10 Jacqui NaylorThe Long Game
Jacqui Naylor
Ruby Star Records RSR-011 (jacquinaylor.com)

World-renowned native-Californian jazz vocalist Jacqui Naylor has an interesting approach to the aforementioned genre. She loves the classics but definitely brings a modern touch into her music and this interesting combination couldn’t be more apparent on her newest, not to mention 11th, studio album. Featuring music by rock and pop greats such as Coldplay, David Bowie and Peter Gabriel, Naylor has lent her own unique touch to each of these songs; effectively jazzifying them in a very pleasant and listenable way. Sprinkled amongst these covers are originals penned by the diva herself, a couple of which are co-written by talented pianist Art Khu. 

One piece that immediately stands out is Coldplay’s Fix You; Naylor’s smooth alto vocals in combination with a flowing piano melody and a subtle but poignant bass line make the song take on a slightly more melancholy and softer tone than the original version. Naylor’s own I’ll Be Loving You pops out; a Latin-flavoured tune that does a great job of not only showcasing another side of her musical taste but also gets the listener grooving along in their seat. A truly outstanding track is Bowie’s Space Oddity, where a mellow piano line and an almost counter melody played on upright bass overlaid by chords on the Fender Rhodes make for a unique flavour given to the classic song.

11 Trineice RobinsonAll or Nothing
Trineice Robinson
4RM 4RM-20210806 (trineicerobinson.com)

Trineice Robinson has established herself as an esteemed educator and author. Now with the release of her long-awaited debut she’s finally getting the chance to establish herself as a vocalist, telling her story and journey through music. One of Robinson’s missions as an educator has been to bring back to the forefront Black music traditions that have fallen to the background within the vocal music realm and this album does a fantastic job at not only showcasing Black jazz, soul and R&B artists who have been instrumental in advancing those genres but also shining a spotlight on current famed musicians, with a renowned lineup of all Black artists in her backing band. 

Robinson’s soulful and powerful vocals take us on a journey through multi-genre staples such as Footprints by Wayne Shorter, What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye and You Know Who (I Mean You) by Thelonious Monk, while adding a unique flavour to each piece, making them her own. Interspersed within these tributes are original compositions, of note being the gospel-inspired piece Let It Shine, in which her own daughters lend their voices, creating a humble and heartwarming whole. Robinson skilfully crosses genres throughout the album, creating a delicious jambalaya reflecting what she states about finding her own place within the musical realm, “when you understand how ingredients are used in a dish, you can create whatever dish you want.” All in all, a strong and promising debut album.

12 Nate WooleyNate Wooley – Mutual Aid Music
Nate Wooley; Joshua Modney; Ingrid Laubrock; Mariel Roberts; Matt Moran; Russell Greenberg; Sylvie Courvoisier; Cory Smythe
Pleasure of the Text Records POTTR1309 (pleasureofthetext.com)

Trumpeter, composer, conceptualist, Nate Wooley is a major figure in current free jazz and improvised music, consistently focused on issues of meaning. This latest work is an outgrowth of Battle Pieces, a quartet project begun in 2014 in which one member acts as improvising soloist while the other members choose from Wooley’s supplied materials to develop the work. Mutual Aid Music extends this method for surmounting the usual alternatives of composition/improvisation, doubling the quartet with four more musicians chosen from the New York contemporary music community. 

The eight musicians play eight “concertos”: in each, one musician has a primary score; one improvises throughout, based on the other seven’s input; others freely adapt secondary materials that have been individually assigned. Surmounting Wooley’s complex methodology is a singular purpose: “It asks the musicians… to ask themselves, in each moment, how that gift will affect the community (ensemble) of which they are currently a member.” Wooley the conceptualist has effectively made each musician responsible for a work’s outcome in how they choose to make each transaction collectively meaningful.   

Clearly the work depends on its community of stellar musicians – saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, pianists Sylvie Courvoisier and Cory Smythe, percussionists Matt Moran and Russell Greenberg, violinist Joshua Modney and cellist Mariel Roberts – but the results are always remarkable, sometimes astonishing, everyone engaged in making the richest, most expressive, organized and communicative music possible. Beyond category in its structure and immediacy, this feels as much like a success for listeners as the composer and ensemble.

