05 From the AstralFrom the Astral
Oli Astral (Oliver Grenier Bédard; Frédéric Alarie; William Regnier)
Multiple Chord Music (oliastral.com)

The word “astral” in the title of the album, the name of the ensemble and the role of electronic instruments played by two musicians from the trio may lead to the assumption that the music that ensues fuses the spacey and the terrestrial. In reality, this music is far more profound. It is as if Oli Astral – guitarist Olivier Grenier Bédard (aka Oli Astral), bassist Frédéric Alarie and drummer William Régnier – lean into a theosophical belief, dwelling in an ethereal region comprising their sound world, where each of their artistic auras melds into music. 

It is a lofty ideal, but Oli Astral makes good on that extra-terrestrial promise. The repertoire on From the Astral comes from a place of considerable imagination and intuition. The six songs are woven from elements created by the guitarist’s MIDI controllers and digital audio processing techniques as well as the bassist’s modular synthesizers that retain the feel of orchestral textures. Add the palette that the drummer’s percussion colours create and you have rhythmic frescoes onto which are projected a poignant musical artwork with purity of tone where jazz guitar meets the electronic realm.

The music of From the Astral also suggests that this trio’s inspiration lies at the juxtaposition of jazz and neoclassicism. The idiomatic adaptation of what ensues from those imaginary crossroads is altogether atmospheric, best experienced on charts such as L’envoi and Spectre Sonore.

06 Carn DavidsonThe History of Us
Carn Davidson 9
Three Pines Records TPR-005 (threepinesrecords.ca/home/carndavidson9)

The History of Us is the latest studio album from the Carn Davidson 9, and the third since the group’s inception in 2010. The 50-minutes-worth of music heard on this disc stands on its own enough to pique the interest of any jazz fan, and behind the excellent compositions, solos and interplay, lies much personal inspiration. Listeners are treated to multi-movement suites by both of the group’s namesake members, William Carn and Tara Davidson, sandwiched around the brief but poignant Goodbye Old Friend, a tribute to their late feline Murphy – namesake to their last release in 2017. 

Both suites heard on the album utilise personal narratives from Carn and Davidson’s lives. Carn’s Finding Home Suite documents his parents’ migration from Hong Kong to Canada, and Davidson’s Suite 1985 is described as “a collection of love letters to her family.” Alongside these non-musical themes, there is an ever-present balance between composition and improvisation. After first hearing the Finding Home Suite, I was craving more improvisation amidst the composed notes. But this ratio is definitely a creative choice, and a valid one given the quality of the writing. Each member of the nonet is an excellent soloist as well as a great section player, and Kevin Turcotte exemplifies this perfectly, soloing on the first movement of both suites. The album has a superb flow to it, and benefits from being recorded exceptionally well too. I recommend The History of Us for casual listeners and diehard jazz fans alike!

07 Genius Loci NorthGenius Loci North
Jeannette Lambert; Reg Schwager; Michel Lambert
Independent (jeannettelambert.bandcamp.com)

I enjoy reviewing more abstract music, as I rarely run out of things to discuss. This applies to subtler and more ambient projects, as well as more boisterous spontaneous improvisations. This is why I was excited to have Montreal vocalist Jeannette Lambert’s Genius Loci North grace my desk. Lambert, her brother Reg Schwager on guitar, and husband Michel Lambert on percussion, all have a knack for playing improvised music that is both creative and mature. There is a genuineness to their interactions as a group that allows the smoother moments to sound fresh and the more angular offerings to remain inobtrusive. 

While the recording is made up of 15 individual tracks, they flow naturally into one another and give the entirety of the album an undulating feel. This leaves an untrained listener with a lengthy but interesting meditation, while maintaining enough ebbs and flows to keep even the most expert set of ears enthralled. 

Lambert’s vocals sound simple and pure enough to emphasize the poetry she has written, but the way she shapes her pitch over Schwager’s chordal textures is virtuosic as well. The same can be said of Michel Lambert’s percussion, which seamlessly traverses grooves and out-of-time textures. To know that most of these tracks were recorded in one take, moments after the words had been written, is another testament to the creative ability of these players. While far from being “straight ahead,” Genius Loci North offers something interesting for all listeners.

