02 Diane RoblinLife Force
Diane Roblin
Independent (dianeroblin.com)

Following her successful 2014 comeback, noted composer and multi-keyboardist Diane Roblin has once again created an eclectic, deeply personal and musically meaningful project that unabashedly celebrates life, and the inevitable, invigorating roller-coaster ride that is part of a well-lived human experience. Roblin’s gifted collaborators here include CD producer and acoustic/electric bassist, George Koller; trumpet/EVI player Bruce Cassidy (who also contributes the exceptional horn arrangements); Kevin Turcotte on trumpet and flugelhorn, Jeff LaRochelle on tenor sax and bass clarinet and Ben Riley on drums.

Back on Track is the sassy opener, with Roblin laying it down on Fender Rhodes, deftly establishing the spine of the funk. Cassidy’s EVI solo, followed by Turcotte’s trumpet solo, propel things to a higher vibrational level, while Koller’s gymnastic, supportive bass work and Riley’s drums are the soulful glue that gently hold the expandable structure of the tune together. Another standout is Snowy Day (which reappears at the end of the CD). LaRochelle’s bass clarinet is simply stunning and perfectly complements the introspective mood of the tune, as well as Roblin’s skilled and intuitive acoustic piano work. All the while, Cassidy’s horn arrangement weaves a silken web of harmonically complex ideas.

Another fine track is Suspend Yourself, where Roblin reminds us of her skill, not only as a pianist, but as a new music composer. The ensemble breaks into the piano intro with considerable pumpitude, morphing into a straight-ahead bop motif, spurred on by Cassidy’s EVI. Of special note is the tender Ballad in 3-4, which displays the gentle, contemplative aspects of Roblin’s musicality, gorgeously framed by Koller’s bass solo and the Kenny Wheeler-ish horn parts.

03 Fulton and WeedsDream a Little…
Champian Fulton; Cory Weeds
Cellar Live CLO22519 (cellarlive.com)

It is probably pure happenstance, but a song such as Dream a Little Dream of Me seems to have been written for just such an intimate encounter as between pianist and vocalist, Champian Fulton, and saxophonist and impresario, Cory Weeds. What is no accident, however, is the fact that these two musicians seem to automatically fall in with each other, melodically, harmonically and rhythmically, so that axiomatic sparks begin to fly.

Weeds plays with quiet brilliance throughout Dream a Little… His uniquely sophisticated and sonorous style weaves in and out of the vibrant and affectionate expressivity of Fulton’s pianism, her voice often becoming the crowning glory of the songs here. Both musicians seem to connect in a rarefied realm, but they then descend to earth where they each inhabit a palette of sumptuous colour. Then, like a couple in love, playfully oblivious of the attention they have attracted, they hold each other’s music in a tight embrace.

There is too much proverbial gold on this album, but I am going to risk suggesting that the biggest ear-opener is Darn that Dream. This performance burns in the quietude of the bluest part of a musical flame; its languid, seemingly interminable narrative made to simmer forever in a rhythmic and sonic intensity where Weeds contributes lyrical prowess, while Fulton offers her brilliant vocalastics, which sustain the music’s emotional mood while bringing the text’s poetic imagery to life.

04 Sam KirkmayerHigh and Low
Sam Kirmayer; Ben Paterson; Dave Laing
Cellar Live CLO 20118 (cellarlive.com)

During an era in which even the most straight-ahead jazz guitarist tends to have a sprawling array of pedals on stage, Sam Kirmayer is something of an anomaly. A traditionalist who tends to eschew effects in favour of the unmediated connection between instrument and amplifier, Kirmayer has found a voice for himself in the bluesy, hard bop style of guitarists like Grant Green, Wes Montgomery and Peter Bernstein. His newest album, High and Low, is his first to be released on Vancouver’s Cellar Live Records; an apposite fit, for a label that has become Canada’s leading outlet for hard bop. High and Low is an organ trio album, a rarity in and of itself in Canada. Drummer Dave Laing – who also played on Kirmayer’s debut album – is a faculty member in McGill’s jazz program, and is a stalwart of the Montreal scene. New York organist Ben Paterson, whose résumé includes work with Bobby Broom, Johnny O’Neal, and Peter Bernstein, rounds out the trio.

