01_geminianiGeminiani - Pièces de clavecin
Hank Knox
early-music.com EMCCD-7772

Francesco Geminiani arrived in London in 1714; by 1739 he had published the harpsichord music from which Hank Knox makes his selection for this CD. Geminiani probably developed his individual style in Paris, learning from Rameau and others. Hank Knox introduces us to a prelude bearing the hallmarks of this individuality. From his commentary it is clear that Geminiani never rested until he had added all the complex scoring he considered necessary. His gayment and vivement movements are demanding but reward the listener and player with lively and entertaining motifs. This is Hank Knox at his most inspired.

Geminiani’s tendrement movements are appropriately named with their pleading quality, although the movement marked gracieusement et tendrement is both more taxing on the player and far livelier than its two near-namesakes. And then for the more traditional lover of the harpsichord there are two minuets, the second lasting almost ten minutes – an early music eternity! This is baroque harpsichord at its most conventional and most complex.  Finally, an amoureusement shows just why Geminiani’s student Charles Avison so admired his master: he placed him alongside Handel (often semi-seriously styled England’s greatest composer between Purcell and Elgar) and Corelli who enjoyed cult-like status in London.

This is an enjoyable CD; Hank Knox may take a real pride in bringing Geminiani’s harpsichord music to a larger audience.


pandolfiPandolfi - The Violin Sonatas of 1660
Mark Fewer; Myron Lutzke; Kenneth Slowik
Friends of Music FoM 36-802 (www.markfewer.com)

Though little is known about the 17th century Italian violinist and composer Giovanni Antonio Pandolfi Mealli, his two marvellous collections of sonatas for solo violin and continuo place him squarely in the good company of Dario Castello, Biagio Marini, Tarquinio Merula and others of what we might call the first generation of sonata-writers. Unlike the Classical multi-movement form, instrumental sonatas of the early to mid-17th century are usually in one extended movement, full of changes of mood, tempo, articulation and musical ideas. As such, they are dramatic and full of possibility for an imaginative performer. In his excellent liner notes accompanying this recording, harpsichordist Kenneth Slowik comments on how operatic these pieces are; that they could in essence be seen as instrumental “scenas” full of passion and pathos.

We should be tremendously grateful to the Friends of Music at the Smithsonian for supporting this recording and making it possible. Mark Fewer is one of Canada’s finest violinists and is possessed with a profound and open musical mind. It’s rare to find a player as comfortable in such a wide variety of musical styles as Fewer is. He tucks into these sonatas with wild abandon, though never loses sight of the good taste and stylistic know-how needed to approach this “early” music. His range of virtuosic and tender playing makes this disc of twelve sonatas an absolute pleasure to listen to from beginning to end. He’s ably supported by Slowik and cellist Myron Lutzke, though I did feel at times that the continuo colour could have been enhanced by the presence of a theorbo.

01_liszt_howardLiszt - New Discoveries Vol.3
Leslie Howard
Hyperion CDA67810

It’s hard to imagine that there could be any music by Liszt that remains unpublished and possibly even undiscovered. Somehow our modern age quietly assumes we’ve got it all, printed, bound, recorded and filed away. So it falls to the passionate scholars to continue searching for new works whose suspected existence is owed to fragmentary sketches in notebooks, allusions in letters, etc. Performers too can be such champions as is Leslie Howard, currently making a series of recordings of the entire Liszt repertoire including unpublished and newly discovered works.

Howard has recorded many of these pieces from Liszt’s original manuscripts and in a few cases has had to complete endings or otherwise fill in missing sections. The forty-eight works contained in this 2 CD set are quite short but intriguing nonetheless. Some will be familiar but many will be new to Liszt-philes. Listeners may recognize the Magnificat S182a as an early version of the more elaborate Alleluia S183/1. While Liszt seems to have discounted the early Magnificat it is an effective piece in its chorale-like simplicity with echoes of J.S. Bach throughout.

The set also includes two versions of a Romance from 1842-3, an arrangement of Schlummerlied for one of Liszt’s students, Carl Lachmund and numerous other pieces that exist only in single copy manuscripts in libraries throughout Europe.

Recorded on a Steinway in an acoustically lovely Catholic church in North East London (UK), these performances make a substantial artistic and historical contribution to the body of Liszt works.

