Harley Plays Trump Card in New CD

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THE GREATEST INVENTION / CARD: The Greatest Invention. Precipice. Shadows of Shea Pines. Ben’s Sanctuary. Canoe Lake. April Song. Enclosure. Grave. A Distant Bell. Highlights. Postcard / Harley Card, el-gtr; David French, t-sax; Matt Newton, pn; Jon Maharaj, bs; Ethan Ardelli, dm / Independent DYM003

This is the third CD by Harley Card, a Toronto-based jazz guitarist and composer. Card apparently took a somewhat strange journey into jazz, starting out in punk rock bands while taking visual art in high school. He began as a drummer but switched to guitar at age 16, studying with the great Ottawa guitarist Dave Milliken. He then played as a freelance guitarist in Reggae bands before switching over full time to jazz. The title of this CD, The Greatest Invention, refers to the bicycle, which Card apparently feels is greater than the steam engine, cotton gin or internal combustion engine.

Listening to the music on this CD, I found it well constructed, with themes that are both solidly written and conducive to improvisation. Card has learned his lessons well; he can, at this point, produce a string of original pieces that fit the prescribed formula of much modern jazz: irregular meters, amorphous lead lines and a modal sense of harmony. He is also a very fine guitarist, not one of those “soft jazz” lounge lizards who have no spine in their playing. Undoubtedly, his experience as a punk rocker and Reggae musician have had a lot to do with this. In the opener, The Greatest Invention, there is an interesting variant on the theme at 3:55 that shows he knows where the music is going and how to get there.

The second number, Precipice, has more of a conventional 4/4 swing feel to it, a welcome contrast to the first number. Interestingly, Card’s own solo here is somewhat minimal, using sparse lines and an almost shy presence, as if he doesn’t want to assert himself too much on his own tune. By contrast, tenor saxist David French really shines here, playing a solo not too far removed from the kind of things that Zoot Sims played in the 1950s. Matt Newton is somewhat effervescent on piano, playing double-time splashes of notes in his solo.

I was quite impressed by his writing in Shadows of Shea Pines. Here, Card slows the tempo down, producing a slow-moving line in G-flat that cleverly leans towards other tonalities without ever arriving there. French’s equally wistful solo has a touch of Lester Young in it, and Jon Maharaj plays bowed bass behind him, sometimes in harmony, sometimes in unison. Then a sudden shift into a jazz waltz, with Newton leading the band into entirely different material. Suddenly, subtly, the jazz waltz becomes a standard 4 beat, leading back into French for a more swinging solo. I was quite impressed by the quintet’s ability to think and feel everything as a unit; none of the gear-shifting sounds forced or artificial, but totally organic. By 6:38 we’ve suddenly switched once again, now to a quasi-Latin beat, with Card playing a nice solo over the rhythm section. The tempo slows down once again for the finale.

Ben’s Sanctuary starts with isolated cymbal tings over very soft, high-on-the-fret playing by Card. Newton plays the gentle theme with sparse notes, followed by French and Card in unison. On the middle section French takes over, with Card playing brief counter-figures. This, too, is an interesting composition, again with subtly shifting rhythms and accents throughout. Another impressive quality of the band is that the various solos “fit” the surrounding material as if they, too, were written out. Were Card to use a bit more development, counter-lines and expanded harmony, these could easily be called jazz-classical fusion pieces. Even at 7:17, it’s almost over before you know it.

Canoe Lake opens with slow ostinato chords from the piano, over which the sax and guitar play occasional figures. This one starts out in 3, although with some of the beats within bars being redistributed in unusual patterns. The bass plays a softly plucked solo, adding some counter-figures to Newton’s ostinato. The bridge is played by French with Card behind him. The the tempo picks up some, the rhythm shifts to a sort of soft Reggae, and Card takes over on guitar. This is clearly one of his best solos on the album, interesting and structured at the same time.

April Song begins with percussion and plenty of it. Finally, after a minute, the piano leads into the sax and guitar playing the melody in unison. After the startling innovations of the previous three pieces, this one sounded good but somewhat ordinary. By contrast, Enclosure is one of the most rhythmically complex pieces on the record, its odd harmonic-melodic structure built around a repeated lick on the piano. Grace sounded to me like a soft jazz piece, with Card playing in a gentle manner. The slowly-moving melodic line is rather plain, if atmospheric. A Distant Bell is another slow ballad, albeit one played quite beautifully by Card and the band. An eventual shift to a Latin beat introduces an outstanding solo by French, almost in Stan Getz bossa nova style, followed by a relaxed, laid-back solo from the leader. Surprisingly, Maharaj switches here from acoustic to electric bass for his own solo.

Highlights is in an unusual meter which I couldn’t quite place, largely because of the constant beat-shifting within each bar. When French plays the melody, it sounds as if the meter is changing every few bars as well. Newton’s solo is both florid and a bit convoluted; when Card enters, the tempo switches to a more conventional 4, then back to the irregular meter for the ride-out. The finale, Postcard, is yet another slow, atmospheric piece, almost a bit too relaxed in the opening chorus by Card. The music progresses at such a relaxed pace that one must concentrate to hear the underlying structure of the tune, which is fairly interesting. Maharaj, back on acoustic bass, plays a nice plucked solo, followed later by a lightly-played solo from Card. It’s a nice, relaxed finish to the CD, though I would have preferred something a bit more uptempo.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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