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Pick A Number – Onari 004



Bill Smith: Soprano & Sopranino Saxophone, Alto Clarinet
David Lee: Bass, Cello
David Prentice: Violin




1. Up (A Love Song) For Captain Robot (4:25) Dedicated to Steve Lacy
(Sopranino, bass, violin)

2. Little Boo (7:19)
(Alto Clarinet, Bass, Violin)

3. Bones & Giggles (7:28) Dedicated to Karla & Natasha
(Soprano, Cello, Violin)

4. Interludes (21:23) Dedicated to Anthony Braxton
(Soprano, Bass, Violin)

All Compositions by William E. (Bill) Smith

Recorded at McClear Place, Toronto on December 11th, 1979 by Phil Sheridan

The turn of the year marks the end of another decade of music, roughly the seventh in the evolution of the form called “jazz”, and who knows how many in the general history of improvisation (considering that the first-ever musician on the scene had to be an improviser…).

The seventh decade in jazz saw the rise of men like Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell and Leo Smith, who broadened the music’s horizons beyond categorisation. The ascendance of these and other musicians was assisted not insignificantly by Bill Smith, as the co-editor of the Canadian jazz magazine Coda (which was immediately sympathetic to and supportive of the ferment of the 1970s) and as co-owner and co-producer of Sackville Records (which has among its artists Braxton, Mithchell, Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake, Joseph Bowie, Don Pullen, Anthony Davis and George Lewis).

Having made – and continuing to make – his contributions to the understanding and acceptance of this music, Smith himself entered the performing arena as a saxophonist toward the middle of the decade, beginning in the company of pianist Stuart Broomer (with whom he recorded “Conversation Pieces” in 1976) and then participating in the organisation of such free improvisatory ensembles in Toronto as the All Time Sound Effects Orchestra, The Avant Garde Revival Orchestra (AGRO), the CCMC (in which he played for two albums on the Music Gallery Editions label) and Air Raid.

The trio on this recording is the latest of these groups, and the one that has moved furthest “outside” of jazz and indeed into that larger – and time honoured – tradition of improvised music. The Bill Smith Ensemble comprises Smith (soprano & sopranino saxophone, alto clarinet), David Lee (bass & cello) and David Prentice (violin). Lee, who is the associate editor of Coda magazine, has played informally with many of Canada’s like-minded musicians and was a member of Air Raid prior to the formation of this trio. And like the others, Prentice is not solely a performing musician; his musical experience prior to this trio included Toronto chamber music and community orchestras.

By their description the three musicians see themselves as part of a style that is characteristically if uniquely Canadian, the result (as a press release/manifesto explains it) of “the interfacing of composition and improvisation in a manner outside of the two musical disciplines known as jazz and classical. In fact a truly original Canadian art form has occurred. An art form where improvisation (which has been brought to its highest level by American practitioners of jazz) is shorn of its traditional rhythmic bases and brought into the realm of group interaction. An art form based on a wide variety of compositional ideas. An art form in which European instruments such as saxophone, clarinet, bass, cello and violin are allowed to improvise freely so that their inherent voices… can emerge into new areas.”

Until recently, the musicians called themselves the New Art Music Ensemble, or by the acronym N.A.M.E., as convenient as it was catchy. Unforeseen copyright conflicts eventually took care of the name N.A.M.E., but not before the trio, in its first year (1979), gave several concerts in Toronto (one with Julius Hemphill), Hull, Ottawa and Montreal, toured across Canada in October with the German trombonist Gunter Christmann, and conceived this record.

It is one of the last recordings of the 1970s and I find it hard to imagine many others that look ahead to the future to the extent that this one does. In Canada where, admittedly, free improvisation is not a widespread phenomenon, the trio is without precedent, and even in an international context – and it seems to me that European audiences especially would take this music quickly to their hearts – it is a new and individual development. Here are musicians whose music serves as proof of all the things free improvisation doesn’t have to be. These men are not content to rest their case on the premise that free improvisation, merely by definition, magically turns any and every act into music, much less music of value.

In a thoughtful and inquisitive manner they make music full of minute details. Its intimacy and personality don’t hold the daunting power of expression common to much of free improvisation, yet within these qualities – actually because of them, I think – the music has its own dynamic and expressive range. It is restless, probing and free spirited. It is also accessible and it is positive. Its inspirations are those of respect and affection – Up, A Love Song For Captain Robot is dedicated to Steve Lacy, Little Boo to Onari, Bones & Giggles to his daughters Karla and Natasha, and Interludes to Anthony Braxton. For a first record, as for a new decade of music, it is most promising.

Mark Miller. (http://www.themercurypress.ca/?q=authors/mark_miller)