04 Weillerstein Transfigured HaydnTransfigured Night
Alisa Weilerstein; Trondheim Soloists

Pentatone PTC 5186 717 (pentatonemusic.com)

The Trondheim Soloists is a Norwegian chamber orchestra formed in 1988, now recognized as one of the most innovative and exciting groups in the country and fervent performers of Scandinavian music. Alisa Weilerstein was appointed artistic partner in 2017 and this is the first recording in their new exclusive agreement for Pentatone Music. The performances and recording are exemplary in every respect. A brilliant debut.

The contrasting choice of repertoire, Haydn and Schoenberg, each an apt foil for the other, works well. Weilerstein was taken with the Haydn concertos when performing them the previous September in their first collaboration. The buoyant and inspired performances and translucent recordings are more than satisfying.

Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, Transfigured Night, is a programmatic string sextet in one movement, composed in 1899, inspired by the Romantic poem of the same name by Richard Dehmel. As in the poem, the work is in five sections. Dehmel tells the tale of a man and a woman, lovers, walking through the woods. She confesses to him that the child she is carrying was conceived in an embrace with a stranger. After much turmoil the man tells her that the depth and warmth of their love will transfigure the stranger’s child to be his… theirs. Resolved, they walk, his arm about her, through the high, bright night.

In 1943 Schoenberg scored the work for a string orchestra, which is the version heard here. Although I have listened to and absorbed this favourite work many, many times over the years, I am newly thrilled and quite taken with this brilliantly recorded, poignant performance. The fourth section, Adagio, where the transfiguration begins, blending into the fifth section’s molto tranquillo, quite literally took my breath away. The musicians are consistently responsive and dedicated, sounding like true believers.

I had not read the accompanying booklet before listening but later leafing through it found Weilerstein’s notes. Her account of the recording sessions concluded, “While recording Verklärte Nacht, at the end of a day spent working through details, we concluded with one final concert play-through – a tradition where the fatigue of a long session often outstrips artistic goals. This time, however, it was the most vibrant and focused rendition of the whole afternoon. As the final note decayed in the rounded echo of that old church, everything was completely still and everyone completely silent.”

05 Strauss AlpsRichard Strauss – Eine Alpensinfonie
Frankfurt Radio Symphony; Andrés Orozco-Estrada
Pentatone PTC 5186 628 (pentatonemusic.com)

With Ein Heldenleben and Macbeth released in 2016, Andrés Orozco-Estrada and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony already showed themselves to be impressive Straussians. And now, with Eine Alpensinfonie, Orozco-Estrada and the orchestra have continued to uncover the feverishly ardent harmonics and melodic tuneful artistry of the last great German Romantic composer with electrifying brilliance. Unravelling this work with subtle note-spinning, both conductor and orchestra have infused it with febrile energy and hip-swinging seductiveness through to a finale that is properly shattering.

Completed in 1915, Eine Alpensinfonie turned out to be the last of Strauss’ large-scale non-operatic works, crafted with masterful use of horns. Orozco-Estrada’s approach here is unrushed and often expansive. But there is no shortage of dynamism: though leisurely by the clock the performance is spectacularly punctuated by enormous Straussian shock and shudder. At its peak this performance takes the composer’s atmospherics of Eine Alpensinfonie completely seriously, and achieves a quality of sound so rich and incisive as to overcome Strauss’ proverbial bombast and prolixity.

What the conductor cannot disguise – indeed he revels in it – is the impetuosity of Strauss’ orchestral writing. Moments of awe swell in Eintritt in den Wald and the thrill of adventure soars in the prophetic colour and expression, especially in Auf dem Gipfel and the thunderous Gewitter und Strum, Abstieg. This work is well-suited to Orozco-Estrada’s flamboyant style, and the orchestra’s rich refulgent tone as both conductor and orchestra hit the mark in thrilling fashion.

06 Bartok Kodaly ConcertosBartók & Kodály – Concertos for Orchestra
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin; Jakub Hrůša
Pentatone PTC 5186 626 (pentatonemusic.com)

Two works of the same title and genre by the two most important composers of 20th-century Hungary, yet as different as can be. Bartók is a genius and now is being fully appreciated. He successfully achieved a synthesis of modern trends between tonal and atonal music, consonance and dissonance, infusing both with inspiration from mid-century turmoil and anguish. Kodály is in no way close to this level though highly skilled, very competent and dedicated to Hungarian folk music, suffusing it with his own considerable melodic richness and compositional skill and also achieving international fame.

