01 Jane BunnettSpirits of Havana: 25th Anniversary 2-Disc Edition
Jane Bunnett
Linus (linusentertainment.ca)

This 25th anniversary re-release consists of Spirits of Havana, Jane Bunnett’s landmark album – preceding by six years the first Buena Vista Social Club CD – the follow-up album Chamalongo, plus three previously unreleased tracks. The package is enriched by a 36-page booklet stocked with period photos, plus notes by musicologist Robert Palmer and Cuban music researcher Ned Sublette.

Toronto jazz flutist, saxophonist and bandleader Bunnett’s multifaceted exploration of jazz and Afro–Cuban music has earned her numerous accolades over her career. They include multiple Downbeat awards and five JUNO Awards, the Order of Canada and two GRAMMY Award nominations, among many other honours.

In Spirits of Havana, Bunnett brings her considerable jazz flute and soprano chops to the studio, joined by top Cuban musicians including pianists Hilario Duran, Frank Emilio Flynn and Gonzalo Rubalcaba. Infusing the proceedings with particular Afro-Cuban mojo is the late singer Merceditas Valdés (1922-1996) who was key in popularising Afro-Cuban music throughout Latin America. All the tracks are supported by a killer rhythm section, serving to drive each track inexorably onward. We hear jazz layered onto Afro-Cuban songs and rhythms along with traditional Cuban tunes like Yemaya. The album is anchored by a loose-limbed, densely percussion-driven, rendition of Thelonious Monk’s Epistrophy with strong soprano sax solos by Bunnett.

Chamalongo (1998) also features Bunnett, pianists Hilario Duran, Frank Emilio Flynn, Toronto trumpeter Larry Cramer, their rhythm section, in addition to the ten-member Cuban Folkloric All-Stars. The repertoire here features traditional Cuban songs, enhanced by two Bunnett compositions, Freedom at Last which is underpinned by advanced jazz harmonies, and Piccolo Dance which indeed showcases a sprightly solo by the composer framed by the Cuban Folkloric All-Stars male singers.

The release of Spirits of Havana in 1991 proved to be a significant musical event, introducing many listeners to the vigour and beauty of Afro-Cuban music and the keen talent of Jane Bunnett. Listening to it again today reveals a palpable collaborative excitement, the result of the confluence of wisely chosen repertoire and incisively brilliant performances from its Canadian and Cuban musicians. The spirit and music on these albums remain un-dulled by the passage of time.

Author: Andrew Timar
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02 MGoldsteinCD005Soweto Stomp
Malcolm Goldstein; The Ratchet Orchestra
Mode Records 291 (moderecords.com)

Longtime Montreal resident, violinist Malcolm Goldstein, 79, has since the early 1960s negotiated the fissure between improvisation and composition from the so-called classical side of music. Now that the rest of the world has caught up with him, this fine session demonstrates how his ideas can be amplified by his adopted city’s 15-piece Ratchet Orchestra. Like the field commander who leads by example, the violinist is as much part of the fray as his much younger associates. Track one for instance Configurations in Darkness is a matchless instance of his knotty, string-jumping solo skill that’s still sonorous enough to suggest a dulcet folksy air.

More indicative of the collaboration are tracks such as In Search of Tone Roads No.2, from 2013 which is a reimaging of a lost Charles Ives composition; and the title tune written in 1985 to celebrate both the Soweto uprising against Apartheid and Martin Luther King’s achievements. Formalist without being formalistic, the first is no more an Ives copy than a photo of a smiling woman is the Mona Lisa. Instead, the cantilever arrangement mixes brass smears, peeping reeds and trombone counterpoint so that the tune evolves with its own narrative, mostly via Guillaume Dostaler’s piano chording, while also suggesting earlier pastoral themes. Meantime Goldstein plus two additional violinists and one violist scratch out cunning string splays that provide a circumscribed framework for the performance as it builds to a polyphonic crescendo. Invested with kwela rhythms, Nicolas Caloia’s double bass bounce as well as a shuffle beat from percussionists Isaiah Ceccarelli and Ken Doolittle, Soweto Stomp recalls Maiden Voyage as much as Nelson Mandela, with five reedists bringing in jazz inflections to mix with near-hoedown fiddle lines that together leap to a triumphant peppery and peppy conclusion. Ahead of his time for many years, it appears Goldstein has hooked up with the perfect ensemble to aid in his musical interpretations.

