04 Matt HerskowitzMirror Image
Matt Herskowitz
Justin Time JUST 263-2 (justin-time.com)

To play jazz on the piano, a musician must – at some point – come to terms with the weight of the instrument’s history. The modern drum kit started to come together in the 1920s; the electric guitar, which, unlike its classical forebears, would be played through an amplifier, primarily with a plectrum, would not be manufactured until the 1930s. But the piano – so central to the sound of mainstream jazz – predates the genre by over 200 years.

On the solo album Mirror Image, released on Montreal’s Justin Time Records, the accomplished pianist Matt Herskowitz demonstrates his command of both the jazz and classical traditions through a mixture of original pieces, compositions by the likes of Ravel, Satie and Schubert, and a jazz standard. The fusion of jazz and classical has its own rich history; third stream music has enjoyed a degree of popularity since the 1960s. This synthesis is used to great effect by Herskowitz, not as a way to showcase two separate skill sets, but as a framework with which to display an intelligent, well-developed, honest approach to music making that honours the pianist’s personal experiences on the instrument. Highlights include bluesy, gospel-tinged flourishes on Gottschalk’s The Last Hope, the percussive title track Mirror Image, and My One And Only Love, which closes the album. Herskowitz’s truest success, however, is the thread with which he so effectively and confidently connects the album’s many elements into a sensible whole.

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05 Bill GilliamCounterstasis – Refracted Voices
Bill Gilliam; Glen Hall; Joe Sorbara
Independent MPBG-006 (gilliamhallsorbara.bandcamp.com)

Counterstasis – Refracted Voices is a new album of improvised music from the trio of Bill Gilliam (acoustic piano, preparations), Glen Hall (woodwinds, electroacoustics) and Joe Sorbara (drums, percussion), recorded at Number 9 Audio Group in Toronto. Gilliam, Hall and Sorbara are veteran improvisers, and bring a wealth of creative experience to their shared practice, which takes its influence from a variety of musical traditions. The heart of this project, as described in the liner notes, is to “counter stasis, to foster change, to create a music in which [the musicians’] individual voices can be bent by, refracted through the voices of their co-conspirators.” To these exploratory and interactive ends, Hall uses an assortment of live effects, including the OMax AI improvising software and the CataRT synthesis program, both by the Paris-based Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music (IRCAM).

Hall’s electronic contributions range from subtle additions to the trio’s acoustic instruments (as on the opening track, Sinuous Movements), to major structural components (as on Radio Chatter, which does indeed feature radio chatter, and Cave Ritual, the album’s longest offering, in which eerie atmospheric sounds form the basis for the overall shape of the tune). Throughout the proceedings, Gilliam, Hall and Sorbara play with maturity, confidently committing themselves to the realization of a shared musical vision that privileges communication over individual athletics. The album offers many highlights, but is best heard in one listen, as the spontaneously composed event that it is.

06 TriioTriio
Alex Fournier
Furniture Music Records (alexfournierplaysbass.com)

Toronto-born bassist Alex Fournier has gotten together some exceptionally talented musicians for this newest album simply titled Triio. Fournier himself has penned every song on the record and it is a true and great testament to his compositional talent. For those wondering about the interesting spelling of the album title, the band leader himself mentioned that he merely added in another ‘i’ to indicate that the group is not a true trio; it was meant to originally have four members but eventually grew into the sextet that is heard on the record.

The album as a whole is an interesting musical journey. It offers plenty of opportunity for experimentation and improvisation but also manages to have a certain character and, to an extent, structure, throughout. It is very easy to lose yourself completely in the unique sound of the record. The music has a variety of textures, almost as if you can physically feel the different character and flavour of each piece. The track ESD is almost what you could call “trippy,” a complete improvisational journey that fittingly starts off the record. Giant-Dad and Noisemaker have some underlying elements of traditional jazz slyly inserted into the bigger musical picture. Dusk has beautifully captivating and haunting melodies by great talents Bea Labikova on alto sax as well as flute and Aidan Sibley on trombone. This record offers something for both seasoned listeners of jazz and for people new to the scene.

