06 Patrick YimMemory – Patrick Yim plays works for solo violin
Patrick Yim
Navona Records nv6268 (navonarecords.com)

Championing contemporary works for violin by living composers has become an integral part of Patrick Yim’s performing career in recent years. This Honolulu-born violinist displays both dazzling technique and passionate interpretations of solo violin works on his new release, Memory. Among five pieces, four are commissioned for this occasion and premiered on the album, and three are inspired by Miles Upon Miles: World Heritage Along the Silk Road, an exhibition at the Hong Kong Museum of History.

Memory features works by a talented array of composers – Chen Yi, Kai-Young Chan, Yao Chen, Austin Yip and Michael-Thomas Foumai. Their music is both an engaging showcase of inventive musical ideas and treatises on contemporary violin techniques. Through the exploration of cultural identity and the role of memory in preserving it, they bring out a delicate tapestry of ideas on the significance of sound in both past and present-day settings. Field recordings processed through granular synthesis in combination with amplified violin in Miles Upon Miles by Yip is a perfect example of accord between relics of the past and rich expressions of the modern language.

Yim is very attuned to each of these pieces. His skill in highlighting the minute nuances and details is fiercely supported by an understanding of the musical language and ideas of each composer. His sound is encompassing and penetrating at times, lyrical and poetic when needed, adding a special dimension to this album.

07 DreamersDreamers – The Music of Jeffrey Jacob
Various Artists
Navona Records nv6248 (navonarecords.com)

The disc, Dreamers, is a collection of pieces written by composer/pianist Jeffrey Jacob. The pieces are all earnest expressions of melancholic feeling, moving through discord towards reconciliation. He often pits the brightest register of the piano against sombre lower strings, and he uses short melodic motifs that sometimes recall a familiar strain of someone else’s: the lilting adagio in 6/8 time of his Sanctuary One, almost quotes Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.23 in the solo piccolo; there’s a gesture somewhat like Debussy’s Syrinx in some of the woodwind lines in The Persistence of Memory; in the same work the piano and the cello give voice to Schumann-esque nostalgia (although in his notes the composer freely admits this last reference).

The writing is assured, and Jacob’s performance skills are fine (he appears as piano soloist or ensemble member on most of the tracks). He also receives (takes?) oboe credit for the final track, somewhat puzzlingly, as it’s a synthesizer, not the real thing.

The disc opens with the title work, a three-movement concerto dedicated to the cohort of American immigrants known as Dreamers. The first movement is subtitled Rain, Lagrimas (Tears). The piano solo provides the persistent drops of sound to generate this image, an evocative technique if somewhat heavily present in the mix, a comment that applies for much of the disc. The string orchestra provides the melancholy.

Jacob confines much of his syntax to the four-bar phrase. This is just a quibble, one from someone who gets easily bored of the repeated trope.

08 Shadow DancerElliott Miles McKinley – Shadow Dancer
Janáček Trio; Auriga String Quartet
Navona Records nv6264 (navonarecords.com)

As I write this review on Valentine’s Day (despite any personal reservations about this day) it seems fitting – and strangely serendipitous – that I am writing about a collection of pieces centred around the common theme of remembered love. Elliot Miles McKinley’s Shadow Dancer contains three chamber works from the well-known American composer: a quartet performed by the Auriga String Quartet, a duo for cello and piano, and the title work, a piano trio in six movements performed by the eminent Janáček Trio.

Sentimentality is a term thrown around in many negative contexts – and rightly so when a surplus of emotion is offered in excess of the object itself. That said, McKinley provides easily recognizable moods through varying angles that in turns assume flourishes of jarring dissonances, agonizing punctuation and repetitive thoughts that somehow create a welcomed atmosphere of sentimentality. These shifts in emotional temperament are most expertly woven in the String Quartet No.8 – a work that ignites a journey of doubt and eventual spontaneous resolution. The aforementioned duet, A Letter to Say I Love You, and Goodbye, is most fittingly titled in its obvious dramatic purpose and longing. Shadow Dancer attempts to create a sense of purpose through love and understanding – wordless poems that are expertly performed by the highly accomplished musicians.

