06 Alex FrancouerMissing Element
Alex Francoeur Group
Effendi Records FND151 (effendirecords.com)

Even the abundant Québécois music scene throws up a particular surprise every once and a while; such is the case listening in wonder to the saxophonist Alex Francoeur. A superb technician who plays with tremendous élan and whose music allows the unimpeded flow of emotion without ever descending into gratuitous sentimentality, Francoeur plays with eloquent articulation and astounding control capped off by erudition and temperament that eludes many woodwind players of his generation.

The audience of the Upstairs Jazz Bar and Grill in Montreal was certainly in the best position to experience all of his unique gifts, as this recording, Missing Element, certainly proves. It is a brilliant record of the proceedings that eschews pyrotechnics for depth of feeling, couched in the restrained liquidity of the music. Francoeur’s playing feels extraordinarily reflective and relaxed throughout, and is especially rewarding in his limpid account of I Hear a Rhapsody, a standard that is all too often covered with fire and brimstone which, in turn, destroys its emotional content completely.

The rest of this wonderful repertoire comprises original material and here too one gets a glimpse of Francoeur’s musical stature. Works such as Tides are layered and complex and the musicians in his group (Chris Edmondson, alto sax; Gentiane MG, piano; Levi Dover, bass; Louis-Vincent Hamel, drums) respond with great musical intellect and intuition to meld the infectious allure of each with consummate skill and wholehearted enthusiasm.

07 Harry VetroNorthern Ranger
Harry Vetro
TOSound TSND-02 (harryvetro.com)

Northern Ranger is both an ice-breaking ferry operating in Newfoundland and Labrador and the name of an album by drummer and composer Harry Vetro. Vetro was inspired by Canada’s 150th birthday and a desire to travel across the country and learn more about our geography and Indigenous communities. An undergraduate special projects grant from the University of Toronto to record his first album allowed him to create this ambitious project.

The album creates an illusion of travelling through its descriptive names and some programmatic elements in the music. Many of the compositions are named after travel, for example: Gondola to Blackcomb, Hawk Air. Another way of creating movement is the mixing of several shorter pieces (solo guitar, solo piano and two trios), with works using a larger group with rhythm section, trumpet, saxophone and a string quartet.

The album opens with Northern Ranger: Leaving Goose Bay, an almost two-minute guitar solo played in a semi-classical style by Ian McGimpsey over the sampled sounds of the ocean. This leads into a thoughtful drum solo by Vetro which begins Buffalo Jump. Then the whole ensemble plays but quiets for a solo violin poignantly playing the main melodic motif, which is repeated by guitar, and then all strings and brass join for an animated central section.

Repeatedly beginning small and gradually building could be a cliché in music but in the context of this album it is a thoughtful exposition of the travel theme, where soft beginnings lead sometimes to rousing excitement and other times to quieter introspection. Vetro’s compositions are mainly jazz-oriented but have heavy folk and classical influences. The performances and solos are excellent and Lina Allemano has a marvellous trumpet sound, with a broad lyricism that reminds me of Kenny Wheeler.

08 Gelcer HoffertJim and Paul play Glenn and Ludwig
Jim Gelcer; Paul Hoffert; George Koller
Centrediscs CMCCD 25818 (musiccentre.ca)

Curiosity and doubt surprisingly quickly turned to delight and respect when listening to Jim Gelcer (drums), Paul Hoffert (piano) and George Koller (bass) with guests Bill McBirnie (flute on three tracks) and Ifield Joseph (guitar on one track) face the music and develop their jazz ideas based on recordings of pianist Glenn Gould playing Beethoven.

Why you may ask? Well, why not? Following the Glenn Gould Estate’s suggestion to create a recording, Gelcer and Hoffert listened to the wealth of Gould-recorded Beethoven music, and subsequently chose to arrange themes from the Moonlight Sonata, Fifth Symphony, Fifth Piano Concerto and Pathétique Sonata to create nine tracks.

Touches of classical and jazz resonate throughout. Opening track Moon Light starts with an almost traditional piano Moonlight Sonata performance but with drum accompaniment, until the bass moves the music into a dramatic jazz direction featuring a witty jazzy flute middle section. The closing track Day Light takes the same Sonata in a more classical direction with shifts in major and minor tonalities and a contrapuntal jazz flute development above a piano backdrop playing the opening sonata-line ideas. The famous four-note opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony takes on a toe-tapping upbeat fun jazz sound in Vitamin B51. First Path has the trio lead the Pathétique theme into a tight, fun jazz trio and duet improvisations

With their jazz brilliance, all the musicians give new life and colour to the music of Glenn and Ludwig!