13 Roy HargroveIn Harmony
Roy Hargrove; Mulgrew Miller
Resonance Records HCD-2060 (resonancerecords.org)

In Harmony is a gorgeous time capsule displaying two performers at the top of their game and providing a sublime reading of jazz standards in two intimate live sessions. This album is made even more poignant by the deaths of both musicians at relatively young ages: Mulgrew Miller was 57 when he died of a stroke in 2013 and Roy Hargrove was only 49 when he passed away in 2018. Fortunately for jazz history and for us, these two concerts (Kaufman Music Center, New York, January 15, 2006 and Lafayette College, Easton PA, November 9, 2007) were recorded by Hargrove’s manager, Larry Clothier. The recordings have now been released by Resonance Records in a limited edition LP format and as a two-CD set. The package includes a thick booklet containing an essay on the musicians and these two concerts, several colour photos and interviews and statements by several prominent jazz musicians.

Hargrove can be bright and crisp with a Miles Davis feel, but also soulful and he plays bop and post-bop lines which makes him the complete jazz trumpet player. Miller has a more subtle style which has many influences (including Oscar Peterson who inspired him to learn jazz). He can play a solid yet sophisticated accompaniment, perform an elegant solo with complex lines that seem effortless, and add some angular blues licks on Monk’s Tune. These two concerts are even more impressive because although Hargrove and Miller had played together in the past, this was their first (and second) time performing as a duet and the concerts were put together very quickly (but of course, that’s the jazz thing to do). They sound sophisticated and completely at ease with each other, exchanging ideas, joking around in tunes like Fungii Mama, and generally paying an inspired homage to the tradition.

14 Paul PacanowskiPrayerful Thoughts (covid time improvisations)
Paul Pacanowski
Independent (paulpacanowski.com)

Polish born Toronto-based multi-instrumentalist jazz/classical performer/composer Paul Pacanowski is inspirational in his 57-minute solo “covid-time improvisations.” Home recording has become more popular for musicians during COVID. As he writes on the CD cover, he would play improvs in his basement studio late at night to lift his COVID-time spirits until it “dawned” on him to record his work at home. He plays all the instruments in eight tracks/sections, each introduced by a short musical wave-like undulation, all joined together as one long work.

Pacanowski’s piano expertise drives the improvisations. Calming, repetitive 1. undulation leads to reflective jazz-flavoured slow 2. piano with long phrases, shifting tonalities, conversational high and low pitch runs and detached notes. From calm to faster intense moments, a shift to major tonality closer to the end creates a happier hopeful feel of COVID ending. Two other piano-only tracks are included.

Pacanowski takes a memorable musical leap to improvise with himself playing on other instruments. In 8. flute/piano, he breathes life into dramatic high, held-flute notes, detached sections and energetic, almost new-music sounds, as his piano mimics and supports in modern jazz at its very best. More jazz with a brief atonal section in alto saxophone and piano stylings in 14. alto sax/piano. He plays clarinet, keys and piano harp elsewhere. 

Pacanowski’s well-thought-out “home-made” jazzy compositions and improvisations make for a great release to listen to, both upfront and as background music.

15 Natsuki TamuraKoki Solo
Natsuki Tamura
Libra Records 101-066 (librarecords.com)

Executive produced by the incomparable Satoko Fujii and recorded in Natsuki Tamura’s own home, Koki Solo is a collection of improvisations that equally showcase Tamura’s decades of playing experience and his boundless curiosity. He breaks with conventions of instrumentation and form with admirable enthusiasm and assurance. Beyond his typical innovations on the trumpet, he also experiments with piano, voice and even cookware from his kitchen. 

While he admittedly doesn’t have anywhere near the same mastery on instruments other than trumpet, it doesn’t stop him from doing amazing work. For example, during his piano improvising on Bora, Tamura’s patient drone in his left hand engages in compelling dialogues with both the open melodicism of his right hand and his arresting vocal exclamations. Similarly, on Karugamo, the detailed, textural tour through the contents of his kitchen gradually evolves into a rhythmical call-and-response with his forcefully enunciated syllables. 

Regardless of the various unfamiliar waters Tamura dips his toes into, he is the definition of a master improviser, and that translates to everything he does. Not a single phrase he plays or utters is an afterthought, or a throwaway. Every note is imbued with feeling and meaning and he expertly uses space to punctuate and emphasize. Fujii’s spotless production complements Tamura’s style perfectly, ensuring there is nary a detail in the music that sounds insignificant. An abundance of tangible passion can be felt in the performance of Koki Solo, and it’s infectious.

01 Isabel BayrakdarianArmenian Songs for Children
Isabel Bayrakdarian
Avie AV2449 (naxosdirect.com/search/av2449)

A tribute to Isabel Bayrakdarian’s personal heritage, this collection of songs plays like a musical kaleidoscope – ever-changing reflective melodies are connected to beautiful and simple forms, creating a magical sonic space. The 29 tracks are comprised of compositions by Armenian composer and musicologist Gomidas Vartabed (aka Komitas) and his students Parsegh Ganatchian and Mihran Toumajan, as well as some traditional songs. 