08 Francois Carriet GlowGlow
François Carrier; Diego Caicedo; Pablo Schvarzman; Michel Lambert
Colya Koo Music (francoiscarrier.bandcamp.com)

While two Canadians and two South Americans meeting in a Barcelona bar has all the elements of a shaggy dog story, that’s what happened with Glow; although instead of a punchline what we get here is a session of superior improvised music. Canadians, alto saxophonist François Carrier and drummer Michel Lambert, along with Colombian guitarist Diego Caicedo and Argentinean Pablo Schvarzman, who employs guitar and electronics, both now Spanish residents, operate as one unit during the CD’s five tracks.

Emphasizing voltage extensions throughout, not only do the guitarists project expected twangs, frails and strums, but Schvarzman’s electronics also produce an undulating drone as well as throbbing vibrations which frequently mirror double bass sluices. Lambert’s irregular drum patterning is used for coloration not rhythmic pulse, which leaves performances twisted every which way by Carrier and Caicedo.

Hammering or picking his strings, the guitarist moves from reflective accompaniment to brittle adagio shakes. The saxophonist doesn’t play standard licks but overlays each track with a variety of effects from screaming fragmented bites to harsh breathy honks and slurs. Unique tropes evolve throughout to establish collective equilibrium. This is aptly demonstrated when the set climaxes with Heart Core, the penultimate track. Repeated string ratcheting strokes coupled with reed motifs soaring from dyspeptic scoops to bagpipe-like drones to staccato tongue flutters, reach such a point of pressurized intensity that they seem unstoppable, but quickly and easily downturn to relaxed timbres later on.

Glow is no joke just fine exploratory music.

09 Lussier QuartetSpring 2021
René Lussier; Erick d’Orion; Robbie Kuster; Martin Tétreault
Victo CD 134 (victo.qc.ca)

The Victo record label is almost as venerable as the Victoriaville, Quebec FIMAV festival that gave it birth, and this disc is a signal moment in the history of both. The performance comes from the May 2021 festival, a hardy, insistent edition with a Quebec focus following the pandemic-cancelled 2020 festival. The recording marks the label’s 35th anniversary with special significance: the first recording issued was a guitar duet that also featured René Lussier, then in the company of Fred Frith. 

In keeping with the festival’s ideal of musique actuel, current music, this resists classification, a collective improvisational, combining Lussier’s electric guitar and daxophone (a bowed, fretted instrument), Robbie Kuster’s drums, Érick d’Orion’s computer and electronics and Martin Tétreault’s turntables. It blurs categories of electronic music, free jazz and anarcho-rock, the latter sometimes suggested by Kuster’s steady beat anchoring disparate elements. 

The music’s aim is neither clarity nor easy consumption; its strengths are in its vision, energy and a palpable sense of resistance. Lussier’s guitar is often the central voice, hard-edged, icy, sometimes distorted, at times limpidly lyrical. He can supply a focal element whether creating a keening, electric wail or shifting to the barely amplified wandering of L’avant dernière. L’autre, a nine-minute segment near the temporal centre of the work, develops mysterious and distinct layers and events that are almost sculpturally arrayed in the sound field, the seemingly independent parts ultimately evolving into part of a collective vision.

10 Knotted ThreadsKnotted Threads
Yves Charuest; Benedict Taylor
Tour de Bras tdb 90048/Inexhaustible Editions ie040 (tourdebras.bandcamp.com)

Montreal-based alto saxophonist Yves Charuest is a free improviser of the highest order, a musician of rare depth and originality. During a six-month residency in London in 2017, he heard English violist Benedict Taylor, felt an immediate affinity and soon began a collaboration that joins two of the closest listeners in improvised music. In 2019, Charuest arranged some Montreal performances for the duo and dancer Alanna Kraaijiveld, during which time he and Taylor recorded Knotted Threads.     

