08 Feldman box front coverMorton Feldman Piano
Philip Thomas
Another Timbre at144x5 (anothertimbre.com)

2019 marks the 20th anniversary of John Tilbury’s signal All Piano, a four-CD set approaching almost all of Morton Feldman’s piano music. Here the younger Philip Thomas presents a five-CD, six-hour set of even more of these works. There’s a direct lineage: in 2014, the two pianists recorded Two Pianos and other pieces, 1953-1969 (also on Another Timbre), covering Feldman’s works for multiple pianos and some for pianos with other instruments.

Thomas explores the breadth of Feldman’s solo piano music, omitting only a few student pieces from the 1940s, while resurrecting others, like an archival minute-long Untitled piano piece, dated 1947, for a glimpse of Feldman’s nascent vision. There are also transcriptions of two pieces with lost scores, including the piano part in the soundtrack for the film Sculpture by Lipton.

Thomas brings a reflective depth to the work, emphasizing the composer’s preoccupation with sonic detail. Although Feldman didn’t alter the piano’s physical character like his colleague John Cage, he explored its sonic character and notation with a unique depth, including silent fingerings to create harmonic resonance, varied approaches to grace notes and allowing sounded notes to decay in full, the sounds isolated and appreciated individually.

While sometimes developing a kind of dislocation – even writing two-hand parts as if they were synchronous, then instructing that they be played separately – Feldman put a new emphasis on attack, duration and decay. There’s great detail in Thomas’ 52-page liner essay, including his description of a year-long recording process with producer Simon Reynell that emphasizes the music’s sound from the performer’s perspective and suggests the albeit quiet music be played loud enough for all its detail to emerge.  

Landmarks and masterworks will draw attention first. Disc One creates an immediate overview, gathering significant pieces that run throughout Feldman’s career and last between 22 and 27 minutes, from 1959’s diverse Last Pieces, to 1977’s Piano with its greater formal concerns and his final Palais de Mari (1986), with its geometric construction and enduring resolution. Still more commanding are the late and large-scale Triadic Memories and For Bunita Marcus, vast explorations of form and scale that can suggest compound bells.

Feldman’s relative miniatures, however, are just as significant: the collaborative nature of his music, including unspecified durations and sequences, clearly inspires Thomas. It’s most notable in Intermission 6 (1953), with the performer determining order and repeats. Thomas provides three versions of the piece, one in the published score, two of his own design, one of those with repetitions, the three running from less than five to over 11 minutes.

Feldman produced one of the most resonant and intimate bodies of 20th-century piano music, conditioning and opening time in the process. Philip Thomas is an ideal collaborator.

09 New York RisingNew York Rising – American Music for Saxophone Quartet
New Hudson Saxophone Quartet
Independent (store.cdbaby.com)

The New Hudson Saxophone Quartet is led by Paul Cohen (soprano), who also arranges two of the selections on this CD. Avi Goldrosen (alto), David Demsey (tenor) and Tim Ruedeman (baritone) complete the group which plays cleanly and expressively, delivering nuanced performances of several conceptually related works.

The opening New York Rising (2003) was composed by Joseph Trapanese who evokes his sense of “curiosity and determination” from the time he moved to New York as a freshman music student and watched the sun rise from his small practice room. The piece is descriptive as it moves us through the day in this fabled city, from the Prelude, to the Chorale and then ending with the Fugue which represents the city at its busiest. The album’s centrepiece, the five-movement Diners (Robert Sirota, 2009), written for this quartet, was inspired by three of the composer’s favourite diners and his travels to them through the city and suburbs. A highlight is the final Taking the N train to Dinner at the Neptune, Astoria, Queens where we hear the quartet emulating the rattling of the elevated subway as a counterpoint to the dining experience.

The three-movement Saxophone Quartet No.1 by David Noon (2001), two works by Aaron Copland (arranged by Cohen) and Lisbon by Percy Grainger, round out the album. The quartet sound is excellent on all tracks and the range of compositions create diverse and engaging portraits of New York.

