02 Diana Pantonsolstice/equinox
Diana Panton
Independent (dianapanton.com)

solstice/equinox by Diana Panton is another gorgeously perfect recording that the Hamilton jazz singer makes a nearly annual habit of releasing with ease. Multiple albums into her discographic career at this point – and in the exceptional company of multi-instrumentalist Don Thompson and guitarist Reg Schwager – the trio (fleshed out here with Guido Basso and Phil Dwyer) sounds not like a collection of hired musicians, but rather like a working jazz group that exhibits simpatico and a shared investment in the music heard here. Panton sings effortlessly throughout and swings with a bubbly buoyancy that reminds this listener of not only Blossom Dearie, but trumpeter Art Farmer, who also prefigured a relaxed and swinging time feel. Further, Thompson’s always beautiful musical arrangements and the thoughtful repertoire choice create the perfect casting for Panton’s voice and delivery to shine. With the theme of seasonal change threading through the recording and tying the repertoire together, Panton and band offer up a true jazz vocal recording that captures all involved at their musical finest. The recording quality is also of note, and helps to create a sonic space that is intimate and revealing. Nearly a decade into this group’s affiliation, here’s hoping that theirs is a musical relationship that continues for many more.

03 TurbopropREV
Ernesto Cervini’s Turboprop
Anzic Records ANZ-0089-2 (ernestocervini.com)

Review

In 2015, entrepreneur, composer and drummer Ernesto Cervini introduced his North American Sextet, Turboprop, featuring a cross-section of noted contemporary jazz musicians, including Tara Davidson on alto and soprano sax, Joel Frahm on tenor, William Carn on trombone, Adrean Farrugia on piano and Dan Loomis on bass. Their debut self-titled CD was a huge success.

Cervini and company’s brand-new offering includes five original pieces (two composed by Cervini – who also acts as producer here), two pop covers and one vintage Tin-Pan-Alley-era jazz standard. The project is also masterfully recorded by John “Beetle” Bailey, capturing all of the dynamism and excitement of a live performance, and mixed on the hot side, with a definite New York City sensibility.

Farrugia is without question one of the most extraordinarily talented young jazz pianist/composers on the scene today, and his composition The Libertine is a perfect opener for REV. The tune kicks things off with a tasty drum intro from Cervini, followed by seamless section work and non-Euclidean penetrating lines, rife with dynamics and sonic colours, as well as a complex and percussive piano solo by Farrugia and burning tenor work from Frahm. Another standout is Cervini’s Granada Bus, which strives to capture the essence of Spain, and shines with a stirring solo on soprano from Davidson.

Other strong contributions include the full-throttle, post-bop title track, Radiohead’s The Daily Mail, featuring a stellar bass solo from Loomis, and the swinging and soulful Med Flory-ish Pennies From Heaven. Truly something for everyone!

The Greatest Invention
Harley Card
Independent DYM003 (harleycard.ca)

Hypnagogia Polis
Simon Legault; Jules Payette; Andrew Boudreau; Adrian Vedady; Louis-Vincent Hamel
Effendi Records FND146 (effendirecords.com)

Two new and strikingly different albums by Canadian jazz guitarists demonstrate the health and diversity of that instrument in this country. 

Review

04a Harley Card

Harley Card has been active in the Toronto music scene since 2003 as a sideman, composer, teacher and bandleader. The Greatest Invention is the third album under his own name and features Card on guitar with Jon Maharaj (bass), Matt Newton (piano), David French (saxophone) and Ethan Ardelli (drums). The “invention” is the bicycle and the album opens with the title tune, containing a repeating riff reminiscent of spinning gears or wheels. The orchestration is sophisticated, with Card’s guitar and French’s resonant tenor saxophone weaving throughout most of the piece, sometimes in harmony, other times with alternating melodies while the drums and piano punctuate the piece with their own counterpoint. This initial song sets the tone for the album, which highlights Card’s compositional skills. The song is four and a half minutes but the only solo (guitar) lasts 90 seconds; the rest is intricate ensemble playing.