07 Tune TownThere From Here
Tune Town
Independent TSLCD-310 (tunetownjazz.com)

There From Here is the debut album from a fresh collective on the Canadian jazz scene, a scintillating trio of Canadian talent: Kelly Jefferson on saxophones, Artie Roth on acoustic bass and Ernesto Cervini on drums. With grooves that get your foot tapping to captivating melodies and rhythms, this collection of original pieces will breathe life into an otherwise dull and meticulous day. The album is a breath of fresh air in today’s world of constant musical shuffling; it is meant to be listened to as a story from top to bottom, acting much like a concept album. Listeners are in for a pleasing journey through various genres.

The Monks of Oka harks back to the era of jazz greats, specifically Thelonious Monk. It is easy to spot the influence of his music in the piece. Sophisticated Lady takes the tempo down a notch in order to showcase the great talents of Jefferson and Roth as they take you along on a smooth and pleasing melodic voyage. The album does an astounding job of “seamlessly assimilating elements from the avant garde, funk and jazz worlds.” Especially in the track Split Infinity we hear a great funk groove supported by Roth and Cervini throughout the piece. For those tired of the rush-rush world that we live in, this is a fantastic album that allows you to sit down and take in a complete musical story.

08 Heather BambrickFine State
Heather Bambrick
Heather Bambrick Music HBCD-004 (heatherbambrick.ca)

Heather Bambrick, that beloved – and often goofy – voice familiar to anyone who tunes in to JAZZ.FM91, weekdays between 9am and 1pm (and nightly on Wednesdays), shows off her attractive pedigree with another solo recording. This album, Fine State, also confirms her growing reputation as an artist of the first order. Her voice throughout is fairly light and limpid, though not without sinew.

Bambrick’s diction is exceptional, reflecting real imagination behind repertoire that spans standards as well as thoroughly interesting new work composed by her as well as other writers of repute. This is ingeniously selected music, reflective of the high quality of the production by the drummer on this date, Ben Wittman, and Jono Grant, a longtime Bambrick associate, together with the vocalist herself.

If it’s hard to single out one track as being the most perfect example of Bambrick’s musicianship, it is equally hard to pick a favourite (because that would change with each playing of the recording). However, I would posit that Bambrick’s version of Milton Nascimento and Fernando Brant’s utterly beautiful song, Bridges (sung here with Gene Lees’ English lyrics) might be described as this disc’s crowning glory. Here we have a song, the poetry of which is infused with a sense of nostalgia and melancholy, its fluid melody delicately painted by a candid voice urged on by wistful instruments. Clearly an album to die for…

Listen to 'Fine State' Now in the Listening Room

09 Itamar ErezMi Alegria
Itamar Erez
Independent (itamarerez.com)

Itamar Erez’s music refreshingly defies categorization, though “world jazz” seems a reasonable option for DISCoveries review purposes. His is a rich, borderless musical world, with influences ranging from Bach to Brazilian choro. For Israeli-born, Vancouver-based Erez, a world-class guitarist, pianist, composer and educator, his myriad sources of inspiration reflect a wealth of musical traditions including Middle Eastern, flamenco, Latin, classical and the aforementioned jazz.

This array of influences is readily apparent on the breathtaking new release, Mi Alegria (Spanish for my joy). With each track a compelling example of Erez’s elegant and masterful musicianship, it’s hard to know where to draw one’s attention, but the title track is as good a place as any. Dedicated to his daughter Mia, Mi Alegria (get it) is as close to a classic jazz arrangement as you’ll find on the CD. With Erez on piano, bassist James Meger, drummer Kevin Romain and Ilan Salem on flute, it swings with a jaunty energy. On the other hand, Yahli’s Lullaby, named for Erez’s 12-year-old son (whose artwork graces the front cover), is an evocative and touching piece with a Middle-Eastern flavour.

