13 LAbimeL’ABÎME
L’abîme
Multiple Chord Music (labime.ca)

From French, L’abîme translates to “the abyss.” That fact, combined with the equal parts striking and confounding cover art (courtesy of the design savvy of Rosie Landes), appears to scream “concept album.” I can neither confirm nor deny whether that is the intent of the artist, but the music possesses the same cinematic stage-play pomp of Carla Bley’s early 1970s music. Much like Bley, the members of L’abîme find themselves all over the place, in the best way possible. Whether it’s the progressive faultlessness of the title track, the nocturnal balladry of L’étang au crépuscule, the improvisational masterclass of Perdu dans les bois, or all of the above over the course of the show-stopping Le Culte suite, L’abîme manages to fearlessly explore avenues while never allowing these risks to compromise its sound. 

Jonathan Turgeon has mastered his craft. His compositions are unlike anything I’ve ever heard prior to stumbling across his work. They are dumbfoundingly complex mosaics of various miniscule rhythms and lines, interlacing with each other before ultimately giving way to the next contrasting section. It has often been said that the great writers know how to write for their band, and Turgeon ensures that every part, be it Alex Dodier’s flute or Hugo Blouin’s contrabass (considering he’s a pianist, Turgeon is a tremendous writer for bass), is maximized. From front to back a mind-bending musical experience, L’abîme’s eponymous debut will leave an impression.

14 Code QuartetGenealogy
CODE Quartet
Justin Time JTR 8622-2 (justin-time.com) 

CODE is a Montreal-based outfit consisting of Adrian Vedady on bass, Christine Jensen on saxophone, Lex French on trumpet and Jim Doxas on drums. The similarity between this exact instrumentation and that of Ornette Coleman’s classic quartet is indeed intentional. In the late 1950s, Coleman and Sonny Rollins both found themselves drawn to the idea of playing with a chordless ensemble, feeling creatively boxed in by the harmony being stated outright. This is what makes the title of Genealogy so fitting; it suggests a following of this musical lineage. 

Coleman’s influence is inescapable for the entire duration of the album. On all tracks but the French-penned opener Tipsy (which has a pretty standard chord progression), the revolutionary “time, no changes” format is used as a medium for the band’s various modes of expression. Multiple heads can be described only as Coleman-esque, particularly the title track, but the band balances tribute and evolution quite well. Besides the band’s technically sound production (the entire quartet was responsible) and Doxas’ additional studio wizardry on the mix, there is also an aspect of this modernization that lies in the playing itself. The first “free” track on the album is Vedady’s Watching It All Slip Away, taking what would otherwise be a typical Latin groove until French goes off during his solo, and the take on O Sacred Head, Now Wounded beautifully combines reverence with freedom. Ultimately, Vedady is Charlie Haden, providing the foundation, adhesive and roadmap.

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15 Brass KnuckleBrass Knuckle Sandwich
Marilyn Lerner; Nicole Rampersaud
Ambiances Magnétiques AM 258 CD (actuellecd.com)

Polished and powerful as the first part of its name and as layered as the second, Toronto’s Brass Knuckle Sandwich has produced a crunchy but powerful snack of seven in-the-moment improvisations. The duo of pianist Marilyn Lerner and trumpeter Nicole Rampersaud, longtime members of the city’s experimental music community, inventively displays every flavourful scintilla of sound from the furthest reaches of their instruments. Lerner clips, pumps and slides over the keys in groups or separately and strums, plucks and buzzes the piano’s internal strings. Making use of tongue stopping, tone crackling and half-valve effects, Rampersaud’s brass extensions include vocalized blowing, spittle-encrusted squeaks, strangled cries and plunger farts.

Expressing timbres ranging from the dulcet to the dissonant, the two produce a track like Evermore, which from its carefully shaped keyboard introduction to mid-range capillary slurs, conveys winnowing motion. Then they abruptly turn around during the following nat.pit.that to contrast the trumpet’s uppermost screech mode with dynamic piano pacing in the most fragmented mode before joining infant-like howls and resonating key clanks into a balanced ambulatory theme. Kinetics may edge out caution on most of the disc, but in spite of numerous advanced motifs, narratives are always fluid. The disc culminates in the almost 15-minute Rizoo, where broken-octave creativity, including hand-muted brass cries and staccato peeps from Rampersaud and bottom-board percussiveness and stopped key thumps from Lerner, predominate until the track and the CD’s finale settles into a connective mode.

17 TransformationGlenn Close; Ted Nash – Transformation
Glenn Close; Ted Nash; Wayne Brady; Amy Irving; Matthew Stevenson; Eli Nash; Wynton Marsalis; Jazz at Lincoln Center
Tiger Turn Productions (tednash.com)

This ambitious, multi-disciplinary recording project was co-imagined, produced, arranged, composed and conducted by Grammy winner and gifted multi-reed instrumentalist, Ted Nash. All of the accompanying spoken word segments were curated by Emmy- and Tony-winning actress Glenn Close, and performed by Close and a group of truly exceptional artists, including Wayne Brady, Amy Irving, Matthew Stevenson and Eli Nash. The skilled musical cast includes noted members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO), including the iconic Wynton Marsalis on trumpet.

