Meeting Micromasse

A welcome addition to Portland’s jazz scene
By SAM PFEIFLE  |  January 30, 2014

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ALL THAT JAZZ Micromasse plays old-time jazz with a contemporary flair.

The Fogcutters have to be one of the better local music stories of the past decade. You know you’ve got a fanbase with taste when one of the most popular acts in town is a big band doing everything from traditional swing to hip-hop covers.

So maybe there’s room for Micromasse, featuring guitarist Max Cantlin and playing old-time jazz, though this time in trio format, and all originals, without any singing. Cantlin, also known for his work with Gypsy Tailwind/Anna Lombard and This Way, is joined by organist Peter Dugas (the Awesome, Inside Straight, Zion Train, and more) and drummer Chris Sweet (Zach Jones, Dan Capaldi, Radiation Year) in creating a tight group that throws back to the hey-day of bop-style jazz, while bringing in elements of R&B, pop, and Latin works.

This isn’t American Standard Songbook stuff. There’s fusion at work here, and Dugas writes all the pieces, so there are times when everything sounds completely contemporary, but it’s more often you’ll be reminded of the likes of Joe Pass and Wes Montgomery on the guitar, or Rhoda Scott and Herbie Hancock on the organ.

Okay, maybe not as out-there as Hancock got, but check out Scott if you don’t know her. She could rip and like her, Dugas can certainly lay it down, with plenty of bass notes from his feet, too.

That’s how he starts “Novi Sad,” a 10-minute midpoint in the band’s 10-song, self-titled debut album. Actually, it’s a cowbell from Sweet that goes first, but then comes Dugas’ moody bass and trudging chords, setting up a foundation for Cantlin’s guitar to ride on, just a series of repeating riffs, feeling their way through the song’s open. It’s a completely organic experience that manages to feel digital in the way each instrument introduces repeating parts, transitions them to something else, and then exits for a bit. Like a producer with nearly infinite riffs at her disposal.

Then, with about 1:20 to go, the whole thing fades out and introduces an entirely new song, like Nigel Hall midway through a 20-minute build-up, but less manic (and Sweet’s got a lighter hand than most jam, R&B, or soul drummers).

Why make that bit part of the larger 10-minute track? Well, Micromasse don’t have to explain themselves to you. They’re going to go wherever their fancy takes them, whether it’s into a soaring crescendo that crests and plays out in “Tamed Cynic,” before a Dugas freak-out that ends in a solitary note like a laser beam, or Cantlin doing an upstroke and playful chime in “Hinche,” then moving to an improvised group of phrases that seem to come to him after a moment’s listen to what the universe is whispering in his ear.

My personal favorite is probably “Ruelle Des Urculines,” a waltzing ballroom tune that still manages to open like Midnight Marauders. The organ is sing-songy like a an ‘80s sitcom — is that Jack Tripper bouncing around the corner? Sweet is crisp with the high hat and Cantlin is reserved in his chimes so Dugas really has the floor. Later, Cantlin comes busting in easy and free, like California beaches and the wind in your hair.

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