02_berlioz_seguinBerlioz - Symphonie Fantastique; Cléopâtre
Anna Caterina Antonacci; Rottendam Philharmonic Orchestra; Yannick Nézet-Séguin
BIS SACD-1800

Can you think of a large-scale work that embodies the spirit of French early Romanticism better than Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique? Completed in 1830, the symphony marked the 27-year-old composer’s first major success, hailed as truly revolutionary both in size and in concept. And who better to undertake such a monument than supernova conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin with the Rotterdam Philharmonic on this BIS label SACD? Nézet-Séguin’s career has catapulted to stratospheric heights in a very short time. After studying in his native Montréal, he made his European debut in 2004, and within four years had succeeded Valery Gergiev as Music Director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic. He was recently named Music Director Designate of the Philadelphia Orchestra commencing in the 2012-13 season.

From the opening notes – a series of repeated Gs - the listener senses something magical about this performance. Nézet-Séguin approaches the music with a deep-rooted sensitivity, carefully shaping it at all times, and easily capturing the multi-faceted moods contained within. The orchestra – particularly the winds and strings – respond with a warm and resonant sound.

The second movement Valse is light and elegant, while the fourth movement, the March to the Scaffold is given the dramatic intensity it deserves. The finale - the Dream of a Witch’s Sabbath, in which the hero finds himself surrounded by ghostly figures, is all at once bombastic, grotesque, and terrifying. Not surprisingly, the music is adeptly handled by a perfect pairing of conductor and orchestra, who bring the mad frenzy to a rousing conclusion.

An added bonus on this CD is the short cantata La Mort de Cléopâtre written two years earlier for the Prix de Rome. Soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci gives a dramatic and sensitive performance, thus rounding out this most satisfying disc, easily among the best currently available.

Saint-Saëns - Music for Wind Instruments
National Arts Centre Wind Quintet; Stéphane Lemelin
Naxos 8.570964

For some the name Saint-Saëns may evoke the musty ectoplasm of the Danse macabre or, likewise ghastly, the Carnival of the Animals embellished with Ogden Nash verses intoned by a tanned and taut celebrity. Actually, Saint-Saëns was a serious composer of high calibre, an extraordinary piano prodigy who wrote successfully in every genre. This disc of works for winds and piano brilliantly performed by National Arts Centre Orchestra principals reveals the wealth of expression and imagination within the composer’s classical French orientation.

In the clarinet, oboe and bassoon sonatas of 1921, the 85-year-old composer is still at his peak. Of these “swan songs” the clarinet sonata is the most extended and varied of the three, while the oboe sonata conveys a sense of antique classicism. The pure, pensive repose of the bassoon sonata is rendered effectively by Christopher Millard. Its opening movement pays homage to Saint-Saëns’ close lifelong associate Gabriel Fauré in its chromatic twists of harmony. The final movement with its slow tempi and absence of virtuosity is particularly affecting.

The early Tarantella and the Caprice on Danish and Russian Airs are unique, attractive works for upper winds with piano. Some pianists come to grief with the virtuosity of Saint-Saëns’ chamber music, but not Canadian pianist Stéphane Lemelin who is a specialist in nineteenth-century French repertoire. Immaculate ensemble work between winds and piano is notable throughout. Rounded off by the Romance arranged for horn and piano, the disc is a must-buy for woodwind and chamber music enthusiasts.

04_bruckner_10symphoniesBruckner - 10 Symphonies
Bayerischen RSO; Lorin Maazel
BR Klassik 900703

Anton Bruckner is an unfortunate example of what can happen if an artist has not enough confidence and listens to too many interfering people. Poor fellow. He was not only castigated by the critics (e.g. Hanslick) in his lifetime, influencing him to make changes in his scores, but even after his death his fame was belittled by English critics who ridiculed his work as “symphonic boa constrictors” or “symphonies that turn back on themselves.” Even in the 1960s this prevented him reaching North America although he was already famous in Europe thanks to the German-Austrian school of conductors. It all turned around in the 70s and at present his fame is at its highest. There are several symphony cycles available: Karajan, Jochum, Barenboim, Wand, Chailly, Skrowaczewski and more and now this fine set from the Bayerischen Rundfunkorchester, led by its music director at the time, Maestro Lorin Maazel. It was recorded in 1999 in one continuous set of live sessions; each symphony occupies one disc except the magisterial 8th which takes up two. As a curiosity, the so called Symphony 0 (Die Nullte) is added as an 11th disc. This piece was undeservedly withdrawn, but it’s by no means poor, with much of Bruckner’s latent talents emerging as the audience’s cheers attest.