Transformations begins with Creation, Part I. One can feel the contrapuntal influence of Gil Evans in this full-throttle, intricate, challenging music, as the ensemble slides through the primordial ooze. Creation, Part ll features the JLCO as they swing, wail and bop with exquisite precision. A sturdy and solid trombone solo punctuates the air, followed by a well-placed baritone comment or two. Dear Dad/Letter is the transcript of an incredibly moving letter to Nash from his transgender son, accompanied by masterful work on soprano sax by Nash. Other memorable movements include One Among Many, constructed around Judith Clarke’s journey of liberation, as interpreted by the incredible Irving.

The justifiable rage and hurt, and subsequent illumination in Brady’s A Piece by the Angriest Black Man in America (or, How I learned to Forgive Myself for Being the Angriest Black Man in America) is an awakening in itself, as is Reaching the Tropopause – which features a face-melting rhythm and sax sections in concert with the dynamic Wynton Marsalis on trumpet. Ted Nash, Glenn Close, the gifted actors and the nothing-short-of-exquisite musicians of JLCO cement this recording as an artistic triumph.

18 Jesup WagonJesup Wagon
James Brandon Lewis; Red Lily Quintet
Tao Forms TAO 05 (jamesbrandonlewis.bandcamp.com/album/jesup-wagon)

James Brandon Lewis was voted Rising Star – Tenor Saxophone in the 2020 DownBeat magazine’s International Critics Poll. His tone is urgent and emphatic and Jesup Wagon, recorded with his Red Lily Quintet, is his ninth release. The title refers to the wagon built by George Washington Carver to travel the Alabama countryside and teach farming techniques. It was a travelling road show of science and hope and Lewis’ seven compositions are based on Carver’s words and experiences. The quintet includes William Parker (bass), Chad Taylor (drums), Kirk Knuffke (cornet) and Chris Hoffman (cello). The lack of a chordal instrument like piano or guitar gives the group an open sound which, combined with Knuffle’s cornet and Lewis’ tone, reminds me of the early Ornette Coleman group with Don Cherry playing pocket cornet.

The detailed liner notes describe both the music and how each work refers back to Carver’s ideas and legacy. For example, Lowlands of Sorrow is Carver’s phrase from when he discovered the extreme poverty of farmers in Macon County. Lewis’ saxophone is wailing and, with Knuffke’s cornet, blows forth a song of suffering. The melody and solos are deftly underscored by Parker’s contrapuntal bass and Taylor’s effortlessly polyrhythmic percussion. Fallen Flowers has a solemn opening melody which is soon contrasted by a playfully melodic and staccato theme tossed back and forth between sax and cornet. This back and forth movement continues throughout the piece occasionally making way for the soloists. Jesup Wagon ends with one of Lewis’ recitations that could describe this intense and brilliant album as a whole: “Embedded seeds crack through tormented shells of one colour, giving birth to many hues.”

19 Ben GoldbergEverything Happens To Be
Ben Goldberg
BAG Production Records BAG018 (bengoldberg.net) 

Since debuting with the New Klezmer Trio in 1991, clarinetist Ben Goldberg has produced consistently inventive, often witty music, whether playing works by John Zorn or Merle Travis. His four stellar partners here all have previous connections. Tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin shares a breadth of reference, sentiment and humour. Goldberg has played duets with bassist Michael Formanek, while guitarist Mary Halvorson and drummer Tomas Fujiiwara have previously joined Goldberg in the improvising trio The Out Louds.  

The opening What About suggests the gentle melodic clarity and sudden surprise of Jimmy Giuffre, while Cold Weather and Chorale Type are updates of early jazz textures, given added authenticity by Goldberg’s acquisition of an E-flat Albert System clarinet, the kind employed by New Orleans musicians a century ago. It lends a particularly woody warmth to the kind of abstracted counterpoint Goldberg and Eskelin practise here, sometimes further enhanced by Halvorson’s electronic squiggles. 

That Goldberg wit surfaces as well with Tomas Plays the Drums: Fujiwara does, but not in a solo feature; instead, he appears at the end of a collective blast of bass clarinet, saxophone multiphonics and electric guitar squall, one more unlikely episode in Goldberg’s surprise package. The program ends with Abide with Me, a 19th-century hymn set to the melody of Eventide, composed by William Monk, a tune Goldberg first encountered as a child in a rendition by Thelonious Monk. It’s played straight, for 1’10”. Now that’s jazz wit.