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09 Bitter SuiteThe Bitter Suite
Marie Goudy 12tet featuring Jocelyn Barth
Independent (mariegoudy.com)

Haunting, poetic, imaginative – The Bitter Suite grabs the listener right away and doesn’t let go. A love story told through five movements, each chapter of the story connected with a particular season, a song cycle that is enchanting in atmosphere and brimming with emotion.

The Bitter Suite feels intimate, like late night confessions, yet universal in meaning. Written and arranged by Marie Goudy, it has an interestingly varied musical language – elements of jazz and mariachi styles combine very well here. Goudy’s musical world is gentle and transcendent but she is fiery in her expression as a composer and as a trumpet player. The large jazz ensemble lays out harmonies and rhythms across the board, creating a mellow landscape for engaging solos in each piece. But what really links the pieces together is the mesmerizing voice and phrasing of the vocalist Jocelyn Barth.

The album opens with Goudy’s dreamy solo trumpet Intro. Playful Son for Sunshine and passionate Autumn’s Embrace follow in its footsteps, each different in expression but both influenced with mariachi rhythms and style. Winter is simply beautiful, a story about the world covered in snow and a heartbreak. The suite itself concludes with Lilacs, a classy tune with a melancholy feel. Although the last piece on the album, Remember the Days, does not belong to the suite (it is an ode to a cherished friendship), it makes for a lovely postscript.

10 McBirney and BernieThe Silent Wish
Bill McBirnie; Bernie Senensky
Extreme Flute EF08 (extremeflute.com)

The Silent Wish brings the two loves of flutist Bill McBirnie – his mastery of the flute and his love for his wife – together in a sunburst of 12 familiar and rarely performed gems. A true virtuoso, who counts the great classical flutist Sir James Galway as a diehard fan, McBirnie does not make many records. Consequently, each production is a work of several months (sometimes years) of painstaking selection and agonizing rehearsal which always yields a work of polished, honed craftsmanship.

This bejewelled 2018 masterpiece is a duet with another celebrated Canadian musician, the pianist Bernie Senensky. Both McBirnie and Senensky have acquired reputations for being fine craftsmen on their respective instruments, but while they are masterful virtuosos their music eschews ornament for the ornament’s sake. Instead their virtuoso flights are completely dedicated to the melodic beauty of the music, which is tossed from flute to piano in great flights of harmonic fancy.

To that end the two musicians infuse these 12 conventional songs – a variety of idioms and styles – with an intimacy and an emotional intensity which can only be described as the poetry of feeling; and there is no finer example of this than the performance of Charlie Haden’s First Song. There is a feeling that this record is ballad-like, but tempi often vary and songs often abound in quite startling dramatic contrasts with moments of lyric tenderness being followed by passages of tumultuous energy, always played with unruffled grace.

11 Hard Rubber OrchestraKenny Wheeler: Suite for Hard Rubber Orchestra
Hard Rubber Orchestra featuring Norma Winstone
Justin Time JTR 8614-2 (justin-time.com)

Though Kenny Wheeler left Canada for England in 1952, the distinguished composer/ trumpeter/ flugelhornist always maintained close relations with musicians and audiences here. In 2013, the year before Wheeler’s death, composer (and sometime trumpeter) John Korsrud commissioned Wheeler to compose a suite for Vancouver’s Hard Rubber Orchestra, an 18-member group Korsrud has been leading since 1990, debuting Canadian works from jazz to new music. Wheeler provided five movements, and Korsrud has sequenced them, adding improvised interludes.

The music is distinctively Wheeler’s, bringing a Hindemith-like richness and clarity to the big-band format to evoke joy and wistfulness, celebration and memory, then shading and mingling them with sometimes astonishing harmonic nuance. Singer Norma Winstone, a longtime collaborator, is an essential component of the orchestra, her wordless parts soaring through the massed brass and saxophones.

The music, too, is a celebration of the subtlety and art that Wheeler brought to the trumpet: two orchestral movements feature Mike Herriott, while the brief and lustrous interludes have Brad Turner improvising duets with bassist André Lachance, pianist Chris Gestrin and guitarist Ron Samworth. Among other soloists, tenor saxophonist Eli Bennett is aggressively creative on Movement I.  

The quality of the music is such that one doesn’t mourn, but instead celebrates Wheeler’s continuing presence – a national legacy that now stretches from Nova Scotia and the Maritime Jazz Orchestra’s Siren’s Song to the University of Toronto Jazz Orchestra’s Sweet Ruby Suite to this suite for Vancouver’s Hard Rubber Orchestra.

