05 SteveSwelCD007Music for Six Musicians: Hommage à Olivier Messiaen
Steve Swell
Silkheart SHCD 161 (silkheart.se)

Taking the post-modern concept of saluting favoured musicians without recreating their work, trombonist Steve Swell convened a sextet of New York improvisers to play five of his compositions expanding on the work of French composer Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992). Extrapolating Messiaen’s complex harmonies, rhythms and melodies to the 21st century, this 76-minute suite manages to replicate orchestral verisimilitude with violist Jason Kao Hwang, cellist Tomas Ulrich, alto saxophonist Rob Brown, keyboardist Robert Boston and drummer Jim Pugliese.
Boston’s ecclesiastical organ fills create the perfect environment for a sly takeoff on Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, titled Sextet for the End of Democracy. Quiet but sardonic like the 1941 classic, this piece features appropriate aviary cackles from the strings and plunger variables by Swell. Contrasting melodic cello and astringent reed timbres contribute to the juddering swing as the tune climaxes with swelling organ pulsations. Comparable transformations advance the other tracks, with the polyphonic and nearly atonal final Exit the Labyrinth filled with squeaking strings and blowsy horns reaching a passionate crescendo; and Joy and the Remarkable Behavior of Time outright jazz, matching drum shuffles and pseudo-tailgate trombone with cascading piano chording.

Tellingly it’s the nearly 25-minute Opening track which sets up compositional tropes from the dynamic to the compliant, with as many dual contrapuntal challenges and pseudo-romantic tutti outbursts as solos that measure technique against inspiration. More than a Hommage, the performance demonstrates how considered inspiration can create a work as memorable as its antecedent(s).

01 Chris PlattSky Glow
Chris Platt Trio
Independent (chrisplattmusic.ca)

Released internationally in March 2018, guitarist Chris Platt’s debut album is a tight, well-crafted collection of seven original compositions, performed in guitar trio format. Joining Platt are bassist Phill Albert and drummer Robin Claxton, both of whom, like Platt, are graduates of the University of Toronto’s Jazz Studies program. Both Albert and Claxton provide intelligent, engaging support throughout, with compelling solo moments of their own.

Sky Glow has firm roots in the guitar trio tradition. The album is anchored by Platt’s ligneous archtop tone, and for good reason: his sound is warm and expressive, and synthesizes some of the most pleasant qualities of electric and acoustic guitar playing. The guitar is strongly present in both channels, and is generally foregrounded, allowing the finer details of articulation to be heard throughout the album. While this might become overwhelming with a different player, Platt is sensitive enough that the choice works well. The overall effect, as on the straight-eighths, bossa-tinged title track, is that the deep texture of the guitar provides the backdrop against which the action of the music takes place, even during moments of double-time single-note soloing.

Beyond the title track, notable selections include the contemplative, 3/4 I Like The Sad Ones, the raucous Platter and the beautiful When You’re Not Here, a solo piece whose pairing of harmonic sophistication and hollow-body warmth succinctly distills Sky Glow’s charming ethos.

Listen to 'Sky Glow' Now in the Listening Room

02 Sometime AgoSometime Ago
Jim Vivian; John Abercrombie; Ian Froman; Mike Murley

Cornerstone Records (cornerstonerecords.com)

John Abercrombie, who passed away at 72 in 2017, was one of the finest jazz guitarists of his generation. He possessed a consummate lyricism and harmonic subtlety that could stand comparison with the guitarists who initially influenced him, like Jim Hall, while his thumb picking, derived from Wes Montgomery, added a warm, personal sound. This session, led by bassist Jim Vivian, was recorded in Toronto in 2016 following a series of performances at Jazz Bistro. Five of the tracks are trio performances with drummer Ian Froman; three tracks add tenor saxophonist Mike Murley.

It’s eminently listenable music, low-key modern jazz that possesses depths and details that reward close attention. Abercrombie, Vivian and Froman weave complex webs of subtly inflected lines, often on jazz standards. The set opens with Everything I Love, a relatively obscure Cole Porter song favoured by jazz musicians – including Bill Evans, whose interactive trio conception informs this group, with Vivian and Froman busy in a positive way. Dave Brubeck’s In Your Own Sweet Way gets a similar, slightly abstracted treatment, while Miles Davis’ Nardis builds from its spare and slightly exotic melody to inspired scalar improvisation.

