01 Brenda LewisFar & Near
Brenda Lewis
Independent BL-00220 (brendalewis.ca)

With her second jazz-inspired CD release (and fifth as a leader), rich and sonorous vocalist Brenda Lewis has presented an exceptional and intriguing recording. Co-produced by Lewis and longtime collaborator, guitarist/keyboardist Margaret Stowe, she has created a compellingly stripped-down performance and recording unit, which harkens back not only to Neolithic and contemporary jazz, but also embraces timeless roots, blues, gospel and Afrocentric folk musics. All of the arrangements here involve a Spartan but potent instrumentation of voice, electric guitar, keyboards and the contributions of multi-instrumentalist Jeff Bird on harmonica, mandolin, bass and percussion.

Lewis fires her opening salvo with an appealing and no-nonsense take on Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans (featuring Bird on a soulful harmonica solo). Her adept jazz sensibility (as well as her variegated alto voice) is beautifully displayed on the classic jazz standard A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square. Lewis wisely includes a tip of the hat to her folk-ish/Western swing roots with the old warhorse, Cow Cow Boogie (which also features hearty solos from Bird and Stowe). Of special note is the jaunty He Surprises Me and the lovely I Wave Bye-Bye, in which Lewis evokes an almost Celtic aura of heartbreak and longing.

Very few vocalists would have the courage to present themselves in such an exposing, bare-bones way, but Lewis is refreshingly fearless, committed and transparent in her approach and taste; her consummate vocal skill shines throughout.

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02 Avery RaquelLife Lessons
Avery Raquel
Independent (averyraquel.com)

Fourteen-year-old jazz vocalist Avery Raquel is a delightful breath of fresh air and already an international success, having appeared at key festivals and venues. On her debut CD, she serves up a tasty collection of jazzified material that includes compositions from such diverse artists as Harold Arlen, Stevie Wonder, Johnny Mercer and Sting. Raquel’s voice is a diaphanous thing, ripe with jejune optimism as well as an effortless, innate understanding of vocal jazz. She is joined here by her skilled trio of producer/arranger Rob Fekete on piano, Mike Pelletier on bass and Joel Haynes on drums.

Kicking off the disc is a swinging take on Arlen and Mercer’s Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive. Raquel’s jazz chops are clearly evident, and her superb trio has an opportunity to stretch out in this fine arrangement. Also of note is Raquel’s take on the popular standard, Que Sera Sera, which was made famous by Doris Day in the film The Man Who Knew Too Much and is rendered here in a bluesy context that seems a very comfortable fit for Raquel.

The funky Wonder hit, Don’t You Worry ’Bout a Thing is a delight and utilizes Raquel’s natural, unpretentious, soulful feel. Other highlights include a rhythmic, Latin-infused arrangement of Sting’s Fragile, and although of tender years, Raquel’s emotional maturity and meaningful interpretation of this haunting ballad can’t help but resonate with the listener. A stunner is Arlen’s anthem of hope and longing, Over the Rainbow. A pristine a cappella intro is followed by a lyrical and uncluttered vocal interpretation that is both touching and musically eloquent.

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03 Pram TrioSaga Thirteen
Pram Trio
Independent (pramtrio.com)

Pram Trio’s Saga Thirteen offers a refreshing and contemporary take on the time-honoured piano trio format. The album’s six tunes share a penchant for rhythmic adventure and a fluid approach to the line between composition and improvisation. This is unabashedly tonal music that isn’t afraid to be tuneful or leave space for the listener to enter. The playing and writing have a strong conversational element and, while the virtuosity of the group’s members is evident, the overall impression is of a distinct and identifiable group sound.

