01 towns and villagesToronto drummer Nick Fraser has a strong presence across the spectrum of modern jazz, but he’s particularly prominent in free jazz projects like the band Drumheller and the Lina Allemano Four. He’s taken an emphatic role as composer and bandleader as well as drummer on Towns and Villages (Barnyard Records BR0330 barnyardrecords.com), putting together a quartet with regular associates Rob Clutton on bass and Andrew Downing on cello along with tenor and soprano saxophonist Tony Malaby, one of New York’s most explosive musicians. The CD opens with a wall of overblown tenor and gritty bowed strings, but it’s a group with many levels and colours, from ballads with Malaby on soprano to intriguing circular compositions in which Fraser’s motifs are repeated by the saxophone and cello, synchrony gradually breaking down into echo. Everyone involved is clearly inspired by the meeting: it might be a band for a day, but it’s a great one.

02 Romberg Crab PeopleAnother Toronto drummer, veteran Barry Romberg, leads Random Access, a loose-knit band with a fluid personnel but a consistent ability to generate lively, interesting music. Part 12: Crab People (Romhog 123 barryromberg.com) is a 2-CD set devoted largely to Romberg’s compositions with shifting time signatures and largely modal underpinnings, giving everyone involved sufficient stimulation and adequate space to develop their ideas. The band changes from track to track, from three to six musicians, and the electric fusion quotient changes as well, depending on whether the bass is acoustic (Kieran Overs or Julian Anderson Bowes) or electric (Rich Brown), whether there’s one or two guitarists (Geoff Young and Ben Monder) present, or keyboards (Robi Botos) or tablas (Ravi Naimpally), but these sessions are at a consistently high level. Saxophonist Kelly Jefferson and trumpeter Kevin Turcotte contribute forcefully to the title track, while tenor saxophonist Kirk MacDonald distinguishes himself on End of an Era.

03 CarrierQuebecois saxophonist François Carrier travels and records frequently and he’s built up a discography that may be larger and more varied than any other Canadian musician playing free jazz. He and drummer Michel Lambert have wandered as far afield as Kathmandu while playing with a cavalcade of international musicians. Just the pianists include Paul Bley, Uri Caine, Bobo Stenson and the newly arrived Russian Alexey Lapin. Their latest adventure is Shores and Ditches (FMR CD CD340-0512 francoiscarrier.com), and while there’s no recording data, the sidemen suggest an English locale. On an unaccompanied track, Carrier emphasizes the sweetness of his keening alto sound, stretching notes to the point where it sounds like a free jazz version of Harlem Nocturne. Duets with Lambert emphasize the propulsive dialogue, while a long episodic trio improvisation with Guillaume Viltard is artfully enhanced by the bassist’s sustained and virtuosic mastery of both arco and pizzicato techniques. Viltard, guitarist Daniel Thompson and flutist Neil Metcalfe appear on a collective improvisation, an effectively sustained exploration highlighted by Metcalfe’s distinctive clarity of line.

04 cameraDavid Occhipinti is a masterful guitarist, possessed of some of the fluid lyricism and harmonic subtlety of his former teacher Jim Hall, but he’s also serious about composition, as fascinated by the possibilities of chamber music as he is by improvisation. Camera (Occdav Music OM006 davidocchipinti.com) presents two long suites by two different ensembles and two stand-alone pieces, engaging multi-hued pieces that mix and match methods in the same spirit as Frank Zappa’s serious music, like The Perfect Stranger.

Demonstrating that accepted musical customs are often shibboleths — the equivalent of not wearing white after Labour Day — contemporary improvisers frequently express themselves unconventionally — even when it comes to instrumental choices. Take for example the fine duo sessions here. Unaccompanied by others, the players prove that there are enough textures available from nearly identical instruments to create full sound pictures. These sets show not only how much can be done with two guitars — a common combination — but also by two percussion sets, not to mention two saxophones of similar ranges and timbres.