01 Alfie ZappacostaSaved
Alfie Zappacosta
Alma Records ACD20512 (shopalmarecords.com)

Colourful, compelling, award-winning, platinum-selling Canadian artist Alfie Zappacosta is back with an energetic, vibrant collection of nine stylistically diverse original tracks in this, his 16th album. Zappacosta successfully takes on the positions of songwriter, singer, arranger and producer here to create a memorable mix of jazz, pop, rock and ballads.  He is joined by many of his longtime songwriting and musical collaborators including Gerry Mosby, Marco Luciani, Andrew Glover, Silvio Pupo and Louis Sedmak.

Zappacosta’s decades-long career, with all its personal and professional ups and downs, has provided him the tools to explore, compose and develop his musical style in his own way, and as he explains, now without record label direction. The entire release is a gratifying musical surprise. Unspoken is a colourful romantic ballad highlighted by Bob Tildesley’s muted trumpet echoing his rich vocal line. The upbeat title track showcases Zappacosta’s distinctive rich vocal range, precise pitch placement and clear articulation of the lyrics, with enthusiastic backing female vocals and techno-flavoured instrumentals. Had Enough opens with an intense banging drum solo followed by a danceable pop/jazzy tune driven by Zappacosta’s low-pitched vocals and bouncy instrumentals. Here in My Heart, flavoured by Romantic-style symphonic music and co-written with Pupo, is very emotional, highlighted by a singalong love chorus.

Zappacosta and his team’s charismatic, passionate performances are perfectly reco-rded, produced and “Saved.” It’s so much fun to listen to, brightening up these pandemic times with musical energy!  Simply said, this is music for everyone!!

02 Art of TimeAin’t Got Long
Art of Time Ensemble
Art of Time Recordings ART003 (artoftimeensemble.com) 

Ain’t Got Long features the Toronto-based Art of Time Ensemble led by Andrew Burashko and Jonathan Goldsmith, arranger and producer. Ten numbers by songwriters ranging from Irving Berlin to Radiohead are arranged with distinction by Goldsmith, featuring singers Madeline Peyroux, Gregory Hoskins, Jessica Mitchell and Sarah Slean. Among outstanding instrumentalists, Peter Lutek plays a variety of woodwinds throughout. Goldsmith’s inspired title track uses a solo vocal from one of Alan Lomax’s Prison Songs recordings, successively adding echoing, a beat, increasingly dissonant chords and more. A ripple effect results that expands in time and space and amplifies the prisoner’s cry. 

Especially creative Goldsmith arrangements include Love in Vain (Robert Johnson) where the achingly bluesy vocal by Peyroux is surrounded by Ravelian piano chords, Hendrix-like electric guitar from Rob Piltch, and eventually, dissonant high strings that capture the song’s despair. Another one I like is of Radiohead’s Exit Music (For A Film), sung effectively by Mitchell, who at one point descends unexpectedly into a very low register. The classically based arrangement for piano and strings includes scintillating Chopin-like arpeggios from pianist Burashko, plus familiar high-pitched chords from Der Rosenkavalier at the end. Other songs, with arrangements ranging from traditional to unconventional, include Calling All Angels (Jane Siberry) sung movingly by Hoskins, Sad Song (Lou Reed) with an original vocal interpretation by Slean, and a fine Someone to Watch Over Me (George and Ira Gershwin) by Peyroux.

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03 Dan HillOn the Other Side of Here
Dan Hill
Sun+Sky Records (danhill.com)

Award-winning Canadian singer/musician/songwriter Dan Hill’s 16-song release, his first in 11 years, is an outstanding addition to his multi-decade catalogue. His first hit, Sometimes When We Touch (1977), is still a favourite of many generations of listeners. Hill does not disappoint here, with more moving songs featuring his trademark lyrics and melodies.

Title track On the Other side of Here is a classic Hill song with chordal piano (John Sheard) and guitar (Anthony Vanderburgh) accompaniments – and multiple harmonic key modulations. What About Black Lives?, released last November as a single/lyric video, is an intense song written in the wake of George Floyd’s killing in the United States. Hill is a child of a mixed-race couple, and expresses his outrage of this horrific event musically with shifting rhythms, dynamics and powerful melodic lyrics in his vocal/piano and Vandenburgh’s guitar performances. Ninety Years Old is heart wrenching, with words like “When you are 90 years old, you are still a little girl” sung above respectful guitar, piano and strings. Pop-flavoured, radio-friendly, faster Sometimes I Feel, composed by Hill and Vanessa Benfield, has Hill singing at the high end of his vocal range and playing rhythmic guitar accompaniment to Vanderburgh’s soundscape on Rhodes. All the other tracks are equally enchanting.

Hill’s songwriting and performance skills are still so very personal yet relatable to us after all these years. Combined with clear production and virtuosic performers, this is another inspiring Hill masterpiece!