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12 SeanceSéance
Philippe Lemoine; Simon Rose
Tour de Bras TDB9036cd (tourdebras.com)

Consisting of a dozen brief tracks that showcase the sweep of extended reed playing, Séance also confirms improvised music’s universality. French tenor saxophonist Philippe Lemoine and British baritone saxophonist Simon Rose, both Berlin-based, are on a Canadian label. Geographic considerations aside, the tracks, which last from just over one minute to almost six and a half, demonstrate that saxophone probing can be both penetrating and pleasing.

Hope River is the only track on which expected baritone and tenor tones are displayed with comforting familiarity; the others concentrate on testing as many reed tropes as possible. Sometimes, as on Worm Gill, it is tongue slaps; other times, as on Planchette, air is whooshed through horns’ body tubes without key movements, creating whale-like or bird-echoing textures; or on Now Séance the two fluidly modulate deep pitches to their farthest extensions without losing momentum.

Still it’s the longest pieces that meet the most reed challenges. Veering from squeaky to subterranean timbres during Dans(e) le flux, both burrow deep inside their horns for protracted rumbles that are cleverly harmonized with key percussion. Equally percussive as well as abstract, Medium is an essay in tongue slaps, key rattles, juddering cries and slurps that accede to a concentrated mass, but one in which both horns can be heard clearly.

Whether believing in contacting the deceased through a medium or not, this Séance is one in which many a saxophonist would want to participate.

14 Subtone MooseMoose Blues
Laika Records 3510366.2 (subtone.eu)

Moose Blues is the fifth album from the German jazz quintet Subtone, a collective whose members include Malte Dürrschnabel (reeds), Magnus Schriefl (trumpet), Matthias Pichler (bass), Peter Gall (drums), and Florian Hoefner, a pianist who, after years working in New York, now teaches at Memorial University in Newfoundland. Released on the German label Laika Records, and recorded following a Subtone tour of Canada earlier this year, Moose Blues is a tour diary of sorts: a reflection on time spent travelling throughout Canada, during which the group’s music was developed and refined.

Moose Blues begins with the Hoefner-penned Orbit, a propulsive, groove-based song featuring confident solos from Hoefner and Schriefl, bookended by dark, texturally lush sections. E-Nuts, a Schriefl composition, is a strong, swinging entry, with tight melodic playing from Schriefl and Dürrschnabel, and a concise, interesting bass solo from Pichler. Gall’s Alphabet City is a simmering, mixed-meter affair that showcases the group’s ability to juxtapose intensity and shifting dynamic levels, and Upside Up, written by Hoefner, is a sophisticated, bluesy 3/4 song, with satisfying playing both from the rhythm section and from the horns.

Subtone is a group with firm roots in the tradition of artists such as Lee Morgan, and the album’s final track – the titular Moose Blues – is as close as they get to a conventional hard bop aesthetic. The real charm of Subtone, however, is their ability to synthesize the performance practices of hard bop – strong rhythm section playing, tight horn lines, bluesy flourishes – with modern harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic ideas.

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16 Sphereology Vol 1 CoverPlays Thelonious Monk: Sphereology Volume One
Andrés Vial
Chromatic Audio Chroma 111417 (chromatic-audio.com)

2017 marked Thelonious Sphere Monk’s centenary, but 2018 seems to be the year it’s commemorated. There’s guitarist Miles Okazaki’s brilliant six-album digital set with all 70 of Monk’s compositions played solo, and pianist Frank Kimbrough is releasing quartet versions of them on six CDs (each adding three tunes to Monk’s Casino, Alexander von Schlippenbach’s 2005 journey through the complete works). Montreal pianist Andrés Vial is also taking on Monk repertoire, though this Volume One gives no indication of how far he might pursue the impulse.

A crisp, inventive pianist, Vial here leads two quartets with different rhythm sections, one New York-based, one Montreal, both good. He emphasizes less-played repertoire from Monk’s canon and does so hand-in-glove with guitarist Peter Bernstein. Both treat Monk’s distinctive rhythmic and harmonic language with respect, though Bernstein’s warm guitar tone sometimes softens the edges. However, they retain Monk’s essential quality, which might be characterized as divergence, an ability to embody contraries. Thus Bernstein manages to be both oblique and funky on the opening Bluehawk, while both he and Vial are cheerfully dissonant on Green Chimneys.

The approach is often reflective, never more so than on Ask Me Now, a pleasantly pensive duet by Vial and Bernstein, and the bluesy, late night quality extends to Light Blue. New York bassist Dezron Douglas contributes structuralist bass solos while Rodney Green recalls the melodic drumming of Monk associate Frankie Dunlop; Montrealers Martin Heslop and André White shine on the extended Functional.