01 StonesRecorded at the Vancouver International Jazz Festival, Stones (Rue Grammofon RCD 2136 CD runegrammofon.com) matches the tenor and baritone saxophone of Swede Mats Gustafsson with the alto and bass saxophones of Montreal’s Colin Stetson. Although the strength and power available from lower-pitched woodwinds gives the two licence for frequent displays of sternum-shaking and bone-rattling overblowing, the four selections highlight more than just quivering throaty growls. Scattered throughout the dense and nearly opaque duets are mellow connective sequences and some that are created with panache. True, the elegance of tracks such as Stones that Need Not is predicated on acceptance of a climax of slowly melding textures, evolving from one saxman outputting linear tongue smacks and reed sucks, while the other decorates the sequence with chromatic split tones and quivering buzzes. Still, the reed variations are never overly bulky, but instead deconstruct the exposition with crying stutters and emotional in-throat vocalizing. Another strategy, as on Stones that Can Only Be, involves one player concentrating on a pedal-point ostinato with glottal punctuation and finger vibrations, while the second’s altissimo timbres of intense buzzing and slap tonguing decorate the narrative. Such unusual reed techniques may be expected from Gustafsson, whose outstanding free improvisations are on display in many jazz ensembles. However those who only know Stetson from his day job with the pop band Arcade Fire may be shocked and/or impressed.

02 NaglIf Gustafsson and Stetson utilize as well as overcome the elephantine qualities of their mammoth saxes, then London’s Lol Coxhill and Vienna’s Max Nagl transcend the perceived delicacy of their soprano saxophones’ timbres. Replacing the other saxophonists’ necessary gravitas with playfulness, the two skip through 16 tracks of solos and duos. Entitled In Memory of Lol Coxhill (Rude Noises 021 www.maxnagl.at), the CD celebrates instances where the experiences of Coxhill (1932-2012) as busker and pop sideman, as well as revered improviser, dovetailed with the skills Nagl, 28 years his junior, had amassed composing theatre and film music. Together the two produce profound improvisations that offer levity without a hint of condescension. Probably the best example of this is Charangalia where the saxophonists’ balanced and affiliated tones circle one another, swaying to a near oomph-pah-pah beat. You can almost imagine the players dressed in matching lederhosen, waltzing around the floor as they flutter-tongue their reeds. On his own, Nagl has a predisposition for calypso themes and breaks up the proceedings with brief asides on harpsichord and guitar; meanwhile Coxhill recounts a shaggy dog story in a plummy accent. Still the sonic fun never takes second place to instrumental excellence. On a track such as zweites Stockwerk, for instance, the two create an entire colour palate from a contrapuntal collection of slide-whistle-like trills, reed-biting squeaks and pronounced slurs plus a mellow, single-note interface. Eventually as the bent note distortions meet, a dual narrative emerges that is both multiphonic and moving.

03 EtudesPolyrhythms are the order of the day on Etudes (SoLyd SLR 0414 www.solyd-records.ru), where San Francisco’s Garth Powell and Vilnius resident Vladimir Tarasov share the same extended percussion kit to do a lot more than drum banging. Composers as well as skin beaters, Tarasov and Powell cast these etudes as part faux tutorials and part virtuosic displays. With the American providing brief tongue-in-cheek commentary they proceed to extract beats and vibrations which are often as diaphanous as they are driving. Multiphonic as well as multi-rhythmic, a track like After All suggests the sounds that could arise from a wind machine; while crisp slaps on suspended gongs are matched with friction resulting from violin bows rubbed on cymbals during Strung Up On Your Bow. Picture View Postcards confirms that the correct drum stick sizzle on percussion tops can replicate a dancer’s soft-shoe routine; while the thundering bounces, timely rattles, cascading press rolls and splashing cymbals of No Compensation put aside any doubts as to the drummers’ time-keeping ability, as they swing as effortlessly as Buddy Rich or Max Roach. Despite those skills a track such as My Old Wings is the best example of why they continue to experiment. Spatially organized rather than concentrated, Tarasov and Powell make their triple flams and ratamacues plus mineshaft-deep bass drum reverb reflect the recording space, so that a feeling of powerful motion is present without either having to raise the volume of the performance.

