02 Handel ParnassoHandel – Parnasso in festa
Various soloists; La Cetra Barockorchester & Vokalensemble Basel; Andrea Marcon
PentaTone PTC 5186 643
(pentatonemusic.com)

For those of us convinced by the comic Adam Sandler movie that wedding music usually consists just of bad karaoke, here is an antidote: music written for the royal marriage of Princess Anne, the second daughter of King George II of England, and Prince William IV of Orange. Well, let’s say adapted, as Handel used mostly existing music from his oratorio Athalia, not yet heard in London at that time. Only nine passages were new ones, but the text was suitably changed.

Depicting the dogged pursuit of the nymph Thetis by King Peleus (that resulted in nuptials and the birth of Achilles), the libretto is probably by Giacomo Rossi, but its full provenance was never confirmed. The central event, the Celebration at Parnassus, home of Apollo and the muses, is the wedding. Though not a musical drama, the piece is filled with philosophical observations and dialogues on the nature of virtue and love – a perfect wedding present! This recording qualifies as such a gift, as La Cetra under Andrea Marcon is one of the best Baroque ensembles around. The celebrated countertenor David Hansen is nothing short of sensational as Apollo, and PentaTone sets a new standard for clarity in the recording of a period performance.

04 Rossini SigismondoRossini – Sigismondo
Gritskova; Aleida; Tarver; Bakonyi; Sánchez-Valverde; Arrieta; Camerata Bach Choir Poznan; Virtuosi Brunensis; Antonino Fogliani
Naxos 8.660403-04

By the age of 23 Rossini had written 13 operas, including two masterpieces inspired by and under the spell of his muse/innamorata Maria Marcolini, the greatest mezzo at the time. Not all were successful, but resourceful fellow that he was, he recycled some of the music later and no one knew the difference. As I was listening to Sigismondo I couldn’t help but recognize several melodies of the Barber of Seville, one in particular, the famous crescendo of the La calunnia aria first appearing here. Sigismondo was Rossini’s last opera for Venice, an opera seria written for Marcolini, who was supposed to be King of Poland. A travesti role, it is here sung by Margarita Gritskova, singing up such a storm with a voice of phenomenal range, power and emotion that one can certainly get an idea what La Marcolini must have been about.

Naxos’ latest release in this series of Rossini's complete 39 operas is a winner on many counts: soprano Maria Aleida (as Aldemira, the King’s wife whom he expelled from the court but on second thought wants her back badly) gives an extraordinary vocal display that’s quite a match for Gritskova. Rossini excelled in writing for female voices; their duets are simply heavenly and rival Bellini. Tenor Kenneth Tarver, familiar to us in this series, is the villain who planned the murder of the Queen and is so severely tested in the high-flying tessitura that I felt Rossini planned to murder him instead. Antonino Fogliani can hardly be bettered in his magisterial handling of the score. Most enjoyable, highly recommended.

05 Faccio HamletFranco Faccio – Hamlet
Paul Cernoch; Claudio Sgura; Julia Maria Dan; Dshamilja Kaiser; Wiener Symphoniker; Paolo Carignani
Cmajor 740608

In 1887, Franco Faccio conducted the world premiere of Verdi’s Otello, set to a libretto by Arrigo Boito. More than 20 years earlier, Faccio and Boito had collaborated on a different Shakespearian opera, Amleto (Hamlet). Well-received at its 1865 premiere, a poorly performed revised version flopped in 1871 and Faccio, disheartened, withdrew the work. It remained unperformed until 2014 in concert in Albuquerque, and the fully staged 2016 Bregenz (Austria) Festival production recorded here.

What a wonderful discovery! Faccio’s Hamlet, with its intense, powerful score that anticipates verismo, deserves to be welcomed to all the world’s major opera houses. The fiery “Get thee to a nunnery” duet between Hamlet and Ophelia foreshadows the Santuzza-Turiddu duet in Cavalleria Rusticana; the dreamy music of Ophelia’s mad scene is hauntingly beautiful; and the poignant, stirring strains of her funeral procession could easily be mistaken for a Mascagni intermezzo.