Listen to 'New York Rising: American Music for Saxophone Quartet' Now in the Listening Room

01 Chelsea McBrideAftermath
Chelsea McBride’s Socialist Night School
Independent (crymmusic.com)

Chelsea McBride’s Socialist Night School is a modern jazz orchestra that’s been producing contemporary music only since about 2014 yet this is the group’s third recording and second full-length album. This is no mean feat for a small group, but for a 19-piece big band it’s extremely impressive. Even more impressive is the scope of this album. With ten tracks mostly clocking in at seven to eight minutes each, it tackles all kinds of ideas both musically and lyrically with all the songs written, arranged and conducted by McBride.

The main theme of Aftermath is conflict and, as such, it’s not surprising that the overall feel of the music is driving and angular and that there are sometimes less-than-pretty sounds used to convey the ideas. The opening track, Revolution Blues, was inspired by the 2016 U.S. presidential election. (The one and only good thing I can say about Trump is he’s inadvertently inspired some great art.) House on Fire with its carnival vibe, delves into the impact corporate greed has on our world. There are some melancholy beauties here too, like Say You Love Me and The Void Becomes You.

McBride formed the band shortly after graduating from Humber College and the majority of the players are her 20-something contemporaries along with a few veterans like trombonist William Carn and saxophonist Colleen Allen, the latter of whom is featured on the Me Too ode, Porcelain along with Naomi Higgins. Trumpeter Tom Upjohn takes an epic turn on Ballad of the Arboghast. The musicianship throughout the recording is superb but singer Alex Samaras deserves special mention. He executes the challenging melodies with skill and adds much musicality and warmth with his beautiful voice.

Aftermath is a big, ambitious project well worth the attention of fans of modern big band music.

02 Diane RoblinLife Force
Diane Roblin
Independent (dianeroblin.com)

Following her successful 2014 comeback, noted composer and multi-keyboardist Diane Roblin has once again created an eclectic, deeply personal and musically meaningful project that unabashedly celebrates life, and the inevitable, invigorating roller-coaster ride that is part of a well-lived human experience. Roblin’s gifted collaborators here include CD producer and acoustic/electric bassist, George Koller; trumpet/EVI player Bruce Cassidy (who also contributes the exceptional horn arrangements); Kevin Turcotte on trumpet and flugelhorn, Jeff LaRochelle on tenor sax and bass clarinet and Ben Riley on drums.

Back on Track is the sassy opener, with Roblin laying it down on Fender Rhodes, deftly establishing the spine of the funk. Cassidy’s EVI solo, followed by Turcotte’s trumpet solo, propel things to a higher vibrational level, while Koller’s gymnastic, supportive bass work and Riley’s drums are the soulful glue that gently hold the expandable structure of the tune together. Another standout is Snowy Day (which reappears at the end of the CD). LaRochelle’s bass clarinet is simply stunning and perfectly complements the introspective mood of the tune, as well as Roblin’s skilled and intuitive acoustic piano work. All the while, Cassidy’s horn arrangement weaves a silken web of harmonically complex ideas.

Another fine track is Suspend Yourself, where Roblin reminds us of her skill, not only as a pianist, but as a new music composer. The ensemble breaks into the piano intro with considerable pumpitude, morphing into a straight-ahead bop motif, spurred on by Cassidy’s EVI. Of special note is the tender Ballad in 3-4, which displays the gentle, contemplative aspects of Roblin’s musicality, gorgeously framed by Koller’s bass solo and the Kenny Wheeler-ish horn parts.

03 Fulton and WeedsDream a Little…
Champian Fulton; Cory Weeds
Cellar Live CLO22519 (cellarlive.com)

It is probably pure happenstance, but a song such as Dream a Little Dream of Me seems to have been written for just such an intimate encounter as between pianist and vocalist, Champian Fulton, and saxophonist and impresario, Cory Weeds. What is no accident, however, is the fact that these two musicians seem to automatically fall in with each other, melodically, harmonically and rhythmically, so that axiomatic sparks begin to fly.

Weeds plays with quiet brilliance throughout Dream a Little… His uniquely sophisticated and sonorous style weaves in and out of the vibrant and affectionate expressivity of Fulton’s pianism, her voice often becoming the crowning glory of the songs here. Both musicians seem to connect in a rarefied realm, but they then descend to earth where they each inhabit a palette of sumptuous colour. Then, like a couple in love, playfully oblivious of the attention they have attracted, they hold each other’s music in a tight embrace.

