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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11 Jeanette LambertGenius Loci Mixtape
Jeannette Lambert
Jazz from Rant rant 1953 (jazzfromrant.com)

A distinctive and creative singer, Jeannette Lambert presents an imaginative and intimate travelogue in music here, interacting spontaneously with numerous musicians in different locales. Sometimes she sings other writers’ lyrics, sometimes her own; whether playfully or wistfully, she sings with a poet’s diction, making every song a model of clarity.

The most frequent collaborators are her musical family: her husband, Montreal drummer Michel Lambert, plays on all 11 tracks; her brother, Toronto guitarist Reg Schwager, on four. His appearances include two recordings from a Barcelona apartment: the opening Keys explores a stark text about trust among lovers by Catalan poet Clementina Arderiu; the final vision is Gaudi, a celebration of the architect’s crowning achievement, the city’s Sagrada Familia, now a century in the making. Lambert artfully conveys the complex emotion of her lyric about “something that was created for the sake of creating.”

In between are other evocations of the spirit of place. Two tracks from Puget-Ville, France, have Lambert improvising melody with a rambunctious quintet that includes the great veteran bassist Barre Phillips. Sometimes poem and site create compound spaces: the welling emotion of Anne Brontë’s A Windy Day was realized with pianist Greg Burk in Ostia, Italy, while Spanish poet Federico García Lorca’s Gypsy Nun was recorded in Montreal with harpsichordist Alexandre Grogg. The most joyous music here comes from furthest afield, the virtuosic Coyote, recorded at a festival in Sulawesi, Indonesia with Schwager and bassist Fendy Rizk.

12 Karoline LeblancDouble on the Brim
Leblanc; Gibson; Vicente; Mira; Ferreira Lopes
Atrito-Afeito 011 (atrito-afeito.com)

Pianist Karoline Leblanc and drummer Paulo J Ferreira Lopes have a developing relationship with Lisbon, a warmer complement to their Montreal base. Lisbon is a burgeoning centre for free jazz and improvised music, with numerous performance spaces, these genres’ most active record labels (Clean Feed and Creative Source have produced over 600 CDs each since 2001) and a growing list of well-known improvisers taking up residence. Leblanc and Ferreira Lopes recorded A Square Meal there in 2016, and Leblanc recently recorded Autoschediasm in Montreal with Lisboan violist Ernesto Rodrigues. Double on the Brim, recorded in Lisbon this year, develops the connection further.

The quintet here includes Brazilian-born saxophonist Yedo Gibson, trumpeter Luís Vicente (returning from A Square Meal) and cellist Miguel Mira. There are six episodes, ranging in length from four to 16 minutes. The longest of them, Anthropic Jungle and the title track, are intense collective improvisations that pulse with vitality, moving tapestries in which instruments tumble over one another. The relatively brief Singra Alegria, almost dirge-like, foregoes the usual density, with Leblanc’s looming bass clusters creating an ominous mood in which Vicente’s subdued lyricism comes to the fore. Jaggy Glide is the most tightly focused, with Gibson’s alto spiralling through the dense rhythmic field created by Leblanc, Ferreira Lopes, and the versatile Mira, who can also provide convincing bass lines when required.

Sometimes instrumental identities will blur, but Leblanc’s brilliant articulation and Ferreira Lopes’ multidirectional drumming shine.

13 BrishenTunes in a Hotel
Quinn Bachand’s Brishen
Independent CP104 (brishenmusic.com)

When I first listened to Cheyenne (Quit Your Talkin’) from Brishen’s second album, Blue Verdun, I assumed it was a cover of a jazz/pop song from the 1930s. It was surprising to discover this clever and engaging song was written and sung by Quinn Bachand, a young musical prodigy from Victoria. He was studying at the Berklee College of Music (on a full scholarship) and recorded that album in his apartment in Verdun, Quebec while on a semester leave. It is a remarkable trip into a past style creatively re-imagined in the present.

Brishen, Romany for “bringer of the storm,” has released a third album, Tunes in a Hotel, which is an idiosyncratic re-imagining of several Django Reinhardt tunes (including Odette, It Had to Be You and Pennies from Heaven). The backstory is dramatic with Bachand’s Berklee residence involved in a fire which left his instruments safe, but smelling of smoke. He and other students were relocated to the Boston Sheraton where he recorded this album in room 737! The ensemble sounds tight and feisty with Bachand (at points) playing a borrowed Gibson ES 125 through an “amazingly crunchy 50s tube amp.” One striking aspect of these pieces is their crisp economy: with an average length of less than three minutes, the melodies and solos seem compressed and melodically inventive with Eric Vanderbilt-Mathews (clarinet) and Christiaan van Hemert (violin) contributing several excellent improvisations. Bachand’s guitar playing is both an homage to Reinhardt and an expression of his own eclectic originality. I highly recommend this retro, low-fi, yet modern revisiting of Reinhardt’s catalogue. And I look forward to the surprises of a fourth Brishen album, possibly even recorded in a studio!

14 Jaelem BhateJaelem Bhate – On the Edge
Various artists
Independent (jaelembhate.com)

Jaelem Bhate’s website contains listings for what seem to be two or three different people: conducting competitions in Italy and Romania, an inaugural concert as musical director of Symphony 21 in Vancouver and other symphony conducting gigs. Then a catalogue of classical orchestral, chamber and solo works and, finally, a jazz section where On the Edge is listed as his debut album. Bhate is a very busy person with a range of musical interests.

