13 Magnus LindbergMagnus Lindberg – Accused; Two Episodes
Anu Komsi; Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra; Hannu Lintu
Ondine ODE 13452 (naxosdirect.com/items/magnus-lindberg-accused-two-episodes-534964) 

Nothing much happens in Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg’s song cycle Accused. During the French Revolution a protester fighting for freedom and equality is asked by her jailer how she is doing. In the midst of the Cold War an East German citizen is grilled by the secret police about reading the popular West German news magazine Der Spiegel. More recently, in the trial of WikiLeaks whistleblower Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning, a prosecution witness is cross-examined about Manning’s idealism. 

The texts, in French, German and English, are taken from transcripts of actual interrogations. At odds with their matter-of-fact banality, the music packs a real punch. All six roles are sung with relentless theatricality by the virtuosic soprano Anu Komsi. Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan gave the world premiere in London in 2015, and Komsi sang the North American debut in Toronto two years later in a memorable concert with the Toronto Symphony, one of six co-commissioners.

The versatile Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, led by Hannu Lintu, gives a dynamic account of the dangers lurking beneath the ominous orchestral textures. But there is hope – in the resilient pizzicato strings, the defiant brass fanfares, and, at the end, the sublime vocalise with the soprano abandoning words altogether. It’s a brilliant coup de théâtre.

Lindberg wrote Accused in 2014, but its timeliness is uncanny. Here it has been effectively paired with Lindberg’s inventive Two Episodes, written two years later. Fortunately, texts and translations are included.

14 John AylwardJohn Aylward – Angelus
Ecce Ensemble; Jean-Phiippe Wurtz
New Focus Recordings FCR261 (newfocusrecordings.com/catalogue/john-aylward-angelus) 

The title of John Aylward’s recording Angelus is derived from its Christian incipit – those first few words of the text: Angelus Domini nuntiavit Mariæ (The Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary). Perhaps the angels called upon by these ten musical prayers are in fact more ancient mystical creatures of the Abrahamic Universe; or an even older one. No matter which you choose to believe – and even if you do not “believe” – otherworldly visions of your own are bound to ensue upon listening to this exquisitely ethereal music.

Aylward’s Angelus is a series of reflective supplications and declaratives. They are prayers and inner meditations on, or with, spirit beings, albeit in the material world. They are also dialogues and existential arguments with the spiritual self. The composer makes no effort at all to disguise this in these works. In being drawn to this kind of contemplation, Aylward – like Luciano Berio – explores complex interactions of music and text; of recitation, singing with unusual and often complex instrumentation. 

Vocalist Nina Guo’s performance is wonderfully sprite; at times even marvellously deranged. Her declamatory cries in Angelus Novus and metaphorical conjuring in Dream Images is absolutely breathtaking. Meanwhile, the performance of the Ecce Ensemble is an inspired one. Their musicians intertwine their individual sensuous utterances playing winds, reeds, strings and percussion to make Aylward’s ghostly compositions shimmer with something resembling an extraordinary awakening of real and imagined beings in the flesh and in the spirit.

Listen to 'John Aylward – Angelus' Now in the Listening Room

15 Sharon Isbin AffinityAffinity
Sharon Isbin; Elizabeth Schulze; Isabel Leonard; Colin Davin; Maryland Symphony Orchestra
Zoho ZM 202005 (zohomusic.com/cds/isbin_affinity.html) 

Musical greats, in any genre, tend to possess a studious knowledge of musical tradition, channeled into a unique personal voice. It is this distinctive, mature, yet vivacious sound we hear when listening to guitarist Sharon Isbin, and it only takes a cursory glimpse at her discography or biography to confirm a thorough education in classical guitar lineage. Her 2020 release Affinity is an impressive undertaking that offers a modern take on recurring themes from her prolific career. Most notably, her virtuosity and commitment to broadening the repertoire of the instrument through commissioned works. 