Card’s liner notes add insight to our listening and he mentions studying with Phil Nimmons, an influence that is heard throughout. It is a treat to listen to a jazz album that develops compositional and ensemble ideas at length rather than the more typical head/solo(s)/head structure. The most ambitious piece is The Shadows of Shea Pines, which is almost nine minutes with three movements. It begins with a slow saxophone and acoustic guitar ballad (with a touch of Epistrophy) then moves into smooth jazz and finishes with a melodic bossa nova-inspired section.

04b Simon LegaultHypnagogia Polis is Montreal guitarist Simon Legault’s third album and the first with a quintet. Hypnogogia is the transitional state from wakefulness to sleep and many of the songs have a hypnotic, luminescent quality. The opening Aethereal Spheres begins with a wickedly tight ostinato pattern set up by the piano (Andrew Boudreau) and bass (Adrian Vedady). Then the saxophone (Jules Payette) and guitar enter with a contrapuntal unison melody while Louis-Vincent Hamel’s drums underpin the action. This sophisticated playfulness permeates the album. Euphemized Blues has a groovy lilting melody which loops around several times before Legault takes off on one of his lyrical and swirling solos.

Legault’s album benefits from the virtuosity of the soloists. The tunes are inventive and reminiscent of Metheny or Scofield, but the highlights are the freewheeling improvisations, particularly with Legault’s fleet lines and Payette’s wailing and lyrical sax. Boudreau adds some fine piano work as well and it all makes for a clever and sophisticated disc.

05 Mikkel PlougAlleviation
Mikkel Ploug
Songlines SGL 1623-2 (songlines.com)

Mikkel Ploug is a Danish guitarist who works regularly with his own jazz groups as well as Equilibrium, a trio with singer Sissel Vera Pettersen and clarinetist Joachim Badenhorst, a fascinating improvising chamber group that has found a home with Vancouver’s Songlines label. This solo acoustic guitar disc continues Ploug’s association with the label.

Both the solo and acoustic aspects are departures for Ploug, who recounts his discovery and acquisition of a particularly apt mid-40s Gibson Bannerhead guitar, a steel-string, mahogany-bodied, flat top more apt to supply chorded accompaniments to a folk singer. Instead it’s inspired some of the most beautiful and unexpected solo guitar music one might wish to hear. On one level it’s distinguished by Ploug’s investment in its special sound store, its fret clatter and squeaks, the kind of string noise some seek to surmount and that others love. Its resonance is even more appealing, with Ploug using finger picking on most pieces, exploring the instrument’s warm account of triads and seventh chords then extending the spectrum to create dense weaves of contrasting harmonic languages, sometimes beginning a phrase in one world and ending in another.

One of the most lustrous is Couleurs d’Olivier, a Messiaen inspiration in which diatonic scales ascend into dense chromaticism; another is Circle Wind, a cycling piece inspired by Steve Reich that creates an added dimension with metallic fret noise. This is consistently engaging music, bridging many genres.

06 Gordon Grdina QaurtetInroads
Gordon Grdina Quartet
Songlines SGL 1623-2 (songlines.com)

Since his 2006 debut, Think Like the Waves with jazz greats Gary Peacock and Paul Motian, Vancouver guitarist Gordon Grdina has pursued multiple musical paths, setting his guitar amidst his jazz-based ensembles, the classically influenced third stream music of the East Van Strings or Dan Mangan’s rock band, while concurrently exploring the oud, a Middle Eastern lute, in both traditional and contemporary applications. Inroads summarizes and synthesizes that decade of exploration, while presenting Grdina in a stellar group of New York-based musicians: Oscar Noriega on alto saxophone, clarinet and bass clarinet; Russ Lossing on piano and electric piano; and Satoshi Takeishi on drums.

Grdina’s disparate influences here range through Béla Bartók, the rock band Soundgarden and free jazz, while his compositions pass through divergent moods, densities and methodologies. The opening Giggles is limpidly beautiful unaccompanied piano, while Not Sure is chameleon-like, moving from rapid-fire guitar aggression through lyrical piano and alto saxophone passages and then on to thrashing drums and howling saxophone, presenting many of Grdina’s elements in a single piece.