As you perhaps remember from my earlier reviews, Bruckner’s symphonies progress step by step, each is better, deeper, more original than the previous. Then there are two quantum leaps of divine inspiration: between the 4th and the 5th and the 8th and the 9th. By the time we reach the 9th, we have reached Olympus.

Tempi are extremely important in music and nowhere more important than for Bruckner, where a misjudged tempo can easily sink the performance. There are two schools of thought. One is the slow, measured and broad tempo that allows the music to expand, enrich details and the immortal Celibidache was a great representative of this. Of course there is the pitfall of being too slow and if the conductor’s concentration is flagging, the music becomes boring. The other school goes with faster tempo which is more exciting and the shape of the music is easier to follow (e.g. Barenboim). Maazel belongs to the first category. His performances are on the slow side, but we are rewarded with tremendous insight and sensitivity in developing the themes. There is great control of dynamics from the almost inaudible pp to the thunderous ff - just listen to the feather light string tremolos at the opening of the 4th symphony. Another example is the beautiful Adagio of the 8th, one of the best performances on the disc, where it takes 22 minutes to reach a climax which is truly earth shattering.

This beautifully recorded set is highly recommended.

05_mahler_sarasteMahler - Symphony No.6
Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra; Jukka-Pekka Saraste
Simax PSC 1316

Jukka-Pekka Saraste, valiant conductor of the Toronto Symphony during a very difficult time in its history (1994-2001), was appointed music director of the Oslo Philharmonic in 2006, a position he continues to maintain. This new release of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony brings us up to date on his considerable accomplishments with this relatively unfamiliar but very fine Norwegian ensemble. Saraste’s characteristic steady, forward-thrusting tempi cast a refreshing new light onto the broad architecture of Mahler’s so-called Tragic Symphony, and though he is sensitive to the expressive nuances called for in the score, he is careful to avoid wallowing in maudlin excess. Though inexorable march tempos are very much the mainstay of this symphony, Saraste’s relative inflexibility flattens the hectic mood-swings of the Scherzo movement and underplays its demonic aspects. Otherwise however the dividends are impressive, none more so than in the magnificently played Finale, where the relentless tread of fate leads to a shattering conclusion, marked by literal hammer-blows of fate, the third of which, suppressed in most editions, is restored here in all its grim glory. Saraste’s impulse to ever-higher levels of tension results in a spine-tingling conclusion with the orchestra in glorious full throttle.

The sonic impact of this disc is quite spectacular considering that this is a recording of a live concert (without a trace of audience restlessness) from March 2010. Kudos to the engineers of the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation for providing such a spacious and well-balanced sound stage for this accomplished orchestra. It’s well worth a listen!

06_off_the_beaten_pathOff the Beaten Path
Ian Hominick
MSR Classics MS 1341 (www.ianhominick.com)

Even the most musically illiterate man on the street would undoubtedly be familiar with the names of Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven. But how about those other composers who perhaps lacked that creative spark of these geniuses, and who have been regarded as “lesser lights” ever since? Don’t they deserve at least some recognition as well? Pianist Ian Hominick certainly thinks so, and the result is this intriguing recording on the MSR Classics label, appropriately titled “Off the Beaten Track.” Featured here are 10 composers, most of whose music isn’t heard all that often. For an even balance, there is also music by Liszt, Sibelius, and Gershwin, resulting in a well thought-out program of piano music in different styles spanning a period of roughly 150 years. Canadian-born Hominick studied at Mt. Allison, and later, at Ohio State University where he was Assistant to Earl Wild and André Laplante. He is currently on faculty at the University of Mississippi.

The disc opens with a rousing little sonata by Muzio Clementi, containing a theme very close to one in found in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Today, Clementi is remembered as a piano-maker and teacher, but this piece demonstrates not only his ability as a composer, but also Hominick’s level of technical prowess. More languorous is the Second Valse by Benjamin Godard, and the Nocturne by the 19th century piano titan Sigismund Thalberg. Fritz Kreisler? Wasn’t he a virtuoso violinist? Indeed, but included here is a charming Rondino on a Theme by Beethoven as transcribed by Godowsky. Most impressive is Die Lorelei by Franz Liszt, music that began as a vocal piece.