04 HotColdThis sort of relaxed intensity also permeates Hogwild Manifesto (Jungulous 003 www.andersnilssonguitar.com), but the jagged electric guitar lines of the duo called Hot and Cold is closer to hearing two Jimi Hendrixes rather than the sedate picking of Chet Atkins and Les Paul or Herb Ellis and Barney Kessel. American Aaron Dugan and Swede Anders Nilsson are sophisticated enough in so-called post-rock and post-jazz styles that they are easily able to work up a track like For Albert which is both thorny and tuneful, wrapping single note finger-picking with arpeggiated climaxes. Elsewhere, one clunks chords and clicks out a slapping ostinato while the other probes the stratosphere with flanged reverb. They subsequently switch roles then cut off the sound in a split second. Like the other duos here they show they’re also capable of subtle swing. For example they approximate an Ellis-Kessel foot-tapping groove on Night Juice Agenda, than quickly splinter it into fuzz-tone reverb and staccato crunches. Tossing ideas back and forth they touch on Middle Eastern-styled licks and highly legato slurred fingering, contrasting buzzing intensity with an overlay of fingerpicking. Before summing up the meeting with exquisite cascades, innate lyricism is on show as much as heavily processed outer space twangs.

With the inventiveness implicit in free improvisation, contrasting textures can be sourced from instruments supposedly identical in tones and timbres. These duos confirm the thesis.

04 MarmiteHectorLe Cauchemar d’Hector
La Marmite Infernale
ARFI 2012 AM052 (www.arfi.org)

French Romantic composer Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) declared in 1859 that “music is free” so what better group to put a new spin on some of Berlioz’s compositions than Lyon-based free music ensemble La Marmite Infernale?

Asked by the Festival Berlioz, that takes place annually in the composer’s birthplace, to re-imagine works by France’s most iconoclastic 19th century composer, the 18-piece band treated Berlioz’s compositions as it does strains from the folk tradition, preserving the melodies, but appending solos and passages relating to improvisational jazz’s freedom, punk-rock’s unyielding beat and advances in electro-acoustic programming. Probably the most radical reworking occurs on La fantastique nain de Sophie where sampler player Xavier Garcia mixes extracts from the composer’s Symphonie fantastique with the live group playing its version of the work in arrangements midway between those for symphony orchestra and for jazz band.

Less radical, but more affecting, Marche funèbre, based on Berlioz’s Grande Symphonie Funèbre et Triomphale which was composed for a 200-strong wind band, removes the original piece’s nationalistic militarism but retains its melodic strength, substituting strained grace notes from trombonist Alain Gibert and trumpeter Guillaume Grenard plus splintery buzzes from saxophonist Eric Vagnon sparked by Christian Rollet’s rattling percussion. The climactic and close-knit result validates the composition not the jingoism. Then there’s Scène aux champs which confirms Berlioz’s bucolic interpretation of a pastoral scene, while simultaneously burlesquing it, by having the piece played by 12 guitars in unison.

Although classical purists may blanch at the liberties taken with the compositions here, it’s possible that Berlioz, with his sympathy for free expression, may have been impressed and honoured. For the adventurous listener of any stripe though, taken as a whole the CD is no cauchemar or “nightmare” of Hector, but rather a satisfying rêve or “dream.”


03a Aldcroft long and short03b Aldcroft MiasmsThe Long and the Short of It

Ken Aldcroft; Joel LeBlanc
Trio Records TRP-D502-016

Notes on the Miasms
Andy Haas; Ken Aldcroft
Resonant Music 010

Toronto guitarist Ken Aldcroft displays his formidable guitar technique and improvising acumen in two new “free improv” releases.

The long and the short of it features him with fellow guitarist Joel LeBlanc in two contrasting short and long works. Each “short” is a concise tidbit of colour and rhythm which sets up a lengthier (over 20 minutes) set. The Long (I) is a mellow soundscape which seems to emulate the soothing environment of the wilderness. The minimalistic patterns and atonal guitar effects are precisely placed in the relaxing soundscape. In contrast, The Long (II) is a wall of sound, giant stadium extended rock guitar extravaganza. It sounds like one giant guitar – riffs, extended solos and in-your-face sound bolts, combined with humour and wit in a stunning example of superb music.

Notes on the miasms features Aldcroft improvising with Andy Haas on sax and electronics. The music is more atonal than the above release making it perhaps a bit more of a difficult listening exercise for those not accustomed to this type of music. Haas’ rapid saxophone lines against Aldcroft’s guitar colours are brilliant in their textures, phrasing and energy. The occasional reference to traditional jazz and blues is a welcome musical commentary.

