06 HartenbergerRussell Hartenberger – Requiem for Percussion and Voices
Nexus; TorQ; Lindsay Kesselman; Cory Knight
Nexus 11031 (nexuspercussion.com)

The requiem mass has provided composers with inspiration for centuries, from which has come some of Western music’s greatest works, including the Requiems of Verdi and Mozart, Fauré and Duruflé, as well as those incorporating external texts, such as Britten’s War Requiem.

Russell Hartenberger’s Requiem for Percussion and Voices is a work in the latter form, eschewing the traditional requiem texts in favour of an eight-movement reflection on death and nature. Incorporating tolling bells, funeral drum beatings, a Bach chorale, bird songs and bugle calls, this requiem is an eclectic and wide-ranging synthesis of musical style that suggests a broad, universal outlook.

The disc’s liner notes, written by Hartenberger (who is also a member of Nexus), are exceedingly insightful and highly recommended to anyone who listens to this piece, for within them one will find a personal story behind each movement, from Hartenberger’s days in the United States Air Force Band to his study of West African drum music. In a work with such wide-ranging and globally sourced material as this Requiem, such commentary serves as a road map, guiding the listener in an invaluable way.

In an area of the arts so often committed to reviving the works of the past, it is vitally important to explore new material in addition to the old standards. This recording provides a splendid example of why this is: tuneful, contemporary (in its truest sense), and a fine display of vocal and instrumental ability, Requiem is worthwhile listening for all.

07 Suite NostalgiqueSuite Nostalgique – Musical Impressions from Ukraine
Izabella Budai; Matthew Christakos; Maria Dolnycky; Alex McLeod; Peter Stoll
Independent n/a (store.cdbaby.com/cd)

Pianist Maria Dolnycky originally brought together the five local musicians on this recording to perform the stylistically diverse music of these seven Ukrainian composers in 2016 at Toronto’s Gallery 345 as a fundraiser for modern prosthetic limbs for Ukraine.

Dolnycky performs with passion and detail in all the works. Mykola Lysenko’s traditional Romantic-flavoured Sorrow (Elegy), Op. 39 opens with cellist Matthew Christakos playing a mournful solo line leading to singable melodies above tonal piano chords. Anatoly Kos-Anatolsky’s Waltz for cello and piano is upbeat with dramatic touches of swing and big band styles. Now it’s violist Alex McLeod’s turn to perform expressively in Vasyl Barvinsky’s Three Romances, a three-movement work highlighted by the happy closing It’s Spring Again! movement. Levko Kolodub’s Moldovan Sketch for viola and piano showcases the composer’s and two performers’ musical talents ranging from classic high tinkles to rhythmic Moldovan-flavoured folk music. Title track Suite Nostalgique for clarinet and piano is the strongest composition here, as clarinetist Peter Stoll joins Dolnycky in playing composer Taras Yashchenko’s four-movement exploration of two-step Foxtrot, slower Aria and intense rhythmic party Samba. Flutist Izabella Budai also traverses musical styles with piano from the sweet to atonal in nine short tasty selections from Boris Kosak’s Petit Fours (bite-sized treats), and the expressive Théodore Akimenko’s Idylle, Op.14 for flute and piano.

Let’s applaud Dolnycky for making these fascinating lesser-known Ukrainian works available for wider audiences to hear and contemplate.

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08 Come Closer bassoonCome Closer
Michael Harley; Phillip Bush
New Focus Recordings FCR240 (newfocusrecordings.com)

If you play clarinet in an orchestra, the bassoon is your best friend. That rich and deeply grained sonority forgives a multitude of pitch variances; a well-supported bassoon sound is a perfect colour complement to the whingeing voice of its single-reed neighbour. So immediately I must declare a bias in this commentary on Come Closer, featuring American bassoonist Michael Harley playing the music of several of his colleagues from the University of South Carolina and beyond.

Listen to this album. Just go out and buy it and put it on and marvel at the title track by John Fitz Rogers. A quartet performed in multi-track by Harley, with definite echoes of Reich, Adams and Glass, it nourishes the ear, never tiresome, always delightful. Precision marries beauty. In the following piece, Miphadventures by Stefan Freund, we’re treated to a blues-infused dialogue between bassoon and piano (played with sympathy and guts by Phillip Bush). An introductory arioso sets the stage for a swinging dance in a stylish syncopated four to a bar. This is Americanism, not Americana. It’s never hackneyed, simply enjoyable. Harley allows just the barest hint of jazz inflection, which is good. Too many bends induce nausea.

