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Friday, July 8, 2022

Ellwood Epps & Togetherness! Live at Résonance (Bandcamp 2022)

By Stuart Broomer

Canadian trumpeter Ellwood Epps first assembled the band Togetherness! in Montreal in 2016 to explore a very particular vein in jazz, the early 1960s emergence of South African musicians who mixed free jazz practice, particularly the loose improvisatory style of Ornette Coleman’s quartets, with the melodic and rhythmic content of their own communities’ music. The style is most strongly associated with the Blue Notes, the African musicians who escaped Apartheid to settle in England in the ‘60s - Chris MacGregor, Johnny Dyani, Dudu Pukwana, Mongezi Feza and Louis Moholo-Moholo, but it includes others as well, like Abdullah Ibrahim, Nikho Xaba and even Don Cherry, whose tune “Togetherness” lends its name to this band. Despite the very specific roots of the music, there’s a broader appeal in the compound of joy and sorrow present in the dancing rhythms and melodies of the music, a celebration in the face of pernicious colonialism, something with which more and more people can identify.

Save for a single tune at the Guelph Jazz Festival in September 2021, this November 2021 recording documents the first appearance of Togetherness! as a sextet, adding virtuoso clarinetist Lori Freedman whose gravelly bass, liquid soprano and squealing E flat add more wild, vocalic voices to the quintet of Epps, alto and baritone saxophonist Jean Derome, trombonist Scott Thomson and the somehow forcefully lilting rhythm team of bassist Stéphane Diamantakiou and drummer Ivan Bamford.

The opening “Emavung Wani”, composed by Nikho Xaba, immediately demonstrates the music’s rhythmic strength and the special heft achieved by the four-horn front line, Epps’ emotive leads dovetailing with the three supporting horns. The horn players all favour big sounds: Epps brings a lyric sense and affecting inflections to his solos, Thomson’s trombone has something of a New Orleans caste, with burred, rough-hewn blasts suggesting Kid Ory, Derome’s baritone has still more force, while Freedman can make herself heard in every register. The horns’ collective dialogue shifts polyphonic New Orleans roots to other continents, other communities. The band’s greatest point of interest, however, may be its members’ abilities to fuse that accessible repertoire with practices formed in contemporary free improvisation.

Abdullah Ibrahim’s “Homecoming Song” begins with an a capella theme statement, Epps’ vocalic inflections evoking the longing that’s often central to this music. When he lands on a repeating rhythmic figure, he’s joined by the chorus of horns and the rhythm section, with Diamantakiou’s pulsing ostinato in the foreground. That rhythmic élan liberates the playfulness of the soloists, from Thomson’s chromatic scales to Epps’ bugle calls and Freedman’s storehouse of zoological sounds.

Ibrahim’s “Mamma” is initially loping traditional blues, courtesy of Thomson’s muted trombone, but it also highlights the brilliance of the two reed players. Jean Derome, a central figure in Quebecois “musique actuelle”, an umbrella term for a broad range of contemporary music, bridges multiple forms from mastery of Monk and Mingus idioms to conceptual compositions like Résistances (Ambiances Magnétiques, 2017), a 60-minute orchestral piece devoted to North America’s 60-cycle power grid. Here he compresses the alto saxophone’s history, stretching from Johnny Hodges’s quicksilver blues through Ornette Coleman to Marshall Allen’s squall, doing it all with grace and inevitability. Freedman uses the E flat sopranino to explore an edgy zone of expressionist cries and multiphonic squawks that is all her own.

Don Cherry’s “Togetherness” begins with Thomson’s combination of multiphonics and circular breathing, a kind of Tuvan trombone, creating an aura of meditative mystery before Epps’ launches the theme with the other winds providing a contrasting rhythmic ostinato. It’s in that sense of unexpected musical adventure that this band establishes its identity, combining a sixty-year-old musical tradition of vibrant melodies and uplifting ensembles with the creative variety of contemporary improvisation, stretching toward a music that’s at once immediate and oneiric.

Also included are Mongezi Feza’s “Sonia”, rich in developed collective improvisation, and a concluding medley that reprises “Mamma” with Feza’s “You Ain't Gonna Know Me ('Cos You Think You Know Me)”.

Listen and download from Bandcamp.


Jazzmb66 said...

Hell to the YEAH!