High and Low delivers amply on the premise that it sets out for itself: it is a swinging hard-hitting album, with crisp, tasteful playing from all involved. It is also, from the opening notes of the title track, a sonically beautiful experience, with all of the richness and depth that one hopes for in an organ trio recording. Kirmayer is in his element throughout High and Low, and Laing and Paterson make for a strong rhythmic team.

05 Pat Labarbera Kirk MacDonaldTrane of Thought (Live at The Rex)
Pat LaBarbera/Kirk MacDonald Quintet
Cellar Live CLO71819 (cellarlive.com)

When two extraordinary jazz saxophonists team up for a John Coltrane tribute, you know it’s going to be explosive. And that’s exactly what this live recording, featuring both Pat LaBarbera and Kirk MacDonald along with their band, is. The record is a well-picked and thought-out selection of songs from the two Coltrane tribute shows that the duo performed at our city’s beloved jazz joint, The Rex, in 2018. Ranging from the legendary saxophonist’s earlier works to some of his most lasting and obscure ones, LaBarbera and MacDonald have achieved, in their own words, “a thoughtful balance.” The album stems from a love for Coltrane that the duo has, LaBarbera seeing him live when he was studying at the Berklee School of Music and MacDonald discovering Coltrane on record at an early age.

The songs on the record, although from separate live shows, have been picked in such a way that it tells a thorough story; starting off sultry and well-paced with On a Misty Night and Village Blues, building up to a wonderful and fevered climax with Impressions and coming to a scintillating end with Acknowledgment/Resolution. Coltrane’s works can be appreciated very well here, especially with the excellent backing musicians – Brian Dickinson on piano, Neil Swainson on bass and Joe LaBarbera on drums. Fan of Coltrane or not, this album should definitely be a part of any jazz aficionado’s collection.

06 Sonia JohnsonChrysalis
Sonia Johnson
Independent PSJCD1911 (soniajohnson.com)

Creating an album of music where disparate musical styles come together can seem burdensome on paper. But when there is just too much in the essence of music to be left out, indulging everything becomes imperative. This is the raison d’être for Chrysalis the first English language album from the francophone artist Sonia Johnson. The title suggests a bringing to birth of something transformative. It certainly seems so after the last notes disappear into the air.

But more than anything else, you get the sense that Chrysalis is a labour of love. Featuring beautifully crafted arrangements of beguiling variety and sensuousness, in every lovingly caressed phrase, Chrysalis lays bare Johnson’s adoration of music in all its harmonic sumptuousness. Her chosen material consists of original songs – either written by her, or co-written with others whose work she delights in – so that listening to this music feels like opening an ornate box to reveal hidden gems.

For instance, listening to the way in which Johnson seductively bends the notes in Storm and Monsters, and how she sculpts the long, sustained invention of We Need to Know, it’s clear that there’s not a single semiquaver that hasn’t been fastidiously considered vocally and instrumentally by an ensemble attuned to Johnson’s artistic vision. Two other vocalists – Judith Little-Daudelin and Elie Haroun – deliver powerful performances. Meanwhile Johnson’s mellifluous timbre beguiles throughout as she digs deep into her nasal, throat and chest voice.

Listen to 'Chrysalis' Now in the Listening Room

07 Dan PittFundamentally Flawed
Dan Pitt Trio
Independent (dan-pitt.com)

Over the past few years, guitarist Dan Pitt has been steadily establishing a presence for himself on the Toronto jazz scene. Fundamentally Flawed, the debut album for both Pitt and his eponymous trio, is a showcase for Pitt’s playing and his unique compositional style; in both, one can find complementary elements of modern jazz and creative/improvised music, with a tendency to employ the former in service of the latter. This being the case, Pitt has done well in choosing his bandmates: bassist Alex Fournier, whose recently released album Triio is a stylistic cousin to Fundamentally Flawed, and drummer Nick Fraser. A generation removed from Pitt and Fournier, Fraser’s artful drumming has been an increasingly common presence on the projects of younger Toronto musicians, and it is affecting to see him continue to contribute to a scene that he helped to establish in the late 90s and early 2000s.