If you begin to think this all sounds too like easy listening, stay tuned. The third track will satisfy your wish for tonal exploration. Alarums and Excursions by Carl Schimmel bills itself as a Puzzle-Burlesque, but really leave off the brain work and just gloat that here’s something very grabby that also avoids major and minor sonorities.

I could go on. You don’t need me to. You need to get this disc.

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09 TupleDarker Things
Bright Shiny Things BSTC-0179 (brightshiny.ninja)

Here’s certainly something different, a bassoon duo playing contemporary concert music. Music scored for two bassoons apparently only reaches back a few decades, yet undeterred, bassoonists Rachael Elliott and Lynn Hileman formed their duo Tuple in 2006. They have played their unusual repertoire widely at American experimental art and music venues ever since. Darker Things, their debut album, displays their admirable technique and musicality, as well as the surprising tonal, timbral and emotional range possible on just two bassoons.

The earliest work here is by the celebrated Tatar-Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina. Her masterfully crafted, impassioned Duo Sonata (1977) is characterized by one of her extra-musical themes: reaching for the divine in music. Frequent glissandi, intense chromatic motives, the use of micro-chromaticism (i.e. quarter tones) and multiphonics illustrate what Gubaidulina characterizes as striving for a “transition to another plane of existence.”

Lacrimosa (1991), by the idiosyncratic Dutch master composer Louis Andriessen, is a slow and deliberate work employing close atonal harmonies to create the keening quality suggested by its title. On the other hand multiple Grammy Award-winning composer Michael Daugherty’s Bounce (1988) explores a series of dramatic moments in various moods, tempi, dynamics and bassoon ranges. Black (2008) by American post-minimalist Marc Mellits stays light of heart throughout. Echoes of Steve Reich at his most ebullient permeate the work, however Mellits’ complex cross-rhythms and syncopations also reference rock’s straightforward tonality and forward-propelling energy.

Darker Things is a fun and thought-provoking album suitable for double reed players – as well as the rest of us.

10 PatternsPatterns – Chamber Works
Various Artists
Navona Records nv6243 (navonarecords.com)

A musical pattern may be a repeating or recurring rhythm, pitch, dynamic, instrumentation etc. A repeating pattern of surprisingly fascinating, contrasting music by seven composers for diverse small ensembles, including two solo guitar works, makes this an unexpected listening joy.

James William Stamm’s Asymmetry for guitar duet is upbeat with alternating broken chord figures and short melodic sections. Georges Raillard’s guitar solo Disintegration opens with tonal intervals which then change to contrasting strums and atonal intervals. Composer/guitarist Santiago Kodela’s three-movement/pattern solo-guitar work, Two Lords, opens with Of Textures, a rhythmic toe-tapping work with low tones and moving melody. The slower, edgier Of Colours has ringing contemplative guitar tones. The faster Of Mechanics features driving guitar grooves, pitches and repeated note patterns.

Now for percussion patterns. Daniel Adams’ two-marimba work Road Traversed and Reversed opens with attention-grabbing marimba rolls, then lots of exciting repeated notes, tight duet contrapuntal playing and grooves. David Arbury’s Four Snares has four snare drummers performing constantly on the move – snare rolls, effects, taps and dynamic variations.

Bunny Beck’s tango-flavoured expressive Suite for Sarro for string trio encompasses contemporary and Romantic sounds. Fun abounds in Jan Järvlepp’s Bassoon Quartet. The four bassoons emulate car sounds like short beeps in Cadillac. The slower Reaching showcases the instrument’s low pitch abilities. Danceable Jig is rewarding at the low pitch with twirling melodic patterns.

The pattern is completed with impeccable production and performances. Great, great, great!

Kaija Saariaho – True Fire; Trans; Ciel d’hiver
Gerald Finley; Xavier de Maistre; Finnish RSO; Hannu Lintu
Ondine ODE 1309-2 (naxosdirect.com)

Ensemble Musikfabrik
Wergo Edition Musikfabrik 15 (musikfabrik.eu/en)

11a SaariahoKaija Saariaho appears to engage all the senses at full throttle when she is writing music. This tactility is channelled in such a manner that one might conceivably hear the creeping of the shadow of a tree elongating at dusk or a flower weeping in the rain in long inventions and subtly sculpted lines for a cello. All of this appears to make for works that comprise highly complex sound masses, created out of microscopic tangles of intertwined instrumental lines – a kind of musical spider’s web woven with micropolyphony. Through it all she remains completely focused on melody, counterpoint and harmony, with rhythm also surfacing in dramatic outbursts. Saariaho appears to push form to its limit, creating a compelling musical world at once eerie and beautiful.

