06 Wet InkSmoke, Airs
Wet Ink Ensemble
Huddersfield Contemporary Records HCR24CD (nmcrec.co.uk/hcr) 

In the latest release by the renowned Wet Ink Ensemble – titled Smoke, Airs – the ensemble’s adventurousness and dedication to the music of our time is on brilliant display in four new works by three Americans and Canadian Pierre Alexandre Tremblay. 

In the title track, experimentalist vocalist Charmaine Lee creates a haunting landscape of whips and sonic shadow worlds. Interesting vocal utterances paint both uneasy and beautiful atmospheres. Bryn Harrison’s Dead Time contextualizes change within a static field in a context where the composer is clearly concerned with how our ears perceive the unfolding of variation through sameness. Kristina Wolfe’s A Mere Echo of Aristoxenus is inspired by the ancient concept of aural architecture – a piece in two movements that evokes vast Greek spaces lost in time, creating a truly unique listening environment. Lastly, Tremblay’s (un)weave is a study of our contemporary soundscape: the stop and go of the urban frantic reality and how one may find solace in such an environment. 

The Wet Ink Ensemble has received much critical praise in their successful history as a collective. This release will continue to heighten the group’s deserved reputation.

07 Ades GersteinThomas Adès – In Seven Days
Kirill Gerstein; Thomas Adès; Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra
Myrios Classics MYR027 (naxosdirect.com/search/4260183510277)

Composer, pianist and conductor Thomas Adès is, in truth, a child of the late 20th century. The acumen of his creativity and myriad of musical aptitude already scaled impressive heights back in the 1990s. Today, he continues to traverse the confused streams and nebulous annals of our 21st-century musical world. Neither fad nor trend nor fickleness of style can deter him; he is a teller of truths and a composer of our time. 

Now, inimitable pianist Kirill Gerstein has teamed up with Adès on a new record featuring keyboard works by the composer. So rarely will a collaborator embrace a composer’s catalogue with just as much dedication and enthusiasm as the composer himself. A notable consequence from such commitment is the swift advancement of performance practice, often a slow-moving process that takes decades, if not centuries, to appear. With this album, one immediately detects exquisitely formed conceptions of music, determined from various angles and experimentation of interpretation. (Adès is actively involved in two works on the album as pianist and as conductor.)

Why? Why are these complex, avant-garde, texturally challenging sound worlds so irresistible? Perhaps when the genius and fortitude of a composer like Adès meets the integrity and artistic prowess of an interpreter like Gerstein, our ears are lent and lent freely, with bedazzled curiosity. Urgent and honest, we quest after the supernatural.

05 EpicycleIIEpicycle II
Gyda Valtysdottir
Sono Luminus SLE-70012/SLE-70013 (sonoluminus.com/store/epicycleii) 

Referring to the geometric model of the solar system by the ancient Greek mathematician and astronomer Ptolemy, in which a smaller circle travels around the circumference of a larger circle, cellist Gyda Valtysdottir releases a sequel to her highly acclaimed first solo album from 2017,.

Haunting, melodic and yet dissonant at the same time, the album features eight of Valtysdottir’s closest co-conspirators and inspirers from her life; “This group of people is really a musical galaxy, where the connections are endless…”

Orbiting themes of Water, Air (breath) and Love, harmonies are often thick, layered and textured rather than melodic, a trademark of Icelandic composers, and offer travel without destinations, as in the gorgeously heavy Unfold. Each track takes the listener on what feels like motion through stopped time; moving, yet not moving; micro-journeys to sea, to the sky, love and to outer space. I was delighted to find Anna Thorvaldsdóttir’s Mikros on the journey, having had the fortune to attend her composition lecture last December at Banff. Equally enjoyable is the super dark and cool mix of voices and electronics on Evol Lamina, closing our orbital loop and returning our feet back to the dirt by the final, perhaps prophetically unsettling track, Octo.

