06 Ethan ArdelliThe Island of Form
Ethan Ardelli
Independent (ethanardelli.com)

The Island of Form, a new album from Toronto-based drummer Ethan Ardelli, is remarkable for a number of reasons. The first: despite the fact that Ardelli has been a prominent member of the Canadian jazz community for the past ten years, this is his debut bandleader album. The second: The Island of Form was recorded in New York by engineer James Farber, who has worked on albums by such jazz luminaries as Michael Brecker, Joe Lovano and Brad Mehldau; and was mastered by Greg Calbi, whose clients have included Bill Frisell, Aretha Franklin and the Ramones. The third: it’s really good.

In addition to Ardelli, who composed all eight of its songs, The Island of Form features Luis Deniz on alto saxophone, Chris Donnelly on piano and Devon Henderson on bass. The album begins with the Afro-Cuban-tinged Agua, which builds intently before dissolving into a drum breakdown that precedes Deniz’s confident solo. Thanks for Something, which starts with a duet between Ardelli and Deniz, contains a driving, percussive contribution from Donnelly over the song’s vamp; Henderson takes a beautiful solo on Shangri-La Pearl. 5:55 AM, the album’s shortest track, is mostly drum solo, and serves as a fun, fiery feature for the bandleader.

All four band members are technically gifted players, and Ardelli’s album has many feats of compelling musical athleticism, but The Island of Form privileges tone, texture and melodicism, even during its wilder moments. Overall: an excellent debut.

07 Ron DavisSymphRONica UpfRONt
Ron Davis
Really Records RR 18001 (rondavismusic.com)

A unique fusion of a jazz quartet and a string quartet, Ron Davis’ SymphRONica is truly an ensemble like no other. Energetic, virtuosic, charming, worldly – the music on this album has flare and style. Although most compositions have a predominantly jazz feel, it is the crossover of styles that makes this music excitingly unpredictable and fresh. The elements of classical, jazz, Brazilian, Hungarian, Italian, klezmer, Latin and Québecois, meet and part throughout the album in an easygoing fashion, but it is the strong ensemble that makes it all come together.

Composer and pianist Ron Davis is the brain and the driving force behind this project and one can feel his carefully crafted influence in each tune. UpfRONt is a collection of six original compositions of Ron Davis alongside tunes by Mike Downes (a double bass player and a producer of this album), Louis Simão, Paolo Conte, Jack Pepper, Samuel Lerner and Miles Davis. A lovely Drew Bourée opens the album in a simple, understated way, not giving away the virtuosity and drive of WhirlyCurl that comes soon after or surprise vocals by Daniela Nardi in the arrangement of Conte’s Nina. My favourite numbers on this album, Sashagraha and Chance, both have cool, catchy tunes and are fine examples of the fusion of styles.

SymphRONica is made up of stellar players but violinist Aline Homzy is especially impressive in her inventive solo improvisations. Kudos to Ron Davis for continuing to surprise us and to SymphRONica for a great performance.

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08 Collective 3Volume 3
Collective Order
Independent (collectiveorderjazz.com)

Collective Order is a prime example of how art always triumphs, even when politicians of every partisan hue try and exploit the term “diversity” to suit whatever agenda they seek to advance. For Toronto’s ever-evolving, improvising large ensemble, diversity is best expressed not in platitudes, but in the expression of being a joyful cultural voice: from Native-Canadian to every other immigrant artist who makes up Canada’s multicultural musical topography.

As with earlier recordings, the band’s 2018 release Vol.3 features music written by various members of its ensemble. Each time the composer decides who, or what permutation of the Collective Order, will perform the repertoire. Size composition of the group varies, and with it the feeling and musical expression of each piece is singular in nature. Quite remarkably, there is a feeling that all of this repertory belongs to one contiguous unit. This speaks to how successfully the group is able to fashion the individuality and musicianship of its members into a characterful unit.

The unifying theme on Vol.3 appears to be a reverential homage (broadly speaking) to the earth, and more specifically to Toronto, Ontario and most of all to Canada. We hear this right out of the gates in Melanie Montour’s spoken word Land Acknowledgement, continuing through Theme for Lake Ontario. The proverbial strength of the Universal Mother on I Hear You, combining language, multilingual spoken and sung lyrics is by far the disc’s crowning moment.

09 Carrier ElementsElements
François Carrier; Michel Lambert; John Edward
FMR Records FMRCD501 (francoiscarrier.com)

François Carrier is a Quebec- born alto saxophone player with a decades-long history playing free improvisation with musicians around the world (including Paul Bley, Gary Peacock and Dewey Redman). He has released over 30 albums recorded for many European labels that specialize in avant-garde music. In 2001 Carrier won a JUNO for his third album Compassion and has stated it is “important to record as much music as possible. You learn a lot just by listening to what you have done together and since everything is improvised, you will never do the same thing twice.”

Carrier and drummer Michel Lambert have played and recorded together for years and they have toured Europe, Asia and Canada. Elements, released by UK label FMR records, also includes British bassist John Edwards and has three live performances by the trio: Wilderness, recorded at the 20th Jazz Cerkno festival (Slovenia 2015), and Elements and Roar of Joy from Iklectick (London, UK, 2016).

Carrier and Lambert’s long history together ensures their musical intuition is highly attuned and their playing can change quickly from staccato and aggressive to lyrical and introspective. Edwards is an integral part of these performances and it feels as if he has played in this group for years. The first piece, Elements, begins sporadically, with Edwards playing notes off-rhythm and switching to his bow (which he uses frequently and effectively throughout the album). Carrier plays short, aggressive bursts and then Lambert enters with off-rhythm backing percussion. The piece moves through several phases trading solo parts, and around the four-minute mark Carrier introduces more lyrical lines with a sound reminiscent of Ornette Coleman. The album captures the spirit and energy of their live performances and repeated listening reveals the complexity of their shifting musical textures.

10 Flow VerticalFlow Vertical
Jasna Jovićević Sextet
FMR CD 475-0318 (jasnajovicevic.com) 

An indication of the high quality of music in Toronto is this CD of multifaceted compositions by Belgrade-native Jasna Jovićević. Jovićević lived in Toronto from 2006 to 2009, while receiving her MA in composition at York University, recording with local players and sampling different musical currents to use in her own work. However this CD, while proficient musically doesn’t settle on a consistent genre.

