05 The White SpotThe White Spot
Way Out Northwest
Relative Pitch
RPR 1006 (www.relativepitchrecords.com)

Perhaps it should be called a North American Free Improv Agreement or NAFIA. Every time experimental British saxophonist John Butcher plays in the northwestern part of this continent his trio is made up of two Vancouver-based players: bassist Torsten Müller and drummer Dylan van der Schyff. Listening to the nine pitch-perfect improvisations on this disc demonstrates why this configuration has been maintained since 2007.

The veteran bassist, who is perfectly capable of atonal string-stretching and scrubbed pulsations, is careful to maintain a connective pumping throughout. Liberated by that stance, the drummer has the freedom to make strategic moves involving everything from cymbal snaps and woodblock clipping, the better to complement Butcher’s narratives.

Probably the easiest entry point to the poised intensity from this balanced trio is Earlianum. With Müller’s accompaniment low-pitched and rhythmic, Butcher’s tenor sax exposition is so well-modulated it could be from Coleman Hawkins, until he opens up the piece with shaking vibrations and quivering multiphonics, which are shadowed by the drummer’s clicks and clatters. As the saxophonist’s part evolves to reed bites plus staccato split tones, van der Schyff introduces muscular ruffs and the bassist’s part is transformed from stentorian tremolo strokes to razor’s edge slices and stops.

This interaction is emphasized throughout the disc. No matter how many triple-stopping bass runs, drumstick-on-cymbals shrills or strident reed-shattering banshee wails are heard, skilful equilibrium allows the tunes to impress as they flow chromatically. Comparison of NAFIA with NAFTA makes it clear that cooperation involving disparate musicians easily trumps any tripartite agreement dreamed up by politicians


01 Matt DuskMy Funny Valentine –
The Chet Baker Songbook
Matt Dusk
Eone Music

Toronto-based singer Matt Dusk has just released My Funny Valentine: The Chet Baker Songbook. Given the title, one might think the album would bear some resemblance to the late singer and trumpet player’s work. While many of the songs on the disc were signatures for Baker, he was not a songwriter and these are standards that have been covered by many, many performers over the years. Additionally, Dusk — a self-described crooner — has a very different singing style than Baker, who had a quiet and vulnerable approach to song delivery. To their credit, neither Dusk nor guest trumpeters Arturo Sandoval and Guido Basso attempt to imitate Baker’s sound. All are fine musicians in their own right and take their own approach.

So if it’s not really about Chet Baker then what is it? Dusk and team (co-producers Terry Sawchuk and Shelly Berger) set out to “recreate a nostalgic musical experience” by producing a substantial album with a musical narrative intended to take the listener on a journey. In that they have succeeded utterly. The beautiful artwork and photographs — mostly of Dusk in various suits and settings — evoke years gone by. And the music, complete with horns and sweeping orchestral arrangements, has style and heft. Baker was a poster boy for the spare, laid back West Coast/cool jazz sound and his most popular music was performed with just a quartet. So, certainly enjoy Dusk’s album on its own merits, but listen to the original for a sense of what Baker was all about.

02 FluiDensityFluiDensity
Brian Groder; Tonino Miano
Latham Records/Impressus Records

Here is a recording of free improvisation that channels the players’ multiple sources to combine American jazz and European art music. Related to the tradition of “free jazz” founded by Cecil Taylor at the end of the 1950s, this way of making music requires prodigious rhythmic assurance and close attention to moment-to-moment events. Recording it is the exacting art of the single take: no editing, no overdubs, nowhere to hide.

The players are engaged in a kind of collective creation that balances the strong individualism of each against the duo’s ability to meld their ideas. In this, Groder and Miano happily avoid standard improvisational techniques of simple imitation or “default” roles such as soloist and accompanist.

Miano’s virtuosity is all over the piano. He is most often the “dense” to Groder’s “fluid” in this equation. He never lacks for textural and gestural ideas that contribute a sense of designed space to the improvisations, his harmonies ranging from modal to atonal.

Groder’s sound is the more deeply “jazz,” especially in the way a jazz wind player accesses quasi-vocal lyricism. His phrasing, articulation, pitch modulations and Miles Davis-like staccato identify him as the American in this European-American pairing. The lonely, elegiac solo trumpet is an iconic 20th century American sound that here avoids cliché by virtue of its sincerity.

03 RecallRecall
Gilbert Isbin; Scott Walton

Very little contemporary music has been written for the lute. While the guitar has been featured prominently throughout the 20th century, the lute can often feel like it belongs to another era entirely. Gilbert Isbin seeks to remedy this with his latest disc. Recorded in October of 2011, Recall features Isbin on lute and Scott Walton on bass.

