Michael Louis Johnson; The Red Rhythm
Urban Meadow um2010001 (www.urbanmeadow.ca)
Every Saturday afternoon in a tiny casual bar located at Dundas St. W. and Ossington in the Queen West area of Downtown Toronto Red Rhythm recreate jazz standards from the swing era and originals composed by leader Michael Louis Johnson. This recording captures the atmosphere of these sessions - nothing earth shattering and a strong emphasis on entertainment. Leader Johnson has an enthusiasm that largely compensates for what has to be described as a limited technique on trumpet. He brings the same zeal to his vocals which are featured on every track.
The solo department is without doubt in the hands of guitarist Roberto Rosenman and bassist Terry Wilkins with rhythm guitarist Patrick Gregory giving solid support. There are also guest appearances by Bob Stevenson on clarinet and Chris Bezant on guitar which add in no small measure to the quality of the recording.
Entertaining is the key word when describing Johnson's approach to his craft - The Hobo Knows being a prime example. The second half of the CD in particular demonstrates just why the group is so popular with its small but loyal following.
Jazz and Improvised
Cellar Live is a Vancouver jazz club with its own prolific record label (www.cellarlive.com) and an owner-performer-composer chief in the enterprising Cory Weeds, who’s also a deejay and record producer. Here are two of its newest releases.
Trumpeter Chris Davis is a relatively new member of the West’s jazz elite and he shows why with Baila Bonita (Cellar Live CL020510). In an unusual combo with alto saxist Ian Hendrickson-Smith, bass Adam Thomas and drummer Jesse Cahill, U.S.-born Davis soon suggests the style, fluency and attack of a 1960’s Freddie Hubbard, though tune structures are more complex and demanding, often involving pleasing unison runs. On six of the nine tracks he wrote, Davis displays well-thought-out ideas. The front line’s especially chipper on West 42nd Street, offers a brawny All That Glitters with the leader’s throwback Latin trumpet while the craftily charted You Dig is a post-bop rallying cry with busy pulse-stirring Cahill roaring vigorously here and on the succeeding Iniquity. Elegant muted trumpet, pretty alto counterpoint and provocative march beat round out this impressive disc.
The boss has to have an occasional piece of the action, so here’s The Cory Weeds Quartet declaring Everything’s Coming Up Weeds (Cellar Live CL011909). The music’s played by the band Weeds brought to Ontario earlier this year – American trumpeter Jim Rotondi plus western stalwarts Ross Taggart (piano), John Webber (bass) and Willie Jones III (drums). The leader on tenor and Taggart contribute three cuts apiece, and the mood’s soon set for a typical mainstream performance with the opening B.B.’s Blue Blues highlighting Weeds’ hard-blowing approach and buzzing thrust on I’ve Never Been In Love Before and how he lovingly handles a ballad (Little Unknown One). The boss’ best tunes are Bailin’ On Lou which has catchy hooks and the punchy 323 Shuter. (Not to diminish this session, Toronto has a number of bands of this calibre – why aren’t they heard more on record?)
An album honouring the great music of the late Steve Lacy, an American who spent his last years in France, is well worth seeking for enjoyable interpretations of eight of his songs by Toronto band The Rent whose Musique De Steve Lacy (Ambience Magnetiques AM 197 CD www.actuellecd.com) is a very accessible commentary on a leading avant-garde figure’s legacy. Kyle Brenders renders soprano sax, Lacy’s instrument, alongside suave improviser Scott Thomson (trombone), Wes Neal (bass), Nick Fraser (drums) and Susanna Hood (voice) – the latter a vast improvement on shrieking Lacy vocalist (and wife) Irene Aebi. Brenders’ abrasive tone goes beyond most Lacy, but there’s witty trombone counterpoint and attention-grabbing solos. With voice added the Lacy spirit comes across best. If the title track is merely chirpy, the five-part suite Blues For Aida is beautifully worked, voice fully integrated with horns. Other gems include an austere The Bath and an upbeat A Ring Of Bones.
