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.

18 MaskedMasked
Kathryn Ladano
Independent (kathrynladano.com)

I have it on good authority from the most celebrated virtuosos of the bass clarinet that it is a challenging instrument to play and certainly diabolically difficult to master. In ensemble, the ink-dark character of its sound is featured prominently in the wall of lower register instruments, used almost percussively by its virtuosos to often create the effect of deep, staccato repetitions, played beneath the melody to conjure a feeling of slowly fluctuating cycles. Those who approach the instrument are extremely brave. The great bass clarinetist Eric Dolphy certainly was. Together with Gunter Hampel, Don Byron, James Carter and Paul Austerlitz he led a tiny tribe of others that now includes Kathryn Ladano.

Masked is the second solo album for bass clarinet by Ladano. Its title comes from her PhD thesis, The Improvising Musician’s Mask: Using Musical Instruments to Build Self-Confidence and Social Skills in Collective Free Improvisation. Like Austerlitz, an academic and performer whose work probes the relationship between Vodou, improvised music and altered states of being, Ladano also pays close attention to extra-musical aspects of improvisation as she translates elements of her thesis in the music of Masked.

Things socio-psychological, philosophical and spiritual apart, Ladano’s music gives wing to emotion. The plaintive bleats, nasal drones and breath-like human smears combine in yammering snorts, phrases and long, loping lines whose long and winding improvisations don’t always have beginnings and ends but often make you gasp in abject wonderment.

01 Orchid EnsembleFrom a Dream
Orchid Ensemble
Independent OE 2018 (orchidensemble.com)

Lan Tung (erhu, vocals), Yu-Chen Wang (zheng) and Jonathan Bernard (percussion) are the Vancouver-based trio Orchid Ensemble. Established in 1997, the trio incorporates Chinese musical instruments and traditions with global sounds, regularly commissioning scores from North American composers. One of its goals is to develop “an innovative musical genre based on the cultural exchange between Western and Asian musicians.” True to its mandate, this album is a collection of works by Canadian composers, along with two arrangements of Chinese originals.

The title track From a Dream by American-Canadian composer Dorothy Chang was inspired by images of China’s Huangshan (Yellow Mountain). Chang reflects the poetic qualities of this spectacular landscape, by turns evoking in her deftly wrought impressionistic score the stillness, strength, delicacy and resilience of this iconic site.

No Rush, by Vancouver composer and conductor Jin Zhang, also explores contrasts – though here sourced from within – segueing from tenderness and strength, forcefulness and tranquility. Each instrumentalist gets a solo turn. Veteran percussionist Bernard gets a workout on a wide spectrum of metal, wood and skin, struck and bowed instruments, erhu virtuosa Tung shines as the dramatic melodic voice, and zheng player Wang imbues her part with rhythmic incision and energy.

Fire (2007) also by Zhang, was inspired by stories of the 1960 fire that burned Nanaimo’s Chinatown to the ground. This near-cinematic work, with a chorus of four voices, evokes human struggle, hardship and the opportunity for regeneration: an uplifting theme with which to close to this enjoyable album.

02 MazacotePatria
Mazacote
Justin Time JTR 8620-2 (justin-time.com)

Patria is simply one of the most exceptional Latin music projects that has been released in recent memory. The recording is a vibrant celebration of the brave, indefatigable Nicaraguan people and their culture; and the beautiful, sibilant Spanish, in symbiosis with the African and Indigenous musics that emanate from Central America, are the jewels that propel this potent and passionate music. Although not overtly a political album, Mazacote has said the following, “This album is dedicated to the people of Nicaragua and to those who fight injustice and intolerance around the world.”

The CD is produced by Adam Popowitz and trumpeter/flugelhornist Malcolm Aiken. All lyrics were written by lead vocalist and guitarist David Lopez and all music was written by the ensemble. This invigorating, dynamic group also includes Niho Takase on piano; Chris Couto on congas, timbales, bongos and percussion; Fito Garcia on bass; Rod Murray on trombone; Mario Sota on guitar and Frankie Hidalgo on vocals.

The opening salvo is Levanta La Copa (Raise the Cup) – a joyous celebration of life, expressed by dynamic vocals, a tight, relentless rhythm section, authentic horn arrangements and supernatural percussion. Garcia’s distinctive, stand-up, electric bass is essential for this genre of authentic Latin music. A true masterpiece is the sinuous ballad, Pueblo, filled with longing and nostalgia; these and other emotions are not only expressed musically, through the skill of the players, but also in the superb vocal by Lopez. Mi Patria (My Native Land) features Aiken on flugelhorn, whose sumptuous tone and perfect intonation contribute massively to the technical sophistication of the ensemble.