With an unusual lineup (violin, viola, cello, bassoon, percussion and her own saxophones, bass clarinet, spacedrum and vocals), the seven tracks bounce among animated string-oriented tremolo showcases, Balkan-tinged vocal laments, spacey voice, string and reed elaboration, plus instrumental virtuosity that zips, from near-atonal to near-smooth jazz.

Ram Run through the Veins, the CD’s lengthiest track, defines the conundrum in miniature. Beginning as an exercise in free-form saxophone squeals and whistles, backed by a sardonic march conveyed by splash cymbals, it settles down to become a quasi-ballad with triple-stropping strings and breathy English vocalizing accompanied by a bassoon obbligato. Other tracks such as Speak Loud My Inner Child show off Jovićević’s unaccompanied saxophone prowess. Still others like Rising Barefoot Ballad and Silver Winds of a Thousand Petals create close-knit harmonies which express such intense emotionalism that either could be part of the formal Romantic canon.

Flow Vertical is a top-flight demonstration of what Jovićević can do as a composer and performer. But settling on one consistent narrative would better define her ideas.

11 Houle You Have OptionsYou Have Options
François Houle; Alexander Hawkins; Harris Eisenstadt
Songlines SGL1628-2 (songlines.com)

Ken Pickering, who recently passed away from cancer, was co-founder and artistic director of the Vancouver International Jazz Festival. For over three decades he created a singular and still-growing contribution to Canadian improvised music by regularly assembling ad hoc groups matching Vancouver musicians with their international counterparts. Among his achievements was this stellar assembly of Vancouver clarinetist François Houle, English pianist Alexander Hawkins and Toronto-born, US-resident, drummer Harris Eisenstadt. First matched in 2014, the three reunited during the 2016 festival and went into the recording studio. This resulting CD, an essay in chamber jazz that explores the trio’s own fresh compositions and a few from some stellar composers, is dedicated to Pickering’s memory.

The group’s lyric potential is apparent first on Hawkins’ opening Clue and Steve Lacy’s Art. There’s a rich, warm woodiness to Houle’s clarinet and it’s admirably matched with Hawkins’ liquid keyboard and Eisenstadt’s subtly propulsive drumming. Houle’s edgy Run Riot and Eisenstadt’s You Have Options. I Have a Lawyer will momentarily break the spell, but it’s the group’s reflective depths that define the CD: Houle’s gently spiralling, impassioned lines on The Pitts; the group’s insistently coiling phrases on the modal Prayer and the very light, traditional blues of Advice.    

The group’s breadth is evidenced by a free interpretation of Charles Ives’ Largo, while Andrew Hill’s Dusk, sometimes serene, sometimes gently animated, provides a fitting conclusion, from Houle’s a cappella introduction to its shimmering conclusion.

12 TSE high restse
Cyril Bondi; Pierre-Yves Martel; Christoph Schiller
Another Timbre at123 (anothertimbre.com)

Redefining period instruments, Montreal viola da gamba, harmonica and pitch pipes player Pierre-Yves Martel joins two musicians from Geneva, Cyril Bondi on Indian harmonium, objects and pitch pipes plus spinet specialist Christoph Schiller, to create five microtonal improvisations that amplify the in-the-moment concept that tse (which means “here” in a mountain dialect spoken near Geneva) only suggests.

Based around cycles of tremolo drones from the harmonium, the moody performances are narrow but nuanced, since the repetitive outpouring is periodically disrupted by concentrated string plinks or stabs. The extended rustles that make up a track like III have their delicacy challenged when swelling harmonica puffs and concentrated wave-form-like buzzes clamorously dominate the sound field, until that moment when the organ-like extensions give way to string twangs until both expositions dissolve into silence. On other tracks, the group’s minimalist sways and squirms demonstrate similar contradictions and resolutions, as when shrill whistles, peeps, tinkling bells and unexpected reed-like tones create parallel motifs to the underlying ostinato, and then combine for a satisfying flat-line conclusion.

More than background sounds, but never powerful enough to be obnoxiously upfront, the fascination in tse’s presence is how these sounds, designed with understated, overlapping restrictions, continue to hold aural interest during the evolution of each track.

13 Ingrid LaubrockContemporary Chaos Practices
Ingrid Laubrock
Intakt 314 (intaktrec.ch)

While third stream (the merger of jazz and classical music) is rarely heard of these days, it’s far more developed than in its 1950s heyday. Saxophonist/composer Ingrid Laubrock here presents two pieces integrating written and improvised passages for a 34-piece orchestra and four featured soloists: Laubrock herself, guitarist Mary Halvorson, trumpeter Nate Wooley and pianist Kris Davis, among the most distinguished international improvisers of a generation now in its late-30s and 40s. The orchestra of New York freelancers negotiates the complex scores – Eric Wubbels conducts the written passages, Taylor Ho Bynum (like most of the soloists a close associate of Anthony Braxton) conducts the improvised – with a necessary combination of precision, energy and vision.

Inspired by the models and methods of Ligeti, Xenakis and Braxton, Laubrock develops new synergies with her mixed palette. The first two movements of the title work erupt with the overlapping energies of soloists (most notably Halvorson’s very electronic guitar) and ensemble, while the third and fourth expand the breadth of the orchestral dimension. The single-movement Vogelfrei (Outlaw) adds eight voices and mixes light and sombre elements as it develops a dialogue between notated and improvised orchestral passages, at times creating an almost concerto-like setting for Davis’ prominent piano.  

Along with other recent works like Christopher Fox’s Topophony (with John Butcher and Axel Dörner) and Roscoe Mitchell’s Ride the Wind (with the Montreal-Toronto Art Orchestra), this represents a significant new development in the integration of scored and improvised music.

