07 Carl VollrathCarl Vollrath – Souls in Transitions
Summa Trio
Navona Records nv6212 (navonarecords.com) 

“When I first wrote these pieces,” says Carl Vollrath (b. New York City, 1931), “I had no set concept of what they ‘meant.’” Vollrath’s titles for the three trios and their umbrella title Souls in Transitions were added only after a colleague at Alabama’s Troy University, where Vollrath taught for 40 years, said that the first trio reminded him of prehistoric cave paintings. Vollrath’s colleague was undoubtedly responding to the sense of primitive mystery created by Vollrath’s use pf pentatonic and modal scales, ostinato piano bass-note “drum-beats” and repeated melodic and rhythmic motifs typical of religious rituals.

Vollrath’s title for the first trio, The Secrets of the Magdalenian Caves, references those prehistoric paintings. Tombs of Ancient Times, writes Vollrath, evokes “traditions surrounding passing in ancient Egypt,” in which “community members would bring food to the tomb” for use by the departed in the afterlife. Finally, Buddha of the Future reflects “how the image of Buddha has changed over time.” While all three trios share many stylistic characteristics, there is a subtle increase in lyrical warmth over the cycle, their titles perhaps suggesting the growing sophistication of their metaphysical world views.

Vollrath’s sure-handed scoring for violin, cello and piano creates effects almost orchestral in nature, ably performed by the Summa Trio, Los Angeles-based contemporary music specialists. The entire disc could easily serve as the soundtrack for a TV documentary about archaeological sacred sites; CD listeners will have to rely on their own imaginations.

08 Phil SalathePhil Salathé – Imaginary Birds
Ling-Fei Kang; Charles Huang
Ravello Records rr8006 (ravellorecords.com) 

To join Phil Salathé on Imaginary Birds, his magical adventure, the listener must allow oneself to be led by the clear and penetrating soprano voice of the oboe and the more covered, tenor timbre of the pear-shaped bell of the cor anglais, into the wonderful imaginary sound world of the composer. Here we are quite easily seduced by the oboe of Ling-Fei Kang and the cor anglais of Charles Huang as we traverse the interior landscape of Salathé’s vivid imagination. Along the way we are also joined by cello, piano, celesta, harp and guitar to explore the mysterious depths and wondrous heights of birds in their wondrous habitat.

We find ourselves coming under the spell of a composer who is a master of mood and atmosphere and who has the ability to coordinate colour and structure to a rare degree. The bird repertoire – Mandarin Ducks and Imaginary Birds of the Frozen North – swirls amid equally atmospheric pieces such as The Heart that Loves But Once and The Wood Between the Worlds as well as Expecting the Spring Breeze (composed by Teng Yu-Hsien and arranged by Salathé).

The sometimes diabolical difficulty of this music is expertly navigated by Kang and Huang as well as by the other musicians. Each piece is given a lively reading and is played with buoyant, aristocratic grace and almost insolent virtuosity. Equally important is the fact that a delightfully spare atmosphere is maintained throughout.

09 Julius EastmanJulius Eastman – Femenine
Apartment House
Another Timbre at137 (anothertimbre.com)

Julius Eastman (1940-1990) is as fascinating to read about as he is to listen to. This performance of his breathtaking, hour-long work, Femenine takes us to one of the most eloquent members of the 20th-century avant-garde. The performance of this austere work by the ensemble Apartment House is replete with all the virtues that Eastman embodied: unfailing clarity, innate elegance, an unerring sense of proportion, a finely honed mastery of style, melodic finesse and unobtrusive grasp of harmonic rhythm, not to mention a matchless sense of aural geometry.

The work is layered with subtle colours. Each layer – with each hypnotic and intensifying repeat – is daubed with minutely thickening textured music that seems to ebb and flow like a gentle tide that swells steadily from silence before gently building into a soft whoosh of the keyboard, vibraphone, violin, cello and two flutes. Throughout, the uniquely Eastman-like tension between harmonically loaded melody and the essentially neutral, often near-static nature of the metre, has its sense of symmetry quietly disturbed by minute figures played by each instrument as the players recreate the composer’s prevailing tonal palette through appropriately lean, but always beautifully focused, orchestration.