One should not be deceived by the fairly slow tempos, there is plenty of movement here – swinging, rocking, bouncing, clapping. A wooden horse and a monkey hang around, and a scarecrow and a nightingale make friends. On the deeper level, there is much longing and sorrow connected to dreams and memories of the Armenian nation and their history. The melodies of these songs are beautiful, sometimes playful, often poignant. The arrangements are sparse, creating an abundance of space for breath and colour. Some of these songs have been sung through five generations of Bayrakdarian’s family and one cannot help but feel the sense of intimacy and immediacy that comes from the weight of life experiences.

Bayrakdarian is phenomenal in conveying the emotional context of these songs. Her voice is willowy and soothing at the same time and she is quite successful in combining the embellishments of folk idioms with the clarity of classical expression. The accompanying ensemble – Ellie Choate (harp), Ray Furuta (flute) and Ruben Harutyunyan (duduk) – has an understated elegance to it, allowing the intensity of Bayrakdarian’s voice to come through.

02 Murray McLaughlinHourglass
Murray McLauchlan
True North Records TND777 (truenorthrecords.com)

Murray McLauchlan, celebrated singer-songwriter and recipient of the Order of Canada, has turned to such issues as privilege and racism on his 20th album, Hourglass. Its pointed songs speak sincerely and directly to issues of greed and prejudice that make so many lives unliveable.

These are folk-style, gentle and homey songs, sometimes nearly whispered, although I think McLauchlan’s vocal mid- and upper-ranges are just fine! His acoustic guitar work, Burke Carroll’s steel guitar and other instruments are always reliable. Indeed, nothing on this album is overcomplicated and some of the songs would attract the interest of both children and parents.  

I particularly like the title track, which emphasizes the urgency of current problems:  “But I see the sand run out through the hourglass, I swear I don’t remember it ever ran so fast.”  Here lyrics and melody, guitar accompaniment and the steel overlay come together especially well. Lying By the Sea I find the most moving song. It is based on the tragic media image of a refugee boy fleeing the Middle East who drowned and washed up on shore. America, with a beautiful steel guitar introduction, is a plea to the USA that could also apply in Canada: “Now you’re in your separate rooms, And all the doors are locked.” Finally, I Live on a White Cloud and Shining City on a Hill are songs reminding us of our obliviousness – to racism and to reality itself.

03 Clara EngelDressed in Borrowed Light
Clara Engel
Independent (claraengel.bandcamp.com)

Songwriter Clara Engel has been busy during the pandemic, completing two collections of songs entirely self-produced while at home, based on lyrics that read like extended poetry and dressed in an album cover featuring Engel’s original artwork. 

In Dressed In Borrowed Light, dark, evocative themes of cycles of life, loss and nature float atop rhythmic drone-like melodies that leave plenty of room for the poetry to come through. This is a performance much like one might find at a poetry reading or meditative retreat, and a collection of guests adds an assortment of instrumental sounds that provide some additional ethereal qualities, bringing to the album a meditative, folk-like feel. 

Musical arrangements include Engel on vocals and a collection of instruments such as shruti box, gusli, lap steel and morin khuur (Mongolian horse-head fiddle), which delicately add colour to the songs. 

A shorter album than some, it’s six tracks flow gently as a collection of spoken word set to music. From one poem to the next it makes a soft landing, belying some of the darker themes of the lyrics.

Listen to 'Dressed in Borrowed Light' Now in the Listening Room

04 Miguel de ArmasContinuous
Miguel de Armas Quartet
Three Pines Records TPR-003-02 (migueldearmas.com)

Miguel de Armas – the inspired Cuban pianist/keyboardist/composer/producer and co-founder of the noted Cuban timba-band N.G. La Banda – has just released a glorious musical manifesto of genre-blending, unifying tunes, tunes that are also firmly rooted in the sacred and ancient feel of Cuban “songo,” a magical fusion of Afro-Cuban musics with elements of pop, Latin jazz, calypso and other esoteric influences. Joining de Armas on this invigorating CD are Marc Decho on bass, Michel Medrano Brindis on drums and Diomer González on congas, as well as an array of luminary guests that include bassist Roberto Riverón, saxophonist Petr Cancura, percussionist Samuel Formell, congero (and member of Los Van Van) Joel Cuesta and noted congero Eliel Lazo. 

All of the compositions here were penned by de Armas (with the exception of Song For Bebo by Decho). De Armas has an almost cinematic way of telling his musical stories, stories that unite us all in the human experience: love in all of its colours, immigration, culture shock and the seemingly un-ending northeastern winters. Things kick off with the title track – a piquant, bass-infused burner with a dash of supple vocals, as well as a thoroughly delicious and complex chord progression and melody line. Next up is the contemporary Couscous, with its morphing time signatures, pianistic excellence and stirring bass solo by Decho.

