Reg schwager is a consummate guitarist, as skilled an accompanist as he is a soloist and an imaginative improviser at bop tempos and ballads, continuing the special lineage of Toronto guitarists that includes Ed Bickert and Sonny Greenwich. On Duets (Rant 1142 www.rantrecords.com) Schwager plays with four distinguished bassists, each of whom he has worked with extensively: Don Thompson, Neil Swainson, Dave Young and Pat Collins. Each duet has some special quality: there’s the boppish Sir George with Swainson, dedicated to their former employer George Shearing; the cool Niterói Night Sky with Young’s propulsive use of glissandi; and the understated Latin rhythm that floats Collins’ own Judge’s Row. The sense of dialogue is always strong, but Schwager’s exotic The Alchemist’s Dream is a highpoint, a probing, expansive discussion between the guitarist and Don Thompson, frequent duo partners.
Electric bassist Chris Tarry has put together one of the most imaginative releases of the past year, combining the music of his quintet with his short story writing. Rest of the Story (19/8 Records www.christarry.com) looks like a book, but by the fourth story in the collection — The Hole — it gives way to just that and the next 70 pages present a fringe of text around a CD (it was striking enough to win the Recording Packaging of the Year award at the 2012 JUNOs). Tarry’s narrative interests arise in his compositions as well: they’re filled with subtle harmonic ambiguities and rhythmic nuances, with strong melodies and intriguing internal shifts in genre, a ballad assuming a blues hue, a beat becoming explicitly Latinate. The band includes first-rank soloists in guitarist Pete McCann — he brings a shimmering lucidity to You Are the State — and forceful saxophonist Kelly Jefferson.
There are strong narrative elements as well in the Maria Farinha Band’s Uwattibi (Farpat 009 www.mariaffarinha.com), though one requires a command of Brazilian Portuguese to pick up the details. The title means “place of the canoe in Tupi-Guarani,” an allusion to a love story about a French colonizer and a native Brazilian woman. Farinha presents her songs with a light touch and they’re filled with neatly turned emotional resonances, whether poignancy or muted joy. The band is co-led by guitarist Roy Patterson, and it’s very good: Andrew Downing plays cello in addition to bass, adding a distinctive texture to Atina Marahao and a darker hue to the buoyant instrumental Sentient Baiao as it soars on Jean Pierre Zanella’s flute.
The Vancouver-based clarinettist François Houle has assembled a genuinely brilliant band that he calls 5 + 1 for Genera (Songlines SGL 1595-2 www.songlines.com). It’s an international cast with U.S. cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum, Swiss trombonist Samuel Blaser, expatriate Canadians Michael Bates on bass and Harris Eisenstadt on drums, with frequent appearances here by French pianist Benoît Delbecq, a long-time Houle associate (they released the duo CD Because She Hoped on Songlines last year). Houle’s compositions are more than just triggers for improvisation. The beautiful Guanara, anchored to a slow Latin beat, achieves an almost Gil Evans-like sonic richness from a limited palette; Essay #7, all tightly controlled angles, finally surrenders to a burst of liberating collective improvisation; Le Concombre de Chicoutimi II has the suspension and grace of Ravel. It’s a CD filled with clear, thoughtful, expressive work, and the settings — both the compositions and the band — raise Houle’s own improvisations to a new level.
The Element Choir, founded and led by Christine Duncan, is a large Toronto vocal group that practices “conduction,” collectively interpreting and improvising on hand signals that trigger different activities and sub-groups, control dynamics and synchronize dramatic events. The choir is a cross-section of Toronto’s improvised music community and their latest CD, with William Parker at Christ Church Deer Park (Barnyard BR0326 www.barnyardrecords.com), is a spectacular performance with the choir 70-strong and joined by several musicians: the trio of trumpeter Jim Lewis, bassist Andrew Downing and drummer Jean Martin; Eric Robertson — both a regular collaborator and organist at Christ Church Deer Park — and the New York bassist William Parker. The result — a 44-minute collective improvisation called Ventures in a Cloud Chamber — is remarkable, whether it’s the choir in the foreground with its startling massed pitches, rhythmic chanting, eerie dialogues or banshee wails, or the musicians soloing against the backdrop of all those voices. Hearing about it, it might sound like an experiment; hearing it, it’s a remarkable communal accomplishment.
Paying homage to late great artists is as perilous as it is inviting. Ranee Lee recorded Deep Song: A Tribute to Billie Holiday (Justin Time Just 250-2) in 1989 and it’s just been reissued. Lee is a fine singer with an interpretive depth and melodic subtlety that immediately distinguish her. Those gifts serve her well on such challenging Holiday classics as God Bless the Child and the harrowing Strange Fruit. She can also manage the Holiday playfulness on a light pop tune like Them There Eyes, but she’s less successful in the emotional netherworld of Don’t Explain. The accompaniment, too, is a mixed bag. Pianist Oliver Jones and bassist Milton Hinton play great jazz; saxophonist/flutist Richard Beaudet just sounds “jazzy.” Overall, it’s an affecting invocation of a singular figure, and Lee manages to assert her own vocal personality while creating it.