01_Throne.jpgThe Throne
Ochs-Robinson Duo
NotTwo MW 918-2 (nottwo.com)

Eschewing all regal trappings, this game of throne strips interactive improvisation to its bare bones, demonstrating how expansive a duet between one saxophonist and one drummer can be. Rova member, soprano and tenor saxophonist Larry Ochs, doesn’t need other reed backup on these nine tracks, carving out strategies involving sharpened abstraction plus an underlying swing, which at points is surprisingly harmonious. Responsive rather than confrontational, Donald Robinson uses all parts of his kit from cymbals to bass drum to push, promote or punctuate the interface.

Tarter tunes such as Red Tail and Breakout give Ochs a Sonny Rollins-like showcase to extract all possible tonal consideration from a theme, abandoning it like a dog with a bone only when maximum improvisational nourishment has been extracted; other lines are more sympathetic. Push Hands for instance, one of two memorials to departed musicians, is a study in pinched chromatics. Here Robinson bends his beats with an Africanized lilt, in order to accompany Ochs’ gravelly threnody. Song 2 is another revelation. What starts off as an essay in modulated reed slides and smears wedded to a rumpled pulse becomes a vibrant, coherent narrative that assumes song form.

Near-human vocalized cries which Ochs pulls from both his horns throughout are refined from stacks of timbral smears to a growly renal-like exposition that defines the concluding title track. At the same time Ochs’ thematic exposition relates back to Open to the Light, the first track, memorializing another musician. Ultimately Robinson’s emphasized ruff marks a distinct ending both to the final piece and this well-balanced program.

Because of Billie
Molly Johnson
Independent 253787133

Coming Forth By Day
Cassandra Wilson
Legacy 888750636225

To Lady With Love
Annie Ross; Bucky Pizzarelli; John Pizzarelli
Red Anchor Records CAP1047


02a_Molly_Johnson.jpgKnown for her conversational approach to singing and a voice both raspy and authoritative, Molly Johnson has been aptly compared to Billie Holiday; Because of Billie is her response to that compliment. On this heartfelt tribute, the Toronto native recalls Holiday in her heyday, swinging with sparkling intelligence and digging deeply into every lyric. Fans of the original versions will likely enjoy this straight-ahead set, exquisitely arranged by bassist Mike Downes and featuring some of Canada’s finest jazz players, including pianist Robi Botos, whose solo on What a Little Moonlight Can Do invites repeated listening. Johnson and the band have some fun on an extended version of Them There Eyes, manage a memorable take on the iconic Strange Fruit and take some exciting liberties with Lady Sings the Blues and Now or Never, both tunes co-penned by Lady Day herself. Proceeds from the album go to the Boys and Girls Clubs across Canada.


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02b_Cassadra_Wilson.jpgReminiscent in scope of Holiday’s penultimate Lady in Satin, Coming Forth By Day was produced by Nick Launay of post-punk experimental rock outfit the Bad Seeds. While ardent swing-era traditionalists might be less than impressed, loyal fans of Cassandra Wilson will not be surprised by this audacious project, especially since it was made possible by a triumphant crowdfunding campaign. Wilson’s witchy contralto finds itself nestled within Van Dyke Parks’ haunting string arrangements, augmented further by Robby Marshall on reeds, guitarists Kevin Breit and T Bone Burnett, and original members of the Bad Seeds on bass and drums. Songs such as All of Me and The Way You Look Tonight are stripped of their swing feel, but not their poetry. The effects are melancholic and mysterious; miraculously, it all works. More appealing with each listen, this album is a fascinating, courageous work of art that captures Holiday’s spirit. This is intoxicating music that begs to be turned up.

02c_Annie_Ross.jpgIn the prime of her career Annie Ross possessed one of the most elastic voices in jazz. Uniquely suited to the intricacies of bebop, her horn-like instrument back in the day was skyscraping in range and weapon-like in precision. A half-century later, decades of hard living and the inevitabilities of time have transformed this mythical vocalist, actress and lyricist down to human size. A real-life friend of Billie Holiday, on To Lady With Love the frail 84-year-old Ross bares her naked heart for the listener in a fashion Lady Day would have treasured. The minimalistic accompaniment of phenomenal father/son duo Bucky and John Pizzarelli adds immensely to the album’s musical intimacy. On torch anthems such as It’s Easy to Remember and I’m a Fool to Want You phrases sting like iodine on a fresh wound. This unforgettable album was, without a doubt, a cathartic experience for Ross. Listen with headphones and you might cry, too.