The result proves well worth seeking out. Eastman’s was a diverse style with firm roots in John Cage-like stasis; but there is more heart-on-sleeve Romantic post-avant-gardism than one would expect. Either way the music has an emotional power that Apartment House articulates ever so eloquently.

10 MoyzesAlexander Moyzes – Symphonies Nos.9 and 10
Slovak RSO; Ladislav Slovák
Naxos 8.573654 (naxos.com) 

One in a Naxos re-release series of Slovak composer Alexander Moyzes’ (1906-1984) complete symphonies, this Marco Polo recording was previously issued in the early 2000s. A master of 20th-century techniques and expression, Moyzes developed a style clear in texture, dramatic, and influenced by both his own nation’s and Shostakovich’s music. The three-movement Ninth Symphony (1971) is spare and dissonant; grotesque marches intrude and build to climaxes. In the third movement, solo violin cadenza-like passages cry out. Density, tempo and volume increase till the work ends with a now-subdued violin. Program notes mention the composer’s despair following the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union, yet I found the work a continuously involving artistic triumph. The Slovak RSO under conductor Ladislav Slovák plays with commitment; woodwinds, including a spectacular piccolo, excel in both lyrical and virtuosic passages.

The Tenth Symphony (1977-78) is more upbeat, though with pensive moments. The opening movement begins slowly and is like the Ninth Symphony in its powerful overture-like dotted rhythms. There are triads and added-note chords now, and fewer bare dyads. A scherzo-type movement is contrapuntal and lively, its trio section featuring realistic woodwind bird calls over hushed strings. Then the long Larghetto caps the work with idyllic, lyrical beauty, but an early slight smear in the strings foreshadows surprising rich and complex polychords. The radiant folk-like finale features colourful orchestration including tinkling percussion; it’s a lot of fun leading to a boisterous close.

11 University WindsThe Other Side
University of St. Thomas Symphonic Wind Ensemble; Matthew George
Innova innova 007 (innova.mu)

We hear string orchestras in concert halls, backing pop artists and even in the supermarket. Alternatively, we may only have heard concert bands at high school performances or marching in parades. The Minnesota-based University of St. Thomas Symphonic Wind Ensemble (Matthew George, conductor) is a highly skilled ensemble of brass, woodwind and percussion that presents a welcome change in timbre and material. They have a long history of commissioning works and this is their seventh album in that series.

One of the album’s highlights is the opening B-Side Concerto – For Rock Band and Wind Ensemble by Spanish composer Luis Serrano Alarcón. This 16-minute work showcases both the wind orchestra and the rock band and contains great rhythmic riffing sections, some odd metre segments and excellent wailing guitar solos. It is a tour de force which manages to incorporate the rock band within the wind ensemble so their distinctive sounds blend to achieve an edgy and exciting effect.

Another highlight, Mysteries of the Horizon (After Four René Magritte Surrealist Paintings) by Nigel Clarke features the virtuoso Belgium cornet player Harmen Vanhoorne. Part 1, The Menaced Assassin, begins with a solo cornet playing a short fanfare and then works into a back-and-forth duel with the wind ensemble containing several angular and sophisticated harmonies and rhythms.

Kit Turnbull’s three-movement Everything starts from a dot (based on a quote from Kandinsky) and a second piece by Alarcón, Symphony No. 2 for Wind Orchestra, are the additional works on this engaging CD.

Listen to 'The Other Side' Now in the Listening Room

12 Germot WolfgangGernot Wolfgang – Vienna and the West, Groove-Oriented Chamber Music, Vol. 4
Various Artists
Albany Records TROY1760 (gernotwolfgang.com)

If you are searching for a fresh and distinct fusion of styles, something classically based yet different, this is the album you might want to consider. Gernot Wolfgang, an Austrian-born composer now based in Los Angeles, masters an idiosyncratic fusion of the elements of the Second Viennese School with contemporary jazz in this selection of chamber music pieces featuring various combinations of instruments. In a way, these pieces take inventory of the stylistic as well as geographical influences on Wolfgang’s compositional style. Music on this album has a firm and clear classical music foundation but what makes it interesting is the interweaving of the rhythmical jazz grooves, occasional country western music motives (especially in strings) and the cinematic quality of some sections.

