NICK FRASER QUARTET
Nick Fraser: drums
Tony Malaby: saxophones
Rob Clutton: double bass
Andrew Downing: cello
IS LIFE LONG
(clean feed, 2017)
TOWNS AND VILLAGES
(Barnyard Records, 2013)
|Ballad for Lydia
Nick Fraser – Is Life Long?
“A jazz musician who does many things well, and Nick Fraser does many things very well indeed, could easily lose sight of himself in the clamour for his services. No musician is in greater demand on the Toronto scene these days than the 36-year-old drummer and yet Fraser, to his credit, has established a fascinating body of work that’s entirely his own, one that documents a consistently thoughtful, left-of-centre perspective on contemporary jazz.
Beginning with his first trio CD, Owls in Daylight (1997), continuing through his recordings with the quintet Drumheller — Drumheller (2005), Wives (2006) and Glint (2009) — and turning now to Towns and Villages, a quartet session with the New York saxophonist Tony Malaby, Fraser has explored the nature of freedom and abstraction in jazz, moving unassumingly, yet imaginatively, in, out of, between and beyond the music’s various traditions.
It’s in his compositions, which are typically the slightest of melodic turns, sometimes with an Ornette-ish curl — just a few notes repeated, and repeated again, to both catchy and compelling effect. And it’s in his drumming, which is measured more in velocity than in volume, but measured all the same — a fast, shifting undertow of precisely struck and carefully shaped textures and rhythms.
As an aside, it’s worth musing that Drumheller, also the name of a town in southern Alberta, is the better part of an anagram for “Hell of a drummer.” Enough said.
Fraser’s apparent fascination with Canada’s smaller communities continues on Towns and Villages, which features group improvisations named for Prescott and Spencerville in eastern Ontario and Hundred Mile House in southeastern British Columbia; a musician does not tour Canada as often as Fraser has without getting to know its highways, byways and stopovers.
Fraser originally intended Towns and Villages to present Tony Malaby in the company of two bassists, Torontonians Andrew Downing and Rob Clutton, a format, he suggests, that was inspired by Ornette Coleman’s recent quartet and by such recordings as Bill Dixon’s two volumes of Vade Mecum, Joe Lovano’s Universal Language and Dewey Redman’s Soundsigns; still other recordings by Albert Ayler and the young Tony Williams also come to mind, and in fact Ayler and Williams seem no less like fleeting points of reference for Towns and Villages than Coleman, Dixon, Lovano and Redman.
In the event, Downing, who is also an accomplished cellist, proposed the alternative instrumentation heard here; his cello serves either as a keening second voice to Malaby’s taut, sculpted tenor and soprano solos, all sinew and strain, or as complementary counterweight to the heft and purpose of Clutton’s steadfast bass lines.
Fraser in turn makes the most, and the best, of his resources to give each of the 12 pieces on Towns and Villages — no matter how free, no matter how abstract, from the rumble and grind of Prescott: The Fort Town to the dark, stirring beauty of Ballad for Lydia — its own sense of logic, proportion and clarity.”
-Mark Miller, Jazz historian, author, critic
“Toronto drummer Nick Fraser has a strong presence across the spectrum of modern jazz, but he’s particularly prominent in free jazz projects like the band Drumheller and the Lina Allemano Four. He’s taken an emphatic role as composer and bandleader as well as drummer on Towns and Villages (Barnyard Records BR0330 barnyardrecords.com), putting together a quartet with regular associates Rob Clutton on bass and Andrew Downing on cello along with tenor and soprano saxophonist Tony Malaby, one of New York’s most explosive musicians. The CD opens with a wall of overblown tenor and gritty bowed strings, but it’s a group with many levels and colours, from ballads with Malaby on soprano to intriguing circular compositions in which Fraser’s motifs are repeated by the saxophone and cello, synchrony gradually breaking down into echo. Everyone involved is clearly inspired by the meeting: it might be a band for a day, but it’s a great one.”