Though Pitt plays electric guitar, Fundamentally Flawed is, at its core, an acoustic trio album, with an emphasis on the interactivity, excitement and close listening that seem uniquely possible in the trio format. From the raucous, heavily distorted moments of Overdewitt and Mark III to lush, slow sections in Balmoral and January Blues, Pitt’s music has a transparent quality that allows the individual characteristics of each band member to be clearly heard at any given time, highlighting minute shifts in improvisational trajectory. A solid debut from a compelling band.

08 Dan McCarthyCity Abstract
Dan McCarthy

Origin Records 82788 (originarts.com)

Vibraphonist Dan McCarthy’s newest album, City Abstract, heralds the Toronto native’s return to his hometown, after 15 years living in New York and working with the likes of Steve Swallow, Ben Monder and George Garzone. City Abstract is a Canadian affair: recorded earlier this year at the Canterbury Music Company, it features the quartet of McCarthy, guitarist Ted Quinlan, bassist Pat Collins and drummer Ted Warren; of the nine tracks, six are McCarthy compositions.

McCarthy is an accomplished vibraphonist, with a strong technical command of his instrument and well-developed artistic intuition. This combination of taste and judgment serves him well throughout City Abstract, whether on up-tempo numbers like Bleyto and Go Berserk or on more reflective songs, such as Coral and Other Things of Less Consequence. Quinlan, Collins and Warren share this approach; though this is a band with chops to spare, they are always deployed in service to the music, rather than for personal glory.

City Abstract has many highlights to choose from. Bleyto, the album’s opener, is a tight, swinging song, with an athletic melody played ably in unison by Quinlan and McCarthy. The 7/4 Go Berserk is also an unexpected treat, if only because the juxtaposition of the vibraphone with distorted, high-gain guitar still seems relatively novel. Overall, City Abstract is a well-crafted modern jazz album from a talented bandleader whom the Toronto jazz scene should be glad to have back.

09 Andy BallantyneAndy Ballantyne: Play on Words
Andy Ballantyne; Rob Piltch; Adrean Farrugia; Neil Swainson; Terry Clarke
GB Records GBCD190307 (gbrecords.ca)

Toronto-native, saxophonist Andy Ballantyne has decided to pay tribute to some of his greatest influences on this new release. Ballantyne describes the thought behind this record as being a showcase of how it’s possible to make something your own and add your personal touch and flare to it, even within the bounds of certain stylistic constraints you often have as a freelance musician. It’s very much about showing how a musician can add their own unique perspective within a piece of music. Ballantyne composed all of the pieces except Till the Clouds Roll By, written by Jerome Kern, a famed musical theatre and popular music composer from the early 1900s.

All of the songs stand out in their own right and, if the listener knows about the greats Ballantyne is paying tribute to, it is easy to hear their influence. Some pieces that really come forth are Gordian Knot, a catchy and rhythmically pleasing opening track dedicated to Dexter Gordon, Round Shot, a song that is positively groovy and is a shout out to the great Cannonball Adderley and Mr. P.L., a quite cleverly named tune to honour one of our amazing local saxophonists (maybe the reader will be able to figure out who.) Featuring Adrean Farrugia on piano, Rob Piltch on guitar, Neil Swainson on bass and Terry Clarke on drums, this record is nothing short of excellent.

10 RobClutton TonyMalaby Cover trimOffering
Rob Clutton with Tony Malaby
Snailbongbong SBB006 (robclutton.bandcamp.com)

Bassist Rob Clutton has long been a mainstay of Toronto’s jazz community, as diligent supporting player in the mainstream and a creative catalyst in more adventurous settings. Clutton leads his own Cluttertones, combining songs, synthesizer and banjo, and he’s explored individualistic inspirations on solo bass. Here he’s playing a series of duets with New York saxophonist Tony Malaby, a fellow member of drummer Nick Fraser’s Quartet, and a standout soloist, whether for the animated gravel of his tenor or the piquant air of his soprano.  

