• Robbie McGrail

Peace Flag Ensemble - Noteland (Album Review)

Peace Flag Ensemble

Noteland

We Are Busy Bodies

18 June 2021


Album Rating 4/5

Favourite Songs 'The Right to Silence', 'Hilma Af Klint In Ab', 'Your Father Is In The Yard Counting Sparrows'

Noteland is an album of elegantly crafted soundscapes. The music is improvisational but neatly polished, resulting in a collection of ambient jazz that soothes and nourishes the listener.


Peace Flag Ensemble is a jazz collective of experimental music from Saskatchewan, Canada. Their members consist of Jon Neher, who lays the foundations for the improvisational music, on piano, Travis Packer on bass, Dalton Lam on trumpet and Paul Gutheil on the saxophone. Theatmospheric artist Michael Scott Dawson produced the album and added guitars, electronics and field recordings into the mix.


Although the music is experimental and improvisational in style, its central theme is ambience. Passages of tension contort themselves and ripple out into blissful resolutions.


It is pastoral and emotional music, with electronic flourishes.


The album opens on a one-and-a-half minute introduction entitled ‘Wilted Sax’ which delivers what it says on the tin. The sax and trumpet twinkle alongside the piano and electric drones and the track gives the album a peaceful beginning.


‘Human Pyramid’ is one of the singles from the album; a piece with a rippling piano beneath trumpet calls and bass prods. It’s a soothing and beautiful piece of ambient jazz.


The saxophone joins the trumpet in the third track, ‘Woke Up Like the Room, Tarzana’. Jon Neher’s piano takes a more backseat position as Travis Packer’s bass lays down the anchor. Quiet shrills ooze out of the sax in the background, in a wonderfully fragmented piece.


Electronics compliment the music throughout, and come into the end of the third track to provide the imagery of water; something that the piano brings as well in its ripple-like effects.

The unique instrument parts have a sense of liberation and yet are contained enough so as not to alienate the listener. "Everyone leaned into their own intuition and inspiration,’ shares Michael Scott Dawson. ‘I think that kept us from limiting possibilities."


This sense of limitless possibilities really shines out throughout the album, particularly in ‘The Right to Silence’, which was one of my favourite tracks. It features some lovely parallel grooves between the bass and piano, in a canon-like effect, while the trumpet calls out from above.


‘Hilma Af Klint In Ab’ is an abstract and beautiful piece, as its name pays tribute to the Swedish artist Hilma af Klint. Like her wonderfully bizarre paintings, the music feels strange and spiritual.


‘Presentism’ is the sixth track, and first of the vinyl’s B-side. Smooth chords sit beneath disjointed trumpet, bass passages and neat electronics.


‘Your Father is in the Yard Counting Sparrows’ is a reflective and nostalgic piece with wonderful use of the saxophone atop a fragmented piano. The electronic moments really come to fruition in this one.

The use of the instruments, alongside the electronics, is one of the most interesting elements of the album. Nothing seems at odds with each other; the parts all fit together in wonderful harmony with a sense of limitless expansion.


Dawson references this multifaceted use of instrumentation and says: "Sometimes that means a saxophone is reduced to just the crackle of a split valve, sometimes it's blurred into pastoral ambience, and sometimes…well, sometimes it's just a saxophone."


‘No Police in the Parade’ and ‘Marginalia’ are the final two tracks of the album, which deliver the emotive ambience of Noteland as a whole. The penultimate track features the common theme of disjointed calm, while the final track, ‘Marginalia’ contains piano passages full of emotion. It’s a wonderful way to round off a beautiful album.


Noteland has the perfect balance of quality production with free musical explorations. The members of Peace Flag Ensemble all bring something special to the table and the electronics and field recordings of Michael Scott Dawson add extra colour.


"This record really allowed us to explore so many kinds of spontaneity while still crafting and polishing a finished work," says pianist Jon Neher, "that is a rare treat in improvised music."


'Noteland' releases on the Canadian label, We Are Busy Bodies, on June 18th 2021.

Buy and stream Noteland here.


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