Brownman, the artist formerly known as Nick Ali, is a hyper-busy trumpeter who heads six bands, is music director for others and turns up everywhere on the musical map. Here he’s the core of Brownman Electryc Trio’s Juggernaut (Browntasaurus Records NCC1701E www.brownman.com). It’s a lively, entertaining and hip tilt at some standards on which he’s backed by the electric bass of Tyler Edmond and drummer Colin Kingsmore on six lengthy tracks. The atmosphere is seriously funky and draws on rock, hip hop, drum ‘n bass and more, with a burning Yesteryear, just recognizable as an ear-bursting take on Yesterdays, opening the show at The Central. The music’s muscular and quick, much of it thrilling if you can deal with the decibels. The group is at its best when playing together, as Brownman employs a host of pedals and devices that let him dub his instrument electric. Enjoy spirited, original versions of Stolen Moments, Coltrane’s 26-2, Hubbard’s Red Clay and two Brownman tunes, Evolution Revolution and the titlepiece.
The Worst Pop Band Ever may be the jazz world’s worst title (but then there’s JMOG of course) but the quintet makes smart if curious music. Dost thou believeth in science? (PPFTS-002 www.wpbe.bandcamp.com) is a 10 track collection of jazz improv inflicted on would-be or real pop tunes (I think) interspersed with earnest scratchings on turntables by LEO37. Leading with an insistent beat is drummer Tim Shia, with saxman Chris Gale, bass Drew Birston and keyboardist Daffyd Hughes. It’s all easy on the ear, expertly and effortlessly delivered with elaborate solos and surprising heat. There’s also a laconic vocal from Elizabeth Shepherd on the Bacharach-David authentic pop tune Close To You. Bandsmen are responsible for most of the others, of which my ‘top of the pops’ are Man Down, Pul, and Bits And Pieces.
The third album by Toronto’s Scott Marshall offers 71 minutes of reflection on 14 pieces designed to show his versatility and finesse in the company of pianist Marcel Aucoin, bass Wes Neal and drummer Nick Fraser. Yet The Scott Marshall Quartet on Vignettes (amy music SMT003 www.scottdouglasmarshall.com) lacks the focused excellence of his previous entries “Face It” and “New Moments Of Time”. The leader composed 12 of the 14 tunes and on them plays tenor sax, soprano sax and flute, as dexterously as on classical, pop and world music outings but there’s little beyond the competent-plus mainstream to excite here. There are however interest-piquing moments, such as the two versions of The Vespers, Glamourama, Ode To Old School and Lope.
Although the romantic image of a lone trumpeter has been standard in jazz since the time of “Young Man with a Horn”, musically it’s actually more difficult for a trumpet to be the sole horn in a band – at least until freely improvised music rewrote the rules a few decades ago. The reason is simple: unlike the saxophone’s many keys which the soloist can manipulate for different timbres, the trumpet has only three valves and a length of tubing. Brass players thus most often work with a reed partner or as part of an ensemble. However these CDs, featuring mostly Canadian casts, show that notable sessions can appear no matter the instrumental make up.
Toronto-born, Brooklyn-resident David Smith’s Anticipation (Brooklyn Jazz Underground Records BJUR 015 www.bjurecords.com) is the most conventional of the discs, with Smith and Montreal-born drummer Greg Ritchie playing in a quintet filled out by tenor saxophone, guitar and bass. Working out on one standard, a Coltrane line and five originals, the band rarely strays from the expected head-solo-head formula, with Smith’s bright playing amply backed by saxophonist Kenji Omae and guitarist Nate Radley. Standouts are the trumpeter’s compositions, Bittersweet, a gentle line celebrating his daughter’s birth with tremolo tonguing; and The Question, a contrafact of Monk’s Ask Me Now, built on cascading horn lines from Omae and a tough brassy break from Smith. Throughout Smith illustrates his instrument’s restrictions, since many of his solos feature complementary runs from Omae, while Radley’s fleet-fingered chording and limber picking dominates most of the tunes.
