Muskox: Invocation / Transformations

The Mark Segger Sextet: The Beginning
18th Note Records

Lest anyone think Toronto's status as a burgeoning center stems solely from dance music innovators like Art Department need only consider the music being created in other contexts by the likes of Muskox and Mark Segger.

Muskox, a Toronto-based collective formed in 2006 and led by banjo player and composer Mike Smith, draws upon multiple traditions for its follow-up to 5 Pieces, a fine 2009 collection issued on the Standard Form imprint. Post-rock, prog-rock, math-rock, and classical minimalism figure heavily on Invocation / Transformations, and its oft-maze-like compositions occasionally suggest influences ranging from Tortoise to Soft Machine and all things in between. At the outset, freeway cruiser “Lutonian Knights I” fashions a Tortoise-Stereolab vibe by peppering a motorik groove with organ, electric guitar, and electronic squiggles, while the driving “Fever Dream III” nudges us in the direction of jazz-fusion. Elsewhere, a meditative, through-composed set-piece such as “Fever Dream II” receives a nice boost from Alia O'Brien's flute playing, and string players Erika Neilsen and Lisa Conway similarly bolster the dream-like aura of “Generic Organs.”

One might be reminded of The Lounge Lizards (Voice of Chunk, say) during the opening of “Buff Stop,” given its double saxophone interplay and stop-start beats—until Smith's banjo pulls the music into a prog-rock zone more uniquely Muskox's. It's a move that happens throughout the recording—a banjo motif is a constant presence during “Fever Dream I,” for example—and does much to help Muskox differentiate its sound from others. A rich sound it is, too, with Smith augmenting the core sound (bass, drums, keyboards, guitar) with violin, flute, cello, synthesizer, and soprano sax. Soloing is downplayed in favour of fully scored charts, resulting in polyphonic compositions of intricate detail and chameleonic design. All self-described connections to the Canterbury scene (Caravan, Hatfield & the North, Gong, etc.) and the early ‘70s prog scenes notwithstanding, the band's clearest reference point remains Tortoise, something that comes especially to the fore during the recording's most aggressive track, the lumbering “Lutonian Knights III,” which could be described as Muskox doing Tortoise doing krautrock.

Toronto-based drummer and composer Mark Segger gets the most out of five talented cohorts on The Beginning, the hour-long debut recording from a sextet Segger formed in 2008 to bring his own compositions to life. The musicians, established figures in the Canadian jazz scene as well as newcomers, deftly straddle a challenging middle ground betwixt formal composition and improvisation, with Segger drawing upon multiple traditions—soca, free jazz, and chamber music, for starters—for the album's eight pieces. In terms of instrumentation, the group's sound is purely acoustic; the sensibility, however, is anything but retrograde—we're closer in adventurous spirit to figures like Tim Berne, Uri Caine, and Carla Bley than anyone of an ultra-conservative ilk. Tania Gill (whose recently released her own memorable album, Bolger Station) makes her presence felt as much for the distinctive melodica playing she contributes (to “Steam Engine” especially) as piano. Chris Willes is as capable of making his tenor sax purr as much as wail, while acoustic bassist Andrew Downing joins the drummer in providing solid, egoless support.

Rhythms elastically slow down and then speed up, styles change within a single piece, and even the musicians themselves seemingly adopt different tempi at will. “Part III,” for example, regularly shifts gears, moving in an instant between free-flowing episodes and warped variants on standard march and waltz forms, and “Steam Engine” has a stop-start, bebop-styled swing that shows its Monkish roots. “The Beach” initially oozes a cool, balladic feel bolstered by the muted horn playing of trumpeter Jim Lewis and Willes's feathery playing before loosening up for an agitated free-for-all. Elsewhere, a little bit of Sonny Rollins's “Don't Stop the Carnival” vibe seeps into the high-spirited “Soca You Play It,” and, though not representative of the album's style in general, the title track closes the album with a lovely, ten-minute meditation of gentle textures and whispered contributions, with Gill's sensitive touch and Segger's percussive enhancements two of its more memorable aspects. Such self-effacing playing speaks highly of Segger's cohesive unit and its players, who are as comfortable soloing as supporting others. Hearing the musicians move so effortlessly from background to foreground is one of the album's major pleasures, and hearing them realize the changes within a given piece with such fluidity is definitely another. Segger's also to be commended for writing charts that provide his group with clear compositional pathways that never end up restricting the individual members' creative contributions.

October 2011