Vivian comes to the fore on some imaginative repertoire choices, like Petty Harbour Bait Skiff, a song commemorating a nautical disaster from his native Newfoundland, and the Argentinian Sergio Mihanovich’s limpidly beautiful title track. Mike Murley fits in perfectly on the dancing four-way improvisation of Abercrombie’s Another Ralph’s and Vivian’s tuneful Stellaluria.

03 Avi GraniteOrbit
Avi Granite 6
Pet Mantis Records PM102 (petmantisrecords.com)

Avi Granite 6
is a small combo comprising guitarist Granite, together with an extraordinary assemblage of reeds, trumpet, trombone, bass and drums. But Peter Lutek, Jim Lewis, Tom Richards, Neal Davis and Ted Warren are hardly an average backing band for the guitarist. The sextet comes together to offer a gorgeous evocation of Granite’s music on Orbit, which is full of enigmatic depths, expectations, anger, hope, doubt and affirmation amid what seems like a moody atmosphere encountered through a shattered mirror by moonlight.

Despite all of the extreme emotion, Granite’s music as heard on Like a Magazine can be meditative, with long, glistening runs on the guitar and saxophone. The guitarist can also be quite rambunctious, plucking and rattling the strings on the broadly grinning Knocking on the Door, or downright mysterious as on Over and Out/Ancestral Walkie Talkie, with his leaping, parabolic lines punctuated with jabbing octaves.

The music of Orbit has, by its composer’s admission, been incubating for a decade, some of which was spent in a great personal crisis. Coming through has meant everything to Granite and this is reflected not only in the CD’s quieter, more contemplative moments, but also in the jagged, bittersweet works such as Undo Process and When the View Became the Way. Together, these 11 pieces represent the work of a thoughtful composer with exceptional resourcefulness and imagination.

04 Dave YoungOctet Vol. 2
Dave Young/Terry Promane Octet
Modica Music (daveyoung.ca)

Following the success of their first album, Octet Vol. 1, the Dave Young/Terry Promane Octet is back with Vol. 2, a collection of ten songs arranged by group co-leaders Young (bass) and Promane (trombone). A standard bearer for the Canadian large ensemble tradition of Phil Nimmons and Rob McConnell, the DYTP 8 features some of Toronto’s most prominent and well-established musicians, including Kevin Turcotte (trumpet/flugelhorn), Vern Dorge (alto saxophone), Mike Murley (tenor saxophone), Perry White (baritone saxophone), Dave Restivo (piano) and Terry Clarke (drums), all of whom deliver memorable, top-tier performances.

For the uninitiated, the DYTP 8 functions more like a big band than it does as a traditional combo-style group. Listeners can expect to hear clear melodic statements, thoughtfully voiced horn backgrounds, and punchy rhythm section playing, all of which are present on the Promane-arranged Oh, What A Beautiful Morning, the album’s first track. Young’s evocative arrangement of Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love is another winning moment, as is the Murley original Can’t You See, a bouncy, medium-up-tempo bebop tune that features solos from Young, Promane and Murley, in addition to athletic contributions from the whole band, with special mention to drummer Clarke on Promane’s solo.

Highly recommended both to large-ensemble aficionados and newcomers to the genre, Octet Vol. 2 is engaging from start to finish, with a strong performance from an experienced band that sounds bigger and more exciting than many groups twice its size.

05 Out of SilenceOut of Silence
François Carrier; Michel Lambert
FMR Records FMRCD455 (francoiscarrier.com)

Two of Canada’s foremost jazz artists, saxophonist François Carrier and drummer Michel Lambert, have come together to create and record a spontaneous, symbiotic expression of skilled, improvisational, musical possibilities. All of the pieces on this remarkable project are improvised creations of Carrier and Lambert, who by travelling along the tones and beats of mankind’s most elemental musical impulses have morphed into inter-dimensional space/time travellers – soaring seamlessly between conscious and subconscious thought, in and around their own memories and egos, through deep emotional subtext, cultural precepts and to the very soul itself.