Ex-Torontonian, now Montrealer, trumpeter Gordon Allen plus saxophonists Jean Derome and Philippe Lauzier take an equally standard role as backing horn section on Montreal band Klaxon Gueule’s Infininiment (Ambiances Magnétiques AM 194 CD www.actuelle.com). Throughout the 13 minimalist tunes the horns extend or amplify improvisations from the band’s core trio – guitarist Bernard Falaise, bassist Alexandre St-Onge and percussionist Michael F. Côté. Concerned as much with mood and texture as melody, the scene-setting arrangements frequently find single horn parts providing brief commentary on Falaise’s popping guitar licks, St-Onge’s pulsating rhythms or the knitting-needle-like clatter of Côté’s delicate drumming. The bass line serves as a pedal point drone on Momo Pèle, for instance, which fades away following dissociated drum beats, but not before Allen has pumped out a bugle-like reveille. In contrast singular note extensions from one saxophone plus chromatic mellow timbres from the trumpeter inflate from distanced peeps to provide a counterweight to dissonant guitar-string snaps and abrasive strums on Brown Suinte.
Altering the paradigm so that each instrument is as important as any other creates a more equitable and satisfying performance – and boosts the trumpet’s role. Toronto’s Jim Lewis, Andrew Downing and Jean Martin demonstrate this On a Short Path from Memory to Forgotten (Barnyard Records BR 0311 www.barnyardrecords.com). Consisting of 10 instant compositions, there is no foreground or background instrument. One tune for example could be a capriccio, as Lewis’ joyful trumpet blasts define the theme; another is dependent on Downing’s thumping bass pulsations; and almost all are illuminated more by the splashes of multiphonic color Martin creates with gamelan-like bell tones and triangle resonation than a steady beat from his regular kit. Showcasing Lewis’ phrasing, which ranges from staccato heraldic blasts to graceful flutters, is Eight, the tune in which his moderated a capella puffs give way to a rubato, double-time version of theme and finally to aviary chirps plus whistling resounds. These intertwine with martial rolls and rebounds from Martin and walking slap bass from Downing.
A refinement – or coarsening – of this strategy is displayed by Vancouver’s Inhabitants, on A Vacant Lot (Drip Audio DA 00579 www.dripaudio.com), which adds the guitar of Dave Sikula to the basic trumpet (JP Carter), bass (Pete Schmitt) and drums (Skye Brooks) trio. Another major difference is the use of electronics, with Carter’s heavily miked trumpet’s pulsating alongside Sikula’s folksy strums. Eschewing a steady beat Schmitt and Brooks still use string strokes and harsh backbeats to prevent otherwise airy timbres from ascending into the stratosphere. Pacific Central is the representative track. After a minimalist introduction that’s mostly acoustic guitar and trumpet peeps, the piece opens up and accelerates to full-bore polyphony with hard drum ruffs, staccato guitar licks and trumpet shakes which cascade chromatically then fade, while still encouraging the group’s affiliated pulses. This is electrified music with a touch of dissonance.
By crafting new roles for trumpeters within improvising combos, these Canadian players have produced memorable CDs.
Long-established jazz groups have become as common as pop hits based on Mozart melodies topping the charts – they sometimes exist. But with accomplished improvisers tempted by side projects, bands often reconstitute and sidemen regularly have their own gigs. In most cases, though, this doesn’t affect the music’s quality.
Two bands confirm these realities. Ken Vandermark’s Vandermark5 (V5), which is at SPK (Polish Combatants Hall) June 17, has been together with only one personnel change for almost 15 years. Yet even Chicago-based Vandermark is involved in multiple side projects, as The Frame Quartet - 35 mm demonstrates. V5 members, cellist and electronics-player Fred Lonberg-Holm and drummer Tim Daisy are represented as well. Meanwhile saxophonist Dave Rempis, a V5 fixture for 10 years, shines on Cyrillic, a duo with drummer Frank Rosaly. New York pianist Matthew Shipp, whose trio plays June 13 at Gallery 345 on Sorauren Ave. is similarly part of numberless formations. Nu Bop Live involves some of his cohorts, who won’t be in Toronto. For an idea of what piano/bass communication sounds like involving Michael Bisio, the bassist who is in Shipp’s Toronto trio, there’s Session at 475 Kent with Connie Crothers.