Some of the most affecting pieces are also models of brevity. Kite Flight is a tantalizing explosion of lower register guitar, raucous bass clarinet and elemental percussion, while Semantics, a guitar/clarinet duet, is subtly evanescent. That same delicacy informs the longer Fragments in its blend of piano and oud, while contrasting Middle Eastern elements energize Apocalympics. It’s a fascinating program in which Grdina takes his materials in very different directions.

07 Emie RousselIntersections
Emie R Roussel Trio
Effendi Records FND148 (effendirecords.com)

It is quite impossible not to be seduced by the cultivated and masterful pianism of Emie R Roussel, whose music on Intersections is patently expansive and at times a veritable masterclass in how to build assiduous climaxes, how to intelligently scale one’s dynamics and how to balance the music’s massive textures in sonorously judicious proportions. Her music is vivid. Each piece is a unique narrative. Musical character is well rounded and each piece is always fully developed before its natural denouement announces a natural demise.

On three occasions the trio is expanded into a quartet and on each resulting work the addition of another musician – whether the vocalist on Away, the trumpeter on De Tadoussac à Auckland or the bassist on Tout le monde ensemble – is timely and perfectly placed. It’s surely an indication that the ideas and the material dictate the direction that the music should take. Rhythm is also an essential tool throughout and Roussel depends greatly on her left hand bass lines, together with the flights of fancy by her drummer, Dominic Cloutier and bassist, Nicolas Bédard, as a means of communicating ideas as well as shaping the structure of each piece.

Each piece also has its own unique charisma, and flowing from this each gathers momentum, swinging to its climax with the wind of melody and harmony under its proverbial wings. All of this yields a magical and quite unforgettable album from a pianist of whom much is expected in the future.

08 John StetchThe Vancouver Concert
John Stetch & Vulneraville
Independent (johnstetch.com)

Splitting his time between New York and British Columbia, Edmonton-born pianist John Stetch’s recent Vancouver concert was a rare opportunity to display locally the contiguous rapport he’s developed with his Big Apple cohort of tenor saxophonist Steve Kortyka, bassist Ben Tiberio and drummer Philippe Lemm, collectively called Vulneraville. Four-fifths of the disc is made up of Stetch’s compositions, which mix the rigour of notated pieces with jazz’s dramatic timbral fluctuations.

This is particularly apparent on Rondeau, related to a two-part Renaissance form with one part of the structure set to one musical line and the second to another. Stetch’s extravagant keyboard technique easily adapts the mode, especially in the second section when his emphasis on the piano’s higher-pitched dynamics is furthered by Kortyka’s thickened obbligatos and increasingly powerful crunches from Lemm. It’s these sorts of high-quality themes and variations that inform the pianist’s other tunes, with Oscar’s Blue-Green Algebra, another example. Mixing church-like processional motifs with chunks of pure keyboard swing, he suggests Oscar Peterson’s hefty approach to the piano.

Oddly enough though, Stetch ends the concert with a straight-ahead version of the standard Things Ain’t What They Used to Be. While the performance exudes romping excitement, with ample space for scorching breaks from each quartet member – even Tiberio, who is buried in the mix elsewhere – the choice is unfortunate. Things have changed as Stretch’s compositions and Vulneraville’s playing demonstrate. A less straight-ahead treatment would have been a better choice to affirm the title of the track.

09 Hilario DuranContumbao
Hilario Durán
Alma Records ACD92272 (almarecords.com)

Passionate, innovative, expressive, dynamic, evocative, sophisticated, genius – superlatives consistently used to describe the towering musicality and virtuosity that is pianist, composer, arranger and bandleader, Hilario Durán. Born in Havana, Cuba and based in Toronto for the past 20 years, Durán has been wowing the world with his creative approach to Afro-Cuban and Latin jazz, one breathtaking concert after another.

Contumbao is a project that literally has brought Durán back to his Cuban roots. Recorded at Havana’s legendary EGREM studios (whose storied roster includes Orquesta Aragón, Arturo Sandoval, Chucho Valdés and the Buena Vista Social Club, and where Durán had recorded hundreds of sessions), it was Durán’s dream to get back there and play with some of his favourite musical collaborators, including two original bandmates from his 1990s band, Perspectiva: guitarist Jorge Luis Valdés (“Chicoy”) and bassist Jorge Reyes.