Boito’s skillful libretto tightens Shakespeare’s play but retains all the famous episodes, adding a remorse aria for Gertrude to match the aria on Shakespeare’s prayerful text for Claudius. Heading the excellent cast is Pavel Černoch, superb as Hamlet with his dark, focused tenor and rock-solid high notes. Thankfully, stage director Olivier Tambosi eschews the grotesqueries common at Bregenz, although he introduces some inexplicable movements by silent courtiers into the otherwise traditional, un-updated mise-en-scène. Another puzzling touch – large images of eyes on most of Gesine Völlm’s period costumes.

That aside, this DVD is an absolute must-see-and-hear for every opera lover.

08 HvorostovskyRussia Cast Adrift
Dmitri Hvorostovsky
Delos DE 1631 (delosmusic.com)

The relationships between composers and their favourite interpreters are responsible for some of the best vocal music ever written. Sometimes they are romantic in nature, as in the case of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears. On many occasions, they are simply a meeting of two musical geniuses – both attuned to a secret chord within, as with Gerald Finley and the late Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara. Georgy Sviridov found his muse in Dmitri Hvorostovsky. They met for the first time just four years before the composer’s death in 1994. The occasion was an auspicious one: Hvorostovsky was performing Russia Adrift, a “poem” for voice and piano, immortalized in performances by the redoubtable Elena Obraztsova. Upon hearing Hvorostovsky’s version, the composer was enchanted and a beautiful friendship followed. In the remaining years, Hvorostovsky became “the” voice for Sviridov’s music.

The one project the composer did not finish before his death was an orchestral version of Russia Adrift. Here it is recorded by an orchestra and folk-instrument ensemble, in a version completed by Evgeny Stetsyuk. The words of Sergei Yesenin, the once-blacklisted Soviet poet from the 1920s, are filled with nostalgia for the Russia of yesteryear. Given the present situation in that great nation, those words acquire additional poignancy. Hvorostovsky’s voice does not betray any traces of the serious health crisis he has been undergoing of late. The album closes with a spine-tingling song, The Virgin in the City, from the vocal poem Petersburg, written especially for him.

09 Stephen ChatmanStephen Chatman – Dawn of Night
University of Toronto MacMillan Singers; Hilary Apfelstadt
Centrediscs CMCCD 24617
(musiccentre.ca)

As a choral singer, I have always enjoyed the works of Stephen Chatman. Infusing softness of tone with luscious harmonies, his music always sounds deceptively simple, yet, as both he and conductor Hilary Apfelstadt point out, it requires a fair amount of preparation for a chorus to get it right. After all, the heartfelt texts Chatman chooses, such as those by Sara Teasdale, Walt Whitman, Christina Rossetti and poet/wife Tara Wohlberg, require an elegant and sensitive touch, which he applies with great care in order to enhance the essential meaning.

The benefit of collaborating with Chatman, who worked as co-producer of this recording, clearly shows in the exquisite performance by the MacMillan Singers led by Apfelstadt. For pieces using piano, Laura Dodds-Eden provides a vibrant and robust accompaniment. There is also in these pieces beautiful writing for other instruments; for example, poignant trumpet interludes played by Anita McAlister in Reconciliation (from Whitman’s Drum Taps), gorgeously pulsing harp and intoning cello provided by Angela Schwarzkopf and Jenny Cheong in Dawn of Night, and Clare Scholtz’s soaring oboe in June Night and Dreams Offer Solace. Recorded at Toronto’s Grace Church on-the-Hill, this recording must have truly been a labour of love for students and mentors alike.

Beethoven
Anton Kuerti
Concertmasters AKR2017CD-1

Beethoven – Profound Passion: Diabelli Variations
Anton Kuerti
Concertmasters AKR2017DVD-1 (antonkuerti.com)

01a Kuerti CDAn icon in the world of Canadian classical music, Anton Kuerti has enjoyed a long and distinguished career, not only as a performer and pedagogue, but also as a concert organizer, artistic director and social activist – a true Renaissance man! Among his extensive recordings, the music of Beethoven has always been a focus (he won a JUNO for three recordings of Beethoven sonatas in 1977), so perhaps it isn’t surprising that he’d return to music by “the great mogul” in this two-disc set featuring Piano Sonatas 21, 23 and 26 in addition to the famous Diabelli Variations.

