Film in Music: Tell Tale
Drip Audio

Vancouver-based cellist Peggy Lee is one of those artists who's highly regarded by colleagues, audiences, and the critical cognoscenti (she was the 2013 recipient of the Vancouver Mayor's Arts Awards for music, to cite one of many such honours) but also deserving of wider recognition beyond her home base. Though she's amassed a distinguished discography and made a name for herself as a composer, band leader, and cellist, Lee would in a better world be a more familiar name throughout Canada and beyond its borders—a state of affairs perhaps this new release by Film in Music, one of many groups with which she's involved, might help rectify.

Born and raised in Toronto, Lee studied classical cello at the University of Toronto and eventually migrated west, doing a year-long residency in 1988 with a string quartet at the Banff Centre in Alberta before relocating to Vancouver. It was there that she began developing working relationships with artists such as guitarists Ron Samworth and Tony Wilson and her husband, drummer Dylan van der Schyff. Among the current projects which she either leads or co-leads are The Peggy Lee Band, Waxwing (with Wilson and Jon Bentley), Beautiful Tool (with Mary Margaret O'Hara), Handmade Blade (with JP Carter and Aram Bajakian), and, of course, Film in Music.

As the band name suggests, there's a visual dimension to Tell Tale, the project initially having been conceived as a musical response to David Milch's Deadwood—not that any familiarity with the HBO series is required for the recording to be appreciated. Joining Lee on the twelve-track suite are denizens of Vancouver's vibrant music community, the aforementioned van der Schyff and Samworth, plus violinist Jesse Zubot, trumpeter Kevin Elaschuk, keyboards player Chris Gestrin, electric bassist André Lachance, and acoustic bassist Torsten Muller. The eight members perform much as characters do within a film narrative, with each involved both in formally composed ensemble parts and featured in improvised solo ‘monologues.'

It's the ensemble pieces that are the album's major selling-point, especially when the instruments' different timbres imbue the compositions with so much splendid colour. Gestrin's electric piano meshes effectively with the front-line of violin, cello, guitar, and trumpet, and the contrasts between the electric and acoustic basses also add much to the group's sound. The unison statements voiced by the horn and strings in “Loyalties” help bring the dirge to life, despite its funereal character, and “Wild Bill” isn't raucous in the least but rather a plaintive ballad rendered with consummate care and emotional sensitivity. “Ensemble” captures the group's playing at its prettiest, and the band gets a serious groove on for the R&B-tinged swing of “Epilogue to Part 1,” with the electric piano and wah-wah guitar adding just the right amount of grease and van der Schyff powering the material solidly, while the wild, voodoo-esque “Finale: God's Laughter and a Parade” sees the band riffing like some spawn of Herbie Hancock's Headhunters and Miles's Live-Evil outfit. With hauntingly memorable themes in place as guideposts, Lee's gifts as a composer are well-accounted for, during the ensemble settings in particular.

Admittedly, Tell Tale isn't perfect. The solo spotlights, as integral as they might be to the album concept, arrest the momentum established by the ensemble pieces, and arguably a more satisfying recording would have seen the spotlights shortened (by way of example, the turn taken by Lachance on “Ensemble” is just the right length); a more concise and hence more effective recording would have resulted, one in the vicinity of forty-five or fifty minutes rather than the fifty-six presented. That reservation aside, Tell Tale nevertheless constitutes a fine addition to Lee's ever-growing discography.

December 2016