Bassist Mark Godfrey’s April opens the record with a compelling two-chord vamp supporting a deceptively simple melody. The trio’s sense of dynamics and interplay are clearly the work of three equal voices and pianist Jack Bodkin’s solo, displaying a remarkable range of materials, emerges from the mix in an organic fashion. Bucket List, also by Godfrey, begins with a rootsy bass intro leading to a folk-like melody that proceeds to take some surprising turns. Bodkin’s Mrs. Kim Visits the Living Room Alone juxtaposes an intriguing piano figure over Eric West’s rocking drum groove. March rhythms compound time signatures and contrasting sections unite to form this compact, through-composed piece. Control, another Bodkin composition, continues the through-composed theme with an exercise in space and brevity, aided by West’s open, transparent style. Godfrey’s Treptower Park returns to more familiar jazz terrain with exciting and inventive playing from the whole band. Bodkin’s piano solo in particular is a marvel of colour and variety.

Author: Ted Quinlan
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04 Nick FraserStarer
Nick Fraser
Independent (nickfraserthedrummer.com)

Nick Fraser is an indispensable part of the Toronto jazz scene, a highly skilled, imaginative drummer whose broad swath distinguishes groups from fusion (Peripheral Vision), free jazz (Drumheller) and electro-acoustic improvisation (Lina Allemano’s Kiss the Brain) as well as the jazz mainstream. He’s recently emerged as a significant bandleader. This is the second CD (also available as an LP) by his quartet, and the music is distinguished by both its personnel and Fraser’s approach to composition, developing a distinct group language for the quartet.

The band combines cellist Andrew Downing and bassist Rob Clutton (functioning as a string section as well as in more traditional roles) with saxophonist Tony Malaby, a titan of current free jazz. Fraser’s compositions, often titled Sketch with a number following, are literally that, brief devices or figures to be elaborated in improvisation. Their character and usefulness is apparent from the opening minimalism/ 416-538-7149 in which Downing and Clutton establish a tense polyrhythmic field to which each musician gradually contributes. Sketch #29 begins as an elegiac ballad, bowed by Downing and Clutton in advance of Malaby’s entry; Jupiter (Sketch #15) develops complex, abstract, intersecting lines between cello and soprano.

On one occasion Fraser’s sketches come as a pair, maximizing contrast in a single piece: in its initial segment, Sketch #20/22 includes a playful pointillist dialogue between cello and drums; the concluding phase presents the tenor saxophone as high-speed drill, Malaby finding a level of intensity few can reach. The concluding Sketch #21 provides a tranquil contrast with Malaby on soprano, exploring not only its usual piquant flavour and subtle multiphonics, but initially pressing the instrument towards a flute-like sonority.


05 GGRIL GESTES coverGestes
GGRIL
Tour de Bras TDB CD 90015
(tourdebras.com)

GGRIL is an acronym for the Grand Groupe Régional d’Improvisation Libérée, a 12-member ensemble led by bassist Eric Normand that’s devoted to collective improvisation and conduction, or conducted improvisation. Based in the unlikely hamlet of Rimouski, Quebec, the group has nonetheless managed to collaborate with international soloists and recently completed a European tour. Gestes marks their continuing development, a program of five improvisations and a piece by percussionist Danielle P. Roger.

Perhaps it’s the relative isolation from musicians of similarly radical orientation, but GGRIL has developed a very high level of sustained interaction, evident here in continuously controlled work in which both individual and group invention are in sharp focus. The group’s odd mix of instruments – brass, reeds, accordion and a collection of guitars, strings and percussion – creates striking contrasts, while the musicians’ heterodox backgrounds have them drawing simultaneously on elements of classical, jazz, folk, and industrial music. Les gestes permettent… moves through distinct texture and moods, first featuring the warmly plaintive trombone of Gabriel Rochette, then shifting to a passage of Webern-esque spikiness from violinist Raphaël Arsenault that’s set against the sustained tones of low-pitched reeds. That passing invocation of high modernism gives way to random snare rattles and feedback guitars.

Other dimensions of the group’s resources are evident in the verbi-vocal explosions of De nombreux humain…, the dissonant brass blasts of Les signes… and the sustained machine rhythms of Mais au delà de montrer… as GGRIL continues to find ways to challenge themselves and audiences alike to take that next step.