Listen to 'Patria' Now in the Listening Room

03 Natalie MacMasterSketches
Natalie MacMaster
Linus Entertainment 270431 (linusentertainment.com)

There is so much joy and sparkle in the performances, arrangements and compositions in Canadian superstar Celtic fiddler Natalie MacMaster’s first new solo album in eight years. A mix of traditional Celtic and original tunes, she is joined by one of her favourite musicians, Tim Edey, on nylon and steel string guitars and accordion, and other instrumentalists on select tracks in this toe-tapping collection.

Her solid musical stylistic takes are supported by the combination of perfectly segueing different tunes in single tracks. The upbeat opening Father John Angus Rankin in Three Reels sets the mood for the rest of the music with her effortless style mastery. Great accordion clog violin transcription opens The Golden Eagle set. In Tribute to John Allan, MacMaster asked her cousin the late John Allan Cameron’s son Stuart to play his dad’s guitar in the opening Glasgow House March, a tune she learned from John, which is then followed by numerous faster reels and strathspeys played with spirited fiddle rhythmic bounce.

The Macmaster/Edey arrangement of James Scott Skinner’s Professor Blackie is a mellower violin/guitar ballad with precise phrasing, soaring lines and effortless pitch jumps. As composers, MacMaster and Edey’s Morning Galliano, named after the French accordionist, has a perfect French/Celtic feel with Edey’s accordion flourishes and chords playing in tight, happy duets with the violin. Of MacMaster’s own compositions, noteworthy is her closing same-named bluegrass/jazz-tinged tune from the Judy’s Dance track. Lots of fun!

Probably the most misunderstood instrument in popular music, the double bass is hard to hear when any ensemble is playing full throttle. Yet the history of jazz, at least, would be markedly different if not for the rhythmic impetus propelled by sophisticated bassists. Not only that, but starting with iconoclasts like Charles Mingus and Oscar Pettiford in the 1950s, double bassists’ talents directing groups and as composers have kept pace with their burgeoning skill in playing both arco and pizzicato. This situation has only expanded over the years and these CDs offer some fine examples. Bassists may not be the designated leaders of all of them, but each highlights the bull fiddlers’ talents as accompanists, soloists, arrangers and composers.

01 FormanekMichael Formanek, who recently retired from teaching bass and jazz/improvised music at the conservatory level, combines those playing and composing attributes/ And Even Better (Intakt CD 335 intaktrec.ch) demonstrates this with the all-American Very Practical Trio, featuring longtime foil Tim Berne on alto saxophone and younger guitarist Mary Halvorson. Combining lilt and literalness, Formanek’s nine compositions are melodic, but work in enough space for the tang Berne brings with triple tonguing and slides into high-pitched peeps, along with Halvorson’s precise chording, that includes string distortion and Hawaiian-guitar-like shakes. With the exception of brief insertions, the composer’s solo skills stay in the background. Instead he fluidly propels the tunes with rhythmic pumps and stops. Still Here, for instance, finds the saxophonist’s slinky trills and the guitarist’s flowing surf-music-like wriggles adhering to the sparkling narrative advanced by bass string finesse, so that by the end modulating echoes from all are harmonized. The brief Bomb the Cactus and the introductory Suckerpunch may have similar country-folk, finger styling from Halvorson, yet Berne’s response with slurred altissismo variations, plus Formanek’s barely there thumps, convert both sequences into echoing essays in refined counterpoint. The Shifter demonstrates that the bassist can write a fast bebop theme with the instruments in triple counterpoint, as Berne’s stop-time snarls add emotion. Yet the trio’s reading of the concluding Jade Visions is even more telling. Written by Scott LaFaro, who helped liberate bass playing in the early 1960s, Formanek’s earthy polyrhythms pull the theme away from a near-lullaby and serve as a fitting salute to one master bassist from another.