There is too much proverbial gold on this album, but I am going to risk suggesting that the biggest ear-opener is Darn that Dream. This performance burns in the quietude of the bluest part of a musical flame; its languid, seemingly interminable narrative made to simmer forever in a rhythmic and sonic intensity where Weeds contributes lyrical prowess, while Fulton offers her brilliant vocalastics, which sustain the music’s emotional mood while bringing the text’s poetic imagery to life.

04 Sam KirkmayerHigh and Low
Sam Kirmayer; Ben Paterson; Dave Laing
Cellar Live CLO 20118 (cellarlive.com)

During an era in which even the most straight-ahead jazz guitarist tends to have a sprawling array of pedals on stage, Sam Kirmayer is something of an anomaly. A traditionalist who tends to eschew effects in favour of the unmediated connection between instrument and amplifier, Kirmayer has found a voice for himself in the bluesy, hard bop style of guitarists like Grant Green, Wes Montgomery and Peter Bernstein. His newest album, High and Low, is his first to be released on Vancouver’s Cellar Live Records; an apposite fit, for a label that has become Canada’s leading outlet for hard bop. High and Low is an organ trio album, a rarity in and of itself in Canada. Drummer Dave Laing – who also played on Kirmayer’s debut album – is a faculty member in McGill’s jazz program, and is a stalwart of the Montreal scene. New York organist Ben Paterson, whose résumé includes work with Bobby Broom, Johnny O’Neal, and Peter Bernstein, rounds out the trio.

High and Low delivers amply on the premise that it sets out for itself: it is a swinging hard-hitting album, with crisp, tasteful playing from all involved. It is also, from the opening notes of the title track, a sonically beautiful experience, with all of the richness and depth that one hopes for in an organ trio recording. Kirmayer is in his element throughout High and Low, and Laing and Paterson make for a strong rhythmic team.

05 Pat Labarbera Kirk MacDonaldTrane of Thought (Live at The Rex)
Pat LaBarbera/Kirk MacDonald Quintet
Cellar Live CLO71819 (cellarlive.com)

When two extraordinary jazz saxophonists team up for a John Coltrane tribute, you know it’s going to be explosive. And that’s exactly what this live recording, featuring both Pat LaBarbera and Kirk MacDonald along with their band, is. The record is a well-picked and thought-out selection of songs from the two Coltrane tribute shows that the duo performed at our city’s beloved jazz joint, The Rex, in 2018. Ranging from the legendary saxophonist’s earlier works to some of his most lasting and obscure ones, LaBarbera and MacDonald have achieved, in their own words, “a thoughtful balance.” The album stems from a love for Coltrane that the duo has, LaBarbera seeing him live when he was studying at the Berklee School of Music and MacDonald discovering Coltrane on record at an early age.

The songs on the record, although from separate live shows, have been picked in such a way that it tells a thorough story; starting off sultry and well-paced with On a Misty Night and Village Blues, building up to a wonderful and fevered climax with Impressions and coming to a scintillating end with Acknowledgment/Resolution. Coltrane’s works can be appreciated very well here, especially with the excellent backing musicians – Brian Dickinson on piano, Neil Swainson on bass and Joe LaBarbera on drums. Fan of Coltrane or not, this album should definitely be a part of any jazz aficionado’s collection.

06 Sonia JohnsonChrysalis
Sonia Johnson
Independent PSJCD1911 (soniajohnson.com)

Creating an album of music where disparate musical styles come together can seem burdensome on paper. But when there is just too much in the essence of music to be left out, indulging everything becomes imperative. This is the raison d’être for Chrysalis the first English language album from the francophone artist Sonia Johnson. The title suggests a bringing to birth of something transformative. It certainly seems so after the last notes disappear into the air.

