The Itaca Quartet’s “Vortex”

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VORTEX / FRASER: Sketch 26. FEDRIGO: Saturno. Rakesh. FAZZINI: Vortex. Calanques. HOULE: Chorale. The Third Murder. WARD: ‘Nette / Itaca 4et: François Houle, cl/effects; Nicola Fazzini, a-sax; Alessandro Fedrigo, bs-gtr; Nick Fraser, dm / Nusica.org 17

The Itaca Quartet is a group comprised of two Italian musicians and two Canadians, which explains their unusual name, who play free jazz. With the exception of C. Ward’s ‘Nette, all of the compositions are by the group members, one by drummer Nick Fraser and two each by the other members.

But I always wonder what it means to “compose” a piece of free jazz, since there seldom if ever seems to be any structure to such pieces. In the opener, for instance, Fraser’s Sketch 26, we hear a cacophony of sounds played by the clarinet and alto sax with roiling, out-of-tempo explosions from the rhythm. Yes, it’s very interesting, I like it, and these musicians listen to each other in order to carry through somewhat coherent musical thought, but I can’t imagine that too much of this music was written down to begin with. So how, exactly, is it composed?

By contrast, Alessandro Fedrigo’s Saturno actually does have a melodic line, albeit a quirky, bitonal one, and there are some odd tone clusters played by the clarinet and alto with lip buzzes on their reeds. Following this, however, we hear some of the strangest music imaginable, still being played within the easy, loping 4/4 beat. Eventually, they drop out to allow us to hear a delicate bass and drum passage, then a drum solo, followed by what sounds like electronic effects before the two reeds return to close it out.

Fazzini’s Vortex begins with soft drones, followed by an insistent bass lick against cowbells and cymbals before the two horns enter to play, not so much a melody as a series of short melodic gestures before they launch into their improvisations. Here we hear even more interplay between the bass and drums, particularly the latter which clatter around before Fazzini enters to play a really wild chorus with plenty of squeals in it, while Houle’s clarinet wails atonally around it.

Houle’s Chorale opens with subtone clarinet, very pretty, accompanied only by the bass before we go to a soft, rather extended solo passage by the bass guitar while Fraser creates a crosshatch of cymbal effects behind it. Generally speaking, this is the most tonal and least wild track on the album, at least until the last chorus when things become very hectic before calming down at the end. Catanques opens with some odd, serrated figures played on the alto a cappella prior to the entrance of the drums and then the clarinet and bass guitar, at which point the two horns play a repeated unison lick leading into a calmer, more melodic figure, thence to an extended improvisation by Houle in his chalumeau register, complete with some slap-tongue effects. Things quiet down for the bass guitar solo, accompanied by some odd but sprightly cymbal figures. Eventually we get into some really spacey figures played by the alto while the clarinet continues to play its low-register melody. Eventually the two horns realize that they’re supposed to play together, and do.

The Third Murder is by far the weirdest piece on this album, a concoction of clarinet and alto wails and screams while the bass guitar and drums roil asymmetrically behind them—though, surprisingly, the beat straightens out into a sort of highly syncopated 4, then morphs once again as the wildness resumes. Rakesh, by contrast, is fairly quiet, even comparatively tuneful, though with an unsettled beat and querulous harmony. Eventually, it becomes a showcase for Houle’s liquid-sounding clarinet, with Fazzini playing some insertions in his second chorus before joining him for a series of short rhythmic phrases. Fazzini eventually takes over the solo spot. Everyone plays together at the finish.

The closer is Ward’s ‘Nette, possibly named after Ornette Coleman, one of the fathers of free jazz. Certainly, the happy but loose sound of this piece bears a striking resemblance to the kind of music played by the original Coleman Quartet of 1959-60 that created such a bombshell in the jazz world (both pro and con). Of course, Ornette never played clarinet or had a clarinet in his groups, but other than that this piece has a strong Coleman feel about it.

Quite an amazing CD, there’s not a bad or uninteresting track on it from start to finish!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz

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