01 St. Annes cover artJamie Thompson and the Urban Flute Project – Live at St. Anne’s
The Junction Trio & Friends
Independent (urbanfluteproject.com)

This latest CD from the Urban Flute Project is a compilation of 20 performances recorded live over the first ten years of the Music at St. Anne’s concert series. That makes it more than just a CD; it is a “remembrance of things past,” a chronicle of a time and a place when a loosely knit band of musicians listened to the impulse to bring music to life – yes, to make it live but also, as documented in the listings in The WholeNote over the course of that decade, to bring it to the life of their community. For this they received very little money and only a modicum of fame, as many in the community do. Music at St. Anne’s was the musical equivalent of what British theatre and film director Peter Brook called – in his book The Empty Space – “Holy Theatre...the theatre of the invisible-made-visible.”

The CD brings all this to life, with unvarnished live performances which, maybe just because they are unedited and un-doctored, make those moments in lost time immediate and all the more precious because they are gone. The names of over 20 musicians are listed, and many more unnamed were involved because there are performances by three choirs. The range of music is vast, from a motet by Thomas Tallis to improvisations involving both conventional instruments and secondhand pots and pans which produce the most magical sounds, and something of everything in between.

This CD is like a slice of The WholeNote made audible, and a testament to our need for art in life.

02 Toronto TablaBhumika
Toronto Tabla Ensemble
Independent (torontotabla.com)

Bhumika, a rich philosophical Sanskrit term, derived from bhūmi meaning earth or soil, can refer to a writing surface, receptacle, or an introduction to a book, among other things. Bhumika is also the title of the Toronto Tabla Ensemble’s sixth album and its first track. Composed by TTE’s artistic director and tabla educator Ritesh Das, the title track, featuring a chanted Sanskrit sloka, is dedicated to Ritesh Das’ brother the influential kathak dancer and teacher Chitresh Das (1944-2015). The liner notes also acknowledge another key artistic inspiration, Swapan Chaudhuri who is among today’s outstanding tabla masters.

Bhumika the album reflects the richness of the tabla’s extensive technique, repertoire and the complexity of Indian rhythmic practice: the album features talas (rhythmic cycles) of 5½, 9½ and 11 beats. It also speaks to Ritesh Das’ larger artistic ambition to engage culturally with his Toronto home and collaborate with other resident musical cultures and musicians. For example, instruments heard on the album include ritual Indian conch trumpet, finger cymbals, Hindustani tabla and sarod, Carnatic mrdangam, but also drum kit, violin, Chinese zheng, flute, and the Japanese taiko ensemble Nagata Sachu. Most of them are played by Toronto area musicians, some of whom are students of Das.

For me the strength of this album is the convincing argument it makes for the tabla forming the core of a musically compelling drum-centric ensemble in 2018 Toronto, far from its (first) homeland. Before Das dreamed it in 1991, that did not exist.

03 QSFA QSF Journey
Quartet San Francisco
Reference Recordings RR-143 (referencerecordings.com)

The boundaries between music genres are fluid and constantly moving these days, with many musicians experimenting and combining elements of different styles in both new compositions and interpretations of the traditional ones. Classical music seems to be an especially productive foundation for such crossovers, breeding many exciting projects. One of them is the latest release by Grammy- nominated Quartet San Francisco – A QSF Journey. Most of the tracks on the album are written and arranged by Jeremy Cohen (the first violinist of the quartet) and the album contains seven world premieres, making it an adventuresome journey into the chamber music of the 21st century.

While the album features arrangements of traditional folk songs (Chinese, Mongolian and African), many of the tracks are rooted in the tango tradition and, to some extent, American folk. Rhapsody in Bluegrass combines two vastly different works – Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and bluegrass tune Orange Blossom Special. The result is a lively, toe-tapping, buoyant tune. Frederico II, written by Italian cellist and composer Giovanni Sollima, is a whirlwind piece with a constantly pushing rhythmical drive and strong medieval roots. I really enjoyed Cohen’s tango pieces as well – Al Colón, Francini, La Heroína and the opening Tango Eight – and their passionate, cheeky melodies. QSF members are true crossover stars. Their playing is effortless and entertaining, with just the right amount of classical touch, and with an abundance of beauty.

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04 Tanya WillsIt’s Time
Tanya Wills Quartet
Independent (tanyawills.ca)

Carrying the DNA of an artistic lineage, it is no surprise that gifted vocalist, dancer and actor Tanya Wills would enter the family business and manifest an international performance career. With the release of her debut CD, Wills has drawn from her diverse career experiences and fashioned an eclectic, stirring and musically stunning recording – beautifully recorded by Bernie Cisternas. Acting as producer here, Wills has assembled the perfect musical complement to her smoky, substantial, mezzo-soprano: Jordan Klapman on piano, Bill Bridges on guitar (and also primary arranger) and Ron Johnston on bass.