That pared-down instrumentation reveals its rationale on the hymn-like title track, one of Clutton’s seven compositions here, his bowed bass complementing Malaby’s warm, airy tenor sound. On Refuge, as well, the two reach toward the grace and intensity of John Coltrane. Often admirably concise, the two can also stretch out, extending their spontaneous interaction on Crimes of Tantalus.

Among the three improvisations, Swamp Cut has both musicians reaching deep into their sonic resources, Malaby’s grainy soprano meeting its double in the high harmonics of Clutton’s bowed bass. The rapid-fire Twig has Clutton to the fore, plucking a kind of compound ostinato that fires Malaby’s lyricism. Swerve has as much focused energy and raw expressionism as bass and tenor might provide, while Nick Fraser’s Sketch #11 possesses a special melodic attraction.

Throughout, one hears the special camaraderie that two gifted improvisers can achieve in a stripped-down setting, while Clutton’s compositions could support a larger ensemble and further elaboration.

11 Simone LegaultLiminal Spaces
Simon Legault Trio
Effendi Records (effendirecords.com)

Simon Legault’s previous album was titled Hypnagogia Polis (2017) which referred to a transitional state from wakefulness to sleep and featured a quintet. Liminal Spaces (2019) is a trio album which includes Adrian Vedady on electric and acoustic bass and Michel Lambert on drums. Liminal means “relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process.” Therefore the theme of “transitions” can explain many of the melodic and compositional elements of his work. Legault’s guitar playing is both clean and precise and includes a spacey quality that hints at other worlds and explorations beyond the immediacy of the groove.

Many of the pieces seem to have evolved from improvisations and work organically through several organizing ideas or movements. The opening Liminal Spaces contains many rubato portions which draw on Legault’s melodic scampering; a pastiche of percussive nuances from Lambert provides a nuanced and shifting backdrop. Solus I, II, III and IV are shorter solo guitar works that explore a variety of melodic and harmonic ideas, all in relatively free time. On the other hand, Inflexion has a solid groove and a harder bop feel which Vedady and Lambert accentuate with great ensemble backing. Interwoven’s title could refer to the opening contrapuntal interplay between guitar, bass and drums which propels us forward to the busier middle section that showcases some excellent and articulate guitar chops leading to a thoughtful bass solo.

Legault’s “process” works to create a fascinating album that is introspective with bursts of melodic and rhythmic intensity.

12 Aurochs Perdidox CoverPerdidox
Aurochs
All-Set Editions (all-set.org)

Aurochs is an improvising group consisting of Ali Berkok (piano), Pete Johnston (bass), Jake Oelrichs (drums) and Mike Smith (live signal processing electronics) with a monthly Friday night residency at the Tranzac club in Toronto. Perdidox contains two longer improvisations, Grammar Architect and Perfect Future, which the group describes as “long slow atmospheric disturbances.” These works contain many elements including minimalism, jazz, funk, pointillism and general avant-garde mayhem. The addition of Smith’s electronics to the classic jazz trio instrumentation creates sounds that are repeated with delay, reverb and other treatments that blur distinctions between what is live and what is sampled and regenerated.

Both works have a strong rhythmic impulse for most of their span which drives the narrative forward. Grammar Architect maintains a sustained and funky forward momentum with many tasty riffs from Oelrichs, from shuffle to hypnotically off-centre snare, which plays off Johnston’s juicy bass sound. Perfect Future has a great break around the seven-minute mark where a simple bass riff is sampled and looped but most of the bass timbre has been taken away. The other players drop away and allow this riff to create a space before the second major section of the work which involves much tapping and scratching of instruments. The final portion contains many piano interjections that mix some Romantic elements with angular modernist riffs; towards the end, the drums and bass find a jazzy marching groove.