14 MikiMiki
Miki Yamanaka; Bill Stewart; Steve Nelson; Orlando le Fleming
Cellar Live CL020718 (cellarlive.com)

Miki is the debut recording from the Kobe-born, New York-based pianist Miki Yamanaka. Recorded in New York and released on Vancouver’s Cellar Live Records, Miki features eight originals – all written by Yamanaka, most with food-related titles – and two covers, For All We Know and Monk’s Dream. Joining Yamanaka are drummer Bill Stewart, vibraphonist Steve Nelson, and bassist Orlando le Fleming, all three of whom are veterans of the New York jazz scene, both as bandleaders and sidepeople.

Miki begins with Mr. Pancake, a swinging, medium-up song, with a concise, intelligent bass solo, playful trading between Yamanaka and Nelson, and a strong drum solo over a vamp that follows the final statement of the melody. Monk’s Dream starts with an evocative, tastefully Monk-ish solo piano section before the band enters with an arrangement that juxtaposes sections of 3/4 with the song’s typical 4/4 feel. Stuffed Cabbage, performed in trio format with Stewart and le Fleming, is a groovy, straight-eighths composition that gives plenty of room to all involved to stretch out, and A Fake Hero is anchored by tight melodic playing from Yamanaka and Nelson over propulsive rhythm section shots. For All We Know, played as a ballad and arranged as a duet with Nelson, is treated with sensitive, communicative maturity, and stands out as one of the album’s highlights. Overall, Miki is a success, both on the merits of Yamanaka’s playing and on the compelling group dynamic that she has cultivated.

15 OnzeVol. II
Onze Heures Onze Orchestra
Onze Heures Onze ONZ 027 (onzeheuresonze.com)

Skilled in notated as well as improvised music, the 14-piece Paris-based Onze Heures Onze Orchestra (OHOO) takes themes from 20th- and 21st-century compositions and bends them into stimulatingly expressive tracks. Since two percussionists are part of the collective, a forceful rock-like beat adds to the thematic dislocations.

No component overpowers the others, however, which is why for instance From Crippled Symmetry uses Morton Feldman’s creation as basis for a lusty big-band swing piece driven by Magic Malik’s muscular flute, Alexandre Herer’s piano clipping and dramatic eloquence from one of the alto saxophonists. Just as dynamic, but spared from novelty, Conlon Nancarrow’s Study for Player Piano No. 20 throbs as patterns bounce between piano and Stéphan Caracci’s ringing vibes, as graceful brass and burly percussion give it more orchestral shape than the original.

Europeans aren’t neglected either. Two tracks inspired by Olivier Messiaen boomerang among marching band riffs, electric rock and mellow horn motifs, with one featuring a dissected piano solo and the other now titled Kung Fu 37. Not surprisingly though, the most expressive arrangement is Densite 11.11 inspired by Edgar Varèse. Expanding the original’s lofty intent, the OHOO harmonizes whinnying trombone, growling trumpet, rolls from both drummers and paced kinetics from vibes and piano into a unique recasting.

Unlike efforts to jazz up the classics or elevate improvisation, Vol. II creates a durable synthesis of contemporary sounds that should attract those from every part of the musical spectrum.

01 Bird von BingenFelix Anima
Jeff Bird
Independent (jeffbird.com)

Canadian multi-instrumentalist Jeff Bird, familiar to many as the harmonica player for the Cowboy Junkies, describes his interpretations of the music of Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) as “Man plays 800-year-old music on the harmonica.” And so he does, with passion, clear musical understanding and respect on eight of her sacred chants. Bird also supports his harmonica playing with many other instruments like shruti box and lap steel, with special guest pianist Witold Grabowiecki on two tracks.

This is such a rewarding magical listening experience. Bird’s perfect breath control on harmonica emulates the original vocal lines throughout all his contemplative arrangements. The opening solo Lovingly Inclined Towards All is amazing from the start, with nice use of drone and musical touches maintaining von Bingen’s original stylistic aspects. Noble Rupert is given a reflective performance on harmonica and shruti box, as a low drone note supports the lead harmonica lines featuring dynamic held note swells. The Third Flies Everywhere is an intense harmonica/piano duet tour de force as the resonating very low piano notes contrast a detached piano melody, with the harmonica introduction adding new colour. A mid-piece solo piano leads to duet melodic conversations and an inspiring reflective harmonica line against more florid piano movement.

Bird’s decades-long passion for von Bingen’s music has enabled him to create a new brilliant sound mix of medieval and modern arrangements for instrumentations that all just work perfectly to the final harmonica closing fade.

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02 Songs without WordsSongs without Words – Torchsongs Transformed
Les Délices
Navona Records NV6195 (navonarecords.com)

A unique programming scenario highlights this second release by Les Délices, a Baroque instrumental trio founded in 2009 by Baroque oboist Debra Nagy, with members Mélisande Corriveau on viola da gamba and pardessus de viole, and Eric Milnes on harpsichord. Here the trio performs 17th- and 18th-century vocal airs and 20th-century jazz standards and torch songs, creating mindset-altering music.

As no published solo music existed for Baroque woodwinds prior to 1700, vocal songs were adapted for instruments. Les Délices chose French love songs from some of the greatest 17th-century songwriters. Highlights include Marin Marais’ Prelude in A Minor featuring intricate ornamentations and trills, clear phrasing and clear harpsichord accompanying cadences. Nice melodic and ornamental interplay between harpsichord and oboe makes for a straightforward Baroque rendition of Jean-Baptiste de Bousett’s Pourquoy, doux rossignol. Strong ensemble playing keeps the listener’s attention throughout a slow and heartbreaking rendition of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Tristes apprets.

The big surprises here are the contemporary songs. For example, the Patsy Cline/Willie Nelson classic Crazy is true to the original, with the almost-country-band rhythmic harpsichord and viola da gamba supporting the wailing oboe melody. John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s Michelle highlights an upbeat pop harpsichord with a sing-along oboe melody. The closing Joseph Kosma/Johnny Mercer Autumn Leaves features almost percussive harpsichord chords with an almost walking bass viola da gamba background, highlighted by an oboe lead complete with solo improvisation.

This is successful risk-taking music!

