One of Chet Doxas' more distinctive projects, Rich in Symbols (Ropeadope, 2017), involved the saxophonist/clarinetist engaging the 1980s art movement of New York's Lower East Side, composing pieces that reflected his deep interactions with some of those iconic paintings. Now he has done the same with artists from his native Canada: specifically, the Group of Seven, a movement of landscape artists who were active from the early 1910s through the first years of the 1930s. By selecting several of their most noteworthy works (along with selections by two others associated with the movement, Tom Thomson and Emily Carr), Doxas has given each a rich musical setting that actively incorporates the contributions of his fine colleagues, a band that includes pianist Jacob Sacks, pedal steel guitarist Joe Grass, bassist Zack Lober and drummer Eric Doob.
The Group of Seven tended to favor expressionist techniques that evoked an intensely emotional response to nature, and Doxas has done the same here, with a level of feeling that, although sometimes moving in unpredictable directions, is always markedly sensitive and sympathetic. His winsome clarinet leads the way on the folk-like melody to "The Slopes of Sainte-Tite-Des-Caps," with Grass' nuanced layers adding depth before Sacks takes the piece a bit outside with a rangy solo. The album generally stays in restrained territory, but the energizing group interaction on this piece is one of the record's highlights.
Some of the pieces offer surprises, such as the electronic drum programming provided by Evan Shay at the opening of "Snow Clouds," after which the track shifts gears and Doob develops a light funk-based groove. And "Tree Trunk" starts tentativelyjust the traces of brushwork and a few isolated notes on the pianobefore the piece takes a minimalist turn, with gradually aggregating phrases and tones further augmented by electronic effects. There are also field recordings scattered throughout the album, perhaps the most effective example being "Jack Pine," which builds its melody around an archival saxophone clip that is taken up directly by the band, with Doxas' dusky tenor saxophone exerting a lovely, gentle pull.
Doxas' compositional creativity is on full display here, and the music is rarely exactly what one expects. But the most direct moments are definitely the most compelling ones. The stark beauty of "House of Yprès" features a recited poem by Sam Roberts conveying the horrors of World War I, with a sparse accompaniment from Sacks ideal in stripping the music to its essence; when Doxas' mournful tenor finally enters, the effect is haunting. And the closing track, "The Front of Winter," may be even bettera gorgeous, hymn-like tribute to the natural world that is moving in its simplicity and emotional power, and with Doxas at his lyrical best, ending the album memorably.
The Slopes of Sainte-Tite-Des-Caps; Snow Clouds; The Jack Pine; Tree Trunk; North Shore, Lake Superior; House of
Yprès; The Front of Winter.
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