Perdidox is being released on SoundCloud which is becoming common in this age of multiple streaming platforms.

13 Sound of the Mountainamplified clarinet & trumpet, guitars, nimb
Sound of the Mountain with Tetuzi Akiyama and Toshimaru Nakamura
Mystery & Wonder MW008 (mwrecs.com)

Sound of the Mountain is the duo of clarinetist Elizabeth Millar and trumpeter Craig Pedersen, significant younger figures in the Montreal musique actuelle community. Their work includes orchestral roles, free jazz and free improvisation. This CD, titled by its instrumentation, comes from a 2017 Tokyo encounter with guitarist Tetuzi Akiyama and Toshimaru Nakamura, who plays “nimb” or no-input mixing board, plugging its output into its input and creating an array of controlled feedback sounds.

There are two improvisations here, identified by the numbers 1 (clocking in at 18:39) and 2 (16:51) and that instrument list. The music proceeds with its own developing form, a collection of shifting sounds, sometimes spacious, like an isolated guitar passage, some gently picked reflective notes, some longitudinally scraped strings, these matched with a few electronic burbles. At other times there’s a crumbling wall of sound: diverse feedback, a delicate clicking of clarinet keys, some lip-smacking kissing sounds from the trumpet.

Such literal description gives nothing of the actual experience of the music, which possesses an inner logic, sometimes jangling, sometimes a reverie in an industrial park. It’s a communion of sounds, linked in an experiential continuum rather than through fixed harmonies and rhythms. Ten minutes into 2, there’s a passage that sounds like a very wise child is gently plucking at a guitar for the first time, a trumpet plays muffled lines and there’s a hive of electronic sound. It’s a moment of perfect multi-dimensional calm.

14 PCPTriointernal/external/focused/broad
PCP Trio
Mystery & Wonder MW 004 (mwrecs.com)

Specializing in the outer limits of tones and timbres, Montreal’s PCP Trio works through one short and one extended improvisation on this brief – less than 25 minutes – CD, where the distinctions among pure sounds are exalted without a need for melody, harmony or rhythm. Writ large on Extended Listening Blues, the parameters set up include laconic watery burbles from Craig Pedersen’s amplified trumpet, off-handed slaps from drummer Eric Craven and a cornucopia of licks from guitarist Alex Pelchat that sputter, twang and clang among high-volume distortions.

Except for the occasional percussion thump or cymbal crash, the guitarist and trumpeter dominate the action with broken octave lines and dual counterpoint that initially evolves in a parallel fashion without intersection. By the mid-point however, the trumpeter’s dissected whistles and hums and the guitarist’s harsh string rubbing and metallic clangs reach a droning concordance, culminating in a finale of vibrating strings and measured brass breaths.

Not easy listening in any way, internal/external/focused/broad shouldn’t be frightening either. In their own ways free music and heavy metal practitioners have set up challenges to familiar and comfortable music. Stripping sounds to primeval levels is what the PCP Trio also does here, and the adventurous should want to check it to see how these experiments are proceeding.

15 Coltrane Blue WorldBlue World
John Coltrane
Impulse B0030157-02 (vervelabelgroup.com)

John Coltrane is among jazz history’s most influential musicians, and any unheard work demands attention, witness last year’s reception for Both Directions at Once, a lost session from 1963. Blue World isn’t quite so startling: it’s a June 1964 soundtrack session for Montreal filmmaker Gilles Groulx’s Le chat dans le sac, a film that’s been available online. However, the one complete take and three fragments on the soundtrack total less than 11 minutes, so there’s plenty of unheard material on this 37-minute CD of the studio session.

Groulx’s request list favoured Coltrane’s work from 1957 to 1960: all but one composition originated then, most prior to Coltrane assembling the “classic quartet” heard here, with pianist McCoy Tyner, drummer Elvin Jones and bassist Jimmy Garrison. It’s an opportunity to hear some of Coltrane’s earlier material performed by his most celebrated band, at its peak, in Rudy Van Gelder’s legendary studio.