Kodály’s Concerto (1940) has only recently come to widespread worldwide attention with some worthy new recordings. It combines contrapuntal fireworks of Baroque architecture with a high-stepping Hungarian folk dance, alternating fast and slow movements, all with a jaunty good forward momentum and an increasing complexity. It is also highly entertaining, and young, dynamic Polish conductor Jakub Hrůša makes the most of it with his energetic, brisk tempi and natural affinity for Eastern European music. This performance will make many converts to the piece.

But the ultimate appeal for this new Pentatone issue (famous for recording excellence today) is this atmospheric, beautifully detailed, thoroughly convincing and passionate performance of the Bartók Concerto (1943). Hrůša sure has what it takes and reminds me of the great Georg Solti in his prime, but with an even more virtuosic orchestra and superior recording technology. Bartók was a very sick man in America when he wrote this amazing work, but just listen to the incredible energy of the rustling strings, the bold utterances on the brass and the vitality of superhuman energy outpouring in the last movement. An unshaken faith for a better world and unconquerable humanity.

American Romantics
Gowanus Arts Ensemble; Reuben Blundell
New Focus Recordings FCR 166

American Romantics III
Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra; Reuben Blundell
New Focus Recordings FCR166C (newfocusrecordings.com)

07a AmericanLovely melodies and evocative tone-painting fill the first and third volumes of the American Romantics series created by conductor Reuben Blundell. Together these two CDs present first recordings of 19 pieces by 14 mostly forgotten late-19th- and early-20th-century composers born or active in the U.S.

In the first volume, Blundell leads the Gowanus Arts Ensemble, ten string players who also perform on American Romantics II, reviewed in The WholeNote this past February. In the latest release, Blundell appears as music director of the Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra, a professional-sounding community orchestra in Philadelphia.

Two composers, Ludwig Bonvin and Carl Busch, are featured in both discs under review. Swiss-born Bonvin (1850-1939) emigrated to Buffalo, where he served as music director of Canisius College. He’s represented by the hymn-like Christmas Night’s Dream for strings and the very Wagnerian Festival Procession for orchestra. Busch (1864-1943), from Denmark, settled in Kansas City, finding inspiration in North American Indigenous melodies. Volume I contains two movements from his Indian Tribal Melodies: Four North American Legends; Volume III includes two richly coloured, dramatic tone poems, Minnehaha’s Vision and The Song of Chibiabos, both based on Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha.

07b American IIIAnother composer who wrote many works on First Nations subjects was Charles Wakefield Cadman (1881-1946), one of the few recognizable names in the American Romantics series. His five-movement Thunderbird Suite, said to incorporate Blackfoot melodies, is, at 21 minutes, by far the longest work on these two discs. The highly cinematic Suite dates from 1918, well before sound arrived in Hollywood, but it’s not surprising that, in later years, Cadman moved to Los Angeles where he would indeed go on to compose music for films.

Gena Branscombe (1881-1977), the only woman and only Canadian on these discs, was born in Picton, Ontario (not PEI, as the notes state) but left for the U.S. as a teenager to pursue her musical studies. There, she composed prolifically in all genres, founded and conducted the Branscombe Chorale, and commissioned and performed works by many other women composers. Her brief, bittersweet waltz, A Memory, a miniature Valse Triste, was originally for violin and piano; it’s heard in an arrangement for harp and strings.

Like A Memory, all of the predominantly short pieces on these two CDs are well worth hearing, though they tend to fall into the Easy Listening category. This series is obviously a labour of love for conductor Blundell and I hope he continues his pattern of one release per year. I look forward, however, to hearing more extended, substantial yet unfairly forgotten works by these unfairly mostly forgotten composers.

01 Srul GlickSrul Irving Glick – Suites Hébraïques
James Campbell; Angela Park; Elissa Lee; Sharon Wei; Cameron Crozman; Barry Shiffman; Wallace Halladay; Susan Hoeppner
Centrediscs CMCCD 24817 (musiccentre.ca)

Srul Irving Glick (1934-2002) composed six Suites Hébraïques between 1961 and 1984, each a multi-movement work ranging between ten and 20 minutes in length. Three are written for solo instrument with piano accompaniment, and three for a variety of chamber ensembles. This release is the first to compile them all under one cover, and features some of Canada’s finest instrumental performers.

