Ever since the J.C. Deagan company perfected the modern vibraphone in the late 1920s, decisions as to whether it should be used as a rhythm or a solo instrument have divided musicians. Some, like Lionel Hampton, emphasized the percussion functions, others, like Milt Jackson, perfected its melodic use. Improvised music accepts each of these functions – and a few more – as reflected on these discs.

01 Martin PyineTaking a cue from the subtle melodicism perfected by Chick Corea and Gary Burton on their series of duo discs are vibraphonist Martin Pyne and keyboardist David Beebee. But on Ripples (DISCUS 145 CD discus-music.co.uk) the two up the ante on the disc’s dozen selections by using electric piano tones to blend with vibe sonorities. The resulting improvisations involve elastic note vibrations from the plugged-in keyboard alongside sustained aluminum bar resonations. Some tracks are balladic, taking full advantage  of the ingenuity of the pianist, who also recorded the session, as he cushions the vibist’s languid, perfectly shaped single notes with tremolo comping. This is emphasized most clearly on the extended Seeking Refuge, where lyrical interludes from the vibist are backed with sympathetic piano chording. Modernity is emphasized as well since Pyne’s single notes ring as well as relate. The vibist’s ability to create perfectly rounded notes that can almost be visualized as teardrop shaped are then hardened into sustained accents when the two play staccato and presto. Glissandi created by mallet slides are sometimes as prominent as keyboard smears. The vibist’s sustain pedal pressure and firmer strokes also frequently confirm the instrument’s idiophone heritage with concise, powerful strokes. Still these instances as on Night Music and Peg Powler are never completely percussive since the latter includes stop-time interludes and the former a sand-dance-like solo from Pyne. With neither partner exclusively soloist nor accompanist the intersectional connection is always maintained. The duo defines each sequence effectively and frequently leaves a timbral ripple in the air after the selection is completed. 

02 Patricia BrennanMore percussion is featured on Patricia Brennan’s More Touch (Pyroclastic Records PR22 pyroclasticrecords.com), where the Mexican-born New Yorker adds electronics to her vibraphone and marimba narratives as she meets textures from Cuban percussionist Mauricio Herrera, and Americans, bassist Kim Cass and drummer Marcus Gilmore. Imagine Latin Music-leaning Cal Tjader amplifying his sound with electronics. At the same time, except for the final two tracks which are built around ratcheting Afro-Cuban repercussions and a solid Batá drum pulse respectively, influences far removed from the Southern Hemisphere are interpreted by what could be called a post-Modern Jazz Quartet. Brennan’s compositions touch on reggae and contemporary notated music and can sound as Arcadian as African and relate Mexican son jarocho to American swing. Textures are tweaked with electronic drones and oscillations and Cass’ supple string stops sometimes bend notes to blend with electronic wheezes and washes. Crucially though, he and Gilmore always retain the jazz groove. Extended tracks such as Robbin and the nearly 15-minute Space For Hour are treated as mini-suites. The first moves from emphasizing adagio raps from the vibist to downshifting to a silent interlude that gradually inflates with synthesized wriggles and whooshes. These join emphasized vibe slaps to build a livelier but still moderato connection. Silences separate sequences in Space For Hour, as Brennan’s skittering metal plinks start off unaccompanied until conga drum plops and cymbal clanks join them to outline the theme. As acoustic and electronic timbres are stretched, a vibe-bass duet limns a secondary theme at half the speed of the first. The subsequent multi-mallet pressure from the vibist is mirrored by bass string pops and drum ruffs to toughen the line. Finally, as the resulting stop-time exposition is intensified with drum and percussion reverb, a reprise of the vibes-bass duet preserves the original melody.

