Le way qu’a do
Les Surruralists
Tour de Bras TDB90033CD

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.

As difficult as the idea of creating sophisticated improvisational music may sometimes seem, even more fraught with challenges is finding the inspiration behind any improvisation. Creation may be singular or involve ensembles of varying size, while the influence or incentive for the work may result from examining a work of art, an historical action, a physical or spatial location or even a realized sonic concept. Each of these notable discs defines inspirations in a unique fashion.

01 Blood HwangTake American violinist Jason Kao Hwang’s Blood (True Sound Recordings TS1 jasonkaohwang.com). His eight-member Burning Bridge ensemble mixes Eastern (pipa and erhu) and Western (three brass, double bass and drums) instruments on five of Hwang’s polychromatic compositions which make their points by twisting varied musical strands, but without trading efficiency for exoticism. Although reflecting on trauma inflicted on his mother in China and his associates in the Vietnam War, Blood isn’t agitprop. Instead, melancholy and aggression are portrayed through sounds. For instance, on the title track, stop-time counterpoint from Steve Swell’s trombone projecting from a bellicose march driven by Andrew Drury’s drums cedes space to delicate textures from Wang Guowei’s erhu and Sun Li’s pipa. Although the concluding Declarations references and resolves the CD with a peaceful overlay consisting of chromatic pipa strums plus pedal-point modulations from Swell and tubist Joseph Daley, theatrical woe is balanced by sophisticated virtuosity. Giving the Asian instruments parts that unselfconsciously swing, some of Hwang’s other tunes skip and soar with lively inferences. The two-part Surge for example, finds string parts swirling around Taylor Ho Bynum’s graceful, kinetic cornet, and if Hwang’s violin solo impresses with calculated flying spiccato then so do Li’s crunching strums with a blues sensibility closer to the Mississippi river than the Yangtze. Surge Part 2 is more memorable, since not only does Daley confirm his breath control as he matter-of-factly slides from basso-like to sopranino-like tones, but the composition’s uniqueness is confirmed when Hwang’s bluesy sweeps and Swell’s plunger yelps erupt from within a sequence that emphasizes string stretches from the traditional Chinese instruments.

02 GGRILConcerned with the realization of musical concepts, rather than reflecting tangible actions or emotions, is Façons (Microcidi 014 tourdebras.com), a two-CD set where the 20-odd members of Rimouski, Quebec-based GGRIL interpret free music tropes created specifically for the ensemble. Describing exactly his aim, Organon, by Montreal’s Isaiah Ceccarelli, aims to transform the orchestra into a gigantic pipe organ, and the inflated crescendo which introduces the piece does just that with a collection of tremolo polyrhythms and polytones making distinctive sonic colours judder every which way. As the organ-like chording intensifies however, helped by wave form pressure from GGRIL’s low-energy synthesizers, individual contributions such as Alexandre Robichaud’s trumpet slurps, undulating split tones from all four reedists, plus bell clangs and glockenspiel smacks from percussionist Antoine Létourneau-Berger, bring singular personalities forward. By the climactic finale, brass and reed parts retain the concentrated theme, while fissures in the form of idiosyncratic runs from the three electric guitarists, percussion and two violinists create a contrapuntal challenge. On disc two, rather than concentrated textures, London-based soprano saxophonist John Butcher, who joins the group as it plays his six-part Local Fixations, emphasizes tonal contrasts. As metallic guitar frails from Olivier D’Amours and Robert Bastien sharpen the exposition, string section modulations join with Robin Servant’s accordion vibrations to create divergent drones. By midpoint, the development divides between solo snatches of high-pitched flute echoes, reed bites and fiddle sweeps plus stop-time from the entire ensemble. An interval of triple-tongued saxophone, bowed bass and guitar plucks creates wider intervals on the penultimate Collective Memories II until cogwheel ratchets signal a hushed interval. A concluding sequence, Floating Amphora emphasizes sul ponticello string bowing, mechanized thumps, cawing brass and reed cries as well as tough rebounds from Éric Normand’s electric bass; a final orchestral tutti sways into conclusive snorts from Gabriel Rochette-Bériau’s trombone and Mathieu Gosselin’s baritone saxophone that blur the disparate timbres into a distinctive finale.

03 Ulrich MitzlaffShrinking the personnel down to one and the inspiration to description, is Lisbon-based cellist Ulrich Mitzlaff’s Sonic Miniatures about Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” (Creative Sources CS 531 CD creativesources.com), During ten brief tracks, Mitzlaff’s cello figuratively examines the famous Norwegian painting from every perspective, using extended techniques to make each diminutive track distinctive. The most significant is Miniature #5, a multi-hued sketch in itself. Beginning with the sound of the bow clattering on the ground, it evolves to resonating pizzicato plucks advanced one at a time in ascending pitches, until aggregate stops vibrate all strings with below-the-bridge drags, and then suddenly fade to one concluding twang. Shaded differently, Miniature #9 is almost as dramatic, with speedy spiccato shuffles shading the melody as it moves at a frenetic pace, only to end with lulling timbres. Also displaying col legno pops, chamber music-like formalism, sul ponticello echoes, distinctive low pitches and strongly focused stops, the cellist doesn’t echo the message of Munch’s painting as much as create a distinctive art work of his own.