04 The WesterliesThis Land
Theo Bleckmann & the Westerlies
Westerlies Records (thewesterliesmusic.bandcamp.com/album/this-land) 

The Westerlies are an inventive brass quartet based in New York (though the members are childhood friends from Seattle) and their music is a mixture of jazz, roots and chamber music (imagine Stephen Foster and Aaron Copland meeting Miles Davis at a church social). This Land is their fourth release and is a collaboration with German singer and composer Theo Bleckmann. The album is a meditation on their shared country of America and includes spirituals, Bertolt Brecht, four Woody Guthrie songs, a stark and arresting version of Joni Mitchell’s The Fiddle and the Drum and several originals. Mitchell’s anti-war song is followed by Land, which is trombonist and composer Andy Clausen’s somber setting of Agha Shahid Ali’s poem about immigration, the past and present and America and India. This is followed by a wistful, yet rousing, instrumental version of Guthrie’s Two Good Men (check this performance out on YouTube). Then we have Bleckmann’s Another Holiday which begins with the lyrics “It’s barbecue and pie, the kids will run around, and I’ll sit on the side... .” With its minimalist brass accompaniment and ambiguous lyrics the song manages to be both optimistic and sinister at the same time.  

This Land is a thoughtful and engrossing collection of 15 works which play off one another to create a fascinating concept album about a turbulent America. The heavy dose of Guthrie proves that the past is always with us in the present. The performances are excellent and the combination of voice and brass is highly original. The Westerlies continue to innovate and push far beyond what we might expect from the description “brass quartet.”

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05 Joy HarjoI Pray for My Enemies
Joy Harjo; Various Artists
Sunyata Records JH001 (joyharjo.com)

A curious mixture of spoken word, cutting-edge poetry, funky grooves and a propelling artistic drive, I Pray For My Enemies is one of those albums that cuts straight to the heart and sends a powerful message to the world. There is no hiding from the grittiness of the real world here and no pretense. Joy Harjo, the first Native American U.S. poet laureate and the author of several books of poetry as well as six previous albums, is a force de jour, an artist with strong convictions and a compassionate heart.

Harjo lined up a powerhouse of musicians for this album: Peter Buck (R.E.M) on electric guitar, Mike McCready (Pearl Jam) and Rich Robinson (Black Crowes) pumping out fantastic electric guitar solos, and Krist Novoselic (Nirvana) on acoustic guitar. Barrett Martin is nothing short of amazing in his various roles as a drummer, upright bassist, keyboardist and co-producer. A touch of lyricism and dreaminess provided by Iraqi oud master Rahim Alhaj and trumpeter Dave Carter is cleverly mixed in between and the earthy, rocking solos on sax and flute by Harjo herself add an edge to the rhythmical drive underneath. 

I Pray For My Enemies comprises 16 tracks covering the whole of human existence in today’s world. From empowering Calling the Spirit Back and Running, to the introspective Remember and the clever Rabbit Invents the Saxophone, this album feels borne out of this moment in time, with vulnerability of truth and the stance of a warrior. You will come back to it again and again.

06 Roxana AmedOntology
Roxana Amed
Sony Music Latin 19439860962 (roxana-amed.com) 

With her seventh release, producer and iconic Argentine folk/rock/jazz vocalist and composer Roxana Amed has manifested a musical project that plumbs the very depths of her identity as a creative artist – as an Argentinian and also as a Floridian, living in the politically bisected United States. The CD title, Ontology, refers to a branch of philosophy that studies deep concepts such as existence, becoming and being, and how entities/energies of different groupings manage to co-exist. Recorded amidst the COVID-19 pandemic at the world-famous Hit Factory in Miami, Amed has conducted her own esoteric exploration, incorporating primarily her own compositions and framing her pieces with an exquisite quintet, variously featuring Martin Bejerano on piano; Mark Small on sax; Tim Jago/Aaron Lebos on guitar; Edward Perez/Lowell Ringel on acoustic bass; Carlo De Rosa on electric and acoustic bass; and Rodolfo Zuniga/Ludwig Alfonso on drums.

First up is Tumbleweed – an inspired piece, conjuring up motifs of the cinematic American ancient West. Amed’s silky, dusky, powerful instrument crawls through the remote desert scenario and creates beauty in the seemingly unending, isolate topography of the Western states, while the ensemble dips, swings and sways with acuity and intention.

A stellar standout is Chacarera para la Mano Izquierda – this sumptuous, sexy, enhanced rural tango features a spine-tingling solo from Bejerano and thoroughly lovely and agile scatting from Amed. Additionally, the title track is so rich and compelling that it’s of little importance what language this gifted communicator is using. Danza de la Moza Donosa is a lightening quick, solid, bebop-ish jazz composition featuring Amed’s supple and potent chops. Without question, this is one of the most original and well performed jazz-related vocal CDs of this year!