There are innate difficulties in describing any music, but the problems compound with free improvisation. While one is free to say almost anything, finding something relevant is a challenge. Charuest and Taylor, generously, provide an ideal metaphor for their work: a series of titles taken from arcane knots used by fishermen, sailors and craftsmen for centuries, thereby highlighting both the practice and goal of their special idiom. Each is a virtuoso of extended as well as conventional techniques, each an explorer of sonority, attacks and decays – to the extent that their sounds, like their pitch ranges, intersect. Gauzy and gritty harmonics, whether bowed or blown; percussive knocks, whether plucked string or struck keypad; subtle shifts in dynamics or sudden glissandi: they all intertwine in myriad ways, whether designated as Ossel Hitch, Round Lashing, Poldo Tackle or Bimini Twist

There are moments when the whole voyage is revealed. On Chain Sinnet, the viola sounds like a rope stretching against a gunwale, the saxophone like gulls, landed in the bow – yet all of it human, rope and gull crying as one. It’s an hour of music with the precision and gravitas of several chapters of Homer’s Odyssey or Moby Dick.

11 Chet DoxasYou Can’t Take It With You
Chet Doxas
Whirlwind Recordings WW4778 (chetdoxas.com)

You Can’t Take It with You is a creative and swinging drummer-less offering from Montreal-born New York-based saxophonist, Chet Doxas. Doxas’ tenure in NYC has led him to play with the who’s who of American musicians, including a long-term collaboration with Steve Swallow and Carla Bley, who encouraged Doxas to put together this trio project over conversations during a European tour. Pianist Ethan Iverson and bassist Thomas Morgan are perfectly suited for the ten original pieces Doxas penned for the recording, which comes as no surprise given their individual reputations for making creative yet grounded music. 

The album’s title track is almost bluesy in nature, making it a perfect introduction to this often abstract but always grooving recording. I was surprised to read that its inspiration comes from compositions by Count Basie, but this makes sense after a second listen. The following track Lodestar also takes its inspiration from a source I didn’t immediately recognize; saxophone legend Lester Young. Tributes of this sort are often penned in a heavy-handed manner, so I very much appreciate Doxas using influences as jumping off points rather than strict rules. 

The theme of obscuring influences permeates the entire album and feels apropos given the manner in which these three musicians improvise. Doxas’ compositions are detailed enough to unify the album’s sound, but open-ended enough to allow these unique improvisers to shine. This makes You Can’t Take It with You entertaining to listen to over and over again.

12 Noam LemishErlebnisse.
Noam Lemish
Independent (noamlemish.com)

In these times of reworked, remade and rebooted albums, movies and musicals, it is truly refreshing to encounter a CD of improvised music where each track has been recorded once… period. Noam Lemish’s debut solo album, Erlebnisse, is an engaging example of this. 

Toronto-based Lemish wears many hats, traversing diverse musical boundaries and incorporating numerous musical traditions into his art. A jazz pianist, pedagogue, composer, ensemble leader/director and accompanist, he is clearly a musician who happily defies categorization.

Erlebnisse is a word/concept in German that means “deeply felt experiences.” What Lemish offers us on 16 tracks – each one an Erlebnis – is indeed an array of deeply felt experiences conveyed to us through the medium of music with all of its evocative powers on display. And, as Lemish explained to me, with “little interference from our meaning-making mind.” 

Listening to this extraordinary CD – one would be well-advised to do so, repeatedly, as an uninterrupted whole (preferably with a glass of red wine in hand) – Lemish takes us along on his soul-baring, improvisational journey, which is nothing short of stunning (and which may even feel a touch voyeuristic for the listener, given the deeply felt depths that he plumbs). Infused with elements of jazz, classical and Middle Eastern music, Jewish folk and Israeli popular song, Lemish’s extemporizations are at times poignant, propulsive, yearning, melancholic, contemplative and quixotic. And they are masterful.

Erlebnisse is improvisation at its most inventive and intimate!

13 Don Macdonald Shifting SandsShifting Sands
Don Macdonald

Award-winning Canadian composer/performer/educator, Don Macdonald, composed, produced and performs/improvises on violin on his nine original jazz works here. His unique orchestration adds violin and mandolin to a traditional jazz rhythm section – guitar, piano, acoustic bass, drums—performed by predominately Canadian musicians. Each tune is jazz based, yet intriguing touches from other musical influences and the instrumentation makes these jazz fusion sounds appealing to all music lovers. 