The music on this disc is made up of three exquisite orchestral works and is beyond tonality, atonality and post-modernization. On Trans, a work in three movements for harp and orchestra, Saariaho creates a vivid storyline and invites the listener to follow her principal character – personified by the harp – as it evolves in the music’s narrative. Harpist Xavier de Maistre’s performance is lustrous and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra is outstanding as they make the work seem visionary, highlighting Saariaho’s gift for creating hauntingly memorable sounds.

Saariaho also reveals her heightened sense of the dramatic in Ciel d’hiver, a retelling of part of the journey of the son of Poseidon, re-orchestrated from her larger piece, Orion. The appropriately smaller symphony orchestra still manages to deliver the work’s supple textures with consummate musicality, allowing for the beauty of the mythic narrative to emerge with compelling force. On True Fire, Saariaho turns to perhaps her greatest strength – the setting of poetry to music. This work is performed by the great Canadian baritone Gerald Finley, who weathers the enormous difficulty of the vocal writing with glorious ease. His vocal outpourings, together with masterful orchestral direction by Hannu Lintu, help the poetry leap off the page. 

11b SturmSaariaho’s music reappears on a second disc also featuring works by two other contemporary composers, Steffen Schleiermacher and Michael Wertmüller. The disc is titled Sturm (or Storm) as the music is evocative of – poetically or otherwise – atmospheric agitation appropriately conjured up by the extraordinary contemporary collective, Ensemble Musikfabrik, joined throughout by soloing guest musicians.

In the case of Saariaho’s contribution, the music translates parts of Shakespeare (The Tempest) reincarnated in a cycle of songs titled The Tempest Songbook and brought to life by the lustrous soprano of Olivia Vermeulen and the ink-dark baritone of Peter Schöne. Schleiermacher’s Das Tosen Des Staunenden Echos (The roar of the amazed echo) captures an agitated journey, its turbulent repeated gestures revolving theatrically, breaking in waves and sounding like fluid birth pangs in the very act of the enigmatic composition itself. Wertmüller’s Antagonisme Contrôlé is a fiery piece that roars between the freewheeling worlds of jazz and avant-garde-music styles as soloists, including the inimitable saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, take the music to dizzying heights.

12 David BowlinBird as Prophet
David Bowlin; various artists
New Focus Recordings FCR237 (newfocusrecordings.com)

This is one disc that achieves so much more than it sets out to do. Bird as Prophet (the composition) is an amalgam of Robert Schumann, a Romantic with a deep and abiding knowledge of literature and philosophy, and Charlie Parker, the iconic bebop genius who revolutionized jazz – and, it may be argued, all contemporary music. But it is the fingers – and bow – of David Bowlin that drives the music of the entire disc much further.

Bowlin brings so much more to the music than mere virtuosity. Combining his absolute mastery of the violin with inspired interpretations, he lifts the black dots off the page in an utterly beguiling performance evocative of the very nature of human endeavour and the mercurial vicissitudes that go with it.

Bowlin’s instrument lives and breathes and takes us to another world. It’s full of glinting illuminations, mysterious depths, expectations, frustrations, hopes and doubts, like the lights and shadows of a quasi-Schumann scherzo glimpsed by moonlight in a forest. Using taped effects and partnered by four other musicians (on three other tracks), Bowlin creates passage upon passage of notes that are at once perfectly transparent yet gorgeously coloured. There’s also a sense of tightly disciplined improvisation everywhere in the music.

Finally, on the mesmerising Under a Tree, an Udātta, an almost-nine minute musical exploration of Sanskrit phonetics (Udātta is the pitch accent of Vedic Sanskrit), he bows out with buoyant, aristocratic grace.

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01 Diana PantonA Cheerful Little Earful
Diana Panton; Reg Schwager; Don Thompson
Independent (dianapanton.com)

In 2015, vocalist Diana Panton released I Believe in Little Things, with Don Thompson, Reg Schwager and Coenraad Bloemendal. The album has a lot going for it: intelligent arrangements, strong performances, and classic songs from sources such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Pinocchio and The Muppet Movie. While Panton had released a number of records previously, I Believe in Little Things was her first children’s album.