09 Playing on the EdgePlaying on the Edge
Sirius Quartet
Navona Records nv6249 (navonarecords.com) 

The brightest star in the visible night sky has been given the name Sirius – a word of Greek etymology meaning “glowing” or “scorching.” The Sirius Quartet certainly lives up to such a depiction in their masterful performances on this release, comprised of five genre-bending composers, each providing a confident array of compelling sonic landscapes. Jennifer Castellano, Ian Erickson, Brian Field, Marga Richter and Mari Tamaki all bring a level of creative excellence that elevates this disc to a compulsory level along with the brilliant performances by the musicians.

The need to push boundaries and push limits is an ever-present theme in contemporary genres; however, as one listens throughout, such pushing is seemingly met with no force as it feels natural and pure as the music is refreshingly contemporary while avoiding any tired clichés. We do get the standard contemporary tricks as are heard in many pieces of recent times, but unexpected innovation takes over if any doubt arises concerning overused performance techniques. For those who ask if there are still new sounds and new contexts to be accomplished in contemporary classical music – this release is a must-listen.

10 PEN TrioFound Objects – New Music for Reed Trio
PEN Trio
Summit Records DCD 754 (summitrecords.com)

I’m seeking synonyms for “wholesome.” I do so because I so enjoy what seems to me the very salubrious effect of listening to the timbre of three distinct reed voices. I am ready to accept that this is not everybody’s cup of tonic, but it seems to cure what ails me to listen to the very excellent PEN Trio. The tuning between the instruments is uniformly excellent, whether in consonant or dissonant voicings. Whether they’re swatting staccato flies or swinging languorous legato lines, they match character to one another. They play their respective windpipes with vigour, elan and grace. All three are fine practitioners, although I am personally less partial to Nora Lewis’ oboe sound. Phillip Paglialonga, clarinet, and Eric Van der Veer Varner, bassoon, form a more sympathetic blend. It might be a question of the close mic being less kind to the oboe, although it allows one to hear the players inhale, very inspiring and invigorating.

The disc is named for one of the pieces presented: Found Objects, by Jenni Brandon, turns out to be pleasant tuneful tonal evocations of flotsam on Long Beach CA. No plastic included in the collection – artistic licence I guess. Two colours of sea glass are the only semi-synthetic items, which I think is in keeping with my overall impression of the disc being salutary. The opening work 5-4-3 (except after C) by relative old-timer William Bradbury (he’s now 64 – the other composers are all 40-something), is similarly pleasant, if a bit more lively.

As much as the happily tonal first two works are like gentle massages for the ears, the final two are good stiff workouts designed to keep one’s ears in proper shape for hearing new sounds. Oblique Strategies by Aleksander Sternfeld-Dunn and In Threes by M. Shawn Hundley round out this terrific collection.

15 Xenia Pestova Atomic LegaciesAtomic Legacies
Xenia Pestova Bennett
Diatribe Records (shop.diatribe.ie) 

Before sitting down and listening to this new release by UK-based, Canadian artist Xenia Pestova Bennett, one is immediately struck by the vibrant, compelling images on the cover design. This is one of those exceptional instances where the sonic expression found therein sounds just as its extramusical inspirational sources look: stunning chemical elements that glow and pulsate. From Pestova Bennett’s liner notes: “Radium is an element which glows pale blue, Plutonium glows deep red, Tritium is green and the gas Radon is yellow at its freezing point, and orange-red below. I added the fifth, obsessively-repetitive loop… this element is silvery-white, glowing blue.”

