02 JACKFiligree – Music of Hannah Lash
JACK Quartet
New Focus Recordings FCR228 (newfocusrecordings.com)

Experimental, electrifying, a wonderland of colours – Filigree is a laboratory of sounds, impermanent yet consistent. With this recording the JACK Quartet delivers select pieces by American composer and harpist Hannah Lash and does it with their typical commitment and conviction. Every note, every phrase, is placed and nuanced with clarity of musical expression and clear understanding of Lash’s compositional language. JACK plays with an abundant energy that is beaming with emotional fluency.

Although encompassing a period of five years, chamber music pieces on this recording share a similar contemporary approach to multi-layered string technique(s) and a unique balance of intellectual and visceral elements. The album opens with Frayed, my favourite piece on this recording. The opening chords resemble a series of breaths, tense and unadorned, giving the impression of bringing out intimate mementos. That is, however, interrupted with a dynamic and powerfully unsettling section that slowly takes over, and it is the interlacing of different worlds that gives a tangible intensity to this piece.

Suite: Remembered and Imagined, stands in contrast with its playfulness and showcases a variety of textures. The album concludes with Filigree in Textile for harp and string quartet, inspired by the tapestry arts of the Middle Ages. The lush mood of the first movement, titled Gold, is followed with the rhythmically uniform Silver. The harp threads brilliant lines and brings everyone together in Silk.

This album is notable and well worth your attention.

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The Machine is Broken
Terry Rusling (1931-1974)
Spool Spurn 3 (spoolmusic.com)

Shed Metal
equivalent insecurity (dk & Dan Lander)
Spool Spurn 1 (spoolmusic.com)

Car Dew Treat Us (pages from Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise randomly selected)
dk & the perfectly ordinary
Spool Spurn 2 (spoolmusic.com)

Uxbridge, Ontario-based label Spool’s new Spurn series is titled irreverent. The brainchild of musician Daniel Kernohan, there are currently three releases in this group of possibly difficult-to-classify, yet ear-opening, enjoyable music. Spool also has other series with numerous eclectic releases available.

05a Spool UTEMSAn intriguing cross section of electronic works by Canadian composer Terry Rusling (1931-1974) are featured in the 2019 third Spurn release, The Machine is Broken. Rusling’s experience as an engineer for CBC understandably gave him the necessary technical grounding to create his unique sound. At composer Morris Surdin’s suggestion, Rusling worked at the University of Toronto Electronic Music Studio (UTEMS), which lead to further international studies/work, and tape collaborations with such artists as Earle Birney, Gwendolyn MacEwen and public tape performances at Yorkville’s Bohemian Embassy. Rusling’s short life resulted in an immense creative output that is only touched on here. Producers David Porter and Daniel Kernohan have selected 17 tracks, arranged in a listener-friendly order to maintain interest. The almost two minute opening Reel 1H sets the stage with sound effects, quiet spaces, and brief moments of tonalism. Creaky effects, crackling sounds, loud volumes, slides and glisses highlight Reel 2A’s early electro sound. The spoken male/female statements at the start of Title add a human dimension to the electronic effects. Rusling’s use of silent spaces between electronic sections in his works builds subsequent musical interest, such as Reel 2B where the silences set up such intense effects as the classic electronic sounds of that time, like washes, repeated notes, feedback and for lack of a better description, loud crashing about. Rusling’s early electronic music holds current sound appeal while also, at its very best, foreshadowing future sounds.

05b Spool Shed MetalThe earlier two Spurn releases also feature contemporary sounds. Shed Metal stars Equivalent Insecurity in performance. Kernohan, (named dk on the sleeve), and colleague Dan Lander play 22 tracks on their self-described “instruments, toys, stuff, sound.” Recorded in Toronto in 1987-89, their sound brings back wonderful memories of the Toronto improvisational scene of the time. The clear recording opens with a march-like feel and an almost sing-along melody interspersed with electronic effects. Too much fun being had by the two performers, as the music includes washes, electronic shrieking effects, occasional almost pop groves, pulses, horns, vocalizations, moments of anxiety, etc. Especially love the water sounds in track three. It is a gift to the listener that their music was even recorded, and later released.