This CD was beautifully recorded as a live concert at Ryan’s Bar in London, UK, and Carrier wears several hats here: producer, sound designer and artist. There are seven odysseys on the recording – and each one is evocative and stirring in its own nuanced way, with its own dual-narrative. The opening salvo is the title track – crisp, arrogant, and at the same time, strangely melancholic – like a lost youth from West Side Story questioning every boundary. This is an urban landscape, and Lambert’s intricate and skilled brushwork, propels the action, while Carrier is the virtual voice in the Gotham-like wilderness. Ancient DNA engrams vibrate into this reality, with the addition of Carrier’s Chinese oboe. As the piece progresses, perspective and overview – both musically and emotionally – begin to percolate and coalesce; eventually, a new perspective is birthed by Lambert, whose playing feels as though it could be the sacred heartbeat of Mother Earth herself.

Out of Silence (both the track and the disc as a whole) is brave, audacious and sometimes uncomfortably exposing – but it is also joyous and freeing at a deeply profound level. Only two artists at the peak of their talent, insight and skill could produce a project of such gravitas and complexity.

06 John RoneyThe River
John Roney; Tevet Sela
Effendi Records FND149 (effendirecords.com)

“It’s all kind of going in a big cultural pot.” Those are some of the essence-capturing words Montreal-based jazz pianist John Roney uses to describe The River, his collaborative project with Israeli-born, Montreal-based, alto saxophonist Tevet Sela, in a September 2017 YouTube video introducing the project, which was released the following month. The “it’s” he refers to is the amalgam of their diverse musical influences permeating – or perhaps more apt, flowing through – The River: Middle Eastern, jazz, klezmer, classical chamber music and North African rhythms.

The album is a most engaging collaboration. Roney and Sela are highly skilled and innovative players and composers; this is apparent from The River’s ten original tracks. After listening to the entire CD several times (it warrants an uninterrupted session), these are some of the words that came to mind: lyrical, poignant, probing, driving, intimate, hypnotic, expansive, compelling, moving and mellifluous.

From the CD’s cover art to each evocatively named composition – in addition to the title track are such monikers as Watershed, Always Too Far, Gentle Shifts, Dream in Blue, Closer Horizon, Calm Flat Sea – Sela and Roney have created a singular musical journey that does indeed flow with a river’s momentum.

I conclude, as I began, with some words by Roney from the YouTube video: “The river is really a metaphor for the overwhelming power of inspiration, improvisation and really being spontaneous in the moment, and allow[ing] the music to carry you forward.”

May your spirit be inspired and buoyed up by The River.

07 Jon IrabagonDr. Quixotic’s Traveling Exotics
Jon Irabagon Quartet with Tim Hagans
Irabbagist Records 010 (jonirabagon.com)

Saxophonist Jon Irabagon rose to prominence in Mostly Other People Do the Killing, the eclectic, ironic, virtuosic band that has redefined the parameters of jazz with post-modern pastiche since 2003. His current projects stretch from the modern mainstream to solo sopranino concerts. This quartet is rooted in post-bop (the 60s Jazz Messengers and tenor saxophonists Wayne Shorter and Joe Henderson: riffs, vamps, ostinatos, modes) but has its own approach, with a breadth that extends comfortably forward.

Irabagon sticks to his tenor here, and his big sound and hard-edged authority are apparent from his introduction to The Demon Barber of Fleet Week (the CD has a medicine/freak show theme), focusing the coiled energy of a working band, recorded while on tour in Buenos Aires. Pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Yasushi Nakamura and drummer Rudy Royston all exude the same intense command of a complex language.

Veteran trumpeter Tim Hagans (he first recorded in 1974) joins the group on several tracks, a restrained complement to the leader’s bustle. He’s at his finest on Pretty like North Dakota, from the keening, Miles-like muted playing to the dark, brassy burr of his open sound. The multi-dimensional ballad demonstrates different sides of each member: Perdomo’s translucent grace, Nakamura’s flowing lyricism and Royston’s orchestral drama. Irabagon plays booting tenor, building from blues roots to Coltrane-like flurries, before he and Hagans conclude with an improvised dialogue that crowns both the 15-minute tune and the CD as a whole.