For Erez’s pyrotechnical guitar work, listen to Choro Sentimental. It is truly jaw-dropping. Endless Cycle has a driving momentum, with Erez playing piano and guitar, sometimes both at the same time! Peppered throughout the album, François Houle (clarinet), Celso Machado (percussion) and Hamin Honari (tombak) contribute sumptuous layers of sound.

Mi Alegria is just that: a joyful, musical celebration by a truly engaging artist.

10 Gordon GrdinaCooper’s Park
Gordon Grdina Quartet
Songlines SGL 1630-2 (songlines.com)

Vancouver guitarist Gordon Grdina has gradually emerged on a larger stage, convening bands with distinguished international figures in addition to his regional ensembles. For this Vancouver session, Grdina is joined by New Yorkers Oscar Noriega, on alto saxophone and clarinets, Russ Lossing on piano and keyboards, and Satoshi Takeishi on drums. Grdina first unveiled this quartet on the 2017 CD Inroads, presenting crisp versions of nine of his compositions. Here the emphasis has decidedly changed. There are just five tracks here, four of them together stretching to an hour and filled with both controlled evolutions and vigorous improvisation.

That focus on group interaction results in Grdina’s strongest recording to date, whether he’s emphasizing formal coherence, insistent intensity or both. The 18-minute title track sets a fluid standard for the program, generating episodes from lambent reverie to pensive conversation to pitch-bending wails. There’s a special link between Grdina and Lossing everywhere here, blurring their identities on lyrical near-acoustic flights or matching distorted guitar with the harsh electric edges of Lossing’s clavinet (a keyboard that served to launch some of Sun Ra’s stellar travels). Noriega is an inspiring presence, generating rapid coiling lines at once raw and adroit on both alto saxophone and bass clarinet, while Takeishi’s complex drumming can unite impetus and commentary.  

Grdina has challenged himself consistently since his 2006 debut Think Like the Waves with Gary Peacock and Paul Motian. Here he takes another significant step forward.

12 XMarksX Marks the Spot
Thomas Heberer
OutNow Recordings ONR 037 (outnowrecordings.com)

Concise and cosmopolitan, the eight selections here offer a slice of contemporary New York improvisation, composed by expatriate German trumpeter Thomas Heberer, decorated by the supple fills of guitarist Terrence McManus and the rhythmic dexterity of drummer Jeff Davis, both locals, and driven by the mostly sensed but rarely upfront power pulse of Canadian bassist Michael Bates. Heberer’s arrangements follow this strategy, whether channelling acoustic romps (Remscheid Reggae) or sidling up to reductionism with chiming guitar flanges and shaded, valveless air from the trumpeter (The Ball is in Your Court).

Despite sequences that flirt with atonality, dissonant tendencies are kept in check, especially on pieces such as The Great Hill and Bon Ton that are introduced and subsequently driven by the echoing slaps and pops of Bates’ nearly unwound strings. On The Great Hill, the bassist creates an ostinato that buoys Herberer’s plunger growls and McManus’ chromatic flanges. At the same time, Bates’ pulse is powerful enough so that the trumpeter can switch to outputting fragile grace notes, then back to growls without upsetting the program. As for the loping Bon Ton, drum rumbles and string thumps keep it horizontal as Heberer’s near-static air propelling and the guitarist’s strums and frails evolve in double counterpoint.

Overall the spot which this group of e(X)cellent players marks is a sophisticated zone where unself-conscious modern improvising is welcome and thrives.

01 Jane BunnettOn Firm Ground/Tierra Firme
Jane Bunnett and Maqueque
Linn Records 270404 (linusentertainment.com)

Jane Bunnett and the all-female collective Maqueque, return for their eagerly anticipated third release. In the less than two years since their previous recording, Oddara (see my December 2016 WholeNote review), the group has been touring internationally, with visits to Colombia, Brazil, Panama and Cuba, as well as to American jazz festivals, plus the Lincoln Center. And it shows.

