Known for  powering—literally—jazz or improvised ensembles from behind his kit, Toronto drummer Nick Fraser brings his compositional talents upfront on Starer.
Like a gracious host who ensures each of his guests is properly included in party discourse, the drummer minimizes his role to commentary via irregular clunks and pops, opening up the pieces to be interpreted by two locals—cellist Andrew Downing and bassist Rob Clutton—and New York saxophonist Tony Malaby.
Malaby, who has recorded and toured with the others before, brings an appropriate trigger-quick adroitness to the compositions, often switching between abstract compressed tones from his soprano saxophone to more rounded tenor-sax elaboration. On the title track, for instance, Dowling’s high-pitched bucolic theme statement is doubled by nearly identical nasal soprano lines, which presage a clean melodious completion. “Sketch #29” consists of measured undulation from the double bass, decorated with higher-pitched cello detailing. Spread, like jam on toast, across these united string swells are self-assured tenor saxophone vibrations—the musical snack prevented from turning too sweet by the drummer’s hard cymbal smacks.
The best demonstration of Fraser’s maturing writing skills is “Sketch #20/22.” Initially a chamber-styled exposition from shallow-pitched soprano, enlivened with tympani reverb and clatters, an extended silence joins the first understated sequence to the subsequent fleet sketch. As the drummer projects the irregular beat alluded to earlier, the others contribute a contrapuntal overlay encompassing Malaby’s crying split tones, guitar-like picking from Dowling and Clutton’s grounded pulsations. By the time reed honks and smears right themselves the piece has traveled from one fascinating extreme to another.
If Fraser views Starer as the equivalent of a sketch-pad, he’s proven here that, if he wishes, he certainly deserves to work on a larger canvas with more musical colours.