08 LJ FolkNear Me
LJ Folk
Independent NMLJF-FSM-18 (ljfolk.com)

I’ve got a new favourite Toronto singer. And by “new” I mean new to me, because LJ (aka Larry) Folk has been on the scene for decades in various capacities – guitarist, producer, composer and educator – in a variety of genres. But Folk’s focus on singing – and jazz – for his second album, Near Me, means we are all the beneficiaries. A subtle singer, his voice is expressive yet controlled and has a lovely warm tone. In addition to singing, Folk plays guitar on several tracks and his compositions are sprinkled throughout the lineup. Recorded during two separate sessions with a who’s who of Toronto jazz players, the covers include a couple of standards but mostly lean to rock classics.

Highlights of the album are the first track Brazilia!, a breezy, samba-tinged original, featuring Brazilian-born percussionist Maninho Costa and drummer Steve Heathcote, a swing treatment of Bargain by The Who, which works surprisingly well, and a lilting (12/8?) version of Elton John’s Your Song with an extended soulful ending. The best bit is a duet with the exquisite Emilie-Claire Barlow on The Look of Love. Tasteful solos by all the players, including John MacMurchy on sax, Peter Mueller on guitar, Stu Harrison on piano and Pat Collins on bass, round out the charms of this album. Find concert dates at ljfolk.com.

Listen to 'Near Me' Now in the Listening Room

09 Holly ColeHolly
Holly Cole
Universal Music Canada O256726398 (hollycole.com)

It has been five long years since the jazz-infused, honey-voiced Holly Cole has released a CD. Recognized internationally for her unique, sultry performances, the new recording does not disappoint. There has always been a vein of honesty that runs through every note that Cole sings – reflected in her often stripped-down arrangements of engaging and rarely performed material. On this exquisite, self-titled recording, Cole collaborates with genius pianist/keyboardist Larry Goldings. Goldings has notably performed and recorded with such diverse artists as the late jazz guitar legend Jim Hall and iconic popular music artist James Taylor.

Cole produces and contributes to arrangements on the 11 delicious tracks, and her fine collaborators include producer Russ Titelman; Aaron Davis on keyboards; Ed Cherry on guitar; David Piltch and Ben Street on bass; Justin Faulkner and Davide DiRenzo on drums; John Johnson on flute; Scott Robinson on tenor sax and cornet; and Wycliffe Gordon on trombone, who also sings two delicious duets with Cole!

A huge standout is Mose Allison’s Your Mind is on Vacation. Cole’s sassy, ironic interpretation and Davis’ Fender Rhodes solo invoke lost innocence and frustration (of the late 1960s and today). Burke and van Heusen’s It Could Happen to You is presented with a simply stunning piano/vocal arrangement. Set at an unusually slow tempo, Cole deftly wrings every last drop of emotional content from the potent lyric, while Goldings demonstrates how it’s supposed to be done. Teach Me Tonight, is arranged with a big dose of Goldings’ sexy Hammond B3 work – and when Cole sings in her velvety alto “I have lost all fear, my love,” we believe it.

10 Egbo EgboA New Standard
Thompson Egbo-Egbo
eOne Entertainment EMC-CD-16 (egbo.ca)

The notion of standards and the Great American Songbook have defined much of jazz music’s history and each musician must choose a way to address this background. Pianist Thompson Egbo-Egbo’s playfully titled album A New Standard contains both classic and not-so-standard standards.

Egbo-Egbo is a graduate of Humber College, studied at Berklee and regularly plays in Toronto with his trio. He performs with a calm assurance and combines elements of jazz, pop and classical styles. His playing is often more chordal and rhythmic than linear. Drummer Jeff Halischuck and bassist Randall Hall provide a sensitive and nuanced accompaniment.