But more than anything else, you get the sense that Chrysalis is a labour of love. Featuring beautifully crafted arrangements of beguiling variety and sensuousness, in every lovingly caressed phrase, Chrysalis lays bare Johnson’s adoration of music in all its harmonic sumptuousness. Her chosen material consists of original songs – either written by her, or co-written with others whose work she delights in – so that listening to this music feels like opening an ornate box to reveal hidden gems.

For instance, listening to the way in which Johnson seductively bends the notes in Storm and Monsters, and how she sculpts the long, sustained invention of We Need to Know, it’s clear that there’s not a single semiquaver that hasn’t been fastidiously considered vocally and instrumentally by an ensemble attuned to Johnson’s artistic vision. Two other vocalists – Judith Little-Daudelin and Elie Haroun – deliver powerful performances. Meanwhile Johnson’s mellifluous timbre beguiles throughout as she digs deep into her nasal, throat and chest voice.

Listen to 'Chrysalis' Now in the Listening Room

07 Dan PittFundamentally Flawed
Dan Pitt Trio
Independent (dan-pitt.com)

Over the past few years, guitarist Dan Pitt has been steadily establishing a presence for himself on the Toronto jazz scene. Fundamentally Flawed, the debut album for both Pitt and his eponymous trio, is a showcase for Pitt’s playing and his unique compositional style; in both, one can find complementary elements of modern jazz and creative/improvised music, with a tendency to employ the former in service of the latter. This being the case, Pitt has done well in choosing his bandmates: bassist Alex Fournier, whose recently released album Triio is a stylistic cousin to Fundamentally Flawed, and drummer Nick Fraser. A generation removed from Pitt and Fournier, Fraser’s artful drumming has been an increasingly common presence on the projects of younger Toronto musicians, and it is affecting to see him continue to contribute to a scene that he helped to establish in the late 90s and early 2000s.

Though Pitt plays electric guitar, Fundamentally Flawed is, at its core, an acoustic trio album, with an emphasis on the interactivity, excitement and close listening that seem uniquely possible in the trio format. From the raucous, heavily distorted moments of Overdewitt and Mark III to lush, slow sections in Balmoral and January Blues, Pitt’s music has a transparent quality that allows the individual characteristics of each band member to be clearly heard at any given time, highlighting minute shifts in improvisational trajectory. A solid debut from a compelling band.

08 Dan McCarthyCity Abstract
Dan McCarthy

Origin Records 82788 (originarts.com)

Vibraphonist Dan McCarthy’s newest album, City Abstract, heralds the Toronto native’s return to his hometown, after 15 years living in New York and working with the likes of Steve Swallow, Ben Monder and George Garzone. City Abstract is a Canadian affair: recorded earlier this year at the Canterbury Music Company, it features the quartet of McCarthy, guitarist Ted Quinlan, bassist Pat Collins and drummer Ted Warren; of the nine tracks, six are McCarthy compositions.

McCarthy is an accomplished vibraphonist, with a strong technical command of his instrument and well-developed artistic intuition. This combination of taste and judgment serves him well throughout City Abstract, whether on up-tempo numbers like Bleyto and Go Berserk or on more reflective songs, such as Coral and Other Things of Less Consequence. Quinlan, Collins and Warren share this approach; though this is a band with chops to spare, they are always deployed in service to the music, rather than for personal glory.

City Abstract has many highlights to choose from. Bleyto, the album’s opener, is a tight, swinging song, with an athletic melody played ably in unison by Quinlan and McCarthy. The 7/4 Go Berserk is also an unexpected treat, if only because the juxtaposition of the vibraphone with distorted, high-gain guitar still seems relatively novel. Overall, City Abstract is a well-crafted modern jazz album from a talented bandleader whom the Toronto jazz scene should be glad to have back.

09 Andy BallantyneAndy Ballantyne: Play on Words
Andy Ballantyne; Rob Piltch; Adrean Farrugia; Neil Swainson; Terry Clarke
GB Records GBCD190307 (gbrecords.ca)

Toronto-native, saxophonist Andy Ballantyne has decided to pay tribute to some of his greatest influences on this new release. Ballantyne describes the thought behind this record as being a showcase of how it’s possible to make something your own and add your personal touch and flare to it, even within the bounds of certain stylistic constraints you often have as a freelance musician. It’s very much about showing how a musician can add their own unique perspective within a piece of music. Ballantyne composed all of the pieces except Till the Clouds Roll By, written by Jerome Kern, a famed musical theatre and popular music composer from the early 1900s.

