02 Gryphon TrioThe End of Flowers
Gryphon Trio
Analekta AN 2 9520 (analekta.com)

There’s no explanation in the booklet about the CD’s title, The End of Flowers. An online search led to Gryphon cellist Roman Borys’ comments: “The First World War brought with it unprecedented loss of life, youth and hope. It was the end of flowers… fields lay barren, blasted and churned beyond recognition.” Borys continues: “In the winds of war Ravel and Clarke composed two remarkable piano trios… not intended as memorials but [which] stand as a testament to the enduring power of life and art.”

Rebecca Clarke left no programmatic description of her 1921 Piano Trio, two years after her other major work, the richly melodic Viola Sonata. Unlike the sonata, her trio evinces the influence of the war. Turmoil erupts immediately with the explosive opening of the Moderato ma appassionato, a movement marked by turbulent melodies, restless rhythms and a distinct bugle-call motif. The mournful Andante molto semplice is followed by the final Allegro vigoroso, alternating between a life-affirming folky tune and quiet reflection. There’s a reprise of the first movement’s agitation and the bugle call, but the trio ends on a positive, buoyant note. This gripping, emotion-filled work deserves to be much better known. Hear it!

Ravel’s familiar Piano Trio lacks obvious war-references, but it garners an especially gravitas-laden interpretation from the Gryphon Trio – University of Toronto artists-in-residence currently celebrating their 25th anniversary. Both of these marvellous works receive exemplary performances in a disc to hear and re-hear.

03 Megumi MasakiMusic4Eyes+Ears
Megumi Masaki
Centrediscs CMCCD 24017 (musiccentre.ca)

The title of this (Blu-ray+CD) package is an obvious giveaway. If you’re about to dive into its contents, then do so Blu-ray first. The reason is simple: the cover not only reads Music4Eyes+Ears, the visceral excitement of the music is also magnified exponentially by viewing Megumi Masaki perform her music on the Blu-ray. Although Keith Hamel’s Touch is the only work performed on both, its enormous impact when viewed on Blu-ray is absolute proof of the visual experience. Remember also that music was a visual experience long before the invention of recording technology. Those eager listeners who decide to jump in CD-first anyway are hardly likely to be disappointed, though.

Music4Eyes+Ears is made up of repertoire that is simply breathtaking. That has principally to do with Masaki’s pianism. Her depth of understanding of narrative is unprecedented and her ability to translate musical composition into something emotionally vivid and alive is quite extraordinary. Orpheus Drones by T. Patrick Carrabré is an evanescent work in which the legendary Greek protagonist, musician, poet and prophet is served by the closest approximation of what might be described as divine music. The follow-up, Orpheus (2), is superbly related to death and descent – the politically motivated murder of Chilean singer Victor Jara becoming its principle contemporary metaphor via Margaret Atwood’s poem.

The performance of Touch is where the worlds of eyes and ears meet. But while the music itself is statuesque and graceful, it is in the balletic performance by Masaki on the Blu-ray that it comes magically alive. The floating melody and harmony, egged on by a plethora of ethereally sounding bells (played electronically) is heightened also by the sweeping hand movements, often in the air above the keyboard, which become visual metaphors as they tell a tactile story of dancers coming together and drawing apart.

In Ferrovia, Masaki aligns her visionary performance with the ethereal conceptions of composer Brent Lee and multimedia artist Sigi Torinus. The near-impossible realities of physical and mathematical sciences collide with a human presence, around which dynamic images provoke grief-suggesting sounds. Meanwhile the powerful music of Hamel’s Corona echoes with its own intercessory, who appears in the form of a spectral Gérard Grisey. And the often-terrifying Stanley Kubrick film The Shining comes alive in Kubrick Études by Nicole Lizée, which incorporates (often glitched) clips from his films. However, throughout the discs, despair and ugliness are compellingly resolved by the beauty and hope of Masaki’s musicianship.

04 KumbosKumbos
Paulo J Ferreira Lopes; Karoline Leblanc
Atrito-Afeito (atrito-afeito.com)

Even if you really, really dislike electroacoustic music, give this release a try because its strength in sound, collaboration and experimentation lead to accessible listening. Montreal-based composer/performer Paulo J Ferreira Lopes utilizes his many, many clever and established electro and percussion skills to create a fascinating musical conversation with his collaborator, acoustic keyboards performer Karoline Leblanc, in this one-track, hand-numbered 200 limited edition sound adventures release.