02 Barry GuyThe UK’s Barry Guy has done even more to redefine the role of double bassist/composer/bandleader over the years with his large and small ensembles. As part of a trio on Illuminated Silence (Fundacja Sluchaj FSR01/2019 sluchaj.org), with Japanese pianist Izumi Kimura and American drummer Gerry Hemingway, he contributes three compositions, adds his muscular accents to the free-form improvisations and even recites a relevant verse at the beginning of one selection. Kimura, who sometimes purrs vocally as she plays, generates delicate, winnowing melodies, as her composition The Willow Tree Cannot Be Broken by the Snow demonstrates. But Guy’s spiccato string rappelling and Hemingway’s cymbal shatters add rhythmic heft to that piece. More emblematic of Guy’s skill are his tunes. Blue Horizon moves from an atmospheric introduction with lowing string patterns and keyboard runs to intersection among high-frequency key clinks, drum thumps and sluicing bass motion. Ancients is even better as crescendo build-up during the performance separates an exposition of keyboard sweeping lower-case moroseness with a fluid theme elaboration by Kimura that concludes at a slower pace. Finding It, the Guy composition which concludes this live concert, comes from his comic side, as the bassist’s resonating smacks and pumps are interrupted and amplified by Kimura’s Monkish asides that build up to a cascading climax, downshift to bass string-plucked pulses and finally let the pianist alternate between meandering theme variations and near frenetic key shading. In spite of their experience, both veteran players still give Kimura space to display her technique and voicing which is flawless at any pitch or tempo. That she keeps her cool in such fast company and is confident enough to assay Guy’s compositions and hardcore improvisations make this CD a celebration of her talents as much as the bassist’s.

03 Gabriela FriedliA similar situation exists on Areas (Leo Records CD LR 828 leorecords.com). Although the leader is Swiss pianist Gabriela Friedli, half the compositions are those of her countryman, bassist Daniel Studer; Dieter Ulrich is the drummer. The main contrast in creative architecture between the bassist and pianist is how her reactively straightforward playing is nudged to more expressive freedom by Studer’s constant string pressure. A track like the Studer-composed Largo, which opens the disc, featuring dark contrapuntal bass-string scrubbing and lighter keyboard chording, seamlessly slides into Friedli’s Fil de Ramosa, whose dramatic impetus comes from plucks and stops on the piano’s inner strings in such a way that both bass and piano share the same pitch and emphasis as the tune evolves. With such compositional accord displayed throughout, elation comes in noting how the trio moulds turbulent dissonance into unexpected narrative sequences while maintaining flowing concordance. Studer’s Mildew Lisa, for example, uses sul tasto string thumps to push the theme forward as the pianist’s high-energy percussive notes, strengthened by Ulrich’s cowbell peals and drum ruffs, climaxes with high-frequency comping that is simultaneously imaginative and straight ahead. More complex, Masse, another Studer theme, introduces spurts of atonality as the bassist’s arco thrusts are echoed by dynamic patterning and asides from the pianist. The theme becomes more splintered as the speed intensifies. Sudden cymbal clatter adds to a finale of gradual tension release. Although there’s only one brief drum solo, Ulrich’s strangled bugle (!) cries on Um Su animate the program in a distinctive manner, as inner string cascades from Friedli and buzzing bass string sweeps, almost shatter the exposition before adroit keyboard flexibility calms the finale. Perfectly capable of composing a prototypical contemporary jazz piece with a walking bass line, a shuffling drum beat and a bouncing and sinewy exposition, as on Miedra, the pianist’s most exciting work, and that of the trio, confirms Friedli’s response to the challenge of Studer’s playing and writing.

04 MilesA younger bassist moving front and centre with his playing and writing is Canadian-in-Berlin Miles Perkin, who, on The Point in Question (Clean Feed CF 529 CD cleanfeedrecords.com), has put together an international quartet to improvise on his compositions. Consisting of British trumpeter Tom Arthurs, French pianist Benoît Delbecq and American drummer Jim Black, inclusive symmetry is maintained by contrasting dappled fluidity from the trumpeter with the chiming bulk of keyboard and drum strategies. As well as slick background prods, Perkin mostly confines himself to relaxed, vibrating scene-setting, as on the title tune. Leaving the best for last, however, the first three minutes of the concluding Blue Cloud are given over to an unaccompanied display of unhurried, often sul tasto double-bass pacing before the piece opens up into a semi-march. Arthurs’ lyricism is then harmonized with rhythmic percussion and piano key clipping before gradually upping the tempo to end with solidly measured arco sweeps. A leisurely pace is maintained throughout but never at the expense of subtle swing. The title tune also serves as a showcase for Arthurs, whose burbling flutters and smears move upwards to brassy shakes and slides. Before the conclusion is realized with additional capillary fillip, more spanked piano tones are added to the sequence. Additionally, when bass and drums lay back on Sea Drop, this ambulatory track is enlivened by a middle section of pointed trumpet smears and snarls, doubled by forceful and frequent bass string pops.

