Noteland is a note-perfect collection of sketches and sonic scenes that challenge perceptions of what jazz is and what it could be.
There’s a Kids in the Hall sketch that keeps running through my mind when I think about Noteland from the Saskatchewan-based collective Peace Flag Ensemble. In the scene, Kevin McDonald’s character is shopping in a record store staffed by Bruce McCulloch’s archetypical clerk, who points McDonald in the direction of the latest by Pixies and Depeche Mode while unequivocally telling him that it all sucks. Talk soon turns to the Doors, a band that sparks McCulloch’s passion. Handing McDonald a copy of Waiting for the Sun after kissing its sleeve and calling it the band’s “departure point,” McCulloch quizzes his new protege: “Who’s on bass?” It’s a trick question, of course: “No bass?” McDonald gasps; “No bass,” McCulloch declares.
While there most definitely is bass on Noteland (courtesy of Travis Packer) along with piano (Jon Neher), trumpet (Dalton Lam), sax (Paul Gutheil), and electronic noodling and guitars (producer Michael Scott Dawson), there’s no drums or percussion. You’d never notice, nor do you miss it, as Peace Flag Ensemble improvises its way through textured compositions sprinkled with melodies that undulate and move to a rhythm all its own. Like the landscapes of their home province (members come from “scattered points across Saskatchewan”), Peace Flag Ensemble lets their improvs stretch out on the jazz continuum. It’s experimental jazz, sure, but it’s also rooted in tradition. There’s no competition for your attention on the exquisite piano-led single “Human Pyramid,” which naturally gives way for the trumpet to step up on “Woke Up Like The Room, Tarzana.” The effected field recording and electronic elements underpinning “Hilma af Klint in Ab” feel as right as rain in these compositions as they do on Neher and Dawson’s impeccable 2019 ambient album, Nothing is On Fire.
Drums or no drums, Peace Flag Ensemble opens doors, challenging your perception of what jazz is and what it could be in the right, capable hands. Noteland is a note-perfect collection of sketches and sonic scenes that are expansive and intimate. A departure point, if you will, in the best sense of the term. XO.