Modest in means and range, the pieces are nonetheless pure expressions of the composer’s love for Jewish traditional melodies, harmonies and forms. Not one movement exceeds six minutes, while most are much shorter. Glick didn’t write them to claim a place atop Parnassus, but rather to celebrate the music he heard and loved growing up the son of a cantor, singing in his father’s choir and at home. For that reason, pay particular note to Suite No.4, for saxophone and piano, played (sung) by Wallace Halladay with Angela Park on piano. Also on the second disc is the final suite, played by violinist Barry Shiffman with Park again at the piano. Both soloists perfectly express the singing quality called for in Glick’s music. Park took on the lion’s share of playing on this recording. She performs beautifully in four of the six suites.

Because they are based in the traditional forms, there is a repetitiveness to the titles: Circle Dance occurs in five and Cantorial Chant in four of the six suites; other titles, such as Nigun and Hora, variously find their way into several of them. It’s not a stretch to compare this to the work of Baroque composers, who also explored forms repeatedly in dance suites. However, nowhere does the music repeat itself. In fact, Glick seems to have been one of those composers for whom there was little effort in devising new material. In the jacket note Dorothy Sandler-Glick is quoted thus: “The melodies came easily as if they were waiting for him to lift them out of his soul.” So they sound.

03 ApogeeApogee – Music of Farshid Samandari
Mark Takeshi McGregor; Ariel Barnes; Brian Nesselroad; Marcus Takizawa; Joy Yeh
Redshift Records TK453 (redshiftrecords.org)

Vancouver-based composer Farshid Samandari (b. Tehran 1971) arrived in Vancouver in 2001. He quickly embedded himself in the regional contemporary concert music scene, serving in 2013 as composer-in-residence of the Vancouver Inter-Cultural Orchestra. That position has helped him build bridges with global musicians resident in the culturally diverse hub of the greater Vancouver area.

Apogee features Samandari’s works for conventional Western instrumentation stylishly played by Onyx Trio’s Mark Takeshi McGregor (flute), Marcus Takizawa (viola), and Joy Yeh (harp), plus Brian Nesselroad (percussion). His compositions primarily reflect his interest in contemporary Western musical vocabulary, spectral analysis, as well as extended instrumental techniques. But Apogee also provides a window into subjects that inform his work, including modal Persian classical music and literature.

Another key ingredient is referred to in the liner notes: the autobiographical nature of the compositions played here. Exile and the search for a home are recurring narratives. And it’s the orchestral flute which takes centre stage in many of the five works here, serving as the composer’s voice. The flute is also the listener’s guide through Samandari’s life journey, connecting his old and new worlds. My favourite moments on the album are in the lonely, expressive and virtuoso flute solos of Apogee (2005) and the very substantial 16-minute Nuclide (2014), both sparkling played by Takeshi McGregor. These works belong in the Canadian flute solo playbook.

Samandari’s moto is “Unity in Diversity.” We get a sense of his personal peregrinations from Iran to Canada’s west coast in Apogee.

Listen to 'Apogee – Music of Farshid Samandari' Now in the Listening Room

04 Curio BoxCurio Box – Berio; Hindemith; Underhill
Ariel Barnes; Fides Krucker; Turning Point Ensemble; Owen Underhill
Orlando Records OR 0037 (orlando-records.com)

This disc is a standout, with terrific performances and a compelling program of works, all confronting the relationship between the past and the present.

In Kammermusik No.3 from 1925, German composer Paul Hindemith looks back to the Baroque, especially to Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. The Vancouver-based Turning Point Ensemble, under Owen Underhill’s direction, handles the inventive contrapuntal textures with stylish buoyancy, while Canadian cellist Ariel Barnes brings out Hindemith’s lyrical side. Barnes’ restraint with vibrato and Romantic phrasing is especially appropriate to Hindemith, an accomplished violist who was deeply involved in historical performance practices.

At the same time that avant-garde Italian composer Luciano Berio was creating his pioneering experimental works like Sinfonia, he was working on arrangements – and rearrangements – of music of the past, from Monteverdi to Puccini. In Folk Songs, from 1964, he creates altogether new accompaniments for traditional folk tunes (plus a few composed songs) from around the world. The result is an extraordinary mélange of styles and harmonic languages. Canadian vocalist Fides Krucker’s blazing theatricality and playful brilliance put her in the same league as the fabulous American singer Cathy Berberian, who premiered this work.