A deeply cinematic score at times, this album is often transporting with great lift, giving the listener long opportunities to soar, bird-like, over the Icelandic landscape and beyond, for the most part leaving us safely and gently deposited on the earthly shore.

09 Pacifica QuartetContemporary Voices
Pacifica Quartet; Otis Murphy
Cedille CDR 90000 196 (naxosdirect.com/search/735131919623) 

Markedly different works by three laureates of the Pulitzer Prize for Music – Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, the first-ever woman recipient (1983), Shulamit Ran (1991) and Jennifer Higdon (2010) – are performed by the Grammy-winning Pacifica Quartet, Indiana University artists-in-residence.

In Zwilich’s 17-minute, three-movement Quintet for alto saxophone and string quartet (2007), Indiana University professor Otis Murphy adds what Zwilich calls “a certain sassy attitude to the mix.” Murphy’s bluesy saxophone saunters and riffs above pulsating, animated strings, yet moody lyricism prevails over the “sass.”

Ran’s 22-minute Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory – String Quartet No. 3 (2013) honours artists who, facing death in the Holocaust, continued working. The opening movement shifts from serenity to disquiet, followed by Menace, a Shostakovich-like sardonic scherzo. The third movement is titled “If I perish – do not let my paintings die,” words of Felix Nussbaum, who painted until dying in Auschwitz. The unsettled, fragmented music reflects, says Ran, “the conflicting states of mind that would have made it possible, and essential, to continue to live and practice one’s art.” Of the elegiac epilogue, she says, “As we remember, we restore dignity to those who are gone.”

Higdon describes her 18-minute Voices (1993) as transitioning “from manic and frenzied to calm and quiet.” In movements titled Blitz, Soft Enlacing and Grace, the Pacifica Quartet gorgeously illuminates the densely scored music, a textbook of string sonorities. 

Three very stylistically diverse compositions, but not a single dull moment on this entire CD!

10 Ning YuOf Being
Ning Yu
New Focus Recordings fcr242 (newfocusrecordings.com/catalogue/ning-yu-of-being/) 

For pianist Ning Yu, clearly tradition is a wonderful reality; but not understanding that the inner dynamic of tradition is always to innovate would be a prison. It’s certainly what the lively works by Wang Lu, Misato Mochizuki and Emily Praetorius in Of Being seem to tell us. This is chiselled music; uniquely beautiful, but also defiantly provocative. It is a body of music carved from the bedrock of the Western music tradition and yet it forces the listener to reconsider what that tradition is. 

In doing so, Yu actively throws overboard melodic, structural and harmonic hooks that have become expressively blunted through overuse. Then she rebuilds the architecture of the music from what might – or mightn’t – be left. Sound and silence are treated with equal respect, and innovation is always paramount. This means that Yu might also reach outside the keyboard and inside the instrument to create the purest melodies and harmonies as she manipulates the strings – stretched taut across the cast-iron plate, which she often strums delicately or strikes percussively.   

Her pedalling adds sudden moments of drama to the music as if opening a window and letting filtered light into the room full of sound, by unexpected use of the sostenuto followed by the unacorda; all of which may be abruptly shut down expressly with the damper. In the end the music seems to unfurl as if in streaming ribbons suspended interminably in time.

Listen to 'Of Being' Now in the Listening Room

11 Malcolm LipkinMalcolm Lipkin – Recollections
Various Artists
Divine Art dds 25202 (naxosdirect.com/search/809730520228) 

I first listened to chamber works by British composer Malcolm Lipkin (1932-2017) while studying music in Europe in 1982. I was strongly moved by his combination of traditional compositional sounds with touches of the modern. I do not remember what the works were, but this collection of seven compositions spanning 50 years of creation is fabulous and respectful.

Three remastered recordings from a 1986 Hyperion Nash Ensemble vinyl release are included. String Trio (1964) is well written with compelling fourth movement rhythms. Repeated tonal chord rhythms and strings above distant horn lines resound in Pastorale (1964), a work evoking its title’s traditional form. Clifford’s Tower (1977), commemorating a 12th-century York Jewish massacre, features scary jagged notes and rhythm patterns, harsh loud winds and contrasting calming held notes.