Glowing Radioactive Elements, the five tracks that correspond to the colours depicted, unfold in a well-curated and scintillating arc. The beauty of sound that emerges from Pestova Bennett recording this music on a piano with magnetic resonator – designed and trademarked by Andrew McPherson – enhances the sound world and draws the listener in, through dips and heights of pianistic gesture. The effect is akin to watching slow-moving landscapes in isolated, unfamiliar parts of our globe. The range of expression and musical material here is impressive: spontaneous at times and focused, personal and singularly driven at others.

This disc rolls on to its significant final track, featuring the Ligeti Quartet in a companion work to the first, Atomic Legacies. Pestova Bennett directs the action in a florid series of closely connected gestures, deconstructing Haydn’s music and her own.

01 Brenda Earle StokesSolo Sessions Volume 1
Brenda Earle Stokes
Independent ASNM 007 (brendaearle.com)

Smooth and rather sultry-voiced, vocalist Brenda Earle Stokes has released a truly enjoyable collection of well-known pop and jazz songs that she has put her own twist on. Featuring her own compositions among pieces by significant musicians in the general music universe including Dave Brubeck, Huey Lewis and Michael McDonald, this album is a versatile and captivating journey. The title refers to the fact that it’s just her and the piano on this record, which creates such a charming sense of intimacy; the listener truly feels as if they are seated right by the piano, watching and hearing Stokes play.

If You Never Come to Me opens up the album with a sensual punch, showcasing Stokes’ very apparent vocal talent. Standing is an original, a unique and modern piece that features interesting chord and melodic progressions which easily catch anyone’s attention. Throughout the album, not only is the listener taken through various genres from traditional jazz to the blues, but Stokes’ talent as a pianist is very well showcased. Her voice and melodies blend in seamlessly for a satisfying whole. A favourite is undoubtedly the cover of Lewis’ Power of Love, in which the original song is still fully recognizable but has been jazzed up just enough to be refreshing. Anyone looking for a treat to the ears and something a little different from the norm will enjoy this album.

Listen to 'Solo Sessions Volume 1' Now in the Listening Room

02 U of T JazzEmbargo
University of Toronto Jazz Orchestra
U of T Jazz n/a (uoftjazz.ca) 

It is no easy feat to construct an eclectically programmed album that maintains its flow from start to finish, but this is exactly what the University of Toronto Jazz Orchestra, under the direction of Gordon Foote, has done with their most recent release, Embargo. The student compositions on the album all demonstrate intricacy and wisdom, ranging from swing numbers to more contemporary pieces, and everything in between. It is a testament to both the quality of these arrangements and the stylistic programming of the album, that they sound right at home next to legendary trombonist and arranger Rob McConnell’s version of Take the A Train. McConnell’s treatment of the Ellington/Strayhorn classic is a demanding one to execute, but the ensemble does a fine job, as do the four soloists featured. Hearing the music of the Boss Brass live on through a younger generation of Toronto musicians is a unique treat. It is apropos that this should happen at the University of Toronto, which inherited McConnell’s scores and library following his death in 2010.

From contemporary ballads like Jesse Marshall’s Summer’s Over, and the energetically uplifting title track, Embargo, which features solos from its composer Vonne Aguda and guitarist Julian Bradley-Combs, to Hannah Barstow’s Count Basie-esque Medium Blue, a wide scope of large ensemble jazz writing is present on this release. Full of arrangers, composers and soloists who are wise beyond their years, depth and maturity are the true themes of this album.

03 Greg RunionsSuite Vincent
Greg Runions Big Band
Independent Grind 2019 (gregrunions.net)

With the release of this superbly conceived, performed and recorded big band project, vibraphonist/composer/arranger Greg Runions has fashioned a magnificent musical celebration of the iconic, late Canadian trumpeter/composer/arranger Kenny Wheeler. To realize his concept, Runions built upon his longstanding septet, and also created a “live-off-the-floor experience” by recording in the studio of the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts. Wheeler was an unassuming, ego-less, gentle genius, who would no doubt be incredibly honoured by this inspired six-movement musical tribute.