Passage to Vienna for piano trio, the second piece on the album, is a story told in fragments, and exemplifies why this unique fusion works so well. It opens with a beautifully flowing, seductive melody in the piano and repeated unison in the strings. Groovy rhythms precede a jazzy violin solo, done with flair and style. We are then transported to Vienna at the turn of the century, and non-linearity takes over along with strong cinematic colours. The mood shifts back to America toward the end and the opening theme comes back but this time it is coloured with dissonance. Another jazzy violin solo, with added country-style motives and propelling rhythms in the piano bring this piece to a conclusion. The textures are simply divine.

All the compositions on this album are engaging and atmospheric and a strong cast of musicians adds individual flavours to Wolfgang’s music.

01 Sheila SoaresAll There Is
Sheila Soares
Independent (sheilasoaresmusic.com) 

Gifted vocalist and composer Sheila Soares’ new recording is one of the freshest, most engaging and thoroughly musical CDs to be released this year. Although Soares is no unseasoned debutante, her debut offering is rife with new, intriguing, genre-blurring original material and fine musicianship. Deftly produced by talented guitarist Eric St-Laurent, Soares’ excellent collaborators also include Jeff McLeod on piano and organ, Jordan O’Connor on acoustic bass and Chris Wallace on drums.

At first blush, there is an obvious sonic similarity between the vocal timbre of Soares and the late Blossom Dearie; however, Dearie (with her quirky, narcissistic performances) never came near Soares’ interpretive sensitivity and jaunty songwriting style. It may be that good tunesmiths (such as Soares) are just “born” when the creative stars align, and they can enter our consciousness at any point along their journey – it’s inevitable… and as Soares says, “Music is like breathing to me.”

Highlights include the lovely title track, as well as the stunning Les Fraises Sur La Lune (Strawberries on the Moon), which displays Soares’ skilled, pitch-pure vocal instrument and considerable ability to swing. The romantic Constellation boasts not only beautiful chord changes, but also a lilting melody and a gentle, rhythmic jazz sensibility that make this gorgeous track a total standout. Jazz has many faces and expressions, and happily for all of us, Soares will no doubt be delighting us with her jazz eclecticism and irresistible perspective for a very long time to come.

02 Marc JordanBoth Sides
Marc Jordan
Linus 270389 (marcjordan.com)

Listing all of Marc Jordan’s songwriting credits, awards and accolades would take up the whole word count of this review, so let me simply say that the man knows his way around a song. And since this album is mostly covers – only two of the tracks are originals – his mighty interpretative skills are a key component here. The other key component of Both Sides is Lou Pomanti, who produced, arranged and orchestrated all the tracks. These two men are at the top of their games and we are the beneficiaries. The album is rich with instrumentation courtesy of the Prague Symphony Orchestra and guest appearances by international heavies like Randy Brecker and Tommy Emmanuel, and local luminaries like Kevin Breit and Larnell Lewis. 

Although he covers a couple of standards from the Great American Songbook, it’s the reinterpretations of classic folk/rock songs that are standouts for me. In particular, Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side shines with its many layers and gorgeous woodwinds, courtesy of Toronto’s own, John Johnson. Although the soft, groovy treatment of the tune is antithetical to its subject matter, it works. Beautifully. Jordan’s thoughtful handling of the title tune also caused me to hear these familiar lyrics with fresh ears and I was struck by how mature Joni Mitchell’s writing was for one so young. (She was in her early 20s when she wrote Both Sides Now.) Overall, the album reflects a full-grown artist who has lived completely, and well.

Listen to 'Both Sides' Now in the Listening Room

03 Karin PlatoThis Could Be The One
Karin Plato
Independent KP0418 (karinplato.com)

Released worldwide on April 12 through Stikjazz Music, This Could Be The One is Vancouver-based vocalist Karin Plato’s eighth studio album, and the culmination of ten years of work with her quintet, which includes herself, clarinetist James Danderfer, pianist Chris Gestrin, bassist Laurence Mollerup and drummer Joe Poole. This Could Be The One also features three special guests: blues musician Jim Byrnes, singer Rebecca Shoichet and trombonist Rod Murray. Recorded live off the floor by Sheldon Zaharko in Vancouver at Warehouse Studio, the album has a warm, inviting vibe, emulating, to a certain degree, the experience of hearing acoustic jazz from a good seat in a well-appointed venue.

