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Hugh Marsh may not be well-known to many outside his native Canada, where he's considered the country's leading improvising violinist, but that doesn't mean he hasn't been heard. Along with high profile recording and touring gigs over the years with singer/songwriters Bruce Cockburn and Loreena McKennitt and recently with influential trumpeter Jon Hassell's Maarifa Street project; he's played on soundtracks to movies including Man on Fire and The Da Vinci Code, as the featured soloist. With a voracious musical appetite and encyclopedic knowledge, it's no surprise that Hugmars is a blend of styles that's anchored by Marsh's virtuosity and uncanny ability to, at times, morph the sound of his instrument beyond recognition.
While there are plenty of artists drawing inspiration from a multiplicity of sources, few are intrepid enough (alongside original material) to bring together material from Sun Ra, Sly and the Family Stone and Jaco Pastorius. Ra's "Rocket #9" opens the disc, its theme re-imagined in the context of a loose, up-tempo burner. Ra's otherworldly chaos is retained but incorporates an extended rap and knotty arrangement that ultimately sets up a densely processed violin solo possessing a vocal-like expressiveness.
Improvisation lays the foundation for "The Crossing." A percussion-heavy intro leads into an accelerating 6/8 anchored by bassist Roberto Occhipinti and drummer Dafnis Prieto, and features another intense violin solo and, ultimately, Ursula Ruckert's poetry spoken over a density of jungle rhythms. Sly Stone's "Let Me Have It All" is greasier funk, with James Blood Ulmer providing a raw vocal delivery and Marsh delivering a gritty, distorted and frenzied solo.
In the same way that Norwegians including trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaaer and guitarist Eivind Aarset are reshaping the sound of their instruments, Marsh uses a myriad of devices to alter the sound of his violin. "Violinvocation #2" is, with the exception of Jonathan Goldsmith's B3 organ and Tanya Taqaq Gillis' throat singing, a multi-layered solo piece where Marsh evokes the sound of trains alongside ambient loops and strong pizzicato melodies that, at times, sound more like oud than baritone violin. "Mowgli/Balloon Song" mixes layers of violin, synths and B3 with drums and percussion to create an imaginative blend of percussion-heavy original material with one of Jaco Pastoroius' lesser-known compositions.
An album that could only be a studio concoction, Hugmars is clearly a combination of ideas grown out of improvisation and more preconceived notions. The lines between the two are often very fuzzy, though on "Om," featuring harmonicist Gregoire Maret, pianist Andy Milne, bassist Rich Brown and drummer Mark Kelso, the form is more clearly delineated. But Hugmars' greatest strengthMarsh's ever inventive playing asideis it's integration of seemingly countless reference points into an hour of music that's focused and, for all its diversity, speaks with a remarkably unified voice.
Track Listing: Rocket #9; The Crossing; Let Me Have It All; Violinvocation #2; Mowgli: Balloon Song; OM; Sugarcane's Gone; Violinvocation #1.
Personnel: Hugh Marsh: violin (1, 2, 8); ring mod violins (2, 5); distorted violin solo (3, 7); pizz baritone violin (4); train violin (4); violin loop capture (4); pizz violins (5-7); MXR PT violin solo (5); ghost harm violins (6); buzz box violin (7, 8); pizz baritone violin loop (8), "78" violin (8), clavinet (1, 3); vibes (1), B3 (3, 6), MC505 loop (3, 6), Korg Triton (6, 7); James Blood Ulmer: vocal (1, 3), phone call (7); Kokayi: spoken word (1); Andy Milne: piano (1, 3, 6, 7); Rich Brown: bass (1, 3, 6, 7); Dafnis Prieto: drums (1, 2, 5, 7); Michael White: modcan (1); Ursula Rucker: poetry (2); Roberto Occhipinti: bass (2); Pancho Quinto: percussion (2); Pedro Martinez: percussion (2, 5), bata (3, 7), vocal (7); Lucumi: percussion (2); Marcos Diaz Scull: percussion (2); Lazaro Rizo: percussion (2); Maximino Duquesne: percussion (2); Mark Kelso: drums (3, 6); Tanya Taqaq Gillis: throat singing (4, 8); Jonathan Goldsmith: B3 (4); Gregoire Maret: harmonica (6); The Radio and Loneliness Horns (1, 3, 7): Kevin Turcotte: trumpet; Phil Dwyer: tenor saxophone; John Johnson: bass clarinet.
Years ago now--in Rhodesia--listening to Voice of America with Willis Conover I heard Bunk Johnson play When The Saints Go Marching In, and Billie Holiday sing Don't Explain. I knew then there was no other life for me than jazz.