On the Edge is an ambitious album with a 20-piece band of excellent musicians from the Vancouver area. In his liner notes Bhate says every work “represents some edge in my life, as does the whole album.” The title could also represent Vancouver on the “edge” of the ocean and the country. The core of the CD is the magnificent Pacific Suite with four programmatic movements: Straights and NarrowsWeeping Skies, Uninhabitation and Sea of Glass. Straights and Narrows contains slower and faster sections with a few drum solos that could reference the movement of water through narrow straights and onto the beaches, Weeping Skies begins with an elegant pizzicato bass solo which sounds like individual drops building into the steady rain we expect on the West Coast. Sea of Glass opens with an up-tempo piano and bass duet that could be a soundtrack for a floatplane gliding low over a pristine and still harbour. The plane lands when the horns enter and the beat switches to a punchier swing feel with a jaunty melody.

On the Edge is well produced with a great band and excellent solos by several musicians including Steve Kaldestad on a soulful tenor saxophone. We can only hope Bhate adds to his résumé with more jazz projects in the future.

15 Brandon RobertsonB.O.A.T.S – Bass’d on a True Story
Brandon Robertson
Slammin Media (brandonrobertsonmusic.com)

Emmy-nominated musical director and Florida staple Brandon Robertson has released a stellar debut album featuring all but two original songs written over the span of the past 14 years. He has referred to the record as “the first chapter of his musical biography,” wherein each song harks back to a significant moment in his lifetime. Featured is a band comprised of stars on the jazz circuit, including collaborators such as Lew Del Gatto on tenor saxophone, Zach Bartholomew on piano and Gerald Watkins Jr. on drums.

The record is sultry and luscious, especially when giving a close listen to Robertson’s bass riffs that are very literally on fire. Each song has its own distinct flavour, almost creating an image in the mind of what kind of memory the bassist was recalling in the midst of writing. An interesting feature of the album is that Robertson is clearly just as comfortable leading within a piece as he is accompanying his collaborators and allowing them to have a moment in the spotlight. East of the Sun and The Next Thing to Come are great opening tracks as they have an irresistible, foot-tapping rhythm. Robertson’s pizzicato technique can really be appreciated on Lullaby for Noelle, while bowing is also used earlier in the same piece. While each track has its own story, there is also a welcome togetherness throughout the record, which makes it a sound choice for any jazz listener.

17 Waxman WillisauWillisau
Leimgruber/Demierre/Phillips/Lehn
Jazz Werkstatt JW 191 (jazzwerkstatt.eu)

Adding another voice to an established trio is a risk. But as these extended performances from saxophonist Urs Leimgruber and pianist Jacques Demierre, both Swiss, and expatriate American bassist Barre Phillips indicate, the inclusion of German Thomas Lehn’s analogue synthesizer illuminates new tinctures in the improvisational picture the others perfected over nearly two decades. This ever-shifting continuum of electronic judders not only enhances this program, but also allows the creation of parallel duos. For the first time, low-pitched string bowing is matched with keyboard strums and cadenzas while altissimo reed sputters are backed by wave-form grinding. Throughout, partners are changed as in a decidedly un-square dance.

Individual set pieces for each remain though, as when Lehn’s vibrations alternate wood-flute-like gentleness and intensely vibrated doits, subtly seconded by pumping piano cadenzas; or when the jagged subsequent shape of Monkeybusiness 2, defined by Phillips’ low-pitched sweeps in the introduction, darkens and deepens to spiccato string pumps, buttressed by Leimgruber’s burbling split tones by the finale. Elsewhere, Demierre’s key dusting can swiftly turn to a crescendo of notes plus inner-piano string plucks alongside circular-breathed saxophone tones.

Cooperation and control are triumphantly obvious at the climax of Monkeybusiness 1, when a combination of reed multiphonics, wriggling electronics and pounding keys drive the track to peak excitement that then subtly relaxes into piano glissandi and delicate reed peeps. Willisau proves that if an auxiliary musical voice is properly attached it elevates the results.

18 NeoN NiblockNiblock/Lamb
Ensemble neoN
Hubro HUBRO CD 2601 (hubromusic.com)

Two over-20-minute microtonal compositions by variations of the strings, reeds and percussion of Norwegian Ensemble neoN not only yield provocative listening but also recognize how the sub-genre has evolved over time.

To Two Tea Roses by Phill Niblock (b.1933), with its miniscule microtonal displacement, borders on a solid mass as the six-piece group begins playing a collective crescendo and continues with an unresolved drone throughout. While separate layers of thickness and intensity give the choked program shape and fascination, individual instrumental identity is curtailed.

In contrast, Parallaxis Forma by Catherine Lamb (b.1982) sets up a program where seven instrumentalists contrast and comingle tonalities into a musical wash that parallels a vocal exposition from Stine Janvin Motland and Silje Aker Johnsen. As the singers’ voices drift in and out of aural focus, their closely related lyric soprano timbres unite in near church-like harmonies or pull apart with tremulous pitches, trade leads, hocket or reach protracted pauses. Eventually, the thickened buzz that develops from these sequences allows individual tones to peep outwards as the piece undulates to its conclusion.

Without jarring moments, this program still rewards deep listening as it provides unparalleled sonic definitions in dissimilar interpretations.

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