The four recent recordings contribute to Lipkin’s legacy. Prelude and Dance (1987) is his tribute to Jacqueline du Pré. Its tonal Prelude has interesting piano chordal pitch jumps and ascending cello runs. Dance is fun with subtle major/minor tonality shifts and high tinkling piano with repeated cello notes. The Journey (2016), a tribute to John McCabe, is delightfully played by John Turner on recorder, with memorable ornamental turns breaking up the colourful held notes. Naboth’s Vineyard (1982) and Interplay (1976) complete this over 80-minute long release.

Repeated listening adds to my appreciation, as the musicians all perform with thoughtful, precise musical detail. Lipkin’s works may be slightly old-fashioned but they are memorable.

01 Dave YoungIdes of March
Dave Young Quartet
Modica Music (modicamusic.com) 

Toronto bassist Dave Young has a rich history as a partner to pianists, most notably Oscar Peterson, Kenny Barron and Oliver Jones. He also has a distinguished career as a bandleader, putting together groups devoted to specific modern jazz repertoire, including the compositions of Horace Silver and Charles Mingus. Ides of March continues that neo-classical approach, with half the repertoire composed by Herbie Hancock. There’s also a certain special resonance in the instrumental makeup. The quartet includes trumpeter Kevin Turcotte, guitarist Reg Schwager and drummer Terry Clarke, each a first-call musician with a refined execution. The band’s conception resembles trumpeter Art Farmer’s 1960s quartet with guitarist Jim Hall, an island of artful elegance in a clamorous decade. 

Turcotte’s role as the offscreen trumpet voice in Born to Be Blue, the dramatized biography of Chet Baker, testifies to his warmth and economy, while Schwager possesses liquid lyricism and harmonic depth. Together they emphasize the melodic grace of Hancock’s Speak like a Child or Gershwin’s My Man’s Gone Now (a favourite of Miles Davis and Bill Evans, here distinguished by a limpidly melancholic introduction by Young and Schwager), but they also find nuance in more aggressive material, like Lee Morgan’s Speedball or Hancock’s One Finger Snap, both consistently motivated by Clarke’s crisp articulation and subtle inflections.

It’s a thoughtful, often reflective program, further enhanced by a developed account of Niels Lan Doky’s angular, slightly dissonant The Target and Young’s own, slightly pensive, title track.

02 New HermitageUnearth
New Hermitage
Independent (newhermitage.bandcamp.com)

New Hermitage is a quartet from Halifax specializing in free improvisation and ambient music. It is comprised of Andrew MacKelvie (alto/tenor saxophone, bass clarinet), India Gailey (cello), Ellen Gibling (harp) and Ross Burns (guitar and effects). They have been playing together since 2017 and this is their fifth album. 

The premise behind Unearth is a dystopian world where “pollution has decimated the population of the Earth” and the “surviving humans ... live in nomadic clans.” The titles (Boiling Off, Collecting Vapours, Light Through the Rubble, Pine Bottle Skylight, Stalkers) evoke a quiet world of limited resources, and a civilization struggling to hold on. All the pieces are inventive and the sounds could be described as “environmental” where strings are as likely to be plucked and scraped as bowed. Lyricism is often eschewed for a sombre layering of sounds. In Signal Scan, MacKelvie’s saxophone is ephemeral and whimsical, sounding like someone searching through static for words or other signs of civilization. Stalkers has a science fiction air with forbidding noises and some kind of fog horn echoing through a tunnel. 

In Unearth, New Hermitage have created a sparse and inventive world with scarce resources and a compelling story.