Contumbao is a heartfelt homage to Cuba’s rich, musical history. Indeed, Durán dedicates his album of new compositions to Cuban music and its many musical styles “whose music and rhythms run through my veins.” This is apparent from the pulsating rhythms of the title track, and the spirited rumbas, El Tahonero and Rumba de Cajón, to the poignant Parque 527 – Durán’s former Havana address – and the exhilarating Duo Influenciado, performed with his friend and champion, the aforementioned Cuban piano great, Chucho Valdés.

All the superlatives in the world can’t do justice to the experience of listening to Durán and his stellar cast of musical compatriots. In fact, Contumbao may leave you speechless! 

10 JondoJondo
Joshua Rager Nonet
Bent River Records BRR-201702 (joshrager.com)

With his highly alluring nonet recording entitled Jondo, pianist Josh Rager enters a field crowded with stellar performances by pianists. However, his multi-layered idiomatic compositions and their memorable execution set him somewhat apart from the rest of the tribe. The repertoire may be named after the rhythmically rich and mysterious Jondo, but the album derives most of its richness from the opening, extended work, the Prodigal Son Suite. It is a work that is by turns poised, polished, intimate and exuberant. Rager – with his lustrous pianism – leads an ensemble that works like a well-oiled machine, playing his compositions with authority and élan and doing a remarkable job of getting under Rager’s sonic skin.

For his part the pianist swings with palpable enjoyment and as in the way he makes his trills into mischievous flourishes – especially on songs such as Child’s Play and 3 Legged Dog – as well as in the rich variety of articulation and dynamic gradation throughout the rest of the recording. The pacing of his Zen-like piece, The Master Waits, and the tricky movements of The Inside Track, reveal Rager to be both a writer and pianist of distinct personality, ever sensitive and careful never to become overbearing.

In the end, how one will react to this recording will largely depend on one’s taste for music that emerges from a large tonal palette. To that end, everything that the Joshua Rager Nonet serves up on Jondo is brimful with infectious delight and enjoyment.

11 Joe BowdenThank You for Listening
The Joe Bowden Project
Independent (joebowden.bandcamp.com)

As a young teenager, I was taught to repeat the phrase “thank you for listening” when taking a post-performance bow. Joe Bowden should feel free to repeat this phrase over and over as he deserves endless praise and respect for his brilliant work as composer, drummer, arranger and bandleader in his latest release. Originally from Halifax, Bowden moved to Toronto in the early 1980s where he studied at Humber College and was musically inspired by listening to and working with many jazz musicians. His music here is driven by a mature understanding of jazz style, rhythms, and awe-inspiring musicianship.  

Bowden’s ten musicians play with a deep respect for his music and artistry. Mingus is an upbeat toe-tapping tradition-flavoured tune with a locked-in groove between the drums and Rich Brown’s bass. I’m Here Again is a slower quasi-ballad, featuring Michael Occhipinti’s modernistic guitar solos and Manuel Valera’s chromatic runs and intervals on piano. Devil Five lives up to its title, featuring a wide interval, almost minimalistic repeating bass line, zippy piano runs and Bowden’s virtuosic drum solos. Nice change of pace with FSC (Funky Soul Calypso), a fun get-up-and-dance tune featuring Joy Lapps-Lewis’ steel pan artistry.

Bowden writes on the CD jacket “Pursuit of Happiness, is it reality or a dream?” Like the track of the same name, the reflection, improvisations and grooves make this a dreamy musical reality!

12 Mary Catherine PazzanoYou’re Gonna Hear From Me
Mary-Catherine Pazzano
Glorious Feeling Records

Review

On her debut release, elegant chanteuse Mary-Catherine Pazzano has not only shown exceptional good taste in presenting 12 fine compositions from musical theatre, film and the Great American Songbook, but she has also conscripted a superb lineup of musical collaborators, including Don Buchanan on piano (also co-producer), Jason Hunter on saxophones, Pat Collins on bass and Steve James on drums. Arranged and produced by Pazzano, she has selectively dipped into the catalogues of venerable composers such as Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein, Harry Warren, Cole Porter, Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer as well as contemporary artists, Joni Mitchell and Billy Joel.

