08 Glacier MusicGlacier Music – Ecoacoustics of Matthew Burtner
Matthew Burtner
Ravello Records rr8001 (ravellorecords.com) 

Matthew Burtner is a multiple award-winning Alaskan-born composer, augmented computer instrument designer, and ecoacoustician, currently professor of composition and computer music at the University of Virginia. In his thought-provoking album Glacier Music, Burtner presents five compositions based on field recordings he made on various Alaskan glaciers, or which include the sounds of snow (the raw material of glaciers). These recordings are further transformed and edited by the composer in various novel ways.

Employing a musical ecoacoustics approach, he embeds environmental systems into musical and performative structures using new technologies. Burtner draws on techniques of sonification, acoustic ecology and soundscape composition pioneered by Canadian composers R. Murray Schafer, Barry Truax, Hildegard Westerkamp, et al.

Three of the works here – Sound Cast of Matanuska Glacier, Sonic Physiography of a Time-stretched Glacier, and Syntax of Snow also feature scores for standard orchestral instruments of the Rivanna Quartet, Albemarle Ensemble and percussionists Brandon Bell and Trevor Saint, providing timbral, harmonic and textural counterpoint to the field recordings and synthesized sounds. We’re reminded by the composer that at the threshold of mountain and ocean, glaciers “are highly susceptible to global warming … [providing] an indicator of the health of the region in a time of rapid climate change.”

Burtner’s music on this album sites the environment at its core, aiming to decentralize standard human musical notions. It seems to be searching for more universal ecology-centered experiences, inspiring us to reflect on nature’s beauty in sound, and perhaps also to take action to protect it.

09 Patricia LazzaraRadiance – A celebration of spiritual transformation and new creation
Patricia Lazzara, flute
Independent (patricialazzaraflutist.com) 

This, the ninth studio album by the distinguished American flutist, Patricia Lazzara, presents a fascinating program of contemporary compositions and arrangements for the flute by a collection of living American, Canadian, European and Japanese composers. The two Canadians are Toronto flutist and composer, Ron Korb, no stranger to these pages, and Uzbek-Canadian, now living in Toronto, Dmitriy Varelas.

The first two tracks are works by Korb, Woodland Serenade and A Muse. The latter, unlike any other of Korb’s compositions that I have heard, is unaccompanied and offers both technically challenging passages and sections using extended technique which blend perfectly with the more conventional writing. Track three, Reflections of Radiance, by Varelas, for flute and alto flute played by Steve Markoff and cello played by Gerall Heiser is a beautiful and accomplished work, a really great addition to the flute ensemble repertoire. Track eight, Domingo Semenzato’s Divagando (choro) with guitarist, Darren O’Neill is played with just the right blend of vitality and sadness to lift the notes off the page, so to speak.

A real surprise for me, and at first glance an incongruous part of a primarily contemporary program, is the Sicilienne by the Austrian composer and contemporary of Mozart, Maria Theresia von Paradis. This enchanting melody has a strangely contemporary feel to it though, and is actually a good fit. Many thanks to Patricia Lazzara for introducing us to some fine new repertoire by mostly not-well-known contemporary composers.

10 LaunchLaunch
Admiral Launch Duo
Albany Records TROY1752 (albanyrecords.com) 

Launch may be described as a way to introduce something new, which is precisely what the US-based Admiral Launch Duo is achieving with their uncanny/intriguing instrumentation. Since their 2013 Fresh Inc Festival debut, saxophonist Jonathan Hulting-Cohen and harpist Jennifer R. Ellis have spent years working together. Their debut 10-composition release features wide-ranging stylistic commissions, transcriptions and premiere recordings.

Five Admiral commissions are included. Patrick O’Malley’s three-movement Thaumaturgy is a current day exploration of harp and sax effects. Amazing how the performers can match colours on two such diverse instruments in an arpeggiated ripple section, while the loud programmatic final meteor movement stuns with harp glissandos and high pitch sax notes. More wailing sax extreme high dramatics with mournful contrasts appear in Christine Delphine Hedden’s Amhrán na Cásca, while dark low and high tones emulate emotional distress in Angélica Negrón’s Still Here. Close atonal interchanges and tight playing are heard on Jasper Sussman’s …nice box! “Oh So Square” and Natalie Moller’s nature-inspired starshine & moonfall.

