04 IcterusIcterus
Stefan Hegerat
Independent (stefanhegerat.com)

The debut album from drummer/bandleader Stefan Hegerat, Icterus, was inspired in part by a trip to Germany, from which his mother’s family emigrated following World War I. The resulting collection of songs – all of which were composed and arranged by Hegerat – are connected by shared themes of “existentialism and belonging.” Joining Hegerat is Robert Grieve on electric guitar, Patrick O’Reilly, also on electric guitar and Mark Godfrey on electric bass.

Icterus, as the instrumentation may suggest, takes considerable influence from amplified electric music, and, though it is replete with improvisation, the prevailing stylistic tone is more rock than jazz. Schloss, the opening track, begins with a tightly executed staccato melody, played by both guitars and bass before the time dissolves into a section of group improvisation that showcases Grieve and O’Reilly’s complementary instrumental voices. Odd One Out, which showcases the group’s ability to explore wide dynamic ranges, begins with an ethereal guitar melody that grows patiently as it’s joined by the second guitar; when the rhythm section enters, the contrast between the rock-solid bass/drum parts and the spacey guitar parts neatly encapsulates the charm of Icterus. Raccoons, another highlight, builds slowly, eventually settling into one of the album’s most compelling sections, both for its deep groove and for the beautifully contrasting guitar tones used by Grieve and O’Reilly.

A worthwhile listen for fans of jazz, progressive rock and improvised music, Icterus is a mature and self-assured debut from a talented drummer with a clear compositional vision.

05 Jim Brenan50/50
Jim Brenan 11
Death Defying Records n/a (deathdefyingrecords.com) 

Saxophonist Jim Brenan has been a major force on the jazz scene for a number of years, performing in Canada and around the world both as a sideperson and with his own projects. 50/50, his most recent album, was released in February through the Canadian label Death Defying Records, and features pianist/keyboardist Chris Andrew, who joins Brenan and nine of Alberta’s top jazz musicians to form an 11-piece ensemble. The instrumentation – rhythm section and horns – works in Brenan’s favour, as it allows him to showcase his considerable writing and arranging skills, as well as his prowess as a soloist. While the band’s composition might bring to mind the swinging music of similarly sized Canadian ensembles, the overall vibe is driving, funky and distinctly electric, with touches of Michael Brecker’s large ensemble writing and late Miles Davis fused with Brenan’s unique artistic vision.

50/50 starts with Tigers Milk, a multifaceted song that begins with Brenan trading beautiful, melodic playing with the horn section’s lush chords; after a patient first half, the song segues into a pulsating, 16th-note-heavy second section, with excellent solos from both Brenan and Andrew. Fant-O-Max is one of 50/50’s funkiest and most exploratory songs, with tight horn melodies deftly played over the deep groove set up by drummer Jamie Cooper and bassist Rubim De Toledo, with a fiery soprano solo and a searching keyboard performance from Andrew. Ozark Mountain Cougar Fightin’ serves as an apt final track: at once virtuosic, funky and humorous, it neatly encapsulates Brenan’s project in 50/50.

06 Snowghost SessionsThe Snowghost Sessions
Wayne Horvitz; Geoff Harper; Eric Eagle
Songlines SGL1627-2 (songlines.com) 

Pianist/composer/producer Wayne Horvitz has been a prominent leader of the American avant-garde since his emergence in the 1980s in New York. In the ensuing years, he has been an active performer, has produced albums for artists such as the World Saxophone Quartet and Bill Frisell, and has had compositions commissioned by Kronos Quartet, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and many others. The Snowghost Sessions, released near the end of 2018 on Vancouver’s Songlines record label, is the result of a weeklong residency undertaken by Horvitz, upright bassist Geoff Harper, and drummer Eric Eagle at SnowGhost Studios in Whitefish, Montana in the spring of 2015.

The Snowghost Sessions marks Horvitz’s first trio record in a conventional keys/bass/drums format, and the album starts with The Pauls, a pensive, eerie piece that sets the tone for the rest of the recording. Throughout Snowghost, Horvitz uses keyboards, live processing and triggered samples to expand the traditional sonic range of the acoustic piano trio. In some cases – such as the organ parts on Northampton – these electric additions work subtly, providing additional texture behind the grand piano. At other times, as on The Trees, the piano plays more of a supporting role to processed sounds; still further across the spectrum, on IMB, distorted, filtered keyboards rage over aggressive up-tempo swing. Through it all, Horvitz, Harper and Eagle are open and generous with one another, and Snowghost manages to be exploratory without ever meandering. Highly recommended.

07 Lawful CitizenInternal Combustion
Lawful Citizen
Independent (evanshay.com) 

Internal Combustion, released in November 2018, is the debut album from the Montreal-based band Lawful Citizen, a quartet composed of tenor saxophonist Evan Shay, guitarist Aime Duquet, electric bassist Antoine Pelegrin, and drummer Kyle Hutchins. Recorded at Montreal’s Mechanicland Studios, Internal Combustion is the follow-up to Lawful Citizen’s eponymous 2017 EP, and takes its inspiration from “the grit, brutality and rawness” contained in the “history of the internal combustion engine.” Needless to say, Internal Combustion is not a timid album. Which is not to suggest, of course, that it lacks in subtlety; over the course of the album’s nine songs, there are plenty of quiet, introspective moments, particularly at various points throughout the four-part Internal Combustion Suite. But, as is natural for a young group (they formed a few years ago at McGill), the overall mood, as the title suggests, is bold, dynamic and fiery.