These two releases are fine examples of the flourishing creative music scene in Toronto. The improvisation skills, talent and dedication of musicians such as Ken Aldcroft guarantee a vibrant improvising future for players and listeners alike.


01 Amy McConnellStealing Genius
Amy McConnell; William Sperandei
Femme Cache Productions FCP0001 mcconnellsperandei.com

The debut record from singer Amy McConnell and trumpeter William Sperandei, with producer Feisal Patel, is a stylish romp through 20th century music originating from a range of genres and eras. The title, Stealing Genius, is a reference to Oscar Wilde’s quip “talent borrows; genius steals.” But since covering other songwriters’ work is standard practice in the world of jazz, the quip could be reworked as “talent borrows; jazz artists assume ownership.” In this case, the victims of the thefts are varied and sometimes unexpected such as Elvis Presley (Suspicious Minds), Led Zeppelin (Thank You) and James Bond (From Russia With Love).

McConnell’s background in theatre shows in her vocal phrasing and approach — she has a big sound and emotions are expressed in broad strokes that play to the back of the house. Her accent is beautiful and convincing on the few French offerings including, of course, Piaf’s La Vie en Rose. Sperandei’s nice, bright sound blends well with McConnell’s and his soloing is confident and concise. Singer/stride pianist Michael Kaeshammer’s guest turn on the Ink Spots’ I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire is inspired. But the real genius is in having Larnell Lewis and Rob Piltch play drums and guitar on this record. Lewis’ exuberant precision and Piltch’s subtle musicality elevate many of the songs from stylish to artful.

02 SpeakeasyThe Speakeasy Quartet –
Vintage Style Hot Jazz, Swing and Pop
Speakeasy Quartet
Independent WJS004

Hugh Leal may not be well known in Toronto but he has been a significant force for jazz in the Windsor area since the late 70s. He has been a real catalyst for the music as a guitarist/promoter/record producer; between 1983 and 2000 his Parkwood Records label recorded such veteran musicians as Doc Cheatham, J.C. Heard, Art Hodes, Franz Jackson and Sammy Price.

On this latest CD he features the Speakeasy Quartet in a program of jazz standards from the 20s and 30s including a couple of Bechet compositions, Egyptian Fantasy and the rarely heard Premier Bal, East St. Louis Toodle-oo and The Mooche by Ellington, Jubilee, Willie The Weeper, two trio numbers where the cello lays out, Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams and Indian Summer plus three originals by saxophonist Ray Manzerolle whose impressive playing is featured throughout the album. There are also fine solos from cellist Mike Karoub and pianist Mike Karloff.

All in all an enjoyable album from four musicians who respect and understand the traditions of the music. As the back of the jewel case accurately says: “Classic jazz with a unique fresh sonority.” Thank you Hugh for your seemingly tireless dedication to the jazz of an earlier era. To buy the CD contact lealjazz@gmail.com. $15 and it’s yours.

01 Mike MurleyFew cds will garner the immediate interest of Test of Time (Cornerstone Records CRST CD 140, cornerstonerecordsinc.com), previously unreleased material recorded in 1999 by the trio of saxophonist Mike Murley, guitarist Ed Bickert and bassist Steve Wallace. The trio’s only previous CD won the 2002 Juno Award for best mainstream jazz album, shortly after Bickert’s 2001 decision to retire from playing. Bickert may be Canada’s most distinguished jazz guitarist (his tenure with Paul Desmond might be enough to establish that) but all his gifts are in evidence here, the gentle propulsion of his chording, the perfect voicings when he’s comping and the brilliant linear flow of his improvised lines. There’s likely no better forum to showcase his gifts than this trio without drums, his every nuance clearly audible and Murley and Wallace ideal associates to bring out his best as both soloist and accompanist. East of the Sun stands out.