The other works include changes of sonic pace. Highlights include traditional Romantic harmonies and melodies in the duo’s arrangement of Marcel Tournier’s La Lettre du Jardinier, and a contemplative lyrical harp part against sensitive saxophone phrasing and surprising flute-like tone fluttering on composer Ida Gotkovsky’s own arrangement of her Eolienne.

Musical common sense assumes that it just won’t work but like anything different, the Admiral Launch Duo’s talent, balance and sonic experimentation blossoms with repeated listening.

11 CrosswindCrosswind
Tower Duo
Ravello Records rr8003 (ravellorecords.com)

Based in Columbus, Ohio the flute and saxophone Tower Duo specializes in performing contemporary works by emerging composers. Flutist Erin Helgeson Torres performs regularly in various Ohio orchestras, while saxophonist and composer Michael Rene Torres serves as the artistic director of the Columbus Ohio Discovery Ensemble (dedicated to the promotion and performance of contemporary concert music in Central Ohio). Both are active teaching their respective instruments at area universities.

Performing new repertoire for their unusual wind instrument pairing (since 2007), Crosswind is Tower Duo’s debut album. It features eight of the duo’s favourite compositions by as many American and international composers. The album displays the duo’s mission: commissioning and performing new scores. Included is Scott Brickman’s epigrammatic Epic Suite (2012), Charlie Wilmoth’s disruptive Three Pieces (2013), Philip Sink’s Places Never Painted (2012), inspired by the composer’s poem evoking the quiet beauty of the natural world, as well as Michael Rene Torres’ four-part character study Four Short Episodes (2011).

The title track from 2013 by Hong Kong composer Chin Ting Chan (b.1986), written for the duo, is an album highlight. Full of extended techniques and reflecting Chan’s harmonically exact, rhythmically defined and structurally strict M.O., it pays close attention to instrumental timbre and colour, and two-voice polyphony. It’s also infused with a playfully dramatic, tonally exploratory mood.

This lightness of mood and unstrained virtuosity happily permeate this album, enjoyable to listeners far from the borders of the Buckeye State.

01 Laura HubertOne Night in Kensington
Laura Hubert
Independent (laurahubert.com)

Toronto singer Laura Hubert would be familiar to many readers as the energetic vocalist of the popular JUNO Award-winning Canadian folk/rock band the Leslie Spit Treeo (1988-2000). Hubert continues her musical journey singing jazz in this live recording from the Poetry Jazz Café in Toronto’s Kensington Market, supported by a superb jazz quartet comprised of pianist Peter Hill, guitarist Eric St-Laurent, bassist Steve Wallace and Davide DiRenzo on drums.

Hubert performs with an astounding, memorable sound. Her clear articulations of the storytelling lyrics are still present as she develops her expanding, still intense singing style in 13 contrasting cover tracks. The opening Mercer/Carmichael tune Lazy Bones is a great introduction to Hubert’s personal and at times idiosyncratic sound style, complete with swells, warble and growling vocal effects, and never over-the-top loud singing. A vocals/piano start leads to a full band rendition, with upbeat instrumental solos and background cymbal crashes nicely contrasting the vocal effects. The slower Ellington/Russell song I Didn’t Know About You has Hubert singing in a tenderly lush way, with dramatic held notes against standard jazz band backdrop sounds. The upbeat quasi cha-cha-cha tune Comes Love (Stept/Tobias/Brown) is another intense, unique rendition driven by a tight rhythmic groove.

Great musical interplay between Hubert and her band, extended colourful and exciting instrumental solos and clear production values, including the appreciative audience applause, complete this excellent live release from this musically evolving artist.