Panton’s project continues with A Cheerful Little Earful, a new album of jazz for kids, which was released in October 2019. Schwager and Thompson are back, as are succinct arrangements of songs from television, film and music theatre. Panton has a gift for singing with simple phrasing and with an unaffected delivery that places emphasis on the melody at hand; this stripped-down style works perfectly in the small-ensemble setting with Schwager and Thompson, and also focuses the listener’s attention on the songs’ lyrics.

Like I Believe In Little Things, A Cheerful Little Earful is being marketed as a “jazz album for kids.” It might, however, be more accurate to say that it is an album for adults looking back with fondness at the music of their own youth (and their parents’ youth, for that matter; Happy Talk, the album’s first track, is from South Pacific). But whether Panton’s listeners are swept up in a rush of nostalgia or experiencing these songs for the first time, it’s safe to say that they’ll enjoy this well-crafted record.

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02 Nick Fraser ZoningZoning
Nick Fraser; Kris Davis; Tony Malaby; Ingrid Laubrock; Lina Allemano
Astral Spirits (astralspiritsrecords.com)

At times, Nick Fraser has been Toronto’s busiest jazz drummer, but he’s increasingly involved in developing his own music and some key international partnerships. Among his projects is this trio with New York-based saxophonist Tony Malaby and pianist Kris Davis. For the trio’s second outing (Too Many Continents appeared in 2015), they’ve enlisted guests: New York saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and Toronto trumpeter Lina Allemano appear on the three Fraser compositions included here.

It’s a hard-edged band with a disciplined intensity that shows in each taut track, with or without guests, a give and take between form and freedom that often moves toward form. The incendiary opening dialogue between Malaby and Laubrock (he has the warmer jazz tone; she’s responsible for the weirder hollow harmonics and deliberate bleats) is eventually drawn into form. Throughout the program, tight-knit figures are frequently employed to develop structural tensions that will ultimately explode before reassembling themselves.

Fraser’s Sketch 46, a dance between restraint and expression, begins with the most incidental wisps of sound: the lightest piano flurries, a muffled cymbal, air through a trumpet, saxophone plosives. These events, increasingly pointillistic, gradually increase in length and intensity, volume remaining low, relations among parts sketchy. Eventually the band activity expands to an increasingly dense collective. Drawn into Fraser’s fierce knitting drum figures, the horns emerge for brief solo episodes, until a long-toned melody, almost choral, emerges.

It’s just one crucial piece in this demanding set of brilliantly realized works.

03 Mark KelsoThe Chronicles of Fezziwig
Mark Kelso Jazz Project
Maisamark Music MKJE003 (groovydrums.com)

Could this musical yarn of Fezziwig, whose chronicles the Mark Kelso Jazz Project so expertly spin, hark back to a character from the novel A Christmas Carol created by Charles Dickens? If the time and circumstance of Dickens’ story and our time were to inhabit similar capsules, then the jovial, foppish man with a large Welsh wig might just as well be evoked by this breathtakingly effervescent music for our rather dark times, to sweep away the turmoil of our century into a Green Revolution, just as the character in Dickens’ story did at the cusp of the Industrial Revolution.

Opening the fold-over package to get to The Chronicles of Fezziwig we read the words: “Inspire creativity.” This is the kind of spark that Kelso’s drumming inevitably provides whenever he becomes the rhythmic and catalytic pivot in any ensemble. Here too, the electrifying drummer plays that role in this sextet. In Fezziwig’s character, Kelso’s songs can be quirky (Elliptical), elegiac (A Message from Idris), mesmerizing (Pinwheel) and more. Each song evolves into a gripping narrative evoked by a riveting melody laced with glorious harmony. The rippling jazz grooves that ensue gently build into boppish saxophone and piano runs, launched, of course, by Kelso’s broodingly percussive funky and tumbling rhythms.

The ensemble includes heavyweight musicians: saxophonist Pat LaBarbera, guitarist Ted Quinlan, pianists Gordon Sheard and Brian Dickinson, and bassist Mike Downes, all of whom interpret Kelso’s vivid works idiomatically.

04 Surefire SweatSurefire Sweat
Surefire Sweat
Independent (surefiresweat.com)

This debut album is a breath of funky, fresh air by JUNO-nominated musician Larry Graves’ project, Surefire Sweat. All eight tracks on the record are originals written by Graves and are “an emotive journey, offering real-time reflections… on the human condition.” The mostly instrumental nature of the album truly allows the rhythmic complexity of each piece to be brought to the forefront, which the first-time bandleader himself has mentioned is an incredibly important factor throughout. Featured is a lineup of talented musicians such as Elena Kapeleris on tenor sax and vocals, Paul Metcalfe on baritone sax and Paul MacDougall on guitar and vocals.