First up is the stirring (and rarely performed) title track, written for the cult film Inside Daisy Clover starring Natalie Wood. Pazzano shines throughout with energy and luscious tone, as she soars with her quartet.  Buchanan and Pazzano have included one well-written original composition, A Simple Conversation – which has the potential to become a contemporary jazz standard. Another standout is Mancini and Mercer’s Charade, from the hit movie of the same name starring Audrey Hepburn. Haunting and languid, this tune is set as perfectly as a Tiffany solitaire – with a many-faceted voice/bass section in front, followed by an up-tempo sequence and fine bass solo from Collins.

Pazzano possesses a gorgeous, classically trained contralto voice capable of projecting the full gamut of emotions, as well as an uncanny skill with rendering the lyrics of current music, jazz standards and show tunes. A fine opening salvo!

Nathaniel: A Tribute to Nat King Cole
Ori Dagan
Independent ODCD03 (oridagan.com)

Nat “King” Cole & Me
Gregory Porter
Blue Note 5791468

Review

13a Ori Dagan

Nat King Cole had an incredibly prolific recording career, producing an astounding 30 albums, despite his early death at age 45. He was a pop artist as much as a jazz singer and piano player, and he was much loved for his velvety voice and gentlemanly demeanour. So it’s no surprise that this month we have not one, but two tribute albums to the legendary musician.

Toronto singer Ori Dagan, known for his scat-singing talents, inventiveness and light-hearted tune choices (check out his Super Mario medley on YouTube!), is true to form on Nathaniel: A Tribute to Nat King Cole. With Mark Kieswetter, Nathan Hiltz, Ross McIntyre and Mark Kelso accompanying, we’re treated to familiar Cole songs (Nature Boy) and a few lesser known (Lillette), as well as some original compositions inspired by Cole’s music and life.

13b Gregory Porter Nat King Cole MeAmerican soul-jazz singer Gregory Porter has come out with a tender tribute to his boyhood musical hero. With the 80-piece London Studio Orchestra – masterfully arranged by Vince Mendoza – featured on most of the tracks, Nat “King” Cole & Me is big, string-laden and lush. Porter’s warm voice is similar in tone to Cole’s but he doesn’t attempt to imitate. His straight, heartfelt delivery allows the lyrics to speak for themselves. Many of the big hits are covered including Mona Lisa and L-O-V-E, and all the emotional stops are pulled out on Smile.

These two albums are so different in style that a Cole fan could do well by adding both to their collection. 

14 Tardo HammerSwinging on a Star
Tardo Hammer Trio
Cellar Live CL110717 (cellarlive.com)

To play bebop, one needs to deal with two competing impulses: master the instrument – amass the fluency required to float at heightened tempi, navigate harmonic complexities and execute ornamented lines that are part of this music’s tradition – and utilize a relaxed phraseology that is anything but frenetic and that comes across as “not trying too hard.” No doubt, to play with the sort of authenticity that stellar musicians Tardo Hammer, Lee Hudson and Steve Williams bring to Hammer’s Swinging On A Star is difficult. But to listeners, the effort is hidden, the inventive spirit of musical collaboration and taste displayed.

In the spirit of disclosure, I, as guitarist and occasional liner-note writer, am affiliated with Cellar Live, the label on which Hammer’s disc is released. Nonetheless, as an objective jazz fan, I am routinely impressed by their expanding catalogue of great releases of which Swinging On A Star is no exception. Drinking from the well of Bud Powell, Barry Harris and Thelonious Monk, Hammer and company offer an auditory snapshot of a blue-chip jazz trio on any given night. Yes, there are arrangements and unique repertoire; however, this recording fits comfortably within the tradition of blowing sessions, wherein beauty is revealed through improvisatory extrapolations that spin forward when three masters come together in a comfortable listening environment. Overall, a swinging recording that marries beautiful songs, improvisatory excellence and, as a bonus, insightful liner notes by Morgan Childs.