The recording takes its name from Affinity: Concerto for Guitar & Orchestra, by Chris Brubeck. Brubeck’s writing showcases Isbin in both technique and grace, providing an opening to the disc that is exciting, while not devoid of tender moments. At first I expected to hear more guitar, but after continued listening, Brubeck’s orchestral writing balances perfectly with its soloist. A mature rendition of El Decameron Negro, written for Isbin by Leo Brouwer, is heard here a quarter century after Isbin’s first recording the piece. The second unaccompanied guitar number we hear is by Grammy Award-winning Chinese composer Tan Dun, and has a more abstract sound, providing a welcome contrast to the aforementioned pieces and Antonio Lauro’s Waltz No.3. The album’s well-programmed closer, Richard Danielpour’s Of Love and Longing, is a succinct yet compelling song cycle that truly keeps a listener on their toes until the last note.

16 Is This NoisIs This ~Nois
~Nois
Independent (noissaxophone.com) 

Is this ~Nois (pronounced “noise”) opens with an intense performance of a riveting work: Hans Thomalla’s Albumblatt II. The sounds are both discordant and beautiful with half the quartet playing long vibrato-less tones alongside the others who play extremely drawn out multiphonics. The contrast and volume builds for most of the piece’s four and a half minutes. It is a no-holds-barred introduction to this young quartet from Chicago. Craig Davis Pinson’s Dismantle has all four players on alto saxophone and combines effective use of pad slapping, multiphonics and altissimo register in a very percussive and rhythmic piece. Niki Harlafti’s Vaisseau Fantôme has the quartet playing seven saxophones over its length and is inspired by Ornette Coleman’s album Free Jazz.

The quartet is “dedicated to the creation and performance of contemporary music” and has commissioned several of the pieces on the album. Most works utilize extended ranges, multiphonics and use of different saxophone configurations outside the standard soprano, alto, tenor and baritone quartet. This album is fresh and intense and I have to compliment the quartet on their bold and unique commitment to saxophone repertoire. Let’s have more ~Nois!

Listen to 'Is This ~Nois' Now in the Listening Room

17 Dawn ChorusDawn Chorus
Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble
Innova Recordings 044 (innova.mu/albums/grand-valley-state-university-gvsu-new-music-ensemble/dawn-chorus)

Since 2014, the New Music Ensemble at Grand Valley State University (Allendale, MI) under director Bill Ryan has commissioned 20 American composers to respond musically to U.S. national parks, with the ensemble subsequently touring to perform at these sites. In their fifth release, the eight astoundingly talented student musicians perform 11 of these commissioned works. 

The musical styles travel across many musical paths. Title track Dawn Chorus by Phil Kline features birdsong-like flute, clarinet and flamboyant glockenspiel parts in slightly atonal counterpoint, emulating springtime early morning birdsong in Badlands National Park. More Badlands inspiration as Bite the Dust composer Molly Joyce uses faster, slightly dissonant piano pulsing, loud, full-orchestration held notes and descending intervals to describe its disappointing land erosion. 

Repeated low dark atonal pitches and circular minimalist fluttering flute star patterns recreate Arches National Park’s night sky drama in former GVSU ensemble member Ashley Stanley’s Night Sketches. Patrick Harlin’s more traditional Wind Cave, inspired by Wind Cave National Park, features wind sounds painted by rapid violin swirls, tonal orchestral melodies and closing ripples. Big fun sound surprise in closing track Canvas the Bear, as composer Niko Schroeder sonically recreates a childhood sighting of a Yellowstone Park bear while riding in his granddad’s jeep, using jazz/pop melody overtones, toe-tapping bear-walking rhythms, and unexpected ensemble one-two-three-four mid-piece vocal count.  

Works by Biedenbender, Deemer, Herriott, Gardner, Matthusen and Biggs complete this nature-inspired sound painting release.