Sonata No.21, the Waldstein, from 1804, is surely one of Beethoven’s most formidable, both in terms of technique and nuance. Not only is Kuerti’s impressive technique clearly evident from the outset, but the sound he creates is warm and lyrical. The tranquil, gentle second movement gracefully merges into the expansive third movement Rondo, where Kuerti gives full weight to the piano, clearly allowing the music to speak for itself.

The tempestuous mood of the Appassionata is artfully conveyed, but done so with dignity and never to excess. Phrases are well articulated and while the tempos are perhaps more leisurely than the listener might be accustomed to – particularly in the third movement – they never lag. The programmatic Sonata No.26Les Adieux” from 1810 is one of Beethoven’s most challenging through the contrasts of emotions, but again, Kuerti easily meets the demands, delivering a polished and elegant performance.

The second disc is devoted entirely to the Diabelli Variations, a simple tune that Beethoven fashioned into one of his most famous compositions. Kuerti brings a special sensitivity to this performance, crafting each one with particular care – a true study in contrasts.

01b Kuerti DVDThe variations appear again as the sole work on a worthy companion to this set, a DVD titled Profound Passion. The introduction states that while this monumental piece has long held a particular fascination for Kuerti, its length may prove too daunting for the average listener and, without a proper explanation, it may not receive the appreciation it deserves. Hence, Kuerti provides an informal but lucid program guide prior to the performance, using various musical examples. Once again, the final performance is stellar – and for those who enjoy watching a pianist’s hands, this DVD is a treat.

Either singularly or together, these recordings are a fine tribute, both to an outstanding Canadian artist and to music written by a composer at the height of his musical creativity. Highly recommended.

02 Mendelssohn NezetMendelssohn – Symphonies 1-5
Chamber Orchestra of Europe; Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Deutsche Grammophon 00289 479 7337

It is a genuine pleasure to take a deep dive into these remarkably diverse and interesting symphonies, especially when they are played (and sung) with such enthusiastic vigour and passion as they are here. Photos of Canada’s latest star, the charismatic Montrealer Yannick Nézet-Séguin, adorn the cover and several of the inside pages of the booklet; quotes from the maestro pepper the informative liner notes, such as “what I always admire in Mendelssohn, over and over again, are his abilities as a melodist.” You can’t argue with success and it’s clear that Deutsche Grammophon are milking their exclusive partnership with Nézet-Séguin. They have a winner with this smart and attractive recording.

The Chamber Orchestra of Europe was founded in 1981 by young graduates of the European Union Youth Orchestra. This recording was a result of a week of concerts under Nézet-Séguin’s baton, in the Philharmonie in Paris in February 2016. It has the vitality of a live performance, with fine playing from all the sections.

The numbering of Mendelssohn’s symphonies does not reflect their chronology. Their true order is 1-5-4-2-3. This doesn’t matter, though, as there is a stylistic homogeneity that runs through all five. Clear counterpoint, rugged drama hearkening back to Haydn’s Sturm und Drang (most notably in the last movement of the Fourth), nostalgic beauty and yes, those attractive melodies.

The collaboration between Nézet-Séguin and the COE shines in each of these works. The pacing and tempi illuminate the structure and breadth of Mendelssohn’s expression. There are highlights in all five symphonies: the great journeys of the First and Third, the exuberance of the Fourth, Baroque religiosity of the Fifth.

For me, the greatest achievement of this disc is the superb performance of the Second Symphony or Hymn of Praise (Lobgesang). On the surface, it’s a strange work: symphony? Cantata? Oratorio? There are obvious comparisons to be made with Beethoven’s Ninth (which don’t favour Mendelssohn), but – taken on its own and knowing that it was written as an occasional work to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press – the piece is an irrepressible celebration of life and intelligence. Nézet-Séguin, the RIAS Kammerchor and three fabulous soloists (including Canada’s Ruby Award-winning luminous diva, Karina Gauvin) raise the roof in a sincere and joyful rendering of a unique score.

