02_beethoven_9Beethoven – Symphony No.9
Christine Oelze; Petra Lang; Klaus Florian Vogt; Matthias Goerne; Deutscher Kammerchor; Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen;
Paavo Järvi
Sony 88697576062

The Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Orchestra was founded in 1980 by a group of exceptional young students and went on to become one of the most sought-after chamber orchestras, appearing at the UN in 1983. They were invited to play at Gidon Kremer’s Lockenhaus Festival where their 1986 performance of Gubaidulina’s Seven Words was issued by Philips. Since 1992 they have been based in Bremen and are self governing, owned by the players. Paavo Järvi has been their conductor since 2004 and in August of that year they began recording a new Beethoven cycle using the Barenreiter Urtext Edition, starting with the Eighth.

The reduced strings contribute to the creation of new textures that are in no way less satisfying for the audience. The winds and brass are more present without losing perspective. Listeners will have a new appreciation of the genius and beauty of Beethoven’s scores.

Järvi has a clear stamp on these performances wherein he refreshes the scores with his own phrasing and accents, with tempi that adhere to Beethoven’s metronome markings. Diehard fans of the traditional school are likely to find Järvi too acerbic and will not easily accept his approach. Even though I was very familiar with Järvi’s performances of all the others, this Ninth came as a quite a shock. It is as if Järvi has finally taken the wraps off, stepped aside and let Beethoven speak for himself, unencumbered by generations of well meaning interpreters. It works well for me and I find Järvi’s non-routine, clear headed interpretations throughout the nine fully justify their existence among a plethora of sets, new and re-issued, which are mostly indistinguishable from each other.

The state-of-the-art hybrid SACD/CDs, whether heard in stereo or surround, are of audiophile quality accurately delineating the instruments exactly as the conductor intended. The executive producers of these recordings are the orchestra itself and Maestro Järvi, which just may account for their excellence.

01_beethoven_9symphonies_liveBeethoven – Live Symphonies
Orchestra de la Francophonie; Jean-Philippe Tremblay
Analekta AN 2 9975-9

If I’m not mistaken, a particular musicologist once said, “French orchestras are incapable of playing German music.” Whoever it was who made this claim would surely have second thoughts upon hearing this fine five-disc Analekta recording of the complete Beethoven symphonies featuring l’Orchestre de la Francophonie under the direction of Jean-Philippe Tremblay. Founded in 2001 for the fourth Jeux de la Francophonie in Ottawa-Hull, this ensemble has earned a reputation as one of the country’s finest youth orchestras, having given more than 200 concerts across Canada, and undertaking a successful tour of China in 2007.

There is certainly no dearth of Beethoven complete symphonies sets, so do we really need one more? Having said that, I can assure you that this one, recorded live at Québec City’s Palais Montcalm in July of 2009, can easily hold its own against the older more established recordings. From the opening hesitant measures of the Symphony No. 1, the listener is immediately struck by the youthful freshness of OF’s approach. The playing is noble and elegant, and when dramatic intensity is called for, it is achieved without the heavy-handed bombast that has sometimes characterized Beethoven recordings from the past.

Admittedly, one of my favourite symphonies of all time is Beethoven’s No.7. I’m pleased to report that the interpretation here is splendid, particularly in the first and final movements, where the strings seemingly shimmer in joyful exuberance. The second movement, mysterious and somewhat cryptic, is treated in a deservingly subtle manner, while the boisterous finale, at one time compared to the merry-making of peasants, brings the symphony to a rousing conclusion. Wagner, who also happened to love this work, (once referring to it as “the very apotheosis of the dance”), would be pleased indeed!

The climax of the set comes with the powerful Symphony No. 9, a true world unto itself. Soloists Marie-Josée Lord, Geneviève Couillard Després, Guy Bélanger, and Ētienne Dupuis together with the Choeur de la Francophonie maintain a wonderful vocal cohesion, admirably blending with the orchestra to form a unified whole.

Despite this being a live recording, extraneous noises are minimal, and the burst of enthusiastic applause at the end of each symphony seems particularly fitting in light of the superb performances. My only quibble concerns the flimsy packaging – it may have been a cost-cutting measure, but a fine recording such as this deserves better. Kudos to l’Orchestre de la Francophonie, to the soloists, the chorus, and to Jean-Philippe Tremblay for breathing some overdue fresh air into this well-trodden repertoire.