What’s here may be relatively brief, but it’s very special: there are two takes of Coltrane’s luminous Naima. A couple of tracks run past six minutes, but they’re half the length of earlier versions. The title work, a blues recast from Coltrane’s 1962 arrangement of Harold Arlen’s Out of this World, has comparable power with added tension from Coltrane’s evolving tone and focus. There’s also a driving version of Traneing In, a piece dating from his earlier harmonic investigations. Often a relentless explorer, Coltrane was also a masterful editor: here he’s emphasizing that side of his extraordinary craft.

16 Holober Hiding Out CoverHiding Out
Mike Holober’s Gotham Jazz Orchestra
Zoho Music ZM 201906 (zohomusic.com)

With the release of his new double-CD project, well-respected and in-demand New York City-based jazz pianist, composer and band leader, Mike Holober has done the near impossible – assembled an A-list group (The Gotham City Orchestra) to perform 11 fresh, original, large ensemble jazz compositions in a way that displays each musician’s gifts within the framework of ego-less, challenging arrangements. Holober is at a point in his musical maturity and creativity that this contemporary take on the traditional big band jazz format is all about the music itself.

Esteemed members of the GTO include many of Holober’s longtime collaborators, all of whom have paid their metaphorical New York dues many times over… such as reed players Billy Drewes, Jon Gordon, Dave Pietro, Steve Kenyon and Adam Kolker; trumpeters Tony Kadleck and Marvin Stamm and guitarist Jay Azzolina. The two-CD collection (arranged in two Suites, entitled Flow and Hiding Out) is comprised of Holober’s original compositions as well as a compelling rendition of Jobim’s Caminhos Cruzados.

The first suite kicks off with Jumble, featuring some face-melting solo work from guitarist Jesse Lewis, and then segues into the ambitious four-movement work, Flow, which includes the evocative Tear of the Clouds, Opalescence, Interlude and the high-energy, bop-infused Harlem, featuring the always swinging Drewes on alto.

The second disc contains the five-movement, Hiding Out, beginning with Prelude, featuring a woodwind intro followed by the thrilling entrance of brass, followed by Compelled, Four Haiku and Interlude… ending with the skillfully crafted, dynamic, full-band opus It Was Just the Wind. This brilliant project closes with an inspired take on Jobim’s classic, which was made even more stunning by the work of iconic trumpeter/flugelhornist, Stamm.

Listen to 'Hiding Out' Now in the Listening Room

17 Elliott SharpPlastový Hrad
Elliott Sharp
Infrequent Seams IS 20 (infrequntseams.com)

Aural essays in bass clarinet adaptation Plastový Hrad’s three tracks composed by American Elliott Sharp challenge the player(s) in varied fashions. Commissioned by the Brno Contemporary Orchestra to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Czech Republic, the opaque moody title track has Lukasz Daniel chiselling a place for the horn’s distinctive harmonies among the polyphonic narrative propelled by the ensemble. Lyrical yet rhythmic, in contrast, Gareth Davis’ bass clarinet on Turning Test is the sole foil to the Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart, whose six singers harmonize and hocket as they move through this contemporary art song. Based on a graphic score, rather than through-composed like the others, Oumuamua features extended and unexpected sonic techniques expressed by Sharp’s own bass clarinet and programmed electronics.

Propelled full force, the episodic structure of Plastový Hrad allows for several dramatic moments as when bass clarinet trills flutter upwards to maintain the narrative among gathering motifs propelled by kettle-drum smashes and flaring horn-section harmonies. Eventually the caustic horizontal theme is maintained with speedy coloratura emphasis from Daniel. On Oumuamua, intonation that can sound like two separate clarinets is broken into shards or reconstructed, then amplified with signal-processed pumps before ending with straight-ahead twisting trills. As for Turing Test, lower case continuum from the clarinetist finally blends with the layered voices for a lyrical finale. Overall both the country and reed exploration are properly honoured musically here.

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