The Nick Fraser Quartet with Tony Malaby plays Gigspace on Sunday, September 29, 2013 at 7:30 p.m.

You can't necessarily categorize drummer Nick Fraser. You can hear him play mainstream jazz with vocalist/pianist Fern Lindzon, singer/composer Sienna Dahlen, or quintet Peripheral Vision. There's world music with banjo player Jayme Stone. On the more avant-garde side, he accompanies trumpeter Lina Allemano, and is part of the collective avant-jazz quintet Drumheller, the improv trio Ugly Beauties, and the Steve Lacy tribute band, The Rent.

Nick Fraser returns to the NAC Fourth Stage on February 1 as the leader of his own group  ©Brett Delmage, 2012
Nick Fraser returns to the NAC Fourth Stage on February 1 as the leader of his own group ©Brett Delmage, 2012
He's probably best known in Ottawa as the long-standing drummer in John Geggie's trio which anchors the Ottawa Jazz Festival's late night jam sessions – a testimony to his ability to play almost anything!

But for many years he's rarely been heard as the leader of his own group, playing his own compositions in the improv/free music vein.

That will change this week, as his quartet plays a three-city tour to release new CD called Towns and Villages. It's his first CD under his own name in almost a decade. The CD was recorded a year ago (February, 2012), and was inspired by a visit by NYC free jazz saxophonist Tony Malaby to Toronto.

“I've always thought of doing a project with Tony Malaby, who's one of my favourite musicians. And he was in Toronto doing something else, so I jumped at the chance to put something together.”

The two originally met at a jazz workshop in Idaho in 1996. “And I was about 20 and he was 35ish and had just moved to New York. And I was just really impressed with his musicianship and his sound and the breadth of what he can do with his instrument. He can play really freely but is really grounded in convention as well. That's something I aspire to.”

Also on the record are two musicians Fraser has played with practically since he moved to Toronto from Ottawa in 1996: bassist Rob Clutton and cellist Andrew Downing.

Downing had not previously played with Malaby, while Clutton and Malaby had played together once a decade before. That allowed for a mixture of familiarity and newness in the relationships that created the music on the record, Fraser said.

Fraser said he had originally envisioned Clutton and Downing both playing bass, but Downing suggested cello instead: “I think he gets more excited about projects when he gets to play cello.” But it ended up expanding the group's sound.

“With the cello, I gained the cello but I didn't lose the bass. He could play bass function on the cello. So it was much better.”

“One of the things I like about this instrumentation is the cello can really play both sides of the fence. Andrew can play with Tony and be sort of a melodic voice with the saxophone. And that's all pretty low front line, cello and tenor sax. There's a lot of low information there. But he can also play as part of the rhythm section.”

And with two basses, “talk about resonant. You'd be lowering it even another octave and it could get muddy. The music could feel pretty cloudy.”

Fraser said the CD was designed to feature all the musicians, not just him, although it includes several drum solos. “That was my idea. To try and feature us as a group, not to step out front, as it were. I think that's something that drummer-composers struggle with in a way. 'How much do I feature myself?' Maybe that's true of all composer-instrumentalists. But drums, in particular, because traditionally they're in a supportive role.”

A fascination with how places define themselves

The CD contains three pieces which are completely improvised: the three “towns and villages” pieces which inspired the CD's title. Two are named after towns which Ottawa-Toronto commuters might encounter near the intersection of Highways 416 and 401: Prescott (“ The Fort Town”), and Spencerville (“Home of the Heritage Grist Mill”).

The third is named after Hundred Mile House (“Population 1885”) in the BC interior. “I've always loved the name of that town. It's one of those names that evokes isolation, in a way. And it evokes a time when a hundred miles was a long way – a longer way than it is now.”

Prescott opens the CD; Spencerville is in the middle; Hundred Mile House closes the record.

What attracted Fraser was the slogans that small towns put on road signs, and “how places define themselves”. He'd always loved these slogans: for example, how Vankleek Hill, Ontario is “The Gingerbread Capital of Ontario. And I don't know what makes it the gingerbread capital of Ontario. That's one of my short list titles for a record. But I decided it was too cute.”

Fraser said he ended up naming the pieces after they'd been recorded. He picked his favourite three improvisations of several the group worked on, and then looked at linking them thematically through their titles, which he thought would be less clunky than numbering them.

Nick Fraser  ©Brett Delmage, 2012
Nick Fraser ©Brett Delmage, 2012

Exploring the spectrum from free improv to composed music

He said the three pieces didn't shape the record, in terms of indicating what other pieces would sound like. But “I always like records that have a theme to them in some way. And I like records that have a variety of intention in the music-making. So, from composed music to free improvisation is one of the spectrums that we're exploring; that spectrum of intention from completely free improvised music to more composed music.”