Another stunner is Angelique, with its haunting arrangement and phenomenal guitar work of Elmer Ferrer, as well as the incendiary performance by Lazo. Other delights include the romantic, neo-classical string-laden Eva Luna and the thoroughly satisfying Gone Too Soon. Without question, this is one of the most enjoyable, globally unifying and instrumentally thrilling CDs of the year.

06a Gamelan5Gong Renteng – Gamelan Music of Cirebon, Indonesia: Volume 5
Denggung – Gamelan Music of Cirebon, Indonesia: Volume 6
Gamelan Sinar Surya (gamelan.bandcamp.com)

The ancient region of Cirebon, located in Northwest Java, Indonesia is home to a large number of performing arts including several types of gamelan, the orchestral music indigenous to Java. California group Gamelan Sinar Surya (GSS), directed by Richard North – the gamelan director and lecturer at UC Santa Barbara – specializes in the performance of all types of Cirebonese gamelan. North, who has been studying, teaching and performing this music since 1972, is a passionate international authority on Cirebonese music. 

Cirebon gamelan music has been under-represented on records. GSS has however been assiduously addressing that lacuna. Impressed with the comprehensive scope of its growing recorded catalogue, I’ve reviewed its previous albums in The WholeNote, most recently in the November 2019 issue. The latest GSS releases cover two attractive antique pre-Islamic Cirebon gamelans: gong renteng (Gamelan Music of Cirebon, Indonesia: Vol.5) and denggung (Vol.6). Significantly, both distinct genres appear to predate the better-known five-tone prawa/slendro and seven-tone pelog gamelan types which appear to have emerged later in the 16th century. With its crashing cymbals, lively drumming and energetic tempos, gong renteng is a lively village gong ensemble type believed to date back to the 1400s – making it the oldest gamelan music in West Java. Denggung on the other hand is dramatically different in performance aesthetic. Its softer volume and spare, peaceful, sometimes ritual mood better suit an aristocratic milieu.

Vol.5 – Gong Renteng: Gong renteng came to the brink of extinction a generation ago. Thanks however to the dedication and enthusiasm of young musicians in the Cirebon area – plus the concerted efforts of Richard North for over 40 years – this ancient music has recently experienced a revival resulting in several gong renteng festivals in the region. Over 18 instrumental tracks the album’s repertoire is split between pelog and slendro tunings, each evoking a different affect. The music is also enlivened by idiomatic vocalizations made by the Californian musicians. This delightful sonic touch captures the inner spirit of Cirebonese village-style gamelan performance. 

06b Gamelan6Vol.6 – Denggung: With roots in the Hindu Pajajaran kingdom of West Java some 500 years ago, denggung is considered a rare, sacred gamelan. The atmospheric music on this album makes it clear that GSS has taken great care to honour that heritage. Out of the three Cirebonese palaces, only the denggung at the Kacirebonan Palace is still being played today. GSS is however giving back to the home culture by working closely with the palace ensemble to foster a healthy future for this beautiful and moving music. 

These two albums are a testament to how gracefully a Western group can, with respect, embody the music of another culture – and spread it around the world.

Like other out-of-the-ordinary keepsakes, boxed sets of recorded music are issued to celebrate a special occasion, to honour an unrepeatable situation or to assemble all parts of a unique situation. Each of these sets fit one of those criteria.

01 Wadada Leo SmithTo celebrate his 80th birthday, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, a founding member of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) who has created sounds ranging from hushed atonality to free-form funk, organized special projects for his transition to his ninth decade. The most noteworthy was the three-CD Sacred Ceremonies (TUM Records Box 03 tumrecords.com), which matched the trumpeter with two of his longtime associates, electric bassist Bill Laswell and percussionist Milford Graves (1941-2021), on one CD each plus a final disc trio session. The material combined new Smith compositions with free improvisations.