The skilled A-list cast includes Andrew Rathbun, Tara Davidson and Bob Leonard on reeds/saxophones; John MacLeod, Brian O’Kane and Jason Logue on flugelhorn and trumpet; William Carn on trombone; Brian Dickinson on piano; Mike Cassells on drums; Dave Barton on guitar; Artie Roth on bass and the lithe vocals of Yoon Sun Choi, channeling Wheeler’s longtime collaborator, Norma Winstone – particularly on the vocal feature The Long Way (which also displays Dickinson’s moving, emotionally vulnerable and technically thrilling piano work).

The project opens with Chorale for Ken, composed by Runions in 1992, a stirring brass choir followed directly by Bass Interlude – an intricate and stunning bass solo by Roth. Wheeler’s profound influence as a seminal jazz composer and trumpeter saturates this arrangement of Bitter Tart, as does the exquisite flugelhorn work by MacLeod. Another stunner is Around About, featuring Barton with Davidson on alto and O’Kane on trumpet. The final Suite, Jeckle & Clyde, includes a nod to the more free aspects of Wheeler’s style, and Rathbun’s lush tenor incites the rest of the ensemble into gorgeous solos and heavenly, contrapuntal ensemble work.

Listen to 'Suite Vincent' Now in the Listening Room

04 Harrison2Trout in Swimwear
Independent (harryvetro.com) 

Harrison² (that’s Harrison squared) abounds in doubles. There are two Harrisons, saxophonist Harrison Argatoff and drummer Harrison Vetro, both newcomers, and they’re paired with two veterans, saxophonist Mike Murley and bassist Steve Wallace. Further, both saxophonists are playing tenors. The group began in an encounter between Vetro and Wallace, the latter a change-of-pace substitute for Vetro’s drum teacher (Nick Fraser deserves credit here) at the University of Toronto. Argatoff joined in on some standards at the end of the lesson; a performance at Toronto’s Rex followed with Murley making it a quartet.

The absence of a chordal instrument opens up the music, encouraging the saxophonists’ dialogue and heightening Wallace and Vetro’s presence. It puts Wallace’s strong lines in the foreground and adds more room for his sculpted solos; Vetro is a very good drummer, precise and assertive with a keen sense of form.

Argatoff and Murley each contribute four compositions, developing them in ways that suggest the classic pairing of Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh; lithe, convivial music with a harmonic focus, but with a harder edge to their sounds. The two play together, whether it’s the dovetailing improvised dialogue of Argatoff’s title track or the way the younger saxophonist trails Murley on his ballad Writers’ Tears, as much an invitation to reflection as the Irish whiskey for which it’s named. Though it’s set deep in the tradition, the band has a special vitality, some rare chemistry among different generations.

05 scott thomson bandcampMurray: Trombone Solos
Scott Thomson
Tour de Bras TDB90036CD (tourdebras.com) 

Trombonist, conceptualist, composer of site-specific works and programmer, Scott Thomson takes a speculative approach to improvised solo performance. In April 2014, he launched his first Trombone Solos at Odd Hours in Montreal’s La Poêle dance studio at times like 4 June, 9:11 am. Since then he has performed over 130 such concerts, often for a single listener. In 2016, the Calgary label Bug Incision released Heures Indues, a CD with three performances; Murray comes from a 2019 series in the Montreal studio of Thomson’s late friend and collaborator, the painter and drummer John Heward.

Thomson’s solos don’t explore a single idea; rather, they’re perambulations, here two half-hour long journeys through a variety of impulses and inspirations, with shifting melodies and timbres that can burst forth with marching band gusto or alight in a singing high register. Sometimes there’s a resonant partnership with some other material, whether an appended mute or something like furniture moving in the room. Sudden volume shifts suggest that Thomson is playing two trombones, one blasting loudly into the microphone, the other a distant, whispered aside.