Kumbos begins with an attention-grabbing recurring percussive opening and dense piano chords. The subsequent soundscape of high pitched squeaks and cymbal washes against piano textures is a pleasing juxtaposition of sound effects. More melodic piano lines provide contrast in the quieter sections. Love the sudden loud electronic crashes. Highly effective are the numerous silences interspersed throughout the work, which are welcome escapes from sound, and music in their own right. These add to the creation of musical intrigue leading to the final climactic conversation of more intense electroacoustic rhythms, large held piano chords and washes of sound colour.

There are touches of field recordings by Leblanc which are a bit of a strain to hear but are colourful musical diversions. Additional melodic piano sections would be welcome, as well as more drum kit against electronic effects. The production is clear and the instrument levels are balanced. Repeated listening adds to a gratifying appreciation of detail in performance and composition.

05 Shadow EtchingsShadow Etchings – New Music for Flute
Orlando Cela
Ravello Records RR7982 (ravellorecords.com)

Orlando Cela’s Shadow Etchings is a nine-track collection of recent compositions for flute using “extended techniques,” whistle tones, harmonics, vocalizing and playing at the same time, blowing air quickly through the flute without making an actual pitch and so on. Having some experience with extended techniques I can say with some conviction that Cela does them very well.

A brief description of each track will provide an idea of what is on this recording: Jean-Patrick Besingrand’s Le soupir du roseau dans le bras du vent, the first track, is derived from Claude Debussy’s Syrinx. Beginning with the first couple of phrases of Syrinx, variations are added using vocalizations, breath tones, throat flutters and other distortions of which the flute is capable. Lou Bunk’s Winter Variations consists of distorted long tones on the flute with percussive discords on the piano. Robert Gross’ Variations on a Schenker Graph of Gesualdo, combines manipulated electronics with harsh multiphonics and vocal punctuations by the flutist. Dana Kaufman’s Hang Down Your Head is a disjointed version of the original Tom Dooley folk melody complete with vocal growls, whistles and shrieks. The three movements of Stratis Minakakis’ Skiagrafies II offer lots of multiphonics, overtones, shimmers, vibes and twitters. A Turning Inwards by Edward Maxwell Dulaney gives us high alternating overtone whistles and Self-Portrait by Ziteng Ye is built on wavering, breathy tones with some voice added.

All in all, this disc offers an intriguing introduction to some of the new sounds available to the contemporary flutist.

Listen to 'Shadow Etchings' Now in the Listening Room

06 Lachenmann clarinetAesthetic Apparatus – Clarinet Chamber Music of Helmut Lachenmann
Gregory Oakes; Matthew Coley; Jonathan Sturm; Mei-suang Huang; George Work
New Focus Recordings FCR196 (gregoryoakes.com)

Utter the name Helmut Lachenmann in a loud stage whisper, being sure to accentuate fully the consonants, exaggerating the different vowel colours, and you’ll have an idea what it is like to perform his music. He asks performers to make varying sounds which require a complete rethinking of one’s technical approach. Lachenmann, Maurizio Kagel and Heinz Holliger have led the way to innovative notations depicting the strange breath effects, kisses, clicks, squeaks and honks they demand from performers.

In Aesthetic Apparatus, clarinetist Gregory Oakes has compiled three substantial chamber works by Lachenmann. The first, Dal Niente, for solo clarinet, is an extension of silence into a variety of soundscapes. Oakes conveys conviction that all the sounds he generates belong in a congruent whole, and with more hearings I’m certain I’d agree. What is unusual in this recording is the extended periods of nearly empty time, where the effects produced might be more easily perceived if one could see them produced. It takes chutzpah to publish this performance on a sound-only recording.

Trio Fluido, for clarinet, viola and percussion, provides a richer soundscape, although the writing is still full of attenuated pauses. Early exchanges between the instruments seem full of repressed violence, which occasionally breaks out into outright hostility. Beyond this, there are delightful moments of simply elegant trialogue, as if three species of creature are employing their various intelligences to match one another’s language.