An expert in novel pulses, Graves’ intersection with the trumpeter shows how differing concepts of musical freedom can fuse. Especially during the three-part Nyoto suite, Smith’s fluttering grace notes create the horizontal expression that’s propelled to tenacious connections by Graves’ relaxed but vigorous metrical expression. Shaded, with sometimes unexpected   Baby Dodds in Congo Square is a nod to jazz history even through Graves’ postmodern non-timekeeping and Latin American and African influences are far removed from the cited New Orleans drummer’s straight-ahead beats. However, as Graves moves through rhythm permutations, Smith follows the narrative from adagio to allegro as he speeds up his playing from simple flutters to staccato squeals and shattering timbres at an elevated pitch. Laswell has produced the likes of Motörhead and Laurie Anderson, though as an instrumentalist he promotes the intersection between funk and free jazz. Smith, whose many projects include a recasting of Miles Davis’ electric period in the Yo Miles! group, is unfazed. Confirming this duality, one Smith-Laswell track is titled Donald Ayler’s Rainbow Summit, citing the free jazz trumpeter; and another – the longest – Minnie Riperton - The Chicago Bronzeville Master Blaster pays tribute to the Chicago-raised Rock/R&B singer. A more accomplished trumpeter than primitivist Ayler, Smith’s exposition mixes hardened slurs with accented shakes, and while playing motifs in the horn’s lowest register, retains an achingly clear brightness. Meanwhile, Laswell uses bass textures and programming to create not only a bumpy rhythmic bottom, but also a wash of electrified tones that mixes melancholy with atmosphere. Meanwhile on Minnie Riperton, a synthesized string section backs the trumpeter’s grace-note theme expansion. Moving from mellow to motion during the second half of the track, heavier beats are emphasized with sliding bass guitar pops among the shimmering interface. Later, brass triplets curve the narrative into distanced string vibrations as the final sequence widens and rolls the sounds upwards. The third and longest disc has the three musicians in trio formation, but without falling into conventional solo/accompaniment roles. Despite tracks moving in unexpected sequences, detoured motifs and shifting textures, Smith confirms his singularity with a distinctive brass sound. As in the Laswell duo, synthesized flanges and arrangements often push forward and suggest textures from additional ghost players. The only concession to convention is the introduction to The Healer’s Direct Energy which becomes a showcase for the expression of Graves’ rhythmic subtlety where his pounding ruffs and paced paradiddles set up an undulating narrative of guitar-like echoes and brassy triplet bugling from the others. Waves of Elevated Horizontal Forces is a more limited bass guitar elaboration, but brass bites and conga drum-like pops eventually predominate. Other than that, tracks evolve with three-part cohesion. Graves’ beats range from tom-tom-like pressure to near silent raps, which lock in to bass lines that include watery whammy-bar twists besides fluid improvisation. Additionally, Smith’s tongue tricks encompassing dissected runs, stratospheric trills and grainy ruggedness, fit appropriately among the other two players’ expressions.

02 ISTAnother trio which worked with near-extrasensory perception was the UK’s IST consisting of cellist Mark Wastell, harpist Rhodri Davies and double bassist Simon H. Fell. A More Attractive Way (Confront Core Series/Core 21 confrontrecordings.com) is a five-CD compendium of concerts from the turn of the century which proves that a string ensemble can create improvisations as intense as one with horns and percussion. Celebrating the trio’s 25-year existence it’s also a memorial to Fell, who died of cancer in 2020 at the age of 62. Avoiding for the most part charming harmonies associated with traditional chamber instruments, the 25 selections are reductionist with the frequent use of preparations to create staccato and percussive definitions. Predominately an improvised ensemble, IST devotes most of Disc V from 1998 to interpreting compositions, including Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Intensität. Understandingly, that version, which judders between string buzzing and harmonic clusters as well as proving how IST plays notated scores, isn’t far removed from the group’s pure improvisations. Ironically though, the swelling mid-section of Davies’ Wstrws, from the same concert, is the most the trio sounds like a conventional string trio. Still the harpist’s sped-up plucks and the trio’s sprinkle of squeaks and buzzes at the finale, confirms its individuality. Overall the three work within lower case parameters, but with frequent col legno bow strokes, below-the-bridge squeals, spiccato thumps and pressurized glissandi, so the tracks are never enervating. A particular instance of this is on Disc II’s Restrictive Parallels I. Climaxing with an explosion of jumps and sul tasto echoes plus door-stopper-like twangs, it follows a gradual deconstruction of the exposition. Cogwheel-like ratcheting portends later near-metal squeals after concentrated textures are augmented by modulated cello sweeps and double bass drones. IST hosts guests on two discs. Four tracks with violinist PhIl Durrant add more dynamic timbral excitement but don’t resemble conventional string quartet fare either. But when the quartet’s affiliated string rubs reach a crescendo, the interface is even more kinetic. On Aesthetic Triage II-IV the expositions augment to include wood raps, screw twisting and wound-string bending as all four alternate between harsh arco squeals and plinking pizzicato frails until the already elongated theme is stretched thinner and thinner. More low-key, tenor/soprano saxophonist John Butcher’s contribution to three other tracks moves the group within a mercurial suite illuminated by how well reed flattement and bubbling multiphonics are situated among IST’s vibrating string pressure encompassing sul ponticello splatters, crammed whines and plinks. The concluding Trenchant Observations II and III first torque the narrative to its highest-pitched confluence with whistling string tones and tongue slaps until thumping double bass stopping combines with cello string stretches and downwards harp glissando to widen the connection until the improvisation’s parameters are pulled down to reflective silence.

