01 GemingaOnce a rite of passage, solo outings for reed players have now become almost as commonplace in improvised music as jazz piano trio discs. At the same time, figuratively performing musically naked like that involves more than desire and technical skill. Cerebral planning as well as deciding which horn(s) to use, plus the suitability of the location’s acoustics are necessary as well. These new discs demonstrate how international reed players deal with the challenges.

Performing on Geminga (Creative Sources CS 637 CD creativesourcesrec.com), German Julius Gabriel uses the spatial dimensions of an ancient chapel in Montemor-o-Novo, Portugal to expand his improvisation on soprano, tenor and baritone saxophones. That means that sometimes not only is he creating a thematic line and a vibrated secondary commentary but echoes from the chapel add a third aural element. Hear this at work on the extended Asteroids, as lively tones spill from his tenor saxophone augmented by a lower-pitch continuum and, following an upwards pitch shift, are joined by moderated trills that seem to vibrate from a second distant tenor saxophone. During ten tracks, Gabriel works his way to Epicycles, the circular-breathed soprano sax finale. Characterized by a surge from presto to prestissimo, his tone extensions and detours sputter and soar irregularly and broadly, but never interrupting the narrative flow. Briefer tracks are displays of blindingly fast key percussion or, on Cave Moans, just that, with gravelly razzing wails reflected by the spatial situation suggesting the noise of cave people shouting into the void. Other pieces are more focused. The Nerves finds layered baritone saxophone reed vibrations moving from nephritic honks to altissimo squeaks while displaying split-tone fluctuations. Meanwhile Juju’s Dream confirms that running through reed changes and affiliated chamber echoes with the harshest and most jagged tenor sax buzzes can climax with screaming multiphonics without abandoning a straightforward hidden melody. Jagged and smooth, sweet and sour, Walk Down’s andante exposition overlaps a jumpy theme to renal slurs and splatters before sliding to a smooth final interchange.

02 Anche

While Gabriel divides his reed attention three ways, Montreal’s Yves Charuest concentrates on the alto saxophone and spotlights the exploratory nature of his solos in the title of his CD, Le Territoire de l’Anche (Small Scale Music SSM-022 smallscalemusic.bandcamp.com). Concurrently his preoccupation is with high-pitched textures. Moving from a whisper to a scream on Arundo Donax, Adorno Don’t Ask, Charuest’s tongue-slapping variables and shrill whistles are dissected into terse peeps and screech passages at the edge of hearing using only stiff percussive breath. Subsequently, on Exquisite Corpus Callosum, he unearths slurry and slippery theme variations of temporal and timbral activity with a series of tongue stops, sliding from low pitches to elevated trills without upsetting andante motion. Charuest also uses barely there reed bites and tongue stabs to vibrate a secondary theme that is both spiky and stimulating. All together his tracks are terse, tart and throbbing and also expand the properties of the saxophone’s metal body, as exhalation digs textures from the body tube that owe nothing to reed or mouthpiece. He can also approximate mellow with connective slurs as on Rohrwurm. But his usual strategies involve moving timbres from shrill to shriller. Although these continuous eviscerated honks and piercing squeaks make the architecture of a tune like Interstitial Defect seem like a merry-go-round of musical motifs endlessly rotating, circular breathing leads to tone extensions not limitations. By the concluding Anémophile, as tongue slaps and whistles presage varied textures, he’s made a convincing case for the validity of brief, strident, metal-accented pitches as the basis for profoundly distinctive improvisations. 

03 Monkey

Dividing her sonic explorations in two, French soprano saxophonist Alexandra Grimal has put out the monkey in the abstract garden (Ovni OVB 0003 alexandragrimal.com) a two-CD set of which only Disc 1 is of concern. The second features her abstract vocalizing further altered and processed by Benjamin Lévy’s electronics. However, it’s her nine solo soprano saxophone variations on Ma that are fascinating. Dedicated to the intervals between and among notes, she projects a moderated tone, uses more pauses and stops than any of the other soloists here, in improvisations that are calm and dulcet without being cloying. With the tracks fluid, the sole dissident texture occurs at the beginning of Ma 5, coincidentally the shortest track, where an initial reed squeak soon settles into a horizontal patterning with an unbroken tone. More characteristic are improvisations where adagio peeps and trills curve into brief timbral emphasis, never losing exhilarating mellowness. Happily, to avoid sameness, the lengthiest instances of this allow for more development. Ma 8, for instance, emphasizes reed lowing and accelerating peeps as pauses lengthen between tongue flutters as the track slows down to largo. Eventually, as individual breaths lengthen each time they’re heard, a squeaking motif distinguishes this showcase from the other tracks. Ma 3 is also memorable, since the logically projected tongue stops and curlicue trills introduce a sequence where high and low pitches alternate so that it appears as if a ghostly second saxophonist is answering the primary reed projections.