Allegro Sostenuto, for clarinet, cello and piano, completes this wonderful exploration. I use the term “tonal” modified by “somewhat more” to indicate that in contrast to the first two tracks, this work exploits more interplay between pitches than raw sounds, making it perhaps the most immediately listenable.

07 Daniel CrozierEast of the Sun & West of the Moon – Orchestral Music of Daniel Crozier
Seattle Symphony; Gerard Schwarz; Moravian PO; Stanislav Vavřínek
Navona Records NV6137 (danielcrozier.com)

“These are fairy tale pieces,” writes American composer Daniel Crozier (b.1965), professor of theory and composition at Florida’s Rollins College. Crozier names only one of the stories, saying it’s more entertaining for listeners to use their own imaginations.

The 34-minute Symphony No.1: Triptych for Orchestra begins with Ceremonies, a movement whose sombre sonorities and unstable tonal centres suggest portentous, menacing situations. The second movement, Capriccio, with its sprightly winds, dancing strings and outbursts of brass and percussion, conjures (for me) images of malicious elves cavorting in a dark forest. The final movement, Fairy Tale: East of the Sun and West of the Moon, draws its title from a Norwegian folk tale containing many familiar fairy tale elements. This, the symphony’s slow movement, features a long-lined, otherworldly melody for the violins followed by a solo flute floating over hushed strings. I was quite taken with this music – rather than hearing episodes of a story, I “saw” a beautiful, secluded mountain lake, shimmering under the stars. The symphony ends by recalling its ominous opening before quietly fading away. No happily-ever-after here. The Seattle Symphony Orchestra and conductor Gerard Schwarz provide an energetic, virtuosic performance.

The 11-minute Ballade: A Tale after the Brothers Grimm resembles the symphony’s second movement – animated playfulness bracketing a sinister-sounding, slow middle section. It’s performed by the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra under Stanislav Vavřínek.

Both of these very colourful works are well worth a listen.

08 Wind BandAlchemize – Music for Wind Band
U of Southern Mississippi Wind Ensemble; Catherine A. Rand
Naxos 8.573587 (naxos.com)

This album from the Naxos Wind Band Series features performances from the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) Wind Ensemble of two substantial works from a pair of eminent American composers, both born in 1943. Joseph Schwantner’s Luminosity is subtitled “Concerto for Wind Orchestra.” The opening movement, marked spiritoso e energico, pretty well sums up the essence of this composer’s upbeat style. The work brings the percussion section up front (literally) from the get-go, though the introspective middle movement is in effect a clarinet concerto featuring USM clarinet professor Jackie McIlwain. The finale turns the spotlight back on the drum line to mercilessly aggressive effect – are you ready for some football? Not I!

By contrast, the seven movements of David Maslanka’s Hosannas strike an elegiac tone. Writing in an unabashedly tonal language, Maslanka composed over 50 works for wind ensembles before his unexpected demise last year; the album is dedicated to his memory. Chorale tunes and similar simple melodies abound in this kaleidoscopic work. The disc concludes with a tantalizing fragment of a work by Steven Bryant (born 1972), the first movement of his Alchemy in Silent Spaces, which unfolds from an extended introduction for piano and pitched percussion instruments to eventually reveal the full ensemble. It’s a pity we don’t get to hear the full potential of it; at a miserly 54 minutes the disc certainly has room to spare. Marching bands and their more refined cousins, wind ensembles, number in the thousands in the USA. Judging from the evidence of this disc the USM ensemble belongs among the elite of the order.

09 Marcus BluntMarcus Blunt – Orchestral Works
Murray McLachlan; Lesley Wilson; Manchester Camerata; Stephen Threlfall
metier msv 28570 (divineartrecords.com)

This CD presents four works by British composer Marcus Blunt (b.1947), the longest of which is the 27-minute Piano Concerto, ably performed by English pianist Murray McLachlan. Blunt describes the second movement Largo as “tense, mysterious, subdued,” words I’d apply as well to the first and third movements, up until the concerto’s surprisingly upbeat, triumphal final two minutes. Another word I’d use for this work is “ambiguous” – both in tonality and emotion – creating not-unpleasant sensations of disquiet and suspended disequilibrium.