Following The Day After – a lovely, short introductory piece, with Shay’s saxophone overdubbed to create a choral effect – Internal Combustion’s first ensemble song is February 2nd, a driving straight-eighths number that builds to a compelling climax in the saxophone solo. Shatter begins with a great drum groove from Hutchins, then morphs into one of the album’s heaviest tracks, with Duquet’s fuzzed-out guitar dominating the proceedings. The aforementioned four-part suite alone is worth the price of admission; nowhere on the album is Lawful Citizen’s penchant for extreme dynamic range deployed more surprisingly and more effectively.

08 Andrew RathburnCharacter Study
Andrew Rathbun; Tim Hagans; Gary Versace; Jay Anderson; Bill Stewart
SteepleChase SCCD 31862 (andrewrathbun.com) 

Andrew Rathbun’s latest release Character Study takes the listener on a unique and varied musical journey; a journey that showcases his excellent and imaginative talents as a composer-arranger and saxophonist. All pieces on the album, with the exception of Etcetera, are written by Rathbun himself.

The foray into the proverbial musical jungle begins with the sensational opening track The Golden Fool, where bassist Jay Anderson’s energetic runs and percussionist Bill Stewart’s constant shuffle beat keep listeners on their toes, awaiting what unique elements Rathbun has in store for the rest of the piece and the record as a whole. Pieces such as Team of Rivals, His Quiet Determination and The Long Awakening display Rathbun’s contemplative and lyrical sides and are also a testament to his delightful, dance-like and extraordinary talent as a saxophonist. The title track provides an exemplary contrast between lyricism and liveliness, a theme that seems to present itself in several compositions.

Many of the tracks allow ample opportunities to appreciate the musicians who contribute to the musical journey as a whole through various thoroughly enjoyable and virtuosic solos. The ever-present and exceptional dynamic collaboration between instruments is very apparent and noticeable throughout the record and it is easy to appreciate the contribution of each musician to breathing additional life into Rathbun’s compositions. Character Study serves as yet another attestation to the undeniable talent and artistry of the Toronto native.

09 Lion Camel ChildThe Lion, Camel & Child
Johnny Griffith Quintet (Jeremy Pelt; Adrean Farrugia; Jon Maharaj; Ethan Ardelli)
GB Records (gbrecords.ca) 

This could well sound as if it is tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffith’s Le carnival des animaux, except that The Lion, Camel & Child, his menagerie – unlike Saint-Saëns’ – is affectionately symbolic and celebrates the iconography of two animals and a child, albeit that it is also written with his musician friends in mind. The result is a vivacious program of music which unfolds in the characteristic manner of Griffith’s rolled notes and elliptical phrases. When egged on by trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, however, the sound can emerge like a series of charmingly guttural Welsh-bound “gogs” that might seemingly recall the sound of his distant ancestors from another time.

Griffith’s repertoire is wholly homegrown and is centred in the jazz tradition, written for a quintet of musicians who parley with the familiarity of old friends, which indeed they are. The album leads off with the suite after which it is titled. The work’s opening is powerfully atmospheric – darkly lugubrious chords that are interpolated into one theme after the other built upon a kinetic restlessness that drives the whole suite until the fourth movement, its denouement, which resonates with characteristic vibrancy belying its title.

Throughout, Griffith’s tenor saxophone leads the charge, ringing in the changes in mood, structure and tempo. He is also joined in the musical adventure and with poetic melodicism by pianist Adrean Farruggia, and powerhouse rhythmic teamsters, bassist Jon Maharaj and drummer Ethan Ardelli.  

09 Clock RadioClock Radio
Michael Davidson; Dan Fortin
Elastic Recordings ER 001 (elasticrecordings.com)

Think of a duet featuring a vibraphone as one of the instruments in a jazz recording and the iconic ones with Gary Burton and Chick Corea jump to mind. So by association, vibraphonist Michael Davidson’s duet with bassist Dan Fortin is already in good company. However, it isn’t simply this fact that makes this a duo recording (albeit with a bassist) that merits curious, if not close listening; what matters much more is the fact that, between Davidson and Fortin, the musicians marshal their forces with superb discipline, producing a wonderfully fresh sound which also manages to possess the requisite amount of mystery – essential for a work this spare in sound.

Clock Radio is a collection of musical impressions and memories of Davidson’s apprenticeship, in 2017, with the celebrated mallet percussionist David Friedman in Germany. Davidson strikes the sound bars with hard and soft mallets to bounce bright, orotund tone colours off his instrument. He invites Fortin into this soundworld. The bassist engages in the musical conversation with angular counterpoint that is characterized by the ink-dark rumble of his instrument.

The disc is dappled with – among others – elements from a suite-in-the-making titled Berlin; miniatures imbued with contrapuntal unison passages, as well as restless, scurrying and brilliantly inventive features from one musician in response to the other. And the miraculous piece entitled zwei werden eins (Two Become One) makes vivid listening from a partnership we hope to hear much more from.

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