03_berliozBerlioz: Symphonie Fantastique op.14;
Le Carnaval Romain
Anima Eterna Brugge; Jos van Immerseel
ZIG-ZAG CD ZZT100101

• I am always leery about ‘period instrument groups’ tackling post 1800 repertoire. Although I am not about to change my prejudice, right from the first bars this recording impressed me as something very special. The uniqueness of this performance is not so just because of the period instruments; conductor van Immerseel brings a fresh approach in colour, tempo, balance, articulation, phrasing and dynamics.

For rabid fans of this symphony (myself included) the experience of first hearing this performance is startling. The presentation is so transparent that details of the scoring, invariably obscured in modern performances, are revealed, particularly from the winds, affirming that Berlioz was a peerless innovative genius.

And what about the ‘period instrument’ component? The Anima Eterna Orchestra, particularly the winds, are superb, playing with joie de vivre, gorgeous sound and beautiful tone colours. As a group they create an irresistible, luminous texture throughout the work. Listeners will be surprised to hear, not the usual bell sounds in the Witches Sabbath but the sustained piano chords as specified in the Berlioz manuscript. The piano strings blend with the orchestra to solemn effect adding a new sense of gravitas with a sobering subterranean effect, quite different from the mood of the tolling bells.

Without any doubt, Van Immerseel and his group daringly demonstrate the originality and genius of the composer. The recording, captured in faultless sound, was made in the sonically impressive Concertgebouw in Bruges to which this group is very well attuned. For me, this has been an unexpected and rewarding discovery.

02_biberBiber – Mensa Sonora; Battalia
Baroque Band; Garry Clarke
Cedille CDR 90000 116

Pity the poor composer who needs must provide music meant to be ignored! Such is the case for Biber’s collection of genteel pieces for dining, the six suites for strings entitled Mensa Sonora (Sonorous Table) served up in 1680 for the gustatory delectation of his then employer, the Archbishop of Salzburg. Not initially expecting anything special, I was pleasantly surprised at the cunning of Biber’s art. He manages by dint of the off-kilter asymmetries of his melodic craft to project a sub-text of sophistication completely over the head of his patron. Biber marvellously subverts the conventions of the genre, concluding the whole enterprise with a disjointed denouement worthy of Haydn. He proves himself a visionary as well with the celebrated, outlandish Battalia in 10 parts of 1673 in which one finds innovations not to be exploited again until centuries later: the snap-pizzicato of Bartok; playing with the wood of the bow à la Berlioz; and, in the loopy inebriation of a scene depicting drunken soldiers, the polytonality and collage technique of Charles Ives. As director and concertmaster Gerry Clarke mentions in his liner notes, Biber (1644-1704), the Bohemian-Austrian violin virtuoso and composer, was regarded by Paul Hindemith to be “the most important Baroque composer before Bach”, yet it is only in recent decades that his music has seen a significant revival. The Chicago-based Baroque Band, formed in 2007, plays this music to perfection with a highly effective blend of subtlety and precision. Truly delicious!

01_viola_damoreViola D’Amore
Hélène Plouffe
Analekta AN 2 9959

The viola d’amore was demanding. It has the complication of resonating strings, is crafted as if it were a viol but is played like a violin, and is the size of the already-existing viola. And yet it survived throughout the Baroque and has even inspired modern composers.

Hélène Plouffe’s selection shows how sensuous this instrument is, notably in von Biber’s Partia VII, with its soothing praeludium, allamande and aria. The skill it requires is demonstrated in the concluding arietta variata.

If the viola d’amore is rare in North America, try finding a bass chalumeau - the link between recorder and clarinet. Hélène Plouffe did so and Graupner’s Trio in F major is the result, the allegro and vivace above all expressing both instruments’ qualities.

Bach’s St. John Passion allows us to see the viola d’amore supporting the human voice but those wishing to hear the instrument at its plainest will enjoy Ah que l’amour, an extract from Milandre’s Méthode facile pour la viole d’amour. This exercise proves that the instrument does indeed have an individual sound.

And so to Petzold’s Partita in F major, a collection of early baroque dances. As with the Milandre piece, the music for solo viola d’amore played here best shows off what the instrument can bring to its audience, particularly with Hélène Plouffe’s interpretations.

