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Audacious vocalist Phil Minton inspires IMOO improvisers

Phil Minton ©Alayne McGregor, 2014

Concert #111: Phil Minton
Improvising Musicians of Ottawa-Outaouais (IMOO)
Raw Sugar Café
Sunday, December 7, 2014

British vocalist Phil Minton has taken the human voice to completely unexpected places and possibilities in the last 40-odd years. His improvisations don't use words – nor even word-like sounds. Instead, through extended vocal techniques, Minton creates a huge variety of sounds with different textures and timbres and rhythms.

His voice produces snake-like hisses, bird whistles, and guttural lion growls, and he fits them together into coherent sonic landscapes that range from barely audible whispering to crack-the-whip shrieks to what sounds remarkably like static. He turns the voice into a percussive instrument, but also a sibilant and even a tuneful one, and adds considerable emotional depth as well. To listen to Minton is to be constantly – and happily – surprised.

Ottawa's A B Series, which presents musical and literary events, brought Minton back to Ottawa for a long weekend starting last Friday. Over the weekend, he taught Ottawa volunteers how to sing in his Feral Choir, teaching them that anyone who can breathe can create beautiful or interesting sounds – outside of standard cultural references.

Tonight (Monday, December 8), he will conduct the Feral Choir in a free concert at St John's Anglican Church at Somerset and Elgin downtown at 7:30 p.m., and then perform solo there in a ticketed concert at 9 p.m.

Minton also collaborated with a wide collection of Ottawa's most dedicated improvisers at an IMOO concert Sunday evening – a concert which broke down the barriers between vocal and instrumental music.

An enthusiastic audience almost filled the intimate Raw Sugar Café for the show, which featured Minton playing with eight Ottawa/Montreal musicians, almost all IMOO regulars. In the first set, he played with David Broscoe on baritone sax, John Sobol on tenor sax, and Ian Birse and Laura Kavanaugh on laptops/electronics. At times it was difficult to determine which sound was coming from which musician, especially when Broscoe was creating discrete light notes on his baritone, and Minton was singing lightly and percussively – or when Kavanaugh was morphing harmonious vocal sounds while Minton was humming. At one point, Minton appeared to be playing air saxophone while singing falsetto; at another point, it sounded as though he was whistling but without pursing his lips.

The second set featured Mark Molnar on cello, Craig Pedersen on trumpet, Linsey Wellman on clarinet and alto sax, and David Jackson on electric guitar. The other musicians appeared inspired by Minton to try their own extended techniques: Jackson bowing his guitar, Molnar bowing the body of his cello, and Pedersen blowing into the valve holes of his trumpet – in a set with a great stylistic and dynamic range.

The third, short set, brought all the musicians back together, for a multi-layered improvisation where the music abruptly changed from moment to moment – and even included a gong being thrown on the floor. The audience greeted the end of the fast-paced 135-minute show with a standing ovation.

Minton last appeared in Ottawa in 2012, playing with the Toronto-based The Canadian Creative Music Collective (CCMC) in what was also a well-received concert which created extraordinary music. That concert was also produced by the A B Series.

The IMOO series continues on Sunday, December 21, with Bernard Stepien's annual A Very Ayler Christmas, which mashes together the aesthetic (and some of the music) of free jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler with Christmas carols – for an always-interesting result. The show has continued to evolve with new material regularly added since Stepien premiered it in 2006.

     – Alayne McGregor

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All photos ©Alayne McGregor, 2014