The CD is packaged with cards reproducing a few of Heward’s starkly powerful abstractions, and the echoes of his studio may play a role in these performances, thematic as well as sonic. There’s something dramatic here, moods developing and changing along with the materials, a moving meditation in a terrain full of surprises, the shifting interior monologue of a musical flâneur.

06 MantecaAugmented Indifference
Mmusic MM201913-4 (facebook.com/MantecaMusic) 

Happy anniversary, Manteca! A perennial audience favourite, Manteca returns to mark their 41st year with Augmented Indifference, a four-song EP bristling with their trademark energy, creativity and virtuosity. And a fitting celebration it is.

In the band’s 41-year history, they have been one of Canada’s leading musical ambassadors, sharing stages with Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald and Van Morrison. Founded by percussionist Matt Zimbel and bassist Henry Heillig, who ws the group’s music director for three decades, the group has been recognized as a musical innovator, drawing upon diverse influences in exhilarating performances. Accordingly, this latest release finds the group charting out new directions, while also revisiting more familiar musical territory. Miss Meteo, arguably the most experimental song, pairs electric guitar with spoken word, trumpet and the bass clarinet of Colleen Allen, along with alternating driving rhythms and spacey textures. Somehow, they make it all work! Busking In Deadwood, introduces a beautiful, majestic melody and features some outstanding work by Lucas Zimbel on accordion and Steve McDade on trumpet.

The aptly titled Avant Cool highlights the innovative pairing of guitar and alto flute, while the set closer, a Beach Boys-inspired Kowabunga, again features guitarist Nick Tateishi alongside bright, punchy horn backgrounds. Let’s all raise a glass to Manteca – here’s to another 40 years!

07 Aaron DolmanNostalgia and Other Fantasies
Aaron Dolman
Independent (aarondolman.com)

Montreal-born, up-and-coming drummer, composer and bandleader Aaron Dolman takes the listener on a meandering trip through music with his latest release. Closing your eyes while listening to this record evokes a feeling as if you were in a film, with each track bringing up a vivid image in the mind to accompany the melodies. Each piece is composed by Dolman himself and features younger musicians such as Marcus Savard-Lowry and Zacharie Bachand on guitars, Mathieu McConnell, bass, and Caitlin Smith on viola and vocals. The folk element imbedded in many of the pieces is a welcome and pleasing experience to the ear.

Gone for a While II is an atmospheric and ethereal beginning to the album, a fitting start to the journey on which the listener is about to embark. Stars in a Midnight Lake features a beautiful acoustic guitar riff underlying the entire piece, with the soft vocals by Smith joining in during the middle of the song for a wonderful and captivating interlude. The reprise of Willow Bunch is a joyful conclusion to the record and to the almost cinematic ride the listener has been taken on. The enjoyment in this album comes from not knowing exactly what’s going to be happening musically behind the next turn in the road, so to speak. It provides for an interesting listen that truly pulls you in and keeps you focused on the music.

08 Richard WhitemanOld Prose
Richard Whiteman Quartet
Cornerstone Records CRSTCD 151 (cornerstonerecordsinc.com) 

Toronto pianist Richard Whiteman developed a late fascination with string bass about a decade ago, rapidly becoming an adept performer, as demonstrated here in a 2019 performance from the Huether Hotel’s Jazz Room in Waterloo, Ontario. Another distinguished Toronto multi-instrumentalist, Don Thompson, has described Whiteman’s bass lines as “Bach-like” in their precision. Perhaps it’s a pianist’s special gift, but it’s apparent here in both accompaniment and some well-constructed solos.

Perhaps befitting a bassist’s role, Whiteman may be the most retiring member of his own quartet. The principal role is given to visiting American pianist Harold Danko who provides five of the six compositions played here, while tenor saxophonist Pat LaBarbera and drummer Terry Clarke supply much of the band’s fire. The music is consummate mainstream modern club jazz, focused, energetic, sometimes dense, sometimes lyrical, often intense, but always involved and involving.