ANTHONY BAXTON. Photo by MARTIN MORISSETTEAnthony Braxton – composer, theorist, master of reeds, philosopher of play – has been recording for over half a century now and has often done so exhaustively. It began in 1969, when the recorded history of improvised solo wind performances consisted of a few brief pieces by Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Rollins, Eric Dolphy and Jimmy Giuffre. The young Braxton declared his arrival with a two-LP solo set called For Alto, outlining a musical language that he’s been exploring and expanding ever since, with larger and larger projects and titles ever more evocative or mysterious, like the Ghost Trance Music and Diamond Curtain Wall. In 2019, in his 75th year, he presented a six-hour performance of Sonic Genome at Berlin’s Gropius Bau, with 60 musicians spread throughout the museum drawing randomly from Braxton’s vast compositional output. Graham Lock suggested his significance in the subtitle of his book Blutopia: Visions of the Future and Revisions of the Past in the Work of Sun Ra, Duke Ellington, and Anthony Braxton. Possible alternatives? You might as readily match Braxton with Olivier Messiaen, Karlheinz Stockhausen or Harry Partch as a composer who has constructed his own universe. 

01 Anthony BraxtonBraxton’s latest compositional series is called ZIMAnthony Braxton: 12 COMP (ZIM) 2017 (Firehouse 12 tricentricfoundation.org; firehouse12records.com). He has just released its first substantial documentation on a single audio Blu-ray disc: 12 pieces, ranging from 40 to 73 minutes each, over ten hours altogether, recorded over a 14-month period by groups ranging from sextet to nonet in the U.S., Montreal and London. As usual though, the real wonder of Braxton’s work is in the listening, not the clock-watching, despite the hourglass he will place on a stage at the start of a piece, signal of a time apart: ancient, infinite, even granular. 

Along with Braxton and his reeds, the group constants are Taylor Ho Bynum playing cornets and trombone; tubist Dan Peck and harpist Jacqui Kerrod. Another harpist – there are three others – is always present; accordionist Adam Matlock appears on 11 of the pieces; cellist Tomeka Reid appears on eight; violinist Jean Cook on three; saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and trumpeter Stephanie Richards figure in the nonet’s four performances. The harps, strings and accordion are key to the music’s special qualities: it is often sweeping, fluid and delicate, though those dreamlike and gentle textures mingle and fuse with the diverse sounds supplied by the winds. Braxton’s own alto saxophone can range from silky sweet to abrasive, and he also brings along instruments ranging from sopranino saxophone to contrabass clarinet.  

Braxton provides extensive notes in an accompanying booklet, and they’re as rich and playful as the music, which can sound as natural as a convergence of streams in a pond: “the notated material is positioned on top of an ‘unstable metric gravity’. This is a ‘wobbly music architecture’.” This multiple and unpredictable movement defines the music, a brilliant confluence of composed and improvised elements, a sonic flux of such delicacy that rhythmic, tonal and timbral incongruities combine to suggest an immersion in the spirit of change. 

Braxton has previously remarked that “I want the undefined component of my music to be on an equal par with the defined component,” and it’s a goal that he continues to extend here. If James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake is the most musical of books, Braxton’s ZIM is its double, diverging concordances passing over and through one another in a babbling dream discourse, free in some sense that music rarely is, as diverse in its methods as in its favoured sonorities, from those sibilant saxophones to brash brass blasts and hand-swept harp strings.

Whichever iteration of the group appears, the performance suggests it’s the ideal scale. As broad as the invention becomes, there’s always a sense of meaning rather than mere novelty, each event arising with its own certainty, however realized, an inevitability in accord with the logic of a dream, including a strange nonet passage in Composition No.415 in which Peck’s tuba wanders in a field of sudden pointillist punctuations from the other winds.  

By the time the septet reaches the final performances at London’s Café OTO, the pieces have stretched past the 70-minute mark and the strange fusions, mergers and discontinuities are ever more fully realized, the group pressing further and further into new territories, all the way to brief and uncredited vocal outbursts. On Composition No.420, Braxton’s alto initially fuses with the accordion and two harps; later he matches his sopranino’s whistle with Cook’s violin, which can also suggest an erhu; Bynum’s cornet flutters on a carpet of strummed harps, then whispers while the harpists diverge, one maintaining conventions while the other becomes percussionist and guitarist, striking the frame, slapping chords and picking a sparse melody. At times there’s an aviary in Braxton’s horns, from goose squawk to piping sparrow, while Peck’s tuba emits a low frequency hum that seems momentarily electronic. Toward the end, anarchic near-New Orleans jazz explodes and a harp sounds like elastic bands.    

Braxton’s ZIM is music of surprise. These are broad aural canvases in which the participants surprise themselves as well as one another, reaching toward a collective music that breeds in myriad individual encounters and in which close conversationalists will come to finish one another’s sentences – a saxophone’s phrase becoming an accordion’s. It’s the sound of recognition and empathy, one mind, like one sound, becoming another.  