05_norgard_wolfliPer Nørgård – Der gottliche Tivoli
Stadttheater Bern; Dorian Keilhack
Dacapo 6.220572-73

Composer Per Nørgård wrote in February 2007 how his visit to an exhibition with works of Adolf Wölfli marked a turning point in his own compositional sensibilities “...I experienced the encounter of Wölfli’s chaotic art as a mental dive into a different, dark world – eerie, unpredictable, but fascinating and above all highly specific”. The opera Der gottliche Tivoli (The Divine Circus) is best described in this same manner – the operatic rendition of Wölfli’s life is mind-boggling in its musicality.

This is not easy listening – there are no clear cut operatic arias where the singers can showcase their virtuosity. In fact, the real operatic diva here is the percussion-heavy orchestration. The opening prelude (performed brilliantly by Hans-Kristian Kjos Sørensen) is identical to the fourth movement of Nørgård’s solo percussion work, “I Ching”. Throughout the opera, the six percussionists in the orchestral ensemble are key players. There are atonal melodies to support Nørgård’s libretto (which is based on Wölfli’s own writings) but the rhythms best describe Wölfli’s schizophrenic descent and the calmer artistic periods of his life. Touching is Nørgård’s choral arrangement of Wölfli’s own folksong melody at the end of opera.

The vocal soloists, under the direction of conductor Dorian Keilhack, are superb in this high quality live 2008 performance from Stadttheater Bern. Der gottliche Tivoli is a difficult yet intriguing adventure in the life of a troubled artist and the curious composer who was moved by his artistry.

04_Keenlyside_schubertLive at Wigmore Hall – Songs by Schubert, Wolf, Fauré and Ravel Simon Keenlyside; Malcolm Martineau;

Wigmore Hall WHLive 0031

The operatic baritone, as a rule, gets upstaged. It is the voice of villains, fathers, and older brothers. The tenor usually ends up in the spotlight and even in operas where the baritone is the central character, it is as an anti-hero (Hamlet, Robert Oppenheimer in “Dr. Atomic”). We are fortunate to live in times when there are several world-class baritones around who, aside from making appearances on stages around the planet also record their voices for our enjoyment. I have shared with the readers my feelings about the brilliant Thomas Quasthoff and Gerald Finley, so it’s time to wholeheartedly recommend Simon Keenlyside.

During recent performances of Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet at the MET, Keenlyside in the title role overcame the insipid set and not fully cooked production and with the power of his voice transformed the opera into an intimate recital. Here, on record from Wigmore Hall, he offers the Keenlyside treatment to a sampling of lieder. His voice, aside from power and projection, possesses the agreeable timbre that’s impossible to describe, yet instantly recognizable. The singing is effortless, as if it were to him the most natural thing, like breathing. Keenlyside works very well with accompaniment, be it a piano or a full orchestra. Here, Malcolm Martineau deserves a special mention of his own. And to think, that at one time this gifted singer was considering a career in zoology, which he studied at Cambridge – the animals’ loss is most definitely our gain!


03a_fiset_melodiya03b_fiset_ophelie

Melodiya
Marianne Fiset; Marie-Eve Scarfone;
Orchestre Radio-Canada Musique;
Jean-Philippe Tremblay
Analekta AN 2 9962

Ophélie – Lieder et Melodies
Marianne Fiset; Louis-Philippe Marsolais;

Michael Mahon
ATMA ACD2 2628

 

The province of Quebec has had of late its disproportionate share of great young vocalists. It could be argued that the commitment to culture and classical music is much stronger there and a greater number of competitions and musical festivals allow the young new stars to shine brighter. It is not just a funding issue, however. The artistic sensibility of both the artists and the audiences there is different. Frequently, European artists make Montreal or Lanaudière their first foray into North America. You can call it a certain je ne sais quoi, but it seems to be working. Case in point – Marianne Fiset. To say that the young soprano burst onto the scene is to understate it. Four awards in a young vocalist category and a Juno nomination for her first record “Melodiya”, a collection of Russian songs and operatic excerpts on the Analekta label, speak for themselves.

On her ATMA disc, “Ophélie”, Fiset lets her voice shine – literally. Juxtaposed against the brilliantly played horn of Louis-Philippe Marsolais, the young Quebecer’s beautiful instrument dialogues through a thoughtful selection of music by Berlioz, Donizetti, Strauss, Schubert and Lachner. The interpretations are engaged, full of understanding and delicacy and the rare combination of horn and voice delights the ear. Much as her Juno nomination is well deserved for “Melodiya”, “Ophélie” (recorded 6 months later) showcases a young artist whose craft is getting better with each outing. Bravo!