02 Simone MorrisSettling Up
Simone Morris
Independent (simonemorris.ca)

Toronto jazz vocalist Simone Morris’ debut album Settling Up is an absolute treat to the listener, a pop of delicious and sultry goodness in an otherwise dull and dreary day. The album was born out of a longtime collaboration with guitarist Mike Freedman, who is featured as a co-writer on each track along with Morris. Freedman’s mellow and fittingly soulful electric guitar licks, in combination with acclaimed pianist Adrean Farrugia’s delightful keyboard and piano riffs, add just the right amount of spirit to complement Morris’ soulful vocals.

Morris has described the album as “weaving a musical path that conveys diverse musical experience and background.” It is easy to fall into a pleasant lull and meander along this path with each piece offering a new stylistic experience that perfectly showcases her unique timbre and exceptionally varied musical background. From tracks such as Baby This Works and Man in the Corner, which delve into traditional jazz, to Don’t Come Crying To Me, an excellent, soft bossa nova, Morris’ artistic talents are made very apparent. With a very unique timbre, slightly Krall-esque but with an intriguing touch of spunk, she has succeeded in creating a captivating modern yet timeless quality within her music.

Not only do we receive an absolutely lovely and charming musical experience from this record, we are also able to catch a rare and intimate glimpse into Morris’ life experiences. Settling Up will delight jazz aficionados and newcomers alike.

Listen to 'Settling Up' Now in the Listening Room

03 John McMurchyVolume 2
John MacMurchy’s Art of Breath
Flatcar FCR-007 (johnmacmurchy.com)

The brainchild of woodwind player John MacMurchy, Art of Breath is a collective of jazz musicians playing across genres and musical borders. Perhaps heartchild is a better term, because it’s apparent that a lot of feeling went into these songs, all but one composed and arranged by MacMurchy.

The album opens gently and beautifully with Calliope, which features singers Jocelyn Barth and Jessica Lalonde in harmony throughout and a lulling solo by Dan Ionescu on nylon-string guitar. We’re moved into breezy Brazilian territory on Meu Coracao Canta which features band member and Brazilophile, Alan Hetherington and Rio de Janeiro-native, Maninho Costa, on percussion. Listen for the clever interplay of cuíca and voice near the end of the track.

We get jolted out of our daydream by the next few tracks which tackle tougher topics, like American politics, and the music gets more strident but no less superb. Bruce Cassidy’s masterful work on EVI – an electronic valve instrument, (an offshoot of the EWI) that came to prominence in the 70s and that’s quite a rarity these days – lends an urgent and interesting layer to Voice of America and the driving jazz number, WTF. Drummer Daniel Barnes, bassist Ross McIntyre and pianist Stacie McGregor keep it swinging on Slippery When Wet.

Both singers have gorgeous solo turns – Jocelyn Barth is exquisite and not overly sentimental on the Bobby Troup heartbreaker, February Brings the Rain, while Jessica Lalonde nails the vocally challenging Autumn Brown and Blue to close out the album.

Listen to 'Volume 2' Now in the Listening Room

04 IcterusIcterus
Stefan Hegerat
Independent (stefanhegerat.com)

The debut album from drummer/bandleader Stefan Hegerat, Icterus, was inspired in part by a trip to Germany, from which his mother’s family emigrated following World War I. The resulting collection of songs – all of which were composed and arranged by Hegerat – are connected by shared themes of “existentialism and belonging.” Joining Hegerat is Robert Grieve on electric guitar, Patrick O’Reilly, also on electric guitar and Mark Godfrey on electric bass.

Icterus, as the instrumentation may suggest, takes considerable influence from amplified electric music, and, though it is replete with improvisation, the prevailing stylistic tone is more rock than jazz. Schloss, the opening track, begins with a tightly executed staccato melody, played by both guitars and bass before the time dissolves into a section of group improvisation that showcases Grieve and O’Reilly’s complementary instrumental voices. Odd One Out, which showcases the group’s ability to explore wide dynamic ranges, begins with an ethereal guitar melody that grows patiently as it’s joined by the second guitar; when the rhythm section enters, the contrast between the rock-solid bass/drum parts and the spacey guitar parts neatly encapsulates the charm of Icterus. Raccoons, another highlight, builds slowly, eventually settling into one of the album’s most compelling sections, both for its deep groove and for the beautifully contrasting guitar tones used by Grieve and O’Reilly.