03 Ontario 559Ontario 559 West
Harrison Argatoff; Ian McGimpsey
Independent n/a (harrisonargatoff.com)

Nick Drake was a British singer/songwriter who released three albums and died in 1974. Since that time he’s attracted a larger-than-cult following who have enjoyed his soft and melodic singing, subtle guitar playing and enigmatic lyrics. His third album, Pink Moon, was his most sparse with just guitar and vocals. 

In March of 2020, Ian McGimpsey (guitar) and Harrison Argatoff (tenor saxophone) travelled on Ontario 559 West to Carling Township where they spent three days recording this album which is their tribute to, and interpretation of, Pink Moon. They have certainly captured the mood of Drake’s final album with the intricate guitar parts and luscious and melodic saxophone lines. Ontario 559 West is a genuine homage to the earlier album but maintains its own identity: I listened to Pink Moon before Ontario 559 West and could not identify any specific song or melody that is covered in the later album. The interplay between McGimpsey and Argatoff contains elements of jazz, folk and some freer improvisation. At points Argatoff’s playing and tone are reminiscent of Stan Getz (particularly in the final song Swings) and McGimpsey’s guitar is clean and nuanced. 

Ontario 559 West is an alluring concept which is executed by two sympathetic musicians.

04 Francois HouleRecoder
François Houle 4
Songlines Records SGL1632-2 (songlines.com/release/recoder) 

Canadian clarinetist/composer/improviser and all-round inspiring musician François Houle works here again with Canadian Gordon Grdina (guitar), and in first-time collaborations with Americans Mark Helias (double bass/clarinet) and Gerry Hemingway (drums). The eight free-improvised Houle/Helias clarinet duets, and seven full-band Houle compositions, are memorable in their smart stylistic modern jazz/contemporary diversities and performance virtuosities.

Houle’s spontaneous single-take improvisations with Helias are short – some less than a minute – yet bursting with musical ideas. Each duet is placed between the longer Houle compositions, giving a welcome contrast. The opening Prelude features tonal, short, sweet and calming two-clarinet melodic interchanges by the two masters. At under one minute, it tweaks interest in what is to come. Interlude 1 features high-pitched contrapuntal lines, like the little birds singing outside my window, and is a great contrast to the fast, complex, dense full-band The Black Bird – the track just before it – with its slower guitar solo midsection and touches of superimposed jazz and avant-garde full-band sounds. The brilliant title track Recoder has all things musical, from pacesetting staccato guitar opening plucks, full-band, wall-of-sound effects, standard swinging grooves, amazing Houle rapid clarinet lines and clear production values.

Houle writes in his notes that he formulated “an approach that would be mindful of giving each instrument within the quartet complete involvement.” From calm to intense, his brave musical approach drives Recoder to timeless musical permanence.

Listen to 'Recoder' Now in the Listening Room

05 palladium 2020Palladium 2020
Independent (2020palladium.bandcamp.com)

In celebration of the legendary Wayne Shorter’s 87th birthday, inspired impresario and producer Jesse Markowitz has created a two-disc, 22-track recording project featuring 30-plus musicians performing compositions written and/or made famous by the iconic saxophonist/composer. Released on Shorter’s birthday, August 25, this project is also an uplifting response to a world thrown into the harsh reality of a global pandemic. The impressive roster of artists on Palladium 2020 has been handpicked/curated by Markowitz, and reflects Shorter’s eclectic and luminous creative life, as well as many of his seminal collaborations, including those with Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Wynton Kelly, Weather Report and Herbie Hancock.

There are myriad brilliant contributions to this project, however several tracks stand out, having been culled from some of Shorter’s most memorable recordings. Embracing the length and breadth of his stellar career, it includes the ultra-cool bop exploration The Summit, taken from Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers’ 1960 release Meet You at the Jazz Corner of the World, and features Nicole Glover’s burning tenor. Consummate pianist Eric Reed’s interpretation of Sydney (from Wynton Kelly’s 1959 Kelly Great) is not only masterful, but has captured the very essence of Shorter’s deeply sensitive soul. 

