Album review: Peace Flag Ensemble – ‘Noteland’: intelligent, warm and melodic jazz improv from Canadian collective

The Breakdown

Discipline. That's a key thing here. Peace Flag Ensemble wanted to make a pretty, but odd, but actually pretty album; and they've succeeded. It surprises you in the way it approaches the jazz and compositional canon with respect and also playfulness. A record that can go on to serve as a trusted companion for your solo meanders across town, yourself as the camera; for a blissful evening. If you're a fan of Samuel Sharp's recent Patterns Various, or even Martin Duffy's Assorted Promenades, you'll love the mood and the intelligence that Peace Flag Ensemble bring.

LADIES and gentlemen of the more recherché musical persuasion: introducing a new act to especially intrigue the weird jazzers among you, Peace Flag Ensemble, an experimental collective drawn from various points across the verdant central Canadian province of Saskatchewan.

The quintet are set to release their first venture into long-playing recordings this coming Friday, June 18th, on Toronto label We Are Busy Bodies, which imprint is already home to such diverse acts as the brilliant, shambling indiepop of The Lemons, the scorched leftfield post-punk of Newfound Interest In Connecticut and the gentle ambience of Michael Scott Dawson. Another feather in the label’s already finely festooned cap.

In the ensemble’s set-up it’s that piano that lends the starting point for everyone else, and that fluvial improvisation comes courtesy Jon Neher, ably pinned into a deeper sonic pace by the bass work of Travis Packer. It’s Dalton Lam and Paul Guthiel handling the brass – trumpet and sax respectively – bringing both texture and melody; while Michael Scott Dawson moves beyond the faders to mix guitars, electronica and field recordings into proceedings.

It draws from such influences as Keith Jarrett and Mark Hollis. Peace Flag Ensemble is the sum of its parts. Everyone leaned into their own intuition and inspiration. I think that kept us from limiting possibilities,” says Michael.

“Sometimes that means a saxophone is reduced to just the crackle of a spit valve, sometimes it’s blurred into pastoral ambiance, and sometimes … well, sometimes it’s just a saxophone.” 

And how about this for rock’n’roll; the ensemble took seed when Michael and Jon bonded at … a book club, somewhere around the time they were reading Haruki Murakami. Talk soon moved beyond books to the Seventies output of legendary leftfield highbrow imprint ECM, contemporary minimalists and musique concrète. 

Jon adds: “This record really allowed us to explore so many kinds of spontaneity while still crafting and polishing a finished work; that is a rare treat in improvised music.”

Peace Flag Ensemble

“Wilted Sax” is a 90-second introduction, and far from the parched fronds suggested by the title, presents with a daybreak prettiness of considered piano and trilling brass, dying away in a little synth bubbling. As an amuse bouche is serves delightfully for the first long track, the single preceding the album, “Human Pyramid” – we’ve embedded that below for you.

Yeah, right? When you think free jazz, you maybe immediately conjure up Ornette Coleman, Archie Shepp, pure raw skronk and articulation; but what you get in “Human Pyramid” is a free-flowing melodicism, with brass up top looking after the licks and melody, a warmer piano harmony underneath, all a-glimmer. It forges a course out in Jaga Jazzist country – unafraid to be weird but equally unafraid to be pretty. It’s free in the sense of being melodically untrammelled by expectation, shifting with musical empathy into a more ambient coda.

“Woke Up Like The Room, Tarzana” – great title – plays out as a fractured, rainy day cool jazz: Miles ‘n’ Gil Evans loosened up, the walking bass finding new alleys to sidestep into, just the deftest hints of electronics, especially alongside the tinkling piano of the slight return; a song to have on the cans (or buds, if you’re of a more scaled down persuasion) while people-watching as puddles form through the misted window of a favoured city cafe.

And it’s this tone that sets for a really lovely record, in which the ensemble finds a space between the need to create a fierce tabula rasa and to sidestep sleepy tradition and make a melodically pretty but still nuanced and surprising set. “The Right To Silence” eschews that absolute for a marrying of piano and bass in call and response with the brass, the one flourishing and eddying, the other crisp in its evocation. “Hilma af Klint in Ab”, named for the seminal Swedish abstract artist, has a bed of a decayed loop, wobbling and ringing with drone, which gathers courage as an anchoring hum under the melody of the brass, the thoughtful meandering of the bass and the judicious, Talk Talk-like chordal interjections from the piano.

“Presentism” is a sadder theme, the brass throaty, and somehow feels like the end of the affair; minor chords bring the lyrical flight of the main melody back to earth, but it flies bittersweet in between. The track progresses into a more piano-led passage, one of high chime and extended chords, before gradually dimming into a repeating synth figure, chirrups and squeaks.

Another fantastically titled track follows, “Father Is In The Yard Counting Sparrows” which, in its sustain and unfolding piano, smoothly eastern sax cadence, nudges more towards an Erased Tapes modern compositional space; and space is le mot juste, since so much of this track is about the note in resonance and decay, the space left by the original image; the afterglow of the melody. Sit down, slow down, and adjust with this.

“No Police In The Parade” grandstands with a helluva chord, holds its breath before letting an arpeggio go, and proceeds with echo and pitch-decay whirring on into a warmer place, a placid but beckoning campfire of sevenths to gather around. And then it goes all microtronica on us, rather pleasingly, the whole shebang melting to a halt like Dali’s clock, stretching down, and resurrecting itself as its own memory, the final echoes and remembrances of itself solidifying to end.

It remains only for the slow scintillation of “Marginalia” to round up a really interesting listen, which is accomplished in tranquil piano, Jon flying solo with a piece Satiesque with little bluesy frissons.

Discipline. That’s a key thing here: the ensemble has such talent, such chops, and with the studio wizardry and the infinite possibilities presented by filtering through electronica post-production, they could’ve flown as high as they’d wished into experimenta; but they didn’t, every moment of looseness, freedom and trickery is executed with thought and maybe a wise chuckle. They wanted to make a pretty, but odd, but actually pretty album; and they’ve succeeded. It surprises you in the way it approaches the jazz and compositional canon with respect and also playfulness. A record that can go on to serve as a trusted companion for your solo meanders across town, yourself as the camera; for a blissful evening. If you’re a fan of Samuel Sharp’s recent Patterns Various, or even Martin Duffy’s Assorted Promenades, you’ll love the mood and the intelligence that Peace Flag Ensemble bring.

Peace Flag Ensemble’s Noteland will be released digitally and on vinyl by We Are Busy Bodies on June 18th; you can pre-order you copy now over at Bandcamp.

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