Hominick’s playing is bold and confident, displaying the dazzling technique required of this demanding repertoire. In complete contrast are the two closing selections, Gershwin’s Novelette in Fourths and Melody No.40. These have the Jazz Age written all over them, and bring this most enjoyable disc to a close.

01_st_lawrence_quartetTo celebrate their 20th anniversary, the St. Lawrence String Quartet solicited proposals from across Canada for short works without electronics. The five pieces that were consequently created for 2009 formed an integral part of the group’s repertoire that anniversary year, and are presented on their latest outstanding CD from the Canadian Music Centre, Sea to Sea (Centrediscs CMCCD 16310). The works obviously differ in sound and form, but all are strong, interesting and very accessible. They are: Derek Charke’s Sepia Fragments, which made an immediate impact despite a rather baffling concept; Brian Current’s Rounds, the title referring to the frequent use of overlapping individual melodies; Suzanne Hébert-Tremblay’s A tire-d’aile (in a flurry of wings), inspired by the songs of Quebec birds; Marcus Goddard’s Allaqi, the Inuit term for a clearing in the sky, which has a strong rhythmical opening mimicking Inuit throat singing, and a lyrical second half based on Inuit folk song melodies; and Elizabeth Raum’s A Table at the Bushwakker, portraying a table-hopping evening at Regina’s noted Brewpub. Decidedly tonal in feel despite the use of a tone row, this last has one quite beautiful section of tender, rhapsodic music depicting an amorous couple oblivious to the noise around them. Recorded at the U of T’s Walter Hall in November 2009, all five works display strong, idiomatic writing throughout, with the SLSQ sounding as if they have been performing these pieces for years.

02_weinberg_celloEvery now and then a CD comes along that blows your socks off. Enter cellist Josef Feigelson with his stunning CD of the Complete Music for Solo Cello Volume 2 by the Polish/Soviet composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg, a colleague and friend of Shostakovich who died in 1996 (Naxos 8.572281). Previously available on the Olympia label, these World Premiere Recordings of the Sonatas for Solo Cello Nos. 2, 3 & 4 (plus the original - and tougher - first movement for the latter) were recorded in New York in November 1997. Feigelson played them from the manuscripts, which he acquired from the composer’s widow in Moscow, having recorded Sonata No.1 along with the 24 Cello Preludes in 1996. (Those recordings are now available on Naxos 8.572280.) If you are even remotely interested in music for unaccompanied cello then this CD is an absolute “must” and at the low Naxos price it’s a no-brainer. Buy it. Play it. And hang on to your socks.

03_diotima_onslow

Despite his English name, George Onslow (1784-1853) was a French composer. Although highly regarded in his time – he was known as the French Beethoven! – his music was until recently neglected and difficult to obtain. A recent CD from the French ensemble Quatuor Diotima (Naïve V5200) features three string quartets from 1828 – Nos. 28, 29 and 30 – that Onslow wrote while still trying to come to terms with the impact of Beethoven’s late quartets, which he found both fascinating and disconcerting. They marked a change from a pre-Romantic style to one of intense expressiveness, a quality captured perfectly in these dazzling and clearly empathetic performances. The booklet notes describe this music as “exciting, personal, and amazingly neglected” - a perfect description.

04_lyapunov

Naxos has issued another two excellent CDs featuring seldom-played violin concertos. Sergei Mikhailovich Lyapunov (1859-1924) was a Russian nationalist composer who studied with Balakirev and remained strongly influenced by him. His Violin Concerto in D minor, Op.61 is a one-movement work that sounds exactly as you would expect: big, Tchaikovsky-like melodies, a Romantic flow and a dazzling solo part. Maxim Fedotov is in superb form, with excellent support from the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra under Dmitry Yablonsky. The latter are also terrific in Lyapunov’s Symphony No. 1 in B minor, Op.12 (Naxos 8.570462).

05_karlowiczYou can add Polish composer Mieczyslaw Karlowicz to your list of “strange composer deaths” - he was killed by an avalanche while skiing in the Tatra Mountains in 1909, aged only 32. His Violin Concerto in A Major, Op.8, a three-movement work that features an unusual opening cadenza, receives an outstanding performance from Ilya Kaler and the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra under Antoni Wit (Naxos 8.572274). Karlowicz’s first orchestral work, the Serenade Op.2, is somewhat reminiscent of Dvořák and Grieg, and has a particularly lovely slow movement. It’s obvious that a hugely promising talent was lost here.