Author: Ori Dagan
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Jazzland Recordings Norway No. 2
471-991 B (jazzlandrec.com)

First formed in 2000, the quintet Atomic has developed into a key voice in current jazz, its distinct identity comprised of strong rhythmic grooves, free jazz fireworks and the edgy ensemble precision of post-bop jazz. The Scandinavian band has honed its art in the furnace of frequent tours over years, becoming a genuinely international presence. Lucidity is the band’s first CD since drummer Paal Nilssen-Love’s 2014 departure and Hans Hulbœkmo’s arrival, the band’s first personnel change. Atomic has done more than survive the loss of Europe’s most dynamic younger drummer: it’s found a new balance.

With compositions provided by saxophonist and clarinetist Fredrik Ljungkvist and pianist Håvard Wiik, Atomic presses forward on strong personalities and rare flexibility, with the aggressive brassy presence of trumpeter Magnus Broo defining the ensembles and bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten the group’s molten core. While Ljungkvist’s Major swings hard and continuously, Wiik’s Laterna Interfuit touches down on many bases, a gentle folk-like opening, a brashly dissonant fanfare and improvised passages that range through collective blowing from the horns and Wiik’s own airy, post-bop interlude.

That quicksilver creativity extends to Ljungkvist’s descriptively titled Start/Stop, from its eerie and slightly muffled night music beginning to its eventual rapid theme filled with wide intervals and accompanying clusters. Negotiating a shifting ground between composition and improvisation and a host of sounds, moods and methodologies, Atomic is devoted to keeping themselves and the audience engaged.


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04_TwoPiano.jpgTwo Piano Concert at the Philadelphia Museum of Art
Michael Snow; Thollem McDonas
Edgetone EDT 4148 edgetonerecords.com

Besides distinguishing himself as one of Canada’s most lauded filmmakers and visual artists, Toronto’s Michael Snow maintains a parallel career as an improvising pianist. Most frequently working as a charter member of the local CCMC, on occasion he matches wits with outsiders. A bonus as part of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s retrospective of his work Two Piano Concert featured a duet with peripatetic American improviser Thollem McDonas. Although both are pianists, the selections clearly outline the individuality of each so-called avant-garde player.

With the metronomic 176-key assault only brought to the fore for emphasis, the most frequent strategy in this three-track recital is for one pianist to squirm and skip a theme to a certain point where it’s either embellished with arpeggios and strums or challenged at half speed with contrapuntal asides by the other. Besides this, the keyboardists often converse like an old married couple, finishing each other’s phrases. More like hearing two Cecil Taylors, rather than any conventional piano duo, the two utilize all parts of their instruments. Shrill key clips and tremolo backboard echoes are only part of this; so are wood-rending scratches and harp-like inner string strums. Snow identifies himself most clearly on Two even as McDonas pounds out sardonic Chopstick-like rhythms or identifiable bop runs. Unexpectedly, the Canadian, who apprenticed playing classic jazz, sounds out a perfect stride piano lick which would have done James P. Johnson proud. McDonas’ response is to swell his glissandi to such an extent that they fill every molecule of the resulting soundscape. That challenge met, the final track features a satisfying return to carefully timed sympathetic patterning.

There’s no way Snow will ever have to fall back on his second career, but Two Piano Concert confirms that his keyboard inventiveness and professionalism allow him to hold his own with – and sometime best – a full-time improviser.


01_Dickinson.jpgPianist Brian Dickinson continues to build on a distinguished career that reaches back to the 1980s. The latest release by his trio, a nominee for the 2015 JUNO Jazz Album of the Year – Group, Fishs Eddy (Addo Records AJR023, addorecords.com) matches him with young drummer Ethan Ardelli and senior bassist George Mraz, whose long CV includes work with Oscar Peterson, Stan Getz and Elvin Jones. It’s a perfect match given Dickinson’s roots in Bill Evans’ harmonically rich, lyrical style and Evans’ evolution of the piano trio, giving a prominent place to the bass to develop strong countermelodies. There’s a keening, reaching, welling lyricism here, a passionate rush of emotion rising from reverie. It begins on familiar melodic ground, George Gershwin’s I Loves You Porgy, explored for over nine minutes, then turns largely to Dickinson’s originals, the trio developing intense interactions around their harmonies and repeating figures.

02_Roussel_Trio.jpgQuantum (Effendi FND 139, effendirecords.com) is the third CD from the Emie R Roussel Trio, a young group that has been consistently nominated for Quebec festival and media awards since its inception in 2010. It’s easy to hear why. It’s consistently engaging music, well thought out with an almost architectural sense of form. Building on rock-solid foundations provided by bassist Nicolas Bédard and drummer Dominic Cloutier, pianist and composer Roussel compounds a personal idiom that fuses post-bop jazz with R&B (think Joe Sample and George Duke), the instrumentation moving readily from acoustic to Fender Rhodes piano and electric bass. The acoustic highlight is Ipomée, a fine demonstration of Roussel’s ability to construct tension by making incremental shifts in short figures, then contrasting short and long phrases; the electric Marée haute combines a deep groove and extended melodic development.

