03 Mike FreedmanInto the Daybreak
Mike Freedman
Independent (mikefreedman.com)

A very welcome and positive pick-me-up to balance out these grayer times, local Toronto guitarist Mike Freedman’s latest release (and debut as a bandleader) is a rhythmically and melodically pleasing album that you would be hard pressed not to want to dance or at least tap along to. Spanning and mixing genres from Latin to blues and jazz to R&B, this record would be a great addition to the collection of listeners who tend to lean towards a classic sound or are looking for a modern take on the genre. All pieces are penned by Freedman himself and are given life by a sublime backing band with well-known names such as Chris Gale on tenor saxophone, Kobi Hass on bass and Jeremy Ledbetter on piano. 

Samba on the Sand is definitely a standout on the album, a Latin-flavoured piece with scintillating rhythms provided by drummer Max Senitt and a unique combination of melodica and guitar that creates a warm and distinctly Brazilian undertone to the tune. In Lamentation Revelation, focus is put on the interplay between distinctive piano chords, a smooth and quite funky bass line as well as Freedman’s mellow riffs forming a sultry R&B-flavoured whole. The title track manages to capture the exact essence of positivity, regeneration and awakening that each day brings; the driving rhythms and uplifting melodic progressions all contribute to maintaining this feeling throughout the piece.

04 KlaxonCD001Entièrement unanimes
Klaxon Gueule
Ambiances Magnétique AM 259 CD (actuellecd.com)

While this session may at first appear to be a traditional guitar (Bernard Falaise), electric bass (Alexandre St-Onge) and drums (Michel F Côté) creation by Montreal’s Klaxon Gueule, the addition of synthesizers and a computer means it relates as much to metaphysics as to music. That’s because programming alters the sound of each instrument, blending timbres into a pointillist creation that brings in palimpsest inferences along with forefront textures.   

A track such as Continuum indifférencié for instance, features a programmed continuum with concentrated buzzing that moves the solid exposition forward as singular string slides, piano clicks and drum ruffs are interjected throughout. In contrast, la mort comme victoire malgré nous finds voltage impulses resembling a harmonized string section moving slowly across the sound field as video-game-like noise scraping and ping-ponging electron ratchets gradually force the exposition to more elevated pitches. Although aggregate tremolo reverb frequently makes ascribing (m)any textures to individual instruments futile, enough timbral invention remains to negate any thoughts of musical AI. Singular guitar plucks peer from among near-opaque organ-like washes on Société Perpendiculaire and a faux-C&W guitar twang pushes against hard drum backbeats on toute la glu

During the CD’s dozen selections, the trio members repeatedly prove that their mixture of voltage oscillations and instrumental techniques can create a unique sonic landscape that is as entrancing as it is expressive.

05 Al MuirheadLive from Frankie’s & the Yardbird
Al Muirhead Quintet
Chronograph Records CR082 (chronographrecords.com/releases)

There is an eloquent maxim in many musical discussions that “improvised music ought to sound written and written music should sound improvised.” In a similar vein I would argue that most studio jazz recordings benefit from a live energy, and most live recordings can sound as polished as their studio counterparts when well executed. The Al Muirhead Quintet strikes this balance beautifully on Live From Frankie’s & the Yardbird, performing a collection of jazz standards, one Muirhead original and Jimmy Giuffre’s Four Brothers; hardly a standard, but part of the jazz lexicon nonetheless. The album comes to a brief midway pause with the vocal Intermission Song, a showbiz-style way to end sets that only someone with Muirhead’s long connection to the music could pull off in such a fun and endearing manner. 

The recording features Muirhead on bass trumpet and trumpet, Kelly Jefferson on tenor saxophone, veteran bassist Neil Swainson and differing guitarists and drummers for each venue. Reg Schwager and Jesse Cahill round out the band in Vancouver, with Jim Head and Ted Warren playing the Edmonton hit. The recording has a stunningly unified sound despite these personnel and venue changes, evidenced by the two contrasting versions of Sonny Rollins’ Tenor Madness. I recommend this album as a great example of Canadian jazz in a nutshell: easy to listen to, but far from devoid of depth.

06 Tune TownEntering Utopia
Three Pines Records TPR-001 (tunetownjazz.com)

A plethora of situations resemble utopia when compared to the pandemic conditions we currently find ourselves in, but TuneTown’s latest release Entering Utopia could bring a listener in that kind of positive direction even under normal circumstances. This is true musically, and makes sense in the greater timeline as well, being recorded at the same session as the trio’s previous release There From Here

This album is my second review this month to prominently feature saxophonist Kelly Jefferson, and his grounded approach across genres is simultaneously unique and authentic. I know of his comrades Artie Roth on the bass and drummer Ernesto Cervini from their ample work with other projects, but TuneTown gives them unique space and freedom by removing a chordal instrument from the equation. This leaves the rhythm section more room for exposed harmonic and percussive moments, like Roth’s informative double stops on Layla Tov, and Cervini’s intro to Hello, Today, the album’s opener that introduces the band one member at a time. 