Canadian composer and conductor Underhill’s own Cello Concerto from 2016 takes us through the fragmentation and reassembling of memories of the past, triggered by a Chinese curio box full of precious objects. The virtuosic, responsive Turning Point Ensemble under Underhill’s precise direction creates evocative, colourful interplay with Barnes’ adventurous and dramatic cello playing.

I enjoyed the anecdotal liner notes and bios, but I do wish there were texts for the songs – with translations.

05 Shostakovich 4 11Shostakovich – Symphonies Nos. 4 & 11 “The Year 1905”
Boston Symphony Orchestra; Andris Nelsons
Deutsche Grammophon 80028595-02 (deutschegrammophon.com)

It says here there was no greater symphonist of the 20th century than Shostakovich. Don’t @ me, as they say on Twitter. This DG recording of the Boston Symphony, led by Andris Nelsons, is part of their ongoing project to record the complete cycle by the beleaguered Russian artist.

The story behind his Symphony No.4 is relevant to any reading of the piece, although much too involved to fully recount here. Suffice it to say he fell into sudden disfavour with Stalin while working on it, and finally chose to withdraw the work before its premiere. The move, while an illustration of how little freedom an artist had during the era, likely saved the composer from exile to the Gulag. (An excellent fuller version of the story is available here: michaellewanski.com/blog/2014/10/8/shostakovich-symphony-no-4-in-c-minor-op-43).

Too many adjectives can attach to the puzzling work: at turns horrifying, melodramatic, sarcastic, madcap, maudlin, macabre, morose. Shostakovich might have been passing a note to his compatriot colleagues like Alfred Schnittke and Edison Denisov: “Here is as far as you can go, and not in any safety.”

Nelsons wrings a full accounting of the hair-raising piece, all 65 minutes of it, from the redoubtable BSO musicians. I defy anyone to listen to James Somerville’s horn playing here without feeling simultaneously uplifted and devastated.

The second half of the two-disc release makes a curious pairing. Symphony No.11 was composed more than two decades later in 1957, followed an overt “program” in depicting the events of the brutally quashed 1905 Russian workers’ uprising, and was written to satisfy a government-mandated (“suggested”) recognition of the 40th anniversary of the 1917 revolution. Perhaps the idea is to contrast the work of a brash young idealist, an artist who believed he was free, to the more mature output of one who knew he never would be. Clearly in his music he felt the humanity of those starving workers, murdered a half-century earlier by a despot. There are subtexts to all of his music, and the question remains about whether this symphony reflected the composer’s views about more recent crimes.

Programmatically structured to the point of pedantry, it is nonetheless brilliantly played. Hearing these excellent players gives the heart ease.

06 Trio ClavioTrio Clavio
Trio Clavio
ArcoDiva UP 0204 (arcodiva.cz)

Established with the help of Polish clarinetist/conductor Jakub Bokun in 2013, this Czech trio has been performing as Trio Clavio since its successful debut at Wrocław, Poland’s Clarimania Festival. The three talented members – pianist Lucie Soutorová Valčová, violinist Lucia Fulka Kopsová and clarinetist Jana Černohouzová – are each superstar soloists and chamber musicians. In their debut self-titled two-CD release, they demonstrate solid technique, musicality, ensemble playing, personal musical risk-taking, integrity, and the joy of performing music.

CD One has these younger-generation musicians playing music by three 20th-century composers. Highlights from Stravinsky’s trio suite from L’Histoire du soldat include colourful low and high pitches, clear articulation of individual notes, and mood-making intense playing, especially at the almost spooky Danse du Diable closing. Bartók’s three-movement Contrasts features a tighter full-orchestra sound, with classic Bartók dramatic musical conversations between the instruments. Paul Schoenfield’s Trio for Clarinet, Violin & Piano is a four-movement, Jewish-based work. The opening Freylakh has a nice klezmer feel, especially in the held violin and clarinet notes. March opens with exciting low-pitched mysterious piano notes and ascending and descending glissandos, leading to subsequent virtuosic trio performance. Nigun is a fugal klezmer piece and the final Kozatske is an exciting fast klezmer-flavoured movement.