05c Spool Car DewCar Dew Treat Us features Kernohan and the perfectly ordinary (Allison Cameron, Rod Dubey and Lawrence Joseph) with different guest artists reciting intermittent text fragments from Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise against an electronic soundscape featuring clicks, held tones, wavering dynamics, wobbling tones, bell sounds, atonalities and percussive effects in a challenging soundscape. Some may find it difficult to listen to but worth the effort to experience.

Bravo to Spool’s Spurn series for these three contrasting releases showcasing amazing Canadian experimental talent.

06 Jupiter QuartetAlchemy – Music by Jalbert; Stucky; Vine
Jupiter String Quartet; Bernadette Harvey
Marquis Classics MAR 81491 (marquisclassics.com)

Being a devotee of the piano quartet and quintet I’m gratified to hear four fine 21st-century examples originally commissioned by the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music. The American-based Jupiter String Quartet and Australian pianist Bernadette Harvey play these demanding works vividly and expressively, their virtuosity suited to the brilliant motions that American composer Pierre Jalbert induces in his Piano Quintet (2017) and Secret Alchemy for Violin, Viola, Cello and Piano (2012). The players also excel in reflective passages and evocative sonorities, such as the “outer space” part of the Quintet’s Mannheim Rocket movement. In Secret Alchemy’s movement, Timeless, mysterious, reverberant, Jalbert’s miraculous mood creation suggests a medieval cathedral in modern terms. For me it brought to mind, uncannily, the Notre Dame Cathedral fire earlier this year.

Australian Carl Vine’s Fantasia for Piano Quintet (2013) is in a lighter vein which the composer describes as “quasi-improvisational.” Featuring plenty of idiomatic virtuosity, I found the work’s style more conventional with recurring four-bar phrases in the last two movements that could have stood a few metric surprises. Finally, I can only offer the highest possible praise for the late, Steven Stucky’s outstanding one-movement Piano Quartet (2005). A long, sorrowful melody begins shortly after the opening, broken into motifs yet somehow finding the strength to go on. This work is too rich to describe in words; I hope readers will find their way to hearing it.

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Joan of Art
Dave Robbins Sextet
Cellar Music CM110518 (cellarlive.com)

Jump Up
Brad Turner Quartet (with guest Seamus Blake)
Celler Music CM123018 (cellarlive.com)

Just Like Magic
Mike Allen; Peter Washington; Lewis Nash
Celler Music CM010519 (cellarlive.com)

This Quiet Room
PJ Perry featuring Bill Mays
Cellar Music CM121018 (cellarlive.com)

The Real Blue
Pureum Jin (Jeremy Manasia; Luke Sellick; Willie Jones III; Sabeth Perez)
Celler Music CM020219 (cellarlive.com)

The Cellar Music Group: As a high school jazz musician in Metro Vancouver in the early 2000s, The Cellar Jazz Club, owned and operated by Cory Weeds, was the centre of my musical universe. Despite the fact that it was located below street level, it stood head and shoulders above comparable Vancouver venues, bringing in a healthy mixture of performers, from local standouts such as Jodi Proznick, Bill Coon and Brad Turner, to major international acts, including organist Joey DeFrancesco, pianist Monty Alexander and Chris Potter’s Underground project, with Adam Rogers, Craig Taborn and Nate Smith. (I have a vivid memory, at the Potter show, of strategically hiding a recording device under a napkin at my table, on behalf (I swear) of a friend.) Out of the club grew the label: Cellar Live, as it was initially known, was a vehicle by which the club’s live performances could be documented and distributed, helping to further develop the identity of the Cellar, the musicians who played on its stage, and the Vancouver jazz scene as a whole.

Though the Cellar Jazz Club is no more, the label has continued to thrive, and now operates as The Cellar Music Group, with three distinct imprint categories: Cellar Live, which primarily releases live recordings, Cellar Jazz, which primarily releases studio dates, and Reel to Real Recordings, a relatively recent venture, which releases rare archival recordings. With close to 150 albums over the course of its 18-year history, Cellar Music has a broad range of releases in its roster. Some highlights: the late Ross Taggart’s Thankfully, with Bob Murphy, Mike Rud and Bernie Arai, Curtis Nowosad’s Dialectics, with Jimmy Greene, Derrick Gardner, Steve Kirby and Will Bonness, and, on Reel to Real, Etta Jones’ A Soulful Sunday: Live at The Left Bank, a recording made in Baltimore in February 1972.