Of special profundity is legendary soprano player Dave Liebman’s journey around the galaxy, flying on Shorter’s Footprints, first released on Miles Davis’ 1966 Miles Smiles, and arranged in a fresh way – as an elemental duo with the great Willy Rodriguez on drums. Leibman is as dynamic and rife with ideas as usual. This entire project is a tribute not only to Shorter himself, but to the very elemental power of music – power to heal and transform – which is exactly what Shorter has done through his art for his entire career.

08 West meets EastWest Meets East
Adam Shulman Septet
Cellar Music CM110219 (cellarlive.com/collections/all) 

San Francisco-based star pianist, bandleader and composer Adam Shulman has let his passion for the golden era of jazz shine with this latest release featuring a stellar gathering of musicians who really bring a unique light to each piece. With key talents such as David Wong on upright bass, Rodney Green on drums and Joe Magnarelli on trumpet, the tracks take on a life of their own, as everyone’s contribution brings out a different facet and aspect within the sonorous melodies. The album does a great job of showcasing Shulman’s talent as both a pianist and composer. Seven out of eight pieces are penned by him and bring forth a tremendous horn section balanced out by driving bass lines and sultry melodies from the keys. 

The record starts off with a toe-tapping tune titled Nickel and Dimed and is a little wink at a “borrowed chord structure from Tin Pan Alley’s Pennies from Heaven.” It’s a traditional swing piece that has an addictive groove to it carried forward by Green’s constant shuffle, Wong’s moving bass pizzicato topped off by Magnarelli’s soaring and bright trumpet melody. Lean and Mean is a unique composition with the main tune following a stepped pattern that meanders along the scale and truly shines a spotlight on the gifted horn section in the septet. Traditional jazz flavour with a renewed breath and twist to it makes this album a new staple for any jazz enthusiast.

07 Grilli 19621962
Ricardo Grilli
Tone Rogue Records (toneroguerecords.com/#/1962)

An example of bona fide musical time travel, Brazilian native Ricardo Grilli has released a truly haunting and meaning-laden set of tracks that lead us into another period in both musical and personal history that has shaped who the guitarist is now. The follow-up to a similarly themed album, 1954, this record is a reflection of Grilli’s thoughts on a meaningful era which he expresses through “[focusing] on the idea of evolution and change that characterized the 1960s” and embedding it into his music. Helping to realize his musical vision, the guitarist called together a quintet of famed musicians like saxophone great Mark Turner, pianist Kevin Hays and bassist Joe Martin. 

Taking cues from the title, 1954-1962 is an ethereal and meandering piece that connects the previous record to this one, a true bridge through time with Grilli leading us on a spacious journey with his melancholic guitar melody. In Coyote, a simmering and sultry samba-flavoured song, we hear the Brazilian hark back to the history and culture of his homeland, a possible reflection of the tumultuous state his country was in at the time and a longing for something familiar. Voyager, a fittingly titled piece to close out the album, carries a note of hope and exploration within, the rollicking piano tune and driving drum groove letting us know that although our musical journey has come to a close, the future is always a continuous voyage.

09 John FedchockInto the Shadows
John Fedchock NY Sextet
Summit Records DCD 765 (summitrecords.com) 

New York City-based John Fedchock has long been an internationally regarded trombonist, with an extensive list of credentials. On his tenth recording as a leader, Fedchock also serves as producer/composer/arranger in order to create a magnificent celebration of the jazz sextet. Perhaps better known as the leader of his multiple Grammy-nominated New York Big Band, Fedchock has chosen here to highlight the opportunities for musical and unique creative writing options while maintaining a sleek and mobile blend. Fedchock first debuted his sextet 20 years ago, and the gifted members include first-call jazz artists Scott Wendholt on trumpet and flugelhorn; Walt Weiskopf on tenor saxophone; Allen Farnham on piano; David Finck on bass; and Eric Halvorson on drums.