Their third recording – a testament to hard work, virtuosity and great chemistry – showcases 12 new compositions including three by award-winning soprano saxophonist/flutist Bunnett, plus contributions by each band member. The upbeat opener, La Linea, features an imaginative arrangement with flute doubling saxophone, amidst powerful contrapuntal vocal lines and choruses. The rhythm section is outstanding, fuelled by percussionist Mary Paz and drummer Yissy Garcia. The aptly titled Momentum, by co-producer Larry Cramer, takes off at a breakneck pace with piccolo doubling the flute melody over the percussion section. Bunnett then launches into a magnificent flute solo which leads the group into a unison vocal line and chorus to take the piece to its exciting conclusion. Sky High showcases a soaring flute and vocal melody, and a McCoy Tyner-influenced piano solo by Danae Olano.

Special mention goes to Tailín Marrero for her stunning composition, Musica en el Alma, a sonic celebration of the exhilaration and joy of playing together. There is much to admire and inspire on this recording. For Maqueque, it seems that the sky is certainly not the limit!

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02 Monkey HouseFriday
Monkey House
Alma Records ACD72692 (almarecords.com)

Monkey House has been together for 25 years and has just released its fifth album, Friday. The band is made up of some of the busiest and best players in Toronto – Mark Kelso on drums, Pat Kilbride on bass and Justin Abedin on guitar – but it is L.A.-based keyboardist and songwriter, Don Breithaupt, who’s driving the bus.

Breithaupt is known for his adulation of Steely Dan, and while it shows in his songwriting on Friday, this isn’t a tribute album and the band has a sound all its own. And, like Steely Dan, the musical style is hard to categorize – perhaps sophisticated pop tinged with jazz and R&B? I don’t know. What I do know is that this is an exceptional album from beginning to end, with superb songwriting and performances, and impeccable production by Peter Cardinali with engineering by John “Beetle” Bailey.

Highlighting standout tracks when all 12 tracks are so strong is a challenge, but The Jazz Life – featuring Manhattan Transfer on backing vocals and a killer bass solo by Kilbride – is one. The love song that Breithaupt wrote for his wife, Because You, is another, especially since it is surprisingly unsentimental with its driving rhythm and complex harmonies. Another surprise is that the most ballad-y song on the album is the cover of Walter Becker’s Book of Liars. Becker – who died while Monkey House was making this record, hence the inclusion of this song on the album – certainly wasn’t known for ballads and this mid-tempo tune isn’t sappy in the least. But it is both beautiful and poignant in typical sardonic Steely Dan style. Shotgun has pop hit written all over it and you can check out the fun video, produced by Academy Award-winner J. Miles Dale, on YouTube.

Listen to 'Friday' Now in the Listening Room

03 Aviva ChernickLa Serena
Aviva Chernick
Independent AVGC003 (avivachernick.com)

A deep bond with another can lead to unexpected journeys in one’s life. Such was the case for singer Aviva Chernick, who began extensive studies of the Balkan Judeo-Spanish repertoire after meeting Flory Jagoda, known as the keeper of the Balkan Ladino tradition. La Serena is, in a way, an homage to Flory, Aviva’s beloved mentor and teacher, but also an intimate story of the longing for one’s homeland and tradition that is slowly disappearing.

Ten songs, some traditional Sephardic folk melodies and some Jagoda originals, are all arranged by Chernick and her main musical collaborators on this album, guitarist Joel Schwartz and bassist Justin Gray, in a way that brings forward the intimacy and immediacy of each tune. Mostly sung in Ladino (with some additional text in English), the lyrics are captivating and touching. Chernick’s vocals are pure in expression and unencumbered of any particular tradition or style.

The album opens with A Ti, Espanya, a simple and bright original tune by Jagoda, which conveys the love for homeland that is no more. Min Hameitzar, written by Chernick and Gray, has a mystical energy and wonderfully galloping percussion elements. La Serena, the central piece on the album, is a stunning heartfelt tune that seduces with its pure vocal expression. Esta Montanya de Enfrente features longing guitar lines emphasizing the beauty of both the melody and poetic lyrics.

