Badge Époque Ensemble Expand Their Compositional Horizons on 'Clouds of Joy'
Published Sep 15, 2022Not unlike the meteorological namesake of Clouds of Joy, their third full-length album, Badge Époque Ensemble have taken a handful of different forms in the time since they tumbled into creation. Perhaps you saw the outfit supporting Bill Callahan on tour across Canada in 2018, lost yourself in the Max Turnbull-masterminded sprawl of last year's Scroll as Badge Epoch, or caught the exceedingly rare Badge Duo of Turnbull and newly welcomed keyboardist Edwin de Goeij grooving on Toronto's Dundas Street West in June.
On Clouds of Joy, bandleader Turnbull steps away from the keys to move behind the boards, working with the ensemble in more "directorial" fashion when it comes to producing and arranging — a role like that of soul-jazz super producer David Axelrod, or Steely Dan's perfectionist partnership of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker.
It's a move that has led to BÉE's most consummate release to date. Amidst these Clouds of Joy, the arrangements feel tighter, the themes more memorable, the fidelity a touch higher — for a record mixed in a room credited as That '70s Basement, no less — all with the collaborative methodology prioritizing the jubilation in creating, feeling, and just being.
Any discerning jazz-funk listener neck-deep in the crates will tell you albums like Clouds of Joy are all about the players, man, and Badge Époque's recurring conspirators continue shining in expanded songwriting roles and next to newer faces. After their absence on Scroll, alto and baritone saxophone player Karen Ng and guitarist Chris Bezant return to the fold — the former's horns leaping to life on "Zodiac" before laying us down to sleep on "All Same 2 Each, Each Same 2 All," while the latter's nimble lead work adds welcome dimension to the title track and eponymous "Badge Époque Ensemble."
Keyboardist de Goeij proves a seamless fit whether playing lead or in support of groupmates. Upon familiarizing oneself with the leading melody of "Don't Touch a Hair On His Head," it's as if you're in-studio watching the rest of the band feel out the mood and work to coalesce around his cozy keys.
If not working synths and piano for a short mid-song flight like that in the band's eponymous track, de Goeij's bouncy clavinet is working in tandem with Bezant's wah pedal to power the elegiac funk of "Zodiac" far out into the cosmos — the perfect place for another star turn for James Baley and the exceptionally talented session choir of Bernice's Robin Dann, Bonjay's Alanna Stewart, Dorothea Paas and Alex Samaras. Towards that song's end, de Goeij moves into a more textural mode, with subtle pad swells soundtracking a conversation between Bezant's six-string and flautist Alia O'Brien, steadied by the rhythmic triple threat of drummer Jay Anderson, bassist Gio Rosati and percussionist Ed Squires.
Among the other memories after the Clouds dissipate, the main melody of the title track could prove to be BÉE's most indelible bit of writing since "Milk Spilt on Eternity" sauntered its way into ears on their 2019 debut. In a full-circle moment, a deftly layered, largely staccato vocal figure that opens the album reappears at its end in more relaxed fashion, as if having evaporated and gone through the water cycle to rain down once more before the listen's out.
Toronto singer-songwriter Paas handled vocal arranging across the album, and if you didn't catch up to her compositional acumen on 2021 solo debut Anything Can't Happen, you'll do so now. The most unvarnished look is given in a trio of vocal interludes interspersed amongst the larger compositions. With its mantric, titular refrain, "Let Breath Be the Sum" moves through meditative harmonics before a more forthright choral figure dovetails with O'Brien's flighty woodwind. "Joy Flows," meanwhile, feels much more unsettled in its tense teasing of what's to come with "The Greatest Joy," marked by its imposing, stormy-skied delivery of that singular feeling. Elsewhere, Paas's brilliance is found in the smaller details: the honeyed oohs and aahs winding their way through "Conspiring with Nature," the way the harmonies of "All Same 2 Each…" gradually unfurl to more exultant heights, and an AM radio sting-styled intro to the band's eponymous track.
There is musical, emotional euphoria to be felt and witnessed in all of Badge Époque Ensemble's various shapes, and on the other side of Self Help, Clouds of Joy floats even higher on wonderfully rich, resonant moments of clarity. (Telephone Explosion)