David Clayton Thomas himself shows up! Power horn bliss – and to hear such chops with such charts – yowza!

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Finally – and I thank you for reading all the way down here – I couldn’t possibly deny you the best new smile I’ve had in ages. Chris Harrison – who I knew when he was twelve, and I was a librarian in an alternative school almost thirty years ago, and then played some music with myself, as his chops developed, is now part of Random Task Force – the sort of high brains and high energy comedy band that almost anyone would like to see when they are on a date. Absolute madcap fun – including outright silliness and tons of effort with arrangements too. There are three hits on this album that I can’t get out of my head (and wouldn’t want to, anyhow), but this is the one that makes me laugh most consistently.

Caution for the sensitive – there is just a bit of language – but used only in the best possible spirit (and for the best possible reason, really). This tune is also a great reminder for us all not to go crazy with false nostalgia, just because we miss the old grind.

It was familiar, sure, but hardly perfect. ;o)

Cheers Chris! (And the whole of Random Task Force, too). Exuberance is a gift that all of us can use right now. Especially the cranky long-of-toothers.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

I am always curious about what you are thinking

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