A few of the sources of the intriguing material on this project come from the worlds of musical theatre, the European/American cabaret culture of the post-WWI era, American popular song, traditional folk music, a proto-rock ‘n’ roll contribution from Elvis and two original compositions, including Tony Quarrington and Klapman’s dark bossa, Rain on the Roof.

One of the many standouts is Wills’ performance on Lazy Afternoon. Her voice is exquisitely controlled, as she weaves a laconic, gossamer web of sensuality around the mesmerized listener, and Bridges’ guitar accompaniment is nothing short of luminous. Another track of note is Arthur Hamilton’s Cry Me a River – a passive/aggressive anthem made popular by the late Julie London. Wills puts her own contemporary stamp on the tune, cleverly morphing the intent of the lyric into a statement by a strong woman (rather than a victim’s lament). I would be remiss if I didn’t single out the joyous rendition of If I Were a Bell – Frank Loesser’s hit from the venerable musical Guys and Dolls. Wills imbues this tune with just the right amount of spice and sass.

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05 Anba TonelAnba Tonèl
Daniel Bellegarde
Independent (danielbellegarde.com)

Daniel Bellegarde has enjoyed a 35-year career as a freelance percussionist primarily in Quebec. As he explains, Anba Tonèl (Under the Arbor), his first album as a leader, primary arranger and composer, is the fruit of his research on the confluence of European and African musics in the French Caribbean.

In Anba Tonèl, with the aid of nine musicians and five singers, he explores – through arrangements and compositions – unfamiliar musical territory to outsiders: rural French Caribbean music, the result of that hybridization. Dance music represented includes the contra-dance (square dance), quadrille, minuet-congo, and Haitian twoubadou, a popular genre of guitar-based Haitian music. The album aims to evoke the music performed by Haitian and French West Indies slaves during the 19th century and field workers in the early 20th.

Not a synth or drum set to be found here, the lead French Creole vocals by Marco Jeanty are accompanied by all-acoustic instrumentation. We hear the prominent sound of the banjo (which appears to have been played in the Caribbean before mainland North America), violin, guitar, dobro and manouba (bass kalimba-rumba box), as well as percussion instruments from the French Antilles including tanbou di bass (large tambourine), ti bwa (small wooden slit drum), graj (metal scraper) and chacha (calabash rattle).

I’m no expert on the origins or development of this music. As presented here by Bellegarde however, it has considerable range of mood and is full of danceable musical energy and charm; plus it’s sung and played with authentic-feeling élan.

At least when it comes to exploratory music old definitions no longer apply. Only on the equivalent of a rigid Doug Ford-like populist disc will you find players insisting on one style, be it rock, noise, jazz-improv or so-called classical. Accomplished improvisers in contrast, draw on many sources to create unique musical programs, with sophisticated electronics regularly and effortlessly added to the mix.

01 OkkyungCase in point is Cheol-Kkot-Sae [Steel.Flower.Bird] (Tzadik TZ 4923 okkyunglee.info), by Korean-born, US-raised, Berlin-based cellist Okkyung Lee. Deciding to blend the Korean melodies of her youth with the spiky improv in which she now specializes, Lee was commissioned by SWR to create this CD’s music, performed live at the Donaueschingen Festival. Steel.Flower.Bird consists of textures that are neither wholly Asian nor Occidental, but variations on both genres. Lee’s cello strategy is aided by Korean folk opera vocalist Song-Hee Kwon and traditional Korean percussionist Jae-Hyo Chang representing one approach to the program; and experienced improvisers, saxophonist John Butcher and bassist John Edwards from the UK, American percussionist Ches Smith and Norwegian electronics player Lasse Marhaug embodying the other. No sooner are the first Korean phrases verbalized in a ghostly fashion at the beginning than they’re speedily joined by double-stopping string strokes, saxophone growls and droning electronic whizzes. Before this sequence is overwhelmed by a crescendo of rocket-ship-launching explosions from Marhaug’s knob-twisting, snarky kazoo-like tones from the saxophonist and string splaying, the narrative moves to a quieter place, where unhurried instrumental lowing makes the perfect accompaniment for Song’s bel canto warbling. Smith’s vibraphone ringing and Butcher’s swirling chirps create a connective intermezzo, which is also a prelude to a similar instrumental break that features a duet between Korean and Western percussion, showcasing a two-part backbeat rather than any exoticism. Building on a slinky counterpoint propelled by Smith’s vibraphone resonations and Edwards’ chunky thumps, the piece climaxes as tongue slaps and honks from Butcher sail on top of muted vocalizing and spiccato cello string pressure. When joined by tremolo percussion stops, the music continues to echo past as applause begins. Oddly enough the subsequent encore/coda includes dynamic chording from an un-credited pianist that puts into bolder relief shrill and strained strokes from the cello as both instruments join for a concluding melody that sounds like the children’s round The Worms Crawl In, The Worms Crawl Out.