Though Danko has worked extensively with cool jazz giants like Chet Baker and Lee Konitz, his compositions reveal the breadth of his inspirations. Blue Swedish Wildflower is gently melodic, with Danko’s own introduction reaching toward the rhapsodic; McCoy’s Passion, however, a clear nod to modal master Tyner, is an open invitation to LaBarbera and Clarke to summon up their roots in the inspirational turbulence of John Coltrane and Elvin Jones. That balance between the gentle and the edgy, sometimes contrasting, sometimes combined, distinguishes this entire set of engaged post-bop jazz, crafted by senior masters.

09 Jobs TrialsJob’s Trials – A Jazz Song Cycle by Dan Loomis
Yoon Sun Choi; Song Yi Jeon; Dan Loomis; Jeff Miles; Jared Schonig; Daniel Breaker
Independent (danloomismusic.com) 

With this release, New York City-based producer, composer, librettist and bassist, Dan Loomis, has created a 14-part, contemporized and unusual look at the biblical story of Job. The recording (to quote Loomis) is “…a song cycle and narration that offer a fresh look into a universal story exploring why bad things happen to good people” – perhaps a story only previously explored in a contemporary light in Neil Simon’s Job-focused hit comedy God’s Favorite. All compositions here are by Loomis with the exception of the project closer, Dear Lord by John Coltrane.

The Narrator (A.K.A. Satan) is masterfully performed by Broadway Star Daniel Breaker (Hamilton, The Book of Mormon), and the balance of the company includes vocalists Yoon Sun Choi and Song Yi Jeon, guitarist Jeff Miles and drummer Jared Schonig. Highlights of this unique jazz song cycle include Abundance Overture, where a funky, insistent bass supports the heavenly choir of Choi and Jeon, as they proceed through a complex scat section, underpinned by dynamic guitar work from Miles as well as relentless, bombastic drumming by Schonig.

As Job sinks into despair and confusion, Do Not Cover My Blood also takes a dive into the darker aspects of the human psyche, as the vocalists bob and weave through a cacophony of emotions and bop motifs. Although not a blues in the traditional sense, Job’s Blues focuses on our hero as he begins to bargain with his God with a rapid fire tempo, propelled into hyper-drive by Miles and Loomis. The closing salvo, Dear Lord, re-sets Coltrane’s lovely tune – leaving us with hope for the triumph of the unconquerable human spirit.

10 Lara DriscollWoven Dreams
Lara Driscoll
Independent (laradriscoll.com)

On the face of it, with cold hard logic, the act of weaving is simple: you treadle a needle with yarn (weft) that passes evenly through even lengths of more yarn (warp) strung taut across a frame. If you’re skilled, you could do all manner of ornamental things with that weft as well. Applied to music, however, weaving is altogether more daunting, especially when your aim is to become a weaver of dreams.

Whether Lara Driscoll was challenged in making Woven Dreams, however, seems to be a proverbial moot point. This is truly outstanding music that tells wordless stories about living things (Siblings and Trespassers) conjuring each with humour and detail; it sketches and paints moving pictures and landscapes with vivid colour and texture (Black Dog Skirts Away and Isfahan) and does so much more, seemingly enchantingly, by manipulating the black and white keys of the piano, which is then woven into bass lines and dappled with percussion colours.

Having sat mesmerized through it all, Driscoll, together with Paul Rushka (bass) and Dave Laing (drums), will have done for you just what they did for me: imprinted upon your mind’s eye something of a magical, seemingly unending dreamscape. In sheer colour and variety, in the depth of its characterization and the exceptional range and refinement of her pianism, Driscoll imparts an extraordinary bigness to this music that most pianists would die to achieve. This is music evoked as few pianists can. 

Listen to 'Woven Dreams' Now in the Listening Room

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