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The Titanium Trio: a different sound each time

When Toronto trumpeter Lina Allemano, drummer Nick Fraser, and bassist Rob Clutton visit Ottawa on Sunday, January 22, their concert will be a one-off.

Titanium Trio (l-r) Nick Fraser, Rob Clutton, Lina Allemano.  photo: Jeff Elliott

Not in terms of visiting this city, or playing together: it's that their group, the Titanium Trio, specializes in constant reinterpretation of their music. "What listeners can expect is they're going to get something unique, for sure, because we'll never play it the same way twice," Allemano told OttawaJazzScene.ca. "That's a cool thing: sometimes it's scary but it's exciting."

The trio plays Allemano's compositions, but "a lot of it is improvised after we've stated the tune. The arrangement is improvised, and so, that way, each time we play the same tune it will be quite different depending on a lot of things: how everyone's feeling, or where we're playing, or whatever's been happening."

 Which could be considered quite normal, for a group inspired by an unexpected trauma and the need to find enough musicians for a club date.

The "titanium" in the group's name comes from a large plate and six screws in Allemano's wrist, inserted after she broke her wrist last year. That meant she couldn't play for several months because she couldn't move her fingers. When her rehabilitation was complete and she was back to playing, she was "super-excited": "[I felt like] 'I want to write tons of music, and I want to play all the time' ... If you can't do something and then when you get the chance to do it, then it seems even more wonderful, I guess."

And, at the same time, Allemano needed to schedule a group for her regular monthly gig at the Tranzac in Toronto, and, of all the musicians in her two groups, only Fraser and Clutton were available. "We hadn't actually played as a trio before, but I thought, 'Well, of course it's going to work, because we all know each other so well, and we'd been playing together for years and years, so why not?" And then I thought "well, OK, I should write some music, then." And since I was in this ecstatic state of 'music is amazing', I just sat down and wrote ten new tunes just like that, and then it just came together.”

Since then, the group has played a number of gigs in the Toronto area over the last 6-7 months. The Ottawa performance is part of the regular Improvising Musicians of Ottawa/Outaouais (IMOO) series at the Umi Café. It's part of a three-city tour also covering Montreal and Toronto.

For more than a year, IMOO has been providing a regular venue for concerts featuring local and visiting musicians playing experimental and improvised music.

 "When I heard about the IMOO series, I thought that would be perfect for us," Allemano said. Although the trio can play in a jazz club, it's more comfortable playing in a setting where the musicians "really feel that we can improvise. You don't want to feel that you have to hold back" because the listeners "want to eat their dinner and listen to some background jazz".

One way in which this trio differs from Allemano's other groups is that Clutton is playing an electric Fender bass. Usually he plays upright bass, but Allemano asked him to try electric. "I've never heard anyone play electric bass like this. … It's almost like it's an acoustic bass, but it has a bit of the electric bass element to it."

"He's really dynamic with it, and he's getting all these different sounds out of it. And everyone – especially electric bass players – that come out to see us play, they're just floored. 'How is he doing that?' They've never heard people make these kinds of sounds, or just even approach the instrument that way. I think that's a really neat part of this group that it has the element of having an electric instrument in it – it has the sustain that the upright bass doesn't have, and I'm getting him to do a few chordal things it wouldn't really sound the same on an upright bass. I wouldn't want a different bass player, playing electric bass in the group. It would just not work. Because then it would definitely sound like prog rock. And we don't really want that."

Similarly, Fraser brings "different textures and shapes and unexpected things and interesting little grooves" to the trio's music. "That's the other thing: he can really groove, so not only can he play really beautifully, spaciously, and improvised, but he can also set up these cool grooves that unexpectedly, you wouldn't think of ... 'OK, that's a great idea [but] I would never thought of that myself'."

All three musicians have been playing together for almost 18 years. But Allemano said she and Fraser "definitely have a special musical relationship, and it's hard to play with another drummer for me because I'm just so used to having Nick there, and he can almost read my mind at this point. And he's just so creative."

Allemano will be pushing her instrument as well, getting unusual sounds out of the trumpet, probably more so than in her quartet. "Because it's a different dynamic with only three people, rather than the four voices, it actually opens it up even more for that kind of thing. So the improvising can take a lot more of these sort of sound shapes rather than just note shapes. It should be fun."

 Besides the Titanium Trio, Allemano has two other groups. The Lina Allemano Four (her long-standing quartet) just finished recording an as-yet-untitled CD, which will be released this fall. Another quartet called "N" hasn't been active for a little while because of her work with the trio, but "it's going to be coming back. It's just purely improvised; there's no compositions in that group. And then I have my own solo project that I've been working on: it's still in the works. But other than that, I'm just working on other people's projects."

Those other projects included playing in Guadalajara, Mexico, last fall, with the Gilberto Cervantes Jazz Orchestra. By coincidence, she played the same music – Miles Davis / Gil Evans compositions and arrangements – which she had played in 2007 in Ottawa with the Impressions in Jazz Orchestra.

The band was playing the original charts from the record Miles Ahead, which Allemano said was "really fun. It's a big challenge, of course, because you have the big Miles Davis hanging over you ... Miles in the Sky there, I'm sure he's got some opinions up there, but I love it."

"It's really great to focus on my own stuff, but coming out of that and being able to focus on something else entirely different is pretty refreshing. I think I thrive on that, because if I was only doing my own projects I might get burned out with it. I like to change it up a lot."

Allemano said the Toronto improvising jazz scene is "pretty vibrant", with a lot of great local musicians and the chance to play with visiting musicians attracted by the scene. "You could go see a show every night at least if you wanted in Toronto to see some interesting improvised music, but the audience is another question. I mean, it's a big city, but maybe you need it to be a bit bigger to get the audience you need."

But the scene has "opened up a lot of creative possibilities" and let her and other musicians explore new musical directions "just as far as they can. They can stretch the artistic limits, I guess. That's a nice opportunity."

"There's tons of people that are really dedicated out here. I always tend to gravitate towards the same small group of people just because you find people that you like to play with and over the years you develop these musical relationships and it just becomes it's like putting on your favourite pair of jeans 'Ah, it's so comfy', and you know it's going to work. So I usually gravitate towards the same group of five or six people that I particularly like to improvise with. But I always like to improvise with new people, too. It's always exciting to see what you can come up with."

    – Alayne McGregor

The Titanium Trio plays at the Umi Café at 7 p.m. on Sunday January 22 as part of the IMOO Series.
View our full event listing and more info on the Titanium Trio.