02 Myriad3Myriad 3 is a group of young Toronto musicians in the traditional jazz piano trio format, with Chris Donnelly on piano, Dan Fortin on bass and Ernesto Cervini on drums. Tell (ALMA ACD13112, almarecords.com), however, doesn’t strongly suggest any traditional trio approaches. Instead the group’s affinities are with more recent paradigms, like Sweden’s EST or the American trio Bad Plus. Myriad 3’s style is distinctly spare and strongly rhythmic, with elements of classical and pop music frequently appearing. The opening Myriad may suggest Satie in its modal grace, while Drifters emphasizes forceful, broken rhythms and dramatically unexpected piano chords. There’s a sense here of an equality of parts, each member playing in a sparse, assertively gestural style. When older jazz elements appear, they’re equally lean and specific, whether it’s Duke Ellington’s almost monotone C Jam Blues or the bluesy Horace Silver-style bop of Donnell’s Mr. Awkward.

03 Lina AllemanoThe Lina Allemano Four has achieved remarkably consistent form, maintaining the same personnel for their fourth consecutive CD (beginning with Pinkeye in 2006). Trumpeter Allemano is joined by Brodie West on alto saxophone, Andrew Downing on bass and Nick Fraser on drums on Live at the Tranzac (Lumo Records, linaallemano.com), the Toronto bar providing a comfortable setting for these close-knit, highly conversational dialogues on the leader’s compositions. The style is free jazz, the band reminiscent of Ornette Coleman’s original quartet, but the music couldn’t be more disciplined, the band working hand-in-glove to realize the most from each of Allemano’s tunes.

04 Michael BlakeTenor saxophonist Michael Blake has long been established in New York, where he’s best known for his decade-long membership in John Lurie’s high-profile Lounge Lizards. He still maintains strong ties to Vancouver, however, and he has just released In the Grand Scheme of Things (Songlines SGL159-2, songlines.com) featuringa quartet with Vancouver musicians. It’s a heady musical blend that delights in contrasting sounds, from Blake’s own, often straight-ahead tenor in lyrical ballad or forceful up-tempo mode to passages of eerie, electronically altered trumpet from JP Carter, techno and ambient electronic sound from Chris Gestrin on Fender Rhodes electric piano and a Moog Micromoog synthesizer and percussion that ranges from traditional trap drumming to the metallic grit of scraped cymbals from Dylan van der Schyff. It’s evocative work, but it’s Blake’s warm, keening tenor on the soulful Treat Her Right that leaves the strongest impression.

05 Ratchet OrchestraThe American composer and bandleader Sun Ra died in 1993, but his influence persists in new recordings from Montreal and Toronto. Bassist Nick Caloia has been building the Ratchet Orchestra since the early 90s. At times it’s been as small as a quartet, but the current personnel numbers around 30. While the band has performed and recorded Sun Ra compositions in the past, here the influence is apparent in Caloia’s own writing. It’s a mad explosion of sound that layers Caloia’s ceremonial melodies over processional rhythms and a thick undergrowth of improvising percussion. As heard on Hemlock (Drip Audio DA00820, dripaudio.com), the band has also assembled the strongest core of soloists you’re ever likely to hear in a Canadian free-jazz band, including the reeds of Jean Derome, Lori Freedman, Christopher Cauley and Damian Nisensen, trombonists Tom Walsh and Scott Thomson and guitarist Sam Shalabi. The vitality and high spirits are palpable and they sometimes explode, as in the eruption of Beat poet Brion Gysin’s permutational Kick that Habit Man.

06 Ken Aldcroft Sneeky PeteToronto guitarist Ken Aldcroft’s Convergence Ensemble has released a 2-CD set of the leader’s compositions called Sneaky Pete/Slugs’ (Trio Records try 015, kenaldcroft.com). Disc one is a collection of pieces that emphasizes sub-groups and solo improvisations; Disc two, by the full sextet, presents Slugs’: Suite for Sun Ra, named for the New York club where Sun Ra once played regularly. It’s animated at once by Aldcroft’s melodies and swaying rhythms, but it’s elevated by the focused improvisations of the ensemble, from Aldcroft’s own divergent approaches (sometimes a lyrical minimalism, at other times tumbling, rapid flurries of notes) to the extended techniques of trumpeter Nicole Rampersaud, playing multiple tones at once, and trombonist Scott Thomson (yes, he manages to appear in both these bands) who explores seemingly contradictory low-pitched whistles. The final piece, combining themes from both Sneaky Pete and Slugs’, goes through numerous textures, highlighted by the intensity of saxophonist Evan Shaw.

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