We Conquered The Mountain Horizontally!

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Ratchet Orchestra
Hemlock
CANADA DRIP AUDIO DA00820 CD (2012)

In Ken Kesey’s widely-read One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, the antagonist – the hatchet faced Nurse Ratched – is depicted as a spider, ‘in the centre of her web (of) wires like a watchful robot… with mechanical insect skill, (knowing) every second which wire runs where and just what current to send up to get what she wants…’. Just one letter (and much sadism) removed from this creation, the Ratchet Orchestra resembles a similarly organised regime.

As exercises in man-management go, this chamber jazz band is an ambitious proposition indeed. Having burgeoned from a handful to some 30 Montreal musicians of the first water over the last decade and a half, the logistical and democratic considerations of distributing them evenly over a mere 9 pieces (most of which hover around the 5-minute mark) fries my mental circuits. But the task is ably executed by leader Nicolas Caloia as he provides a showcase for all but preferential treatment to none. As a result of such exacting exigencies, there’s nary a moment wasted by this muscular unit: from careful canter to clattering cacophony, the only sound phenomenon left unexplored is silence, though you’ll probably look into that one once the CD has ended.

Being a big band jazz unit with an unabashed devotion to Sun Ra (they first celebrated his birthday in 1998), their sound will evoke little surprise: loping woodwinds provide a launchpad for the shriller excesses of the horn section; a soaring string section melts in the warm buzz and burble of a mute trumpet while an electric piano takes the stairs; a spidery, skittering fuzz guitar becomes swiftly serrated from climbing too many grass blades – hacks and slices at everything around it. Walt Disney is invoked and banished. Keeping shy of the minute barrier, a roustabout plays the cup & ball game with the words KICK, MAN & HABIT. Everything roars and fades with finality.

Though the musical motifs of Sun Ra, Alice Coltrane and the like are distinctive, this is not to say it’s an exercise in emulation – far from it. That said, if the group’s star-bound curiosity fails to ignite the transcendent inner dimensions of its forbearers, it’s precisely for the reason that it lacks the spiritual discipline: working to a timetable, no one has more than their allotted 5 minutes to shine, both as individuals and team players. The 9 tracks constitute a collection (a very varied one, albeit), rather than a narrative. Thus, the Ratchet Orchestra resolves itself as an exercise in short-term showmanship, in which respect it fulfils its mandate admirably. Appreciate this detail and you’ll walk away the winner.

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