CD Two showcases diverse works by living composers. Love Czech Lukáš Hurník’s witty work, Alphabet. After a short introduction, each capital letter of the alphabet is given a musical score resulting in a piece packed with diverse ideas and sounds. E is a fugue with three instruments emulating its three horizontal lines; D is all played on the violin D string; G is brought to sound life with a florid piano line. Czech Martin Brunner composed his self-described childishly playful Like Children while thinking of trio-member Valčová’s son. The three movements delight with touches of lullaby, reflection and running-around sounds. Trio Clavio commission “Chiaroscuro” Trio by Slovak Juraj Filas is a single-movement, tonal, expressive, Romantic-flavoured sonata reminiscent of film music, including subtle and sudden dramatic musical shifts from loud rhythms to slower reflective sections, high pitches and lengthy held notes. Closing is Czech Sylvie Bodorová’s Vallja e malit “Dancing Mountain,” a folk-music rooted work with a tight Ballata opening, and a faster, closing, toe-tapping, intense, rapid line-filled Danza movement.

Trio Clavio is musically wonderful, unique and breathtaking in all they play!

01 Brodie WestClips
Brodie West Quintet
Independent LORNA/011 (brodiewest.com)

In the world of scientific laboratories, an experiment is defined as “a procedure carried out to support, refute, or validate a hypothesis.” Experiments provide insight into cause and effect by demonstrating what outcome occurs when a particular factor is manipulated. Experiments vary greatly in goal and scale, but always rely on repeatable procedure and logical analysis of the results. However, in music the word experimentation ought not to exist, as no scientifically repeatable procedure can be used to support, refute, or validate its hypotheses.

The music of the Brodie West Quintet validates its constructs with magic and mystery, both becoming the quintessence of their improvisational musical world. Truth be told, when it comes to West and his music – particularly on Clips – mystery and magic all collide in one unscientifically glorious big bang, producing art that always defies and blurs any categories. The alto saxophonist continues to destroy the proverbial artificial walls erected in music.

Goal and scale are tossed into the unknown with the wickedly intense scope of the music on Clips. The fractured rhythms of the radiantly irreverent Prel and Fug are an exemplary experience of the sparkling wit and ingenuity of West’s yammering melodic and harmonic conceptions. The saxophonist also draws into this musical web pianist Tania Gill, bassist Josh Cole and the drummers Nick Fraser and Evan Cartwright. Together they penetrate West’s riddle-filled music at a deeper level, creating art that’s radically fresh and intuitive, and plucked as if from ether.

02 Chris MonsonSeldom in the Well
Chris Monson
Independent (chrismonson.bandcamp.com)

Chris Monson’s debut album, Seldom in the Well, showcases his original jazz compositions while maintaining the stylish 60s feel. At times it is reminiscent of Blue Note records from that period, with a subtle rhythmic drive and touch of sultriness. It also features a stellar sextet – Monson on guitar, Kelly Jefferson on tenor saxophone, Kevin Turcotte on trumpet/flugelhorn, Anthony Panacci on piano, Artie Roth on acoustic bass and Tom Rasky on drums. Monson’s early roots in progressive rock are not necessarily obvious here; rather, his arrangements are an intricate map of sounds and stories.

The album opens with the rich-sounding Where the Leaf Has Been, a sonic hint of what is to come. That hint is revealed perfectly in my favourite tune on the album, Distant. Solid. Figures. As I was listening to it with my headphones, I was immersed in the sounds constantly moving from the left to the right in some sections – it was incredibly intimate and engaging. The Passing Through finally showcases Monson’s funky guitar grooves and his taste for understated melodies. Although he often takes a backseat, allowing each of his fellow musicians to shine, Monson maintains constant rhythmic conversations with the piano. As a matter of fact, many of the subtle rhythm hooks are this album’s gems. If We Dreamed of Soaring features another jewel – the bowed bass solo, so unexpected and so beautiful that it makes this music come full circle.

Seldom in the Well has a combination of aural density and airiness that appeals to both seasoned jazz listeners and novices in the genre. Recommended.