03 DreamersDreamers
Magos Herrera; Brooklyn Rider
Sony Masterworks 190758907123 (brooklynrider.com)

In a context where the term “dreamers” is being misused to characterize immigrants as being motivated by some kind of imaginary land grab or cultural invasion, celebrating beauty and one-ness becomes a political act. New York City-based Mexican vocalist and composer Magos Herrera and the noted string quartet Brooklyn Rider’s debut collaboration is, in their own words, “Celebrating the power of beauty as a political act.” This breathtaking Hispano-centric recording includes not only poetry and compositions from Violeta Parra, Gaetano Veloso, Federico García Lorca, João Gilberto, Gilberto Gil and Octavio Paz, but also contains gems from the Ibero-American songbook, arranged with a fresh, new perspective. All of the poets and composers featured on the CD have come from places that have endured brutal national violence and oppression.

Produced by Brooklyn Rider’s violinist Johnny Gandelsman, the CD opens with Nina – with lyrics drawn from a poem by Paz and music by Herrera and Felipe Pérez Santiago. Herrera’s sonorous and evocative vocal sound is magic itself, and the string arrangement is percussive and urgent. Brooklyn Rider also includes Colin Jacobsen on violin, Nicholas Cords on viola and Michael Nicolas on cello.

On the exquisite Dreams, written by Paz (with English lyrics by Herrera), she clearly sings “We have to sleep with open eyes – and we must dream with our hands.” Every song on this CD is a work of art, guaranteed to open every heart. A total delight is Brazilian political activist Veloso’s De Manhã (It’s Morning), as is the swinging bossa by Gil, Eu vim da Bahía (I come from Bahía).

When inspiration refuses to be limited by the single disc format, enterprising musicians record multi-CDs in order to showcase more aspects of their work. Such collections are released throughout the year, but it’s usually the holiday season when music fans have the time and inclination for extended listening. Here’s a sampling of some of this year’s most accomplished multiple-CD sets from the exploratory side of creative music.

01 Essays 3CDA thriving but little-celebrated slice of the international jazz scene is in Hungary, and the appropriately titled Essays-Esszék (Adyton/Hunnia Records HRCD 1726 hunniarecords.com) offers improvisational dissertations in three configurations by two major Magyar improvisers, multi-reedist István Grencsó and keyboardist Barnabás Dukay. CD1, Waiting has Grencsó moving among saxophones, clarinets and flute, while Dukay sticks to piano, with both joined by associate Steven Kovács Tickmayer playing piano, samplers and electronics. CD2, Ritual Music, matches Grencsó’s soprano and tenor saxophones with Dukay playing church pipe organ. CD3, Two Visions Heard, is a live session from a Budapest club where Grencsó’s soprano and alto saxophones and bass clarinet and Dukay’s piano are joined by percussionist Aurél Holló. Ignoring the ecclesiastical canon on CD2, Dukay uses the dual keyboard vibrations as tersely as he plays piano. Here he downplays glissandi and cascades for minimal layering and slow-moving tone affiliations, allowing Grencsó to change interpretations from emotional tenor-saxophone storytelling to buzzing soprano sax lines that hiss as if propelled from a bagpipe blowstick and chanter. Tickmayer’s electronics create the continuum on Waiting, allowing more flow between the piano of Dukay, who is an academic, and the reed collection of Grencsó, who has been a major Hungarian jazzer since the late 1970s.

Tracks such as Bud and Blossom point out subtle differences in approaches. On the first, while the pianist plinks and stops high-pitched notes in a serious manner, as if Arthur Rubinstein were playing a toy piano, the tenor saxophonist’s basso blowing mixed with circular breathing suggest a marriage between Archie Shepp and Evan Parker. Both players bond quickly though, which sets up the following Blossom as a restrained intermezzo. As echoing tones hang in the air, Grencsó’s moderato bass clarinet flurries extend the exposition leisurely, as Dukay’s piano responses are speedier and expressive – with electronic samples providing the perfect ostinato.

In the freer club setting, prodded by Holló’s minimalist percussion, the pianist and reedist play at greater lengths, especially during the nearly 44-minute Part 1. As Grencsó restrains his output to minimalist shading, Dukay’s hesitant soundboard stops amplify powerfully to meet the saxophonist’s relaxed asides. Cold, isolated keyboard notes magnify to sweeps, allowing the narrative to quickly turn percussive as reed split tones are introduced. Still it’s the saxophonist’s mellow sluices that propel the narrative. Finally an unexpected change of pace in the penultimate minutes has Holló’s vibe-like clatters torquing the sequence as the piano explodes with contrasting dynamics and the saxophonist projects unbroken cadences with innumerable theme variations. Wrapping up the track with cultured tones, a final unsettling reed quack posits the concept that high-quality improvising doesn’t have to be solemn.

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02 Joelle LeandreAnother first-rate improviser who is the opposite of solemn is French bassist Joëlle Léandre. Strings Garden (Fundacja Sluchaj FSR 103/2018 sluchaj.org) consists of three CDs featuring her duos with violinist/violist Théo Ceccaldi, cellist Gaspar Claus or fellow bassist Bernard Santacruz. Playing it straight, Léandre only lets loose with gurgles, whimpers and mumbles on Leaves, the CD with Claus, alongside instrumentally pressurized spiccato lines in contrast to the cellist’s pointed timbres. Throbbing and stopping, his pizzicato twangs and her popping shudders unite to work up to a crescendo of rugged tones which overlap into double counterpoint. Leaf No.5 is the most invigorating duet with staccato sweeps from both evolving to storytelling along with the set’s most jazz-like groove. An instance of differing double bass POV, Trees, with Santacruz, finds both players dragging extended techniques from their respective string sets. Back and forth with jumps, buzzes and pulls, they manage to agree on a similar tone maturity by the climax, showcasing velocity and angularity without losing the underlying rhythm. Expressing herself with shrill multiphonics to counter Ceccaldi’s tendency towards impressionist sweeps on Flowers, the bassist’s low-toned scrubs add requisite fissure so the fiddler’s recital-like formula starts to splinter responsively. By the climactic Flower No.8, Ceccaldi’s paced twangs join the bassist in breaking the interface, first into sul tasto scrubs and latterly into wood-slamming pops and tremolo strands. The finale on Flower No.9 of stinging bow strokes echoing off tightly wound strings allows this suite to refer to the violinist’s Romantic-era roots without compromising the adventurous modernism implicit in both partners’ playing.