The disc contains a series of short compositions and improvisations. Although much of the material is thematically linked, each piece begins to feel like its own short story. Interplay is emphasized here with both performers skilfully manoeuvring between composed sections and more freely improvised passages. This is evident on the track Pensive, with Isbin laying down a harmonic foundation for Walton’s extended bowing techniques. The result is akin to a short piece by Morton Feldman. Timbre is important throughout the set and delicate unison passages can often give way to more turbulent textures. Flutter is a good example of this, with the duo settling into a groove before evolving naturally into a section of free improvisation. This configuration allows for a great deal of space in the music that each performer seems comfortable exploring. Overall, this is a very engaging set from two creative musicians.

04 Alex PangmanHave a Little Fun
Alex Pangman; Bucky Pizzarelli
Justin Time JTR 8578-2

It’s difficult not to greet a new Alex Pangman record with a smile and sense of gratitude. The Toronto-based singer has suffered for years with cystic fibrosis and a few years ago, her health had deteriorated to the point where she didn’t have the strength to stand up to sing. Then she received an organ donation and underwent a successful double lung transplant. For anyone, that is a major gift, but for a singer, it’s nothing short of a miracle to be able to perform again.

Pangman has been going strong ever since and her latest CD Have a Little Fun is aptly named. Continuing in the style she has for years — covering music from the 20s, 30s and 40s — this CD has the added bonus of the éminence grise Bucky Pizzarelli. The American guitarist has played with many legendary musicians including Les Paul, Stéphane Grapelli and Benny Goodman, and his calm, collected rhythm playing is a steady presence throughout the record. Although the songs are mostly medium and up tempo and have a veneer of fun, the lyrics run the gamut of the human condition describing loss, yearning and regret along with happiness and good times. Along with standards like Stardust and I’m Confessin’ are a few of Pangman’s own compositions and one, It Felt So Good To Be So Bad, is a standout. And, really, who among us can’t relate to that sentiment?

01 WOWJazz is sufficiently diverse, divisive and sometimes just plain obscure so that plenty of people who like some facet of it might never knowingly recognize others as anything like jazz. Trio Derome Guilbeault Tanguay is somehow different, a group of avant-gardists whose wildly eclectic performance might make any listener respond at some point with a shock of recognition. Their latest CD, Wow! (Ambiances Magnétiques AM 209), takes its name from a composition by the great experimenter Lennie Tristano, but when it appears it’s a segue from You Can Depend on Me by Earl Hines, a pianist whom Tristano idolized and emulated. Similarly, when saxophonist Jean Derome sings a barroom version of The Best Things in Life Are Free or takes on The Baron, Eric Dolphy’s musical portrait of Charles Mingus, he and bassist Normand Guilbeault and drummer Pierre Tanguay are calling up the whole of the jazz past in a kind of feast that anyone with empathy for the music might pick up on. It’s one of Canada’s essential bands, whatever your sub-genre of choice.

02 ShiranthaShirantha Beddage, originally from North Bay, Ontario, has gone from studies at Toronto’s Humber College to a doctorate from the Eastman School of Music and back to Humber, where he’s currently head of theory and harmony. There are also plenty of fine saxophone teachers in Beddage’s past, including Toronto tenors Pat LaBarbera and Alex Dean and New York baritone saxophonist supreme Gary Smulyan. Based on the evidence of Identity (Addo AJR012 www.addorecords­.com), Beddage has a well-developed identity on the demanding baritone, playing with real power and focusing on the instrument’s middle and upper register, working in tenor saxophone territory with the baritone’s added grit. His style is essentially hard bop, with infusions of blues and gospel, but he’s also compelling on ballads like The Wanderer. Trumpeter Nathan Eklund, pianist Dave Restivo, bassist Mike Downes and drummers Mark Kelso or Larnell Lewis provide able assistance.

03 OrganicAs heard on Live at Joe Mama’s, the Toronto band Organic (organic-jazz.com) is set in the classic mould of the organ quartet, those bands that first flourished in U.S. inner cities in the 1950s, when the Hammond B3 organ migrated from storefront churches to bars and mixed gospel chords and rhythm ‘n’ blues, transposing the riffing style of bands like Count Basie’s to the amplified power of a Hammond organ joined by drums, electric guitar and/or tenor sax. Veteran pianist Bernie Senensky has adapted handily to the organ, playing with the rhythmic verve the style demands and adding plenty of harmonic subtlety to the mix. Drummer Morgan Childs and guitarist Nathan Hiltz maintain strong grooves, while tenor saxophonist Ryan Oliver channels the particularly tight vibrato and upper register split-tones of the great Stanley Turrentine. Everyone sounds inspired on Amsterdamage.