Performing together for more than a decade and a half has given the group a very cohesive sound, bringing a sense of unity to this album as it traverses originals, free improvisations and even a Charlie Parker blues. Entering Utopia gives listeners an excellent earful of what to expect when we next hear TuneTown in person.

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07 Lorne LofskyThis Song Is New
Lorne Lofsky
Modica Music (modicamusic.com)

The late Ed Bickert set the model: Toronto’s most distinguished jazz guitarists tend to be self-effacing, blending in, enhancing the music of which they’re a part, rarely assuming the foreground. It’s certainly true of Lorne Lofsky (and Reg Schwager, for another). Lofsky spent eight years co-leading a quartet with Bickert and a few years in Oscar Peterson’s quartet, but his last recording under his own name was Bill, Please, released in 1994, before his term with Peterson. 

This Song Is New presents Lofsky in a quartet with longtime associates playing five of his compositions, as well as two modern jazz standards that establish his frame of reference. The opening Seven Steps to Heaven, associated with its co-composer Miles Davis, suggests Lofsky’s biases: his strongest associations are with the subtle explorations, harmonic and melodic, of musicians like Bill Evans and Jim Hall, articulated with a beautifully even, glassy electric guitar sound. It’s even more pointed on his own compositions, like the ballad The Time Being, on which tenor saxophonist Kirk MacDonald finds a lightly metallic sound that perfectly embraces the melody. The bouncy Live from the Apollo has an extended trio segment in which Lofsky, bassist Kieran Overs and drummer Barry Romberg develop an intimate three-way dialogue, while the title track encapsulates the delicately nuanced nocturne of which Lofsky is a master.       

At its best, it’s music to savour. One hopes Lofsky doesn’t wait 27 years to release another recording.

08 Dan PittWrongs
Dan Pitt Quintet
Dan Pitt Music DP003 (dan-pitt.com)

The tracks on Wrongs, from the Dan Pitt Quintet, are moody and textured as they move forward through shifting soundscapes that are intense and intriguing. Pitt, a guitarist/composer living in Toronto, has put together a cohesive and talented group including bassist Alex Fournier and drummer Nick Fraser from his trio. The addition of Naomi McCarroll-Butler on alto sax and bass clarinet, and Patrick Smith on tenor and soprano saxophones, creates some fabulous textures. For example, on Shadows Loom, the bass clarinet and tenor sax combine organically for a nice mid-range opening harmony; then we have a nuanced bass clarinet solo followed by Smith’s wailing tenor with a few multiphonics thrown in. The piece ends with a blistering and over-driven guitar solo by Pitt.

Wrongs’ tracks evolve from one mood and collection of sounds to another which makes the listening experience a series of discoveries. Hunter’s Dream begins with a long, bowed bass intro, What Is opens with a whimsical guitar solo. Wrongs starts with a funky and off-kilter guitar and closed hi-hat/snare rhythm which persists under a bowed bass and sax/clarinet riff. Soon Pitt has changed to an ostinato pattern, Fraser is propulsively swirling through his entire kit and Smith is tearing through another terrific and intense solo. And then sudden quiet and introspection, before building towards its kinetic, yet tight ending. Pitt’s seven compositions are inventive and subtle; they, along with the quintet’s superb musicianship, make Wrongs so very right!

09 Matty Stecks Night CravingsNight Cravings
Matty Stecks & Persiflage

It was Thelonious Monk who once said “a genius is the one most like himself.” In my eyes, that’s the goal: to acquire a distinct sound. Playing with technical prowess is impressive on its own, but knowing all the notes is only half the battle. It’s what you do with said notes that defines your artistry. 

Saxophonist Matt Steckler and his quintet Persiflage certainly exhibit an immense command of their sound on this latest effort. As he often does, Matty Stecks beautifully showcases the sheer range and breadth of his compositional talents. Not only are his melodies ingenious and wonderfully complex, but the way he manipulates form in each composition makes for a consistently exhilarating listen. There seems to be a curve ball thrown around every corner. I find myself particularly blown away by my initial listen of Agriturismo. The tune kicks off with a slightly disconcerting march, reminiscent of Henry Threadgill. Once a natural climax is reached, they hastily dissolve into a guitar/drum duet, which transitions seamlessly into an open trombone/bass improvisation and saxophone solo. 