04 John PirmanKinship
John Pittman; Shirantha Beddage; Jeff McLeod; Mike Downes; Curtis Nowosad
Slammin Media SMO001 (pittmanmusic.com)

Released on August 24 through the Toronto-based company Slammin’ Media, Kinship is the debut solo release from trumpeter/composer John Pittman. Pittman is a veteran member of the Heavyweights Brass Band – probably Toronto’s best-known New Orleans-style horn ensemble – and he has been a mainstay on the local scene for some time, performing with a wide range of musical artists. Pittman is joined on this outing by baritone saxophonist Shirantha Beddage, pianist Jeff McLeod, bassist Mike Downes and drummer Curtis Nowosad, all of whom share some degree of personal history with Pittman; the concept of kinship, as Pittman writes in his liner notes, is “at the heart of this album.”

Kinship starts with the up-tempo Ties That Bind, an exciting piece that sets the tone for the rest of the album, both musically and thematically. For Siobhan – written by Pittman for his wife – is a bouncy, backbeat-driven affair, with solid rhythm section playing, and Homio-stasis, a satisfying, swinging song, is as close to a standard as Kinship gets, featuring a blistering muted solo from Pittman and an articulate, lyrical contribution from Downes. Of the album’s eight songs, only two are covers: As, the Stevie Wonder classic, and Where Is The Love?, from the catalogue of the Black Eyed Peas. Throughout Kinship, Pittman’s trumpet is strong, athletic and mature, and – much like his arrangements – displays a winning combination of hard bop, New Orleans and modern jazz influences.

When Day Slips Into Night
University of Toronto 12TET

UofT Jazz (uoftjazz.ca)

Explosion
Cory Weeds Little Big Band
Cellar Live CL111317 (cellarlive.com)

05a UT 12tetJazz comes in many sizes including solo, trio, quartet and big band; Cory Weed’s Little Big Band’s Explosion, and the University of Toronto 12tet’s When Day Slips Into Night, are newly released examples of the “small big band” format. This size allows a large sonic palette while having a more flexible group to work with (a famous example is the Miles Davis Nonet that played on Birth of the Cool). Explosion is the work of professional musicians from Vancouver, Edmonton and New York. When Day Slips Into Night is the product of the University of Toronto’s jazz performance program and contains a mix of undergraduate and graduate performers and arrangers.

05b Cory WeedsExplosion is full of great music and performances, and the comprehensive liner notes by Chris Wong provide context to the album’s development and its individual tracks. Longtime Vancouver saxophonist (and former jazz club owner) Cory Weeds organized the group and commissioned Jill Townsend and Bill Coon to write the arrangements of the songs he chose. All the performances are precise, energetic and just plain swing. Weeds’ tenor sax solos are inventive and assured; he can play solid bop lines and then pause and interject some assured lyricism. East of the Village shows the band easily changing from an opening contrapuntal bossa beat that moves to straight swing and back again. Canadian Sunset starts out with its signature loping cowboy rhythm employing Gary Smulyan’s baritone sax to good effect and then moves into a swinging section. The final piece, Ready and Able, is reminiscent of Four Brothers as it highlights the saxophone section (Weeds and Smulyan with PJ Perry on alto and Steve Kaldestad on tenor), beginning with tight ensemble playing and then opening up to multiple solos, which transition from full choruses to exchanging two-bar phrases, before building to an energetic conclusion.

When Day Slips Into Night features the work of student arrangers, though it begins with Extra Time written by Mike Murley and arranged by Terry Promane, who also leads the band. Bolivia is a solid swinging song which begins with some great piano work by Noah Franche-Nolan, then uses the brass and saxes to good effect, where Brandon Tse plays some great scampering alto sax solo lines. One of the more interesting arrangements, and an example of the album’s intriguing choice of material, is (Ocean) Bloom, originally a collaboration between Radiohead and film composer Hans Zimmer for the BBC’s Blue Planet II. I find this arrangement by Michael Henley, with vocals by Brooklyn Bohach, to be more stirring than the original: the band is highly effective when it builds to the crescendos and then recedes into the performers producing semi-muted whale and ocean sounds.

Explosion is the work of veteran performers and When Day Slips Into Night features students, but the latter album has solid production and performances. Some of Explosion’s arrangements are more complex and the solos are more individualized, showcasing each musician’s personal creativity and musical development. Both albums are worth repeated listening.