04 Heillig ManoeuvreAnother veteran, bassist Henry Heillig, leads a new version of his Heillig Manoeuvre on ’Toons (RM 6013 www.heilligman.com). It’s relaxed, entertaining music with Heillig’s cartoon-inspired compositions eliciting good performances all around, whatever the tempo or mood, from the bluesy Meet the Sprintphones to the rapid-fire Moose and Squirrel. The surprising thing is that the cartoon inspirations often lead to deeply felt music. The highlight is the elusive, dreamlike Nanaimo Crossing, with Alison Young’s tenor saxophone and Stacie McGregor’s electric piano floating over the lightest of Latin beats from Heillig and drummer Charlie Cooley.

05 In a suggestive wayToronto native Quinsin Nachoff has been based in New York for a few years now, establishing himself solidly in a city with no shortage of distinct and inventive saxophonists. Nachoff is heard to fine effect on French drummer Bruno Tocanne’s In a Suggestive Way (Instant Musics IMR 007 instantmusics.com), dedicated to the late drummer Paul Motian whose subtle dynamic play and sense of freedom have clearly influenced Tocanne. The instrumentation is a little unusual, a quartet completed by the virtuoso New York pianist Russ Lossing who played and recorded with Motian on many occasions and French trumpeter Rémi Gaudillat, but the results are a particularly lucid reflection. Nachoff’s theme statement of Bruno Rubato is limpidly beautiful against Lossing’s crystalline piano, while there’s crackling intensity in the splintering horn solos on Gaudillat’s Ornette and Don.

06 Stanko-WislawaDavid Virelles, who first came to attention in Toronto as the brilliant protégé of Jane Bunnett and who won the Oscar Peterson prize at Humber College, continues with his brilliant career as one of New York’s most notable younger pianists with appearances on two ECM releases that will vie for spots on international top ten lists. Virelles is now a member of Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko’s New York Quartet along with bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Gerald Cleaver. The group debuts on Wisława (ECM 2304/05). The music often explores Stanko’s darkly moody ballads and dirges, pensive music that glows with an inner light; at other points the group develops explosive free improvisations with an empathy so developed that ideas pass at will among the members of the quartet.

07 SirensVirelles also turns up on Chris Potter’s The Sirens (ECM 2258), a suite based on The Odyssey in which Potter develops rich and varied textures using two pianists, Craig Taborn on a regular grand and Virelles on prepared piano, celeste and harmonium. The two musicians develop a subtle dialogue around interlocking ostinatos on Wayfinder, while Potter’s brilliant Coltrane-inspired invocation on the title track summons up all the hypnotic powers that music might possess.

Having arguably reached its zenith of popularity in the 1960s with the legendary Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans combos, the piano, bass and drums trio continues to be the sine qua non for countless improvisers. But with any jazz trio performance weighted with the configuration’s illustrious history, it’s up to contemporary players to create a distinct musical personality.

01 Jeff DavisUsually this is done subtly, as New York-based drummer Jeff Davis demonstrates on Leaf House (Fresh Sound New Talent FSNW407 freshsoundrecords.com). A frequent associate of Canadian-in-Brooklyn bassist Michael Bates, the drummer knows the value of a sophisticated timekeeper and has found one in Norwegian-born Eivind Opsvik. More crucially with Russ Lossing at the piano, the leader’s eight compositions are interpreted in a fashion which suggests an alternate piano trio history. Rather than the influence of either Peterson or Evans looming large — as it does for too many of their followers — Lossing operates at the edge of atonality while never abandoning the legato. Throughout, his mixture of perceptive pacing, with forays into the instrument’s highest and lowest portals, plus a touch that ranges from intermittent key dusting to rock-ribbed staccato power, suggests a lineage that takes in Herbie Nichols, Lowell Davidson and Paul Bley, but just skirts Cecil Taylor’s revolutionary keyboard transformations. With such an arsenal of effects literally at his fingertips, the pianist can bring forth whatever is needed to illustrate individual Davis tunes. For instance the connections and variations that define Catbird’s conclusions are very Bley-like, especially when the bassist restates the motif with which he began the piece, the better to again bond with the feather-light and gently chromatic melody he and the pianist first played. On the other hand the kineticism that marks tunes like the title track and the loping Faded relate back to Nichols, as Lossing elasticizes lines without breaking the chromatic thrust, while the drummer’s cuffs and clips or poised rim shots meet walking or bowed bass with sympathetic pacing. William Jacob may be the CD’s highpoint though. Moving from a lyrical exposition to a tremolo finale, the pianist craftily strengthens his touch and doubles his attack as the piece evolves, dovetailing into power chords from Opsvik and aggregated ruffs and rebounds from Davis before the conclusion.