Album highlights include Sing to the Moon in which Egbo-Egbo offers restrained accompaniment to a gorgeous vocal by Nikki Ponte. Softly As in a Morning Sunrise has a great bounce and right-hand intricacy reminiscent of Oscar Peterson. Be Courageous has a pop feel and gradually increases in intensity throughout its first half, which is driven by swirling drums; there is a brief solo respite and then it pushes to the end. Coltrane’s Mr PC takes off at a blistering speed and after a frenetic solo it morphs into Spiderman which seems to just make sense. My Favourite Things brings together many of Egbo-Egbo’s ideas and techniques. It begins with a quiet semi-classical arrangement with a left-handed counterpoint to the melody. Over its six-minute length it gradually builds and becomes louder, more intense and majestic with its impassioned ending.

11 OctoblueCD006Octoblue
Joe McPhee; Jérôme Bourdellon
Label Usine l.u. 2016 (bourdellon.com)

American Joe McPhee has pursued an itinerant improvisers’ path since the mid-1960s; Octoblue is another of his significant discs for several reasons. Not only is McPhee’s versatility matched by France’s Jérôme Bourdellon, who plays C, bass and contrabass flutes, piccolo and bass clarinet, but McPhee’s expressiveness on clarinet and pocket trumpet is extended to toy piano, singing and bubbling water(!).

Switching among instruments, the two add the unexpected to the exposition throughout the CD. Deep Sea Dancers, for example, is a mini-suite in itself. Moving through plunger trumpet growls, whale-like sounds from the contrabass flute and dual key percussion, further elaborations include shrill brass whistles and reed tongue stops, with the finale half-valve brass extensions steadied by foot-tapping bass flute pacing. With Bourdellon’s woody clarinet as stop-time accompaniment, McPhee’s melismatic blues singing on the title tune is Ray Charles-like (if somewhat coarser), while still communicating profound sentiments like “freedom is a work in progress.”

Conversely, Across the Water reaches the zenith of atonality, as water-burbled mouthpiece timbres are stretched into strangled trumpet blasts contrasted with airy flute puffs, as both horns quicken to elevated pitches without losing the narrative. After McPhee unexpectedly introduces a toy piano to honour the deceased keyboardist on Tribute to Borah Bergmann, and a track like On the Way to History melds loping clarinet tones and graceful flute symmetry, both players expose almost every mood and modulation. For McPhee, itinerant is a synonym for inventiveness, as he demonstrates his cooperative skills at every performance.

01 OdessaHavanaConversation of the Birds
David Buchbinder’s OdessaHavana
Independent MFR CD003 (odessahavana.com)

David Buchbinder’s release Conversation of the Birds forays into the countryside of fantasy while still staying on course for the musical realms between the Baltic and Cuba, where he befriends much more than fine feathered friends in the forests outside Odessa and Havana. If one has been an admirer of the trumpeter and his extraordinary group, one can now be persuaded to go travelling with him and his posse that includes drummer Mark Kelso, violinist/violist Aleksandar Gajic, extraordinary pianist Hilario Duran and the ineffably beautiful vocals of Maryem Hassan Tollar – you can hear a sense of freedom in her voice as she remembers the elegance of the proverbial bridesmaid in La Galana, while the elegance of the band sends her spirits soaring during another visit to Iberia in Bembe Andaluz.

Throughout the visceral excitement of this music the listener is transported to a rarefied realm, all but becoming a part of the vivid, natural landscape – one that mixes beauty and danger, and conjures the exotic locales in the keening ululations of Tollar as well as in the congas, bongos, chekere and darbuka. All of the musicians are completely attuned to Buchbinder’s unique vision and artistry. Saxophonist John Johnson, Flamenco guitarist Benjamin Barrile and percussionists Joaquin Hidalgo and Raquy Danziger deliver hugely powerful performances evocative of steamy Cuban and Turkish afternoons as well as freezing Baltic nights on this inspiring musical journey.

02 KUNEKUNÉ – Canada’s Global Orchestra
The Royal Conservatory 8088909562 (rcmusic.com/performance/KUNE)

Launched last year as the New Canadian Global Music Orchestra, the Toronto ensemble self-described as “Canada’s Global Orchestra” has recently been gifted with a name change. Rebranded KUNÉ, it has produced an ambitious eponymous debut album as its calling card. KUNÉ means “together” in Esperanto, the most widely spoken constructed language in the world. With one of its core tenets being “to foster harmony between people from different countries,” it’s an apt language with which to succinctly express the raison d’être of this multicultural musical group.