The textures accomplished on this album are something else, which can be largely attributed both to the group’s general attentiveness and specifically the Herculean efforts of percussionist Satoshi Takeishi. Persiflage is simply an astounding band, and the results on this recording speak for themselves.

10 hafez modirzadeh facets coverFacets
Hafez Modirzadeh
Pi Recordings (pirecordings.com)

Hafez Modirzadeh, an American composer and saxophonist, has a musical vision he calls “chromodal” merging modal Persian music and the harmonic language of jazz as embodied in the work of John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk. Here he’s created a series of pieces, Facets, combining his own and others’ works, in which eight of the piano’s keys have been lowered in specific pitch values, creating an available series of microtones and radically altering the piano’s resonance.

The 18 pieces heard here have been divided equally among three pianists who readily blur composed and improvised musics: Kris Davis, Tyshawn Sorey and Craig Taborn. Modirzadeh joins in on tenor saxophone on ten pieces. No description can account for the numerous variations in approach or the strangely playful eeriness and structured refractions that arise. Facet 33 Tides achieves a strange, limpid and previously unknown, watery beauty. Facet 34 Defracted has Davis improvising on two Monk compositions, Ask Me Now and Pannonica, each performed later by the duo of Modirzadeh and Taborn. Facet 39 Mato Paho is a superb reverie by Modirzadeh and Sorey in which the strange colouring of pitches transforms the initial mood, while Davis makes Facet 31 Woke an epic of transforming approaches. In Facet 32 Black Pearl, Modirzadeh creates a variation on Bach’s Goldberg Variation No.25.

As novel as this wedding of cultures might seem, there’s real substance here, combining rich and related inheritances in ways that underline distinctions and highlight concordances.

11 Franco AmbrosettiLost Within You
Franco Ambrosetti Band
Unit Records UTR 4970 (unitrecords.com/releases)

World-renowned Swiss trumpeter and flugelhornist Franco Ambrosetti has released a sultry and smooth collection of jazz ballads that take you to a faraway musical world into which it’s easy to escape in these trying times. The flowing and pleasant notes that the gifted musician conjures from his golden horn perfectly mimic and showcase his “refined and poised” nature and beautifully simplistic yet poignant approach to making music come alive. Supported by a sublime backing band featuring equally famed names such as John Scofield on guitar and Scott Colley on bass, Ambrosetti’s own tunes as well as classics by Horace Silver and Miles Davis, among others, are taken to new heights. 

The record opens with Silver’s jazz standard Peace, a song that positively makes you sway along as Scofield’s melodious riffs and a softly soaring horn tune layered over Renee Rosnes’ mellow chords on the keys take you on a velvety musical journey. Silli in the Sky is a Latin-flavoured piece lovingly written about Ambrosetti’s actress wife; Jack DeJohnette’s quietly sizzling drum groove combined with lovely guitar and horn solos add just the right amount of edge to give a fiery undertone to the tune. Closing out the album is You Taught My Heart to Sing, tinged with slight melancholy but just the right amount of movement in the more up-tempo parts of the song to convey hope, ending it all on a positive and warm note.

12 Patricia BrennanMaquishti
Patricia Brennan
Valley of Search VOS 005 (valleyofsearch.com)

Making a convincing statement without raising your voice is the mark of a sophisticated conversationalist. With solo vibraphone and marimba, New York’s Patricia Brennan expresses the same concept on compositions and improvisations which rarely rise past hushed tones and evolve languidly. Additional torque comes from the judicious use of electronic effects.

This is all done so subtly though that those few instances in which the squeaky wave forms are obvious are no more disruption to the compositional flow than the tremolo pressure Brennan asserts with multiple mallets or varied motor rotation. Avoiding glittering statements, Maquishti’s 12 tracks are a study in pastel blends. This unhurried program isn’t sluggish however. I Like for You to Be Still for instance, is pulled out at a near lento tempo, but the thematic thread is never broken. Brennan also extends her idiophone timbres by creating tones that could come from bell ringing or gourd scratching. In fact, Magic Square, the most spirited tune, only picks up speed at midpoint after a series of echoing pops. It reaches a crescendo of merry-go-round, calliope-like sounds created by rolling mallets across the vibraphone’s metal bars, not striking them. Meanwhile the tracks built around more deliberate woody reverberations from the marimba evolve with similarly measured light touches.

The cornucopia of shimmering sound timbres projected is best appreciated by responding to the cumulative affiliations of this well-paced date and not expecting to hear the equivalent of a shouted argument.