02 Dreilander TrioInterestingly enough, the pared-down approach of Canadian Bley, who often toured Europe, is one of the modes expressed by veteran Italian pianist Claudio Cojaniz, on the dozen instant compositions that make up Dreiländer Trio (Palomar Records 39 www.giovannimaier.it). Someone who often records solo, the pianist also infuses the tunes with large dollops of entrancing romanticism, and as might be expected from an Italian, matter-of-fact lyricism. At the same time, despite his expressive glissandi and busy note collections, neither his dynamics nor his touch are ever over the top. His innate jazz-swing sense ensures that each tune evolves in a linear fashion. Moreover since the band is a cooperative trio, bassist Giovanni Maier from Trieste and Serbian percussionist Zlatko Kaučič,who has worked with the likes of American saxophonist Steve Lacy, are equally as important to this CD’s achievement. An adept colourist, the drummer is so self-effacing that the rhythm is often felt rather than heard. A master of cymbal shimmering, bell-tree shaking plus drum clanking, clipping and paddling, he cedes musical flamboyance to the other two. Maier, who is an experienced duo and trio player, takes full advantage, properly interrupting the pianist’s cascading glissandi on m&M with double stopping and rubber band-like plucks from his strings and bringing a stirring cello-like range to Trieste-Amman. Along with Kaučič’s pinpointed clatters, Maier’s bow swipes add a needed toughness to the tune which otherwise is characterized by Cojaniz repeating note clusters in many keys, barely skirting 19th century impressionism. At the same time the pianist’s command of Evans-styled passing chords and patterns doesn’t stop him on a piece like Izpoved from deconstructing the gospel-like theme, making it more staccato so that it’s no longer European, but not quite American either.

03 Friedli TrioSwiss pianist Gabriela Friedli also adapts the Bley-Evans concept, albeit with a harder touch on Started (Intakt CD 214 www.intaktrec.ch). But her mixture of notated and improvising designs is part of a subtle avant-gardism that hides underneath lyrical narratives. Aided by Daniel Studer’s measured bass plucks and drummer Dieter Ulrich’s smooth pacing, she specializes in contrafacts of other tunes, telegraphing the transformation in song titles. Come Lately relates to Duke Ellington’s Johnny Come Lately; Out of Nothing to Johnny Green’s Out of Nowhere; and no prizes for figuring out the chord origin of I Wrap My Dreams in Troubles. Atop Studer’s chiming beat the last melody is stretched out by Friedli with expansive dynamics. The middle piece becomes a double-time exercise in fleeting cadenzas and string plucks from the pianist, contrasted with sul tasto rubs from the bassist, plus bull’s eye rim shots and cymbal pops from the drummer. As for Come Lately, Studer’s funky bass slaps and Ulrich’s backbeat underline the piece’s basic rhythm and blues feeling. Not content with that, the pianist makes the narrative tougher and more staccato with low frequency cadenzas and note clusters, eventually climaxing as she spins out emphasized glissandi while the drummer’s contrapuntal thumps emphasize wood and metal.

04 Michel LambertIf the preceding groups quietly subvert the piano trio, the most radical reworking of the concept comes from Montreal drummer Michel Lambert. Assisted by pianist Alexandre Grogg and bassist Guillaume Bouchard his Journal Des Épisodes (Rant 1244 www.jazzfromrant.com) is made of 92 [!] brief tracks originally composed for symphony orchestra, re-jigged to fit this format. Although tracks officially clock in at between six seconds and five minutes – with the majority fewer than 30 seconds – the end product sounds like anything but patchwork. Much of the credit has to go to Grogg who manages to maintain the narrative nature of his playing, even if the musical thoughts are interrupted by frequent pauses. Bouchard mostly concentrates on steady rhythmic motions; while Lambert not only exposes every variety of beats from Latin to arrhythmic to near-terpsichorean, but is likely responsible for the sonic add-ons. Besides slide-whistle shrills and alphorn lowing, snippets from a full orchestral usually in romantic mode frequently bisect the performances. Given his head as he has on Sans Commentaire II plus R 59 Liquide or Jour De Célébration the pianist is able to display power voicing matched by Lambert’s ruffs and rolls or showcase moderato fingertip explorations matched by the drumtop strokes and cymbal shakes. When episodes inflate to a whole three minutes on Le Marteau or six [!] on L’homme-Ciseaux the trio comes across with sophistication. Straight-ahead jazz, the former mixes repeated octave jumps and key clipping with press rolls and a thumping bass solo. Even more swing-oriented, the latter is cunningly harmonized with a walking bass line, rolls, drags and ruffs from Lambert and sparkling piano work encompassing tremolo runs and a sprinkling of ringing notes.

Accepting the weight of history, but cunningly or conspicuously moving familiar concepts into new areas, these combos preserve the piano trio for the 21st century. 

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