03 Tyshawn SoreyAdvanced modernism could also be used describe to Pillars (Firehouse 12 Records FH12--01-02-028 firehouse12records.com), a three-CD exploration by New York drummer/composer Tyshawn Sorey. Conceived of as a triptych, each of the 75-minute-plus discs deals with a multiplicity of moods ranging from the melodic to the abstract and from nearly static drones to emphatically flowing free jazz. No cynosure composer, Sorey’s elaboration of the material is established by its interpretation by the ensemble of bassists Mark Helias, Carl Testa and Zach Rowden; guitarists Todd Neufeld and Joe Morris; trumpeter Stephen Haynes and trombonist Ben Gerstein plus Sorey. Inchoate or intense inventions are expanded throughout, as the band divides into smaller groups, and as multi-instrumentation adds textures from more brass, percussion, melodica, Tibetan horn and electronics. Divided into several sequences, Pillars I, for instance, evolves into ritual-like percussion pumping, encompassing a three-and-a-half-minute drum roll and overlapping patterns that are intermezzos rather than solos. Mostly concerned with the timbres available from massed strings, brass grace notes and flutter tonguing are secondary to the piece’s flow, with the theme splintering into micro-motions as sledgehammer-like percussion thumps and bizarrely oscillating electronics underline it. In sharp contrast, the concluding Pillars III fluctuates between a minimalist composition and full-out jazz improv, as assertive brass extensions gradually replace the microtonal string drone. As timbres vacillate among sonorous brass, low-pitched percussion power and distant signal-processing, guitar licks come to the front. Concussive idiophone rolls are unexpectedly succeeded by guitar strategies that could be straight out of a swing session only to vanish when trumpet and trombone snarls and shakes suggest hard bop, with blasting brass and guitarists’ slurred fingering alternating alongside drum rolls for a free jazz-like position. Eventually the jagged brass spits and guitar flanges are subsumed by rugged, reductionist electronics. Finally, a drum roll completes the section, while subtly linking it to Pillars I’s introduction.

04 William ParkerSorey’s multi-disc sessions demonstrate another facet of his talent; so does Voices Fall from the Sky (Centering 1015/1016/1017 aumfidelity.com) for William Parker. Known as an exceptional bassist and bandleader, Parker is also a poet and songwriter and these three CDs, which feature 17 (!) singers plus ensembles ranging from big bands to solo, interpret Parker’s writing for vocalists. Putting a lie to those who say free improvisation is divorced from lyricism and the song form, the 34 selections are performed in rhymed or free verse and deal in the main with themes of anti-materialism, universal love and the uplifting achievements of jazz heroes. The five-part The Blinking of the Ear, for instance, features mezzo-soprano AnnMarie Sandy interpreting the Dadaist lyrics a little differently than she would formal recital material. City of Flowers is an anti-war lament sung by Andrea Wolper with only bassoon backing, while We Often Danced, Fay Victor’s extended song-recitation about slavery and the African-American diaspora, is performed with additional theatrically due to a complementary trumpet obbligato and spackling string pulses throughout. The most affecting creations, though, are voiced by free-form specialist-singers Ellen Christi, Lisa Sokolov and Leena Conquest. Sokolov’s take on Band in the Sky for example, with its celebration of departed jazz figures, and backed by sprightly piano lines, manages to be profoundly dramatic whether she’s declaiming lyrics or speaking in tongues. Christi’s version of Falling Shadows, backed only by Parker’s sprawling double bass tones, includes wordless ululations and supple bel canto warbles. And Conquest’s extended delineation of the life of a civil rights activist, For Fannie Lou Hamer, is a moving portrait that slips back and forth from reined-in operatic theatricism to down-to-earth folksiness, with Parker using string and reed instruments for unique backing. Besides these serious themes, Conquest also provides some Nancy Wilson-like posturing on another tune and Ernie Odoom swings creatively on more rhythmic numbers like The Essence of Ellington.

Mixing serious sentiments and exceptional sounds, Voices Fall from the Sky emphasizes more aspects of Parker’s considerable talents, with enough audio space in which to display them. That is the collective achievement of these multi-disc sets: rather than collecting a lot of similar music, the expanse demonstrates the pliability of each leader’s vision.

01 SzeringOne of the truly great violinists of the last century was Henryk Szeryng, an artist who is usually overlooked in discussions when today’s pundits gather. Decca has issued Henryk Szeryng Complete Philips, Mercury and Deutsche Grammophon Recordings (DG4834194, 44 CDs, deccaclassics.com).

Szeryng’s life story is fascinating and unique. He was born on September 22, 1918 in Źelazowa Wola, the birthplace of Chopin near Warsaw. Through his parents he knew Ignacy Jan Paderewski and Bronislaw Huberman. When he was five, his mother began teaching him piano and harmony but at seven he was drawn to the violin, taking lessons from a former assistant of the great Leopold Auer. When Huberman heard the nine-year-old play he wanted him to advance his studies with Willy Hess, Carl Flesch or Jacques Thibaud. He studied with Hess in Berlin for a time but found him to be old-fashioned and switched to Thibaud. A significant move, for as Szeryng stated, “Everything I know violinistically speaking I learned from him.” Continuing with Thibaud at the Paris Conservatory, he graduated with a first prize in 1937. He also studied composition with Nadia Boulanger from 1933 to 1937. He had already made his solo debut in 1933 playing the Brahms Violin Concerto with the Warsaw Philharmonic under George Georgescu. Following the outbreak of WWII, Szeryng, fluent in seven languages, accepted the post of liaison and interpreter of the Polish Government in Exile. On a mission to Mexico in 1941 seeking a home for 4,000 Polish refugees, he was so moved by the positive reception that he decided to become a naturalized Mexican citizen, which he did in 1946. In 1943 he was asked to head the string department of the National University of Mexico, and he assumed that post in 1945.