03 Dan McCarthyExcept for guitars and drums there’s no overt electronics or percussion on Toronto vibist Dan McCarthy’s Songs of the Doomed’s Some Jaded, Atavistic Freakout (TPR Records TPR 014 tprrecords.ca). But his disc aims to reflect the writing and over-the-top life of US Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson (1937-2005). Probably less programmatic than McCarthy intended, the compositions and arrangements crafted for this 13-track CD, mix hints of Metal, pop, chromatic serialism and improv, adding up to a clever package of near-swinging lyricism. Negotiating the changes, besides the vibraphone’s chiming aluminum bars, are intersecting guitar riffs from Don Scott and Luan Phung, steadfast bass accents from Daniel Fortin and drummer Ernesto Cervini’s cooperative rhythms. Tracks like Some Jaded, Atavistic Freakout and Kingdom of Fear are more cinematic than others. The first includes rounded vibraphone plops that colour the exposition as the guitars turn from drones to harmony that almost suggest a string section. On the second, an intermingling of stentorian bass stops, percussion rubs and expanded guitar string jabs create vamps that are as menacing as those on any thriller soundtrack. Others, such as Owl Farm, are more concerned with the groove. While Fortin’s recurrent bass thumps and Cervini’s paradiddle shuffles create a continuum, string stabs slide the expressive theme out further and further as McCarthy emphasizes prestissimo clanks and echoes, with cadences as rhythmic as anything produced by Lionel Hampton. A throwback, only as far as Thompson’s early 1970s heyday, buzzing guitar flanges, double bass slaps and idiophone accents throughout the session maintain equivalence between the strident and the song-like. So, an exposition such as The High-Water Mark is as straight ahead as any soundtrack, but slightly twisted with interludes of rainstorm-like resonating notes. One 1960s recasting does misfire though with a vocal version of White Rabbit that is more plodding than psychedelic. However the quintet redeems itself by the concluding Evening in Woody Creek as McCarthy and Cervini provide appropriate pops and clatters to highlight Scott’s and Phung’s tolling Jimi Hendrix-like flanges, which relate back to the pressurized guitar feedback on the introductory Morning in Woody Creek.

Listen to 'Songs of the Doomed: Some Jaded, Atavistic Freakout' Now in the Listening Room

Adding horns and choral instruments, two European sessions position the vibraphone within the jazz continuum. All Slow Dream Gone (Moserobie MMPIP 128 moserobie.com) features Norwegian bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten with Swedes, clarinetist Per Texas Johansson, drummer Konrad Agnas and vibraphonist Mattias Ståhl. Meanwhile Windows & Mirrors | Milano Dialogues (Leo Records CD LR 931 leorecords.com) is even more pan-European with a quartet of two Finns: soprano/sopranino saxophonist Harri Sjöström and accordionist Veli Kujala and two Italians, trombonist Giancarlo Schiaffini and vibraphonist Sergio Armaroli.

04 All Slow Dream GoneContrapuntal sounds, the Scandinavian session All Slow Dream Gone contains enough unselfconscious swing to be reminiscent of a Benny Goodman small group session of the 1940s or ones with Terry Gibbs in the 1950s. But while these Northern Europeans have internalized hot and cool jazz, the airy sounds they produce include an undertow of studied toughness. Sure the bassist provides an unwavering pulse and there are frequent drum breaks, but when he solos, Flaten explores techniques unknown decades ago. As for the front line, whether it’s chalumeau register scoops or clarion twitters, Johansson’s tone is never forced and produces narrative advances in high, low or middle registers. Creating a woody marimba-like sound Ståhl turns off his instrument’s motor during the selection so that the notes project a hollow sustain, more earthy than elaborate. Skin is an instance of this. Played andante and vivace with never a note out of place, the vibe resonations and clarinet slurs and slithers maintain discerning motion in spite of hocketing pauses and individual interchanges with Agnas. Among the foot-tapping rhythms, maintained by the bassist’s walking, other tracks such as Slow – which isn’t – make room for the vibist’s swift, rolling glissandi and pinpointed clanks, while Gone lets the clarinetist snore and snarl his most ferocious low-pitched timbres as drum breaks and metal bar ringing keep the narrative symmetrical.

05 Windows MirrorsComing from a completely antithetical perspective is Windows & Mirrors | Milano Dialogues since its ten tracks are completely improvised. Also it’s the only disc here that doesn’t include a chordophone. This leaves expression and connection calculated through repetitive accordion tremors and resonating vibraphone clanks. For their part, the trombonist and saxophonist extend dissonant textures such as elephantine roars from Schiaffini and calculated peeps and slithers from Sjöström, as the non-horns maintain andante footing with knowing segues. If the trombonist unleashes a series of elongated plunger stutters and the saxophonist replies with biting howls or slippery bites, resonating metal pitter-patter and mid-range squeeze box shudders create a stabilizing continuum. The accordion and vibes aren’t relegated to mere background work either. Throughout the two related groups of free music tropes, each instrument asserts itself for solo introductions or in duet or trio form. A track such as Windows 5 for instance, is set up with Armaroli’s metallic pops, as the theme is kept moving with plunger brass portamento and irregularly vibrated reed slithers. Another distinct strategy is displayed on Mirrors 4, as Kujala‘s accordion squeezes create a beginning-to-end allegro pulse even as Schiaffini rumbles half-valve slurs that widen and shake the exposition. Sound summation comes on Mirrors 5, the extended concluding track. Emphasized vibe mallet splatters and malleable accordion judders join with gravelly brass breaths and reed vibrations for a climax that moves from tension-ridden to temperate, reflecting both the innovative and integral sides of the improvisations.