Cellar Music has five new recordings worth checking out, which, taken together – but listed in no particular order – showcase the label’s aforementioned breadth.

01a Dave RobbinsJoan of Art, from drummer Dave Robbins’ eponymous sextet, takes its name from the title track, written in honour of Vancouver jazz patron Joan Mariacher. Robbins is a strong, dynamic drummer, with a propulsive swing feel that lends itself well to a sextet format (he is joined by Steve Holy, bass; Chris Gestrin, piano; Mike Allen, tenor saxophone; Brad Turner, trumpet; Rod Murray, trombone). Robbins is also a thoughtful, conscientious arranger, both of his own compositions and of the album’s two covers (Lennon/McCartney’s Can’t Buy Me Love and Paul Desmond’s Take Five). 

01b Jump UpJump Up, a new album from the Brad Turner Quartet with special guest Seamus Blake, is a follow-up almost 20 years in the making: around 2000, the same group (Turner, trumpet; Blake, tenor saxophone; Bruno Hubert, piano; André Lachance, bass; Dylan van der Schyff, drums) released Live At The Cellar. Packed with exciting playing and Turner’s mature, well-developed compositions, Jump Up covers a wide range of material, from the funk-tinged The Enthusiast to the swinging up-tempo title track to Catastrophizer, a welcome bonus, recorded live at Frankie’s Jazz Club during a three-day stint leading up to this album’s recording at The Warehouse Studio in Vancouver.

01c Just Like MagicTenor saxophonist Mike Allen’s new album, Just Like Magic, is a trio outing with the famed rhythm section of Peter Washington and Lewis Nash, recorded in Rudy Van Gelder’s Englewood Cliffs studio in New Jersey in January of this year. From the downbeat of Big Bertha, the focus is on melody, time and tone, the intimacy of the sax trio configuration only enhanced by the headphone-free, live-off-the-floor approach and the legendary acoustic characteristics of the studio.

01d PJ PerryThis Quiet Room, a duo album from Canadian alto saxophonist PJ Perry and American pianist Bill Mays, is another essay in intimacy. Recorded live-off-the-floor at a private home in Vancouver, the session feels warm and immediate, and successfully produces the sensation of being in the room as the songs are being performed. Both Perry and Mays are veteran jazz players, with a firm grip on the idiomatic conventions of the music they’ve recorded. Bud Powell’s Parisian Thoroughfare and Charlie Parker’s Laird Baird are highlights, and both give Perry ample room to demonstrate his bebop prowess. The album’s quieter moments are also memorable: the medley of The Folks Who Live On The Hill (played solo by Mays) and Two For The Road is a lovely treat. 

01e Real BlueThe Real Blue, the debut studio album from New York-based alto saxophonist Pureum Jin, was recorded at GB’s Juke Joint, in Long Island City, New York; relatively close to Van Gelder’s New Jersey Englewood Cliffs studio, at least compared to Vancouver. Joined by pianist Jeremy Manasia, bassist Luke Sellick, drummer Willie Jones III and special guest vocalist Sabeth Pérez, Jin has a bright, strong sound, rooted in the hard-bop style of Phil Woods, to whom she pays tribute on the song Remembering Mr. Woods, one of eight originals on this ten-track disc.

02 jazz libre cover cropMusique-Politique: Anthologie 1971-1974
Le Quatuor de Jazz Libre du Québec
Tour de Bras TDBHIST0001 (tourdebras.com)

This has been a momentous year for the documentation of Quebec’s entry into the world of free jazz. First came Eric Fillion’s book Jazz Libre et la révolution québécoise : Musique-action, 1967-1975 (M Éditeur: 2019) and now this ambitious four-CD set to provide sonic evidence of the achievement of the founders of free jazz in the province, Le Quatuor de Jazz Libre du Québec. The CDs, drawn from the group’s archives of performance tapes, are supplemented by a 24-page, LP-size volume that includes essays in French (including ones by Fillion and producer Éric Normand) and reproductions of manifestos, news stories and even a cover questionnaire from the group’s social outreach program, all of it providing context for the most radical Canadian-born jazz movement in history.