A worthwhile listen for fans of jazz, progressive rock and improvised music, Icterus is a mature and self-assured debut from a talented drummer with a clear compositional vision.

05 Jim Brenan50/50
Jim Brenan 11
Death Defying Records n/a (deathdefyingrecords.com) 

Saxophonist Jim Brenan has been a major force on the jazz scene for a number of years, performing in Canada and around the world both as a sideperson and with his own projects. 50/50, his most recent album, was released in February through the Canadian label Death Defying Records, and features pianist/keyboardist Chris Andrew, who joins Brenan and nine of Alberta’s top jazz musicians to form an 11-piece ensemble. The instrumentation – rhythm section and horns – works in Brenan’s favour, as it allows him to showcase his considerable writing and arranging skills, as well as his prowess as a soloist. While the band’s composition might bring to mind the swinging music of similarly sized Canadian ensembles, the overall vibe is driving, funky and distinctly electric, with touches of Michael Brecker’s large ensemble writing and late Miles Davis fused with Brenan’s unique artistic vision.

50/50 starts with Tigers Milk, a multifaceted song that begins with Brenan trading beautiful, melodic playing with the horn section’s lush chords; after a patient first half, the song segues into a pulsating, 16th-note-heavy second section, with excellent solos from both Brenan and Andrew. Fant-O-Max is one of 50/50’s funkiest and most exploratory songs, with tight horn melodies deftly played over the deep groove set up by drummer Jamie Cooper and bassist Rubim De Toledo, with a fiery soprano solo and a searching keyboard performance from Andrew. Ozark Mountain Cougar Fightin’ serves as an apt final track: at once virtuosic, funky and humorous, it neatly encapsulates Brenan’s project in 50/50.

06 Snowghost SessionsThe Snowghost Sessions
Wayne Horvitz; Geoff Harper; Eric Eagle
Songlines SGL1627-2 (songlines.com) 

Pianist/composer/producer Wayne Horvitz has been a prominent leader of the American avant-garde since his emergence in the 1980s in New York. In the ensuing years, he has been an active performer, has produced albums for artists such as the World Saxophone Quartet and Bill Frisell, and has had compositions commissioned by Kronos Quartet, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and many others. The Snowghost Sessions, released near the end of 2018 on Vancouver’s Songlines record label, is the result of a weeklong residency undertaken by Horvitz, upright bassist Geoff Harper, and drummer Eric Eagle at SnowGhost Studios in Whitefish, Montana in the spring of 2015.

The Snowghost Sessions marks Horvitz’s first trio record in a conventional keys/bass/drums format, and the album starts with The Pauls, a pensive, eerie piece that sets the tone for the rest of the recording. Throughout Snowghost, Horvitz uses keyboards, live processing and triggered samples to expand the traditional sonic range of the acoustic piano trio. In some cases – such as the organ parts on Northampton – these electric additions work subtly, providing additional texture behind the grand piano. At other times, as on The Trees, the piano plays more of a supporting role to processed sounds; still further across the spectrum, on IMB, distorted, filtered keyboards rage over aggressive up-tempo swing. Through it all, Horvitz, Harper and Eagle are open and generous with one another, and Snowghost manages to be exploratory without ever meandering. Highly recommended.

07 Lawful CitizenInternal Combustion
Lawful Citizen
Independent (evanshay.com) 

Internal Combustion, released in November 2018, is the debut album from the Montreal-based band Lawful Citizen, a quartet composed of tenor saxophonist Evan Shay, guitarist Aime Duquet, electric bassist Antoine Pelegrin, and drummer Kyle Hutchins. Recorded at Montreal’s Mechanicland Studios, Internal Combustion is the follow-up to Lawful Citizen’s eponymous 2017 EP, and takes its inspiration from “the grit, brutality and rawness” contained in the “history of the internal combustion engine.” Needless to say, Internal Combustion is not a timid album. Which is not to suggest, of course, that it lacks in subtlety; over the course of the album’s nine songs, there are plenty of quiet, introspective moments, particularly at various points throughout the four-part Internal Combustion Suite. But, as is natural for a young group (they formed a few years ago at McGill), the overall mood, as the title suggests, is bold, dynamic and fiery.

