13 Bissill PanoplyRichard Bissill – Panoply
Artists from the Guildhall School of Music & Drama
Three Worlds Records TWR0011 (three-worlds-records.com)

The opening two-minute Philharmonic Fanfare for brass and percussion, commissioned by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, boisterously heralds this CD’s many forthcoming pleasures. Richard Bissill, former LPO principal horn and longtime professor at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama, enlisted students and fellow faculty members to perform the music recorded here, all composed between 2001 and 2016.

Bissill himself appears in his eight-minute Trio for horn, violin and piano, two warmly lyrical sections embracing a graceful, lively scherzando. Episodically varying tempi and moods make the nine-minute Twisted Elegy for flute, viola and harp much more “twisted” than “elegiac.” Bissill’s ten-minute Sirens for violin and piano vividly evokes the mythical temptresses with music that’s playful, sensuous and urgently seductive.

There are two 15-minute, three-movement pieces. The jazz-tinted Triangulation achieves heightened impact through its unusual textures – dense and gritty – produced by seven bassoons and one contrabassoon. Panoply for flute and piano, with its quicksilver first movement, languid, Debussy-inflected central movement and theatrical finale, is a fresh, delectable addition to the flute repertoire.

The 12-minute The Magnificent Seventh for eight horns, piano, bass and drums, based on the interval of a minor seventh, moves from fanfares and busy syncopations to a slow, bluesy middle section before the piece, and the CD, ends in a burst of triumph.

Bissill’s inventively varied, thoroughly engaging music – “progressive-conservative” in the best sense – deserves widespread exposure to international audiences. Recommended!

14 Sara SchoenbeckSara Schoenbeck
Sara Schoenbeck; Harris Eisenstadt; Roscoe Mitchell; Mark Dresser; Peggy Lee et al
Pyroclastic Records PR 16 (pyroclasticrecords.com)

As a pioneer of contemporary bassoon, Sara Schoenbeck’s self-titled album of duet collaborations reads almost like a list of party invitees who just happen to be the who’s who of modern improvisers.  

Longtime friendships and musical partnerships culminate in a colourful quilt as Schoenbeck travels to recording studios across North America during a global pandemic to reach each collaborator.  While her pairings are unique and intimately connected with each artist, Schoenbeck shares that her “deepest musical relationship is with the bassoon itself, the kernel of [her] inspiration.” It might be obvious by now, but it is worth noting that no more important a relationship can be intensified than an artist with their instrument during a pandemic, and each collaboration shines a spotlight on Schoenbeck’s skillful microtonal and multiphonic explorations. Long, arcing tones of bending, creaking, edgy vocalizations and melodic expressions are showcased across a wide and beautiful canvas of both scored and improvised duets. 

The haunting and beautiful Lullaby with improvising guitar legend Nels Cline is soaked with a darkly sublime blend of bassoon and ambient electronic extensions that at times feels like one voice, where Suspend A Bridge, with cellist Peggy Lee, seesaws a fine balance between intertwined harmonies and vast textural space. The Sand Dune Trilogy, with Nicole Mitchell on flute, seductively reminds us of Schoenbeck’s symphonic past while simultaneously teasing it apart. 

Other collaborators include Harris Eisenstadt, Roscoe Mitchell, Mark Dresser, Matt Mitchell and Wayne Horvitz. The closing track, Robin Holcomb’s Sugar, is a beautiful and unexpected finale – but then, parties do sometimes end with the most interesting, quiet conversations.

01 Alex BirdYou Are the Light and the Way
Alex Bird and the Jazz Mavericks
Independent (alexbird.net)

Award-winning singer-songwriter Alex Bird has done it again on his newest release, showcasing his vocal prowess as well as great compositional skills. Along with pianist and songwriting partner-in-crime Ewen Farncombe, the pair has penned 12 new tracks with string and horn arrangements courtesy of the latter. Backed by the stellar Jazz Mavericks and several guest musicians this time around, Bird’s sound has grown to newer and greater heights with this record. This album would be a valuable addition to the collection of any jazz lover who’s looking to dive into the deeper and darker crevices of the genre. 

