Harley Card: The Greatest Invention
Harley Card

Without meaning any disrespect to Harley Card, I'm wondering if The Greatest Invention shouldn't display The Harley Card Quintet on the cover rather than the name of the Toronto guitarist only. His bandmates are so critical to the success of the recording, it seems only fitting that the artist credit should include them, too. Card did, on the other hand, produce the set and wrote all eleven of the compositions (two co-written with Rheostatics member Dave Clark). No matter: The Greatest Invention is a fine album regardless of whose name appears on the cover; in fact, it would be hard to imagine a better example of small group interplay than Card's follow-up to 2013's Hedgerow and his 2008 debut Non-Fiction.

As a soloist, he eschews cheap theatrics for tact and reserve, qualities evident as a solo's constructed methodically and intelligently, the ones in the title track and “Canoe Lake” good illustrations. Yet as solid as they are (and democratically distributed also), it's not the solos that most recommend The Greatest Invention but rather its compositions, their arrangements, and the tight ensemble playing. That the quintet—Card with saxophonist David French, pianist Matt Newton, bassist Jon Maharaj, and drummer Ethan Ardelli—has been a working band for twelve years is borne out by the calibre of these performances. Nice touches abound, such as when Maharaj's bowed bass and French voice one of the title track's themes in unison, and when he and Card do the same during “Ben's Sanctuary,” written in tribute to a man who tends the bird sanctuary in Toronto's High Park. All five musicians contribute sensitive support to the collective endeavour throughout the recording.

Card looked for inspiration to many things, with the title track informed by a love of cycling (hence the chain and sprocket details on the cover panels) and others inspired by jazz influences (“Precipice” nods to Wayne Shorter's compositions from the ‘60s whereas “Canoe Lake” is Card's tribute to Phil Nimmons), locales (“Shadows of Shea Pines” grew out of a photo taken at a Quebec cottage), and standards (“April Song” and “A Distant Bell” melodically riff on “I'll Remember April” and “I Remember You,” respectively). “Enclosure,” interestingly, draws on John Cage's compositional techniques, with in this case each instrumental part entering one at a time and at twice the length of the previous one.

Nowhere is the band's rapport better shown than on the animated title track, with all five collectively navigating Card's intricate design confidently. In contrast to the opener's almost fusion-styled feel, the breezily swinging “Precipice” sees the band tackling a classic blues, with French and Newton turning in rather boppish turns, while “Highlights” features the band digging into 5/4 time with an Afro-Cuban feel.

Some of the pieces call other jazz figures to mind. The free-flowing interactions of “Grace” are united by the kind of phrases with which Ornette often graced his own ballads, the lovely closer “Postcard” exudes a languor reminiscent of Carla Bley during her Nightglow period, and the three-part suite “Shadows of Shea Pines” includes a Bill Evans-like middle section and a solo by French that might have you thinking a little bit of Joe Lovano and Joe Henderson. Don't mistake The Greatest Invention for a derivative exercise, however; Card, like anyone else steeped in the form's traditions, draws from it in order to devise his own spin.

January 2018