Of the eight compositions here, five are written by Fedchock and three are well-known standards that are rife with harmonic/dissident arranging choices – maintaining a healthy balance between pure swinging and improvisational exploration. Up first is the high-octane RSVP, a rhythmic, Latin-infused leader-penned piece, cleverly utilizing the changes from the standard Invitation and featuring masterful soloing from all, most especially tenorist Weiskopf who burns like a bonfire throughout. Alpha Dog’s Art Blakey-ish shuffle (kudos to Halvorson) is a total delight, replete with masterful solos from Fedchock, Wendholt and Farnham.

The languid title track plumbs the depth and solitude of the creative process itself, while the sextet displays some of the most symbiotic playing on the project, parenthesized by Fedchock’s sonorous trombone. Finck’s considerable skill with Latin modalities is clearly ascertainable on the compelling arrangement of Star Eyes (Raye/DePaul) and the up-tempo closer, On the Edge, embraces everything that the art form of jazz is about and also transports this sacred musical expression boldly into the future.

10 Part Solution2 Part Solution
Frank Basile/Sam Dillon Quintet
Cellar Music CM110519 (cellarlive.com/collections/all) 

In the art world, to make something distinctive one doesn’t necessarily have to aim for unprecedented or boundary-pushing new forms; Frank Basile and Sam Dillon have proven that relying on the tried and true can be equally effective. On their latest release, Two Part Solution, this approach takes the form of straight-ahead standard jazz arrangements. Musically speaking, the main selling point here is the tenor/baritone sax interplay that anchors each track. Basile’s rich baritone soars over the lavish mix, commanding the ensemble with impeccable phrasing and making the quintet sound almost as full as a big band. Dillon’s sheer virtuosity on tenor provides a perfect musical foil. 

The original compositions that Dillon and Basile have provided are highlights of the collection, easily measuring up to the well-chosen standards of the set. In particular, Dillon’s Monk-esque title track is a thing of beauty, featuring some of the most elegant and intricate harmony on the album. It is thanks to the unusual bottom-heavy tonality courtesy of the dynamic band-leading duo, the production efforts of Cory Weeds and the powerful contributions of drummer Aaron Kimmel that the quintet achieves such a gratifyingly dense sound. 

While far from the most left-field jazz recording this year, Two Part Solution breathes refreshing new life into a sound that has too often been presumed dead.

11 EmpireCD007Inland Empire
Inland Empire
Clean Feed CF 548 CD (cleanfeed-records.com)

Cementing a Northern alliance, Canadian pianist Kris Davis joins Swedish tenor saxophonist/clarinetist Fredrik Ljungkvist and Norwegians, bassist Ole Morten Vågan and drummer Øyvind Skarbø for six originals that slyly build on each player’s skills.

A mercurial stylist who often unexpectedly changes course in the middle of a tune, Davis’ Surf Curl vibrates with intermittent keyboard fluctuations. These quicken alongside reed peeps and tambourine-like smacks to invest the performance with nervous energy. Contrast this with her Arcadian patterning, evolving in tandem with Ljungkvist’s rustic clarinet squeezes on his Jag Vet Inte. It’s a tune that’s so understated that Skarbø’s beat is the result of pulsed brush work. He makes up for that on his own Fighter which carves out space for a pugnacious drum break that’s all splatters and ruffs within a composition that’s as slinky and mysterious as a cop show soundtrack. Vågan’s string thumps here and his distinctive woody reprise on his tunes Truffle Pigs and Katmandu Stray Dogs are the bassist’s only features. But his cohesive pulse is a constant. Like Davis’ crimped asides or Ljungkvist’s theme variations cycling through multiple pitches and volumes, technical interludes usually evolve in duo situations or only briefly as singular showpieces. Group sensibility and keeping cohesion paramount throughout appear to be the CD’s aim. It fits with the common view of the musicians’ respective countries as reflections of non-aggressive competence. Clichés aside, musically this is one Inland Empire worth a visit.

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