Will Fisher Coastal Quartet – Portage
Record Label: Independent
Release Date: October 28, 2012
Jazz is a genre that’s all about balance: between improvisation and structure, sophisticated technique and cathartic devolution, melancholy and joy. It’s a delicate scale that can never tip too far in any direction, lest it succumb to its worst vices. Portage, the debut release of the Will Fisher Coastal Quartet, demonstrates an impressive awareness of the space in which it exists, and yet it doesn’t sound suppressed at all. It’s an emotional web of an album articulated with vivid clarity—a worthwhile listen for anybody seeking to be enchanted for forty-five minutes.
The album begins with a boom of energy, as “The Great Karoo” builds on a syncopated bass rhythm with blasts of trumpet and swirls of piano, the ensemble flaunting their myriad talents in all sorts of quirky tangents. Fisher’s strengths as a drummer shine: he keeps the track grounded even as he demonstrates an impeccable sense of dynamic control that invigorates the affairs surrounding it.
Dichotomies are alive and well in Portage: “Top, Bottom, Slide” is a rhythm exercise in extremes, a battle between restrainment and release that eventually sees the latter winning out. Fisher gets a rare moment where he gets to go wild, and let me assure you, that word is not to be taken lightly in his hands. “Portage” allows a bit of emotional ambiguity, allowing the strings and brass sections to unwind completely before we get into the meat of the track three minutes in. Its charm is a bit more understated than the euphoria of “The Great Karoo”, but it toes the line between reflection and mourning so delicately that it’ll rouse listeners all the same.
The ensemble here works as a team, no matter what type of track it’s navigating: “Vestibules” slows to a crawl, letting each member of the ensemble shine on a track evoking emotions of longing and wonder in equal measure. “Lite Brite” is a considerably more upbeat trifle that hides playful little interludes over a gloomy overcast. “Falling Arbutus” allows bass player Mike Downes to get downe (oh, I hate myself) for a few minutes on his own before the drums kick in and the ensemble launches into a nimble piece that’s all about timing, and not one of the parts of this puzzle doesn’t fall perfectly into place, whether it’s a brief trumpet explosion courtesy of Jon Challoner or Mikko Hilden’s tense but fluid guitar solo.
Portage saves the best for last, though: “Cape Breton Lullaby”, a cover of a regional folk song, is a fantastic culmination of everything the ensemble has been building up to. Following a brief but gorgeous piano introduction, the ensemble eases into a jazzed-up arrangement of the traditional tune. It’s hushed, stirring—and unmistakably the band’s finest work. The ensemble plays with a relaxed gracefulness befitting the uplifting ending to this promising debut.