07 Joel SheridanSpellbound
Joel Sheridan
Independent JHS201801 (joelsheridan.com)

The distinctive vocal qualities of jazz vocalist Joel Sheridan keep the listener attentive to his unique sound in his appropriately titled debut release, Spellbound. His decade-long, varied artistic career (with stints in Stratford and other musical theatres billed as Joel Hartt), a 12-year, career-counsellor gig, and his 2006 return to music have undoubtedly influenced his honest take on jazz singing. His goal was a storytelling concept album about the many sides of love, yet his controlled emotional performances of 12 covers and three of his own compositions are never over the top. All are performed with class and style by Sheridan, and his band – Mark Kieswetter (piano), Maxwell Roach (drums), and Jordan O’Connor (bass) with Reg Schwager (guitar) on five tracks.

Fanny Brice’s vaudevillian Cooking Breakfast for the One I Love is given a novelty upbeat rendition. The Kay Ballard tune, Lazy Afternoon, features a slow atmospheric moment with mood-setting bass opening, piano chords, cymbal splashes and high vocal pitches. More clear vocal storytelling and piano backdrop are evident in Nat King Cole’s breakup tune, I Keep Going Back to Joe’s. Highlight is Sheridan’s You Were My First Love, a personal song of his two great loves, with a stellar piano, melodic lines, climactic dynamic buildup and quietly touching close. The danceable Antônio Carlos Jobim song No More Blues ends the disc with hope and happiness, like all great love stories. And all great releases like Spellbound!

08 Solon McDadeMurals
Solon McDade
Independent 19192476591 (solonmcdade.com)

Released in April of this year, Murals is the debut solo album from the Edmonton-born bassist Solon McDade, a veteran of the Canadian music scene, active in both the jazz and folk worlds. (McDade constitutes one third of the JUNO Award-winning band the McDades, along with his sister, Shannon Johnson, and brother, Jeremiah McDade.) Murals also features Jeremiah on tenor saxophone, as well as Donny Kennedy on alto sax, Paul Shrofel on piano, and Rich Irwin on drums, with Solon McDade handling the bass duties. (He is also the sole composer of the album’s nine songs.)

Murals starts with He’s a Problem In The Locker Room, a medium, hard-swinging song, with elements of Monk and mid-60s Miles, and is followed by Buy The Tractor, a driving, minor-key tune that begins with a beautiful trio introduction from both the McDades and Kennedy. (It should also be noted that most of the song titles on Murals are evocative and wryly funny; a welcome surprise in the world of modern instrumental jazz, in which naming conventions tend towards the painfully self-serious.) Off The Bed, Rose, a medium-up minor blues, is a definite highlight, with strong, creative solos from Kennedy, Shrofel, Jeremiah McDade and Irwin, with exceptionally supportive rhythm section playing throughout. Another highlight: the album’s final track, A Shorter Thing, a groovy, Poinciana-esque song on which Solon McDade takes a succinct, lyrical solo. Murals is an accomplished, confident album from a first-class band; highly recommended.

08 Grdina MarrowEjdeha
Gordon Grdina’s The Marrow
Songlines SGL2409-2 (songlines.com)

Gordon Grdina has a compound musical identity, as both free-jazz guitarist and devoted advocate of the middle-Eastern oud, the forebearer of many western plectrum instruments (“lute” is a corruption of “el oud”). In Grdina’s practice, however, the two overlap, the improvisatory traditions and subtle pitch distinctions of Arabic and Persian music clearly feeding into the kind of jazz he favours. The Marrow’s balance is perfect: he and fellow Vancouver-based percussionist Hamin Honari are matched with New York jazz mainstays, cellist Hank Roberts and bassist Mark Helias.

There’s no sense of conflict. It’s territory that’s been an element of jazz since Ahmed Abdul Malik (Jonathan Tim, Jr.) and Yusef Lateef (William Huddleston) first began crossing into this terrain some 60 years ago. Today Roberts and Helias navigate microtonal modes and compound rhythms as fluently as Grdina and Honari, and the result is a very special kind of music.

Grdina’s subtle pitch inflections are apparent in the rapid, detailed lines of his rubato introduction to the title track, while Roberts exhibits comparable rhythmic detail in his bowed solo on Idiolect. The two pass from the largely middle-Eastern orbit to something equal-parts European in their opening reflection to Bordeaux Bender. Wayward is emblematic of the sheer rhythmic élan that Honari brings to the project, while Helias throughout moves fluidly from ostinatos to counterpoint to a lead voice.

In all, it’s a celebration of improvisation’s ability to cross frontiers and create new identities.

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