All of the songs stand out in their own right and, if the listener knows about the greats Ballantyne is paying tribute to, it is easy to hear their influence. Some pieces that really come forth are Gordian Knot, a catchy and rhythmically pleasing opening track dedicated to Dexter Gordon, Round Shot, a song that is positively groovy and is a shout out to the great Cannonball Adderley and Mr. P.L., a quite cleverly named tune to honour one of our amazing local saxophonists (maybe the reader will be able to figure out who.) Featuring Adrean Farrugia on piano, Rob Piltch on guitar, Neil Swainson on bass and Terry Clarke on drums, this record is nothing short of excellent.

10 RobClutton TonyMalaby Cover trimOffering
Rob Clutton with Tony Malaby
Snailbongbong SBB006 (robclutton.bandcamp.com)

Bassist Rob Clutton has long been a mainstay of Toronto’s jazz community, as diligent supporting player in the mainstream and a creative catalyst in more adventurous settings. Clutton leads his own Cluttertones, combining songs, synthesizer and banjo, and he’s explored individualistic inspirations on solo bass. Here he’s playing a series of duets with New York saxophonist Tony Malaby, a fellow member of drummer Nick Fraser’s Quartet, and a standout soloist, whether for the animated gravel of his tenor or the piquant air of his soprano.  

That pared-down instrumentation reveals its rationale on the hymn-like title track, one of Clutton’s seven compositions here, his bowed bass complementing Malaby’s warm, airy tenor sound. On Refuge, as well, the two reach toward the grace and intensity of John Coltrane. Often admirably concise, the two can also stretch out, extending their spontaneous interaction on Crimes of Tantalus.

Among the three improvisations, Swamp Cut has both musicians reaching deep into their sonic resources, Malaby’s grainy soprano meeting its double in the high harmonics of Clutton’s bowed bass. The rapid-fire Twig has Clutton to the fore, plucking a kind of compound ostinato that fires Malaby’s lyricism. Swerve has as much focused energy and raw expressionism as bass and tenor might provide, while Nick Fraser’s Sketch #11 possesses a special melodic attraction.

Throughout, one hears the special camaraderie that two gifted improvisers can achieve in a stripped-down setting, while Clutton’s compositions could support a larger ensemble and further elaboration.

11 Simone LegaultLiminal Spaces
Simon Legault Trio
Effendi Records (effendirecords.com)

Simon Legault’s previous album was titled Hypnagogia Polis (2017) which referred to a transitional state from wakefulness to sleep and featured a quintet. Liminal Spaces (2019) is a trio album which includes Adrian Vedady on electric and acoustic bass and Michel Lambert on drums. Liminal means “relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process.” Therefore the theme of “transitions” can explain many of the melodic and compositional elements of his work. Legault’s guitar playing is both clean and precise and includes a spacey quality that hints at other worlds and explorations beyond the immediacy of the groove.

Many of the pieces seem to have evolved from improvisations and work organically through several organizing ideas or movements. The opening Liminal Spaces contains many rubato portions which draw on Legault’s melodic scampering; a pastiche of percussive nuances from Lambert provides a nuanced and shifting backdrop. Solus I, II, III and IV are shorter solo guitar works that explore a variety of melodic and harmonic ideas, all in relatively free time. On the other hand, Inflexion has a solid groove and a harder bop feel which Vedady and Lambert accentuate with great ensemble backing. Interwoven’s title could refer to the opening contrapuntal interplay between guitar, bass and drums which propels us forward to the busier middle section that showcases some excellent and articulate guitar chops leading to a thoughtful bass solo.

Legault’s “process” works to create a fascinating album that is introspective with bursts of melodic and rhythmic intensity.

