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The Graham Album Review #2186

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Last Ark Out: Lift

(Independent Release, as broadcast on WVIA-FM 2/14/2024)

For many, the COVID pandemic has become an unpleasant memory that occasionally rears it head, but it has had a lasting effect on the way many people live their lives. Coming as it did at a time when the internet and video streaming became ubiquitous, it was the catalyst for massive shift among some for working from home, and countless Zoom video conference meetings. The pandemic had a particularly profound effect on musicians, who could not play before audiences, and indeed, among groups whose members could not get together in person. So what had started pre-COVID as an occasional practice in recording, with guest musicians recording their parts separately, and then combining them in the studio, became ubiquitous in the time of COVID. Indeed, there were several jazz big band recordings that were made with each musician in his or her own environment playing their parts to be assembled into a virtual big band.

This week’s album is another that was shaped by the pandemic, with guest soloists in far-flung places performing together virtually. It’s the new second release by the Canadian jazz-rock fusion band called Last Ark Out. It’s called Lift.

Last Ark Out is a bi-coastal Canadian group whose members are from Vancouver and Montreal, led by guitarist Arthur Pascau Smith. The band formed around Vancouver Community College, under the name Wednesday Is Fight Day, though they did not last long. But a few years later they re-formed to play with pianist James Huumo for his graduation recital. Smith is currently based in Montreal. Other current members include drummer Colin Parker from Vancouver; Jeff Gammon on bass who is from Edmonton, Alberta; and Western Canadians keyboard man James Huumo, and saxophonist Justin Gorrie. During the pandemic the group were collaborating long-distance, and they decided to take it a step further. They invited different guests to appear, recording virtually. The result is an interesting and engaging album that runs from mellow jazz fusion to very electric progressive-rock style material with sophisticated compositions. The album is reminiscent of the art-rock fusion of the band TAUK. The guest musicians on The Last Ark’s album are mostly Canadian, but there are a couple of Americans appearing, including drummer Sarah Thawer, and keyboardist Sasha Berliner. Other guests include drummer Larnell Lewis, who has recorded with Snarky Puppy and regularly tours with notable jazz musicians, including John Scofield, Laila Biali, and musical polymath Jacob Collier. Canadian alto saxophonist Allison Au is another notable guest.

The composing duties are split among bassist Gammon, guitarist Smith and saxophonist Gorrie.

Opening is an appealing synthesizer dominated piece by Jeff Gammon called Brackish, with the guest artist being Sasha Berliner, who plays synthesizer vibes. <<>> Like much of the material on the album, Brackish has a “B” section that takes a different direction. <<>>

Drummer Larnell Lewis appears on a funky track called Dyab. They manage to add a little spaciness to the danceable though rhythmically quirky tune, written by guitarist Smith. <<>>

A track called Late to the Game features as its guest David Osey-Arfifa on keyboards. It can be a bit reminiscent of the Yellowjackets. The band shows their versatility with the tune. <<>>

Libra is a composition by the Last Ark’s saxophonist Justin Gorrie in which the guest is another saxophonist, Hailey Nisanger, who was part of hit vocalist and bassist Experanza Spalding’s group. It’s about the most mellow track on the album, beginning as it does with some spaciness <<>> before getting into its groove. <<>>

On the other hand, all-out rock is the sonic direction taken on the track Scorpio with the guest being drummer Sarah Thawer. <<>>

Jazz saxophonist Allison Au makes her appearance on another of the more laid back tunes on the album, called Song Needs Title. Ms. Au adds a lot to the tune, written by guitarist Arthur Pascau Smith. <<>>

The rather brief 35-minute album concludes with a rather contemplative-sounding track, called That Dream Again, also written by guitarist Smith. It sums up the blend of the jazz and rock elements. <<>>

Lift, the new album by the Canadian fusion quintet Last Ark Out, is a first-rate project that combines tasteful playing and excellent compositions, in a rather wide-ranging jazz-rock fusion context. With the group’s members scattered on either end of Canada during the pandemic,. They decided to put the technology that allowed people to stay in touch, to work on an album project that brought in guest musician to play virtually. In fact the group has posted videos of them playing in a studio with the guests appearing on a bunch of retro CRT video monitors. Though the technology of virtual recording is getting more common, I think what sets this album apart is the quality of the compositions and multi-faceted musical textures.

Our grade for audio quality is close to an “A.” As is so often the case, there is too much volume compression, but the sound is reasonably clean, and effects are used sparingly and appropriately.

Jazz-rock fusion groups from Canada seem fairly rare, but Last Ark Out has come up with an outstanding new recording that emphasizes the best qualities of the genre.

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