Artur Rubinstein, a fellow Jewish refugee from Poland, gave a recital in Mexico City in 1954, after which Szeryng visited him back-stage where Rubinstein invited him to his room to play for him. Szeryng played some unaccompanied J. S. Bach and deeply moved Rubinstein who recalled that the playing “reduced me to tears… Real music lovers want emotion… great moments… which Szeryng’s playing gives them.” Rubinstein and Szeryng played music together for the rest of their careers. Szeryng began concertizing around the world and his recordings were honoured with many coveted awards. In addition to many other honours he was made an Officer of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in Paris in 1963. In 1960 he was named Mexican Cultural Ambassador, an honour that he took very seriously. During a trip to Toronto some years later, he came to the Classical Record Shop accompanied by the PR person from Polygram, Lori Bruner, who made it clear that he should be addressed as Ambassador. We did, of course. Henryk Szeryng died on March 3, 1988 in Kassel, Germany.

The performances in this new collection include the Bach unaccompanied Sonatas and Partitas BWV1001 to 1006, the six sonatas with harpsichord, BWV1012 to 1019 with Helmut Walcha, three Brandenburgs 2,4 and 5 with Rampal (Flute), George Malcolm (harpsichord) and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields and Neville Marriner. All sublime. He is soloist and conductor of Bach’s three violin concertos with the Collegium Musicum Winterthur. There are Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, Triple Concerto (Arrau and Starker) and the two Romances; Brahms’ Violin Concerto, Double Concerto (Starker, Haitink); 13 pieces by Fritz Kreisler and Vivaldi’s L’estro armonico and The Four Seasons in which he is both soloist and conductor. Other concertos include those of Mozart, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Sibelius, Prokofiev, Khachaturian, Tchaikovsky, Wieniawski, Szymanowski, Paganini, Lalo, Bartók and Saint-Saëns. There are four essential sets of four CDs: The complete Beethoven trios with Wilhelm Kempff and Pierre Fournier; the complete Beethoven sonatas for violin and piano with the impeccable Ingrid Haebler; the Mozart 16 great sonatas and Variations K359 & K560 for piano and violin, also with Haebler, and finally Mozart’s complete works for violin and orchestra with the New Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Sir Alexander Gibson. Add works by Handel, Schubert, de Falla and a host of encore-type pieces by a miscellany of composers including those from Central and South America, some familiar, some not. We have here a collection that, beyond the obligatory warhorses, reflects his eclectic repertoire. Well done, Ambassador.

02 NureyevRudolf Nureyev’s choreography of three favourite ballets, Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and The Nutcracker plus Minkus’ Don Quixote, have been released in a boxed set of Blu-ray video discs by Cmajor: Nureyev (707104, 3 Blu-ray video discs cmajor-entertainment.com). The Vienna State Opera Orchestra and the Vienna State Ballet are common threads and each ballet has its individual music director. The dancers for Swan Lake (recorded in 2012) are headed by Vladimir Shishov as Prince Siegfried, Olga Esina as Odette and Eno Peci as Rothbart, the Magician, with Dagmar Kronberger as the Queen, the Prince’s mother. The set – there’s only one – and costumes are by Luisa Spinatelli; the conductor, Alexander Ingram. Frankly, if I weren’t aware of the plot I would be lost.

Using Nureyev’s stage directions, the 2012 performance of The Nutcracker is another story. It is a delight from curtain-up and danced most exquisitely by Liudmila Konovalova as Clara and Vladimir Shishov as Drosselmeyer and the whole corps with specialty dances for the Arabian, Chinese, the Flutes, etc. Entirely satisfying, the performances are quite delightful, the costumes from whimsical to luxurious.

The third ballet in this box is Don Quixote (2016), set to the music of Ludwig Minkus orchestrated and adapted by John Lanchbery. The ballet by Marius Petipa has a prologue and three acts. Petipa was the co-deviser of the above Swan Lake. Once again drawing on Nureyev’s stage directions, the Spanish milieu was all he needed to create gorgeous solos, pas de deux and ensemble scenes. The sets, devised by the set and costume designer Nicholas Georgiadis, are minimal and clearly place the events. The conductor is Kevin Rhodes; Kamil Pavelka is Don Quixote, Christoph Wenzel is Sancho Panza, Maria Yakovleva is Kitri/Dulcinea. The sound and the Blu-ray video is state of the art. 

03 VerbierThe Verbier Festival, held in the Swiss Alps each year, is celebrating its 25th anniversary and earlier this year Deutsche Grammophon issued a smart little set of four CDs containing eight memorable live performances: Verbier Festival 25 Years of Excellence (DG4835143, 4CDs bound together, deutschegrammophon.com). From a performance on July 23, 2015 Valery Gergiev conducts the Verbier Festival Orchestra in Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony. From July 30, 2005 mezzo-soprano Malena Ernman sings 11 Folk Songs set by Luciano Berio supported by the Festival orchestra conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, and from July 31, 2009 Yuja Wang plays the Mendelssohn First Piano Concerto under Kurt Masur. July 22, 2009 found Martha Argerich playing the Beethoven Second Piano Concerto with conductor Gábor Takács-Nagy. July 31, 2015 featured Daniil Trifonov, piano; Ilya Gringolts, violin; and Truls Mørk, cello, playing Brahms Trio No.1 in B Major, Op.8. On July 30, 2004 Evgeny Kissin, piano; Vadim Repin, violin 1; Laurent Korcia, violin 2; Yuri Bashmet, viola; and Alexander Kniazev, cello, got together for Dvořák’s Quintet No.2 in A Major, Op.81. The fourth CD contains the complete third act of Die Walküre from July 25, 2013, conducted by Gergiev with a complete complement of Walküren and Bryn Terfel as Wotan, Eva-Maria Westbroek as Sieglinde and Iréne Theorin as Brunnhilde. The whole act comes through splendidly, culminating with an unexpectedly heartfelt Leb wohl from Terfel.