At just under seven minutes, Aspects of Saturn for string orchestra continues the ambiguity, as Blunt observes that in astrology, the planet Saturn somehow represents the contradictory qualities of “self-discipline” and “ambition,” “limitation” and “aspiration.” The music is similarly both disciplined and assertive. The 11-minute, five-movement Concertino for Bassoon and String Orchestra, reshaping material from two of Blunt’s earlier works, was written for and performed here by Lesley Wilson. Here again, constant major-minor shifts and indefinite tonality create emotional ambivalence in what would otherwise have been an innocently playful work. Blunt’s Symphony No.2 lasts nearly 17 minutes, comprising an elegiac Andante, the most emotionally overt music on the disc, plus three gently melodious Allegretto movements.

The pervading elusiveness of Blunt’s music makes for an unusually intriguing listening experience. The Manchester Camerata under Stephen Threlfall provides solid support throughout. 

01 Justin GrayNew Horizons
Justin Gray & Synthesis
Independent (justingraysynthesis.com)

New Horizons, the debut album from Justin Gray and Synthesis, features a large ensemble – 19 musicians total, over the album’s nine tracks – playing both Western and Indian classical instruments. While this unique instrumentation helps to realize the stylistic fusion at the heart of New Horizons, the album’s distinct sound also comes from Gray’s performance on the bass veena, a custom string instrument that Gray designed and co-created.
The spirit of fusion – or synthesis, to borrow the album’s own vernacular – extends to the performances on New Horizons’ strong, balanced tracks. Highlights include the brooding, contemplative Eventide, which features beautiful bansuri playing from Steve Gorn, and Unity, with a winning contribution from guitarist Joy Anandasivam. The backbeat-heavy Rise is perhaps the most overtly rock-influenced piece, with confident solos both from Gray and from guitarist Joel Schwartz.

Along with rock-solid percussion playing – most notably from drummer Derek Gray and tabla player Ed Hanley – the sound of the bass veena anchors the album. On songs like New Horizons and Migration, on which Gray plays the melody, the effect is compelling, as the bass veena, while sharing some obvious similarities with the fretless electric bass and Indian classical string instruments like the sarod, has a deep, nasal, melodic sound that is all its own. The same spirit of invention applies to New Horizons as a whole: it is an album that makes no mystery of its influences, choosing instead to celebrate them in a beautiful, fully formed vision that transcends its own composite parts. 

02 Never DieNEVER DIE!
Independent (gordonhyland.com)

NEVER DIE! is the debut album of Living Fossil, a group led by tenor saxophonist Gordon Hyland. Hyland is joined on NEVER DIE! by Mike Murley (tenor sax), Mackenzie Longpré (drums), Andrew Roorda (electric bass), Vivienne Wilder (acoustic bass), Neil Whitford (electric guitar), and Torrie Seager (electric guitar). Having two guitarists is somewhat atypical, even on a modern jazz album with rock and fusion elements, but it is part of the album’s magic that Whitford and Seager’s complementary voices are deployed so well, including on the title track, which features one of the most compelling sax solos of the album. Hyland is an exciting, technically-accomplished player – imagine Donny McCaslin with the gain turned up – but his dedication to musicality is evident throughout the album, whose most bombastic moments tend to be anchored by strong melodic statements. Murley joins the band on three tracks, including baby steps, a 3/4 rewriting of Coltrane’s Giant Steps. Far from the hard-driving, up-tempo treatment that Giant Steps usually receives, baby steps is restrained and sweet, with intelligent, engaging trading between the two tenors.

While this particular project is new, the members of Living Fossil have been playing together for over ten years, and this shared history goes a long way to explain the remarkable confidence and cohesiveness of this album. Credit, of course, must also be attributed to Hyland, whose clear vision – as composer, bandleader and producer – is sharply realized throughout the recording’s fastidiously-constructed program.

03 Brian DickinsonMusic for Jazz Orchestra
Brian Dickinson
Addo Records AJR036 (briandickinson.ca)

Music for Jazz Orchestra, a new big band album on Addo Records from pianist/bandleader/composer Brian Dickinson, is in part a tribute, although not a tribute album. The disc is anchored by The Gentle Giant Suite, an original three-part homage to the late Kenny Wheeler, written following Wheeler’s passing in the fall of 2014. Dickinson and Wheeler share a long history, collaborating both with other musicians (including drummer Joe LaBarbera and vocalist Norma Winstone) and on the duo album Still Waters, recorded in 1998 at Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto.