03 Ivo PerelmanA unique box variant is Embrace of the Souls: (SMP 2020 smprecords.bandcamp.com/ album/special-edition-box), which packages three examples of the almost-25-year musical partnership of Brazilian tenor saxophonist Ivo Perelman and American pianist Matthew Shipp. Included is an audio CD of a 2019 New York concert, a DVD of a São Paulo concert later that year, and a 49-page booklet discussing the musicians and 14 of their recordings by Belgian writer Jean-Michel Van Schouwburg. Building on the time he produced a Brussels concert with the duo, Van Schouwburg defines what he calls their sense of aesthetic familiarity, which allows them to create first-class music. Designed for both free jazz insiders and those exploring the sounds, Van Schouwburg describes the duo’s individual histories and situates their references and influences to swing era and bop stylists as well as more recent exploratory players. He insists on the unique qualities of every improvisation, live and recorded, and offers a succinct description of each disc. Meanwhile Perelman and Shipp’s art can be experienced audibly and/or visually. Filmed on a darkened stage and occasionally cutting away to show Perelman’s paintings, the DVD is one hour of uninterrupted improvisation that shows interwoven creativity. Consisting of a dozen tracks that take from between slightly over two to slightly over seven minutes to be resolved, the majority of the CD’s untitled tunes are pensive and romantic. Demonstrating again that free improvisation doesn’t have to be loud to be profound, logical shifts and slides are heard. Despite the saxophonist’s frequently climbing to altissimo or sopranissimo pitches with fragmented peeps, squeaks and screams, the two press on resolutely. Sometimes accelerating to a gallop to counter Perelman’s discursive reed lines or violent keyboard squalls before subsiding to double counterpoint, Shipp’s measured pattering and percussive asides indicate how he too subtly contributes to the tracks’ floating coordination.

No vanity projects, each of these collections has something to offer and celebrate.

01 Peter SchreierFor those who may not recall his name, Peter Schreier was regarded as one of the finest lyric tenors of the 20th century. He was renowned for his Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mahler and Wagner in addition to incomparable lied recitals and recordings. Schreier was also a respected conductor. He was born in Meissen, Saxony in 1935 and died in 2019 in Dresden. He toured the world including recitals in Toronto. Berlin Classics has selected 19 familiar melodies issued in 1976, for re-issue as Schöne, Strahlende Welt (Beautiful Radiant World). Although sung in German, a language that I do not speak, I had been totally absorbed by the beauty of Schreier’s voice and his delivery of the lyrics since about the 1970s. Included here are Schreier’s famous versions of Granada, La Danza and O Sole Mio, along with Toscelli’s Serenade, Grieg’s Last Spring and Ich Liebe Dich, also Leoncavallo’s Mattinata. Despite the language barrier, easily recognized are So deep is the night, Love’s last word is spoken, Speak to me of love and many more familiar melodies. Here is the embodiment of a perfect lyric tenor in interesting repertoire. (Berlin Classics 0301746BC naxosdirect.com/search/0301746bc).

02 Franz LeharContinuing in the lighter vein, there is a new boxed set of operettas by Franz Lehár produced by the Seefestspiele Mörbisch in Austria. The box contains Das Land des Lächelns from 2001, Guiditta from 2003, Die lustige Witwe from 2005, Der Graf von Luxemburg from 2006 and Der Zarewitsch from 2010. At the helm of the Mörbisch Festival Orchestra is Austrian conductor and pianist Rudolf Bibl (1929-2017), except for Der Zarewitsch under Wolfdieter Maurer. The cast of artists in each of these delightful operettas is far too extensive to identify individually but be assured, each production is echt Lehár and, of course, unmistakably Viennese. As in the Schreier disc above, the librettos are sung in German. (Franz Lehár – The Operetta Edition OEHMS Classics OC1902, 5 CDs naxosdirect.com/search/oc1902).

03 Victor HerbertThe Smithsonian has reissued their 1980 recording of Victor Herbert’s perennial operetta, Naughty Marietta. This performance was produced, directed and conducted by the late James A. Morris, then director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Division of Performing Arts. The Millenium Chamber Orchestra is in the pit, and also the Catholic University of America A Cappella Choir. The leads are sung by Judith Blazer (Marietta) and Leslie Harrington (Captain Richard Warrington), with more than 60 voices in the choruses. This bright version will please the audience of live theatregoers. (Harbinger Records, HCD3702 naxosdirect.com/search/hcd3702).

