Rebecca Hennessy's FOG Brass Band: Two Calls
Rebecca Hennessy

One of the more interesting things about this terrific set by trumpeter Rebecca Hennessy and her brass band FOG is that, while it invites jazz as its natural classification, few of its nine pieces are jazz in the strict sense of the word; on Two Calls, one is as likely to hear elements of Balkan folk music and R&B as much as anything jazz-related. If anything, it would be more accurate to say that she and her five colleagues infuse these in-studio live performances with a jazz sensibility and execute the material with the kind of technical proficiency generally associated with jazz.

Hennessy, whose burnished trumpet sound will be familiar to many a Toronto jazz devotee, relocated to the city in 2003 from Vancouver Island, BC and has in the decade-plus since established herself as a versatile and accomplished trumpeter, composer, and bandleader of note. Two Calls isn't, by the way, her debut album: seven have been released to date featuring her as a leader or co-leader, and when not fronting FOG the University of Toronto and Vancouver Island University graduate co-leads two quartets, Way North and Hobson's Choice. On Two Calls, a stellar horn-dominated sextet performs, with the leader on trumpet, flugelhorn, peckhorn, and baritone horn ably assisted by Tom Richards (trombone), Jay Burr (tuba), Don Scott (guitar), Nico Dann (drums), and the ever-reliable Tania Gill on piano.

“Red Herring” inaugurates the album on a vibrant and spirited note, with Burr and Dann powering the band with a muscular bottom end and the front-line navigating its way through intricate melodic territory. Robust solos by Richards and Hennessy give the tune a strong jazz vibe, while Scott ups the rock ante with a high-energy turn to cap the tune with a blazing flourish. Whether by accident or design, the funereal, three-minute opening section of “Horn Lake” plays like a seeming homage to Arvo Pärt's Tabula Rasa, with in this case multiple brass overdubs (the textural treatment courtesy of Jean Martin, who co-produced the album with Hennessy) amplifying the material's ponderous ambiance. Following this two-part composition (three if you count the solo taken by Gill that effects a transition into the piece's bright second half), that aforementioned Balkan folk dimension emerges during “Kings County Sheriff,” whose swinging pulse Scott and Hennessy adorn with free-wheeling statements.

The languid, bluesy pulse of “Lagoon” less suggests a watery locale and more a slow trek across dusty, heat-scorched plains on horseback; as such, the material calls to mind Sonny Rollins' 1957 classic Way Out West and especially the Carla Bley Band's “The Lone Arranger” (I Hate To Sing, 1984). Regardless, its slow tempo provides an opportune vehicle for relaxed solos by Hennessy and Burr plus a rather dazed and sunstroked one by Scott. Elsewhere, the sextet, led by strong individual turns by Richards and Gill, digs into the rollicking, New Orleans-inflected swing of “Snag” with conviction before giving “Birds For Free” a joyous, Calypso-flavoured reading. At album's end, Hennessy and company guide Two Calls out with “Why Are You So Sad Booker Little?,” a melancholy chorale that memorializes the late American trumpeter, who died in 1961 at the age of twenty-three.

On this diverse collection, each setting is carefully structured to allow for individual voices to emerge yet different enough that each piece marks out its own special zone. Solo and ensemble playing is consistently tight and of the highest calibre, and the resplendent unison playing of the horns is a constant source of pleasure. Put simply, the album's distinguished by world-class playing that would sound great on any festival stage, Toronto or otherwise.

May 2017