The Non-V5er on 35 mm (Okka Disk OD 12078 www.okkadisk.com) is Nate McBride, whose thick acoustic bass lines, electric bass thumps and manipulated wave forms distinguish this disc. Strident friction from Lonberg-Holm additionally gives the CD’s five long selections a rough-hewn quality, enhanced by Daisy’s reverberating and pinpointed cymbal slaps, not to mention Vandermark’s soloing which encompasses straight-ahead licks or tongue slaps on tenor saxophone and feathery clarinet trills. This is especially notable on Theatre Piece (for Jimmy Lyons) which links decisive sawing from the cellist, restrained plucks from the bassist and clatters, pops and rim shots from the drummer as Vandermark’s sound ranges from tremolo pitch-sliding on the clarinet to tongue-moistured saxophone flattement, flutters and split tones. Mid-way through, the tempo halves to allegro to expose faux romantic cello sequences that gradually shatters into sul ponticello lines mated with harsh, low-pitched saxophone rasps, balanced on crackling and buzzing electronics. Eventually the piece ends with an exposition of disconnected timbre-shredding from Vandermark and a conclusive string slap from the cellist.
Halve the number of players and double the performance intensity for Cyrillic (482 Music 482-1064 www.482music.com). Completely improvised, the selections include those with cymbal-chiming funk grooves, replete with honking reed patterns, plus others featuring smeared double-tonguing from Rempis, where he never seems to stop for breath, matched with rim shots and side spanks from Rosaly. Most impressive are In Plain Sight and How to Cross When Bridges are Out. The former, which could be a deconstructed classic R&B line, gains its rhythmic impetus from Rempis’ guttural baritone saxophone snorts. The latter is like a face off between never-ending ratcheting, rolls and ruffs from Rosaly’s Energizer Bunny-like drumming and Rempis’ Eric Dolphyish-alto saxophone with its broken-octave staccato runs and wide split tones. Changing the agitato tempo to andante, the tune slips into uncharted aleatory territory, echoing with excitement and abandon.
Both those adjectives are also on show on Shipp’s CD Nu Bop Live (Rai Trade RTPJ 0015 www.matthewshipp.com), especially on the 26-minute Nu Abstract suite. Putting aside the many-fingered staccato patterning on other tunes, the pianist initially restricts himself to occasional plinks, as drummer Guillermo Brown use electronics to unload crackling signal processing and hissing voice patches. After the pianist constructs a many-layered impressionistic response, he joins with William Parker’s fluid bass line and saxophonist Daniel Carter’s tightened reed snarls, in multi counterpoint. The performance swells to shrieking horn glossolalia, stretched and scattered bass-string movements and the pianist’s cascading note patterns. Climaxing alongside Brown’s explosions of drags and bounces, Shipp’s raw, exposed notes layer the interface alongside Carter’s strident altissimo cries and Parker’s triple-stopping.
Sophisticated piano-bass double contrapuntal interaction get an even better showcase on Session at 475 Kent (Mutable 17537-2 www.mutablemusic.com) as every tune is a culmination of Crothers’ thickly voiced, chromatic chords working out a challenge or response to Bisio’s chiming, slapping string reverberations. Chamber interludes, the CD’s four lengthy tracks evolve similarly to Resonance, the CD’s climatic finale. With Bisio double-stopping and pulling his strings fortissimo, Crothers’ glissandi and metronomic pumping, gradually give the sympathetic dynamic a novel undercurrent of unrelieved tension – embellished by the pianist’s strumming syncopation and the bassist’s woody string-stopping. Lightening her touch with freer harmonies, Bisio follows and shifts downwards into diminished pulses until the notes from both directions merge into a satisfying, protoplasmic whole.