03 Bruckner 3Bruckner – Symphony No.3; Wagner – Tannhäuser Overture
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig; Andris Nelsons
Deutsche Grammophon 479 7208

Anton Bruckner moved to Linz in 1856 to take up the position of organist at the Old Cathedral, Ignatiuskirche, rapidly establishing himself as one of Europe’s greatest exponents of the instrument. Bruckner also took to studying theory and composition under Simon Sechter and later with Otto Kitzler. When the latter conducted a performance of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser in Linz, Bruckner fell under Wagner’s spell, melding the composer’s passion for poetry and drama with the unbounded exaltation of his (Bruckner’s) spirituality to deliver so much in the way of harmonic ingenuity, melodic sweep and sheer orchestral magnificence in his music.

Andris Nelsons delivers all of this grandeur in Bruckner’s Symphony No. 3 in D Minor (WAB 103), paired with Wagner’s Tannhäuser Overture. This live recording made with the legendary Gewandhausorchester Leipzig is the first in a proposed cycle of Bruckner symphonies. No.3 was unfinished when Bruckner took it to Wagner, who, in 1873, selected it as a dedication to him by Bruckner.

Under Nelsons’ baton Bruckner’s spiritualism and Wagnerian grandeur soar in music redolent of melodic and harmonic touches. It is a visceral and dynamic performance. Nelsons shows that he has developed a perfect bond between the orchestra’s instrumentalists, enabling them to dig deep and bring to No.3 and the Tannhäuser Overture a sublime melodic beauty – conducting the structurally complex music with outstanding naturalness, a special charisma and dignity in a way that only a great Bruckner conductor can.

01 Suzanne SnizekChamber Music (Re)Discoveries
Suzanne Snizek; Benjamin Butterfield; Keith Hamm; Joanna Hood; Yoomi Kim; Alexandria Le; Aaron Schwebel
University of Victoria
(finearts.uvic.ca/music/flute)

Imagine picking up a CD of music by three unknown composers named Bartók, Copland and Shostakovich, listening and wondering how you could not have heard of them. Listening to Suzanne Snizek’s new CD was a bit like this for me except the names of most of the composers really were unknown: Jan van Gilse, Petr Eben, Leo Smit, Mieczysław Weinberg, Boris Blacher. Their music, highly individual and accomplished, has languished forgotten for three generations, because they lived (and three died) in the cataclysms of Nazism and Stalinism.

The music on this CD, as Snizek points out in the notes, does not reveal the tragic and traumatic circumstances of the composers’ lives. The transcendent lyricism of the opening soliloquies of van Gilse’s Trio and Eben’s second Lied, played so simply and movingly by Snizek, speak of another reality, as do the exuberant abandon of the third movement of the van Gilse Sonata, the first and last movements of the Smit Sonata and the third movement of the Blacher.

Snizek’s artistry both as a soloist and as a collaborator is evident throughout, but nowhere more so than in her “dialogues” with tenor Benjamin Butterfield in Eben’s Drei Stille Lieder. She has spent a decade researching this lost, forgotten and neglected generation of composers. Her research, coupled with the artistry of all the performers on this CD, makes it an important addition to our knowledge and the repertoire of the mid-20th century.

Originally from Philadelphia, Dr. Snizek is now professor of flute and music history at the University of Victoria. Proceeds from CD sales, available through their website, will go to support the University of Victoria flute studio.

02 ARC Ensemble LaksChamber Works by Szymon Laks
ARC Ensemble
Chandos CHAN 10983

In 1942, Polish-Jewish composer Szymon Laks was deported to Auschwitz. Few prisoners survived that place. But, remarkably, the Nazis’ demands for Laks’ skills as a violinist, copyist, arranger and conductor kept him alive, as he explains in his harrowing, brilliant memoir.