A wonderful collection of meaningful tunes that will leave your heart longing for more.

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04 Heather DaleSphere
Heather Dale
Amphis Music AM7440 (heatherdale.com)

Canadian author, playwright, poet, vocalist, composer and multi-instrumentalist, Heather Dale, is currently poised on the cusp of her 20th recording release, aptly titled Sphere. This uber-creative, multi-disciplined, golden-voiced renaissance woman has fashioned (along with co-producer/arranger/multi-instrumentalist Ben Deschamps), 11 challenging compositions, all of which reflect a mesmerizing mashup of world music motifs, ambient electronica and folk music as well as a healthy dose of contemporary Celtic folk balladering.

Dale deftly performs all vocals here, and also plays hammered dulcimer, piano, tin whistles, synths and Hammond B3. She is joined on her sonic, global journey by Deschamps on bass, electric guitar, cittern, bouzouki, mandolin, synth and viola, and co-producer/engineer Dave MacKinnon on tape loops, drums and guitar; Jim Casson on drums; Ben Grossman on hurdy-gurdy/percussion; Meghan Cheng and Amanda Penner on violin and Alex McMaster and Betsy Tinney on cello.

First up is Bacchanalia – mystical, exotic, sensual, rife with elements of Eastern music and invoking visions of ancient instruments raised in celebration of a hedonistic Roman god… a palpable, pagan scene… and yet, somehow magically transformed through poetry into a modern cautionary tale. Dale’s sonorous vocal instrument is a pitch-perfect, honey-soaked, shape-shifting tool – alternately warm and steely – ideal for telling her irresistible lyrical stories. Triumphant Return is a potent anthem, where the triumphant one is not the one returning, but the one who was abandoned. Another gem is Flower Child – perhaps autobiographical – a wonderful pizzicato arrangement which transports the listener into the middle of a seemingly insoluble familial estrangement. Something that many of us can relate to.

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05 Blue Moon MarqueeBare Knuckles & Brawn
Blue Moon Marquee
Independent (bluemoonmarquee.com)

With the release of their third recording, noted Pacific Coast duo Blue Moon Marquee has served up a sumptuous buffet of 11 original songs – all infused with elements of Depression-era jazz, swing, 1950s proto-rock and “Roma Blues.” The music is also informed by philosophical aspects of Indigenous culture, including Native Canadian legends. Consistent with their nostalgic bent, the project was recorded using vintage RCA mics, resulting in a warm, luscious analogue sound. The duo (featuring A.W. Cardinal on vocals/guitar and Jasmine Colette “Badlands Jass” on vocals/bass/drums) are joined on this fine recording by noted West Coast musicians, Darcy Phillips on keyboards, Jerry Cook on reeds, Jimmy “Hollywood” Badger on drums, Jack Garton on trumpet and Paul Pigat on guitar.

The sassy opener, Big Black Mamba is funky and soulful, with sinuous parallel baritone and bass lines establishing a fine bedrock for this swamp-circuit-style blues. The evocative vocal by Cardinal is reminiscent of a young, energetic Tom Waits. Also of note is the irresistible, Fever Flickering Flame – a bit of pure romance, dripping with nostalgia, longing and swing! Hard Times Hit Parade is also a standout, featuring a sultry vocal by Colette, beautifully accented by Garton on muted trumpet. Its heady sepia-toned imagery perfectly captures the loss, futility and desperation of the Great Depression.

Lost and Wild is the closing salvo, boasting a stunningly relaxed vocal by Cardinal, which brings to mind the lyrical sophistication and interpretive skill of Leonard Cohen. This highly musical recording is not only a delight for the ear, but it’s deep, subterranean content will continue to resonate with the listener.

06 Al QahwaCairo Moon
Al Qahwa Ensemble
Independent AlQahwa01 (alqahwa.ca)

Ernie and Maryem Tollar, master of wind instruments and vocals respectively, have been mainstays of the Toronto music scene individually, and also have often come together to make music. But rarely has their musicianship been showcased more beautifully than here, where they have combined with oud specialist Demetri Petsalakis for the second time as Al Qahwa, on their album Cairo Moon.