04a Ochs CleaverOriginal methods of using spatial considerations inspire two other sessions. Songs of the Wild Cave (RogueArt ROG 0084 roguart.com) was recorded in the dark and silence of a Paleolithic cave in southwestern France by Americans, saxophonist Larry Ochs and drummer Gerald Cleaver. The other CD was recorded in the Chihuahuan Desert in West Texas by American alto saxophonist Joe McPhee and tenor saxophonist John Butcher, far removed from GGRIL. Named for the massive brick sculptures constructed in the desert by a reclusive American sculptor, the improvisations on At the Hill of James Magee (Trost TR174 CD trost.at) were created as much in the desert air as inside the shale-rock structures.

On Songs of the Wild Cave though, shadowy haze masking prehistoric cave paintings and stone walls dripping moisture become part of the program as Ochs and Cleaver first tentatively and then sonorously pierce the oppressive quiet with contemporary noises. Fully acclimatized, midway through the program with a track literally titled Deeper, Ochs’ combination of glossolalia, horn shakes, reed bites and dyspeptic tones breech the opaque air to such an extent that reed cries could bring out ghosts of more than Albert Ayler. Meanwhile the drummer complements these saxophone spurts with cymbal smacks, wood pops and rebounding patterns. Adapting to the cave’s spatial qualities, by Ringing It In, the saxophonist’s harsh narrow vibrations and squealing split tones seem to be figuratively digging through the murk and the clay-encrusted walls beyond. Dispersing the cavern’s chill, the drummer performs a similar feat, warming the air with subtle tambourine and maracas-like shakes and bass-drum smacks. As the improvisations thicken on the penultimate Rooted in Clay, a quasi-melody, never previously heard in these primeval surroundings is constructed out of repeated breaths, slurs and vocalized cries, and moulded linearly with bell ringing and rattling strokes. When wide honks and inflated multiphonics bounce off the earth and rocks during the final extended Light from the Shadows, it appears as if the title’s promise is fulfilled; Cleaver’s subsequent near-bebop rhythm, decorated with intermittent saxophone peeps, confirms the sound illumination. 

04b McPhee ButcherInventively displaying meditations on a comparable structural challenge on At the Hill of James Magee, at least McPhee and Butcher had the advantage of defining their art above ground. At the same time, the opportunity to produce sounds within and outside 40-foot high edifices, made of shale with iron doors and encompassing shattered glass, rust, flowers and textile shards, is as daring as it is unique. Turning acoustics to advantage, natural amplification makes saxophone strategy stand out even more. On Mine Shaft for instance, the width of a pit is marked with circular breathing, that while touching the saxophone’s highest reaches, also relaxes into a melodic theme. Oddly, the echoes on Butcher’s Paradise Overcast, more than the previous improvisation, reflect a near-bottomless pit, as his darkened slurs and key percussion are coordinated into a rhythmic smear. Otherwise using vamps and asides to emphasize tonal differences between their horns, the duo’s most profound application of this spatial inspiration is the almost 21-minute introductory Sometimes Yes, Sometimes No. Apparently convening from opposite angles of the structures, ghostly reed tones connect in concentric circles of growls and buzzes that inflate as they deepen. The alto saxophonist’s moderated tone and the tenor saxophonist’s harsh overblowing fragment in a climatic intermezzo after which watery but lyrical timbres predominate. Individual textural variations appear before a protracted pause with a finale that balances McPhee’s narrowed tweets with dampened snarls from Butcher.

Whether rooted in cerebral hypothesis or a physical object, fascinating improvisations can have many sources. These CDs show some of the ways this happens.

01 Cynthia TauroMoments
Cynthia Tauro
Independent (cynthiatauro.com)

There can be no doubt that emerging jazz pianist and vocalist Cynthia Tauro is a stunning, talented breath of fresh air. Her debut CD is a clever juxtaposition of interesting standards, and Tauro’s original, irresistible compositions. With a musical pedigree that goes back generations, Tauro has a wealth of musical technique, as well as a recognizable and appealing vocal sound – alternatingly soft as velvet and sharp as a razor. On her debut recording, Tauro has put together a talented ensemble, led by eclectic, brilliant and intuitive producer/composer George Koller on bass and A-list jazz players Ted Quinlan on guitar, Davide DiRenzo on drums, Perry White on tenor saxophone and Colleen Allen on soprano sax, clarinet and flute.

The CD kicks off with Tauro’s original tune, Dancin’ On My Own. Interesting chord changes, superb musicianship and a no-nonsense lyric make this track a standout (including Perry White’s Hank Mobley-esque solo). Another excellent choice by Tauro is her version of 1937’s Someday My Prince Will Come. Tauro’s pitch-pure soprano sails over the lyric, imbuing it with a contemporary emotional edge, while her piano work is both substantial and swinging.

Without question, Cara Valente is sung with skill and precision in luscious Portuguese. Tauro’s deep, innate rhythmic feel, as well as her vocal timbre and fluidity are nothing short of breathtaking – bringing to mind the late Elis Regina. The CD’s bilingual closer, One Note Samba, is a triumph. Despite her jazz ingénue status, Tauro is already a fully realized pianist, songwriter and vocalist, and it will be fascinating to see what’s next for this talented artist!

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