There’s no shortage of forceful pianists in Montreal and one of the most promising on the A-list is South Korea-born Min Rager, whose First Steps (Effendi FND09 www.ragermusic.com) is very welcome five years after her sterling debut “Bright Road”. The all-original ten-track mostly mainstream program sparkles from the start of the opening blues Nothing To Gain, Nothing To Lose, heartily aided by an equally A-list of sidemen that includes excellent trumpeter Kevin Dean, alto Donny Kennedy and drummer Andre White. The title-piece is a sneakily smart take on the Coltrane classic (Giant Steps of course) while other unabashedly modern tunes have a plethora of slithery solos, confidently delivered, that punctuate melodies and attractive harmonic structures. As well as offering slick counterpoint, Rager conjures filigree runs that sound entirely appropriate on Bella, a duo with Dean, followed by the even more arresting ballad Persistence Of Memory a trio take with Dean and American tenor Walt Weiskopf. Passing is a high-voltage burner, Dean scores again on Portrait Of Miles, with Goodbye Manhattan a passionate slow blues, just one gem in an illuminating set.
Bassist Al Henderson is a formidable bandleader (notably his quartet and quintet) and composer (notably his work with Time Warp and recasting Duke Ellington) so it’s no surprise he’s in ambitious mode on the Juno-nominated Al Henderson Septet - Regeneration (Cornerstone CRST CD 132 www.alhenderson.ca). He taxes his all-star companions with a 10-piece program anchored by a six-part suite inspired by the architectural vision of Raymond Moriyama, specifically his ideas for the Canadian War Museum. This in turn has led Henderson to muse on the nature of war and the result is a work of both quality and interest interpreted with some distinction by his team – hornmen Alex Dean and Pat LaBarbera, pianist Richard Whiteman, drummer Barry Romberg and a pair of cellists, Matt Brubeck and Mark Chambers. With a difficult set of ideas to convey, this nonetheless must be successful. There’s other material here that nods to Inuit artist Turataga Ragee (Spirit Owl) and punta rocker Andy Palacio (Palacio) plus other tracks that offer chamber jazz, vaudeville and reflective passages.
Toronto guitarist Roy Patterson is always worth hearing, a long-term member of the local string elite and an artist replete with driving notions and thriving imagination. He justifies this on Roy Patterson Trio – Atlantic Blues (Toronto Jazz Composers Collective TJCC AS 001 www.roypatterson.com). For this elegant eight-tune master class the leader is supported by ageless sidemen bass Don Thompson and drummer Terry Clarke for long workouts on a mix of standards and three Patterson tunes, a live session recorded at Zooma Zooma Café in Jordan Village on the Niagara Escarpment. The musical atmosphere is warm, subtle, sophisticated and intimate, ripe with creative ingenuity, and the threesome works as one unit with playing that’s almost spiritual. Patterson’s deft fingering keeps melodies intact and everything precise and detailed. His title tune is suitably broody, Water is freewheeling pleasure, the exotic sheen of Brazilian music comes through on Jobim’s Favela, yet one gets the feeling that the guitarist is even more appealing when he casts off the unmistakable influence of Jim Hall. One question remains. Why is this Patterson’s first album in eight years?
The prolific Andrew Downing, his reputation as bassist-bandleader-composer already established, takes a bold step with his newest album Silents (Black Hen Music BHCD-0058 www.andrewdowning.com). His fascination with silent movies has led to this examination by a dozen musicians of a pair of early 20th century films – horror masterpiece The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari from 1920 by Germany’s Robert Weine and the fantasy tale Impossible Voyage from 1904 by France’s George Melies. Downing has created 18 tunes that pinpoint episodes in the films and the execution by the players – Downing forsaking bass for cello – is very satisfying. You’d love to be watching the plots unfold with this sophisticated music accompanying them, especially the 12 creepier pieces for Caligari, a tale wherein the evil doctor is exposed as a serial killer. Impossible Voyage is weird, narrating a trip by car, train and submarine by travellers who survive it all, even when the train reaches the sun! Among the players, clarinettist Quinsin Nachoff and bassoonist Peter Lutek stand out, while there’s disciplined work from the strings, notably bassist Joe Phillips – but all should take a bow.
