\\livingfossil//: NEVER DIE!
Gordon Hyland

NEVER DIE! is an altogether superb debut outing by \\livingfossil//, a new outfit spearheaded by Toronto-based tenor saxophonist Gordon Hyland that rose from the ashes of the Ninja Funk Orchestra. Joining the leader in the new project are holdovers from that band, drummer Mackenzie Longpre, guitarist Neil Whitford, and electric bassist Andrew Roorda. Given such history and the choice of album title, it's understandable that themes of determination and resilience would infuse the outfit's debut, though they manifest themselves more implicitly than otherwise. The band's name is also consistent with the overall theme, the term ‘living fossil' one Hyland came upon in a Jacques Cousteau book featuring the nautilus, a sea creature that's much the same today as it was when it originated some 500 million years ago. Without wishing to read too much into it, perhaps Hyland sees himself as an entity similarly resolute in its persistence and endurance.

While the aforementioned four form the band's core, others participated in the sessions: on six of the nine cuts, Torrie Seager appears as a second guitarist; the remaining three add tenor saxist Mike Murley (who co-produced the album with Andrew Mullin at Canterbury Studios in Toronto) and, in place of Roorda, acoustic bassist Vivienne Wilder. Such a move makes for an interesting result, as the two configurations bring different personae to the album: with his contributions beefing up the band's sound, the Seager iteration is naturally a bit more harder-edged; with Wilder and Murley involved, \\livingfossil// exemplifies a stronger acoustic jazz-styled feel. Said difference isn't so pronounced as to be disconcerting, however, as the band's core ensures continuity, regardless of lineup changes.

At the same time, while it's not inaccurate to say the Seager model is the harder-edged of the two (by way of illustration, check out “satellite,” whose sax and guitar extemporizations the rhythm section powers with the album's heaviest groove), no one should therefore imagine that the playing is altogether raucous. While there are some rock-inflected moments, this version of the band plays with a great deal of nuance, as evidenced by the ballad-like treatment given “listen to the quiet voice,” its title directly taken from one of Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt's Oblique Strategies cards; in fact, one the album's biggest pleasures is hearing the way one of the two guitars acts as a chordal instrument that both supports the soloist and provides clarity to the composition as it advances through its many changes. The expanded lineups also allow for pleasing timbres to arise, specifically in the way Hyland's sax doubles with Murley in the one set of tracks and pairs with guitar in the other.

Hyland, a University of Toronto graduate (a Masters in Jazz Performance) who's studied privately with Donny McCaslin, Chris Cheek, Seamus Blake, and others, is a strong and confident player, his resourceful chops well-displayed—though not overly indulgently—on the album. He's also not without a sense of humour, as intimated by the titles of two pieces, “lessforgettable,” a riff on the Irving Gordon standard associated with Nat King Cole, and “baby steps,” a tongue-in-cheek nod to Coltrane. Throughout the disc, Hyland and his bandmates show themselves to be a versatile lot, capable of essaying a post-bop style as convincingly as something rock-edged, and the strong rapport evidenced by the playing reveals a deep connection forged by musicians who've played together for years. The ease with which the Murley-enhanced band powers through the abrupt tempo changes in its affectionately bluesy rendering of Ornette Coleman's “Lorraine” attests to this shared history.

Guided by Hyland's ghostly sax, the album introduces itself rather ominously in the opening section of “macrophages” before settling into a robust rhythmic shape animated by the ever-imaginative Longpre and anchored by Roorda's pulse and Whitford's shadings; Hyland himself's in fine form, wailing during his solo and voicing the melody with muscularity. Even better is “living fossil,” which eases the listener in with delicate guitar chords and a lovely melody etched understatedly by the leader. An equally lovely and somewhat Metheney-esque solo follows before Hyland, after revisiting the lyrical theme, incites the band to ever-increasing levels of intensity and volume.

The album isn't without surprises. While on the one hand Murley and Hyland trade solos as one might expect during their “Lorraine” and “baby steps” takes (and magnificently so, at that), the title track dedicates its first half to jazz-rock as much as prog-rock and punk-funk, and then unexpectedly shifts gears midway for a tumultuous, guitar-fired groove one might have imagined Ronald Shannon Jackson dishing out during the Decoding Society's Barbecue Dog days. There's little to kvetch over on this largely excellent outing, the slightly overlong track lengths of “satellite” and “meta max,” the only adjustment Hyland might have considered making.

February 2018