13 Masabumi KikuchiHanamichi – The Final Studio Recording
Masabumi Kikuchi
Redhook Records 1001 (redhookrecords.com)

The subtitle of Hanamichi is “The Final Studio Recording.” Reading this adds significant weight to the music. There’s something about the context of finality that makes a piece of art feel much more emotional, much more sensitive or fragile, and there is certainly a sombre component to this recording, though it doesn’t sound like a weathered musician looking back on his career and trying to recapture some of the magic. It could never be that simple with Poo (pianist Masabumi Kikuchi’s affectionate alias). As the great Gary Peacock said in the liner notes, “It wasn’t until a few years before he died [in 2015] that his ‘voice’ found him.” 

Kikuchi was never one to stagnate. When he took a solo, the direction of his music was more likely to veer into uncharted territories than to revert to its original state. His wanderlust took him to countless destinations, both in terms of his sound and his life. He constantly reached beyond his own parameters, and this recording is no exception. He takes My Favourite Things and turns it into two completely contrasting spontaneous compositions. The track titled Improvisation sounds like the most calculated piece on the set. As always, Little Abi is his calling card, while also being his mode of transportation to previously undiscovered planets. In his swan song, Kikuchi still looks forward.

14 Jakob BroUma Elmo
Jakob Bro; Arve Henriksen; Jorge Rossy
ECM ECM 2702 (ecmrecords.com/shop)

In the 50 years of producing music for his ECM label, Manfred Eicher has established a rubric that almost no one thought to create before him. It is characterized by a minimalist aesthetic, with sonic works delivered in almost pristine digital sound. There is almost always superb, impressionistic cover photography, rarely any liner notes (except for the odd Egberto Gismonti album). Booklets often feature graphics and an oblique, poetic line or two that seem illuminated by a translucent and shy ray of the sun. 

This is exactly the feel of Uma Elmo by Jakob Bro, Arve Henriksen and Jorge Rossy. Put together, the two-word title might be translated as “the splendour or tranquillity (Uma) of love (Elmo).” The music has a profound and meditative quality; songs bloom into a series of exquisite miniatures. Bro’s single-note lines are spacey; they shimmer and gleam, occasionally warmed in the blue flame of Henriksen’s horns. Meanwhile Rossy bounces brushes and sticks in rhythmic flurries and glancing blows across the skins of his drums. 

Songs such as To Stanko – a doffing of the hat to the late horn player Tomasz Stanko, beloved by ECM – Morning Song, Music for Black Pigeons (in memory of Lee Konitz) and Sound Flower, are typical of this musical performance in the splendid isolation of a studio in Switzerland. Purity of sound and an enduring love of artistic expression are all over the music of this album.

15 HaeraeHaerae
Andreas Willers
Evil Rabbit Records ERR 31 (evilrabbitrecords.eu)

As the COVID-19 lockdown settled in spring 2020, German guitarist Andreas Willers began a solo recording, the same kind of project with which he had debuted 40 years earlier. He’s playing two steel-string acoustic flat top guitars here, usually one at a time, though there are pieces when there may be two involved, and he’s playing them in a number of ways, whether traditional or employing extended techniques.

Willers clearly loves the guitar as an instrument, exploring its nooks and crannies and the myriad sounds they harbour, many the kinds usually avoided: the metallic slap of detuned lower strings against the fretboard; likely the rustle of a plastic bag covering the picking hand; strings scratched longitudinally with fingernails or maybe rubbed with a moistened thumb; some hard material with some weight, probably plastic, dropped on the strings of a horizontal instrument. None of these things appear in isolation but arise in making spontaneous music, each piece developing a rich, varied life of its own in which evolving timbres and events create a sonorous whole. Sometimes he plays guitar in a conventional way, as in the three movements of langh’s arm 6-8 which abound in brilliantly articulated runs, dense chordal passages and singing, reverberant highs; there are dashes of blues, flamenco and slide with strange mergings of idioms.

While its likely audience is attuned to free improvisation, there’s enough exuberant guitar exploration here to appeal to any adventurous enthusiast of the instrument.

01 LeahyGood Water
North 28 Music Inc. N28MR0001LP (leahymusic.ca)

It would be redundant to attempt to summarize the incredible musical contribution that has been made to Canada, and to the world, by this award-winning, exceptionally talented Celtic-Canadian family. On this latest Leahy release, every track is a rare emerald. Although perhaps not totally in the traditional bag, it’s still a trans-world-folk family affair – featuring Denise on vocals; Erin on piano, fiddle and vocals; Frank on drums; Julie Frances on vocals, piano, keyboards and acoustic guitar; Maria on acoustic guitar, mandolin and vocals; and Siobheann and Xavier on accordion. Produced by the iconic David Bottrill, Leahy manages to blur all of the lines, and in so doing, manifests a techno-organic masterpiece.