03_JNT3_Acid_Bunny.jpgWhile the Roussel trio is happiest with a detailed road map, trombonist Jean-Nicolas Trottier builds energy through the exchange of ideas based on brief heads. Trottier is something of a big band specialist, but he pares it down to a trio on Acid Bunny (Effendi FND135). His JNT3, with bassist Rémi-Jean LeBlanc and drummer Rich Irwin, is a band of rare chemistry, quickly overcoming anyone’s doubts about the limited range of a trombone and rhythm trio. Trottier has technique and energy to spare, making effective use of mutes and a bright high register to change things up. Reemy-Jeeny-Leblee is a fine example of the band’s detailed rhythmic interaction and intense swing, while the elegiac Nouveau Patente has LeBlanc’s arco bass line countering Trottier’s elegant line, Irwin negotiating a ground between military ceremony and rubato.

04_Michel_Lambert_Journal_II.jpgMichel Lambert is a real creative force, whether considered as a painter, percussionist or composer. His compositional vision is particularly evident in Journal des Épisodes II (Rant 1448, jazzfromrant.com), an exploration of a daily diary of compositions and paintings from the last six months of 1988. His group here is a traditional piano trio with pianist Alexandre Grogg and bassist Guillaume Bouchard; what makes it highly untraditional is the presence of 97 tracks on a 44-minute CD. Lambert’s compositions can be as brief as seven seconds, as long as a couple of minutes, but whether microscopic or developed, they’re compelling musical messages that achieve a kind of formal perfection, continuous with their surrealist aesthetic of the unconscious and their Webern-like economy. The material is at once so fragmentary and dense that each trip through the CD is another experience, tiny fragments in time creating new refractions with one another and with the sustained trio pieces.


05_not_the_music.jpgÉric Normand is another fount of creativity, working from his unlikely home base in Rimouski to form both a large improvising ensemble, the Grand Groupe Régional d’Improvisation Libérée, and the wide-ranging Tour de Bras record label, as creative in its design as in its music. While a recent GGRIL release appeared as a red vinyl LP, Normand takes a diametrically opposed route to packaging for Philippe Lauzier and Éric Normand’s Not the Music / do (Tour de Bras, tourdebras.com), issuing the CD in a brown paper lunch bag with a printed cover. The music is just as provocative – sustained minimalist improvisations in which Lauzier’s soprano saxophone and bass clarinet extend from single tones to circular breathing against a backdrop of Normand’s electric bass and a snare drum that Normand sometimes plays and often uses as a vibrating surface.




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06_continuum.jpgMontreal sound artist Pierre-Yves Martel creates dauntingly minimalist improvisations contrasting single tones on a renaissance viola de gamba and a harmonica with silences on Continuum (Tour de Bras TD89011CD). It’s demanding work (Martel’s intent extends to letting “the music ‘play’ both the performer and the listener”), an experience in which the act of listening may be dissected and stitched back together, the music developing a severe and icy beauty in the process. Available as limited edition CDs or downloads, extensive portions can be heard at the label’s website.

07_sortablue.jpgAmong music’s stranger documents is a letter from Woody Guthrie to John Cage, greeting his music as “a keen fresh breeze.” It might have inspired The/Les Surruralist(e)s on Sortablue (SURRU 01, actuellecd.com). The duo of Nova Scotia-based Arthur Bull (guitars, harmonica and voice) and Normand (electric bass, tenor banjo and voice) explore early blues and folksongs from perspectives shaped by free jazz and improvised music, adding a raw electric edge and weirdly dissonant accompaniments to traditional instrumental approaches and songs like La Femme Du Soldat and Stagger Lee. The two create a new tradition in the same breath that they pay homage to others. 

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When it comes to welcoming immigrants to North America, Canada and the United States have long had different policies. To Americans the ideal is the melting pot with all foreigners persuaded to become true-blue Yanks. Modern Canada, once it shook off fealty to Britain, has long promoted multiculturalism, where immigrants become Canadians without giving up their homeland identity. Generalities should be avoided, but it’s informative to see these concepts played out in improvised music. Thus Neelamjit Dhillon, born in Vancouver of Sikh background, has created a notable CD based on the infamous 1914 incident when 376 mostly Sikh immigrants were refused entry to Canada. To do so he mixes traditional Indian instruments with Western ones. In contrast, American performers who are his contemporaries, and with similar immigrant roots, have recorded sessions exclusively linked to the un-hyphenated jazz continuum.

