Christine Duncan has been working her Element Choir up in Toronto for a few years now, taking a large group of professional and amateur singers and rehearsing them in spontaneous composition. Allusion to Butch Morris's conducted improvisations would not be off the mark, but she of course has own aesthetic and style. Beyond procedural similarities, however, both Duncan and Morris are drawn toward sounds which might be labeled "classical" or even "sacred" more than the jazz tradition which if nothing else arises in each of their choices in personnel. This is made plain in Duncan's case on her most recent recording with bassist William Parker, who appears as a sort of featured soloist alongside her usual accompanists (trumpeter Jim Lewis, bassist Andrew Downing and drummer Jean Martin), all part of the Toronto jazz scene.
Taken together the musicians and singers (some 70 names are listed on the liner notes to At Christ Church, Deer Park) could be parsed in a variety of ways. At times they could be heard as a setting of sacred against secular — the cover photo depicting an angelic chalk drawing on a city street affirming that depiction — with organist Eric Robinson joining the chorus in a showdown against the profane jazz band. They could be heard — as they seemed during their appearance at the 2011 Guelph Jazz Festival in Ontario — as a grand quintet with Duncan's control over her singers being so tight they could be counted as a single member. Perhaps that count was the result of bearing personal witness, or due to the particularities of the performance or the embellishments of memory but in the one, 42-minute track on Deer Park they are willfully far too amorphous to count as a quintet or slice into any number of even pieces. There are certainly moments of jazz band and church choir, there are passages for soloists and there are surprising sections that come off as crowd scenes (chaotic, choreographed or Berio-esque). There are moments of splendor just as there are moments of searching for that splendor. At their heights, Duncan, choir and instrumentalists find a unique beauty.
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