Opening track Shifting Sands is so very happy and sets the musical stage. Pianist Dave Restivo’s quiet piano intro leads to a faster groove. Great full-band jazz to pop sounds, especially when guitarist Mike Rud’s solo contrasts with Macdonald’s violin high pitches. Dali’s Hourglass is darker, with contrapuntal detached piano chord opening until violin lead begins – a little bit of everything jazz with touches of minimalism in repeated lines. In Bayou, drummer Steven Parish’s solo opening sets up a Cajun groove in this tightly performed modern take on the familiar New Orleans style. Dreams of Ozymandias is slow and moody with close-knit instrumental conversations and underlying subtle rhythms. Four diverse tracks follow until the “sands shift” back to happy in the closing Homecoming with its fun, funky and florid party-time music. Bassists Rob Fahie and Jill McKenna, and mandolinists Dylan Ferris and Boston-based Jason Anick, also perform on select tracks.

This is a must-listen-to joyous release. Macdonald’s virtuosic works and violin playing never disappoint. All the stellar musicians play exuberantly, with care and respect.

14 Avi Granite TogetherSongTogether Song
Avi Granite; Daniel Carter
Pet Mantis Records PMR013 (petmantisrecords.com)

Through three pieces of varying length, multi-instrumentalist Daniel Carter (flute, clarinet, trumpet, tenor saxophone) and electric guitarist Avi Granite demonstrate the value of patience in a purely improvisational setting. This isn’t to say that more kinetic free-form music with a shorter attention span isn’t a compelling alternative approach, but Carter and Granite’s musical relationship is a thing of beauty. They not only seem to be listening closely to one other, they’re in perpetual dialogue concerning the ultimate destination of the form itself. It’s not just about finishing each other’s sentences, it’s about taking an idea and expanding upon it in a manner that opens up new possibilities. 

Carter and Granite both accompany in a way that feels far more like amplification than mere coexistence. Granite’s rhythmic reflexes constantly provide the context and environment in which Carter’s vignettes thrive. On the other hand, the intent and clarity of Carter’s own articulation gives the overall work a sense of unrelenting movement. Each piece feels like it’s constantly developing, and yet perhaps the characteristic that best defines this album is space. Rather than trying to continually build upon each passage until they hit a plateau, Carter and Granite opt to meditate on their surroundings, letting the music naturally mature rather than forcing a progression. In art, there are few things more inspiring than a creative bond this powerful.

15 Steph Richards ZephyrZephyr
Steph Richards
Relative Pitch Records RPR 1132 (relativepitchrecords.bandcamp.com)

Dedicated to exploring an instrument’s every niche and extended technique is Canadian-in-California trumpeter/flugelhornist Steph Richards, joined by percussive pianist Joshua White with a similar aim here. In the form of three multi-track suites, the two explore visceral episodes that go beyond brass, wood, strings, air and pressure. 

As Richards slides from one emphasized tone to another, she sometimes augments the output by plunging her bell into a watery vessel. The moist results add distinctive tinges to muted plunger tones. Sacred Sea expresses that in its most extended form when mated with broken-octave blowing reflecting outward after being aimed at piano innards. White’s string preparations jangle sympathetically there. But elsewhere with pedal extensions, slaps against the instrument’s wood and keyboard clips and arpeggios that are inclined more towards stride than solemnity, his accompaniment is dynamic as well as linear.

Half-valve effects and rippling smears during all of the Northern Lights suite allow Richards to alternately advance greasy snarls and lyrical slides, finally culminating in hand-muted gutbucket tones that squeak upwards on top of keyboard rumbles. However, no matter how experimental the brass-keyboard duets appear to be, during the set of Sequoia tunes and elsewhere, a feeling of joyous balance remains. With her clarion peeps sounding as if they’re from a piccolo trumpet, it seems a riff based on Largo al Factotum is being sounded.

Zephyr may be a gentle breeze but the blowing here offers a lot more than that.

16 Cory WeedsWhat Is There To Say
Cory Weeds with Strings
Cellar Music CM110620 (cellarlive.com)

So much classical and contemporary music features strings in orchestras, quartets and many other formats. When added into other genres the “string sound” can become a delicious addition to a country, pop or jazz recording (think of Frank Sinatra performing arrangements by Nelson Riddle or Gordon Jenkins). The Charlie Parker with Strings recordings are a milestone in jazz and were his best-selling albums. 