The group existed from 1967 to 1975 with two constant members, tenor saxophonist Jean Préfontaine and trumpeter Yves Charbonneau. If jazz has rarely been political in Canada, Le Quatuor was insistently so, creating a distinct connection between the ferment in Quebec society and the ferment in their own music, initially inspired by American free jazz as played by Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler. The music here is very much a soundtrack to the times, an intense element in the rise of Quebec nationalism that followed on the FLQ crisis and the War Measures Act, enacted in October 1970. The quartet’s reach into the heart of Quebecois culture included the founding of an artist commune (Le Petite Québec Libre), a later performance space (L’Amorce) and public self-analysis of their work (interspersed here between the performances).

The music here runs from 1971 to 1974, arguably the group’s strongest period despite shifting support. Jean Préfontaine, born in 1926, is the strongest presence here, a musician who found free jazz after a career in a military band. His extended opening solo on a September 1973 performance is a riveting example of all that free jazz saxophone could be: a radical soliloquy that’s part jeremiad, part exhortation, part abstract interior monologue cut through with doubt and excitement at the coming day. Yves Charbonneau is a fine foil, a subtler provocateur, adding thoughtful solos and detailed support as the set documents the band’s developing sense of a commanding freedom. The presence of American cellist Tristan Honsinger on the 1973 material, passing through en route to a brilliant career in European free improvisation, signals a broadening musical language and the achievement of the group’s final period.

The set adds substantially to the history of jazz in Canada, casting new light on its most intense moment, as well as a significant contributory stream to Quebec’s diverse concept of musique actuelle, perhaps the most vigorous scene in contemporary Canadian music.

01 Emma FrankCome Back
Emma Frank
Justin Time JUST 262-2 (justin-time.com)

It’s not often that you come across a multi-faceted voice that could fit into any genre of music imaginable. Boston native Emma Frank demonstrates her ability to seamlessly blend genres within songs and navigate between them with her stellar voice on her latest release. Frank’s pieces are introspective, telling stories in such a way that any listener could directly relate to. Her vocal style is reminiscent of highly acclaimed Canadian indie pop singer Feist with a delicious hint of Diana Krall that aids in creating the perfect blend of jazz and art pop throughout the album. This album provides a welcome updated jazz sound that is suitable to listeners new to the genre and aficionados alike.

Frank’s songs are of a milder tempo but have plenty of movement, allowing the listener to fully process every musical element and nuance within the pieces without growing weary. The soundscape is strewn with plenty to listen and pay attention to thanks to musicians such as Aaron Parks on piano and synthesizers, Tommy Crane on drums, Zack Lober on bass and co-producer/guitarist Franky Rousseau with whom Frank has previously collaborated. While her record has a modern touch, it is pleasing to hear hints of traditional jazz throughout, especially within pieces such as Sometimes, Promises and See You. This fourth release by the stunning and golden-voiced vocalist is an incredibly pleasing journey through genres that leaves something new to discover around every corner.

04 Matt HerskowitzMirror Image
Matt Herskowitz
Justin Time JUST 263-2 (justin-time.com)

To play jazz on the piano, a musician must – at some point – come to terms with the weight of the instrument’s history. The modern drum kit started to come together in the 1920s; the electric guitar, which, unlike its classical forebears, would be played through an amplifier, primarily with a plectrum, would not be manufactured until the 1930s. But the piano – so central to the sound of mainstream jazz – predates the genre by over 200 years.

On the solo album Mirror Image, released on Montreal’s Justin Time Records, the accomplished pianist Matt Herskowitz demonstrates his command of both the jazz and classical traditions through a mixture of original pieces, compositions by the likes of Ravel, Satie and Schubert, and a jazz standard. The fusion of jazz and classical has its own rich history; third stream music has enjoyed a degree of popularity since the 1960s. This synthesis is used to great effect by Herskowitz, not as a way to showcase two separate skill sets, but as a framework with which to display an intelligent, well-developed, honest approach to music making that honours the pianist’s personal experiences on the instrument. Highlights include bluesy, gospel-tinged flourishes on Gottschalk’s The Last Hope, the percussive title track Mirror Image, and My One And Only Love, which closes the album. Herskowitz’s truest success, however, is the thread with which he so effectively and confidently connects the album’s many elements into a sensible whole.