This collection of his music is the third in the ARC (Artists of The Royal Conservatory) Ensemble’s Music in Exile series recovering lost works by composers suppressed by Hitler’s regime. Laks suffered dreadfully during the war, yet his continued neglect afterwards is certainly undeserved. His music may not be groundbreaking, but it is inventive, with alluring melodies, exciting rhythmic sequences, shifting moods and luminous harmonies.

The String Quartet No.4 deserves a place in every quartet’s repertoire. In fact, all six of the works on this disc merit frequent performances and recordings, including the lively, angular Divertimento, the rhapsodic Sonatina (one of the few works by Laks to survive from before the war) the tender Concertino, the poignant Passacaille and the Piano Quintet on Popular Polish Themes, brimming with vivid character.

These are all premiere recordings, though some works were previously recorded in different versions, and the Quartet No.4 is just out on a welcome new recording of Laks’ three surviving string quartets by the Messages Quartet (DUX 1286).

The members of the ARC Ensemble (Joaquin Valdepeñas, clarinet; Erika Raum, Marie Bérard, violin; Steven Dann, viola; Winona Zelenka, cello; David Louie, Diane Werner, piano; Sarah Jeffrey, oboe; Frank Morelli, bassoon) are all notable soloists who teach at the Royal Conservatory’s Glenn Gould School. Laks provides plenty of opportunities for each to shine individually. But it’s their thrilling ensemble work that makes the most compelling case for Laks’ music.

03 Meditations solo clarinetMeditations and Tributes
Matthew Nelson
Soundset Records SR 1087 (soundset.com)

Review

This selection of solo clarinet works, distinct in character and technical demand, stands as testimony to the fine effort and abilities of clarinettist Matthew Nelson. A who’s who of contemporary composers populates Meditations and Tributes, including Kaija Saariaho, Franco Donatoni, Karel Husa and Krzysztof Penderecki. Nelson’s technical assurance allows all their diverse musical ideas to reach the listener; here is a wealth of material for the unaccompanied instrument (much more than can be mentioned in a short review), masterfully played.

Out of the darkness, Saariaho’s Duft flutters into audible range to open the disc. The title translates as “scent.” I balk at kinaesthetic associations with music, though some may not. A coincidental segue between the final pitch of Flüchtig (the third Movement of Duft) and the first of Joël-François Durand’s La mesure des choses might mislead an inattentive listener. Durand’s style is very distinct from Saariaho’s, however, so the illusion doesn’t last. The former is active yet meditative, the latter full of intense, almost violent motion. Following Saariaho and Durand is Donatoni’s Clair, a two-movement work from 1980. Donatoni’s music is manic, even obsessive, in its manner of motivic evolution, but somehow lyrical and gorgeous. The other works presented are all either stand-alone pieces or triptychs, but Donatoni pairs two balanced movements, as he often did. Bent Sørensen’s Songs of the Decaying Garden is lovelier than the title (or the composer’s reputation for terrifyingly difficult music) might suggest. The haunting Prelude by Penderecki closes this excellent collection.

Nelson includes his own well-written liner notes, supplemented by three of the composers describing their own pieces: Durand, Bruce Quaglia, and Marc Satterwhite.

04 Gregory MertlGregory Mertl – Afterglow of a Kiss; Empress; Piano Concerto
Solungga Liu; Immanuel Davis; University of Minnesota Wind Ensemble; Craig Kirchhoff
Bridge Records 9489 (bridgerecords.com)

Ever-changing restless rhythms, often punctuated by sudden blasts of brazen colour, make these works by American Gregory Mertl (b.1969) compelling listening, even throughout the 42-minute duration of his Piano Concerto.

In the CD booklet, Mertl writes that he intended “to subvert” the traditional model of a piano concerto in which the “pianist is hero,” choosing instead to “compose a concerto where the soloist would discover herself over the course of the work.” His Piano Concerto certainly sounds different – not least because the accompanying winds and percussion, lacking strings, create an icy, “heavy metal” backdrop for the piano, strongly played by Solungga Liu.