Editor’s Note: Stuart Broomer is the author of Time and Anthony Braxton (Toronto: The Mercury Press, 2009).

Although unusual before that time, by the early 1960s a trio consisting of a double bass and drums, with a saxophone upfront, became increasingly common in jazz and improvised music. Initially influenced by the sound explorations of Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman, the configuration has since become so common that it rivals the traditional piano trio. Stripping interactive textures to their most basic with one woodwind, one percussion instrument and one string instrument challenges trio members to be as creative within these limitations as they would in a larger group. 

01 KorrFrench soprano/sopranino saxophonist Michel Doneda, who has been involved in varying improv configurations over the past 40 years, adapts to this format as part of CDWEIN14 weinsistrecords.com). Joined by Italians, veteran percussionist Filippo Monico and much younger bassist Andrea Grossi, the three create a mixture of multiphonics and melody with almost half the CD given over to the seven-part f.t.f suite. Memorable interpretations and intersections emerge on all tracks, with Grossi’s col legno and spiccato thrusts serving as contrapuntal foil to Doneda’s multiphonic explorations. Limiting himself to the occasional shuffle or cymbal accent with an irregular pulse, Monico stays in the background. Meanwhile, from the introductory not impro in roc all the way to the concluding re:call, the saxist and bassist operate like an accomplished comedy team feeding each other unexpected lines and reacting by topping or embellishing the japes. On the first tune this involves matching triple tongued saxophone shrills with elevated string pressure that almost replicates reed properties. A proper finale, re:call climaxes as mellow reed burbles hook up with balanced string strokes, after spiralling sopranino squeaks from inside the horn’s body tube are challenged by swaying string slaps. As for the suite, almost every imaginable timbre is exposed during each brief, connected sequence. Tremolo bagpipe-like drones alternate with compressed air forced out of the horn without key movement; or terse reed peeps share space with inflated aviary-like shrills from Doneda. Meanwhile Grossi’s expositions encompass techniques ranging from fluid spiccato strops to full-toned rhythmic vibrations, to echoing strokes that resemble the mechanics of long-string compositions in notated music.

02 GlotzeArriving from an almost diametrically opposed concept is GLOTZE I (Boomslang Records Boom 0613 boomslangrecords.bandcamp.com), an eponymously named German trio whose briskly kinetic tracks move on from the speed and strength projected by many freeform trios since the heyday of energy music. Adding echoing strokes from Philipp Martin’s electric bass to the power pulse of drummer Philipp Scholz and the strident bites of alto saxophonist Mark Weschenfelder, the band ends up with 11 miniatures as reminiscent of the Ramones as Rollins or Return To Forever. While it’s only the final De Wert that features overwrought buzzing from the bassist and noisy tones launched or unexpectedly cut off by the saxophonist’s overblowing, other tunes have arena rock equivalents. They include Klangschale #1, a cymbal vibrating, bell-tree shaking, water-bottle popping percussion showcase for Scholz. Other tracks are more reminiscent of Ornette Coleman’s electric bands, as harsh saxophone yelps are matched by stentorian thumb pops or sluicing vibrations from the electric bass, all of which evolves over a carpet of buzzing percussion and cymbal crashes. At the same time Weschenfelder’s playing isn’t all frenetic flattement and split tones. For every tongue-slapping variation there are tracks such as Durchführung #1 and Hobel #3 where floating trills and breathy straight-ahead theme elaborations are buoyant enough to bring Paul Desmond to mind and are met by sympathetic guitar-like comping from Martin.

03 MoreSomaMeanwhile the Lille, France-based More Soma trio on Hondendodendans (Microcidi 019 circum-disc.com) stretches the creation of freeform improvisation into the 21st century, giving it a more luminously layered but no less ecstatic cast. Built around the altissimo smears, basso scoops and split tones of alto and baritone saxophonist JB Rubin, the ruffs and rebounds from drummer Fred L’Homme and the sweeps or dot-dash plucks of bassist Mathieu Millet, the three gallop through four tracks with moderated responsiveness coupled with unpredictable invention. On a tune such as God B, Rubin’s vibrations from the sax’s body tube, coupled with flutter tonguing, projects a secondary, complementary tone alongside the baritone sax’s lowest reaches. Still open-palm drum shuffles and reverberating slaps from the bassist preserve the broken octave narrative. Similar power dynamics are expressed on alto saxophone features like Dog A as Millet’s seemingly unstoppable strumming sets the pace even as L’Homme’s ruffs and paradiddles redefine the time and Rubin’s duck quacking and corkscrew honks repeatedly fragment pitches. Triple cohesive refinement, however, ensures that no matter how many reed multiphonics are snarled upwards, bass strings stropped or drum pressure applied, horizontal expositions are maintained.