01 HiFiLoSpeak Your Name
HiFiLo (Todd Pentney)
Independent (hifilo.com)

Speak Your Name is the debut solo release from keyboardist/producer HiFiLo, better known as Todd Pentney. Pentney is probably best known for his role in the JUNO-award-winning Allison Au Quartet, though he’s active in many genres from modern straight-ahead acoustic jazz to indie, pop and hip-hop. In many ways, Say Your Name can be understood as a synthesis of Pentney’s various musical experiences: sweeping, stereo synths give way to dense harmony; athletic solos are juxtaposed with sections of sparse, ethereal melody; relaxed backbeats coexist with pulsing, dance-inflected moments. In and of themselves, these qualities are not new. Over the last 15 years, many recordings that fall under the expansive umbrella of jazz have contained some combination of these features, and Speak Your Name shares some similarities with recent works by Thundercat, Mehliana and Knower. What is unique about Speak Your Name is that Pentney is doing all of this on his own. 

With the exception of three special guests (flutist Rob Christian, vocalist Alex Samaras and guitarist Robb Cappelletto) – and some uncredited vocals on the album’s final track – Speak Your Name is all Pentney. The end result speaks to a model of musical production that has more in common with modern artists like Flying Lotus and Kaytranada than it does with the kind of jazz fusion that the mention of synths might evoke. With Speak Your Name, Pentney has crafted a beautiful, expansive album, and has thoughtfully reimagined the role of the producer in a jazz setting.

02 Robert LeeAscension
Robert Lee
Independent (robertleebass.com) 

Up-and-coming Toronto acoustic bassist, composer and bandleader Robert Lee, has released this delightful debut album, an energizing and unique foray into the contemporary jazz world. The record maintains an interesting balance showcasing Lee’s talent as a composer and bassist while putting the spotlight on the other fantastic musicians featured throughout, such as JUNO Award-winning saxophonist Allison Au, well-known guitarist Trevor Giancola and vibraphonist Michael Davidson. The album takes inspiration from songwriters such as Bon Iver, Christian McBride, Brian Blade and Iron & Wine, making for a unique musical blend of “modern chamber music, jazz and contemporary folk.”

Whether the listener likes traditional or more modern jazz, each piece brings forth elements of both, making this a downright treat for the ear. The title track starts off the album and is a deeply personal and introspective story about “searching for the greater meaning in life” which is reflected in the wandering, yet positivity inducing saxophone melody and a general sense of discovery felt throughout the piece. Burton’s Bounce is a great, swing-style piece with nimble movement in Lee’s pizzicato bass line and the dancing saxophone, vibraphone and guitar solos. Closing out the album is Cardinal on the Cobblestone, a beautiful track in which Mingjia Chen’s captivating voice, Ginacola’s soft guitar riffs and Lee’s gracefully plucked notes meld together for an uplifting and wonderful end to this musical journey.

03 Frankenhorn CoverFranken Horn
Audrey Ochoa
Chronograph Records CR-080 (audreyochoa.com) 

Surely many jazz enthusiasts who have kept up on contemporary artists have come across famed Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews and his unique style of trombone-centric jazz, but Canadian Audrey Ochoa’s newest release proves yet again that we have our own northern version of the aforementioned golden horn talent. Ochoa manages to successfully blend the old and the new, invoking feelings of nostalgia while introducing elements of modernism through electronic remixes of some tracks by electronica DJ Battery Poacher alongside more traditional pieces. Genre boundaries are cast aside here as we travel through sultry Latin-flavoured tracks to chamber music and unique string arrangements by Ochoa herself thrown into the mix. 

Swamp Castles starts off the album with a driving drum and bass groove which is overlaid by an energetic trombone line supported by a beautiful and captivating counter melody within the strings. Benchwarming takes the listener into a Latin musical world with smooth trombones, Chris Andrew’s diverse chord progressions on the piano and Luis Tovar’s sizzling conga rhythms pulling everything together. The track The Huggy Dance is a personal favourite as it really showcases how electronica can be successfully brought into the jazz world to add a fascinating contemporary flavour that is just delightful to listen to, a lo-fi groove that pulls you right in. A true breath of fresh air suitable for anyone getting into the jazz scene or just looking for something new.