Author: Ken Waxman
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03 MyraMelfordCD001Dialogue
Myra Melford; Ben Goldberg
Bag Productions BAG 010 (myramelford.com)

Chamber music-styled jazz that still manages to inject spunk into compositions otherwise replete with soft-hued detailing, pianist Myra Melford and clarinetist Ben Goldberg make the most of studied interactions on these 13 tracks, mostly composed by the pianist. Able to matter-of-factly scoot from rhythmic swing to ascetic improvisations with the uncomplicated aplomb of a trapeze team making their acrobatic feats seem commonplace, only in rare instances does the duo grandstand with extended techniques. The watchword here is nuance.

For instance, a track such as Be Melting Snow may appear to be all cool jazz impressionism due to its meandering exposition, but pulsating key pumps and contralto glissandi help the snow melt with fiery improvising, exposing a tougher theme and players as in sync as they are syncopated. Sweetened Artie Shaw-like tonal clarinet variations help 9+5 open up into sprightly swing, although Goldberg’s pinched peeps and Melford’s high-energy pianism later confirm its modernity.

Throughout, the conjoined twins-like bonding is displayed from the full spectrum of piano and clarinet tones. The connection can take place during picturesque tunes that are shaped from piano notes so low that they’re almost subterranean and chalumeau reed sighs to propel the pieces forward. Or, as on City of Illusion and others, dynamic keyboard cascades and probing squeals recall the heyday – but none of the sloppiness – of 1970s’ energy music. While almost initially pushed into the next room by rugged hunt-and-peck key splaying on The Kitchen, for example, the clarinetist’s speech-inflected ostinato slowly inflates to flutter tonguing, so that by the climax, Melford’s crimped high-frequency runs become free enough to also interpolate sly boogie-woogie references. This same skill allows them to delineate with almost pictorial skill the desolate and lovely emotions captured on a Moonless Night.

Working in lockstep, the two still manage to positively define individual musical personalities. And that’s what makes this a dialogue of equals and a significant showcase for two of improvised music’s most prodigious talents.

Author: Ken Waxman
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04 June GarberThis I Know
June Garber; George Koller; Mark Kieswetter
Independent JG 180614 (junegarber.com)

With the release of This I Know, elegant and engaging chanteuse, June Garber has gifted us with a cornucopia of rich, emotionally fecund, rarely trodden compositions as well as assembling a stellar cast of collaborators, including producer/arrangers George Koller on bass and Mark Kieswetter keyboards, as well as shining standouts Ted Quinlan on guitar, Alison Young on sax and Guido Basso on flugelhorn and trumpet. South African-born Garber wears a couple of hats here – not only as a sublime vocal communicator, but also as a composer and arranger. This fine project marks the return of Garber following a personal tragedy, and she has deftly transmuted her own challenging journey into a profound musical statement of loss, survival, healing and the power of love.

Garber is a skilled and versatile vocalist/entertainer, and although she approaches her work with a classic sensibility, she is also fearless in her embracing of contemporary material – including a take on Adele’s Rumour Has It and two well-crafted original tunes, the South African inspired Underneath the Jacaranda Tree and the heartrending Unbroken.

A true stunner is Live for Life, Francis Lai’s memorable theme from A Man and a Woman. Garber glides on a simple melodic line here, and effortlessly imbues it with a heady remoulade of romance and magic. Trumpeter Bruce Cassidy’s sumptuous arrangement of Adam Salim’s Malaika is nothing short of breathtaking, and features Garber on stirring Swahili vocals. Her bluesy side is in full throttle on Hoagy Carmichael’s Baltimore Oriole and on a fresh, guitar-infused arrangement of Peter Allen and Carole Bayer Sager’s Don’t Cry Out Loud, Garber captivates with her understatement. 

05 Jim GelcerMelodies Pure and True by Jim Gelcer
Jim Gelcer; Reg Schwager; George Koller
Independent (gelcer.com)

To say that talented drummer/vocalist Jim Gelcer is an eclectic artist, would be something of an understatement. With his new CD, Gelcer explores a wide variety of contemporary expressions, including Broadway, rhythm and blues, rock, soul, funk, jazz, reggae and more. Gelcer brings an interesting mashup to the musical table, incorporating elements of his father’s South African home, his mother’s Middle-Eastern mysticism and his own love of North American, rhythmic, vocal-centric forms. Gelcer acts as producer here, and his potent, power trio includes Reg Schwager on guitar and George Koller on bass.

