Creative Orchestra Projects

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In October 2016, I convened the Montreal-Toronto Art Orchestra, featuring improvising musicians from both cities, to rehearse and perform Roscoe Mitchell‘s series of compositions, Conversations for Orchestra. The Orchestra performed in Montréal at L’Off Festival de Jazz and in Toronto at the Music Gallery. A recording of this project, Ride the Wind, is released on Nessa Records (ncd40), featuring Roscoe Mitchell (woodwinds), Marilyn Lerner (piano); Lori Freedman, Yves Charuest, Kyle Brenders, Jean Derome, Peter Lutek, and Jason Sharp (woodwinds); Nicole Rampersaud, Craig Pedersen (trumpets); Tom Richards, Scott Thomson (trombones); Julie Houle (tuba); Jean René, James Annett (violas); Rob Clutton, Nicolas Caloia (double-basses); Isaiah Ceccarelli, Nick Fraser (drums); Michael Davidson (vibraphone); Gregory Oh (conductor)

Prior to that, the AIMToronto Orchestra was a seventeen-piece creative music ensemble directed by Kyle Brenders (primarily artistic director) and me (primarily administrative director). In early 2007, when I was still on the Board of the Association of Improvising Musicians Toronto (AIMToronto), I proposed that, as an extension of the Interface Series Program, we form a large ensemble made up of AIMToronto member-musicians to learn and to perform the music of Anthony Braxton. At the time, Kyle was studying with Anthony while completing his Master’s degree at Wesleyan University, and was due to move to Toronto afterward. Once the Board had assembled the Orchestra, Kyle coached it in advance of a rehearsal intensive with Anthony that summer, followed by a main-stage performance at the Guelph Jazz Festival in September, 2007.

This performance was recorded and broadcast by the CBC, and was eventually released as Anthony Braxton and the AIMToronto Orchestra, Creative Orchestra (Guelph) 2007 (Spool Records) – the final release by that notable Canadian creative music label.

The momentum of the Braxton project inspired the Orchestra members to continue the project into the autumn of 2007. Administratively, the Orchestra ceased to be the purview of the AIMToronto Board, and has subsequently been directed solely by Kyle and me, an organization called Toronto Creative Orchestra Projects. The Orchestra partnered with the Leftover Daylight Series, where it met monthly to workshop new pieces by its members. During this period, the Orchestra also performed Anthony’s music at the Brampton Indie Arts Festival in January, 2008, and rehearsed and performed the music of Malcolm Goldstein as part of his AIMToronto Interface Series in March, 2008.

The monthly workshops continued into the summer of 2008, but increasingly inconsistent personnel made such regular assembly unsustainable. Since then, the Orchestra has been re-assembled on a project-by-project basis. By the time of this transition, however, a program’s worth of new material had been composed by Justin Haynes, Joe Sorbara, Germaine Liu, and Kyle Brenders. This material was the basis of the Orchestra’s concert at the Polish Combatant’s Hall, Toronto, as part of the 2008 X-Avant Festival by the Music Gallery, as well as the Orchestra’s first studio recording, Year of the Boar (Barnyard Records), that Jean Martin and I produced in January 2010. (I do not play on Year of the Boar; Steve Ward very ably subs for me when my directorial duties take front-and-centre.)

The April, 2011, record launch for Year of the Boar at the 918 Bathurst Centre for the Arts, Toronto, featured new works by Justin Haynes (“Circles Over Labrador“) and Kyle Brenders (“Gander”) written for the Orchestra plus special guest soloist, Evan Parker, who was in town to launch his trio recording with Wes Neal and Joe Sorbara, At Somewhere There (Barnyard Records) at the beginning of a two-week Eastern Canadian tour that I organized for him.


Downbeat Magazine Review of Roscoe Mitchell & the Montreal-Toronto Art Orchestra, Ride the Wind (Nessa), by Peter Margasak, May 2018

Point of Departure Journal Review, March 2018

Roscoe Mitchell & the Montreal-Toronto Art Orchestra
Ride the Wind
Nessa Records 40

Roscoe Mitchell’s large-ensemble works have been rare and include some highlights of his career like his 1979 big band and 2009 symphony-orchestra setting of Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City. Ride the Windis another highlight. Stuart Broomer’s extensive program notes illuminate the long process that yielded six of these seven new pieces. They’re orchestrations, by Mitchell and three colleagues, of pieces from his two Conversations CDs (Wide Hive, 2013), those bright, tight, closely felt improvisations by Mitchell, keyboardist Craig Taborn, and drummer Kikanju Baku. And hoo boy, the Ride the Wind expansions sound nothing like the originals. New material got added, interpretations are free as can be, with different dynamics, and there’s some more improvising, too. For instance, the title piece and “RUB” originally began as rubato explorations of sound-space tension, which disappears completely in the 21-piece-orchestra version. Instead, the “Ride the Wind” track now has slow momentum and long-tone harmonies, while “RUB” is a veritable zoo of awakening sounds and colors.

The young orchestra includes five brass, two violas, five rhythm, vibes, and six woodwinds from piccolo to contrabass clarinet. With such resources, no wonder the orchestrations blew the originals up into such a colorful spectrum of sounds. The most drastic reinterpretation is “Shards and Lemons,” which originated as a concentrated, 3:41 duet of tensions. Mitchell himself blew this one up into 12 minutes of all kinds of contrasts, high vs. low, long tones vs. tiny, fast tones, tense sounds in space vs. full ensemble. Christopher Luna-Mega’s orchestration of “Splatter” may come closest to the contours of the original, but oh, my, what rich sounds. “They Rode for Them” is divided into two parts, which include the CD’s only solos, Yves Charuest on alto and Mitchell on sopranino. Finally, there is yet another interpretation of “Nonaah,” a quartet version by Nicolas Caloia. Are we now in the Era Of The Composer?  Because there’s sure been some stimulating music recently and Ride the Wind is sure a beauty.

–John Litweiler

New York City Jazz Record Review, April 2018

Roscoe Mitchell & the Montreal-Toronto Art Orchestra
Ride the Wind
Nessa Records 40

No label has done more to promote [Roscoe] Mitchell’s music than Nessa and it is fitting that the ambitious Ride the Wind should be released on that iconic imprint. The Montreal-Toronto Art Orchestra comprises some of Canada’s best performers of new music and they turn their attention to improvisations from two 2014 trio albums, Conversations 1 and 2, with [Craig] Taborn and [Kikanju] Baku. Stuart Broomer’s superb notes detail the process by which Mitchell or one of his students first transcribed and then orchestrated the improvisations, sometimes even using spectral analysis to glean harmony from multi-pitched percussion instruments. The results are unlike anything in Mitchell’s vast catalogue, scaling the heights of grandeur only to dive headlong into passages of uproarious humor, such as the squeaky-toy-inflected opening of “Rub”. The title piece is a tour de force of transcription and composition, as comparison with the improvisation makes plain. A single but complex bell tone from the original becomes a chord, a sonority rife with overtone as well as micro- and macrocosmic implication for the rest of the piece. Mitchell provides only a sopranino solo on the second part of “They Rode for Them”, but his thumbprint is everywhere in these works, which, in AACM fashion, refuse either to embrace or reject convention, treading a middle ground of exploration. The recording itself is unique; it resides at the opposite end of the spectrum from ECM’s opulent acoustics. Room atmosphere is almost entirely sublimated in favor of one of the most vivid stereophonic presentations imaginable. Each instrument is captured in space, its sound complete and never subservient to another instrument, surpassing any concert hall experience in refinement; the listener is seated about five feet away from the orchestra. If only major labels would record orchestras this way!

–Marc Medwin

Downbeat Magazine Review, October 2012

AIMToronto Orchestra
Year Of The Boar
Barnyard Records 0322
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This is the studio debut for a group assembled for the 2007 Guelph Jazz Festival by soprano saxophonist Kyle Brenders, initially to interpret Anthony Braxton’s music. The repertoire expanded to include pieces by Brenders, Justin Haynes, Joe Sorbara and vibraphonist Germaine Liu.

Tightly synched a cappella horns scamper like the eponymous boar at the outset, before the whole ensemble joins. A shriek from Christine Duncan precedes hog-like rasps from soprano and assorted reeds before a count-in to a jovial line out of a Dutch fanfare brass band book. A landslide of long tones ensues, coming to rest in an oasis of pastoral guitar and whistling. Clearly through-composed and cued, nonetheless far from a predictable ride.

Brenders’s “Fields” generates brooding electrical currents with arco buzz and shimmering long tones before an incredible tinkling—like thousands of amplified glass cockroaches—heralds percussionist Sorbara’s “Rendered In Desperation.”

Pristine recording by Jean Martin at Toronto’s Canterbury Music abets the wide dynamic range of the ensemble, which can hold much in reserve, unlike other groups its size.

The personnel may comprise contemporary music specialists more than jazz-based improvisers, restricting solo indulgence. There’s remarkable clarity of purpose, even in paraphrasing histrionics backing Duncan’s demented rants during “Follow Line Flow Line,” which concludes spookily with creepy strings, key pops and deadened piano keys. Liu’s “Cross Fading Accents” comes at you like some offcourse threshing machine.

–Michael Jackson


The Montreal-Toronto Art Orchestra is available for performances of Roscoe Mitchell’s suite, Conversations for Orchestra; please contact me if you wish to present the Orchestra in your city.