05 TorbjornAnother bassist of similar age and experience as Perkin is Swede Torbjörn Zetterberg. However, Live (Corbett vs. Dempsey CvsD CD 058 corbettvsdempsey.com), is a rawer and more raucous affair than the Canadian’s carefully modulated creations. Recorded live in a Stockholm club, members of his Great Question sextet expand on six of Zetterberg’s compositions. Another EU affair, the band includes Portuguese trumpeter Susana Santos Silva and Italian baritone saxophonist/clarinetist/flutist Alberto Pinton plus Scandinavians, tenor saxophonist/flutist Jonas Kullhammar, trombonist Mats Äleklint and drummer Jon Fält. With an effervescent stylist like Äleklint in the band there are times when it’s best to get out of the way. This is proven on 1+1=1, The Oracle in Finnåker and the extended Song from the End of the World, which also demonstrate the bassist’s compositional versatility. A hard bop stomper driven by the composer’s slap bass runs, the first piece is quickly broken up with slurs and stutters from the other horns as Äleklint moves from plunger growls to gutbucket blats, whinnying cries and staccato smears until Fält’s measured bangs end the program. Midway between jolly oomph-pah-pah and parade-ground music, The Oracle in Finnåker features the trombonist working up and down the scale with tailgate slides plus disruptive assault-rifle-like blasts. Torquing the tension with an extended series of pats and smacks from the drummer, drooling clarinet squeezes and trumpet peeps keep the narrative moving until a final release. Although supple guitar-like fingering characterizes Zetterberg’s work elsewhere, in contrast on Song from the End of the World, his chiming pulse sets up a crepuscule-tinged muted trumpet solo and a series of puffs and whistles from one flutist which confirm the theme’s exotica. Reflecting the introduction, the bassist brings the tune to a close with double-and-triple stops and low-pitch string swabs.

Varied as they may be, each of these discs – and the bassists directing them – show how 21st-century bassists are moving music forward.

01 MuardochIn the day… a rather long-gone day, if you listened to the ABC’s classical radio station in Sydney, Australia you would immediately recognize the name William Murdoch. Next to Percy Grainger, who today is remembered almost solely as the composer, Murdoch was acknowledged to be the finest Australian pianist in the first half of the 20th century. Born in Victoria in 1888, he showed an early aptitude for music but wished for a career in law. He won a preliminary legal scholarship at the University of Melbourne, all the while continuing his musical studies at the Melbourne Conservatory of Music. At the age of 17 he won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London. He travelled there in 1906 and studied four years under Frits [sic] Hartvigson, gaining two gold medals, a Bechstein grand piano and the praise of Sir Hubert Parry who described Murdoch as “gifted and charming.” His London debut was in 1910. However, it was his reception on his tour of South Africa as accompanist for contralto Clara Butt (not yet a Dame) that finally decided him on music. He concertized and toured Scandinavia, also Canada and the United States, Australia and New Zealand. He began making acoustic recordings which he criticized openly because of the engineer’s manipulation of the dynamics. From 1925 he was heard on electrical recordings, collected here as The Complete Columbia solo electrical recordings from 1925 to 1931 (Appian Recordings APR6029, 2CDs naxosdirect.com). The two Beethoven sonatas, Pathétique and Appassionata, sonically most impressive and interpretively unique, were recorded at Murdoch’s insistence in an empty Wigmore Hall in London on October 12, 1926 and January 19-20, 1927. These recordings pre-date the Schnabel recordings by at least five years and it is obvious that Murdoch’s interpretations are the product of his original thinking which holds our close attention to the very last note. I played a few tracks for my friend, a renowned critic, whose attention did not waver.

There are 43 tracks of the most beautiful versions imaginable of piano favourites, all reflecting his original thinking. As an example, Murdoch’s gentle, poetic performance of the dramatic Rachmaninoff Prelude in C Sharp Minor, Op.3 No.2 will convince with newly found eloquence. The entire contents may be checked at Amazon UK for titles. William Murdoch, the consummate musician, died on September 9, 1942.