02 CluttertonesEncompassing a five-part suite and shorter features, the array of musical paths followed on Toronto-based The Cluttertones’ Leeways (SnailBongBong SBB 005 robclutton.com) make the previous CD appear singularly directed. Tunes composed by bassist/leader Rob Clutton feature fine performances by the band – trumpeter Lina Allemano, guitarist/banjoist Ted Posgate, Ryan Driver on analogue synth and vocals plus Clutton – with pianist Lee Pui Ming joining for the title suite. Remarkably enough, Lee’s formalist/improv comping is no more prominent on those five tracks than the other players’ contributions. In fact it’s Allemano’s gritty, back-of-throat growls and rounded capillary exposition that make the greatest impression on Leeways Part 2, when backed by keyboard jumps; and a similar scenario unfolds on Leeways Part 3. Here Clutton agilely moves the tune forward with discursive-but-emphasized string drones, vibrating multi-string slaps and pinched sul tasto runs as Lee comps, the banjo twangs bluegrass-like and synthesizer tones tweet. Earlier on, the most fully realized group effort is Septiembre. Consisting of a slew of intermezzos, it highlights double-bass stopping, buzzing electric guitar licks and high-pitched trumpet slurs, with a conclusion that’s rhythmically solid and notably kinetic. Instructively Gull, the first track, effectively adumbrates what’s to come, as crackles and flutters from the synth underscore a near-vocalized, muted trumpet tone, sometimes harmonized with a walking bass line, spiky guitar flanges and Driver’s high-pitched scat singing. Unfortunately, it is these songs that undermine the entire disc’s effectiveness. Those times when Driver mouths the impressionistic folksy lyrics in a lachrymose fashion – almost halting the proceedings – are saved from stasis by pointed trumpet obbligatos. With the skill and sophistication displayed on the other tracks, it’s unfortunate that vocalizing prevents Leeways from reaching the highest musical rung.

03 Big BoldSubtract vocals, piano and double bass and add drums and In Search of the Emerging Species (Shhpuma SSH 032 CD shhpuma.com) provides a glimpse of how The Cluttertones would sound if tunes were trimmed even further to languorous microtones. Consisting of Swiss musicians, trumpeter/slide trumpeter Marco Von Orelli and Sheldon Suter, who plays prepared drums, plus Portuguese stylists, guitarist-object manipulator Luis Lopes and Travassos on electronics, Big Bold Back Bone (BBBB) creates a single slab of darkened calculations where undulating pulses and metal-against-metal buffeting underlie a hard drum beat and guitar string strumming, as distant brass puffs advance the theme. Collective in execution, BBBB links Immerge to some of Morton Feldman’s compositions which stretch out without climaxing, but this quartet reveals its jazz and rock roots by, for instance, reaching a crescendo of trumpet slurps and sighs two-thirds of the way through. With this breakthrough, the heart monitor-like pacing of electronics is further breached by drum clatters and a near solo from Von Orelli that speeds up into expressive whistles and buzzes, backed by ascending drum raps, until the entire performance dissolves into silence.

04 CarbonMuch more aggressive in performance with its mixture of improvised jazz, noise, heavy rock and notated music tropes is Elliott Sharp’s Carbon, whose five selections on Transmigration at the Solar Max (Intakt CD311 intaktrec.ch) could be mistaken for metal music until examination reveals that it’s head-expanding rather than headbanging. Sharp’s unrestrained and mangled expositions on eight-string guitarbass, soprano saxophone, electronics, samples and textures don’t mask his university studies in electronics and composition with Feldman and others. He manages to be both aggressive and accommodating in his solos, joined by Zeena Parkins on electric harp and Bobby Previte on drums. Nowhere is this more apparent than on Orrery, where backbeat drum rhythms and blips from electronic samples are transmogrified through tempo changes into a psychedelic blues. In similar fashion, while slurred guitar licks and irregular drum beats serrated by electric harp tension on Perihelion may resemble standard rock tropes, the conjoined patterns that slowly build up alongside them recall the perpetual drone-stretching in the works of notated composers like Charlemagne Palestine and La Monte Young. Not committed to any overriding style however, Sharp also ensures that his five compositions include contrapuntal challenges, with Parkins’ often bottleneck-style vibrations bringing in multiple note extensions, and his own flashing guitar excursions human enough so that his finger positions on the strings are almost visible. 