This Could Be The One is largely made up of Plato’s original material, with a few re-arranged exceptions: the Lennon/McCartney-penned I’ve Just Seen A Face, Hank Williams’ I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry, and the ubiquitous Heart And Soul. Byrnes joins Plato on What Came Before, Plato’s loping, 3/4 ode to empathy; though they represent different vocal traditions, the two singers’ voices blend well, with Byrnes’ big, woolly voice complementing Plato’s controlled clarity. Shoichet and Plato sing together on Sorrow, another Plato original, a bittersweet, straight-eighths song that serves as the album’s final entry.

With an overall mood that tends toward the calm and communicative, even during its more bombastic moments, This Could Be The One is a worthy addition to the canon of modern Canadian vocal jazz.

Listen to 'This Could Be The One' Now in the Listening Room

Le way qu’a do
Les Surruralists
Tour de Bras TDB90033CD
(tourdebras.com)

Spine
Monicker (Arthur Bull; Scott Thomson; Roger Turner)
Ambiances Magnétiques AM 246 CD (actuellecd.com)

04a Arthur Bull SURRURALISTGuitarist and poet, Toronto-born, Nova Scotia resident Arthur Bull enjoys a compound musical identity. He has been a part of the Canadian improvising community for decades, developing a personal idiom that draws in equal parts from the extended techniques of free improvisation and the slide and finger-style traditions of blues and folk idioms. These two CDs, from Spring 2018, present Bull in radically different, if equally radical settings.

The Surruralists is essentially a duo of Bull and electric bassist Éric Normand, though guests sometimes contribute to a music that’s at once timeless and timely. The two (sometimes subtly, sometimes not) merge free improvisation with folk singing, mixing French and English traditions to craft a primal music in which country tunes and proto-rhythm ‘n’ blues collide with flashes of an unearthly sound art. Bull’s raw baritone and slide guitar drive Jack o’ Diamonds and Frankie (and Johnny), while his gift for epigram emerges on the spoken Skidmarks: “I couldn’t count how many ways the woodpecker could divide the beat.” Normand adds weird electronic burbles to condition familiar themes, and he’s eloquent on the dirge La courtisane brûlée, with Bull adding plaintive harmonica and Ben Grossman a funereal vielle à roue (hurdy-gurdy).

04b Arthur Bull MonickerAmong Bull’s international associations is one formed in 2002 with drummer Roger Turner, a charter member of the British school of free improvisation. Turner’s sometimes machine-like approach can be traced directly to an early appreciation of the brilliant precision of Dave Tough, the drummer who propelled the rise of Chicago jazz over 90 years ago. Anyone who imagines free improvisation to be somehow vague in its contours simply hasn’t heard Roger Turner. In 2018 Bull and Turner expanded their duo with the addition of trombonist Scott Thomson for a tour (as Monicker) that stretched from Southern Ontario to Nova Scotia.

No blow-by-blow description could do justice to Spine: the music is mercurial, each of the CD’s six tracks a continuum of shifting, permutating relationships and voices, much of it conducted at incredible speed, from Thomson’s burbling register leaps and runs, squeezed through a metal mute, to Turner’s high-pitched clatter. Bull’s voices range from long, wandering bass glissandi to high-speed flurries of metallic scattershot, liable to be confused with some of Thomson and Turner’s own voicings; but the very determination with which the three proceed soon destroys any identikit game of “he said, he said” with a conclusive “When was that?” It’s a high-water mark in Canadian free improvisation.

05 Jonathan BauerWalk Don’t Run
Jonathan Bauer
Slammin Media (jonathanbauermusic.com)

Prolific Alberta-born trumpeter and composer, Jonathan Bauer, harkens back commendably to the past while adding a modern, unique touch on his long-awaited debut album. Coming from playing with the Grammy-Award-winning New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, Bauer’s immense talent and skills are apparent on this album, with sultry and smooth riffs throughout the pieces and each track written by him. A perfect musical balance is achieved with support from saxophonist Alexander Geddes, pianist Ryan Hanseler, bassist Alex Dyring and drummer Gerald Watkins. Each musician is given several opportunities to showcase their talent through solos, and instruments blend together for a New Orleans-flavoured, foot-tapping jazz journey.