The group dubbed Red Blue Green offers a debut album of 11 originals where de facto leader – pianist Tom Richards – dominates action with playing that suggests he’d be comfortable in any musical niche. On Transparent Thesis (Pet Mantis Records PMR006 www.petmantisrecords.com) he has clearly digested diverse approaches and revels in dark compositions, shifting time signatures, switching from lyricism to abstraction and is fully in control though there’s less jazz focus on occasion. He gets sympathetic backing from bass Andrew Pacheco and drummer Jay Sussman in what’s free improv with an innate sense of structure. The trio is both thoughtful and adventurous, keeps jarring elements to a minimum, inserts classical influences and, importantly, play quieter than The Bad Plus. Best tunes: Song For Under A Bridge, Recovery and Lost Arrow.
Jazz singer Shannon Butcher has come out with another great album and its main strength is in the material she’s chosen to cover. She’s done what I think all modern jazz singers should be doing, i.e. quit covering the done-to-death standards and look to a more modern songbook for fodder. Sure there’s a place for the Gershwin and Porter rehashings now and then - especially in live performance - but when greats like Ella and Sarah have recorded them before, a singer had better be bringing something pretty interesting to the party, or why should we buy it? So when I see 70s and 80s tunes on a CD cover, as is the case with “Little Hearts,” it’s a sign that an artist is thinking outside the box, and that’s what jazz is all about. The Bacharach-David beauty Walk on By gets a moody, heartfelt treatment that reflects the sentiment of the lyrics better than the peppy Warwick original (sorry Dionne!) and Bryan Adams’ Run to You goes Latin American with Daniel Stone on cajon and Rob Piltch doing his usual tasteful nylon string guitar work.
Butcher has also done some very fine songwriting on this album. Joy in My Heart kicks off the disc with a soulful ode to staying positive and the duet with the enormously talented Michael Kaeshammer - The Last Word - is a cute nod to 60s romantic comedies. The one older standard covered here - Irving Berlin’s What’ll I Do - has been given an inventive alt-country facelift courtesy of Piltch’s twangy, plaintive guitar work.
Concert Note: Butcher’s CD release event is at Hugh’s Room on June 2.
Ruf Records Ruf 1155
What a sweet blast. Shakura S’Aida has earned praise in Canada as a singer, songwriter and actress of substance and now she’s got a firm grip on the solo career ladder with a scintillating new CD to follow her excellent album “Blueprint”.
Released in North America in April and before that in Europe, “Brown Sugar” lets S’Aida, whose family arrived in Toronto in the 1970s, use the vast experience gained from working with luminaries such as Jimmy Smith, Ruth Brown and Patti LaBelle.
It’s a startlingly good album that bears repeated listening, diction so clear that the cool sounds one might expect don’t happen. There’s emotional connection and passion aplenty here on a dozen tracks, 11 of which employed power guitarist Donna Grantis to work with S’Aida in lyrics and music. The band is tight, featuring organist Lance Anderson, bass Dave Smith, drummer Steve Potts and Rick Steff on keyboards.
Mr. Right is a superb opener best at big volume and offers a glimpse of the vocalist’s attractive high warble. Walk Out That Door is a fetching shuffle while Gonna Tell My Baby is a slow burner with fierce wails. Two successive tunes, the grittily intimate Did It Break Your Heart and the swinging Missing The Good And The Bad would have been great fodder for Janis Joplin and they’re followed by a delightful trio of songs that break the raunch barrier - Sweet Spot, the bitter title track and Anti Love Song.