Jagged, almost jazzy syncopations dominate the Piano Concerto’s first and third movements. The second movement, the longest at 17 minutes and the only movement with a title – Coupling – is a slow, seemingly improvised ambulation by the piano with the orchestra providing chordal pedal points and, as in the outer movements, occasional declamatory outbursts.

The sprightly seven-minute Afterglow of a Kiss for solo flute (Immanuel Davis), winds, strings, harp, celeste and percussion shares the Piano Concerto’s sense of improvisation, busy rhythms and glittery sonorities. I found the atmospheric, 12-minute Empress for winds, strings, harp and percussion particularly evocative, with melodic threads continually emerging from and disappearing into a tapestry of timbres.

Mertl’s distinctive style here receives vivid support from conductor Craig Kirchhoff, who commissioned the Piano Concerto, and the University of Minnesota Wind Ensemble.

You Haven’t Been; Me to We; The Current Agenda; Love in 6 Stages
Frank Horvat
Iam who Iam Records LTLP05 - LTLP08 (frankhorvat.com)

Horvat You Haven't BeenFrank Horvat is one of the most inventive songwriters to come out of the contemporary scene in Canada. Although not a full-blooded minimalist, his music is frequently spare-sounding, unmistakable, with its repetitions of cell-like phrases, often built on brightly coloured piano sounds, sometimes enhanced by bright horns and mallet percussion, soothing strings and vocals. Best of all, Horvat’s work is exquisitely eventful and almost insidiously effective. Horvat has also recently found another way in which music can be organized: around rhythmic ideas instead of around structure, where rhythm forms the structural basis of the music instead of merely being a necessary ornament. Moreover, Horvat’s ideas are suspended in a kind of bohemian dynamic and come alive in their thrilling combinations of trademark repetitions and overlappings with an almost ceremonial theatrical grandeur.

Horvat Me to WeHis recent work comprises You Haven’t Been, music for solo piano; Me to We, which is music written for duo and trio settings, The Current Agenda, which is a dark record of music featuring solo, duo, trio and quartet music, intensely socialist in nature, and Love in 6 Stages, a work where minimalism meets art song and where the two milieus collide in the visceral physicality and psychology of love. Clearly it appears time for Frank Horvat to take the gloves off musically and declare that he is free to roam as he pleases, wherever the music beckons. In return for such dramatic freedom, he returns the favour by recording the events of this long and difficult expedition in deeply personal and profoundly beautiful music.

Horvat The Current AgendaOf the four recordings recently released, Me to We and You Haven’t Been are so deeply personal that listening to the music on each requires an intrusive mindset. In the former recording the probing duos appear to tear through the composer’s innards not simply to discover his heart, but to gather its myriad pieces and bind them back together again. This is done, at Horvat’s urging, through dark, warm sounds that evoke healing, through music that is mysterious and exotic as well as long-limbed and almost aria-like without the vocals.

Horvat Love in 6 StagesOn The Current Agenda Horvat focuses his outward vision and glares at the world in all its nakedness. What he sees results in music filled with anger, a mesmeric and hypnotic visual account of a world gone mad. Portentous piano and deep, chanting voices meld with floating, reflective moments (as in the solo piano of Lac-Mégantic), which return eventually into haunting music, tumbling to earth once again. Love in 6 Stages is the most elevating of the four recordings. Between Horvat’s piano (and its soporific arpeggios) and Laura Swankey’s rich, peachy vocals, the six aspects of love turn into something superbly aerodynamic.

06 Tomorrows AirTomorrow’s Air – Contemporary Works for Orchestra & Large Ensemble
Various Artists
Navona Records NV6108
(navonarecords.com)

Here is a go-to music release for anyone in love with dramatic, expressive orchestral music with lyrical string melodies and dense harmonies, as six composers take a compositional approach to what the future may bring.