04 UassynThis necessary balance is more obvious on Zacharya (Double Moon/Challenge Records OMCHR 71387 uassyn.com), the debut CD of the young Swiss trio Uassyn. Eschewing rock or ecstatic jazz influences, this group’s music is so scrupulously symmetrical that at times it threatens to become bloodless. Luckily the accomplished ingenuity of alto saxophonist Tapiwa Svosve, bassist Silvan Jeger and drummer Vincent Glanzmann means that the six joint instant compositions are enlivened by textural deviations even as triple coordination keep the tunes on level paths. Working up to an unforeseen group definition on the last track, the trio runs through variants in tempos ranging from adagio to allegro and uses breaks and fragmented patterns to pace brief solos. Svosve projects lower-case breaths and gusty smears with the same facility as Jeger’s oscillating strokes, and Glanzmann’s clanks and slaps propel the music without strain. Most notable are Mmoosh and Kheretem, the penultimate and concluding tracks. The former is an original concept where disconnected reed stops, echoing drum vibrations and bass string drones define the piece without much ambulatory motion. Likewise avoiding any faux-exoticism in their use, the three players clap and shake bells to introduce Kheretem, then employ these metallic resonations along with pinpointed ruffs, cymbal clashing and string slaps to confirm the exposition as the saxophonist decorates its evolution with continuously ascending reed arabesques.

05 AliseenAnother unique take on this configuration is on Aliseen (577 Records 5846 577records.com) which mixes improvised jazz iterations with currents of traditional Finnish folk sounds. That means multi-reedist Jorma Tapio & his Kaski band of bassist Ville Rauhala and percussionist Janne Tuomi astutely manoeuvre among idioms. While a track like Nukunuku is the most overtly folksy, with low-pitched wooden flute puffs evolving over biting string drones, the preceding Way Off is closest to free jazz, with continuous snarling glossolalia and split-tone screams from Tapio’s tenor saxophone, the performances are separate enough so sonic schizophrenia doesn’t result. In fact the concluding title tune, which makes extensive use of string buzzes from kanteles or Finnish zithers played by the saxist and drummer in tandem with bass strokes, mostly serves as an idiosyncratic confirmation of the trio’s Nordic identity. Besides that though, emphasis is on contemporary improvisation. Rauhala’s subtly expressive plucks are upfront on a couple of tracks and Tuomi’s pinpointed cymbal clatter and hi-hat pulses join him on Siltasalmi. As for Tapio, playing flute on She’s Back, he produces Herbie Mann-like shrills with funky echoes and the same facility that his slashing alto saxophone cries suggest Ornette Coleman on a track with the ethnic title of Lasten Juhlat.   

No matter which woodwind is used alongside the bass and percussion on these discs, invention and originality are projected from each.

Ormandy coverEugene Ormandy and The Philadelphia Orchestra
The Columbia Legacy – The Legendary Mono Recordings 1944-1958
Sony Masterworks 194397574821 (120 CDs, 200-page hardcover book)

Sergei Rachmaninoff’s opinion of the Philadelphia Orchestra as “The World’s Greatest Orchestra” was proudly quoted by Columbia Masterworks across the top of the covers of their Philadelphia Orchestra releases on LPs in the 1950s. The actual quote from Rachmaninoff, who made many recordings with the orchestra, was “the finest orchestra the world has ever known” which boils down to the same thing.

The Philadelphia Orchestra was founded in 1900 and in 1910 Leopold Stokowski became their third music director, a post that he kept until 1938 when he was succeeded by Eugene Ormandy. Stokowski’s association with the orchestral continued until 1941 and the luxuriant virtuoso character of the orchestra was established during his tenure. The Academy of Music, the orchestra’s home, had been designed for opera and was less than an ideal venue for symphonic music. Stokowski adjusted the seating to balance the sonorities. He was an organist and he played the orchestra like an organ and together with free bowing in the strings, cultivated the maximum of colour and texture… the evolution of the famous Philadelphia Sound.

Ormandy was born Jenö Blau in Budapest on November 18, 1899. He was a child prodigy and at the age of five became the youngest student at the Budapest Royal Academy of Music and later won the State Diploma for Violin Playing. He was a pupil of Jenö Hubay, who was also the teacher of Joseph Szigeti and Jelly d’Aranyi. He graduated in 1913 and within four years he was appointed a professorship at the Academy. He modestly pointed out that he was only the third-best violinist in the world, after Fritz Kreisler and Jascha Heifetz.