02 CasadesusAnother fine set of interest has arrived from Appian Recordings. The label is devoted exclusively to restoring historic recordings by pianists both universally known and, in many cases, those known only to the cognoscenti. Here we have The Complete French Columbia Recordings 1928-1939 by Robert Casadesus (APR7404, 4 CDs naxosdirect.com). Included are all the commercial releases from 78rpms together with a first release of a performance of the Mozart Piano Concerto K537 “Coronation” recorded in March 1931 by Casadesus with the Walther Straram Orchestra. Casadesus was born in Catalonia. He lived in France and changed his name to Casadesus, meaning the house above the village. English-speaking people were at a loss to pronounce his name correctly. It is “Cazadsu.” Robert was a child prodigy who played The Harmonious Blacksmith at the age of nine without using any pedals… he couldn’t reach them. At the Paris Conservatoire be was friends with Fauré, who much admired his playing, particularly playing the composer’s own works. He was also good friends with Ravel. When Ravel came to the studio to make piano rolls, he found two sections beyond him, La Gibet and the Toccata from Le Tombeau de Couperin and he persuaded Casadesus to record them instead. The Aeolian Company released the rolls as the playing of Ravel but sister Gaby Casadesus later admitted that her brother was very well paid.

Other concerted works in this collection include Fauré’s Piano Quartet No.1 in C Minor, Op.15 with Joseph Calvet, violin, Léon Pascal, viola, and Paul Mas, cello, recorded in May 1935. Also, Georges Witkowski conducting his Mon Lac with the Orchestra Symphonique de Paris as recorded in June 1928. Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.24 in C Minor K491 was conducted by Eugène Bigot with the same orchestra in December 1927. Weber’s well known Konzertstück in F Minor finds Bigot conducting again on June 8, 1925.

There are some interesting duos here, including the Debussy Cello Sonata and Caplet’s Danse des petits nègres both with Maurice Maréchal from June 3, 1930. Casadesus’ own Flute Sonata Op.13 finds him in the studio with René Le Roy on that same date five years later. Some of the major works included in this historic collection are 11 Scarlatti Sonatas recorded on June 15,1937, Schumann’s Études symphoniques, Op.13 together with Vogel als Prophet from Waldszenen from 1928. He plays lots of Schubert, Mozart, Schumann, Chopin, Fauré, Beethoven, Chabrier and a lone piece by Marie-Joseph-Alexandre Déodat de Séverac titled Le retour des Muletiers. That was on November 21, 1935. This set will be welcomed by those who would enjoy these pre-WWII performances collected nowhere else. The transfers are, as always with this label, state of the art. In this case by Mark Obert-Thorn.

Vladimir Ashkenazy was never regarded as a child prodigy at the Moscow Conservatory where he was studying in 1955, aged 18. Nevertheless, he received second prize in the International Chopin Competition that year and gained attention in Soviet cultural circles. A year later he won the Queen Elisabeth Music Competition in Brussels. That drew him into touring but after winning the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1962 his life changed. He was free to spend six months in London with his family and then decided to live there permanently. He was lauded by the critics as the most exceptional pianist of his generation. The critics were right. He was not only an exceptional pianist but a complete musician who today is known also as a symphony orchestra conductor of the first order. His recording of the Rachmaninoff symphonies with the Concertgebouw Orchestra are, to my ears, way ahead of the competition in every aspect. Also, there are his complete Shostakovich and Sibelius symphonies.

03 AshkenazyProfil has issued a four-CD set, Vladimir Ashkenazy The First Recordings (PH19030 naxosdirect.com), gathered from various sources. The first disc, recorded at the 1955 Chopin Competition contains 11 familiar Chopin works including the Ballade No.2, two Mazurkas, a Nocturne, four Etudes, the Prelude Op.45, the Polonaise in A flat Major, Op.53 and the Scherzo Op.54. The Barcarolle Op.40 from 1961 rounds out the disc.

The second disc, recorded in Moscow in 1959 and 1960 contains the two sets of Chopin Etudes, Opp.10 and 25. Disc three opens with the Liszt Mephisto Waltz and the Fifth Transcendental Etude, Feux Follets, followed by two Chopin waltzes and mazurkas and the Third Piano Sonata, Op.58 finishing with Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme of Corelli from Berlin 1957 and Moscow 1953. Finally, disc four gets serious with performances from 1957 in Berlin: Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No.7 Op.83 and two Beethoven sonatas, the Waldstein and No.32, Op.111. Hearing the playing on these four discs is a rare chance to knowingly hear greatness in the making. The playing is supported by full-bodied, uncluttered, dynamic sound with negligible variation between the venues.

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