15 LAMA MetamorphosMetamorphosis
LAMA + Joachim Badenhorst
Clean Feed CF433 CD (cleanfeed-records.com)

Metamorphosis is true to its title only if the term includes transmogrifying one way and subsequently taking a completely opposite form, as this Canadian/Belgian foursome does on this CD. Initially on Metamorphosis I, it appears that the brassy emphasis from Portuguese trumpeter Susana Santos Silva and pressurized flutters from Belgian bass clarinetist Joachim Badenhorst are going to be mere bagatelles to the polyrhythmic undulations from Portuguese keyboardist Gonçalo Almeida, which seem to subsume all other timbres into a crackling electronic wash. But not only is there soon space for brass and reed counterpoint, once the sounds flow into Metamorphosis II, the pulsating tick-tock of Canadian drummer Greg Smith kicks into gear and is joined by string plucks from Almeida, who has switched to double bass, an expansion creating a powerful acoustic jazz trope.

This movement from electronic to acoustic continues throughout the CD, through faultless changes of pitch and tempo. Especially striking is how Badenhorst and Silva appear to be going their separate ways, examining extended techniques, involving, for instance, contralto hollow tones from the clarinetist and billowing plunger excursions from the trumpeter, only to interlock onto a series of connective riffs in the nick of time.

Officially Badenhorst is still a guest of the LAMA trio, but it’s evident that the four have evolved a strategy that gives everyone a chance at textural exploration as a notable group sound is produced.

16 Chris WallaceSomewhere Sacred
Chris Wallace’s Many Names
GB Records (chriswallacedrums.com)

Jazz musician/drummer/composer Chris Wallace hails from Regina, but his varied career has seen him working in Europe, the United States and Canada, residing/working in Edinburgh, Scotland from 2002 to 2013 when he moved to Toronto. So many locales and musical experiences, along with his compositional process he describes as “allowing myself to be open to something I don’t fully understand and that is where the music comes from – somewhere sacred,” must have influenced his smart contemporary jazz compositions here, featuring his outstanding band Many Names – Jeff King (tenor sax), Adrean Farrugia (piano) and Daniel Fortin (double bass).

Wallace the composer and Wallace the drummer both listen astutely, have complex technical prowess and unique musical storytelling capabilities. Wallace’s drumming is dense and colourful yet never overwhelming, and fully supportive of his colleagues – as best heard in Chapter Zero where his backdrop supports King’s sax stylings, Farrugia’s florid piano, Fortin’s driving bass and the occasional band quasi-unison sections. More reflective is the opening of the title track, with a luscious sax melody, laid-back groove, superb bass solo and wide-pitch piano explorations. New-music sounds appear in the pitch leaps in the sax and the chromatic florid piano runs of Visitation. Nice musical conversations between the players flavour the more traditional jazz sounding A Memory of 10.

With touches of many styles throughout performed by great multi-faceted musicians/improvisers, Wallace’s challenging jazz welcomes repeated listening.

17 Bill GilliamEntangled Pathways
Gilliam, Milmine & Pottie
Melos Productions MPCD 005 (bill-gilliam.com)

Review

This challenging and enervating recording is a collection of original music created by the acoustic trio of pianist Bill Gilliam, soprano saxophonist Kayla Milmine and drummer Ambrose Pottie. The creative group originally met through the noted Toronto Improvisers Orchestra (TIO) and soon began writing and performing impressive free music together. According to Gilliam (the producer and primary composer), “Some pieces are composed using free-floating melodies, jazz idioms and modal-chromatic tonalities, while other pieces are freely improvised creations.” Although perhaps gestated by different processes, the 12 impressive tracks all seem to lead to a central concept of connectedness, alternate realities and divergent pathways that may yet resonate together like strands in a web; in other words, musical quantum entanglement.

The Singularity is well-placed in the program, as it seems to portend the sonic and emotional musical journey ahead. Gilliam’s lush, powerful and insistent piano lines are both appealing and unnerving, and Milmine’s commitment to this extraordinary and technically challenging music is evident with every note that she plays – she bends that piece of cold metal to her will, and makes it sing.

Mountain Dance is a standout. One of the most visual and rhythmically complex pieces on the CD, the action is propelled by Pottie, who remains completely musical while deftly driving the trio into the nether regions. Also, the groovy and exotic Porous Borders utilizes unison and descending lines as well as modal dissonance and stark piano statements to create a feeling of nervous isolation – all rendered with a sense of irony, as true isolation may be nothing more than a self-imposed construct.

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