by carl wilson

Open Loose (and Finish Tight)


Great sounds tonight with New York's Mark Helias's Open Loose trio at the Arrayspace in Toronto's rapidly gentrifying Liberty Village. (Shown above in an online photo, not from tonight's show - the Arrayspace itself isn't that prettied-up yet!)

The first set, as so often in jazz, was on the tepid side, with Helias's compositions feeling technical, analytical, a touch conservative; when the group returned, they blew that impression sky-high. This is composed post-bop with avant-garde, international and classical accents, but in the second set nothing could have seemed more free. Turns out it is nice for there to be a melody - often voiced with Tony Malaby's sax doubled down by Helias's bass in lockstep precision - but tune mostly mattered far less than tone, and tone less than volume and velocity.

Most of all you listened to dynamics and articulation, with languid lyrical lines broken by more staccato sections and continual variations in noise level that signalled not so much which instrument was dominant as what set of social relationships we were to infer among them. Sometimes they were lovers, sometimes siblings squabbling over an inheritance; often they were cousins coming to blows and then laughing about it over a beer, or two foreigners struggling with a language gap and then suddenly finding out via hand signals and facial mugging that they're both in the same secret guerrilla army.

Helias plays like a Wimbledon tennis champ, switching grip and technique seamlessly, catching you unawares yet never missing a mark; Malaby was the emotional Mediterranean colourist, fearless in expressive range if not necessarily the most compelling of musical imaginations or tonal sculptors; and drummer Tom Rainey was a revelation, playing like a carpenter at work on a sturdy country church who, possessed of a private madness, was carving hidden gargoyles in every corner. His sheer physical power was fantastic - it kills when jazz drummers bash the brains out of their skins, and Rainey could hit everything, high-hat to kick drum to snare, with exact shades and calibrations of deafening force then switch to a laid-back shuffle that filled the room with a mist of cool.

I can't believe Rainey's not famous. (Jazz famous, that is, not famous famous.) This piece expresses the same sentiment and notes that he's never worked as a leader - not surprising given his radically unassuming personality (when Helias started to talk politics he immediately muttered, "Count it off, Mark!") but I don't doubt he's ready for the role.

In any case, we're lucky to have seen such players in such a scruffy little setting, with a large appreciative audience. Helias said it was a lucky break in a tour that "seemed a little thin." He talked soberingly about how musicians are now expected to play the entrepreneur and book themselves everywhere - whether they have that skill or not. He described getting up in the a.m. to do the organizing, sitting down at the piano to collect his thoughts, "and three days later you still haven't made that phone call." Still, he said, this show demonstrated how shit can come together if "you put the energy out there and don't give in to incipient depression," which drew a sympathetic round from all the players in the crowd.

(A lighter moment: One of the organizers brings the band beer, saying she made a special run between sets before the beer store would close. Helias: "Back home we call that enabling." Her, with long-suffering irony: "It's not like I live with a jazz musician or anything.")

Speaking of the crowd, what a good thing for all the Toronto improvisors to witness people who can play their instruments so damn well, but who also aren't sawdust-stuffed samples of jazz taxidermy. This city's got a surfeit of good intentions, powerful imaginations and open minds, but sometimes it seems like the younger generation here suffers a shortage of self-punishingly rigorous rehearsal and skill. They used to call it "chops," and sometimes you've gotta stop being so punk-rock and admit chops rule.

Question: Why is it that all jazz musicians, intro'ing or extro'ing a piece, say that it is "entitled" whatever it's titled rather than "titled" or just "called"? What's the genealogy of that charmingly stilted little tic?

Live Notes | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, September 25 at 2:42 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (8)



Just a note that there's another review of Open Loose from local jazz critic Nate Dorward on jazzcorner at:

Posted by zoilus on September 30, 2004 3:09 PM



(I understand if you guys want to take this offline. But it sure makes for good reading on the site...)

Posted by misha on September 29, 2004 6:10 PM



Hey Joe - I'm going to email you off-site about this as it's getting a bit personal for the public square. I'll just note here that I've attended more than you've necessarily noticed, but not as much as I could - and that I don't have any particular agenda to see NYC people (I've actually been more interested in Vancouver guests). And more importantly that you need to recognize that a blog is not the same thing as an article and it's shot more from the hip. I wouldn't put such a broad generalization in the newspaper in a million years.