02_carissimi_oratoriosCarissimi – Oratorios
Les Voix Baroques
ATMA ACD2 2622

Charles Darwin wouldn’t be the least surprised by the evolution of early music performance practice. After emerging from the post-romantic brine with proto feet and oh-so-strict ideas about how things must sound, the species now displays an elegance of balance and sensibility that may have brought us to the pinnacle of the art form.

Les Voix Baroques is an ensemble of young voices with a remarkable ability to create startling colours in ensemble passages. Only artful listening can make this happen – obviously something the members of Les Voix do extremely well. These four Carissimi oratorios have far less chorus than solo material, so the shift in texture from solo passages to harmonically rich part singing is dramatic and highly effective.

The singers’ solo work also merits comment. We’ve placed much value on straight tone (vibrato-free) singing for early music repertoire, and there’s certainly plenty of it in this recording. Unusual, however, is the freedom for individual singers to move into a vibrato at specific points in phrases. This contrast between vocal styles gives emphasis to key moments in a text or musical line. It’s a wonderful effect and feels quite natural.

Particularly lovely is Suzie Leblanc’s “Plorate filii Israel”. Her vocal style is immediately recognizable and exquisitely captures the anguish of the plaintive text.

The eight member instrumental ensemble is superb in its supportive role and relishes its several orchestral moments. They are remarkably consistent in their early music tuning (temperament) teasing us with harmonic intervals placed just slightly askew of where our modern ear expects them to be.

A very satisfying disc… Viva Les Voix Baroques!


01_cacciniFrancesca Caccini – O Viva Rosa
Shannon Mercer; Luc Beauséjour; Sylvain Bergeron; Amanda Keesmaat
Analekta AN 2 9966

Francesca Caccini, daughter of composer and Florentine Camerata member Giulio Caccini, enjoyed a brilliant career as a renowned performer and composer in the Medici court. Admired by Henry IV of France and Claudio Monteverdi, she was often referred to as “La Cecchina” (The Songbird). Caccini’s vocal compositions reflect her great artistry as a singer, incorporating impossibly long melismas and exquisite ornamentations that few mere mortals can manage. But suggest this repertoire, as harpsichordist Luc Beauséjour did, to a singer like Shannon Mercer and she will set to work and rise beautifully to the challenge. Not just technically, but emotively as well. For this music also requires an extremely sensitive interpretation of its delicate sensuality and oftentimes anguished vulnerability.

The repertoire is chosen from Caccini’s Il primo libro delle musiche (1618), and the were songs likely originally accompanied by theorbo alone. This recording features a fuller continuo, with Beauséjour (harpsichord), Sylvain Bergeron (lute, baroque guitar, theorbo) and Amanda Keesmaat (cello) who are featured in additional instrumental selections, some by father Giulio. While the liner notes provide an excellent historical survey of the composer, I was a little disappointed that the lyrics and their translation were not included, though there is a note that they are available on the Analekta website. That being said, this CD is an exquisitely executed offering of truly rare gems in the vocal repertoire.

Included in the list of composers whose anniversaries are celebrated this year are two of the greatest and best loved masters of the Romantic Era, Frédéric Chopin and Robert Schumann, both born 200 years ago. It is only good business then for recording companies to issue and re-issue fine performances to feed, they hope, the heightened demand for the birthday boys’ music.

 

01_chopinFirst up is Chopin (March 1) whose entire published works fit nicely on 16 or 17 CDs. The absolute pick of the packages comes from Deutsche Grammophon (4778445, 17 CDs) which also happens to be at an attractive price, particularly for German pressings. Every opus number is represented here in excellent to superlative performances. One could not hope for a better group of artists, mainly pianists, of course, than DG has assembled from their own catalogue plus Decca and Philips. Krystian Zimerman’s acclaimed 1999 performances of the two piano concertos with the Polish Festival Orchestra are on the first disc. Zimerman is heard again in the Ballades. Claudio Arrau is the soloist in the other concerted works. Maurizio Pollini plays the Etudes, the Polonaises, the Scherzos and the 2nd and 3rd Sonatas. Maria João Pires plays all the Nocturnes and Vladimir Ashkenazy plays the complete Mazurkas, the Waltzes, and a host of miscellaneous pieces. The Beaux Arts Trio plays (you’ve guessed it) the Trio in G minor. Also heard from are Anatol Ugorski, Martha Argerich, Lilya Zilberstein, Yundi Li, Mstislav Rostropovich, Anner Bylsma, and others including Polish soprano Elzbieta Szmytka in the songs. The reasonably informative booklet includes a brief chronological table of Chopin’s life, plus recording data. All in all, this is a most pleasing and very recommendable collection.