Listen to 'Franken Horn' Now in the Listening Room

04 Allemano OhrenschmausRats and Mice
Lina Allemano’s Ohrenschmaus
Lumo Records LM 2019-10 (linaallemano.com) 

Splitting her time between Toronto and Berlin, local trumpeter Lina Allemano now has a European combo to complement her longstanding Canadian bands. Rock-solid German drummer Michael Griener and agile Norwegian electric bassist Dan Peter Sundland bring startling originality to the trumpeter’s compositions which broaden from Allemano’s cunning use of extended techniques. Frequently shadowing Allemano’s lead, the bassist’s thumb pops and moderated slaps perfectly augment trumpet timbres whether they’re spit out at a speedy pace or as grounded gurgling growls. As for the drummer, his tasteful side clips and rolling ruffs ensure the tunes maintain a steady pulse.

Allemano’s lead encompasses everything from creating expanded multiphonics, spitting out shrill brass runs, hand-muted effects and unexpected basso snarls. She exhibits a variety of effects on a track like Ostsee. Mixing textural advances and heraldic overblowing, positioned drum cracks help establish the tune’s horizontal groove which she then decorates with repeated note patterns sequentially squeezed from the high and low pitches. While her aggressive capillary asides and the bassist’s juiced twangs sometimes threaten to upset the session’s ambulatory pace, the trio is sophisticated enough to avoid sonic stalemates. You can hear this on Hooray Norway, the final, extended track which includes Allemano answering her own brassy trills with tongue flutters, as string slaps and cymbal beats help preserve a notable theme which emphasizes grace as well as melancholy. Overall, Allemano’s tale of two cities has an obviously happy ending.

05 Harrison ArgatoffToronto Streets Tour
Harrison Argatoff
Independent (harrisonargatoff.com) 

With the release of his debut solo recording, uber-talented, Toronto-based tenorist Harrison Argatoff has rendered a recording of remarkable creativity. In 2019, Argatoff undertook a daunting project – he performed 30 consecutive solo concerts on the streets of the Tdot, which were exclusively promoted by releasing only the postal codes of the concert locations! Subsequently, the (I assume) highly motivated music listeners had to embark on an urban quest (throughout the revealed postal code area) for the exact location of the concert in question.

Originally from Kelowna, B.C., Argatoff is a recent graduate of the University of Toronto jazz program. He has included nine original compositions here, as well as the traditional Zimbabwean folk song, Muroro (taught by Moyo Mutamba) and the haunting Russian lullaby White Acacia, which comes directly from Argatoff’s own Doukhobor heritage, and which he heard sung by his grandmother as a child. Both Argatoff’s gorgeous singing voice and his lyrical tenor sound are featured here.  

On Wait, Argatoff presents us with not only the hiss and whirr of Big Smoke traffic, but also a trance-inducing, Philip Glass-ish piece, rife with circular breathing and an almost whimsical air. Conversely, the delightful Muroro bobs and weaves through melodic intervals and comforting triads. A true standout is the deeply moving Rainfall, which seems to conjure all of the sadness and longing that the human heart can hold. Long, powerful, sinuous tones define this piece and also underscore Argatoff’s considerable technical skill. With Flicker, Argatoff transforms his tenor into a resonant fog horn, a helicopter and perhaps the sprockets of a Super 8 projector; while Outro perfectly parenthesizes this innovative, and thought-provoking recording.

06 Cory WeedsDay by Day
Cory Weeds Quartet
Cellar Music CM082619 (cellarlive.com) 

Cory Weeds has made so many recordings with David Hazeltine that you wouldn’t be wrong in assuming that the two are musical twins. Day by Day offers more evidence of this. The recording, an exquisite borehole into the jazzy stratum, reveals a treasure of both standards and original material, masterfully arranged by Hazeltine. Joining in the festivities are two other West-Coast masters: percussion colourist Jesse Cahill and Ken Lister, a bassist with a glorious rumble. Far from being on the sidelines, they play themselves into the proverbial thick of things.

Trios have captured our musical imagination from Art Tatum to Oscar Peterson, Keith Jarrett and Jimmy Giuffre among others. But this quartet does so too, reminding us of another classic quartet where magic occurred time and again. Weeds’ alto saxophone and Hazeltine’s piano are the lead voices and they sing mighty songs – song after song – as they jostle and joust with one another. Two bodies, one brain is a phrase that comes to mind. Once Blues de Troye kicks things off there’s no stopping them. This repertoire is riveting from start to finish. Not many recordings have that quality these days.