01_Komagata.jpgA notable work, that evolves through nine related sequences, Komagata Maru (neelamjit.com) manages to tell this shameful story of anticipation, betrayal, violence and ultimately hope for the future with only four musicians, admixing Indian sub-continental and Western sounds. Besides Dhillon, who plays alto saxophone, tabla and bansuri, a transverse bamboo flute, the others are bassist André Lachance and drummer Dan Gaucher plus Chris Gestrin, who plays sympathetic, whimsical piano throughout; and who produced, recorded and mixed the disc. With Gestrin’s strong accompaniment, Dhillion’s proficiency allows him to create swinging, unforced jazz lines throughout, no matter which instrument he’s playing. Even the tabla’s distinct timbres are used to make specific points rather than for exoticism. On Shore Committee: Bonds of Ancestral Kinship and later on British Clash at Budge Budge, for instance, the Carnatic drum’s textures contrast sharply with Gaucher’s martial-styled drumming, together symbolically depicting a full-scale riot on the first tune; and add to the sonic bellicosity of the second, further intensified by keyboard clips and harsh reed slurps. In the same way the expansive Munshi Singh: Trial for a Sanguine Tomorrow has its relaxed mood, set up by Lachance’s double-time strumming, disrupted by contrapuntal screeds, although they come from the bansuri rather than an alto saxophone. Crucially as well, the sonic representation of police-passenger combat on Debris from the Sky: Confront with the Tools at Hand, relies on the divergence between very Westernized double bass strokes and the distinctively Indian tabla patterns. Finally, the unforced Lee Konitz-like saxophone riffs Dhillon uses to underline the exposition here not only relate back to the introduction but portend the concluding Reconciliation: Evoke the Fallen and Persevere. Part elegy and part anticipation, the tune’s mellow hopefulness suggests why incidents like that of the Komagata Maru are rare in Canadian history. As well this meticulously crafted CD posits that Dhillon and company will soon be creating more intriguing sounds, either straight ahead or with a sub-continental lilt.

As more immigrants or children of immigrants begin to fill the ranks of Canadian improvisers it will be instructive in the future to observe whether an American-inflected national style takes hold, or if Canadian musical sensibilities will still include distinctive overseas links.

02_Rez_Abbasi.jpgMoving south of the 49th parallel a different musical ethos takes hold. Alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, whose parents are Indian, and guitarist Rez Abbasi, who was born in Pakistan and immigrated to the U.S. as a small child, have in the past recorded discs reflecting their South Asian roots. But both these New York-based players’ newest sessions are jazz, without ethnic subtitles. Mahanthappa’s Bird Calls (ACT 9581-2 actmusic.com) consists of 13 of the saxophonist’s compositions based on familiar Charlie “Bird” Parker lines; while Abbasi takes on eight jazz-rock classics of the 1970s on Intents and Purposes (Enja Records ENJ-952-2 enjarecords.com), and recasts them using only his acoustic guitars, Bill Ware’s vibes, Stephen Crump’s bass and the drums of Eric McPherson. Although hints of sarod-like shimmers from Abbasi’s fretless instrument peek through on Herbie Hancock’s Butterfly, the intent and purpose of this disc lies in post-modern interpretation. Decelerating and relaxing the themes, Abbasi and company transform them from arena jazz-rock showpieces to subtle improvisational vehicles. Instructively enough the tracks that work best are those such as Joe Zawinul’s Black Market, Chick Corea’s Medieval Overture and Tony Williams’ There Comes a Time written by composers who played other instruments than the rock-associated guitar and who had the strongest pre-fusion jazz bona fides. With McPherson’s percussion hovering in the background, these restrained interpretations usually take impetus from Crump’s bass line; while leaving room for his solo work as well. Medieval Overture for instance, features a sequence of time and tempo changes where the string build-up is divided between, and nearly identical from, bass and guitar interpretations. Ware’s buoyancy animates most of the sequences as well, showcasing resonating textures that are often voiced alongside Abbasi’s finger-style lead. Meanwhile There Comes a Time, the concluding – and climatic – track is painted in the most vibrant and captivating colours, with strong four-mallet vibraphone smacks blending with thick baritone guitar strums that almost resemble tenor saxophone licks. Keeping it and the other pieces in a proper groove, Intents and Purposesreclaims them all for the jazz canon.