 

02_argerichRobert Schumann was born in Saxony on June 8, 1810 and his output was many times that of his Polish contemporary including compositions in every form. Don’t expect to see a “complete” edition from any of the majors but new compilations have appeared this year from DG and Sony, neither of which I have seen or heard. EuroArts has issued a Blu-ray disc of on earlier DVD featuring Martha Argerich playing the Schumann Piano Concerto with Riccardo Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester (EA2055494). Recorded “live” in June 2006 the Blu-ray disc presents the entire concert, adding the opening work, the Adagio and Allegro brillante from Etudes Symphoniques op.13, orchestrated by Tchaikovsky. The concerto emerges as an inspired collaboration between soloist and orchestra, without peer in this medium for sensitivity and intelligence. For an encore Argerich plays Of Foreign Lands and People from Kinderszenen, op.15. Following the intermission, the orchestra plays Ravel’s orchestration for Nijinsky of four pieces from Carnaval, op.9 followed by an enthusiastic and vital performance of the Fourth Symphony. The dynamics throughout are effortlessly true-to-life, making this a you-are-there experience.

 

03_wandThere is also a Schumann Fourth in a new boxed set from Profil featuring the late Günter Wand conducting the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin in performances between April 1993 and April 1996 (PH09068, 8 CDs). One of the succession of famous conductors and music directors that has endowed this world-class orchestra - founded in 1946 by the American Forces in Berlin as the RIAS Symphony Orchestra - with a proud heritage, Wand looked beyond the printed score. His performances reflect the deepest commitment and focus so that it appears, at least to this listener, that in performance nothing exists but the composer’s creation. His Schumann unfolds organically with steady tempos and a true pulse. Amply dynamic, it is elegantly detailed and unusually compelling. So are three Beethoven Symphonies, one, three and four; Brahms First and Fourth; Bruckner’s Fifth and Ninth; and Schubert’s Eighth and Ninth. Brilliantly recorded, these are all from Wand’s favoured composers and his signature is on each one.

 

In addition to the revelatory DVD My Life and Music that traces Günter Wand’s life including his last interview (RCA 828766388893, 2 DVDs), there are two essential 4 DVD Wand sets from TDK containing live Festival performances of Bruckner’s Fifth, Sixth, Eighth and Ninth, Haydn’s 76th and the Schubert Eighth (TDK cowandbox1) and Leonore III, Bruckner Fourth, Schubert Five, Eight and Nine, and Brahms First (TDK cowandbox2). The late master at work!

 

04_dichterliebBut back to Schumann... Music and Arts has issued an inspired two CD set containing historic recordings with three performances each of two song cycles from 1840, Dichterliebe and Frauenliebe und -leben (CD-1235). Dichterliebe is heard firstly by Aksel Schiøtz, the Danish tenor who recorded this cycle with Gerald Moore in 1946 just months before a necessary surgery left his face partially paralysed. Swiss baritone Charles Panzera is accompanied by Alfred Cortot in a 1935 recording that was, for many collectors, the criterion... yet Gerhard Hüsch, the German baritone, accompanied by Hanns Udo Müller, having the advantage of singing in his native tongue, sounds the most comfortable and expressive with Heine’s texts. Frauenliebe und –leben with texts by Adalbert von Chamisso is for female voice. Three singers, each indisputably legendary in the very best sense of the word, are each so individual in style that comparisons would indeed be odious. Here is Lotte Lehmann live in recital with Paul Ulanowsky in New York in 1946 and contralto Marian Anderson with Franz Rupp in 1950. Finally, Kathleen Ferrier is heard live at the Edinburgh Festival in 1949 accompanied by... no in collaboration with... her mentor, Bruno Walter. Excellent transfers make listening a pleasure. Comprehensive liner notes are included.

Proliferation of CD burners, sequencing and editing software and the exponential growth of the Internet have opened up new possibilities for disseminating music. This is especially germane for improvised and other minority sounds. By avoiding the expenses of mass distribution and manufacturing music can reach more interested listeners. Formulae have been developed to do so and each of these fine sessions uses one.