Threshold is a fiery, rhythmically hot start to the record and manages to pull the listener right into the catchy groove. Throughout the album, it is easy to hear the fusion of funk, jazz and world music not only through the instrumental riffs, but even through the rhythms themselves. The distinct flavour of percussion and drums tells an extremely expressive story all on its own. Sunshine Interference has an especially addicting bass groove that just gets your head bopping along and Number Nine takes the listener on a journey through completely dance-worthy rhythms inspired by Nigerian drummer Tony Allen. Ending the record is Scoffle Strut, a sultry, positively scintillating tune. For those looking for a pick-me-up for the longer fall and winter days ahead, this album is a perfect candidate to get you out of your daily rut.

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05 Trevor GiancolaSonnet 18
Trevor Giancola
TQM Recording TQM-1315 (tqmrecordingco.com)

Guitarist Trevor Giancola’s sophomore album, Sonnet 18, is one of the season’s most anticipated modern straight-ahead jazz releases. A follow-up to 2016’s Fundamental, which saw Giancola in trio format with bassist Neil Swainson and drummer Adam Arruda, Sonnet 18 is one of the first offerings of the new TQM Recording Company, helmed by Ron Skinner. Recorded live-off-the-floor at Toronto’s Union Sound in February 2019, this new album is notable for its rich, warm sound, for Giancola’s intelligent compositions, and for its personnel list: joining Giancola are Arruda, bassist Rick Rosato and saxophonist Seamus Blake. (For those unfamiliar: though Arruda, Rosato and Blake are Canadian, all three are based in the US, and are well-established names on the international scene.)

Sonnet 18 has many highlights, including Retrospect, a bouncy, medium swinger that features a stop-time melody played tightly by Giancola and Blake. It’s All Good, Man, a trio track, is a beautiful, reflective journey, with relatively simple melodies sitting atop lush harmony. A + B sees Arruda in fine form, crisply tracing the contours of the 5/4 song’s structure; Stream, the album’s final track, patiently builds in intensity to one of Blake’s most exciting solos. Throughout Sonnet 18, Giancola is the tie that binds the music together, playing with clarity, intelligence and enviable tone, from the album’s most sensitive moments to its most aggressive. A commendable second album, and a strong beginning for TQM.

06 Joel MillerUnstoppable
Joel Miller
Independent MCM043 (joelmillermusic.com)

Joel Miller has made a career for himself as an adventurous, searching saxophonist and bandleader. Based in Montreal, he has led projects that range in style from straight-ahead modern jazz to 80s pop/rock, and has collaborated with internationally recognized musicians, including Sienna Dahlen, Geoffrey Keezer, Christine Jensen and Kurt Rosenwinkel. His new release, Unstoppable, is the result of a different kind of searching: a return to school, a newly minted master’s degree in jazz composition, and a desire to write music for “21st-century chamber symphony,” an ensemble comprising woodwinds, brass, percussion and the traditional big band rhythm section of guitar, piano, bass and drums. In addition to composing and arranging all of Unstoppable’s material and playing tenor and soprano saxophones, Miller conducts ten of the album’s 14 pieces (the remaining four are conducted by Jensen).

At first glance – and before your first listen – Unstoppable might seem like it would be similar to Michael Brecker’s Wide Angles, a lushly orchestrated blowing vehicle for a top-tier tenor player; it might also bring to mind comparisons with Maria Schneider’s large ensembles, or other modern big band writing. The truth, however, is both more unexpected and more interesting: Unstoppable is a true showcase for Miller’s compositional voice, and though it has moments of bombastic instrumental athletics, listeners are just as likely to hear the influence of Bernstein and Copland as they are Brecker and Coltrane. A beautiful album, and a serious accomplishment for Miller.

07 Laura AngladeI’ve Got Just About Everything
Laura Anglade
Justin Time JTR 8619-2 (justin-time.com)

With her sparkling debut release, talented, Montreal-based jazz vocalist and composer, Laura Anglade, fearlessly plunges headlong into a wide range of top-notch material, drawn from both the Broadway stage as well as the Great American Songbook, stretching from a Depression-era hit by Tin Pan Alley’s Harry Ruby to the late 50s/early 60s witticism-noir of the brilliant Fran Landesman. Anglade (who also contributes a solid original tune) and her ensemble, featuring Jonathan Chapman on bass, Sam Kirmayer on guitar and Valérie Lacombe on drums, also act as producers here; stirring tenorist Masashi Usui completes this exceptional musical and creative unit.