03_Bird_Calls.jpgIf transforming fusion into straight-ahead jazz is the attained challenge of Abbasi’s CD, then Bird Calls is an even more daunting task: finding a new way to interpret Parker’s legacy. Using a standard bop formation of saxophone, trumpet (Adam O’Farrill), piano (Matt Mitchell), bass (François Moutin) and drums (Rudy Royston), Mahanthappa’s contrafacts are up-to-the-minute statements which still intuit Parker’s essence. Putting a brake on bebop’s sometime frantic performance velocity, these interpretations are helped immeasurably by the saxophonist’s tone, which is wider and more rounded than Bird’s, often moving into the tenor range. In contrast, while O’Farrill frequently shows his age (20), by incessantly reaching for the most elevated capillary patterns, his excesses are reined in by the others. Oddly enough it’s the trumpeter’s Hispanic background which also comes into play giving a Latin feel to some of his work. As for Indian echoes, they’re practically non-existent, unless the obvious references to Hindu chanting on Gopuram can be counted. But even so this contrafact of Steeplechase gives more prominence to breakneck ripostes from piano, trumpet and saxophone. The remainder of the disc emphasizes a variant of mainstream jazz over all else. The rhythmic riffs that characterize Talin is Thinking (taken from Parker’s Mood) for example, go back as far as the Count Basie band’s elevation of the bluesy harmonies that came from Parker’s Kansas City hometown. Meanwhile Chillin’ (based on Relaxin’ at Canarillo), takes its shape from classic bop. The trumpeter and saxophonist face off with equivalent harsh lines while the bassist’s woody clunks and the drummer’s rolls and ruffs properly pace the galloping rhythms. Seconding both horns and carving space for himself throughout the tune, Mitchell demonstrates a command of the idiom as well as a casual, almost carefree pacing in his solos.

04_Blue_Notes.jpgYet another variation on this theme shows up on For The Blue Notes (Ogun Records OGCD 042 ogunrecords.com). Although the musicians featured have ancestral backgrounds from Martinique, Guyana and South Africa as well as parts of the United Kingdom, these ancestral memories are subsumed in this salute to the combo that left Apartheid-era South Africa to mingle high-life rhythms with British free jazz, creating an unmatched hybrid sound. Led by percussionist Louis Moholo-Moholo, the last surviving Blue Note, the octet’s repertory was mostly composed by original Blue Note members. What that means is that tracks such as Sonke and Zanele are fully in the South African style even though the associated vocals are by French-born (of Martinique background) Francine Luce. When she trades licks with the horns as well, the end product is high quality jazz that soars without labels or hyphens. Furthermore, listening to other creations like the title track, it’s bassist John Edwards’ solid timekeeping and pianist Alexander Hawkins’ kinetic chording that drive the undertaking as much as tie keening solos from saxophonist Jason Yarde and Ntshuks Bonga. Closer to the American rather than the Canadian concept here, the ancestral background of the players hardly influences the notable sounds issuing from their instruments.

As more immigrants or children of immigrants begin to fill the ranks of Canadian improvisers it will be instructive in the future to observe whether an American-inflected national style takes hold, or if Canadian musical sensibilities will still include distinctive overseas links.

Author: Ken Waxman
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04_Jazz_02_Red_Garland.jpgSwingin’ on the Korner
Red Garland Trio
Elemental Records 5990426

Red Garland brought an electric brightness to the piano, whether playing block chords or scintillating runs; Philly Joe Jones, a polyrhythmic master, was perhaps the most explosive drummer in jazz history. They were key parts of one of the greatest bands in that history, Miles Davis’ mid-50s quintet, until Davis fired them in 1958 for unreliability. This two-CD set catches the two of them nearly 20 years later during a week in December 1977 at San Francisco’s Keystone Korner, anchored by the fine bassist Leroy Vinnegar, a worthy partner. Garland had gone through stretches of retirement by then, and Jones was less prominent than when he propelled many of hard bop’s greatest records, but if they were supposed to go gently into that good night, the two hadn’t gotten the message. The genre never burned more brightly.

The music is almost entirely standards, drawn from Garland’s vast repertoire, including a sweetly balladic rendition of the obscure If I’m Lucky, a signature swinging arrangement of Billy Boy and a soulful version of Bags’ Groove that celebrates Garland’s mastery of blues. Familiarity feeds the trio’s fervour: this is joyous, raw music, touching, even reckless. Sometimes subtle, Garland can match Jones for sheer ferocious energy; Jones creates wild oblique patterns with thundering drums, building complex, melodic solos against a beat that’s only implied.

The set includes extensive interviews and memories of Garland from some noted critics and musicians: it’s the first such tribute to a pianist who deserves far more attention.

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