06_fischer_mozartFinally, PentaTone has re-issued the three individual Julia Fischer SA-CDs of the complete Mozart music for violin and orchestra in a digipak set together with a 25-minute DVD of footage from the recording sessions (PTC 5186 453). It’s a wonderful set: Fischer’s playing is warm, stylish and beautifully judged throughout; Yakov Kreizberg sets perfect tempi and draws superb playing from the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra; the sound quality is excellent. Concertmaster Gordan Nikolic is a perfect viola partner in the sublime Sinfonia concertante K364. This is one set that’s never going to be very far from my CD player.






01_james_rolferaW - Chamber Music by James Rolfe
Continuum Contemporary Music
Centrediscs CMCCD 16210

The Continuum ensemble, comprised of Toronto’s top contemporary musicians, adds a third CD to its discography. Here effectively conducted by Gregory Oh, the entire album is dedicated to the music of multi award winning Toronto composer James Rolfe (b. 1961).

raW (2003) is a delightful musical romp. Based on Bach's Second Brandenburg Concerto, Rolfe notes that the musical elements of raW are filtered through several reggae songs and the John Philip Sousa march Stars and Stripes Forever. The work starts smartly with a series of recognisable motoric sixteenths from the Bach treated to syncopation and silencing. This stream is then subjected to a complex multi-layered compositional process exposing evanescent and barely recognizable echoes of reggae and march. The effectiveness of raW is heightened by its masterful scoring. The first series of chords sound as if a much larger ensemble than Continuum’s six musicians produced it. Graced with deftly constructed light-hearted moments, it’s no wonder this effective work was awarded the 2006 Jules Léger Prize for Chamber Music.

The composer’s brand of cheeky humour re-appears in Devilled Swan (1995). Here the composer takes apart the late 18th-century hymn tune China by Timothy Swan, the American hymnodist. Like James Rolfe’s composition teacher John Beckwith has often done in his own works, Devilled Swan takes an established hymn and re-composes it; except that the student takes compositional messing to new extremes. Rolfe virtually vivisects the hymn, proposing an ode to chromaticism and rhythmic stasis.

The violin sonata Drop (1999) is most memorable where the extended violin melody is doubled on the piano. Squeeze (1997) on the other hand starts off as a jaunty march, flavoured with a “Les Six”-like insouciance. Further on it marches right into the mysterious dreamy realm of a Bach chorale, dissolving into an unresolved tonal, harmonic and textural mistiness.

Composer Rolfe, evidently fond of bass drum thumps of all dynamic gradations, indulges his penchant in Revenge! Revenge!! Revenge!!! (1995) to dramatic effect, adding brake- and other drums for good measure.

This is a distinguished album by one of our most gifted composers of new concert music, definitively played.

02_vivienne_spiteriJalsaghar
Vivienne Spiteri
Centrediscs CMCCD 16410

This new offering from the enigmatic Canadian harpsichordist Vivienne Spiteri is brilliantly unique. Although I do not understand Spiteri’s musical approach, I cannot help but respect and applaud her conviction and honesty to her art and her playing. In the five duets and two trios featured, she is able to seamlessly transport her ideas from thoughts to fingers to keyboard, showing a talent so wide ranging that it is mind boggling.

A Who’s Who of Canadian composers and performers join Spiteri on her musical journey. In Hope Lee’s In the Beginning was the End, accordionist Joseph Macerollo’s exquisite long tones juxtaposed against the crisp harpsichord sounds move the composition in an ethereal dimension that only this world-class accordion hero can achieve. The three duo works by John Beckwith are diverse. In both Ringaround with lever harpist Sharlene Wallace, and Lines Overlapping with Kirk Elliott on five-string banjo, a sparse dialogue of overlapping parts creates a tinkling aural world. In contrast, Beckwith’s Blurred Lines has Spiteri and violinist Lawrence Beckwith blast into the sonic future. Percussive or florid harpsichord lines against droning, moaning or plucked violin melodies jubilantly cross styles, moods and centuries in this top track. Works by Bruce Mather, Linda Bouchard and Kirk Elliott complete the disc.