Blau came to America in 1920 after being tricked by a dishonest impresario into accepting a specious engagement there. It was around this time that he changed his name. He worked as a backbencher at a silent movie orchestra in New York and rapidly advanced to first violin and then conductor of the orchestra at the Capitol Theater, one of the largest motion-picture theatres of the day. Becoming a U.S. citizen in 1927, Ormandy gained professional experience and received plaudits as conductor of the CBS Radio Orchestra. As pointed out in the accompanying 200-page hardcover book, his career was initially guided by pure chance and his ability to see the opportunities that were offered him. It gained irresistible momentum in 1931 when he took over the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, his first post as the principal conductor of a symphony orchestra. While there he made a number of Victor recordings including the premieres of Kodály’s Háry János Suite, Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht and a specially commissioned recording of Roy Harris’ American Overture, as well as renowned versions of Bruckner’s Seventh and Mahler’s Second Symphonies which bolstered his reputation. 

By 1936, Ormandy had been appointed associate conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, second in command to Stokowski, and in 1938 he became that orchestra’s music director. Ormandy remained at the helm in Philadelphia until his retirement in 1980, upon which he became conductor laureate. He died in 1985. Under his tutelage Stokowski’s practice of free bowing was abandoned and the cohesive, lush and distinctive Philadelphia Sound was further refined and personalized. He believed that the Philadelphia Sound should more properly be called the Ormandy Sound. 

His Philadelphia discography began with Nathan Milstein playing a slightly truncated version of the Lalo Symphonie Espagnole, regrettably without the third movement, recorded in November 1944 and March 1945, issued in June of that year. This is, appropriately, the first performance heard in the 120-CD set of every one of the monaural recordings Ormandy made with his Philadelphia Orchestra and the Philadelphia “Pops” between 1944 and 1958. The sound is flawless and solidly real.

There is of course not enough space to list or comment on each performance of this definitive set, but here are some that stand out: Khachaturian’s Gayne Ballet; Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky; Copland’s Appalachian Spring; and a spectacular 1953 performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. Of particular note are recordings from two acoustically superior venues, Glière’s Symphony No.3, “Ilya Muromets” from the Broadwood Hotel in Philadelphia, and Saint-Saëns’ “Organ” Symphony No.3 from Symphony Hall in Boston, both dating from 1956.  There’s also lots of Bach (including Ormandy organ transcriptions), Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky and lighter fare from Gershwin, Franz Lehár, Victor Herbert and Richard Rodgers. Soloists include such noted instrumentalists as Rudolf Serkin, Robert Casadesus, Oscar Levant, György Sándor, Claudio Arrau, Eugene Istomin, Gregor Piatigorsky, Joseph Szigeti, Isaac Stern and E. Power Biggs. Some of the finest singers of the era are included – Bidu Sayão, Stella Roman, Martha Lipton, Frederick Jagel, Jennie Tourel, Richard Tucker and David Lloyd, to name just a few – plus the Westminster and Temple University Choirs and the Metropolitan Opera Chorus. The list goes on and on (and on). 

 So here we have it: “The world’s greatest orchestra” with their chosen music director playing music from Bach to the modern era, in remastered recordings, many of which are issued here for the first time on CD. Should it be changed to “The Ormandy Sound”? With 152 recordings on CD for the first time ever, 139 recordings for the first time on CD as authorized releases from the original masters and 16 remastered recordings, all featuring their original LP artworks, there’s a good case to be made for that here!

 

02 TafelmusikThe Music of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges
Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra
Tafelmusik Media 880513103227  (tafelmusik.org) 

One of Tafelmusik’s most interesting and exciting recordings has recently been re-released, available on all major digital platforms. Originally recorded by CBC Records in 2003, The Music of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges features a generous sampling of the music of the one of the most fascinating, influential and multi-talented figures of late-18th-century Paris. In the excellent essay commissioned for the re-release, Bologne expert Marlon Daniel writes: “A remarkable violinist, orchestra leader, and composer, [Bologne] was at the centre of Parisian musical life in the late 1700s. He was a trailblazer who commissioned and led performances of great works, such as the six Paris Symphonies of Haydn.” He was also a celebrated fencer, military leader and, as this recording demonstrates, a first-rate composer. 

The recording features stylishly elegant performances of the Symphony in G Major, Op.11, No.1 and the Violin Concerto in D Major, Op.3, No.1, the latter featuring the sensational playing of Linda Melsted. Also included are charming excerpts from L’amant anonyme, the only surviving opera by Bologne (recently given its Canadian premiere by Opera McGill), and music by Leclair and Gossec. The recorded sound is excellent and the orchestra, under the direction of Jeanne Lamon, digs into the music with passion and grace.

Though Bologne was well-regarded and knew great success in his time, he also encountered racism and was blocked from attaining even more prominent positions – which he deserved – because of the colour of his skin. As wonderful as this recording’s program and performances are, its re-release is important because it puts Bologne’s achievements and remarkable skill as a composer at the centre of the project and celebrates him for the great artist that he was. Daniel’s essay is fascinating, and the accompanying artwork by Gordon Shadrach is beautiful and deeply moving. Let’s hope that Tafelmusik will give us much more of Bologne’s fabulous music in future concerts and recordings. 

Listen to 'The Music of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges' Now in the Listening Room

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