             

01_EricNormandRimouski, Quebec-based bassist/audio artist Éric Normand, who performs at Somewhere There this month, allows listeners to download sounds from his website www.tourdebras.com. One example of this is Une Règle de Trois (Tour de Bras tdbouebe002). A hand-drawn CD cover can be downloaded as well. Recorded live, this is a super-session of sorts featuring collaborations among improvisers from Rimouski, Montreal and Montpellier, France. Most of the sounds balance on steady crunches and crackles from three turntablists, with wiggling flanges and flying spiccato reprises from fiddler Catherine Massicotte and guitarist Christophe Devaux, plus puffs and bellows from Robin Servant’s diatonic accordion. Normand adds aleatoric and agitato smacks bringing the discursive theme in-and-out of aural focus, as the motor-driven clicks and clatters create a pedal point foundation.

 

02_RosenA more sophisticated version of downloadable CDs comes from the French Sans Bruit label. Featuring improvisers pianist Noah Rosen, trombonist Yves Robert and bassist Didier Levallet, Silhouette (Sans Bruit sbr007 www.sansbruit.fr) not only captures the trio live, but also provides a professionally designed front and back cover with recording details. Rosen and his confreres’ disc is as swinging as it is kinetic, highlighting an impressive admixture of timbres, not least of which includes modern gutbucket styling from trombonist Robert. Super staccato, Aesthetic Form for instance is less aesthetic than acrobatic, as Robert’s rubato whinnies slink and sway alongside Rosen’s two-handed pump in the piano’s lowest register, until he slips to the edge of the keys to link up with Levallet’s sul tasto runs. Elsewhere Rosen’s hunt-and-peck technique predominates, along with the trombonist’s triple-tonguing and mouth gymnastics. The session culminates with Bon, bref et puis… with allegro additions from each partner expressed in slaps and pumps from the bassist, cascading comping from the pianist plus foreshortened and jagged bass-pitched slurs from Robert.

             

03_MeshesA more cerebral trombone trio is on Meshes (Another Timbre Byways at-b05 www.anothertimbre.com). This CD-R, with its well-designed cover, demonstrates another method of distribution. Certain that young improvisers wouldn’t need the number of discs in a standard official CD run, the British label created its Byways CD-R series. Certainly this gritty and pressured microtonal program from trombonist Mathias Forge, electronics manipulator Phil Julian and cellist David Papapostolou is one justification for the experiment. During two lengthy improvisations, the interaction and texture-blending is such that it’s frequently impossible to match particular timbres to individual instruments. With Julian’s electronics segmenting into chunky signal- processed lines, pulsating reverb and flat-line drones, multiplied shrills flash through the narratives like rain showers, when the static isn’t undulating underneath. Extended passages of extreme stillness also alter the tonal centre so that whistling squeaks from the cello – often hewn from the strings below the bridge – or blurry triplets strained from the trombone bell, tongue pops and flat-line blowing without valve pushes are more conspicuous. Although discontinuous in spots, the combined undulations made up of cello strings held to maximum tautness, rubato grace notes plus tremolo pedal tones from the trombonist, and electronic drones eventually reach a crescendo of inter-connected friction climaxing with a conclusive whistle and pop.

             

04_GordonAllenBrass and an electronic variant are also prominent on All Up In There (MrE Records 2 www.myspace.com/gordonallen) by Montreal-based, former Torontonian, trumpeter Gordon Allen, who often plays here. Figuring this concert with Frank Martel on theremin and drummer Michel F. Côté was worth preserving, Allen initially created 79 copies of the disc. With liner notes handwritten on a paper bag and the record packaged in a hand-sewn cloth bag, D-I-Y is taken to its logical extreme. But the strength of the performance suggests that more copies may eventually be needed. Sounds are cohesive and wedded to jazz-improv. Although when all musical cylinders fire at once the results appear as a solid textural block, there’s ample room for individual expression. Revealed are Côté’s anything-but-regular rhythms, the trumpeter’s choked-throat growls, and pitter-pattering string-referencing thumps from the theremin. These bass-like strokes are even more prominent midway through, when joining the drummer’s assertive backbeat, they create a solid base, allowing Allen’s plunger tones, grace note squeaks and bovine lows to float above.

             

Proving conclusively that quantity does not mean quality, each session uses unexpected means to get to its intended audiences.