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05 Bill GilliamCounterstasis – Refracted Voices
Bill Gilliam; Glen Hall; Joe Sorbara
Independent MPBG-006 (gilliamhallsorbara.bandcamp.com)

Counterstasis – Refracted Voices is a new album of improvised music from the trio of Bill Gilliam (acoustic piano, preparations), Glen Hall (woodwinds, electroacoustics) and Joe Sorbara (drums, percussion), recorded at Number 9 Audio Group in Toronto. Gilliam, Hall and Sorbara are veteran improvisers, and bring a wealth of creative experience to their shared practice, which takes its influence from a variety of musical traditions. The heart of this project, as described in the liner notes, is to “counter stasis, to foster change, to create a music in which [the musicians’] individual voices can be bent by, refracted through the voices of their co-conspirators.” To these exploratory and interactive ends, Hall uses an assortment of live effects, including the OMax AI improvising software and the CataRT synthesis program, both by the Paris-based Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music (IRCAM).

Hall’s electronic contributions range from subtle additions to the trio’s acoustic instruments (as on the opening track, Sinuous Movements), to major structural components (as on Radio Chatter, which does indeed feature radio chatter, and Cave Ritual, the album’s longest offering, in which eerie atmospheric sounds form the basis for the overall shape of the tune). Throughout the proceedings, Gilliam, Hall and Sorbara play with maturity, confidently committing themselves to the realization of a shared musical vision that privileges communication over individual athletics. The album offers many highlights, but is best heard in one listen, as the spontaneously composed event that it is.

06 TriioTriio
Alex Fournier
Furniture Music Records (alexfournierplaysbass.com)

Toronto-born bassist Alex Fournier has gotten together some exceptionally talented musicians for this newest album simply titled Triio. Fournier himself has penned every song on the record and it is a true and great testament to his compositional talent. For those wondering about the interesting spelling of the album title, the band leader himself mentioned that he merely added in another ‘i’ to indicate that the group is not a true trio; it was meant to originally have four members but eventually grew into the sextet that is heard on the record.

The album as a whole is an interesting musical journey. It offers plenty of opportunity for experimentation and improvisation but also manages to have a certain character and, to an extent, structure, throughout. It is very easy to lose yourself completely in the unique sound of the record. The music has a variety of textures, almost as if you can physically feel the different character and flavour of each piece. The track ESD is almost what you could call “trippy,” a complete improvisational journey that fittingly starts off the record. Giant-Dad and Noisemaker have some underlying elements of traditional jazz slyly inserted into the bigger musical picture. Dusk has beautifully captivating and haunting melodies by great talents Bea Labikova on alto sax as well as flute and Aidan Sibley on trombone. This record offers something for both seasoned listeners of jazz and for people new to the scene.

07 Tune TownThere From Here
Tune Town
Independent TSLCD-310 (tunetownjazz.com)

There From Here is the debut album from a fresh collective on the Canadian jazz scene, a scintillating trio of Canadian talent: Kelly Jefferson on saxophones, Artie Roth on acoustic bass and Ernesto Cervini on drums. With grooves that get your foot tapping to captivating melodies and rhythms, this collection of original pieces will breathe life into an otherwise dull and meticulous day. The album is a breath of fresh air in today’s world of constant musical shuffling; it is meant to be listened to as a story from top to bottom, acting much like a concept album. Listeners are in for a pleasing journey through various genres.

The Monks of Oka harks back to the era of jazz greats, specifically Thelonious Monk. It is easy to spot the influence of his music in the piece. Sophisticated Lady takes the tempo down a notch in order to showcase the great talents of Jefferson and Roth as they take you along on a smooth and pleasing melodic voyage. The album does an astounding job of “seamlessly assimilating elements from the avant garde, funk and jazz worlds.” Especially in the track Split Infinity we hear a great funk groove supported by Roth and Cervini throughout the piece. For those tired of the rush-rush world that we live in, this is a fantastic album that allows you to sit down and take in a complete musical story.

08 Heather BambrickFine State
Heather Bambrick
Heather Bambrick Music HBCD-004 (heatherbambrick.ca)

Heather Bambrick, that beloved – and often goofy – voice familiar to anyone who tunes in to JAZZ.FM91, weekdays between 9am and 1pm (and nightly on Wednesdays), shows off her attractive pedigree with another solo recording. This album, Fine State, also confirms her growing reputation as an artist of the first order. Her voice throughout is fairly light and limpid, though not without sinew.

Bambrick’s diction is exceptional, reflecting real imagination behind repertoire that spans standards as well as thoroughly interesting new work composed by her as well as other writers of repute. This is ingeniously selected music, reflective of the high quality of the production by the drummer on this date, Ben Wittman, and Jono Grant, a longtime Bambrick associate, together with the vocalist herself.

