For the October Trio, the melody's the thing
The latest CD from the October Trio is called Looks Like It's Going to Snow—a title that might seem mildly psychic, given that the disc was released earlier this year, during the worst cold snap that Vancouver has endured in living memory. It's best not to read too much into that, however, as one of the record's defining characteristics is the warm interplay between saxophonist Evan Arntzen, bassist Josh Cole, drummer Dan Gaucher, and guest trumpeter Brad Turner, who sounds fully integrated into what was an already tight band. The chilly landscapes the title hints at are largely interior—the result of what was a few rough months for Cole, the October Trio's chief composer.
“There are a lot of songs on this record about family, or about sacrifice—lots of loss,” the bassist explains, reached by phone at his Vancouver home. “The title track, ”˜Looks Like It's Going to Snow', is about this period two years ago when all my family ended up moving away and leaving Vancouver all at the same time. It's a song talking about transition and change, and how that can be a really sad thing.”
Cole adds that “The Progress Suite”—a three-part, 16-minute masterpiece that begins as a tense dash into darkness and ends with a hopeful sonic sunrise—is the direct result of a different internal struggle.
“That whole thing is really about the process of realizing that you've made a mistake, or realizing you're doing some stupid stuff, and just trying to admit your mistake and turn around,” he notes.
Loss, heartache, and bad behaviour: these are generally the stuff of pop music, not contemporary jazz. But like many young improvisers, the members of the October Trio have grown up surrounded by rock, pop, and rap; Cole cites Bjí¶rk and Radiohead as among his favourites. What makes the October Trio different is that its members discuss the emotional content of each tune before attempting to play it. They're as concerned with the expressive nuances of the composition as they are with the mechanics of getting it right.
That's not a new concept in jazz—swing-era sax legend Lester Young insisted on knowing the lyrics to every standard he ever assayed—but it's one that's often overlooked in the rush to virtuosity that is the contemporary norm.
Turner, who produced Looks Like It's Going to Snow, identifies another component of the October Trio's sound that could also be seen as slightly old-fashioned: the group's respect for melody. Neither Cole nor occasional composer Gaucher writes what the trumpeter calls “science-project” pieces; they aim to beguile rather than baffle.
“Being a bit of a traditionalist in that way, as far as composition goes, I really appreciate the thought that Josh puts into melody in his writing,” Turner explains, in a separate cellphone conversation. “Speaking as a trumpet player coming in and playing other people's music, if there's something that I can sort of hook my wagon to melodically, it opens the door creatively in a lot of different ways.”
For Cole, Arntzen, and Gaucher, bringing the trumpeter into the fold was both a natural choice—he'd already helmed their previous effort, Day In—and a chance to learn from a young veteran of the Canadian and international jazz scene.
“After we finished making the last record, there was definitely a desire between the three of us to really up our game, and try to grow as musicians,” Cole says. “So we were trying to pursue a bit of musical mentoring, in a way that might not be possible if Brad was just the producer. I think jazz has a long history of young and old guys having, like, mentoring relationships. So that was definitely at the forefront of our mind.”
For Turner, the payoff comes in the form of material that frees him from the set patterns he's developed over a lifetime of playing both jazz and classical music.
“I find playing with these fellows is really about being in the moment,” he says. “I mean, we rehearsed the other day, and I found myself having no idea what I was going to play next—which is kind of an interesting feeling, you know. That's not always the case.”
Being in the moment doesn't preclude planning ahead, however, especially now that Gaucher's living in Toronto. But Cole stresses that this separation has only strengthened the band's resolve to continue.
“It's not like we can just get together at the drop of a hat—we have to be a lot more on it,” he says. “But there are no thoughts about letting it die away. We've worked too hard to let it go.”
Brad Turner joins the October Trio at the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts on Sunday (June 28).