For the past little while I have been listening and re-listening to an album named simply Artur Balsam Plays. Balsam the pianist was born in Warsaw in 1906 and died in New York in 1994. He was and is remembered primarily as the elegant accompanist of many of the prime soloists of the era. Balsam’s name would appear second whether it be in concert programs or record labels. In this set are the most exquisite and rewarding performances of piano solos and sonatas, violin sonatas and concertos, dances and a miscellany of named pieces. Composers from Balsam’s enormous repertoire represented in these recordings are Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart, Richard Strauss, Hindemith, Muzio Clementi, C.P.E. Bach, Paganini, Hummel, Ravel, Debussy, Franck, Fauré, Milhaud, Dvořák, Wieniawski, Glazunov, Stravinsky, Vitali, Rimsky-Korsakov, Sarasate, Bizet, Carl Engel, William Kroll and Fritz Kreisler. Phew! The artists who join Balsam are Yehudi Menuhin, Michael Rabin, Zino Francescatti, Szymon Goldberg, Nathan Milstein, Joseph Fuchs, Raya Garbousova (the Russian-American cellist), Louis Kaufman, Erica Morini, Zara Nelsova and the Pascal Quartet. This is an unusually agreeable collection and thanks to the host of artists and composers, there is never a dull moment. (Profil PH 21004 10 CDs naxosdirect.com/search/+ph21004)

05 Isaac SternAs some readers may have previously discerned, I especially dote on the omni-present sonorities in the sound of Isaac Stern’s playing of any score before him. In addition to his commercial recordings many of his admirers have been enjoying Doremi’s Isaac Stern Live series derived from live performances around the globe, unavailable elsewhere. Isaac Stern Live Volume 9 contains an impressive performance of the Sibelius from Paris (1980, Andrew Davis) together with the George Rochberg concerto of 1974 from Paris (1977, Torkanowsky). A second CD contains the Samuel Barber of 1939 from Paris (1980, Kondrashin), together with the Prokofiev second from Strasbourg (1958, Munch). Finally in this collection of distinctive performances is the Max Bruch Violin Concerto No.1 from Paris conducted by Leonard Slatkin in 1980. Stern’s playing is innately compelling throughout both CDs. (Doremi DHR-8147/8 naxosdirect.com/search/dhr-8147-8).

06 Stern ZukermanIn another new release from Doremi, Isaac Stern shares the stage with Pinchas Zukerman playing works written for two violins for a joint recital in Massey Hall, Toronto from February 9, 1976. Judging from the enthusiastic applause after each work the audience was more than enthralled. Here is what they heard: Leclair Sonata Op.3 No.5; Spohr Sonata Op.67 No.2; Mozart Duo for Violin and Viola K423; Wieniawski Étude-Caprices Op.18, climaxing with the Prokofiev Sonata in C Major, Op.56. There were two encores, by Leclair and Mozart. (Isaac Stern/Pinchas Zukerman Joint Recital Doremi DHR-8099 naxosdirect.com/search/dhr-8099)

07 Schubert SchwarzMany of our readers will remember Paul Robinson, classical music director of radio station CJRT-FM (91.1) and the program Records in Review, where for years on Sunday afternoon and Monday evening he and I discussed new releases and basic repertoire. On a recent visit we listened to a performance of the Schubert Symphony No.9 conducted by Gerard Schwarz recorded in 1987 but unreleased until now (Master Performers MP 21 03 masterperformers.com). Our opinions matched and upon request Paul wrote the following: 

The American conductor Gerard Schwarz is probably best known for his 26-year tenure (1985-2011) as music director of the Seattle Symphony. They made dozens of recordings together including standard repertoire as well as works by American composers. But earlier in his career Schwarz conducted the New York Chamber Symphony and made some fine recordings with that ensemble back in the 1980s. One of them was only recently released, a very stylish and energetic performance of the Schubert Ninth Symphony. The orchestra included some of New York’s foremost freelance musicians and it sounds like it. Great playing and first-class recording quality. Incidentally, before turning to conducting, Schwarz was a child-prodigy trumpet player, becoming principal trumpet in the New York Philharmonic at the age of 25. And what is he doing now? He is music director of the All-Star Orchestra (www.allstarorchestra.org), an elite ensemble (e.g. the concertmaster is David Kim, concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra) which specializes in making DVDs, largely for an educational market. He is also a professor of music at the University of Miami.”