05 Pavilion RougeUtilizing the brass timbres advanced by The Cluttertones and BBBB and intertwining them with electronic processing common to all these discs is Solution n°5 (LFDS Records LFDS 006 lefondeurdeson.fr) created by the Paris-based Pavillon Rouge trio. With trumpeter Nicolas Souchal’s sometimes eloquent and sometimes expeditious flights, plus alternately growling and blasting tones from Matthias Mahler’s trombone, the acoustic improvising program is satisfied, while the wide range of Jean-Marc Foussat’s electronics that include sampling, signal processing and granular synthesis takes care of the computerized input. Not only do the stop-start loops of Foussat’s machine provide a continuous base on which the horn players can expose their sometimes brief improvisational forays, but his collection of tones and timbres balance, parallel and surprise with such interjections. Add ring modulator-like bell ringing, the replication of Jew’s harp twanging and time and pitch stretched verbalization that takes the form of blurry mumbled phrases or layered textures that build up to the breadth, but not the volume of a choir performing Gregorian chants. While some sections are obtuse and others nearly opaque, the tracks make room for fluid contrapuntal challenges among the three players, with brassy tones turning calliope-like or to atonal triplets before acceding to regularized pulses. Meanwhile, the effect of the electronic undertow is to reconcile all parts so that the sonic performance of these instant compositions is stretched to the absolute limits, without splintering, eventually wrapping up with a finalized hiss.

Each of these sessions could define modern improvising. All draw on electronic interface and nod to various strands of music without hierarchy. And except in high quality, not one resembles any of the others.

01 Abbado Claudio Abbado & the Berlin Philharmoniker: The Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon (DG 4835183 60 CDs deutschegrammophon.com/en/cat/4835183) Claudio Abbado’s collaboration with the Berlin Philharmonic began in 1966 when he first stood before the orchestra. Born in Milan on June 26, 1933 he was just 33 years old at the time and his name was already familiar to music lovers and record collectors around the world. He had been principal guest conductor with the London Symphony Orchestra from 1975 to 1979 at which time he was named principal conductor, the post he held until 1987, having also been appointed music director in 1984. During his LSO tenure he made many exemplary recordings for DG, most of which are still in the catalogue. My favourite version of Le Sacre du Printemps was, and probably still is, his February 1975 spectacular recording made in Fairfield Hall, Croydon. From 1982 to 1985 he was principal guest conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra where DG produced many recordings. He had already recorded the Mahler Second Symphony with them in 1976 and it is the only Mahler symphony not in this new set of Berlin recordings. In 1986 he became the general music director of Vienna and at the same time music director of the Vienna State Opera. In 1988 he founded the music festival, Wien Modern.

Herbert von Karajan died on July 16, 1989 and in that same year Abbado was voted to succeed him as the orchestra’s new chief conductor and music director, a position he would hold from 1990 to 2002. Abbado had already done some recording with the orchestra but now what does a record company do? They record another Beethoven symphony cycle. So it began, not in Berlin but live in Rome in the Academia di Santa Cecilia. During February 2001 they recorded the first eight, returning to the Philharmonie in Berlin for the Ninth. The difference between the two conductors is apparent. Karajan always sought the most beautiful sounds, which had its rewards, but Abbado looks deeper and reveals the sinews that support the satin exterior. I played the symphonies right through simply for hearing these warhorses anew. Why didn’t I do that when they were issued on CD? Checking the original issue, the venue for the First through the Eighth is the Philharmonie with different recording dates starting in 1999. These are different performances, except for the Ninth and are not included in this edition. The five piano concertos with Maurizio Pollini are brilliant. They also collaborate on a disc of the Schumann and Schoenberg piano concertos. The Brahms Symphonies are equally transparent and most often sound freshly minted. As an example, the opening movement of the First has a very positive feeling, missing the lumbering juggernaut often heard elsewhere. There is a Mahler Symphonies cycle minus the Second. It sounds like everything Abbado touched he illuminated without lessening the impact. There are two Prokofiev Third Piano Concertos, with Evgeny Kissin and Martha Argerich.

Guest artists in various repertoire include Anne Sofie von Otter, Thomas Quasthoff, Karita Mattila, Michael Schade, Bryn Terfel, Christine Schafer, Lilya Zilberstein, Roberto Alagna, Alfred Brendel, Gil Shaham and many others including Viktoria Mullova. The repertoire includes Debussy, Dvořák, Hindemith, Janáček, Stockhausen, Berg, Mozart, Richard Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Verdi, Wagner and many others. No Bach, no Vivaldi. A most interesting collection indeed.

