William Parker and The Element Choir: At Christ Church Deer Park
Barnyard Records

Saint Dirt Elementary School: Abandoned Ballroom
Barnyard Records

T H O M A S: Janela
Barnyard Records

Overseen by drummer and producer Jean Martin, Toronto-based Barnyard Records might be seen as a jazz label, but defining it as such would be too limiting, as these three recent releases make clear. Consider: bassist William Parker participates in At Christ Church Deer Park but “Ventures in a Cloud Chamber,” its forty-four-minute improvisation, is hardly jazz by any conventional stretch, and the same applies to both Saint Dirt Elementary School's sophomore collection and T H O M A S's electronic-vocal-soul fusion.

Parker understandably receives top billing on At Christ Church Deer Park but it's a billing justifiably shared with The Element Choir, a seventy-member collective (the figure topped out at fifty on the group's 2010 debut disc, At Rosedale United) whose improvised vocalizations are shaped by conductor Christine Duncan. The long-form piece wends an arresting path through inspired vocal sequences, some Ligeti-esque and others more primal, and instrumental passages featuring contributions from organist Eric (playing the church's Karl Wilhelm pipe organ), trumpeter Jim Lewis, bassist Andrew Downing, and drummer Martin. A constant presence throughout the March 2, 2010 performance, Parker's bass playing, furiously bowed and plucked, acts as an anchoring reference point around which the mutating material orients itself, no matter how wild it gets. And wild it often is, especially when the choir eschews conventional singing for a range of vocal effects that includes whispers, grunts, shouts, chanting, and speaking. The telepathic connection between the participants is repeatedly evident: when the choir's voices build to an ear-splitting crescendo, for example, the musicians follow that lead; during a quieter passage, the choir wordlessly follows the high-wire path etched by the trumpeter, and when a siren from the street outside briefly penetrates the church space, the choir, without missing a beat, echoes its wail. The accompanying musicians also acquit themselves admirably on this remarkable concert document, with Lewis, Robertson, Downing, and Martin embracing the improvisatory spirit as fervently as the front-line personnel.

Saint Dirt Elementary School's Abandoned Ballroom (also produced by Martin) follows the group's 2009 outing Ice Cream Man Dreams with another charming collection of whimsical tunes. Lap steel player Myk Freedman composed all of the material on the twelve-track release, on which he's ably assisted by pianist Tania Gill, acoustic guitarist Wes Cheang, alto saxophonist Kai Koschmider, clarinetist Julia Hambleton, analog synthesizer player Ryan Driver, bassist Mike Overton, and drummer Jake Oelrichs. It's no ordinary big band either, but an off-kilter one that at certain moments might remind listeners of the Willem Breuker Kollektief, Carla Bley's band in its daffiest days (during “Abandoned Ballroom” especially), and even The Lounge Lizards (“Lullaby for Naughty Children,” for example). Gill, a solo artist in her own right (her Bolger Station was released on Barnyard in early 2011), is a standout presence, but the others are no slouches either, with Koschmider's bluesy solo turn on “Goodbye Ting” deserving of mention. The band's style is irreverent, and the music indebted to cabaret, Kurt Weill, klezmer, and lounge music, but don't be fooled by titles like “Zombies Love Dancin' to this Number” and “Raccoon and Skunk Fall for Each Other”: while Saint Dirt Elementary School isn't averse to letting its humorous side show, it's also serious about its tunes and playing, whether it be a lovely solo piano setting (“Staying Home Every Night”), a moonlit ensemble serenade (“Lidia's Attached to the Stars”), or wistful rumination (“Sara, Move with Me to Canada”).

T H O M A S's Janela surprises for taking Barnyard's sound even further away from anything jazz-related. The project is the brainchild of Torontonian Thom Gill, who sings and plays guitar and organ on the half-hour EP, which was recorded at Martin's Barnyard studio and in various locales in Toronto in the summer of 2010. Gill's joined by five others—vocalist Felicity Williams, Christopher Willes (electronics, synthesizer), Matthew Pencer (drum machine, synthesizer), Daniel Pencer (saxophone, flute), and Bram Gielen (bass, organ)—plus guests (drummer Kieran Adams, flugelhorn Miles Barstead, lap steel guitarist Christine Bougie among them), but it's Williams whose presence is felt as prominently as Gill's. The two form a soulful front-line on the songs, and the musicians accompanying them create smooth electroacoustic backdrops for the singers to emote against. There are moments during the opening “Either Side of the Symbol” when hints of Prince's ballad side come through, and Williams' delivery in places (during “(Without So Much As A) Thank You” especially) suggests a cross between Feist, Joni Mitchell, and Susanna (Wallumrød). The title cut is perhaps the one that most effectively documents Gill's take on vocal-based synth-funk, with the singers forming an especially appealing blend on the laid-back number, though the intricate vocal arrangement gracing “(Without So Much As A) Thank You” also impresses. Foremost among the recording's accomplishments is the seeming ease with which it melds disparate styles, with soul, funk, electronic pop, and, yes, jazz, too, coming together in Janela's uplifting sound-world.

September 2012