A couple of years ago, sought-after session drummer and music educator Chris Lesso put together a trio with the idea of creating what they call “electro-ambient improvisational bedlam.” The rest of this little group dubbed Modus Factor boasts two other of the best musicians in the Toronto scene: Sister Euclid bassist Ian De Souza and a multiple winner of Canada’s prestigious National Jazz Award, trumpeter Brownman Ali. Last month, they debuted with their first album The Picasso Zone on Ali’s Browntasaurus Records.
Lesso may lead the group, but there’s a lot of load sharing happening here. They composed all the music together, mostly when they were laying down the tracks in the studio. Ali served as the album’s producer; De Souza added dashes of electronic effects.
It all comes together in a truly collaborative effort that had quickly developed that elusive chemistry and a comfort level big enough to take chances. It all begins to gel with the opening track: “Brownian Motion” is a straightforward groove that masks a lot of sophistication underneath. That jazz-toned guitar you hear is actually de Souza playing his bass up high and later on his fuzz bass solo deceives into thinking that this is a sly synth solo instead. Meanwhile, Ali has his trumpet assume the guitar role thanks to an octave pedal, and his manipulation of the ol’ wah-wah pedal — here and everywhere else — greatly expands the trumpet’s traditional role in much the same way Miles Davis did so throughout the first half of the 70s.
In that sense, Ali and Modus Factor does more to demonstrate how far ahead of his time Miles was in that immediate, post-Bitches Brew than any academic discussion could do, because the trio is blending funk, jazz and pure improv just as the old master did; even today this strange, appealing alloy remains on the front edge of jazz. The menacing funk and Ali’s balls-to-the-wall effects-laden horn on “King Ghidorah” would have made Miles smiled hearing a trumpet being used like a lead rock guitar. For “Now & Zen.” De Souza is holding down the loping rhythm to form a low-end bedrock that gives Ali the breathing space he exploits for a stormy solo.
There’s a world music element to The Picasso Zone, informed by Ali’s Trinidad roots and De Souza’s Ugandan ones, such as the echoes of reggae (as well as some maximal trumpet from Ali) found on “Casa Kimono.” Moreover, their curiosity about other parts of the world led them, for example, to south India, in evidence on the konnakol used on the songs “Afindia” and “Jagaan,” the former rooted in African music, too.
“Still I Rise” was composed around the poem of the same name written by Maya Angelou, whose recorded recital of the poem was laid right into the track. If it seems that the music is such a good fit for the prose, that’s because the drums, bass and trumpet parts for recorded and edited separately, then carefully put together by Ali in concert with Angelou’s reading.
“Jagaan” takes a break from that ‘bedlam’ to dive deeper into the ‘ambient’ side, where Lesso’s nuanced kit work really shines. “Metanoia” is a quiet tune, too, but one that sprung up spontaneously in the studio, yet it’s so melodious and well constructed.
When great musicians from different bands and projects get together for the express purpose of making music without the restrictions they usually face elsewhere, it should bring out the best in all of them. That’s just what happened with the guys in Modus Factor on their inaugural effort The Picasso Zone.
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