02 Leonard BernsteinLeonard Bernstein at Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival (Cmajor 746704, Blu-ray video cmajor-entertainment.com/movie/leonard-bernstein-at-schleswig-holstein-musik-festival-746704) is a captivating documentary of the “Teaching, Performing, Lectures and Master Course” in Salzau, south east of Kiel, to create an orchestra for the 1988 Musik Festival there. I should have written assemble, as create strictly means making something out of nothing. Not so here. The orchestra was composed of 120 eager young men and women from around the world chosen from the 1600 young musicians who competed in national auditions. In Part 1, the orchestra is working through various repertoire, particularly Le Sacre du Printemps negotiating tricky passages, working on ensemble, etc. Clearly these young musicians did not come here to learn to play. They have no technical difficulties. They are rehearsed and advised by various teachers including more than a few members of prominent orchestras including the Berlin Philharmonic. In addition to the orchestral work there are times for get-togethers for duets, trios, quartets and the rest plus extra-musical frivolity and socializing. Eventually, they become an orchestra that can confidently play Le Sacre, the work from 1913 considered unplayable for decades. They are ready for the maestro.

In Part 2 Bernstein meets the orchestra and the first thing he asks is that they show him the entire orchestra playing a C-major scale from the lowest sounding C on their instrument, up and down. He is more than pleased. He guides them, always in good humor, through the thorny passages instructing them by example, often using similes and metaphors to illustrate a point. Absolutely fascinating. Watching all this, we can also learn a lot and may ourselves pay extra attention at these junctures at a performance. His last words to the orchestra, “I cannot do this to you anymore. You are fantastic.”

Part 3 is a record of the Master Course for conductors. They are there to better their ways of letting the players know exactly what they should be doing. There is some body language that we viewers in the audience can watch for, although some conductors do it mostly with their eyes. One of the conductors in the competition is Marin Alsop who was to later regard Bernstein as her mentor. There is a bonus. From the Musikverein in Vienna, Bernstein conducts the Schumann A-Minor Piano Concerto with Justus Frantz and the Philharmonic. Enthusiastically recommended to anyone with more than a passing interest in music.

03 Leonard Bernstein Vol.1Cmajor also recently compiled a set of their DVDs as Leonard Bernstein Volume 1 (Cmajor 743008, 6 DVDs shop.cmajor-entertainment.com/items/leonard-bernstein-vol.1-416692) containing extraordinarily powerful, over-the-top live performances of Symphonies 1, 2, 5 & 7 by Sibelius with the Vienna Philharmonic; Debussy’s Images, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun and La Mer with the Santa Cecilia Orchestra; Beethoven’s String Quartet No.16 with the Vienna Philharmonic and Haydn’s Mass in Time of War with Judith Blegen, Brigitte Fassbaender and the orchestra and chorus of the Bavarian Radio; a documentary on Bernstein, Larger Than Life with interviews by scores of notables, and finally Tanglewood – 75th Anniversary Celebration. Avid collectors may already have one or two of these.

04 MozartI have long been a fan of the videos from the Royal Opera House making their release of the Da Ponte Operas by Mozart, Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni and Cosi Fan Tutte a noteworthy event (OpusArte BD7251, 4 Blu-ray video discs naxosdirect.com/items/mozart-the-da-ponte-operas-458931). Don Giovanni was recorded in 2014 conducted by Nicola Luisotti with direction by Kasper Holton. Mariusz Kwiecien is Giovanni, Alex Esposito is Leporello, Malin Bryström is Donna Anna and Véronique Gens is Donna Elvira. The Commendatore is Alexander Tsymbalyuk. The costuming is contemporary, very natural and not at odds with the libretto and Mozart’s score. Le Nozze di Figaro from 2006, is conducted by Antonio Pappano with direction by David McVicar. Included in the cast we have Erwin Schrott as Figaro, Miah Perrson as Susanna, with Gerald Finley singing Count Almaviva and Dorothea Röschmann as the Countess. Cherubino is sung by Rinat Shaham and Philip Langridge is Don Basilio. Cosi fan Tutte from 2016 is conducted by Semyon Bychkov with direction by Jan Philipp Gloger. Daniel Behle is Ferrando, Alessio Arduini is Guglielmo and Johannes Martin Kränzle is Don Alfonso. Corinne Winters sings Fiordiligi, Angela Brower is Dorabella and Despina is sung by Sabina Puértolas.

Each of these productions is much better than average, being most satisfying on all counts wherein Mozart’s genius easily shines throughout. In sum, the staging for all three is creative and imaginative, with unfailing wit. The voices for the most part are perfectly ideal for the roles. The directing is inviting and the acting continuously convincing, enhancing the subtleties of both Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte. Everything works. A delight for Mozart lovers. There are lots of extras including the director’s voiceover commentary on Don Giovanni and more. Both audio and video quality are state of the art in this Blu-ray edition, sturdily slip-cased with a 70-page fine-art, four-colour booklet. 

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