With 11 tasty tracks, standouts include Lerner and Lane’s On a Clear Day. Lilting and swinging, Gelcer sings with a purity of tone, a resonant vocal aesthetic and a deeply imbedded rhythmic sensibility – reminiscent of Michael Franks, Ben Sidron or the late Kenny Rankin. Schwager’s inspired solo is the icing on the cake. Also of note is Jimi Hendrix’s Little Wing. It may not seem like an obvious choice for this project, but it works. Schwager’s visceral acoustic and electric guitar work melds seamlessly with Koller’s gymnastic and sonorous bass lines, and Gelcer compliments both with an ambitious vocal performance.

Other strong tracks include Gelcer’s interpretation of Sting’s metaphysically infused love song, Fields of Gold and a surprisingly tender interpretation of Wichita Lineman, the Jimmy Webb-penned pop/country classic hit by the great Glen Campbell. There is a wonderful creation of space in this arrangement, contemporizing the tune, moving it out of its established genre and imbuing it with a non-space/time sensibility.

Melodies Pure and True is just that – an absolutely delightful musical potpourri, and a joyous soundtrack for all the groovy, funky and glorious moments of your life.

06 Italian American SongbookVolare, The Italian American Songbook
Antonio Ciacca Quintet
Cellar Live CL101815 (cellarlive.com)

This exceptionally performed, well-conceived, well-produced jazz project came about as a result of Vancouver-based tenorist, jazz entrepreneur and producer Corey Weeds and his inspired collaboration with Italian-American pianist/composer Antonio Ciacca and also with the Italian Cultural Centre of Vancouver. A successful partnership with the Centre led to a concert series and other jazz-centric Italian-Canadian events which segued into Weeds’ collaboration with Ciacca (who was keen to transplant his successful concept of the New York City-based “Italian Jazz Days” to Vancouver) and eventually, to the creation of this fine Cellar Live recording.

Ciacca is the only fully Italian member of the ensemble, with the balance of the musicians (excepting Weeds, who is an honourary Italian) having substantial Italian heritage. The gifted musicians on the CD include Paul Gill on bass, Peter Van Nostrand on drums, Weeds on tenor and Benny Banack III on trumpet and vocals. The repertoire is an energizing mix of original, compelling compositions by Ciacca (some of which are inspired by jazz giants, like Thad Jones), American Standards, contemporary jazz compositions and a treasured Italian favourite, Volare (Nel blu dipinto di blu) – authentically performed here with zest, swing and joy.

Of special note is Chick’s Tune by Chick Corea. A dynamic, intricate and full-throttle arrangement defines this stellar track. The musical communication flows like a good Chianti, and the soloing and ensemble work are confident, symbiotic and stirring. Other standouts include the lush and romantic, Stairway to the Stars, featuring a solid vocal by trumpeter Banack and a warm, mellifluous tenor solo by Weeds and also Ciacca’s hi-octane bop-burner, Scotty.

07 Brandi DIsterheftBlue Canvas
Brandi Disterheft; Harold Mabern; Joe Farnsworth
Justin Time JUST 255-2 (justin-time.com)

It’s been some time since Brandi Disterheft, Canada’s prodigiously talented bassist, has released a recording under her own name. So it is appropriate to be reminded that listening to her is like putting your finger into a naked power-socket. Blue Canvas is lit up with a sizzling performance ten pieces long. The lasting impression they make is of deeply integrated performances that flow naturally as if the music were created on the spot. The performance is intoxicated with thrilling music by a trio that lays out its breadth and sustaining power with elegance and ease.

Although fronted by a young lady, a fact that might raise the question of feminine power, I would posit that Disterheft handles her bass violin with as much visceral audacity as the great Charles Mingus once did. She spins out the solo passages on Prelude to the Crippling Thrill and the introduction to Willow Weep for Me with dazzling facility and makes the most of her moments of emotional fire. A particular highlight of the recording is Disterheft’s vocals which play off her bass, but in an altogether different palette of thrilling, luminous colours.

It would be a travesty to even suggest that Disterheft is all that this disc has to offer. The iconic pianist Harold Mabern and drummer Joe Farnsworth complete the trio as they breathe fiery dialogues into the bassist’s sinuous lines. Theirs is a study in swing and the expressive liberation of the music’s ebb and flow.

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