The album starts off with the sultry title track You Are The Light and the Way, bringing the listener on a journey through the intriguingly seedy underbelly of the jazz world where the traditional and raunchy merge. The unique theme that carries throughout the record is a musical “path that blends the light and dark” in a way that holds the attention of the listener to the last note. From melancholy songs such as Way Back Home to positively toe-tapping pieces such as Old Soul and Back To You, Bird and the Mavericks bring a scintillating spark and charm that liven up these dreary winter days. This golden-voiced vocalist, reminiscent of Sinatra and Elling, brings the album to a close with the touching Honey Bee Lullaby, a promise of much more to come from this young talent in the near future.

Listen to 'You Are the Light and the Way' Now in the Listening Room

03 Roddie Elias Kellylee EvansNot This Room
Roddy Ellias Free Spirit Ensemble featuring Kellylee Evans
Independent (roddyellias.com)

With this latest recording, eminent guitarist Roddy Ellias shines not only as a gifted musician, but as a fine and facile composer and arranger. Every song in this collection was written by Elias, and the compelling, and often haunting lyrics were written by noted Canadian poetess Sandra Nicholls. Both the music and lyrics here require the participation of very special artists, and joining Elias on this deeply personal project is the inspired vocalist and lyrical interpreter, Kellylee Evans, as well as a lineup of skilled musicians, including Ellias on acoustic steel string guitar, Marc Copland on piano, Justin Orok on nylon string guitar, Chris Pond on bass, Jose Garcia on percussion, Petr Cancura on reeds and mandolin, Guy Pelletier on flute, Richard Page on bass clarinet and Pierre-Yves Martel on viola da gamba.

Evans’ emotional intelligence permeates the stunning title track, and beckons the listener to participate in the journey ahead. As the tune segues into a more rhythmic section, the ensemble playing, including Garcia’s subtle and driving percussion, is nothing short of breathtaking. These artists are clearly listening to each other and are creating every musical nuance in synchronicity – like a single-celled being,

Of special note is the moving and thought-provoking Draw Me a Circle, in which Evans’ warm and sinuous voice effortlessly scales the pure notes of her upper register, diving into her cello-like tones (the perfect complement for Martel’s gamba). Other gems include the stark and mystical Blood and Bone and the haunting, Middle Eastern-modality-infused Suddenly. The touching and uplifting Prayer is the perfect closer for this evocative project of nearly unbearable beauty and fragility.

04 Greg AmiraultNews Blues
Greg Amirault; Steve Amirault; Adrian Vedady; Jim Doxas
CUPFA GGA002 (gregamirault.org)

For his third release as a leader, Montreal-based guitarist/composer/producer Greg Amirault has brought forth an intimate, swinging, potent recording – comprised of seven of his own well-constructed tunes, as well as two tasty standards (both arranged in gorgeous solo guitar formats). He is also joined here by longtime collaborators, including his uber-talented brother Steve Amirault on piano, the deft Adrian Vedady on bass and Jim Doxas on drums.

The title track – a sassy, up-tempo blues – features superb soloing from Greg on guitar, while the rest of the rhythm session cooks like an incendiary device as Steve performs a consummate solo, utilizing his ridiculous chops and musical pumpitude. A true standout is Sweet Way (a tip of the hat to Dave Brubeck’s In Your Own Sweet Way), which is a groovy 5/4 cooker that brings to mind the Mundell Lowe-esque L.A. guitar sound of the late 1950s, replete with a contemporized perspective. Doxas drives everyone down the pike with an unwavering urgency – always making the right percussive choice – always listening and enhancing. 

Also intriguing is the sweet, folk-inspired Song for Nova Scotia – a heartwarming divergence, celebrating the Amirault brothers’ Yarmouth roots. Steve’s melodica and Greg’s guitar solo are perfect in their pristine simplicity. Other highlights include the bittersweet ballad, Meeting the Master, which is dedicated to the memory of the late, great John Abercrombie, featuring a moving and facile bass solo from Vedady and a solo guitar performance of Tad Dameron’s rarely performed classic, If You Could See Me Now. Greg’s brilliant interpretation invokes a hint of Jim Hall, and captures both the longing and hopefulness of the timeless lyric in a performance to remind us that Amirault is one of the most significant jazz guitarists/composers on the scene today.

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.

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