Following The Day After – a lovely, short introductory piece, with Shay’s saxophone overdubbed to create a choral effect – Internal Combustion’s first ensemble song is February 2nd, a driving straight-eighths number that builds to a compelling climax in the saxophone solo. Shatter begins with a great drum groove from Hutchins, then morphs into one of the album’s heaviest tracks, with Duquet’s fuzzed-out guitar dominating the proceedings. The aforementioned four-part suite alone is worth the price of admission; nowhere on the album is Lawful Citizen’s penchant for extreme dynamic range deployed more surprisingly and more effectively.

08 Andrew RathburnCharacter Study
Andrew Rathbun; Tim Hagans; Gary Versace; Jay Anderson; Bill Stewart
SteepleChase SCCD 31862 (andrewrathbun.com) 

Andrew Rathbun’s latest release Character Study takes the listener on a unique and varied musical journey; a journey that showcases his excellent and imaginative talents as a composer-arranger and saxophonist. All pieces on the album, with the exception of Etcetera, are written by Rathbun himself.

The foray into the proverbial musical jungle begins with the sensational opening track The Golden Fool, where bassist Jay Anderson’s energetic runs and percussionist Bill Stewart’s constant shuffle beat keep listeners on their toes, awaiting what unique elements Rathbun has in store for the rest of the piece and the record as a whole. Pieces such as Team of Rivals, His Quiet Determination and The Long Awakening display Rathbun’s contemplative and lyrical sides and are also a testament to his delightful, dance-like and extraordinary talent as a saxophonist. The title track provides an exemplary contrast between lyricism and liveliness, a theme that seems to present itself in several compositions.

Many of the tracks allow ample opportunities to appreciate the musicians who contribute to the musical journey as a whole through various thoroughly enjoyable and virtuosic solos. The ever-present and exceptional dynamic collaboration between instruments is very apparent and noticeable throughout the record and it is easy to appreciate the contribution of each musician to breathing additional life into Rathbun’s compositions. Character Study serves as yet another attestation to the undeniable talent and artistry of the Toronto native.

09 Lion Camel ChildThe Lion, Camel & Child
Johnny Griffith Quintet (Jeremy Pelt; Adrean Farrugia; Jon Maharaj; Ethan Ardelli)
GB Records (gbrecords.ca) 

This could well sound as if it is tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffith’s Le carnival des animaux, except that The Lion, Camel & Child, his menagerie – unlike Saint-Saëns’ – is affectionately symbolic and celebrates the iconography of two animals and a child, albeit that it is also written with his musician friends in mind. The result is a vivacious program of music which unfolds in the characteristic manner of Griffith’s rolled notes and elliptical phrases. When egged on by trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, however, the sound can emerge like a series of charmingly guttural Welsh-bound “gogs” that might seemingly recall the sound of his distant ancestors from another time.

Griffith’s repertoire is wholly homegrown and is centred in the jazz tradition, written for a quintet of musicians who parley with the familiarity of old friends, which indeed they are. The album leads off with the suite after which it is titled. The work’s opening is powerfully atmospheric – darkly lugubrious chords that are interpolated into one theme after the other built upon a kinetic restlessness that drives the whole suite until the fourth movement, its denouement, which resonates with characteristic vibrancy belying its title.

Throughout, Griffith’s tenor saxophone leads the charge, ringing in the changes in mood, structure and tempo. He is also joined in the musical adventure and with poetic melodicism by pianist Adrean Farruggia, and powerhouse rhythmic teamsters, bassist Jon Maharaj and drummer Ethan Ardelli.  

09 Clock RadioClock Radio
Michael Davidson; Dan Fortin
Elastic Recordings ER 001 (elasticrecordings.com)

Think of a duet featuring a vibraphone as one of the instruments in a jazz recording and the iconic ones with Gary Burton and Chick Corea jump to mind. So by association, vibraphonist Michael Davidson’s duet with bassist Dan Fortin is already in good company. However, it isn’t simply this fact that makes this a duo recording (albeit with a bassist) that merits curious, if not close listening; what matters much more is the fact that, between Davidson and Fortin, the musicians marshal their forces with superb discipline, producing a wonderfully fresh sound which also manages to possess the requisite amount of mystery – essential for a work this spare in sound.