Hazeltine’s arrangements ensure that there is plenty of showtime for all four musicians. The joys of this music are also heartily celebrated by Cahill whose fizzing brushes and sticks are goaded by Lister’s gravitational bass. Put this all together and indeed you have the classic Canadian quartet.

07 Johnny SummersBaker’s Dozen – Celebrating Chet Baker
Johnny Summers
Cellar Music CM100819 (cellarlive.com) 

How timely, amid this global pandemic, with folks who have never so much as turned on an oven now cultivating sourdough starters and baking up a storm, that I have the pleasure of reviewing Calgary-based trumpet player and vocalist, Johnny Summers’ Baker’s Dozen: Celebrating Chet Baker. Most notable, and impressive, about Summers’ tribute to the jazz great is that rather than emulate Baker’s style, he takes us on a refreshing journey of some of Baker’s classics, putting his own distinctive spin on each track, of which there are 13 (as you likely surmised by the album title). 

Take My Funny Valentine for example. While Baker’s approach is spare and ruminative, here Summers ingeniously employs the talents of both a string quartet and the 17-piece Calgary Jazz Orchestra, which he founded in 2004 and leads with his trumpet. The result is a lush and layered arrangement, featuring Summers’ warm, inviting vocals and beautiful horn work.

Other lovely, and lively, turns can be heard in the strictly instrumental versions of Time After Time and You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To, where the bass, piano and drums really swing, and Summers’ solo work is stellar!

Summers’ vocal work on Embraceable You and You Go To My Head is also outstanding: luxurious, sensitive and sensual; some serious crooning there. So, while you’re waiting for that loaf of sourdough to rise, kick back with a julep or two and enjoy some time with this delectable Baker’s Dozen.

08 Grdina ResistResist
Gordon Grdina Septet
Irabragast Records 012 (gordongrdinamusic.com) 

Vancouver-based guitarist and oud player Gordon Grdina has emerged forcefully over the past decade, whether integrating jazz and Middle Eastern music or blending free jazz and fusion with a series of all-star bands. Resist is his most ambitious recording to date, both as composer and bandleader. The group combines two of Grdina’s Vancouver ensembles, his trio with bassist Tommy Babin and drummer Kenton Loewen and the East Van Strings with violinist Jesse Zubot, violist Eyvind Kang and cellist Peggy Lee. There’s also a special addition, saxophonist Jon Irabagon, whose intensity and invention often come to the fore.    

The title track is the main event, a 23-minute suite that begins with an elegiac string passage that compounds a distinctive musical language from the Second Viennese School and microtonal elements that suggest Middle Eastern modes. Other movements include an oud interlude that dramatizes an intense isolation, while passages of tumult are focused by Irabagon’s inventive squall. At the conclusion, rising string patterns express resolute determination.

Two other tracks isolate and develop materials from Resist: Resist the Middle intensifies a central passage, with Irabagon and the classical strings slashing and twisting through one another’s phrases; Ever Onward revisits a passage of the strings and oud with a stark, welling drama. There are also two distinct pieces that hold promise for the future: an evocative classical guitar composition, Seeds 11, and the incandescent free jazz of Varscona from Grdina, Babin, Loewen and Irabagon.

download 14Irrational Revelation & Mutual Humiliation
Peripheral Vision
Independent (peripheralvisionmusic.com)

Peripheral Vision could be described as “cerebral grooving jazz” where any of the tunes can effortlessly change course throughout their performance. The catchy titles (Mutual Humiliation Society, Neo-Expressionism for Pacifists or Title Crisis), off-kilter melodies and changing textures show this group is always thinking the big post-bop jazz thoughts. Compositions are by guitarist Don Scott and bassist Michael Herring. Drummer Nick Fraser is always highly inventive and works to actively shape the music, dynamically changing the beat and inflections from one moment to the next. Trevor Hogg’s saxophone lines are restrained and sinewy combining melodic patterns with a touch of swagger. 