The ensemble consists of 13 virtuoso Canadian resident musicians each with deep roots in a different country’s music and language, plus Métis fiddler and singer Alyssa Delbaere-Sawchuk. Under the skilled artistic direction of the JUNO Award-winning trumpeter, composer and “cultural inventor” David Buchbinder, this album is the first permanent record of KUNÉ’s “journey to create a band that looks and sounds like Canada today.”

The opening track features Delbaere-Sawchuk’s suite We Met in Tkaranto. Locating the band’s project firmly on native land, the track twigs us to the multi-border-crossing musical journey ahead. Delbaere-Sawchuk’s confident fiddling at first welcomes the listener to what sounds like familiar Celtic territory. It’s only when the kora, sitar and other world instruments enter that we realize that this album aims to add layer to multicultural musical layer.

To detail the vast range of musical and cultural influences, instruments and music genres traversed in the album’s 14 tracks is impossible to do succinctly – let alone to adequately assess the artistic and cultural resonances generated. I won’t hesitate however to state that repeated listening will gradually reveal plenty of music to explore for the globally curious sonic traveller. They will find both musical riches and a worldview-affirming transcultural harmony.

03 Near EastNear East
Near East Trio (Ravi Naimpally; Demetri Petsalakis; Ernie Tollar)
Independent NE001 (neareasttrio.com)

This excellent album is like an elegant railway system linking jazz, folk, Hindustani, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern music, which all seems to come together in an elegant 21st-century conservatoire. But to describe it as such might also give the impression of overcooking when in fact it is a masterpiece of subtlety. Ernie Tollar’s reeds and woodwinds are an exotic take on the lineage of the cool spacey music of an Indian durbar and the moist echo of a Turkish bath. The exotic atmospherics come from the flute, albeit in a less than conventional setting, even as Tollar summons breathy woody tones from the instrument. These float benignly over the sound of Demetri Petsalakis’ lutes, which in turn add a rich harmonic foundation to the music.

Meanwhile the regal rumble of Ravi Naimpally’s tabla makes for a hypnotic trance-like beat. The surprises when they come on songs such as Cairo and Muzafir are effective but discreet: a gamelan-like riff is played as pizzicato harmonics; a delicate curlicue of a bass drum line underpins what sounds like a Gaelic lament played on the flute; and a close-knit ensemble passage on Muzafir develops from a single phrase. That said, there are moments throughout when the trio loosens just enough to let the individual instrumental personality through, as when a soaring ney flute emerges imparting a mystical tinge, or a lyra solo arises from the relentless cycles conjuring the otherworldliness of this music.

04 Heavyweights BrassThis City
Heavyweights Brass Band
Lulaworld Records (heavyweightsbrassband.com)

The uplifting, toe-tapping, impressive playing of the Heavyweights Brass Band in their third release has the band live up to its name with great, diverse musical sounds. The five members – John Pittman (trumpet), Chris Butcher (trombone), Paul Metcalfe (tenor saxophone), Tom Richards (tuba/keyboard/trombone) and Lowell Whitty (drums/percussion) – are each brilliant in any role from soloist, to backup support, to improvisers, to astute group musicians, to composer/arrangers. This time they travelled to New Orleans to record in the city of their inspiration, collaborating with special guests from both there and Toronto.

The eight tracks blast with wide-ranging styles and influences. Richards’ Two Foot Ticket is an intriguing mix of low tuba lead line contrasted by higher pitched horns sections and a smart solo by guest guitarist Kevin Breit. I love guest Roger Lewis’ Roger’s Intro, with its wailing baritone sax leading into Metcalfe’s get-up-and-boogie funky dance tune Dance Out On The Corner. There’s a refreshing, almost laid-back yet fun feel in the Metcalfe arrangement of Stevie Wonder’s hit Tell Me Something Good. Another change of pace is guest vocalist Jackie Richardson soaring through Pittman’s at times almost folk music arrangement of Steve Earle’s This City.

Great to hear the Heavyweights evolving both in the to-be-expected brass band funk/Latin/jazz/R&B tradition and taking on the challenges of covers, different styles and working with special guests. All of which makes for dancing and listening hurrahs.

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