Dickinson’s exemplary compositional and arranging skills – which are on full display throughout The Gentle Giant Suite – are matched by his sophisticated piano playing, both as a soloist and as a member of the excellent rhythm section, which features bassist Jim Vivian, drummer Ted Warren, and guitarist Sam Dickinson, who shares his father’s harmonic maturity. Beyond the suite, the medium-slow 3/4 Gil (written for Gil Evans) is a beautiful, texturally rich piece that showcases the sensitivity of the horn section; it also features compelling solos from Brian Dickinson, saxophonist Kelly Jefferson, trumpeter Kevin Turcotte, and an especially strong showing from Sam Dickinson. Orion, written for Wayne Shorter, is perhaps the album’s most bombastic offering – the ferocious shout chorus alone is worth the price of admission – but it also contains a powerful, perfectly paced piano solo from Dickinson. Overall, an excellent album: confident, nuanced and captivating from beat one. 

04 Nick MacleanRites of Ascension
Nick Maclean Quartet
Browntasauras Records NCC-1701K (nicholasmaclean.com)

Rites of Ascension, the debut album from the Nick Maclean Quartet, is a tribute to Herbie Hancock’s elemental 1960s Blue Note era recordings, and a daring original musical statement on its own. Formed in 2016 under the leadership of Maclean, the group salutes the great improvisers while generating original tunes that are crisp and cognizant.

These four musicians – Maclean (piano), Brownman Ali (trumpet), Jesse Dietschi (acoustic bass) and Tyler Goertzen (drums) – have a great synergy and drive, and some serious chops. Their renditions of Hancock’s four classics are full of energy and forward momentum while managing to retain the unhurried character of the earlier compositions. The original tunes (six by Maclean and one by Ali) are both intimate and global, touching upon themes from mythology and history to personal growth and the critical mind. Maclean’s creative mind and aesthetics are obvious in every aspect of this album, his piano solos both lyrical and invigorating, supported by a stellar rhythm section. The album features fiercely strong trumpet solos, indicative of Freddie Hubbard’s style at times and distinctively unique.

Elasticity of Time and Space is a standout – I loved the opening theme, metric modulations and tempo changes, as well as playfully robust solos. Feral Serenity, a haunting and intimate ballad, unfolds a soulful bass and piano exchange. The liner notes, describing each tune in depth, allow the listener to peek behind the curtains of the album in the making.

05 BC Double QuartetDeparture
BC Double Quartet
Cellar Live CL091517 (cellarlive.com)

Bill Coon, JUNO-nominated guitarist and composer, is the mastermind behind BC Double Quartet’s new release Departures. The music on this album is refreshingly innovative and engaging. In the words of the composer: “Jazz quartet meets string quartet on this new recording, and each quartet has their unique universe of possibilities. As a writer, the gleeful rush for me is to explore the potential of these intersecting universes.”

Here we can hear several different (sub)genres, all blended together, sometimes in the same piece. The jazz quartet doesn’t deviate from their genre while string quartet writing is more varied – sometimes classical, sometimes cinematic, and when not densely lyrical, full of rhythmic life with groovy hooks and textures. Bill Coon is a clever arranger and a masterful guitar player, and the rest of the musicians are just superb. The ensemble has a wonderful chemistry. The title song, featuring splendid strings, a solid rhythm section and alluring solos, was conceived at the Banff Centre for the Arts. I truly enjoyed Coon’s arrangement of Chorando Baixinho by Abel Ferreira – the beautiful melody is enriched with pizzicato string textures, mellow guitar over the bass lines and a sultry trumpet solo. Another favourite is Zattitude, a catchy, lively number that exudes the infectious feeling of joy and charming zest. The liner notes offer short musings on each piece. Highly recommended.

Listen to 'Departure' Now in the Listening Room

06 Boule SpielBoule Spiel
Magda Mayas; Éric Normand; Pierre-Yves Martel
Tour de Bras TDB 9025 (tourdebras.com)

An enthralling sonic landscape encompassing mercurial harshness, unexpected contours and cultivated accents, Boule Spiel is an affirmation of the textural cooperation among German pianist Magda Mayas and two Québécois musicians, electric bassist Éric Normand of Rimouski, where the session was recorded, and Montreal viola da gamba player Pierre-Yves Martel. Those instruments, along with “feedback, snare drum, objects and speaker” are the only sound-makers listed. But the minimalist tones which blend to create this two-track journey, including keening whistles, string plucks, bell peals, percussive thumps, feedback flutters and oscillated hums, not only make individual attribution unlikely, but at the same time highlight the constant unexpected shifts within the understated unrolling sequences.