Posted by zoilus on September 29, 2004 1:35 PM



carl. i had no intention of calling you a bigot. in my frustration, i failed to communicate that i was writing about more than one writer's work in regard to the scene i'm a part of. so no, you didn't say that younger musicians in town had no right to interact with these folks. i was painting writers with a broad stroke and i appologize.

however, you have to admit that you painted younger, improvising musicians in a similar fashion:

"...sometimes it seems like the younger generation here suffers a shortage of self-punishingly rigorous rehearsal and skill."

it's increadibly frustrating for someone who spends a great deal of time amoung musicians who work their asses off to read these words.

also, i was trying to echo tim's comment, just saying it stronger: "I am only trying to point out that there is always a problem, no?".

you write "'ve gotta stop being so punk-rock and admit chops rule" but i've lost count of how many times i've been told to be MORE punk rock and stop relying on chops and musicianship so much. not by you, of course. i guess i've never really been talking about just you...

the thing is that you're very supportive of music in toronto and i respect and admire your efforts. sincerely. but you're making a generalized comment about a specific scene that i really don't think you've given much time. after a little less than a year of putting the leftover daylight series on, you've come out to the two events that have featured musicians from nyc: reuben radding and mark helias. other writers have acted similarily and every time we get any press, there's a generalized comment comparing these musicians to the musicians here and we are always made to look bad.

of course, you've asked me to become involved i some tin tin tin things and that support is appreciated, this is tough.

i just feel like the few mainstream voices who actually look on this music in general in a positive light are disuading people who might be interested in coming out to hear our music by telling them that, basically, the people doing it in toronto aren't worth the price of admission. they should go to new york or vancouver if they want to hear this music because it's so much better there.

again, i appreciate your pointing people toward our events, i appreciate your coming, and i really appreciate your writing. it's hard to say any of this because i make myself out to be an unappreciative ass. i'm also still thinking about more than one writer when i write this down - but there's nowhere else to vent this frustration...

the other thing is that i agree, we could take it to the wall more, but you admit that there are people here who do and i didn't get that from your piece. i got it from your comment. that's also, as a reader, where i learned that you "like a lot of the work". doesn't the positive need some public face time, too? if only to keep people like me (who take this stuff way too personally...) from going insane?

Posted by joe on September 29, 2004 8:55 AM



Joe. You think I don't listen to the musicians from in town? I do this all the time. I like a lot of the work. But sometimes it seems like the bar is placed at a very forgiving level. I don't fault the individual people - many of whom are very talented but sometimes as a listener one grows a bit impatient with certain of the characteristics of the style. I am not saying that you or anyone else can't play. Not that at all, and that would be to misinterpret me. I am talking about a certain amount of taking it to the wall. There are people here who do and those who don't. I think there could be more who do. I'm just being honest. Also, what's better than being cool? Ice cold...

Posted by zoilus on September 28, 2004 5:08 PM



the younger musicians in toronto lack chops?!?! what have you been listening to? i'm not saying they (we...) have nothing to learn or have no need to become better musicians, but that's obvious, that's what we deal with until we die, and it's an issue we share with our new york counterparts.

i'd like to know why we can't put on a show featuring musicians from out of town without someone coming up with some reason why toronto musicians aren't as good as those visitors, or aren't worthy of interacting with those visitors, or don't understand those visitors as much as the writer does, or...

there is some amazing, original, innovative music going on in this city and it's being made by people who live, breath, PRACTICE, REHEARSE, SESSION and STRUGGLE around the corner from where you live. you should listen to it and try to gain some apreciation for what we ARE rather than what we AREN'T.

try coming out to events that feature the local musicians who are practitioners of this art form. these happen in the same space as the helias show did on alternating friday nights.

the issues that mr's helias, malaby, and rainey were dealing with in the workshop misha mentioned (which many of us learned a great deal from...) are issues that my friends and i have been dealing with directly for many years. many of our answers to these problems are similar to the answers these folks have found, and many are different. i'm sure they are not better or worse. they are answers we came up with in toronto, though, and, in a way, that makes them yours as well as ours. the thing is, you don't even know what they are because you've never heard them outside of experimental settings with musicians from out of town.

Posted by joe on September 28, 2004 4:30 PM



The afternoon before the show, I went to a workshop held by Open Loose. It was weird. I've never been to something like that before. I thought "workshop" meant that something would, you know, happen. But it meant that a bunch of those jazz kids got to watch Open Loose rehearse, and then to ask Mark Helias questions. Is this a common practice in that world? I wonder if it was useful for the people there. For me it was not useful at all, and especially not forty dollars useful. Not complaing. I knew I was taking a risk with my time and money. Just honestly curious if this was useful/expected for the other people who were there.

Oh and:

Yes. Carl. 1000% agreement about chops, not just in music, but in everything. Sometimes it seems like the pendulum has swung so far that it's now a point against you to actually be good at what you do. This seems like a shame. There should be room for courage and innovation but also room for craft and skill.

(And, Tim, I'm not sure it's about finding a middle. Haven't some of the best ever musicians been ones who are wildly innovative *and* wildly virtuosic, not just a compromise between the two?)

Posted by misha on September 27, 2004 10:55 PM



Carl, it was a great show. Chops rule eh? I have to admit, the level of musicianship inspired me. Although, your observation about the younger musicians and suggesting chops are in a shortage these days is a provocative one.

What about all the older musicians that can really play their instruments but choose to play in a style that has been performed to death over the last fifty years or so. (or so some people suggest)

I am only trying to point out that there is always a problem, no?

Perhaps the musicians who find the middle of these two descriptions are the ones we celebrate (or should celebrate)

Having said all that; I am planning to practise more guitar in the near future after hearing that show!

thanks ken and joe for putting it on.


Posted by tim posgate on September 25, 2004 11:31 PM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson