Jazz performed by large orchestras make up a big, important part of the history of jazz but the kind of big bands that get me fired up the most are ones who break from convention and behave like a rowdy, small band. That’s just the kind of band Nicolas Caloia leads with the Ratchet Orchestra. As the composer, director and bassist for this Montreal-based ensemble of thirty musicians, Caloia had nurtured and grown this project that explores his passion for improvised chamber jazz since he started Ratchet about twenty years ago.
This past fall, this modern-day version of Sun Ra’s Arkestra had issued only their third album, Hemlock, and on it there’s all the elaborately clever arrangements that a smart guy can install with a bunch of musicians to work with and then let them go completely nuts…just the way I like it.
It starts with the weight of the orchestra bringing a dark mood to begin “Winnow,” followed by an ornery trombone makes some growly expressions. Then it really gets unhinged with the lengthy composition “Dusty,” a bell curve type song that begins with a vamp performed by strummed violins, with layers of counter melodies heaped on. The real fun begins when an overdriven, freeform electric guitar leads the whole damned ensemble into a brief blast of cacophony. “Yield” doesn’t get unhinged but the arrangements on this waltz remain loose, imaginative and carefree.
The two-parter “Wish” evolves a vamp from a soft bossa nova to multiple layers and variations, crash landing and starting again around a bass figure. The theme reappears in new clothes, as the violins get restless in a Zappa-esque chart. “Safety,” on the other hand, feels through-composed and composed in the other sense of the word, using an elongated melodic development to weave through movements like, well, chamber music. “Hemlock,” another two part piece, ends the program. Caloia again starts with an ostinato with which he bastes on layers of counter harmonies, and just when you think he’s committed to a certain tact, up pops a experimental jazz-rock interlude with an electric piano and a fuzzed-out guitar.
A well-oiled machinery of drama, subtle sophistication and unpredictability, the Ratchet Orchestra walks the fine line between composition and combustion on Hemlock.This isn’t how chamber music is typically played, but it should be.
Hemlock was released on October 23, by Drip Audio. Visit the Ratchet Orchestra’s website for more info.