04 Marco

Solo reed revelations aren’t limited to saxophonists. A couple of clarinetists, Belgian Ben Bertrand and Italian Marco Colonna, are involved in similar programs, but with effects and electronics prominent as well. More animated and atonal of the two are the sounds on Colonna’s Fili (Niafunken nfk 007 niafunken.com). Playing clarinet and bass clarinet and using extended techniques and effects to overdub, dissect and multiply timbres, Colonna creates an unprecedented program. Like an actor in a one-person play, he takes all the parts himself and frequently interacts with his sonic Colonna’ssubterranean snorts from different instruments before culminating in a horizontal finale of a lone upturned trill.

05 ManesA divergence into differently defined textures, Belgian Ben Bertrand uses his bass clarinet and numerous effects machines to stretch his improvisations on Manes (Stroom/Les albums claus STRLP-038/LAC015 lesalbumclaus.bandcamp.com) so that they relate to techno and ambient music. Most distinctively, Incantation 3 defines this lower-case strategy. Reed respirations coupled with expressive sine waves create repetitive tones that vibrate rhythmically as clarion clarinet trills soar across the sound field for a deconstructed but measured exposition. Even as they blow airily these dissected trills retain their reed identity, but elsewhere the processing and extended techniques create passages that sound nothing like the tones a clarinet produces. Although overdubbed glissandi to create clarinet ensembles produce unique reed buzzes, the addition of the disembodied voice of Claire Vailler on the concluding The Manmaipo merely puts into bolder relief Bertrand’s achievement. Distinctively, this allows for the creation of altissimo and chalumeau register pitches to engage in a distinctive call and response between themselves.