A remarkable depth of performance is key here. Spiteri never overshadows or disappears in her ensemble playing. She knows what she wants yet lets others do what they do best.

03_canadian_flute_quartetsCanadian Flute Quartets
Laurier Quartet
CML Productions CD 104

This recording of flute quartets by Canadian composers was funded by Wilfrid Laurier University in celebration of its centennial year. It can also be seen as a celebration of the work of Amy Hamilton, who has been teaching the flute at Laurier since 1987: the four players are she and three of her students, Jennifer Brimson, Heather Snowden, and Dawn Ellis-Mobbs, each of whom has gone on to pursue post graduate studies in flute in Canada, the U.S. and Britain. Their playing is consistently accomplished and assured, excellent intonation, articulation, and tone quality, even on the bass and alto flutes called for in several of the six compositions on the disc.

The repertoire covers a broad spectrum of contemporary genres, from the minimalism of Sally Norris’s Writing the Voice (for piccolo quartet) to the lyricism and piquant and sonorous harmonic vocabulary of Carl Derfler’s Flute Quartet No. 1. Even more interesting and individual are the pieces in between: the spellbinding counterpoint of David McIntyre’s A Gentle Melancholy, the organic musical architecture of Claude Lassonde’s Euphonie Fantasmique, the stunning use of the bass flute as a solo instrument in Euphrosyne Keefer’s The Undertow, and the poetic, almost uncanny way that Roberta Stephens captures the mood and essence of a moment in her three short pieces.

I congratulate Quartet Laurier for revealing these wonderful additions to the flute quartet repertoire - a must-have CD not only for flutists but also for composers and orchestrators, and, of course, anyone who loves the sound of the flute.

cacheCache 2009
Various Artists
CEC PeP 014 (http://cec.concordia.ca/cd/)

Each year the Canadian Electroacoustic Community/Communauté Electroacoustique Canadienne (CEC) holds a competition for new works merging acoustic and non-acoustic sounds by young and emerging sound artists. For the 2009 edition of winning musical submissions the CEC collaborated with its German counterpart, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Elektroakustische Musik. They co-produced this double CD set, one for each country: “Cache 2009”.

CD I opens auspiciously with the saxophone key flutterings of Syncrétisme (2009) by Québec composer Guillaume Barrette. This work is entirely based on sounds sourced from a multicultural array of instruments including saxophone, violin, piano, gangsa and ugal (the latter two being metallophones of the Balinese gamelan).

In the next track Montrealer Tomas Furey’s Tes Régions (2008) builds its musical case on elusive strummed guitar chords around which various other acoustic bell, string, knocking, rolling, crumpling and electronic sounds accumulate. Furey seems to be reaching here for a dream-like atmosphere tinged with tonality which serves to bolster the emotional quality of the music.

Olivier Girouard’s lengthy and cinematic Suite_04 (2009) shifts back and forth between several sonic tableaux: live recordings of public spaces and soundscapes produced in the studio. A third “text” appears in the form of quiet intimate voices from the soundtracks of a Wim Wenders film and from a Pedro Almodovar film. The title refers to a J.S. Bach dance suite on which this work’s structure is modeled. Girouard’s objective appears to be to access a wide variety of the world’s sounds and transcribe them into his work.

Space allows me to mention only one work from the German CD: the gorgeous Nachtschatten (2008) by composer Alexander Schubert. This dramatic “tape piece” is based on sound material derived equally from both instrumental and electronic sources. In Nachtschatten (Nightshade, a genus in the extensive nightshade plant family) the composer creates a rich chamber ensemble acousmatic texture. Schubert also foils expectation by undercutting the common musical practice of slowly adding sounds in order to build increasing density. Rather he maintains a moderate sound event tempo thus keeping the texture fairly homogenous. The work ends with several rich and crunchy chords I have trouble describing other than with the word “yummy”.

The 13 stimulating and diverse works in this package reminded me of the excitement I felt in the 1970s when I produced such fresh sounds and electroacoustic constructions myself at York University’s Electronic Studios. Nostalgia for les temps électroacoustique perdue, perhaps?