The conception and expression of vibraphone playing has come a long way in 100 years. On the evidence here it’s sure to keep evolving.

01 Caity GyorgyFeaturing
Caity Gyorgy
La Reserve Recordings (caitygyorgy.com)

With the opening barn burner, I Feel Foolish, singer-songwriter Caity Gyorgy puts us on notice of what’s to come on Featuring. It’s the first of many compelling songs she’s written for her latest release, and what’s to come is 13 tracks of vocal virtuosity and genuine jazz, ranging in style from swing to cool to bebop. 

Backed up by a hard-swinging trio (Felix Fox-Pappas, piano; Thomas Hainbuch, bass; Jacob Wutzke, drums) with guest appearances by guitarist Jocelyn Gould (who does a gorgeous duet with Gyorgy on the ballad, I Miss Missing You), fellow young phenom singer, Laura Anglade and a long lineup of horn and woodwind players, including Pat LaBarbera and Virginia MacDonald. Gyorgy solos effortlessly and extensively along with the master instrumentalists, but never sacrifices warmth or musicality for adroitness. Storytelling wins out even when vocal gymnastics are dazzling us, as they do on A Moment, featuring the remarkable Allison Au on sax. My Cardiologist is a masterclass on how to be both light-hearted yet seriously musical, with its witty take on what love does to our hearts. 

The accolades continue to pile up for Gyorgy since her debut release two short years ago, as she made Best of 2022 lists and won a Juno Award. I’m looking forward to seeing the rest of the world catch on as this homegrown talent expands her reach through tours in the U.S. and beyond. Track her progress at caitygyorgy.com.

Listen to 'Featuring' Now in the Listening Room

02 Mathieu SoucyRecollecting
Mathieu Soucy
Inner-Bob Records (mathieusoucy.com)

Young jazz guitarist Mathieu Soucy, a recent graduate of McGill and a Montreal native, showcases his prolific compositional and technical skills on this debut album. Soucy adds his own twist to the songs, managing to both create a beautiful hark back to the eras of swing and bop while also bringing them into current times; making for a new classic of sorts. The record features an excellent set of musicians, with Gentiane MG on keys, Mike De Masi on bass, Jacob Wutzke on drums and Caity Gyorgy on vocals. Most pieces are penned by the guitarist himself with a couple of fresh takes on well-known jazz classics mixed into the musical pot pourri.  

Lennie’s Changes starts off the album with catchy, toe-tapping energy; fast-paced bass runs and a constant, driving beat keep this captivating little number moving until the last note fades. Where or When is a spiffy take on the Rodgers and Hart classic, featuring the sultry and mellow vocals of Gyorgy with Soucy’s talents as a guitarist splendidly coming to the forefront within the piece. 

The fascinating thing about this album is how Soucy manages to make these pieces sound as if they could have been written back in the golden era yet also fit incredibly well into the current musical landscape. With this invigorating album, the up-and-coming young guitarist shows that he definitely has more in store for the future.

03 Sam TaylorLet Go
Sam Taylor; Terell Stafford; Jeb Patton; Neal Miner; Willie Jones III
Cellar Music CM013122 (cellarlive.com)

Philadelphia native, tenor saxophonist Sam Taylor has a pure joy for both playing and writing music which shines through phenomenally on his latest release. Recorded at the legendary Van Gelder Studios in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, Taylor has managed to capture that aforementioned joy within each of these pieces and send it right to the ears and hearts of listeners; it’s impossible to not smile while listening through. The talented musician has brought together his musical heroes and inspirations in his backing band, featuring Terell Stafford on trumpet, Jeb Patton on piano, Neal Miner on bass and Willie Jones III on drums. The pieces are uplifting and fresh takes on jazz classics with one song penned by Taylor himself. 

The record is a ray of musical sunshine that brightens up the dreariest, grey winter days from the first note. A perfect balance of slower, mellow tunes and fast-paced, head-bopping ones make for an ear-pleasing, all-encompassing musical journey to satiate that itch for fresh music that you didn’t quite know you had. Luminescence stands out as a particularly energetic and snazzy piece with fantastic solos peppered throughout, showcasing each musician’s fine talents. Bye Bye Baby, a fitting title to end the record, leaves the listener with a sense of hope and positivity for the future as well as a curiosity to see what this prolific saxophonist comes up with next. A great addition to the jazz aficionado’s collection!