Apart from bringing to life the atmosphere of (usually loud) music and joyous camaraderie heard in coffee houses en route to Leipzig from Damascus, this recording also recalls the glorious tradition that gave us the likes of the great vocalists Om Kalsoum and Najah Salam, and instrumentalist Hamza El Din, among others. On Cairo Moon, the Tollars and Alfred Gamil display extraordinary musicianship in the Mediterranean tradition. More remarkable, much of this is new music; the tradition of popular Arabic music is alive and well and thriving in – of all places – Canada.

Equally significant is the fact that musicians such as the prodigiously-gifted Tollars are thriving alongside others such as Nagmeh Farahmand, Majd Sukar and the aforementioned Gamil and Petsalakis. The evidence is all over this album, in the exotic and ululating soundworld of the Middle East, robustly captured in the glimmering textures of Maryem Tollar’s voice and the eloquent musicians immersed in the traditions that influenced this rich repertoire.

07 Bruce CockburnCrowing Ignites
Bruce Cockburn
True North Records TND737 (truenorth.labelstore.ca)

It has been 14 years since Bruce Cockburn first gave notice of what an extraordinary guitarist he really was on his first instrumental album Speechless. Until then he was better known as one of the great purveyors of what is generally classified as folk music. Of course, that classification is highly restrictive because Cockburn, as we all know, transcends the boundaries of that genre. Debates notwithstanding, Crowing Ignites is a perfect reminder of Cockburn’s virtuosity as a guitarist, and of his exquisite musicianship.

There are seven new compositions here. Yet each appears to be a spontaneous meditation at once simple and lyrical, abstract and profound. Cockburn’s magnificent tone – both on regular acoustic and acoustic baritone guitar is magnificent. With fingers and thumb he imbues every note with the purity of song. His playing is passionately free and bluesy, and speaks also of his country roots.

Cockburn’s instinct for brooding lyricism and often for joyful spontaneity provides the perfect setting for songs such as April in Memphis, The Mt. Lefroy Waltz (with bassist Roberto Occhipinti, cornetist Ron Miles and drummer Gary Craig) and Sweetness and Light. When he turns his attention to matters of the soul and of spirituality, he paints his music affectingly with a myriad of deep and varied colours. Angels in the Half Light, Pibroch: The Wind in the Valley and (especially) Bells of Gethsemane are eloquent examples of the profundity of his musicianship.

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08 Ian and SylviaThe Lost Tapes
Ian & Sylvia
Stony Plain Records SPCD1408 (stonyplainrecords.com)

Thank goodness for downsizing! Because that’s what Sylvia Tyson was doing – that, and gathering archival materials for Calgary’s National Music Centre – when she discovered, in her front hall cedar chest, a long-forgotten treasure trove of recorded-live-in-studio, Ian & Sylvia performance tapes from the early 70s. And thank goodness Tyson wisely asked some of the best ears in the business, i.e., Danny Greenspoon (an accomplished musician, himself) to produce and edit (once the 1/4-inch analogue tapes were digitized) Ian & Sylvia The Lost Tapes. Because the results are masterful!

To be clear, this is not so much a review as it is an homage to these pioneering Canadian icons of folk and country music, who helped pave the way for the likes of Gordon Lightfoot and Joni Mitchell. I mean, who the heck is going to “review” Ian & Sylvia singing Four Strong Winds, Summer Wages, Keep on the Sunny Side or When First Unto This Country, four of the 13 best-known and beloved classics appearing on disc one of the double album?

What’s exciting for this 60-year-old folkie-at-heart is the selection of previously unreleased performances on disc two. Irresistible are the covers of Sweet Dreams, Jimmie’s Texas Blues, The Last Thing On My Mind and Together Again.

Ian & Sylvia met 60 years ago. Last week they were both inducted, separately, into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. Ian & Sylvia The Lost Tapes is a heart-warming reminder of why their music still holds up.

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