01_jensen_treelinesCanada owes Nanaimo, B.C. for raising artists like Diana Krall and the Jensen Sisters for its national jazz team, a thought underscored by Christine Jensen’s newest recording, Treelines - Christine Jensen Jazz Orchestra (Justin Time JTR 8559-2 www.justin-time.com). The leader, known more for her composing than sax playing, has been based in Montreal for some time and here recruits a top-flight 17-piece Quebecois band for her fourth recording as leader and first with orchestra. Within seconds of the opening tune of eight lengthy, thoughtful and stunningly-stylish compositions (Dancing Sunlight) you’re thinking here’s the nation’s answer to America’s vaunted Maria Schneider unit – and when Ingrid Jensen’s dreamy, lyrical trumpet solos starts you might well exclaim “it’s Kenny Wheeler”. In short, this is an astoundingly good album, one that surely will be a 2011 Juno contender, with seven Jensen tracks including four describing B.C. tree types. Charts are often striking, section work is sharp, subtlety abounds in the thick harmonies and there’s acres of room for effective soloing – Joel Miller on soprano sax (Western Yew), Ingrid (Dropoff) and the boss herself on Seafever and by pianist Steve Amirault throughout. Curmudgeons might sneer that there’s excessive sameness to these mini-epics - ignore them.

 

02_happy_palsWant to keep the post-Olympic spirit? The latest disc from The Happy Pals who’ve reigned for years at Grossman’s on Spadina every Saturday afternoon, is all you need. Folk are in fine fettle here, band and audience both, enjoying music played over the 6th annual two-day Kid Bastien Forever Kick-Ass Jazz Festival – Bastien, who died in 2003, was chief Pal for more than 30 years. Moonlight Bay (New Orleans North cd-010 www.happypals.ca) has 14 tracks, good old stuff with most of the heavy performance listing falling to Patrick Tevlin’s brash trumpet and esteemed New Orleans guest Michael White’s thrusting clarinet, with big assists coming from trombonist Kid Kotowich and drummer Chuck Clarke. Enthusiastic, erratic vocals are spread around but the jollity index stays high, with upbeat slams on Je Vous Aime, Everybody Loves Saturday Night and Dinah while there’s surprising sophistication in their spin on I’ll Never Smile Again.

 

03_del_dakoFour things make Del Dako’s My New Hat (www.deldako.com) particularly distinctive: It’s the recording debut as leader of vibesman Dako as opposed to baritone saxist star Dako; the liner notes by Jack Chambers are just about the best I’ve ever read; the determination of Dako to renew his career here is front and centre; and the choice of repertoire is extraordinary – such as the purloining of Beethoven’s 7th Theme from the Seventh Symphony and the two versions of avant pianoman Don Pullen’s Big Alice which suggest Ornette Coleman is on board. Perhaps it’s best just to say this is fascinating jazz with a vibes sheen that underlines the uniqueness of it all. The music’s drawn from two sessions, both with drummer Jeff Halischuk, one with guitarist Reg Schwager, pianist Bernie Senensky and bass Duncan Hopkins, the other with rising star guitarist Nathan Hiltz, bass Tyler Emond and reedman Alex Dean, whose bass clarinet work is terrific.

 

04_norm_amadioPianist Norm Amadio has been around for ever, still happily tinkling after more than six decades as a pro and that’s just one reason why he’s so comfortable on Norm Amadio And Friends (Panda Digital ODCD00265 www.pandadigital.com), a classy, stylish treatment of a dozen songs (remarkably, seven of them originals by producer Andrew Melzer). As well as vocalists Marc Jordan and Jackie Richardson, Amadio’s buddies include elegant-as-ever Guido Basso, Phil Dwyer, Reg Schwager, and Rosemary Galloway plus, on three cuts, a string section. The result is top quality jazz, ornamented with unexpected zesty freshness. Catchy newcomers include I Love You That Way, Out Of The Cool and She Smiled. One oddity: Why was it necessary to include three tunes recorded in 1966?

 

05_attila_fiasHungarian-born pianist Attila Fias seems to have done it all during a long musical career - including playing, teaching and organizing all types of music – except make a jazz record though his work is on more than 80 discs. He’s remedied that with Stories (ESPCD-101 www.attilafias.com), 10 original compositions supported by bass Pat Kilbride and drummer Richard Brisco. A graduate of U of T’s jazz program, Fias – who on occasion is as fiery as countryman Robi Botos – hews close to mainstream’s core but he incorporates rich, rolling rhythms, elements of rock, country, classical and ethnic genres and sometimes dips craftily into free jazz. The intricate Growth Cycle threesome is the best of a bright lot.