Some highlights include Brooklyn’s Bearded which was inspired by some Eastern European jazz heard at the famous Brooklyn music venue Barbès. It begins with a moody sax line over top of a lazily contrapuntal guitar, then works into an elegant sax solo, a very beautiful, circus-like whirl of major key sound in the middle and into an intense, yet precise, guitar solo. For Kent Monkman is breezy with an elegant melody over a fast walking bass. Michael Davidson’s vibraphone adds a kind of 50s Mad Men feel so the tune mixes periods just like the famous artist does with his paintings. Irrational Revelation is this group’s fifth album and a double one at that; it offers delightful surprises and great playing on every track.

10 SupernovaSupernova 4
Félix Stüssi; Jean Derome; Normand Guilbeault; Pierre Tanguay
Effendi Records FND159 (effendirecords.com/en/album/supernova4)

Montreal-based musicians Jean Derome (alto/baritone saxophone, flute), Normand Guilbeault (double bass) and Pierre Tanguay (drums) were approached by Swiss/Montreal-based pianist/composer/producer Félix Stüssi to combine musical forces to perform his works. Recorded live in 2019 at Montreal’s Chapelle historique du Bon-Pasteur and at Oscar Peterson Concert Hall, this is out-of-this-world uplifting music.

Stüssi’s compositional style encompasses the traditional to modern jazz with tons of inherent improvisational opportunities. Highlights include the opening track, T.R.T (Tapir Racing Team) an upbeat, happy, tonal toe-tapping tune, with contrasting slower solo sections, showcasing formidable tight ensemble work and solo musicianship. The exuberant Bagatelle features an underlying humorous jazz feel contrasted by intermittent slow rubato sections and Stüssi’s flashy, fast-trilled piano solos. Guilbeault’s contrasting high and deep low resonating held and plucked bass solo opens Urubu, a more atonal piece highlighted by quasi-unison piano/sax lead-line playing and subsequent full-band loud section. The closing more modern-sounding Super 8 features more solos and a full band finishing with a bang and cymbal crash. Also included is Jean Derome’s composition La Nouvelle Africaine which opens with an extended Tanguay drum kit solo with singing cymbal effects, leading to upbeat clear ensemble playing and a rapid, intense, clever Derome sax solo. 

Supernova 4 with its unique compositions and solo/ensemble performances are equal if not superior to April’s supermoon or a supernova star blast – memorable, breathtaking and powerful.

13 GorillaBrain Drain
Gorilla Mask
Clean Feed CF 540 CD (cleanfeed-records.com/product/brain-drain/)

With the power of an oil derrick pumping, Gorilla Mask’s Peter Van Huffel uses his baritone saxophone throughout to unearth subterranean textures, in order to extract robust dynamics that slam against Roland Fidezius’ electric bass hammering and percussionist Rudi Fischerlehner’s comprehensive battering. All eight tracks composed for this Berlin-based band by Kingston, Ontario-native Van Huffel straddle metal force and improvisational exploration. Despite leaning towards the former, the trio never strays into excess.

Sonically defining the difference between a headbanger and a Hoser on a track named for the Ontario taunt, the narrative of sutured bass and saxophone outbursts are almost too thick to be partitioned. But the drummer’s oblique ruffs and rebounds retain a whiff of the unexpected. In the same way, Fidezius uses effects to suggest ringing guitar-like licks on tunes like Barracuda; and the saxophonist sometimes turns from baritone rumbles or altissimo squeaks to airy alto saxophone trills.

Additionally the group is versatile enough to brush against bedrock funk on Caught in a Helicopter Blade, as reed honks, drum pops and string sluices up the excitement level. But the best demonstration of balancing insight and intensity comes on the extended Drum Song where intense kinetics radiate from Fischerlehner’s cymbal clashes, bell ringing and rim shots, as electronic-fattened dual reed timbres and bass twangs steamroll the theme forward.

While Canada’s musical loss may be Germany’s gain, the result is a notable and individual band identity.

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