Each work is a unique personal musical exposé. Hilary Tann’s Anecdote is inspired by Wallace Stevens’ poem Anecdote of the Jar. Lush orchestral harmonies support the mournful yet positive solo cello lines, which span a wide pitch range with glorious low tones. Hans Bakker’s Cantus is equally expressive, with a driving rhythm pitted against an uplifting happy string melody. Inspired by William Blake’s poetic ode, Daniel Perttu’s To Spring – An Overture is another majestic lyrical work, with an especially gratifying, almost chromatic melody in the middle section. My highlight is Canadian composer Jan Järvlepp’s moving In Memoriam in memory of his late brother. Drawing on more original atonal harmonies, his grief is aurally depicted by high and low strings in the emotional conversational contrapuntal sections, and the heart-wrenching final repeated notes. The lush strings, clarinet and piano of Pierre Schroeder’s Late Harvest create a film-score-reminiscent sound that swells with simultaneous sadness and hope. Flute and piccolo perform lyrical and tricky melodic lines against energetic percussion in Paul Osterfield’s Silver Fantasy. Love the playful, almost marching band section at the end.

Excellent performances drive the music, especially the four works with the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra. Tomorrow should be perfect if the music here is any indication!

01 Cory WeedsDreamsville
Cory Weeds & The Jeff Hamilton Trio
Cellar Live CL072216 (cellarlive.com)

Dreamsville, the latest recording from Vancouverite Cory Weeds, pairs the soulful saxophonist with drummer Jeff Hamilton’s trio for a set of fine jazz loosely framed around the work of the late American film composer, Henry Mancini. While Weeds and company (pianist Tamir Hendelman, bassist Christoph Luty and Hamilton) are all unique soloists and ensemble players with individualized approaches to the music, the overarching shared quartet values of infectious swing, purity of instrumental tone and good taste rudder this recording to a satisfying place that should find it included on many year-end “best of” lists. This, the second pairing of Weeds and the Hamilton trio, again demonstrates that there is much creativity to be mined from this classic jazz horn/rhythm section format, when master musicians coalesce to collectively elevate the music to a higher plane than can be achieved by one individual. Jazz is a social and participatory music and Weeds – as his impressive discography exhibits – is skilled at seeking outside musicians who share this attitude, choosing or writing music that encourages creative collaboration and setting up a relaxed environment for musical joy to flourish. Accordingly, Dreamsville bounces along with an effervescent pulse that showcases all parties in a most swinging and flattering light. This is a set of happy music (case in point: How Do You Like Them Apples?) and yet another accomplishment for Weeds, who as saxophonist, booking agent, label owner, composer and concert promoter, continues to be a going concern on the Canadian jazz scene.

02 Mike DownesRoot Structure
Mike Downes
Addo AJR035 (mikedownes.com)

Review

Talented bassist and composer Mike Downes has just released one of the most intriguing and innovative small group jazz recordings of the year. In addition to writing all of the well-conceived material here (with the exception of his unique arrangement of Chopin’s Prelude and Variations), Mike also performs masterfully, as do the rest of the impressive musicians on Root Structure, including Ted Quinlan on guitars, Robi Botos on piano/keyboards and Larnell Lewis on drums. The ten tracks were co-produced by Downes and Steve Bellamy and beautifully engineered by the latter.

The aptly titled opener, Momentum, is an auditory treat. Downes’ deep, warm, round, substantial bass tones define the spine of this intricate tune, as each artist stretches out in exciting solo sections. Next up is Heart of the Matter, a beautiful ballad featuring the luscious guitar work of Quinlan. This is a sophisticated, verdant, romantic composition and the listener can almost imagine Downes’ tip of the hat to geniuses Michel Legrand and Tom Jobim. Also of note is Moving Mountains – a throbbing, relentless bass line and an eruption of intense sonic colours from Quinlan as he accelerates into a major face-melter.

A true standout is the soulful title track. The late jazz bassist Red Mitchell used to say that “bass players are attracted to their instruments because they perpetually want to get to the bottom of things… the truth.” On this thrilling track (and others), Downes is indeed at the very bottom of things – dealing with human truths and primal forces, as well as the earliest forms of human expression, which are defined by emotion and percussion (negotiated with brilliance, acuity and flair by Lewis).

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