If it’s hard to single out one track as being the most perfect example of Bambrick’s musicianship, it is equally hard to pick a favourite (because that would change with each playing of the recording). However, I would posit that Bambrick’s version of Milton Nascimento and Fernando Brant’s utterly beautiful song, Bridges (sung here with Gene Lees’ English lyrics) might be described as this disc’s crowning glory. Here we have a song, the poetry of which is infused with a sense of nostalgia and melancholy, its fluid melody delicately painted by a candid voice urged on by wistful instruments. Clearly an album to die for…

Listen to 'Fine State' Now in the Listening Room

09 Itamar ErezMi Alegria
Itamar Erez
Independent (itamarerez.com)

Itamar Erez’s music refreshingly defies categorization, though “world jazz” seems a reasonable option for DISCoveries review purposes. His is a rich, borderless musical world, with influences ranging from Bach to Brazilian choro. For Israeli-born, Vancouver-based Erez, a world-class guitarist, pianist, composer and educator, his myriad sources of inspiration reflect a wealth of musical traditions including Middle Eastern, flamenco, Latin, classical and the aforementioned jazz.

This array of influences is readily apparent on the breathtaking new release, Mi Alegria (Spanish for my joy). With each track a compelling example of Erez’s elegant and masterful musicianship, it’s hard to know where to draw one’s attention, but the title track is as good a place as any. Dedicated to his daughter Mia, Mi Alegria (get it) is as close to a classic jazz arrangement as you’ll find on the CD. With Erez on piano, bassist James Meger, drummer Kevin Romain and Ilan Salem on flute, it swings with a jaunty energy. On the other hand, Yahli’s Lullaby, named for Erez’s 12-year-old son (whose artwork graces the front cover), is an evocative and touching piece with a Middle-Eastern flavour.

For Erez’s pyrotechnical guitar work, listen to Choro Sentimental. It is truly jaw-dropping. Endless Cycle has a driving momentum, with Erez playing piano and guitar, sometimes both at the same time! Peppered throughout the album, François Houle (clarinet), Celso Machado (percussion) and Hamin Honari (tombak) contribute sumptuous layers of sound.

Mi Alegria is just that: a joyful, musical celebration by a truly engaging artist.

10 Gordon GrdinaCooper’s Park
Gordon Grdina Quartet
Songlines SGL 1630-2 (songlines.com)

Vancouver guitarist Gordon Grdina has gradually emerged on a larger stage, convening bands with distinguished international figures in addition to his regional ensembles. For this Vancouver session, Grdina is joined by New Yorkers Oscar Noriega, on alto saxophone and clarinets, Russ Lossing on piano and keyboards, and Satoshi Takeishi on drums. Grdina first unveiled this quartet on the 2017 CD Inroads, presenting crisp versions of nine of his compositions. Here the emphasis has decidedly changed. There are just five tracks here, four of them together stretching to an hour and filled with both controlled evolutions and vigorous improvisation.

That focus on group interaction results in Grdina’s strongest recording to date, whether he’s emphasizing formal coherence, insistent intensity or both. The 18-minute title track sets a fluid standard for the program, generating episodes from lambent reverie to pensive conversation to pitch-bending wails. There’s a special link between Grdina and Lossing everywhere here, blurring their identities on lyrical near-acoustic flights or matching distorted guitar with the harsh electric edges of Lossing’s clavinet (a keyboard that served to launch some of Sun Ra’s stellar travels). Noriega is an inspiring presence, generating rapid coiling lines at once raw and adroit on both alto saxophone and bass clarinet, while Takeishi’s complex drumming can unite impetus and commentary.  

Grdina has challenged himself consistently since his 2006 debut Think Like the Waves with Gary Peacock and Paul Motian. Here he takes another significant step forward.

12 XMarksX Marks the Spot
Thomas Heberer
OutNow Recordings ONR 037 (outnowrecordings.com)

Concise and cosmopolitan, the eight selections here offer a slice of contemporary New York improvisation, composed by expatriate German trumpeter Thomas Heberer, decorated by the supple fills of guitarist Terrence McManus and the rhythmic dexterity of drummer Jeff Davis, both locals, and driven by the mostly sensed but rarely upfront power pulse of Canadian bassist Michael Bates. Heberer’s arrangements follow this strategy, whether channelling acoustic romps (Remscheid Reggae) or sidling up to reductionism with chiming guitar flanges and shaded, valveless air from the trumpeter (The Ball is in Your Court).