-Stuart Broomer, Whole Note Magazine
“The haunting session that is Nick Fraser’s Towns and Villages sounds like a journey into and, miraculously, out of a black hole. There is no ground these musicians fear to tread. It is no wonder, as Fraser surrounds himself with veteran jazzers who are as fearless as they are in demand. The album employs a unique instrumentation — cello, bass, drums and sax — which contribute to its foreign sound. The multifaceted playing of New York’s Tony Malaby leaves no timbre untouched. Calm and serene here, wailing and screeching there, the tenor player belts out sax lines that recall some of Sun Ra’s more chaotic albums. Cellist Andrew Downing and Malaby have a remarkable chemistry, as does the band as a whole. Through all the chaos, cohesion and form are achieved through the natural synchronization that occurs when players are intently listening to, and playing off each other. Quirky ostinatos — harmonized or played in unison —- add to this sense of structure. Composition cred goes entirely to the drummer/percussionist, who seems quite at home pairing soft, soothing textures with reckless and dark free form exploration. Frasers’ ideas are inexhaustible. A true master of his craft. Challenging and rewarding, Towns and Villages comes highly recommended.”
-Gabe Girard, Weird Canada
“How much you enjoy Nick Fraser’s debut album depends on your tolerance for dissonance. Opening track Prescott: The Fort Town makes a cacophonous introduction to the local experimental jazz quartet, thanks to New Yorker Tony Malaby’s skronky and wildly fluttering sax lines, which feature prominently throughout. Then there’s Fraser’s inventive drumming. On disorienting third song Tricycle, the musician (who’s also in Drumheller, Peripheral Vision and other bands) seems to tap and splash anything in his immediate vicinity before heading into a rumbling, tumbling fill section. Andrew Downing provides textural cello and Rob Clutton labyrinthine double bass, which takes an excellent turn in the spotlight during six-and-a-half-minute standout Sketch #12. Most of the 12 compositions are short sketches built on a motif that provides a launch pad for daring free improvisation. The musicians show great instinct and fraternity, and you never know where things will head or end up (Revolution introduces an Eastern music element), making Towns And Villages a fascinating listen.”
-Carla Gillis, NOW Magazine
“If you’ve been to a gig at the Tranzac Club in the past decade or so, there’s a good chance you’ve seen Nick Fraser seated behind the drum kit. Aside from his own ensembles, he figures prominently in an astounding number of jazz- and improv-inflected projects, from esteemed avant-jazz collective Drumheller to trumpeter Lina Allemano’s quartet to Alex Lukashevsky’s loungey group, Deep Dark United. In each case, Fraser brings his distinct playing style to the table, a light touch that incorporates any and all parts of the kit, hit with a variety of unconventional sticks. Those chops are on display throughout Towns and Villages, Fraser’s second release as a bandleader, and yet the record also showcases his talents as a writer of quirky melodies in the vein of free-jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman.”
-Chris Bilton, The GridTO
“The lifeblood of free jazz can be found in musicians’ efforts to push beyond existing habits and practices. They court the danger of the unknown and unpredictable. To that end, drummer Nick Fraser decided to cross swords with NYC free jazz saxophone titan Tony Malaby. The result is an album of strong playing by engaged players matching wits in real time, weaving their sounds together to make a “whole cloth,” not separate threads. Group cohesion is one of the strongest qualities of the quartet’s music; how cellist Andrew Downing and bassist Rob Clutton synch up with Fraser’s tight looseness and Malaby’s sinuous motion is a marvel. From the knotty theme of “Sketch #10” to the Ayler-ish, folk song-y “Sketch #12,” they play as one — a kind of four-armed jazz octopus, each limb moving separately, together. Malaby’s tenor and soprano saxes are rich and resonant throughout. This is outstanding music making from the first note to the last.”
-Glen Hall, Exclaim!