The album is said to “celebrate the past while looking to the future,” showcasing Bauer’s influences, among them Art Blakey and Roy Hargrove. Tracks such as Chattin’, Precious Moments and We Need to Do Better transport the listener back to the era of jazz greats and classics while pieces like Ella and Violet showcase a more contemporary sound. The record as a whole is a beautiful contrast, bringing to light Bauer’s desire to hark back to the past while reaching into the future by adding a modernistic touch to some pieces.

This gem of an album is suitable for aficionados of both classical and newer jazz, with tracks that suit the tastes of both. The talented Canadian bandleader has released a debut record that has truly been worth the wait.

06 Sun of GoldfingerSun of Goldfinger
David Torn
ECM 2613 773 1919 (ecmrecords.com)

David Torn has had an extensive career as guitarist, film composer and record producer, ranging from work with the Nordic-cool saxophonist Jan Garbarek to projects with David Bowie. Torn has also worked extensively with alto saxophonist Tim Berne, whose heated New York free jazz may seem at odds with some of Torn’s abstract cool. In this latest work, however, the association makes perfect sense.

Torn is a master of looping, constructing artificial orchestras with compound ostinatos, orchestral chords and percussion. There are three long works here, ranging from 22:10 to 23:55. The opening and closing pieces, Eye Meddle and Soften the Blow, began as trio improvisations with Berne and drummer Ches Smith (the three now performing as Sun of Goldfinger), with Smith and Torn both making extensive use of electronics while still playing percussion and guitar. Torn has then taken the materials into the studio, editing, mixing and multiplying the improvisations. Ultimately, they’re layered assemblages, the looping expanding and cooling Berne’s role, merging his micro-variations with literal repetition. The music retains its expressionist quality while becoming increasingly trance-like, creating musical worlds at once akin to those of Ornette Coleman and Terry Riley.

The work grows more allusive in the central piece, Spartan, Before It Hit, a Torn composition that supplements the trio with a string quartet, two more guitarists and keyboard player Craig Taborn. Sometimes creating thin washes of sound, it clarifies and broadens Torn’s textures while retaining their fundamental mystery.

07 John HewardQuintet
John Heward
Mode/Avant 19 (moderecords.com)

A fitting memorial for Montreal visual artist John Heward (1934-2018), who was as proficient in free music as in painting and sculpture, this 2014 77-minute improvisation shows how his sensitive and sophisticated approach applied proper percussion accents without bluster. Veteran American improvisers, bassist Barre Phillips and alto/soprano saxophonist Joe McPhee plus locals, bass clarinetist Lori Freedman and pianist Dana Reason are featured with no thought of hierarchy and ample space for each.

Matched in flutter tonguing, trilling or excavating basso tones from their instruments, the reed players are frequently involved in interchanges or doubling with either the bassist or pianist. Showcased on Improvisation 1 though, there’s no mistaking Freedman’s snorts or top-of-range squeals for McPhee’s shaded vibrations, even in altissimo mode. Often setting up sequences, Phillips’ angled bow strokes or measured pizzicato runs seem to always find the sweet spot between efficiency and encouragement. Meanwhile Reason’s feature on Improvisation 3, backed by brooding double-bass lines and drum rat-tat-tats, reveals a stylist whose methodical chromatic comping doesn’t stop her from challenging moody soprano saxophone vibrations with rubato cross pulses and inner piano-string scratches.

Unfazed by whatever sound challenges are posed, Heward reacts like a cultivated artist. For instance, he extends McPhee’s pinched soprano tones with patterning paradiddles to achieve the proper colour balance; or elsewhere adds a martial beat to physically shape Freedman’s octave jumps to proper angles. Quintet posits that Heward may be remembered as much for his music as for his art.

08 Krik KnuffkeWitness
Kirk Knuffke; Steven Herring
Steeplechase SCCD 31859 (steeplechase.dk)

Shredding conventions, jazz cornetist Kirk Knuffke teams up with classically trained baritone Steven Herring for off-the-wall performances that range from operatic classics and spirituals, to poetry set to music, and standards. Raising the idiosyncratic interpretation stakes still higher, other accompaniment is from the patterning of Russ Lossing’s piano and the gruff oom pah pah of Ben Goldberg’s contra alto clarinet. Remarkably most of the transitions work.