Despite sequences that flirt with atonality, dissonant tendencies are kept in check, especially on pieces such as The Great Hill and Bon Ton that are introduced and subsequently driven by the echoing slaps and pops of Bates’ nearly unwound strings. On The Great Hill, the bassist creates an ostinato that buoys Herberer’s plunger growls and McManus’ chromatic flanges. At the same time, Bates’ pulse is powerful enough so that the trumpeter can switch to outputting fragile grace notes, then back to growls without upsetting the program. As for the loping Bon Ton, drum rumbles and string thumps keep it horizontal as Heberer’s near-static air propelling and the guitarist’s strums and frails evolve in double counterpoint.

Overall the spot which this group of e(X)cellent players marks is a sophisticated zone where unself-conscious modern improvising is welcome and thrives.

01 Jane BunnettOn Firm Ground/Tierra Firme
Jane Bunnett and Maqueque
Linn Records 270404 (linusentertainment.com)

Jane Bunnett and the all-female collective Maqueque, return for their eagerly anticipated third release. In the less than two years since their previous recording, Oddara (see my December 2016 WholeNote review), the group has been touring internationally, with visits to Colombia, Brazil, Panama and Cuba, as well as to American jazz festivals, plus the Lincoln Center. And it shows.

Their third recording – a testament to hard work, virtuosity and great chemistry – showcases 12 new compositions including three by award-winning soprano saxophonist/flutist Bunnett, plus contributions by each band member. The upbeat opener, La Linea, features an imaginative arrangement with flute doubling saxophone, amidst powerful contrapuntal vocal lines and choruses. The rhythm section is outstanding, fuelled by percussionist Mary Paz and drummer Yissy Garcia. The aptly titled Momentum, by co-producer Larry Cramer, takes off at a breakneck pace with piccolo doubling the flute melody over the percussion section. Bunnett then launches into a magnificent flute solo which leads the group into a unison vocal line and chorus to take the piece to its exciting conclusion. Sky High showcases a soaring flute and vocal melody, and a McCoy Tyner-influenced piano solo by Danae Olano.

Special mention goes to Tailín Marrero for her stunning composition, Musica en el Alma, a sonic celebration of the exhilaration and joy of playing together. There is much to admire and inspire on this recording. For Maqueque, it seems that the sky is certainly not the limit!

Listen to 'On Firm Ground/Tierra Firme' Now in the Listening Room

02 Monkey HouseFriday
Monkey House
Alma Records ACD72692 (almarecords.com)

Monkey House has been together for 25 years and has just released its fifth album, Friday. The band is made up of some of the busiest and best players in Toronto – Mark Kelso on drums, Pat Kilbride on bass and Justin Abedin on guitar – but it is L.A.-based keyboardist and songwriter, Don Breithaupt, who’s driving the bus.

Breithaupt is known for his adulation of Steely Dan, and while it shows in his songwriting on Friday, this isn’t a tribute album and the band has a sound all its own. And, like Steely Dan, the musical style is hard to categorize – perhaps sophisticated pop tinged with jazz and R&B? I don’t know. What I do know is that this is an exceptional album from beginning to end, with superb songwriting and performances, and impeccable production by Peter Cardinali with engineering by John “Beetle” Bailey.

Highlighting standout tracks when all 12 tracks are so strong is a challenge, but The Jazz Life – featuring Manhattan Transfer on backing vocals and a killer bass solo by Kilbride – is one. The love song that Breithaupt wrote for his wife, Because You, is another, especially since it is surprisingly unsentimental with its driving rhythm and complex harmonies. Another surprise is that the most ballad-y song on the album is the cover of Walter Becker’s Book of Liars. Becker – who died while Monkey House was making this record, hence the inclusion of this song on the album – certainly wasn’t known for ballads and this mid-tempo tune isn’t sappy in the least. But it is both beautiful and poignant in typical sardonic Steely Dan style. Shotgun has pop hit written all over it and you can check out the fun video, produced by Academy Award-winner J. Miles Dale, on YouTube.

Listen to 'Friday' Now in the Listening Room

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