First up is an up-tempo, clever arrangement of Gus Kahn and Julie Styne’s A Beautiful Friendship. This lovely classic features an irresistible bass/vocal intro, in perfect symbiosis with Anglade’s natural, jazz-oriented vocal style. Her deadly perfect intonation and immaculate control of her vibrato result in long, impactful tones, reminiscent of the late Keely Smith; and Kirmayer’s fluid guitar solo and Usui’s warm, mellifluous sax sound are the perfect complements to Anglade’s assured vocal scat section.

Incomparable American tunesmith, Bob Dorough, is the author of the title track, and Anglade deftly swings it, with this witty, snappy offering. Other superb tracks include 1959’s Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most, with lyrics by Fran Landesman and music by Tommy Wolf. Arranged in a slightly perky tempo, Anglade wrings out the maximum irony from Landesman’s inspired poetry. I’m Glad There is You (Jimmy Dorsey’s uber-romantic ballad) is another gem. The sumptuous, legato, arco-bass-infused intro by Chapman sits at the perfect tempo for maximum effect, and the superbly intimate work from the instrumental ensemble, complements the nuanced vocals of Anglade.

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08 Yves LeveillePhare
Yves Léveillé
Effendi Records FND155 (effendirecords.com)

Befitting a rhythmically flashing beacon evocative of the meaning of this album title (Lighthouse), or perhaps arising out of it, the repertoire of Phare flashes in gentle pulses beamed into the mind’s senses and led by the refined pianism of its creator, Yves Léveillé. This is music that is by turns grand and spacious; spare and angular. The short, sharp phrases and interjections between the trumpet of Jacques Kuba Séguin and the saxophones of Yannick Rieu come stammering over Léviellé’s expansive piano while all three musicians bounce ideas off an edifice of rhythm erected by contrabassist Guy Boisvert and drummer Kevin Warren.

The result is a dreamy set of songs where melody, harmony and rhythm are intricately woven together in a diaphanous fabric of sound. The gentle pulsations of the title track kick things off with its spacious phrases and liquid runs by the pianist and his accompanying musicians, who parley with the familiarity of old friends. Their playing always retains that sense of grace and nobility associated with a chamber orchestra. Yet nothing is forced, exaggerated or overly mannered; tempos, ensemble, solos and balance – all seem effortlessly and intuitively right.

The horn sound is lucid – especially on Sang-Froid – and the piano and bass add warmth to the rhythmic architecture, chiselled into shape by delicate percussion. The result is poised, faultless music written and arranged by Léveillé which sheds fresh light on the relationship between composition and improvisation.

10 Gentiane MgWonderland
Gentiane MG Trio
Effendi Records FND 154 (effendirecords.com)

Gentiane Michaud-Gagnon (MG) is a composer and jazz piano player who studied at the Quebec Conservatory in Saguenay and then majored in Jazz Performance at McGill University. She has played with many jazz artists around Canada and also toured in China and Mexico. The Gentiane MG Trio’s first album, Eternal Cycle (2017), was named by CBC Music as one of the ten best jazz recordings of that year. Wonderland’s liner notes describe it as “a place of endless possibilities. A place where things can be different.” Indeed, the works are all inventive but never clichéd. The harmonies are complex and most pieces start from one idea or theme and work their way through different thoughts and images more organically than simply melodies and solos.

At the album’s core are Wonderland (Part 1: Comeback), Wonderland (Part 2: Shadows) and Wonderland (Part 3: Unbearable)Comeback begins with an ostinato from the piano, then Louis-Vincent Hamel on drums introduces a complex lilting samba pattern and the piece continues to expand on those ideas with repeated ostinatos and exchanges with the drums. Shadows has many pensive chords over which Levi Dover plays a thoughtful bass solo. Unbearable opens with tense chords and a simple pattern punctuated by rhythmic and inventive drum fills. Eventually the piano becomes more contrapuntal and the bass joins the exchange as well. Michaud-Gagnon’s piano style is cerebral with hints of Bach, Lennie Tristano, Bill Evans and occasional Monk-ish riffs. The trio plays off each other in subtle shades as they work through Michaud-Gagnon’s compositions. Wonderland is like visiting a safe, thoughtful and meditative world.

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