Rapturous sax-playing conjures memories of bygone age



TO Ensemble

Esplanade Recital Studio/Last Friday

The year is some time in a dystopian future. An artificial intelligence consciousness called HAL 2055 presents memories of Earth that transpired before the 2045 cataclysmic event, referred to as the Singularity.

As end-of-days plots beloved by the TO Ensemble go, this one had to be the least convoluted.

Local composer and jazz pianist Tze Toh’s latest conception does away with jaded personalities, decrepit cities, digitally created audio films and sob stories of past concerts, focusing instead on pure music.

Even his ensemble has been pared down to just five players, a far cry from the more ambitious days of Tze N Looking Glass Orchestra, the ensemble’s former guise.

Then, the group had a body of strings, winds, percussion and even Chinese instruments.

Now, it is just founding members Toh, Carnatic violinist Lazar T. Sebastine and saxophonist Teo Boon Chye, augmented by soprano Izumi Sado and newcomer violinist Loh Jun Hong of More Than Music fame.

This economy of forces worked well through the concert’s seven movements, titled and untitled.

In its opening Awaken/Descend, there was a Debussyan touch when Toh’s piano mused on a series of whole tones, a short prelude before Sebastine’s violin entered with melodies inflected by portamenti (slides). This gave the music an exotic quality going beyond its Indian tuning system.

Loh’s Western violin had a more conventional and supporting role but he soon got into the spirit of things. Sado’s wordless melismata was haunting and siren-like, floating effortlessly over rhythmic ostinatos by piano and computer-generated loops.

The star of the show had to be Teo’s improvisations on alto and tenor sax, conjuring reminiscences of a bygone age. This was the rapturous kind of jazz typically inhabiting smoky parlours and joints, rather than spiffy concert halls.

Eschewing the pessimistic tone of TO Ensemble’s previous efforts, the music projected a sense of hope by recycling nostalgic thoughts. Hence, the prominence of memories in the concert’s title.

In the movement titled Memories, a vigorous minimalistic rhythm and frenetic pace dominated, signalling the awakening of myriad senses.

In Child, the Western violin ushered in the Indian violin, forwarding the idea that different children lived separate lives and, hence, had different memories.

For Machine Sunrise, tenor sax and tape provided a dream-like state where the pervasive mood of melancholy ironically drew the loudest applause from the small but clearly enthralled audience.

Performing for about 55 minutes without an interval, the movements shifted from the darker key of B minor to the sunny G major.

With that, the mood also became palpably upbeat. The final two movements played out like a glorious update of the baroque chaconne, an antique dance formed by short variations built over a steady ground bass.

With time to spare, the quintet offered an extended and improvised encore, clueing the audience into the finer points of jazz.