Emphasizing atmosphere over narrative or instrumental virtuosity, the trio’s blended output, especially on the more-than-30-minute introductory Lancer, contains enough processed drones, electric bass stops, keyboard patterning and inner-piano-string plucks to vary the aural scenery enough to create a sense of harmonic and rhythmic progress, but without jarring interludes. By the time the concluding Spiegelbildauflösung or “mirror image resolution” fades away, the three confirm how carefully each can reflect the others’ cerebral improvisations. An enlightened sound journey has been reflected and completed, but the details of what transpired individually are impossible to accurately analyze.

07 John HollenbeckAll Can Work
John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble
New Amsterdam NWAM094 (newamrecords.com)

Drummer John Hollenbeck convened 20 of New York’s most accomplished improvisers to interpret his newest compositions and arrangements. Concerned mostly with the harmonic relationship among instrumental sections and textures which blend into pastel billows, Hollenbeck’s conception is horizontal and flowing, with limits on solos. It’s characterized by this kiss, composed for a Romeo and Juliet project, which embeds pianist Mat Mitchell’s dynamic theme elaborations within a buoyant, sprightly narrative. That said, the introductory lud is built around multiple idiophone vibrations, cushioned by horn breaths that quickly draw you into Hollenbeck’s multiple creations. The final track The Model, lifted from the repertory of German electronica band Kraftwerk, is light, bracing and wraps up the session with hints of a spirited I Love Paris-like vamp.

Still, the paramount performances salute two of the composer’s deceased heroes. Kenny Wheeler is celebrated with a galloping arrangement of his Heyoke, where flugelhornist Matt Holman personifies Wheeler’s expressiveness within waves of brass accompaniment even as trombonist Jacob Garchik’s hairy outbursts confirm the arrangement’s originality. Theo Bleckmann’s wordless scatting adds distinct harmonies to Heyoke, but he’s put to even better use on All Can Work, saluting New York teacher/big band trumpeter Laurie Fink. Treating phrases from Fink’s humorous emails as found poetry, the sumptuous performance subtly builds up to an atmospheric crescendo, where the sung words and instrumental passages become virtually indistinguishable. With Hollenbeck now teaching at McGill, this CD is another reminder of the US’ loss to Canada.

08 Francois BourassaNumber 9
François Bourassa Quartet
Effendi Records FND150 (effendirecords.com)

With the release of his ninth CD, François Bourassa reminds us why he is considered to be one of the jazz world’s finest pianist/composers. All of the superb material here has been written and produced by Bourassa. His talented group includes longtime collaborators André Leroux on tenor sax, flute and clarinets, Guy Boisvert on bass and Greg Ritchie on drums. From the downbeat, this is a group that communicates on a psychic level, soaring together through the highest realms of musical creativity and jazz expression, travelling via the emotional pathway of the heart.

The compositions reflect a nostalgic reverie for Bourassa – melodic portraits of people, places and events, now revisited with a big dose of mature vision as well as the muted and misty sepia-toned colours of memory. All members of the Quartet are really time travellers who (in addition to firm linear time) also intuitively understand the quantum multi-dimensional nature of spacetime, and that the “now” is the conceivable and creative aspect of all that is.

Standouts include Carla und Karlheinz, which was written in honour of avant-garde pianist/composer Carla Bley and electronic music pioneer Karlheinz Stockhausen. The clever juxtaposition of styles here is simultaneously mindbending and delightful. Bourassa’s technical skill on this challenging track is also thrilling, and Leroux sizzles on his gymnastic solo. Also evocative are Frozen, which conjures isolated, inescapable fields of nothingness, and Past Ich, featuring gorgeous, melodic playing from Bourassa, punctuated by Leroux’s alternately caressing and yowling soprano sax.

Clearly, this profound, beautifully recorded project will be considered one of the finest international jazz recordings of the year.

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