06_SpectrumSpectrum

Muhal Richard Abrams; Roscoe Mitchell; Janáček Philharmonic

Mutable 17536-2 www.mutablemusic.com

 

Veteran American improvisers, pianist Muhal Richard Abrams and saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell get a rare showcase for their notated works on this notable performance by the Janáček Philharmonic of the Czech Republic, conducted by Petr Kotik. Surprisingly enough for two sound explorers identified with the avant-garde Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (ACCM), both commissions, Abrams’ Mergertone, and Mitchell’s three-part Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City, use the full resources of the orchestra to add lush, impressionistic colouration to the many harmonies and timbres exposed.

             

A fantasia, Mergertone does exactly what the title suggests, layering and contrasting multiphonics. Moderato, it exposes individual instruments as the theme advances. Pounding kettle drums, insinuations of Ragtime piano plus marimba and xylophone clatter share space with cushioning strings, a slinky oboe line, pan-tonal horn parts and a smooth and soothing tutti finale.

             

Featuring the cultured tones of baritone Thomas Buckner, the Mitchell piece, initially composed for his Art Ensemble of Chicago group, gains added gravitas from Buckner’s parlando, which mixes outright recitation with a suggestion of plainsong. As the baritone uses melisma to alter the lyrical line, orchestra cadenzas sympathetically scene set, embellish and subtly follow the tempo changes. Chromatic massed reed flourishes, string undulations, metronomic piano patterning and grace notes from the French horns also turn repeated phrasing from mere accompaniment to partnership.

             

As a prelude to the extended philharmonic performances, the two composers unite on Romu, the CD’s first track, a brief, low-key improvisation.

 


05_ranee_leeRanee Lee Lives Upstairs

Ranee Lee

Justin Time JUST 230-2 (www.myspace.com/raneeleemusic)

 

The multi-talented Brooklyn-born, Montréal-based singer, actor, dancer, author and television host Ranee Lee is a recent recipient of the Order of Canada (2006). Notably, she began her musical career touring North America in the 1970’s as a drummer and tenor saxophonist. Wearing the vocalist hat, Lee has always exhibited a fervent loyalty both to the jazz tradition and its regal torch-bearers; captured live at Montréal’s premier jazz clubs UPSTAIRS, her 10th release on the Justin Time label is no exception.

 

Recalling both Ella and Sarah, she has selected a very effective, sympathetic rhythm section that always supports and never overpowers her: Richard Ring on guitar, John Sadowy on piano, Morgan Moore on bass and Dave Laing on drums. The program is comprised mostly of love-themed standards such as Beautiful Love, In Love In Vain and I Just Found Out About Love, spiced up by unique choices such as James Taylor's Fire and Rain and Pat Metheny's Crooked Road. One of the highlights is a medley from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess that starts tenderly with I Loves You Porgy and concludes memorably with a beautifully phrased Summertime. The latter is a testament to Lee's artistry, as she takes admirable risks, playing with the song's musical possibilities without ever compromising its meaning. That the audience reacts most enthusiastically to her original blues The Storm is a genuine compliment. This recording is rightfully among the nominees for this month’s Juno Awards in the category of Best Jazz Vocal Album.

 


04_elizabeth_shepherdHeavy Falls the Night

Elizabeth Shepherd

Do Right Music DR041CD (www.elizabethshepherd.com)

Elizabeth Shepherd has a roving musical spirit that has seen her move from playing saxophone, to classical piano, to jazz piano, then add singing and songwriting to her considerable arsenal of skills. With her third album she has landed on what can most closely be described as jazz-funk, but there are tinges of all kinds of genres here. “Heavy Falls the Night” - as the name implies - has a somewhat dark, pensive feel to it, owing largely to Shepherd's fondness for minor keys and tightly-voiced, dissonant vocal harmonies.

 

The opening track, What Else, sets the serious tone as it describes the frustration and pain of having a suicidal loved one. But there are lighter musical moments too, such as the breezy retro feel of Seven Bucks - reminiscent of KOOP - and High with its drum’n’bass undercurrent. Shepherd has a pretty, breathy voice with Rickie Lee Jones influences, especially on A Song for Dinah Washington which is based on a poem by James Strecker. Her longtime bandmate Colin Kingsmore, is an inventive drummer and percussionist, while the lyrical bass work is divided between Scott Kemp and Ross McIntyre. The final track, Danny’s Song – yes the Anne Murray hit – ends the album on a note of sweet incongruity that gives us a glimpse into yet another side of Shepherd's multi-faceted musical personality.

Concert Note: The Elizabeth Shepherd Trio plays April 29 at the Mansion House in Kingston and April 30 at House of Jazz in Montreal.

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