Cory Weeds’ What is There to Say continues this tradition by pairing a jazz quartet with an 11-piece string section playing standards and three Weeds originals (Waltz for Someone SpecialAlana Marie and Love is Wild). The overall sound and performances here are exquisite. Phil Dwyer must be commended for creating such engaging and articulate arrangements and playing some great piano as well. Weeds is well known as a producer and all round jazz entrepreneur (his good work includes founding and managing Cellar Live) but primarily he is an excellent saxophone player with many albums to his credit as leader. 

Throughout What is There to Say? Weeds illustrates how playing the melody, with his full and assured tone, is perfect in some spots while in others (like the moderately up-tempo There’s A Boat Leavin’ Soon for New York, or trading fours with Dwyer at the end of Love Is Wild), some great bop lines add zest to the proceedings. So really, What is There to Say? except, listen to this album for its elegance, fine performances and solid groove.

17 Anthony WonseyLorraine’s Lullabye
Anthony Wonsey
Cellar Music CM012421 (cellarlive.com)

Pianist Anthony Wonsey’s style consists equally of tastefulness and invention. His renditions of Richard Rodgers’ I Didn’t Know What Time It Was and It Might as Well be Spring are full of tunefulness and clarity, while still maintaining a distinctive group sound. In particular, the way in which he plays around with groove and contour alongside drummer Chris Beck gives these classics a reinvigoration seldom seen elsewhere. The central fulcrum of this album, however, is Wonsey’s own composing, in which he establishes his abilities as both a consummate songwriter and attentive facilitator of his rhythm section. The harmony itself is shimmering with assuring familiarity and yet there is an element of unpredictability that entices the listener. 

Rhythmically, the penmanship and improvisation seem to inform one another. On Blacker Black’s Revenge, Wonsey and bassist Dmitri Kolesnik’s phrasings are conversational yet serpentine, starting as abruptly as they finish, while seamlessly leading back to the primary motif. Wonsey’s own playing possesses key characteristics of control and range. More often than not his solos have the feeling of ease, leaving enough room to punctuate lines and accentuating the rhythmic pocket. His undying commitment to the cohesiveness of his ensemble makes those rare moments when he takes flight (see: Do You Remember Me) notably more impactful. Every track on here is golden.

18 ViO EquanimityEquanimity – A  Futuristic Jazz Tale
Viktor Haraszti (ViO)
ViO Music VM-0001-CD (viomusic.art)

ViO is the alter ego project of multi-instrumentalist Viktor Haraszti, in which he seeks complete creative liberation from jazz conventions. On ViO’s latest album, which self-categorizes as a “futuristic jazz tale,” it is safe to say that Haraszti realizes his vision, both in ambition and execution. Unlike ViO’s prior work, this is undeniably a Haraszti solo effort. With the exception of three spoken word passages courtesy of Lisa Marie Simmons, and occasional percussion courtesy of Dave King and Marshall Curtly, every single aspect of this music is dictated by Haraszti. He plays every instrument (one of his favourite moves being layering multiple reed instruments to create harmonic lattices), is responsible for the rich production, and composes/arranges each second of music. 

The stylistic qualities of Equanimity vary from enveloping ambient passages to solemn contemplations that soundtrack Simmons’ words while also giving them context. Between the heavier moments of the suite lie surprising instances of levity. Chapter Five is a change in pace and mood that I hadn’t realized the music needed. It retains the compelling spectacle of prior tracks, but creates an atmosphere of hopefulness by taking a turn into danceable territory. Haraszti introduces elements one by one throughout this masterfully paced experience, including successful flirtations with electronics, giving the overall sonic palette a new, unexpected dimension. The climactic Chapter Seven even borders on electro-pop at times.