12 Aurochs Perdidox CoverPerdidox
Aurochs
All-Set Editions (all-set.org)

Aurochs is an improvising group consisting of Ali Berkok (piano), Pete Johnston (bass), Jake Oelrichs (drums) and Mike Smith (live signal processing electronics) with a monthly Friday night residency at the Tranzac club in Toronto. Perdidox contains two longer improvisations, Grammar Architect and Perfect Future, which the group describes as “long slow atmospheric disturbances.” These works contain many elements including minimalism, jazz, funk, pointillism and general avant-garde mayhem. The addition of Smith’s electronics to the classic jazz trio instrumentation creates sounds that are repeated with delay, reverb and other treatments that blur distinctions between what is live and what is sampled and regenerated.

Both works have a strong rhythmic impulse for most of their span which drives the narrative forward. Grammar Architect maintains a sustained and funky forward momentum with many tasty riffs from Oelrichs, from shuffle to hypnotically off-centre snare, which plays off Johnston’s juicy bass sound. Perfect Future has a great break around the seven-minute mark where a simple bass riff is sampled and looped but most of the bass timbre has been taken away. The other players drop away and allow this riff to create a space before the second major section of the work which involves much tapping and scratching of instruments. The final portion contains many piano interjections that mix some Romantic elements with angular modernist riffs; towards the end, the drums and bass find a jazzy marching groove.

Perdidox is being released on SoundCloud which is becoming common in this age of multiple streaming platforms.

13 Sound of the Mountainamplified clarinet & trumpet, guitars, nimb
Sound of the Mountain with Tetuzi Akiyama and Toshimaru Nakamura
Mystery & Wonder MW008 (mwrecs.com)

Sound of the Mountain is the duo of clarinetist Elizabeth Millar and trumpeter Craig Pedersen, significant younger figures in the Montreal musique actuelle community. Their work includes orchestral roles, free jazz and free improvisation. This CD, titled by its instrumentation, comes from a 2017 Tokyo encounter with guitarist Tetuzi Akiyama and Toshimaru Nakamura, who plays “nimb” or no-input mixing board, plugging its output into its input and creating an array of controlled feedback sounds.

There are two improvisations here, identified by the numbers 1 (clocking in at 18:39) and 2 (16:51) and that instrument list. The music proceeds with its own developing form, a collection of shifting sounds, sometimes spacious, like an isolated guitar passage, some gently picked reflective notes, some longitudinally scraped strings, these matched with a few electronic burbles. At other times there’s a crumbling wall of sound: diverse feedback, a delicate clicking of clarinet keys, some lip-smacking kissing sounds from the trumpet.

Such literal description gives nothing of the actual experience of the music, which possesses an inner logic, sometimes jangling, sometimes a reverie in an industrial park. It’s a communion of sounds, linked in an experiential continuum rather than through fixed harmonies and rhythms. Ten minutes into 2, there’s a passage that sounds like a very wise child is gently plucking at a guitar for the first time, a trumpet plays muffled lines and there’s a hive of electronic sound. It’s a moment of perfect multi-dimensional calm.

14 PCPTriointernal/external/focused/broad
PCP Trio
Mystery & Wonder MW 004 (mwrecs.com)

Specializing in the outer limits of tones and timbres, Montreal’s PCP Trio works through one short and one extended improvisation on this brief – less than 25 minutes – CD, where the distinctions among pure sounds are exalted without a need for melody, harmony or rhythm. Writ large on Extended Listening Blues, the parameters set up include laconic watery burbles from Craig Pedersen’s amplified trumpet, off-handed slaps from drummer Eric Craven and a cornucopia of licks from guitarist Alex Pelchat that sputter, twang and clang among high-volume distortions.

Except for the occasional percussion thump or cymbal crash, the guitarist and trumpeter dominate the action with broken octave lines and dual counterpoint that initially evolves in a parallel fashion without intersection. By the mid-point however, the trumpeter’s dissected whistles and hums and the guitarist’s harsh string rubbing and metallic clangs reach a droning concordance, culminating in a finale of vibrating strings and measured brass breaths.

Not easy listening in any way, internal/external/focused/broad shouldn’t be frightening either. In their own ways free music and heavy metal practitioners have set up challenges to familiar and comfortable music. Stripping sounds to primeval levels is what the PCP Trio also does here, and the adventurous should want to check it to see how these experiments are proceeding.

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