Today’s Sounds: Ratchet Orchestra


Ratchet Orchestra Hemlock (Drip Audio)

After 18 years of existence, bassist and composer Nicolas Caloia’s Ratchet Orchestra qualifies as a Montreal free jazz institution, despite sparse recordings and performances. The unit has grown exponentially over the years, from humble quartet beginnings to the current 31 member outfit.  Musique actuelle stalwarts like flutist Jean Derome, clarinetist Lori Freedman and drummer John Heward all contribute here, and just about every other member also leads important ensembles in their own right.

The Ratchet’s first quartet CD from 1994 covered Christian Wolff’s “Burdocks,” providing some early clues into Ratchet philosophy. “Burdocks” is a non-hierarchical piece of distinct components using only minimal music notation, from which a collective work can be assembled. Which more or less describes the nine cuts here, cleverly constructed with composed parts lying alongside improvised lines, so that strong readers seamlessly mesh with the less formally schooled.

While there is much freedom, it never descends into chaos. There is a strong sense of composition and structure throughout, although more Sun Ra than Count Basie. Each song is built around a memorable theme, and care is taken in orchestration, not just during the ensemble parts, but also backing each solo. Like Ra, the stylistic range spans big band history from ’40s swing to avant swarm.

“Winnow” starts things off with a mysterious but sweet series of chords, followed by melancholic winding sax and growling trumpet solos which lead back to the theme.  “Dusty” begins with a clocklike rhythm, but soon gives way to a distorted bent note guitar solo that kicks the band into swirling overdrive around a demented clarinet solo.  This exemplifies the variety not just between, but also within, each song.

The 24 possible permutations of the words in the phrase “kick that habit man,” (“kick that man habit,” “habit that kick man,” etc.) are each stated exactly once within “Kick.” That track provides some comic relief and is the only track with vocals, but the Ratchet keep things moving throughout.  Classical lushness and avant garde edginess coalesce into a sharp-witted yet delicate set, one of the year’s best releases.

 Record launch at la Sala Rossa (4848 St-Laurent), Wednesday, Oct. 31, 8 p.m. First set simulcast on CKUT (90.3 FM and streamed at


The Antlers, “Drift Drive”

The video’s only worth your while if you’re deeply stoned, but the song works wonders drunk or sober. It’s the lead track from the Brooklyn band’s latest release, an EP called Undersea



The Balconies, “Do It in the Dark”

There’s Blair Witchery afoot in the new video by this Ottawa/Toronto band, a good choice to keep your Halloween spirits high.

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