Clock Radio is a collection of musical impressions and memories of Davidson’s apprenticeship, in 2017, with the celebrated mallet percussionist David Friedman in Germany. Davidson strikes the sound bars with hard and soft mallets to bounce bright, orotund tone colours off his instrument. He invites Fortin into this soundworld. The bassist engages in the musical conversation with angular counterpoint that is characterized by the ink-dark rumble of his instrument.

The disc is dappled with – among others – elements from a suite-in-the-making titled Berlin; miniatures imbued with contrapuntal unison passages, as well as restless, scurrying and brilliantly inventive features from one musician in response to the other. And the miraculous piece entitled zwei werden eins (Two Become One) makes vivid listening from a partnership we hope to hear much more from.

10 Dream LibrettoDream Libretto
Marilyn Crispell; Tanya Kalmanovitch; Richard Teitelbaum
Leo Records CD LR 849 (leorecords.com) 

A rare departure for American pianist Marilyn Crispell and Canadian violinist Tanya Kalmanovitch, who are usually involved with spiky improvisational work, this mostly sombre program instead deals with loss and regeneration reflected in a five-part Crispell composition for trio and seven duo improvisations.

Showcased, Memoria/For Pessa Malka is the pianist’s formal composition, and it evolves in different sequences to reflect the emotions she felt following the recent deaths of close relatives and friends. Crucially, Richard Teitelbaum’s wave-form processing is funeral parlour-like muted, with the requisite sense of mourning really conveyed by brief violin sweeps that help amplify the pianist’s low-frequency threnody. Luckily when the final sequence is heard, Crispell has shaken off enough melancholy to enliven the coda with chiming piano chords.

Created without electronics, the seven equally brief improvisations are a requiem respite. Accelerating from the first four tracks which crisply outline how grief can lead to musical artistry, the pieces become livelier with, for instance, Kalmanovitch’s snapping spiccato strings and Crispell stretching arpeggios into tremolo chording. By the time Stones Remain Still and Walked through to Sleep (the penultimate tracks) arrive, the mood has been elevated to become more stimulating. This is done with inner-piano string strums and keyboard surges alongside upward string swells from the violinist. Instructively though, the musical uplift reflected in these duos still maintains the solemn mood that is intensified in the final Stars Visible and Invisible which cannily reflects back on the initial suite.

11 Curran EndangeredEndangered Species
Alvin Curran
New World Records 80804-2 (newworldrecords.org)

American composer Alvin Curran is famed as a member of Musica Elettronica Viva, the pioneering improvising electroacoustic ensemble. Yet in his 80th year he has revived his primary musical experiences, playing American Songbook standards. But since this is Curran and this is the 21st century, this two-CD set of classic tunes arrives with a twist. Besides his subtle piano improvisations that impressively re-imagine the tunes, he employs a Yamaha Disklavier. Resembling a grand piano, but actually a blend of acoustic keyboard, player piano and digital computer, the Disklavier allows him to append any manner of previously recorded sounds to the tracks.

Take the nearly 17-minute rendition of Ain’t Misbehavin’. As Curran works his way through the familiar melody with aplomb, all manner of inharmonious and grating noises are interjected and then vanish, including whistles, yodels, bel canto arias, wolf calls, marching feet, erotic moans and duck calls. Incorporating these disruptions, he alters the melody at points to work in blues tonality and formal recital inferences, culminating in a thoroughly original re-creation.

Each of the 18 compositions goes through a similar transformation, whether it’s 1896’s Red River Valley or 1955’s Arrivederci Roma. While most include a humorous palimpsest of the original, only Arrivederci Roma with its sonic overlay of crying infants, street noises and snatches of Italian-language conversations, add a hint of seriousness to the familiar light-hearted melody, since Curran has lived and taught in Rome since the early 1960s.

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