Seven years ago, Ken Aldcroft left the university life in Nova Scotia for the left coast and quickly established himself as a staple on the Vancouver scene: a many-faced guitarist with, as recorded evidence suggests, a knack for assembling good inside-outside groups with ambitious repertoires. On "Big Picture" and "His Mistress Never Sleeps...", waxed in 1998 and 1999, respectively, he fronts small ensembles that emphasize interplay above personal glorification (not unlike the sundry incarnations of Jimmy Giuffre's trios).
Ken Aldcroft Trio+1: His Mistress Never Sleeps... (Trio Records). Billed as "a tribute to the life and music of Duke Ellington," His Mistress Never Sleeps...makes use of material that thankfully avoids most of the standbys--here "Bluebird of Delhi" and the well-known "Isfahan" from the Far East Suite form a prelude to four excerpts from Such Sweet Thunder, and, finally, "Take the Coltrane". Armed with trombonist Brian Harding, saxophonist Graham Ord and Bernie Arai on drums, Aldcroft pays minimalist homage to the other side of Ellington. The wafty, unhurried "Bluebird" with spare playing unhindered by too-strict adherence to structure, is as good an example as any--Harding's patience, the hollowness of Ord's tone and Aldcroft's rhythmic flexibility and natural tendency to slip into easy swing are a delightfully exotic combination. "Lady Mac," which is surely a highlight, starts with a nice, lilting groove from Aldcroft, only to build into a galumphing roadhouse blues. Here, however, Ord's vapid soprano tone becomes a detriment. Rating: 3 1/2 stars
Ken Aldcroft Trio: Big Picture (Trio Records). Meanwhile, the earlier Big Picture, missing Ord and with Nick Gaffaney replacing Arai at the traps, introduces another side of the group altogether. Harding, tossing the crutch of another horn away with praise-bejesus aplomb, acquits himself very well indeed, falling into a Roswell Rudd bag on the lone standard, Monk's "Bemsha Swing," and carrying the gently shuffling "Brother Bob" with impressive agility. The originals all have their moments--and there's a pleasing lack of adherence to any particular stylistic dogma. I'm tempted to make comparisons with another young guitarist, Ben Monder, who exerts remarkable restraint, yet never seems to lose his grip on the proceedings. "Folksong in Motian," "Another Night," "Beans on Me"--these are in no hurry to stake their territory, but rarely are they wholly unengaging. Even the rootsy "Spiritual" and speeding-down-a-country-road "Doogie/Like Father" take their time, driven Aldcroft's deft maneuvering between catchy riffs and textural chording. The same goes for "Evening Peace" on His Mistress Never Sleeps... There's a simplicity to the guitarist's presumably overdubbed intro--which places him firmly in the mould of about a dozen modern guitar luminaries and yet owes little to any of them--that begets a positively lovely melody. No rush to make a point, no ersatz tension build, no egos straining to make themselves known. Such is the case with some of the best music coming out of jazz outposts like Vancouver. Rating: 3 1/2 stars