Other pieces on the record were composed by Fraser. “Bicycle”, an older piece, is based “on two rhythmic cycles, hence the title. "Tricycle" doesn't exactly have three rhythmic cycles, but I felt like it was somehow related to "Bicycle". And so, it's the next one in a series. I haven't written the four-wheeler yet.”

And there is a relationship to real life: Fraser is a year-round commuter cyclist in Toronto, including cycling through January's Arctic weather – although he admits it's easier to cycle in Toronto than Ottawa because there are only a few days in Toronto “where it's cold and icy and snowy enough to be a real issue”.

Similarly, "Song for Lydia", a melancholy ballad where the cello and sax entwine in the melody, was named after Fraser's daughter. “Albs” is named after priestly vestments – and more particularly how the word is often used as a short filler word in crossword puzzles.

The CD also contains a number of sketches: “short pieces often based in sort of open form swing music where the improvisation will have something to do with walking bass or a swing rhythm.” Fraser said the sketches were part of a series which he had started writing with Drumheller. “I just kept on going. I think I have 17 of them now.”

Contrasting the new CD with the four which Drumheller has released, “I think it's less diverse, in a way. One of the things with Drumheller is that we always have five composers at work. We all would compose for the group. And on this record, it's just me. So, in a way, it's more focused, but maybe a little less diverse. And I think it's more traditional, in a way, in that's it's more classically free jazz than what Drumheller does.”

The CD is being released on a Toronto avant-garde/creative music label, Barnyard Records, the first CD Fraser has released on that label. “I've worked with Jean Martin [Barnyard founder]. I played on a bunch of Barnyard albums before. I like Jean. I like his approach. I like his aesthetic. So, it just made sense to me.”

Fraser had released his first CD (Owls in Daylight [1997]) on his own label, Mutable Records, but “it's just that one record. At a certain point I decided that I just wanted to be a musician and not run a record label.”

On hearing Ornette Coleman: I remember being disappointed. I thought, 'This doesn't sound like chaos. It just sounds like jazz.'

The connection to jazz and improvisation has been part of Fraser's musical life from an early age. His parents always had “interesting music in the house. Like some of the music I heard very early on was Oscar Peterson and Miles Davis and John Coltrane and the Beatles and Talking Heads. And classical music. So, I'm always really thankful for that.”

His first drumming lessons were on hand drum with a Senegalese drummer his mother had met through work. “I'm really thankful for that, because my experiments with more conventional music lessons didn't go as well. I hated piano lessons, I didn't take to them. Drumming and an oral music tradition seemed to make quite a bit of sense to me. At least when I was eight.”

He later moved to a conventional drum kit, studied at Canterbury High School in Ottawa, and then studied jazz drumming “with a great drummer named Chris McCann who lived in Kingston. And then I moved to Toronto when I was about 19 or 20. And I've just been kicking it around ever since.”

He was exposed to free jazz fairly early on. “I mean, I've always loved the idea of free jazz, if that makes sense. Even just reading about it, I thought, 'Oh, that sounds amazing.' It seemed like the punk rock of jazz, which appealed to me very much.

Unfortunately, it led to a bit of a letdown at age 15 when he first heard free jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman. “I remember being disappointed. I thought, 'This doesn't sound like chaos. It just sounds like jazz.'”

Fraser is also a founding member of The Association of Improvising Musicians of Toronto (AIMToronto), a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting the Toronto improvising community, although less directly involved currently “because at a certain point, I would rather just play music than try to be an activist for music”.

And what comes next after this CD mini-tour?

This summer, Drumheller will release its new album, which has already been recorded. It will also be coming out on Barnyard Records, because its previous label is no longer releasing new material.

The connection with Tony Malaby won't end after this CD release, either. Fraser said he was working on a tour for next September, which he thought would come through, although it still depends on a number of factors.

“I hope we do more. I don't know if we'll make another album. But, we'll see. In the year, I'll maybe re-evaluate what we've done so far.”


Fraser described Malaby as “very versatile”. He's played with “not only [free jazz bassist] William Parker, [but] also Fred Hersch, Charlie Haden, Paul Motian. His own groups, too; they can be really free, but also really grounded. So, I wouldn't say straight ahead, but grounded.”

But isn't “versatile” a description that could equally be applied to himself?

Fraser was a bit uncomfortable with this at first. “Sure, I play a lot of different music and I like playing a lot of different music. I feel like everything feeds everything else.

“I don't feel like I want to focus more on just one area. Because I feel like if I'm doing lots of different things, then it helps me broaden everything I'm doing. Each thing that I'm doing is made more broad by each other thing that I'm doing.”

    – Alayne McGregor

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