Once a rite of passage, solo outings for reed players have now become almost as commonplace in improvised music as jazz piano trio discs. At the same time, figuratively performing musically naked like that involves more than desire and technical skill. Cerebral planning as well as deciding which horn(s) to use, plus the suitability of the location’s acoustics are necessary as well. These new discs demonstrate how international reed players deal with the challenges.
Performing on Geminga (Creative Sources CS 637 CD creativesourcesrec.com), German Julius Gabriel uses the spatial dimensions of an ancient chapel in Montemor-o-Novo, Portugal to expand his improvisation on soprano, tenor and baritone saxophones. That means that sometimes not only is he creating a thematic line and a vibrated secondary commentary but echoes from the chapel add a third aural element. Hear this at work on the extended Asteroids, as lively tones spill from his tenor saxophone augmented by a lower-pitch continuum and, following an upwards pitch shift, are joined by moderated trills that seem to vibrate from a second distant tenor saxophone. During ten tracks, Gabriel works his way to Epicycles, the circular-breathed soprano sax finale. Characterized by a surge from presto to prestissimo, his tone extensions and detours sputter and soar irregularly and broadly, but never interrupting the narrative flow. Briefer tracks are displays of blindingly fast key percussion or, on Cave Moans, just that, with gravelly razzing wails reflected by the spatial situation suggesting the noise of cave people shouting into the void. Other pieces are more focused. The Nerves finds layered baritone saxophone reed vibrations moving from nephritic honks to altissimo squeaks while displaying split-tone fluctuations. Meanwhile Juju’s Dream confirms that running through reed changes and affiliated chamber echoes with the harshest and most jagged tenor sax buzzes can climax with screaming multiphonics without abandoning a straightforward hidden melody. Jagged and smooth, sweet and sour, Walk Down’s andante exposition overlaps a jumpy theme to renal slurs and splatters before sliding to a smooth final interchange.
While Gabriel divides his reed attention three ways, Montreal’s Yves Charuest concentrates on the alto saxophone and spotlights the exploratory nature of his solos in the title of his CD, Le Territoire de l’Anche (Small Scale Music SSM-022 smallscalemusic.bandcamp.com). Concurrently his preoccupation is with high-pitched textures. Moving from a whisper to a scream on Arundo Donax, Adorno Don’t Ask, Charuest’s tongue-slapping variables and shrill whistles are dissected into terse peeps and screech passages at the edge of hearing using only stiff percussive breath. Subsequently, on Exquisite Corpus Callosum, he unearths slurry and slippery theme variations of temporal and timbral activity with a series of tongue stops, sliding from low pitches to elevated trills without upsetting andante motion. Charuest also uses barely there reed bites and tongue stabs to vibrate a secondary theme that is both spiky and stimulating. All together his tracks are terse, tart and throbbing and also expand the properties of the saxophone’s metal body, as exhalation digs textures from the body tube that owe nothing to reed or mouthpiece. He can also approximate mellow with connective slurs as on Rohrwurm. But his usual strategies involve moving timbres from shrill to shriller. Although these continuous eviscerated honks and piercing squeaks make the architecture of a tune like Interstitial Defect seem like a merry-go-round of musical motifs endlessly rotating, circular breathing leads to tone extensions not limitations. By the concluding Anémophile, as tongue slaps and whistles presage varied textures, he’s made a convincing case for the validity of brief, strident, metal-accented pitches as the basis for profoundly distinctive improvisations. 
Dividing her sonic explorations in two, French soprano saxophonist Alexandra Grimal has put out the monkey in the abstract garden (Ovni OVB 0003 alexandragrimal.com), a two-CD set of which only Disc 1 is of concern. The second features her abstract vocalizing further altered and processed by Benjamin Lévy’s electronics. However, it’s her nine solo soprano saxophone variations on Ma that are fascinating. Dedicated to the intervals between and among notes, she projects a moderated tone, uses more pauses and stops than any of the other soloists here, in improvisations that are calm and dulcet without being cloying. With the tracks fluid, the sole dissident texture occurs at the beginning of Ma 5, coincidentally the shortest track, where an initial reed squeak soon settles into a horizontal patterning with an unbroken tone. More characteristic are improvisations where adagio peeps and trills curve into brief timbral emphasis, never losing exhilarating mellowness. Happily, to avoid sameness, the lengthiest instances of this allow for more development. Ma 8, for instance, emphasizes reed lowing and accelerating peeps as pauses lengthen between tongue flutters as the track slows down to largo. Eventually, as individual breaths lengthen each time they’re heard, a squeaking motif distinguishes this showcase from the other tracks. Ma 3 is also memorable, since the logically projected tongue stops and curlicue trills introduce a sequence where high and low pitches alternate so that it appears as if a ghostly second saxophonist is answering the primary reed projections.
Solo reed revelations aren’t limited to saxophonists. A couple of clarinetists, Belgian Ben Bertrand and Italian Marco Colonna, are involved in similar programs, but with effects and electronics prominent as well. More animated and atonal of the two are the sounds on Colonna’s Fili (Niafunken nfk 007 niafunken.com). Playing clarinet and bass clarinet and using extended techniques and effects to overdub, dissect and multiply timbres, Colonna creates an unprecedented program. Like an actor in a one-person play, he takes all the parts himself and frequently interacts with his sonic doppelgangers. On Pane, for instance, a low-pitched tongue-slap beat is harmonized with treble reed lines until a single clarinet breaks out from the group to propel the klezmer-like theme forward with squeaks and splats until the line is so deemphasized that it fades away. Sos Berbos on the other hand plays with the rhythm created by key percussion and nasal exhalation, followed by an interlude from a ghostly clarinet trio whose output interacts as each reflects the other’s tones, climaxing with layered slurs from both high and low-pitched reeds. Sometimes, as on A Matita, the sequences fly by with kinetic multiphonics concentrated into stacked polyphony. Or, on Farina e Pianto, the exposition suddenly changes course as a solo clarinet sounds two calming rustic tones simultaneously as low-pitched reed pressure moves up the scale with intermittent squeals. Probably the track which best reflects Colonna’s multi-pronged reed strategy is Pietra. On it, soft-drink-bottle-cap-opening pops projected by tongue slaps presage a series of clarion bites and subterranean snorts from different instruments before culminating in a horizontal finale of a lone upturned trill.
A divergence into differently defined textures, Belgian Ben Bertrand uses his bass clarinet and numerous effects machines to stretch his improvisations on Manes (Stroom/Les albums claus STRLP-038/LAC015 lesalbumclaus.bandcamp.com) so that they relate to techno and ambient music. Most distinctively, Incantation 3 defines this lower-case strategy. Reed respirations coupled with expressive sine waves create repetitive tones that vibrate rhythmically as clarion clarinet trills soar across the sound field for a deconstructed but measured exposition. Even as they blow airily these dissected trills retain their reed identity, but elsewhere the processing and extended techniques create passages that sound nothing like the tones a clarinet produces. Although overdubbed glissandi to create clarinet ensembles produce unique reed buzzes, the addition of the disembodied voice of Claire Vailler on the concluding The Manmaipo merely puts into bolder relief Bertrand’s achievement. Distinctively, this allows for the creation of altissimo and chalumeau register pitches to engage in a distinctive call and response between themselves.
Electronics aside, each of these reed players has produced individual and exceptional solo works. As their varied programs demonstrate, there’s also still scope for others to engender particular responses to the solo reed challenge. 