This is a set of great music-making, all truly inspired performances as live festival performances always are. There is, in addition, music by a composer that is new to me: Alexander Tsfasman (1906-1971), a Soviet jazz pianist, composer, arranger and publisher. He flourished from the mid-1920s until the late 1960s, during which time he was an important figure in Soviet jazz. Around 1945 he wrote a Suite for Piano and Orchestra. We hear it from August 4, 2013 with pianist Mikhail Pletnev and Kent Nagano conducting a reduced festival orchestra. It is a short work, 16 minutes, but it’s immediately captivating, polite and whimsical. In four movements: Snowflakes; Lyrical Waltz; Polka; Presto

As I sit down to write this column in Toronto, there is a gala performance taking place in Montreal celebrating the winners of this year’s Azrieli Foundation music composition prizes. Kelly-Marie Murphy is the winner of the 2018 Azrieli Commission for Jewish Music. This is the second time that the Foundation has awarded the $50,000 prize – the largest of its kind in Canada – which is granted to a Canadian composer based on a proposal for a new work which expresses an aspect of the Jewish experience with “the utmost creativity, artistry and musical excellence.” Established by the Azrieli Foundation in 2015, the biennial Azrieli Music Prizes (AMP) also include a $50,000 international prize, granted to the composer of the best new major work of Jewish Music written in the last ten years.

Murphy’s new work, a double concerto for cello and harp, explores Sephardic music and how it impacted other cultures as the diaspora settled in Morocco, Tunisia and parts of Europe. “What fascinates me is how music travels, and how it can subtly influence cultures throughout its journey,” says Murphy, who drew from Sephardic folk and liturgical melodies for the new concerto. Murphy adds: “The Azrieli Foundation has created a wonderful opportunity to encourage Canadian composers to write significant works on a grand scale.” 

01 New Jewish MusicThis is certainly true for Brian Current, winner of the inaugural AMP in 2016, whose proposal was to write an extended cantata based on the Zohar (Book of Enlightenment), “the most central book of the Kabbalah and the most mysterious of Jewish mystical texts.” I am sure that it is no coincidence that Analekta has just released New Jewish Music Vol.1 (AN 2 9261 analekta.com) featuring that commission, Seven Heavenly Halls, and the Klezmer Clarinet Concerto by young Belarus-born Wlad Marhulets, winner of the international prize that year.

In the interests of full disclosure, I must declare that I know Brian well, and he has served on the board of New Music Concerts, where I have been general manager for many years. He is an integral part of the re-visioning of the organization as it embarks on its second half-century of activity and in the coming years will share artistic direction duties with founder Robert Aitken. Current says that he became interested in the Zohar, particularly its reference to “Seven Heavenly Halls,” while researching texts for The River of Light, a large-scale oratorio in six parts that will explore the subject of transcendence in a variety of religious and cultural traditions. Seven Heavenly Halls is a dramatic work, almost operatic in scope, for solo tenor (Richard Troxell), (unnamed) chorus and orchestra (Czech National Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Steven Mercurio). It is an exceptionally well-crafted work, with impeccable balance between soloist – busy throughout – chorus and orchestra, with a wealth of well-chosen colours which support the vocal writing, never masking the texts so carefully prepared by Current’s librettist Anton Piatigorsky from translations by Yehoshua Rosenthal. I find the concept of a prize rewarding an outline rather than a finished work to be intriguing, especially considering this it the largest composition prize in Canada. Congratulations to both Sharon Azrieli of the Azrieli Foundation for conceiving the award, and to Current for bringing the proposed work to such dazzling fruition.

As mentioned, the CD also includes the other 2016 winning work, Marhulets’ Klezmer Clarinet Concerto composed in 2009. The composer says “Klezmer music came crashing into my life when, as a 16-year-old living in Gdansk, my brother Damian brought home a CD by a band called Klezmer Madness, featuring clarinetist David Krakauer [the soloist here]. This was music that was so boldly Jewish, so full of wild energy that a kind of madness enveloped my senses as I listened to it… I decided to become a musician on the spot.” Five years later, having moved to New York, Marhulets met Krakauer and the result was this whirlwind work that draws on not only the Klezmer tradition, but also jazz, funk and hip-hop. This dazzling album is completed with a touch of history, Lukas Foss’ Song of Songs (1947) sung by Sharon Azrieli. All in all, a fine addition to the Analekta catalog.

This just in: At the recent gala it was announced that the Azrieli Foundation will add a third $50,000 prize to its roster for the next round in 2020. The Azrieli Canadian Prize, open to Canadian composers only, will be based on proposals for a new large-scale work exploring specifically Canadian themes. With added performance guarantees, recording and residency benefits, the prize will be worth some $200,000 in all. Applications begin in February 2019.

02 NACOAnother Analekta disc, The Bounds of Our Dreams (AN 2 8874-75) is the latest from Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra and director Alexander Shelley. It also includes a significant recent Canadian work, Concerto de l’asile (Asylum Concerto), by Walter Boudreau. Composed at the request of pianist Alain Lefèvre, the work pays homage to Québec poet, playwright and co-signer of the seminal Refus global manifesto that played such a large part in the Quiet Revolution, Claude Gauvreau. Boudreau is best known as the conductor and artistic director of the Société de musique contemporain du Québec (since 1988), but is a significant composer in his own right with more than 60 concert works and 15 film scores to his credit. The award-winning Lefèvre has devoted his energies to promoting the music of child-prodigy André Mathieu (1929-1968), known as Québec’s “Mozart” (although his virtuosic music had more in common with that of Rachmaninoff than with the Classical era). There are touches of this Romantic sensibility in Boudreau’s expansive (45-minute) concerto, perhaps surprising from such a champion of contemporary music, no stranger to the extremes of the avant-garde. The work is in the traditional three-movement form, here referring to different aspects of Gauvreau’s troubled life. The first, Les oranges sont vertes (The Oranges are Green), refers to Gauvreau’s final work, published posthumously in 1972. It starts with a flourish that sets the stage for an extended movement where the soloist and orchestra are seemingly at odds throughout, and ends with a cadenza representing the poet’s descent into madness. The gentle second movement, St-Jean-de-Dieu, depicts a time of heavy sedation (and shock therapy) spent in the asylum of St-Jean. The final movement was inspired by Gauvreau’s chef-d’oeuvre, La charge de l’orignal épormyable (The Charge of the Expormidable Moose) which received its English language premiere by One Little Goat Theatre at Taragon Theatre in May 2013. Like the play, Boudreau’s concerto is formidable, and Lefèvre, clearly in his element, is in perfect form.