01 Cornelius CardewCornelius Cardew – The Great Learning
Montréal Scratch Orchestra; Dean Rosenthal
Tone Glow Records (toneglowrecords.bandcamp.com)

English composer-pianist, teacher and political activist Cornelius Cardew (1936-1981) was in the vanguard of the thriving 1960s UK experimental music scene. He co-founded the Scratch Orchestra which performed his monumental The Great Learning (1969) on the influential 1971 Deutsche Grammophon LP

Cardew’s text score consists of seven Paragraphs (large sections) for a large number of both trained and untrained musicians, the libretto drawn from Confucian texts. The Great Learning’s musical idiom and democratic social message was in tune with the times and as such deeply challenged many musicians’ views on the possibilities of ensemble music-making.

To perform The Great Learning in Montreal in 1996 was also American composer Dean Rosenthal’s motivation to organize the Montréal Scratch Orchestra with 14 student experimental music enthusiasts at McGill University. Their 1996 live concert performance of two Paragraphs was recorded, and has now been released on Tone Glow Records.

The all-vocal Paragraph 7 features a constantly shifting sound cloud of male and female voices humming or singing the text. Each chorus member initially chooses their own note and proceeds according to the written instructions. Individual voices emerge, join others in unison, then recede, in a process which sounds organic: waves cresting and falling perhaps. Paragraph 1, on the other hand, is anchored by skilled organist Philip Clarke’s slowly shifting single tones which build into massive chord clusters. It’s joined by massed whistles interrupted by spoken choral recitations of the Confucian script. The track ends elegantly, a mirror of the way it began, with the acoustic organ’s voice gradually dying, literally running out of air.

02 Joe CoughlanJoe Coughlin – Debut: 40th Anniversary Edition
Joe Coughlin
Indie Pool (joecoughlin.ca)

Originally released in 1981, jazz vocalist Joe Coughlin’s eponymous forgotten gem of a debut features a group teeming with top-shelf Canadian talent. The lineup is highlighted by the likes of Ed Bickert on guitar, Bernie Senensky on keys, Terry Clarke on drums and Don Thompson on bass. The music itself covers quite a bit of ground, taking elements from straight-ahead swing, vintage synth-pop typical of the era, soul, gospel and even yacht rock (multiple tracks sound like they could belong on Steely Dan’s Gaucho). 

Quite a few of the flavours on this album can be attributed to the great Rick Wilkins, who was responsible for conducting and arranging all the tunes. His flair is particularly evident on 500 Miles High, which takes a Chick Corea classic and chooses to go the full distance with a Latin groove that was merely implied in the original. The result is a thrilling showcase for the band that hits a pinnacle during Senensky’s dynamic solo. 

Coughlin himself more than manages to keep up with the ensemble. It is his personality, effortlessness and elegance that give this album its identity. Coughlin’s astounding range is also on full display, whether it’s the fullness of his tone on What a Difference a Day Makes or his softer, borderline whisper on Here’s That Rainy Day. To complete the equation, Joe Coughlin by Joe Coughlin could not have been sequenced better. The moods blend together seamlessly, and the set list is positively spotless.

03 Evan ParkerFixing the Fluctuating Ideas
Evan Parker Electro Acoustic Ensemble with Sainkho Namtchylak
Victo cd 133 (victo.qc.ca)

This almost perfect division between vocal and instrumental affiliation with electronics, recorded at FIMAV 1996 in Quebec, comprises two 30+ minute tracks. The first, Fixing, centres around the vocal gymnastics of Tuvan singer Sainkho Namtchylak propelling her retches, yodels and gurgles, accompanied, synthesized and live-processed by Marco Vecchi and Walter Prati’s electronics, with obtuse, balanced and stretched interjections from violinist Philipp Wachsmann, bassist Barry Guy, percussionist Paul Lytton and saxophonist Evan Parker.

Namtchylak sits out Fluctuating, the second track, which is only slightly shorter than the opener. This allows the electronic wizards to add to and highlight the studied, in-the-moment improvising by the fiddler, bassist, drummer and saxophonist. Accomplished veterans of free expression, Wachsmann, Lytton, Parker and Guy shatter and stretch the program as the electronics subtly project mirrored and scrambled variants of their outputs. This includes col legno slaps and swabbing strokes from the bassist, faux-formalist sweeps and pizzicato rasps from the violinist, crunching crinkles and reverberation from the percussionist and a penultimate sequence where Parker’s circular breathed doits, multiphonics and fluttering trills vibrate towards and then amongst a persuasive finale of staccato stopping from the strings.

Earlier Namtchylak’s inimitable shaking cries, onomatopoeic asides and cracked warbling is multiplied by processing and backed by Guy’s bass string thumps and Wachsmann’s augmented string spiccato. When Parker enters at the halfway point, his reed trills and Namtchylak’s vocalizing sound nearly identical. No matter which player’s timbres are emphasized, a perfect mix is attained throughout.

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