Dignity of Labour Ensemble / St. Dirt Elementary School / Barnyard Drama Oasis, Toronto ON - January 10

As Toronto played host to the International Association of Jazz Educators, there was a counter-festival afoot where the real schoolin' was taking place. The Creative Improviser's Assembly (CIA), orchestrated by saxophonist Glen Hall, stretched over three nights at Oasis, a club that regularly features up-and-coming improvised music in Toronto. Friday's slate was more compositional than improvised in its orientation. First up was the Dignity of Labour Ensemble, led by bassist Michael Morse. His compositions were a fairly intriguing mix of tango-influenced Weill-ian circus music with a strong dose of film noir swing. The highlights were the few improvised moments of the set, a great unaccompanied sax solo by Sundar Viswanathan, and Christine Duncan's vocalese throughout. St. Dirt Elementary School sounded tight; they are one of the few bands involved with the CIA to hold down a regular residency. Leader Myk Freedman plays a subtle lap steel guitar, as if the Lounge Lizards had started playing together in the '30s, with a touch more Western swing. Ryan Driver made the most impact, playing edgy piano and thumb reeds, which sound either like a more controllable kazoo, or an out of control Tuvan throat singer. Drummer Jake Oelrichs got some action on a strange and wonderful version of "Autumn Leaves." The highlight of the night was Jean Martin and Duncan's Barnyard Drama. Fortunately, the dull electronica din from the front room had subsided, leaving lots of open space for Martin's sensitively grooving and textural drums, and well thought-out turntables and electronics. This was a great platform for Duncan's wildly expressive vocals, taking off from Maggie Nicols' anything-goes approach. Her recitations matched the mood of Martin's soundscapes very well and made for a compelling performance, the most improvised of the night.