The 2-CD set opens in a welcoming fashion with a sparkling performance Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte in which the orchestra shines. The second disc is devoted to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Shéhérazade with impeccable solo work from concertmaster Yosuke Kawasaki. I see that the orchestra has grown over the years from its classical model of 50-some players to a current total of 80, big enough to tackle these large Romantic works, which it does with convincing agility and aplomb under Shelley’s direction. This is their fourth recording for Analekta with Shelley at the helm, each of which has included new significant Canadian repertoire. Finally, or perhaps once again after an extended hiatus, we can celebrate the (C)NACO as a truly national orchestra. Accolades all around!

05 Paul LanskyBeginning in the mid-1960s, Paul Lansky was among the first to experiment with the computer for sound synthesis. Until the mid-1990s, the bulk of Lansky’s work was in computer music, for which he was honoured in 2002 with a lifetime achievement award by SEAMUS (the Society for Electroacoustic Music in the United States). The first time I heard his music was thanks to my WholeNote colleague and former CBC radio producer David Jaeger, sometime in 1985 on his program Two New Hours. It was a brilliant piece titled Idle Chatter, in which the composer had used computer synthesis to mimic the sound of the human voice, or actually a room full of human voices, and created the babble of a crowd in which you could swear you heard actual words and syntax. It’s available on YouTube and if you’ve not heard it, it’s well worth the search.

Since 2004 Lansky has concentrated on instrumental composition without any electronic involvement, as witnessed by the latest of some two dozen recordings on the Bridge label, The Long and Short of It (BRIDGE 9495 bridgerecords.com). In the notes Lansky states that the music contained here, although recently composed, relates to his earliest musical experiences at the High School of Music & Art in Manhattan, playing folk guitar (with some classical studies) and later the French horn. He achieved quite a high performance level with the latter and for a time was a member of the Dorian Wind Quintet. It is with a wind quintet that this disc begins, the title work performed by Windscape. It is an extended work inspired by the third-movement Adagio of Mozart’s Serenade for Winds K.361, passing through a number of moods and colours, at some moments reminiscent of the busy chatter of the electronic piece I mentioned above. Talking Guitars uses the metaphor of a conversation to characterize a dialogue between the two instrumentalists, although it is much more lyrical than the busy computer chatter I keep mentioning. It is performed by the brilliant young guitarists, Jiyeon Kim and Hao Yang. Pieces of Advice for horn and piano was written for William Purvis and Mihae Lee. The suite consists of “character studies,” with the following performance instructions for the five movements: “Be Mysterious,” “Be Proud,” “Be Patient,” “Be Annoying” and “Be Insistent.” It quite effectively depicts all these moods and is beautifully realized by its dedicatees. It seems whatever the genre, Lansky’s music continues to attract and satisfy.

Listen to 'The Long and Short of It' Now in the Listening Room

03 12 EnsembleI cannot remember when I first heard the music of Polish composer Witold Lutosławski, but I do know that I was thoroughly enthralled by the time I had the great pleasure of meeting him thanks to New Music Concerts back in 1993, before I was directly involved with the organization. On that occasion he was in Toronto to conduct what would turn out to be his last concert – he died just a few months later of cancer. The live CBC recording was released as an independent CD by New Music Concerts and later reissued by Naxos (8.572450). Needless to say I was pleased when I received a new CD by 12 Ensemble, one of the UK’s leading string orchestras, which features Lutosławski’s Musique funèbre. Composed in 1958 and dedicated to the memory of Béla Bartók, it was the last traditional work he composed before incorporating aleatoric principals into his writing, although it does employ 12-tone techniques. It is a moving work, suitably dark, and is here performed with distinction. The group, known for performing without a conductor, has a homogenous sound and an innate sense of ensemble. The Lutosławski is followed by Ulysses Awakes by John Woolrich, which seems to rise from the shadows of the Lutosławski, and perhaps gives rise to the album’s title Resurrection, released on the new Sancho Panza label (SPANCD 001 juno.co.uk/labels/Sancho+Panza). It grows gradually and with an almost medieval, plaintive solo melody fades again. This is followed by Kate Whitley’s Autumn Songs, with whirling glissandi and quiet tremolos in the ensemble once again, and a gentle, soaring melody rising above. The final work, by far the longest, takes us full circle with American rock guitarist Bryce Dressner’s Response Lutosławski, a moving homage commissioned by the National Audiovisual Institute of Poland. The five-movement work explores various thoughtful moods and shows a command of the string orchestra idiom, without a hint of Dressner’s pop-music roots. This perfect bookend completes a stunning debut for both this impeccable ensemble and a new label.

04 The Scene of the CrimeI was skeptical when I first came across the disc The Scene of the Crime featuring Colin Currie and Håkan Hardenberger (Colin Currie Records CCR0002 colincurrie.com). I was not convinced that the combination of percussion and trumpet could sustain interest over the duration of an entire CD. But sustain it does, in many intriguing and satisfying ways. In the words of Currie, “The duo with Håkan Hardenberger is my musical safe space for maximum risk-taking. From my earliest point of connection with this most regal of musicians, what entranced me was the fearless audacity of the endeavour. Envelopes pushed, or simply reinvented, boundaries moved and canvasses recast.” They do this through interpretations of some striking repertoire, from André Jolivet’s 1971 Heptade with its unpitched percussion instruments, through Joe Duddell’s Catch (with Currie on marimba) and Tobias Broström’s use of gongs and vibraphone in Dream Variations, to Daniel Börtz’s mystical Dialogo 4 which begins in near silence, and the title track, Brett Dean’s 2017 composition ... the scene of the crime... written especially for the duo’s “skill and infectious drive, scored for trumpet, flugelhorn and drum kit.” The album never loses its grip on the listener’s attention. A resounding achievement! 

We invite submissions. CDs and comments should be sent to: DISCoveries, WholeNote Media Inc., The Centre for Social Innovation, 503 – 720 Bathurst St. Toronto ON M5S 2R4.

David Olds, DISCoveries Editor
discoveries@thewholenote.com

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