Listen to 'Equanimity: A Futuristic Jazz Tale' Now in the Listening Room

19 Remy le BoeufArchitecture of Storms
Remy Le Boeuf’s Assembly of Shadows
Soundspore Records SS202101 (remyleboeuf.com)

I’ve been a fan of the Le Boeuf brothers (Remy and Pascal) since their concert at the Kitchener/Waterloo Jazz Room in 2017. Their music combines composed and improvised sections where the orchestration is as compelling as individual soloists. In 2019 Remy Le Boeuf released Assembly of Shadows which contained seven of his compositions for a big band. In 2021 Le Boeuf released Architecture of Storms billed (slightly confusingly) as Remy Le Boeuf’s Assembly of Shadows, signifying the connection between the two albums and the importance of the ensemble. In fact, four of these tracks were recorded in 2019 during the Assembly of Shadows sessions and three were recorded in 2021. 

Architecture of Storms is, again, an exciting contemporary big band album. Le Boeuf’s compositions are complex and utilize the full palette offered by almost 30 excellent musicians. Repeated listenings are rewarded by the mood changes, shifting melodies and invigorating solos over ostinatos and nuanced brass and woodwind orchestrations. This album includes an expansive arrangement of the Bon Iver song Minnesota, WI and The Melancholy Architecture of Storms is sung by Julia Easterlin with lyrics by the poet Sara Pirkle. With both Assembly of Shadows and The Architecture of Storms Le Boeuf has shown imaginative composition skills and should be commended for producing such a large collaborative work during a pandemic.

21a Wadada Billie HolidayA Love Sonnet for Billie Holiday
Wadada Leo Smith; Jack DeJohnette; Vijay Iyer
TUM Records TUM CD 060 (tumrecords.com)

The Chicago Symphonies
Wadada Leo Smith’s Great Lakes Quartet
TUM Records TUM Box 004 (tumrecords.com)

Wadada Leo Smith is one of the most important artists of his generation. Although functionally a trumpeter, his real instrument is his far-reaching compositions, the artistry of which is subsumed in worlds that are aural and visual. Moreover the eloquent narratives that propel the elasticized rhythmic units that make up his iconic Ankhrasmation Symbol Language are so intensely and eloquently poetic that a literary dimension may also be ascribed to his musical art.

Smith rose to eminence when he became a very early member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), founded in Chicago by Muhal Richard Abrams. Then, with reeds master Anthony Braxton and violinist Leroy Jenkins, Smith began to create music that soared, outward bound. It began with his concept of rhythm units born of a belief that every musician participating in a musical excursion was a singular inventor in the congregate setting of ensemble music. This led to a musical canon that grew spectacularly with every new work. 

More than 50 albums later and celebrating his 80th year around the sun, Smith has led various ensembles to produce three new releases – the 3-CD solo Trumpet, Sacred Ceremonies with Milford Graves and Bill Laswell (reviewed by Ken Waxman in The WholeNote Vol.27/1) and the 4-CD The Chicago Symphonies with Smith’s Great Lakes Quartet included below – plus a single album that brings together drummer Jack DeJohnette and pianist Vijay Iyer in a unique collaboration titled A Love Sonnet for Billie Holiday.

Each of the members of this latter trio brought pieces to explore during this musical encounter. The uniqueness of Smith’s art is in what might be referred to as the small print – the intimate moments that only a genuine artist understands and has the ability to inspire in others. We experience majesty in his The A.D. Opera: A Long Vision with Imagination, Creativity and Fire, a dance opera (For Anthony Davis). Iyer’s Time No.1 and DeJohnette’s Song for World Forgiveness are also impressive. Throughout the album phrases are tellingly placed, every colour skilfully applied, whether with a subtle smudge of the thumb or the bolder stroke of the brush.  

21b Wadada Great LakesThe Chicago Symphonies box set comprises four separate extended works of epic length. Each symphonic work is unique; Black History lessons told in song. The significance and matchless nature of each orchestral work expresses the birth pangs and often painful nature of the African-American in history from Lincoln to Obama, steeped – and expressed – in the Blues. It is impeccably performed by Smith with Jack DeJohnette and Henry Threadgill, a titan of music expressed in woodwinds and reeds, together with bassist John Lindberg. Saxophonist Jonathon Haffner replaces Threadgill on Symphony No. 4. Each work is rendered with ruminative prayerfulness and unforced rhetoric. You’ll hear throughout – especially on Symphony No. 2 – the kind of textural complexity, intuitive pacing and abstract brilliance of melody, harmony and rhythm, grounded in piercing sunbursts of luminosity, that takes your breath away. 

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