What’s Up with Ask the Oracle
Ask the Oracle is a deliciously uncategorizable album. Is it world music? Maybe. Free jazz? Some of it, definitely. It’s the brainchild of alto sax player Andy Haas, who thirty years after he played the iconic sax break on Martha & the Muffins’ Echo Beach, returned to Toronto to join forces with some of his old hometown’s new-ish improvisational talent. Besides Haas (who also plays flute and the Korean hojok reed instrument), the crew includes Colin Fisher on guitar, guzheng, tanbour and tenor sax, Aaron Lumley on bass, Brandon Valdivia on percussion, mbira and dzavadzimu, and Matthew “Doc” Dunn on drums. What does it sound like? You have to take this one track by track.
The first cut, Surfing to Canada, reminds of Peter Buck’s Tuatara project, but more corrosive. Over a gently clattering no wave shuffle beat, Fisher fires off screaming, tremolo-picked guitar in the distance against Haas’ calmly scrambling atmospherics that eventually build to a series of aggravated clusters. Track two, Ass Gamelan, sparsely integrates the lutes for a nebulously Moroccan-tinged take on Indonesian bell music: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Tribecastan catalog. After the similarly hypnotic, Asian-flavored Before the Clouds Come featuring Valdivia’s plinky mbira, they blast through the punk-jazz Tag Track Locate, basically a coda and variations that clock in at under two minutes.
A tone poem of sorts, Scattered Through the Strings is exactly as the title describes it, rippling, glissandoing lutes and then Haas’ alto elevating just a little over over the creaky rattle behind him. Why Is the Devil Here is a vaudevillian swing tune wearing a jajouka disguise, wave after wave of blaring reeds (Haas playing alto and hojok simultaneously). The most memorable tune here, a warped Middle Eastern waltz with jangly tanbour, Dance with a Jinn contrasts spiky textures with ominously boomy drums. They close the album with the blazing, buzzy Curse of the Horns, the most traditional “free jazz” track here (if you buy the idea that free jazz can possibly be traditional), a series of alternate universes that peacefully coexist until a couple of clever false endings. Who is the audience for this? Anyone who likes a unique sound that defies pigeonholing. Haas has been a force in improvisational music for years in New York; watch this space for upcoming live shows.