01_james_brownSevendaze
James Brown
Independent NGP-002 (www.jamesbrown.ca)

He may not be “The Godfather of Soul” but this James Brown – “our” raised-in-Burlington-now-residing-in-Toronto James Brown – brings much soul, sophistication, style and serious skill to his latest CD. Currently teaching guitar and jazz improvisation at the Royal Conservatory in Toronto, Brown has produced a vibrant and inventive CD of nine original compositions. Joining him on this splendid album are some of Canada’s finest: Quinsin Nachoff on tenor and soprano saxophone (see Geoff Chapman’s excellent review of his latest offering in last month’s WholeNote online at www.thewholenote.com); the always great Don Thompson on piano; in-demand bassist Jim Vivian; and the widely respected Anthony Michelli on drums. A stellar local line-up!

Brown is known for his lyrical tone, fluid, melodic lines and elegant writing and he doesn’t disappoint here. As well, his classical training is evident and it is not surprising to learn that he is an associate composer of the Canadian Music Centre. The classical influence is most apparent in Fugue, where he weaves a beautiful exchange of fugal voices between the guitar and saxophone, joined in a third voice by the bass. The playing (as well as the writing) is languid and expressive.

Oddly, I found the title track, spelled Sevendays, to be the least interesting, although still enjoyable. It is expansive and breezy, reminiscent, at times, of early Metheny.

Perhaps Brown is at his most soulful in Central Eastern (part 1), an evocative, melancholic and lyrical preamble to Central Eastern (part 2), which, in contrast, is driving, exhilarating and had me at the edge of my seat. It really swings with its subtle, not so much central but more Middle Eastern, flavour. Thompson provides some gorgeous piano work and the drumming is especially tasteful.

There’s a reason Brown has the reputation he does as a versatile and talented composer and guitarist. Actually, he’s given us nine with “Sevendaze.

 

02_VektorThe Story of Vektor 1984-1990
Vektor
VBT 002 batemanvictor@gmail.com

A swinging artifact from Toronto’s recent past, where a shotgun wedding between the technical sophistication of free jazz and the relentless rhythms of punk rock seemed inevitable, “The Story of Vektor” is very much a representative of its time.

Led by bassist and sometime vocalist Victor Bateman, Vektor operated in an area midway between the Shuffle Demons’ jive and Whitenoise’s dyspepsia. Sophisticated, high-class musicianship shares space with clearly defined beats and Bateman’s sardonically delivered lyrics. Besides Bateman, Vektor constants were tenor saxophonist Perry White, playing with more prickly and funky pacing than today, and trombonist Stephen Donald, who when not harmonizing with the saxophonist, exposes outstanding flutter tonguing on pieces such as Head in a Bottle.

Three changes each in the guitar and percussion chairs here reflect the band’s evolution and search for new sounds. Barry Romberg for instance, brings a jazz sensibility with his drumming; Graham Kirkland is more of a rocker; and Stych Wynston’s approach is somewhere in-between. It’s the same story with guitarists Mark McCarron, Kim Ratcliffe and Martin Rickert. The third is the most versatile, producing ringing string reverb on Life is a Crutch, then turning around to create hushed, atmospheric runs on Desolate Country.

More than 20 years on, some of the Vektor crew have allied themselves with more experimental sounds; others make their living as conventional jazzers; some have vanished altogether. Still, despite a few overly familiar arrangements, this CD is particularly valuable as a reminder of a time when jazz-rock fusion was a recipe for trying unusual blends, not a marketing label.


01_mike_murleyDebut recordings by bands already popular generate advance excitement and acclaimed tenor saxophonist Mike Murley duly delivers with the Mike Murley Septet - Still Rollin’ (Cornerstone CRST CD 135 www.cornerstonerecordsinc.com). His writing is almost orchestral in scope, with strong, rich ensemble statements between catchy hooks from an impressive rhythm team (pianist David Braid, bass Jim Vivian, drummer Ted Warren) and fluent soloing. Murley, his majestic horn work ever accomplished, penned seven of nine tunes for an artfully arranged, vibrant freewheeling session giving trombonist Terry Promane, trumpeter Kevin Turcotte (splendid throughout) and saxist Tara Davidson plentiful opportunities for fruitful exploration. Material ranges from the blustery title piece to reflective pieces referencing the leader’s Maritime heritage such as Minas Mist via a witty rework of Coltrane’s Giant Steps, a lovingly languid Celtic theme, a meaty tribute to Murley idol Sonny Rollins and a three-part suite inspired by Alberta mountains.