Unsurprisingly Herring aces the declarative nuances of Iago’s Credo and Questo Amor with studied formalism. But his creativity isn’t solipsistic. Goldberg’s stentorian puffs and Knuffke’s capillary peeps match operatic chortles on the former. Meanwhile the amorous exposition on the latter owes as much to plunger brass notes and seductive piano chords as to ebullient vocalizing. Witness, A City Called Heaven and other traditional religious songs fare as well. However, mellow horn parts and broad melodic sweeps from the pianist on Witness, as well as carefully modulated vamps from all the instrumentalists, produce subtle swing on both tunes, leaving the emotion to Herring. The baritone’s parlando serves him appropriately when Knuffke’s musical setting of Carl Sandburg’s Subway is transformed into song. But the recitation is mated with the cornetist’s passionate grace notes to reach its goal. In fact, the only miscue is Sun Ra’s The Satellites are Spinning. While clarinet snarls and cornet blats enliven it, the vocalist’s theatrical declarations miss its sardonic and humorous aspects. Witness works wonderfully as long as the musical alterations remain down to earth.

01 Paul GreenPaul Green – A Bissel Rhythm
Paul Green & Two Worlds
Big Round Records br8955 (bigroundrecords.com) 

I was more than a bissel (Yiddish for “little”) tickled to see A Bissel Rhythm on the list of available CDs for review this month. For starters, being an unabashed lover of Yiddish, the title alone put a smile on my face. And it stayed there as I made my way through clarinetist Paul Green’s lively and engaging exploration of that most natural of fusions: the coming together of the distinct, yet equally soul-stirring styles of Jewish music and jazz.

While this is Green’s second recorded foray into the world of Jewish/jazz fusion, it is his first as composer. Green and his aptly named band, Two Worlds, perform his eight original tracks with tremendous skill, warmth and verve; it is clear they are having a lot of fun, too!

In A Bissel Rhythm, a standard jazz structure collides with a freilach; a New Orleans funeral meets a klezmer doina; the Jewish misheberach scale snakes its way around a blues. And it all works! From the joyful and virtuosic title track, and the poignant sweetness of Zoey’s Chosidl (perhaps the only time a beloved pet has been memorialized with a jazz-infused Hasidic dance), to the slinky, funky ramble of Doina and Ramble, and the waltz/ballad-like Joe’s Hurra, the album does more than simply pay homage to the two musical genres it celebrates: it wraps them in a loving embrace.

Nu? Go pour yourself a bissel schnapps and enjoy A Bissel Rhythm!

02 AKA TrioJoy
AKA Trio
bendigedig BEND14-1 (bendigedig.org) 

Coming from three continents – Europe, Africa and South America – the three virtuoso musicians of the AKA Trio have merged into the relaxed and attractive transnational musical unit we hear in the aptly titled Joy. Italian guitarist and composer Antonio Forcione has toured for over two decades, having collaborated with major musicians such as Charlie Haden, Trilok Gurtu, Angelique Kidjo and Bulgarian Voices, on the way releasing 20 albums. He brings rhythmic and tuning precision, plus a soulful expressiveness into his acoustic guitar solos on Joy’s ten tracks. Seckou Keita from Senegal, among the world’s foremost kora players, has variously been dubbed “the Hendrix of kora,” and “the Clapton of kora.” International innovation running deep throughout his work, he has collaborated with Welsh harpist Catrin Finch and Cuban pianist Omar Sosa. Born into the Senegalese griot tradition, Keita‘s warm, flexible voice is key to the melodic and emotional charm of much of Joy. Brazilian percussionist and composer Adriano Adewale has also widely collaborated, including with Bobby McFerrin and Joanna McGregor, and includes compositions for orchestra and dance theatre in his credits. Adewale brings an easy and timbrally rich percussive energy to Joy, always tasteful, never overbearing.

While Forcione, Keita and Adewale grew up in three different landscapes, speaking three different languages, formed by three different cultures and musical traditions, their musical convergence in AKA Trio is so unforced as to appear inevitable. I predict their polished arrangements will be a hit on the international world music circuit.

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