It's the middle of August, the Toronto Blue Jays are leading the MLB Eastern Division (with 11 straight wins), and local drummer Nick Fraser has just released an album on Portugal’s Clean Feed label. It’s hard to decide which fills me with more civic pride. I’ve seen Fraser perform a handful of times, mostly at The Tranzac (Toronto Australia New Zealand Club), a social venue sympathetic to new and adventurous sounds. He is a masterful colorist, and his measured, thoughtful shadings evoke the gentle artistry of Bob Ross. Dialogues with his bandmates appear intuitive and sincere, and unlike the Blue Jays, who last won a pennant in 1993, Fraser’s been steadily perfecting his craft in the city since moving from Ottawa in 1995.
I’m proud of Fraser’s achievements like I am of trumpeter Darren Johnston and percussionist Harris Eisenstadt, two other Canadian-born artists thriving in the international creative music scene. Too Many Continents finds Fraser leading a trio with two heavyweight improvisers who need no introduction - pianist Kris Davis, and saxophonist Tony Malaby. On second thought, labeling anyone ‘leader’ of this date might be inaccurate. The three have been friends for twenty years and seem to communicate their ideas telepathically.
On my second pass through the album, the cover image of The Art Ensemble of Chicago’s Nice Guys (ECM, 1979) flickers through my mind. You know, that wonderful black and white shot of the group seated around a gingham-clothed table drinking coffee? Too Many Continents sounds like that photograph. Natural. Comfortable. This is not to suggest that it doesn’t take chances or stray from familiar territory. Were the Art Ensemble ever tame or predictable? Neither are Fraser and company. Malaby is in top form, sputtering and bubbling above the others in ‘I Needed It Yesterday’, tethered by Davis as Fraser navigates. Davis employs a sustained single note pattern in ‘Nostalgia For The Recent Past’, fueling a restless Malaby to launch into a manic discourse. Fraser really seems to bloom at this point in the album, absorbing the energy of his companions, but never overshadowing them. There’s plenty of fire and fury here, bookended between the controlled burn of sensitive ballads.
This album rewards repeated listenings. It’s wholly musical, well paced, and there’s not a wasted note within. There’s an undeniable bond between the three, and this kinship results in a totally organic, balanced session. Nick Fraser’s Too Many Continents is a grand slam.