04 Francois HouleMake That Flight
François Houle & Marco von Orelli
ezz-thetics 1032 (hathut.com)

A barebones, but not budget flight, this 11-track itinerary is fuelled by only two instruments and the improvisational imaginations of Canadian clarinetist François Houle and Swiss cornetist Marco von Orelli. The key to microscopic interactive playing like this is to make the partnership expansive not reductive, creating as many harmonized or contrapuntal tropes as necessary. Not only are compositions divided between the musicians, but for every delicate reed tone and portamento brass sequence heard, an almost equal number of altissimo squeals and half-valve extensions balance the horizontal flow.

This is most expansively expressed on the concluding Morning Song 1 where the tune’s forward motion is speckled with shaking growls and toneless breaths from von Orelli and scoops and stretches from Houle. Eventually both intersect and resolve the tune with connected but distorted high pitches. Transitions aren’t always that abrupt, as dual sweeps up and down the scale are sometimes concluded with grace not suturing. Other times, as on a track like Tandem, the title is literally defined. Allegro cornet puffs and calliope-like clarinet peeps move through parallel shaking emissions only to finally connect with tandem-animated narratives.

Overall, while each sequence allows for individual technical expressions, all are resolved with lockstep ambulation or rondo-like affiliations, leading to broken octave linear motion. Without the need for electronic technology or more partners, Houle and von Orelli prove that together they can auspiciously fuel a memorable musical flight.

05 Ig HennemanOutside the Rain Has Stopped
Ig Henneman
Stichting Wig Wig 32 (abbaarsighennemanwig.bandcamp.com/album/outside-the-rain-has-stopped)

Canadians who only know Dutch violist Ig Henneman from her collaboration with the local Queen Mab duo, might not realize that in recognition of her lifetime in improvised and composed music The Netherlands made her a Knight of the Order of Oranje-Nassau in 2021. This CD presents many aspects of the 76-year-old’s extensive career in many idioms. 

The soundscape Bow Valley, which blends improv with Alberta’s Rocky Mountain area field recordings is one standout. While Anne La Berge’s flute flutters and Ab Baars’ shakuhachi trills are intertwined with rural sounds, the bucolic texture is repeatedly interrupted by passing freight train whistles and radios blaring rock music. Meanwhile Galina U, inspired by Russian composer Galina Ustvolskaya, posits a contrapuntal challenge between Ansgar Wallenhorst’s foghorn-like organ drones and dynamic crescendos with structured colouration from La Berge’s flute, Baars’ clarinet and Henneman’s own viola. 

Other compositions for pressurized solo organ, spirited solo cello and poem or sound poem embellishments and improvisations are included. But the most impressive demonstration of Henneman’s compositional aptitude is the title tune. Here, dynamic interaction among violins, viola and cello with jagged arco slices, sul tasto pushes and whistling glissandi, shatter the form then reach an energetic crescendo that approaches Cecil Taylor’s dynamic pianism. 

Obviously, Ig Henneman is a name that should be more recognized by sophisticated listeners on both sides of the musical improvisation-notation divide.

06 Mike MurleyIn a Summer Dream
Hannah Barstow; Mike Murley; Jim Vivian
Cornerstone Records (cornerstonerecordsinc.com)

There can be no question that the creative pairing of pianist, vocalist and composer Hannah Barstow with saxophonist/composer Mike Murley is beyond inspired… and the addition of eminent jazz bassist Jim Vivian is not only the perfect complement to Barstow and Murley, but also to the superb, eclectic selection of rarely performed tunes and the two original compositions here. Barstow and Murley serve as producers, innovatively arranging works from such diverse artists as Johnny Mandel, Nat Adderley, Johnny Mercer and Michel Legrand. 

The program kicks off with Mandel’s Don’t Look Back – which features a haunting, delicate melodic line as well as masterful playing from Barstow who has put her own swinging stamp on this Broadway tune. Her pitch-perfect, rhythmic jazz vocal style adds another dimension to the meaningful lyric, while Murley and Vivian eminently support Barstow throughout. Barstow’s intonation, tone, lyrical interpretation and respect for the melody is worthy of a vocal master class – and the sooner the better! 

Who Are You comes from iconic trumpeter/composer Kenny Wheeler. The tenor solo opening gently segues into Barstow’s stunning vocal line. Murley sings through his tenor, effortlessly creating an aura of musical intimacy, and Vivian’s skilled and moving bass solo takes us deeper on the trip. From the inspired minds of Legrand and Mercer, comes Once Upon a Summertime, replete with a sumptuous solo from Murley. Of special note is Barstow’s original title track, which calls to mind the vocal style and musicality of the great Norma Winstone. By any musical criteria, this is one of the finest jazz recordings of the year. 

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