06 Aldcroft Parker TranzacLive at the Tranzac Vol.1
Ken Aldcroft; William Parker
Trio Records TRP-D504-023
kenaldcroft.com/triorecords.asp

It is always curious to hear about musicians moving to Toronto where the establishments supporting creative music are few and far between, especially if these musicians relocate from Vancouver or Montreal. But who’s complaining? I am at great risk of losing an arm and a leg for suggesting better the Vancouver-born Ken Aldcroft than a hockey player from the U.S. for the Maple Leafs. However, when you hear his 2016 recording with bassist William Parker it all becomes eminently clear. Both men have reputations for being key 21st-century innovators. Parker and Aldcroft worship at the altar of creativity and if you needed more reasons to appreciate those facts, they are all on this remarkable album, Live at the Tranzac Vol.1.

There is never a dull moment on this long piece, simply entitled Set 1. Ideas abound and the music virtually bustles with energetic rhythm and vigorous figurations with no hint of ever coming to an end. The music weaves in and out of melodic phrases and features ever arresting improvisation that challenges even the instrument’s timbral colour. This is a dazzling performance – with Parker also featured on the Japanese shakuhachi and the West African donso ngoni – and when imbued with the intensity and imagination of Aldcroft and Parker the music emerges with a constant stream of new colours, emotions and effects. Moreover, both musicians are supreme masters of musical invention, as this recording triumphantly demonstrates.


Utilities
See Through 5
All-Set AS001

Transcombobulation
Mike Smith; Jonathan Adjemian
All-Set AS003

Never Get Lost for Long
Ali Berkok
All-Set AS002 (all-set.org)

The experimental music scene in Toronto is bustling. It had all but been written off with the virtual retirement of Bill Smith, who, almost single-handedly, brought in musicians such as trombonist George Lewis, the great Anthony Braxton, bassist Dave Holland and many others. Together with the late John Norris, Smith put a lot of the 60s avant-garde on the Sackville label. With Smith in hermitage and the death of John Norris, the centre of this daring music seemed to shift to Guelph, Ontario, where the annual festival seemed to be the only event that showcased the new music. But the Greater Toronto Area appears to have awoken again and the latest manifestation of this is a new imprint called All-Set! (all-set.org). This enterprise founded by bassist Mike Smith has exploded out of the blocks with three discs featuring bold new music where conventional instruments have been leavened with electronica.

07a All Set See ThroughSome people’s reaction on hearing the synths and loops of See Through 5 on Utilities might be “this is not a jazz album.” But Mike Smith, pianist Tania Gill, bassist Pete Johnston, reeds and woodwinds specialist Karen Ng and percussion colourist Jake Oelrichs may confound yet please critics. But then the virtuoso musicians seem to have cut the improvised to the bone and turned it into tracks with tunes or at least music with irresistible hooks. To complement the crisp clarity of the electronics, See Through 5 have sown carefully constructed pieces with sections of Ng’s magisterial saxophone and clarinet improvisations. As a studio production it works beautifully.

07b All Set DiscombobulationOnce you get past the almost unpronounceable title of this recording, Transcombobulation by Mike Smith and Jonathan Adjemian, you truly enjoy its exploratory music. This is a six-part musical adventure that abounds in variety, depth and invention. Smith is among the foremost of the talented Toronto musicians who has developed an individualistic, difficult-to-classify personal genre. On this riveting disc, Smith and Adjemian imaginatively and (by-and-large) subtly mix in elements of electronic music, rock and contemporary composition with an occasional nod to noise music. Although the pieces develop from beguiling, elegant melodies, what makes them special are Smith and Adjemian’s arresting textures and colours.

07c All Set BirkokAli Berkok’s Never Get Lost For Long is one of the most adventurous recordings by a Canadian in a considerable length of time. Angular, with a proverbial doffing of the hat towards minimalism, Berkok’s playing is exhilarating, extroverted and virtuosic. Simple as it seems it actually presents rather formidable technical challenges, all of which are surmounted almost with nonchalance. Berkok has a particularly rewarding sense of rhythm, high-sprung, light and incisive, and entirely secure. John Coltrane’s Giant Steps is particularly brilliant, also played with no-holds-barred intuition.


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