02_arc_en_cielPaul Read, the pianist-composer best known for key jazz roles at U of T and Humber, has run a 17-piece orchestra with top-flight players since 2006. He wrote nine tunes for the disc debut of Paul Read Orchestra - Arc-En-Ciel (Addo AJR004 www.paulreadorchestra.com), an excellent feat of well-drilled innovation and communal flair, though over-favouring lush ballads - the fierce Andy Ballantyne alto on opening swinger Too Pretty For Words besting the mellow beauty conjured by pianist David Braid, saxist Tara Davidson and flugelhornist Jim Lewis on subsequent numbers. Album highlight is the lengthy title tune (meaning “rainbow”) that benefits from Trish Coulter’s voice within its thick textures, time games and fascinating narrative celebrating nature’s alluring phenomenon. Following are a leisurely vehicle for trumpeter Chase Sanborn and not-so-leisurely tenor Alex Dean, so it’s fitting they then combine for a real rumble on Oxymoron. The set closes with a two-part suite, an elegy showcasing Braid followed by a rousing dust-up with five soloists, Dean at his effervescent best.

03_mario_romanoMario Romano is a real estate mogul and nifty pianist who can more than hold his own with jazz peers. His first CD as leader is Mario Romano Quartet - Valentina (Alma ACS15102 www.almarecords.com), where he’s joined by veteran saxman Pat LaBarbera, bass Roberto Occhipinti and drummer Mark Kelso. It opens with LaBarbera driving Night In Tunisia hard and Romano matching his technique and ardour. Standards use his arrangements, sometimes too predictable, but he comps well and, overall, clearly belongs. On Autumn Leaves he’s elaborate then pungent while his percussive attack suits Nardis and On Green Dolphin Street. His colleagues are on top form, the bassist’s huge sound and Kelso’s sheer vigour embellishing the band’s superior credentials. Sound quality is terrific.

04_canadian_jazz_quartetFor its fourth album, the Canadian Jazz Quartet – which has played Fridays since 2006 at Quotes on King St. West – has chosen a different direction. The result is a real treat, for those enamoured of Brazilian music and for fans of a stylish group whose jazz evolves seamlessly around tradition. Brazilian Reflections (Cornerstone CRST CD136 www.cornerstonerecordsinc.com) is class all the way, with leader and guitarist Gary Benson adding four originals to the 13 songs, five by Jobim, two from Luiz Bonfa. Elegance is the watchword with Benson colleagues – vibraphonist Frank Wright, bass Duncan Hopkins and drummer Don Vickery - in superlative form employing lilting rhythms as guitar and vibes demonstrate luminous comfort with the melodies. Desafinado is here of course, but so are lesser-known gems.

05_cory_weedsBands powered by Hammond B3 organs can’t be cool – if they don’t stir couch potatoes from torpor, they’re a bust. With virtuoso Joey DeFrancesco in town, tenorman-club owner Cory Weeds couldn’t miss, resulting in The Many Deeds of Cory Weeds (Cellar Live CL011010 www.coryweeds.com), a live gig at Vancouver’s Cellar backed by local trumpeter Chris Davis and Byron Landham drumming, a swinging octet of tunes heavy with intense, grooving bass lines. Session leader Weeds sounds great, like a 1960s Blue Note tenor saxist, in fact like the composer of two tunes here, Hank Mobley, but with fatter tones. The pace is mostly fast or semi-fast, Davis efficient more than inspiring, but DeFrancesco blasts on in incomparable fashion with all the grit and ferocity you’d expect. There’s great riffs, fierce improv, spectacular percussion, passionate performance – it’ll keep you alert for 75 minutes.

06_buckalooseCloser to home the combo co-led by Montreal B3 ace Vanessa Rodrigues and Toronto tenor Chris Gale has a new name and a new record. Meet Buckaloose - The 270 Sessions (Le Lab Records LLCD-002 www.tinyurl.com/buckaloose) It’s not quite Joey D powerhouse but it compensates with subtlety aplenty from keys and horn plus smart, confident guitar courtesy of Mike Rud. The music’s warmly soulful, drummer Davide DiRenzo propulsive on drums on seven tracks contributed by band members, but amounting to less than 50 minutes’ pleasure. Energy levels are high, Rodrigues is more than clever, the versatile Gale varies his aggression with hefty baritone sax, there’s drama in every phrase.

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