The title track has a sumptuous, angelic vocal intro followed by a contiguous, poetic vocal line of almost unbearable beauty – an uplifting feeling of an ancient one-ness… a statement that moves beyond the Irish diaspora. No doubt, the ancient Leahy DNA is rife with incredible instrumental technique, as well as the rare gift of being able to transmute and share emotion.  

Other brilliant tracks include Friend, which invokes the heartbeat of Mother Earth herself, blissfully intermingled with an ecstatic wall of sound and rich, layered “blood harmony” and also Star of the Sea, which is a radiant highlight of fiddling, odd measures and a ballistic arco attack that channels the Tuatha de Danann themselves. Of special significance is My Old Man – a lush, sonorous, melodic reverie, filled with ethnic memory and longing. This gorgeous track is a tribute to the Leahy patriarch from two generations prior – singing out from the passing of time – blessing his descendants as they live their authentic musical traditions, creating fearlessly into the future.

Listen to 'Good Water' Now in the Listening Room

02 Curtis AndrewsSpeaking Hands
Curtis Andrews
Independent (curtisandrews.ca)

Among the first reviews I wrote for The WholeNote was The Offering of Curtis Andrews (December 2009). I’ve been … bopping around the apartment to this joie de vivre-filled CD by Curtis Andrews, Newfoundland’s globe-trotting percussionist and composer,” I enthused. “The music [draws] from Andrews’ studies in South Asian, West African and North American music … [merging] all those influences in an energy-rich field, couched in mainstream jazz forms and improv-rich solos...”

Relocated to Canada’s West Coast, Andrews has continued his musical journeys inspired by those same global elements. And he’s joined on his sparkling new album, Speaking Hands, by 20 talented musical colleagues from across Canada, USA and Africa. Manifesting a mature musical voice, this sophomore release features nine Andrews’ compositions and one by Carnatic percussion master Trichy Sankaran, their tricky metric landscapes negotiated with aplomb by the Vancouver-based ensemble, The Offering of Curtis Andrews. Though recorded last year, Speaking Hands reflects two decades of travel, study and collaboration with master musicians on three continents. 

Andrews’ compositions intertwine “rhythms and polyphonies of vodu-derived traditional music of West Africa, the micro and macrocosmic play of time and pitch found in Carnatic traditions of South India,” and jazz harmony and improvisation. It’s the novel intersection of all these seemingly disparate elements into a cohesive and high-spirited musical statement that marks the album as something special. 

The album title? Andrews explains it was inspired by the practice of the Carnatic recited rhythmic language known as solkattu. “It is the voice that gives rise to rhythm before the instrument does… the hands ‘speak’ what the voice (mind) creates.” This album certainly speaks to me.

Listen to 'Speaking Hands' Now in the Listening Room

03 Roots of StringsRoots of Strings – The oud at the crossroad of Arabic, flamenco and Indian music
Nazih Borish
Analekta AN 2 9173 (analekta.com/en)

Syrian-born Nazih Borish is a respected oudist and composer. While establishing and running his Syrian oud school, this already-renowned artist began to expand and embrace a wide variety of musics, including Arabic, flamenco, blues and jazz. In 2016, Borish arrived in Canada, where he seamlessly continued his international work as a composer and performer. On this energized program of original compositions, Borish has collaborated with two equally accomplished and gifted artists: bassist Roberto Occhipinti and acclaimed world-music percussionist (darbuka, req, ketim and dahola) Joseph Khoury.  

Every well-produced track underscores the one-ness of mankind. From the most elemental bass notes of Mother Earth’s heart to the intensity of shared human emotional experience – this recording is a journey of profound meaning. The opening track, Nazihawand (Nahawand taksim), is a resonant, mystical composition… with sonic elements that are steeped in human experience – sounds from a timeless place, in a place-less time – eventually segueing into a wider, more languid sequence, punctuated in an inspired way by Occhipinti and Khoury.

The title track is heady with exotic spices, exploring the deep and ancient relationship between the indigenous music of Spain, Iberia, Portugal, the sub-Continent and the Arabian peninsula, followed by Ataba (Bayat taksim) – deeply moving, with rich, lustrous tones; the facile skill of Borish is breathtaking. I can hear this universal music echoing off the walls of the Blue Mosque, the Taj Mahal or Carnegie Hall! Ali Baba Dance is a stunner – and Damasrose (Rast samai) is a sensual, Masala-flavoured trip, displaying complex string technique by Borish, all the while expressing the subtleties of several different instruments of antiquity – even hints of the Japanese koto.

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