 

01 Songs of TalesLife is a Gong Show
Songs of Tales
Roots2boot Recordings (roots2boot.com)

A bewitching collaboration born from the minds of four talented jazz musicians from across Canada, this debut CD is a simple yet complex musical hodgepodge of eclectic rhythms and meandering melodies brought together by great musicianship. Saxophonist and keyboardist Petr Cancura; Jean Martin on drums, vibraphone and electronics; Jesse Zubot on violin, bass, congas and synths; and Gordon Grdina on oud, guitars and bass, together produce a very apparent likeminded flow of creativity and expression. What really makes this album stand out is the instrumentation featuring the pairing of saxophone and violin that often play main melodic strains together; the tracks take on a unique modernistic quality yet still with a touch of authenticity. Throw the electronics into the mix and you have a truly pleasurable avant-jazz-pop-jazz album. 

The record starts off with a picturesque opening track, Traure, which calls to mind a scene from a western with a classic cowboy staredown which reflects the fact that partial inspiration for this album is taken from film music. Burning Bright takes on another tone altogether, leaning more towards jazz with rhythmic complexity, sax and vibraphone melody and a hint of uncertainty stirred in. The album ends with Mary Go Round, a track that conjures up the image of a vast expanse, a melancholic and haunting violin and acoustic guitar theme bringing the scenic musical journey to a close. A truly interesting and inspiring album.

02 Aimee Jo BenoitBorjoner
Aimee-Jo Benoit and Trio Velocity
Independent (aimeejobenoit.com)

Famed vocalist Aimee-Jo Benoit’s newest release featuring Trio Velocity can be described as “an album of loosely arranged… tunes closest to the heart of the [artist’s] musical journey.” The tracks are a collection of songs written by renowned musicians from various corners of the musical universe, ranging from Kurt Cobain to Paul McCartney and Burt Bacharach. Benoit’s unique soft-yet-defined timbre combined with instrumentation featuring upright bass, drums and piano enables these arrangements to have an interesting and refreshing twist. Each track has its own story to tell and the vocalist herself expresses her love of storytelling by “using a variety of vocal techniques to convey the narrative inherent in [each] song.” 

Benoit’s interpretation of Cobain’s All Apologies stands out for highlighting the main recognizable riff while replacing the melancholic tone of the original song with a much more positive one through the use of Sheldon Zandboer’s soft and melodic piano theme. This Flight Tonight is an energetic and pleasing interpretation of Joni Mitchell’s classic tune carried forward by Simon Fisk on bass and Robin Tufts on drums, within which you can hear hints of Mitchell’s timbre peeking through in Benoit’s vocal styling while she still makes the tune completely her own. For those in search of a refreshing take on modern classics with just the right amount of character mixed in, this album is a perfect listen.

Listen to 'Borjoner' Now in the Listening Room

03 Grant StewartRise and Shine
Grant Stewart Quartet
Cellar Music CM110419 (cellarlive.com)

A discussion I frequently have with fellow jazz musicians regards what percentage of a musician’s time is best allocated towards paying homage to the tradition, versus innovating. I’m generally of the camp that stresses innovation and modernity, but I have much respect for those who masterfully devote themselves to keeping a more classic style of improvised music alive, with the caveat that this is executed in the most genuine and immaculate way possible. 

What could be a better way to accomplish this goal, than to record at the Mecca-esque Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey locale that has accommodated countless sessions for Prestige, Blue Note, Impulse and CTI, among other record labels? Jazz is a style of music that frequently negates the technicalities of where it’s recorded (“it’s all about the notes, man!”) but a listener would be hard pressed not to notice the unique sound Rudy Van Gelder’s studio imparts, even today, four years after the late engineer’s passing. The thought crossed my mind how perfectly both Grant Stewart’s musicianship and the aforementioned studio fit the mandate of Cellar Music – “timeless, swinging, heartfelt, and resonant.” 

Returning to my earlier musings on tradition versus innovation, it strikes me that there is a certain level of commitment necessary to make a recording in 2020 that harkens back to the jazz of the 50s and 60s sound “timeless.” Grant Stewart, along with his stellar band and excellently balanced repertoire, demonstrate this commitment to its fullest extent, making Rise and Shine a treat to listen to. 

04 Daniel HersogNight Devoid of Stars
Daniel Hersog Jazz Orchestra
Cellar Music CM051119 (cellarlive.com)

Three words come to mind when listening to Night Devoid of Stars: sophisticated, assured and grooving. Daniel Hersog is based in Vancouver, as are most of the excellent musicians in his orchestra, but the album features two special guests: New York saxophonist Noah Preminger and pianist Frank Carlberg (director of the New England Conservatory Jazz Composers’ Workshop Orchestra). Hersog’s compositions contain many textures and techniques, incorporating contrapuntal movement between horn sections, extended passages with flute and muted brass voicings, other times opening up to feature soloists. 

The opening song, Cloud Break, begins with a four-note rising fanfare which is thrown around between brass and wind sections, takes on a minor variation and some counterpoint that leads into a free-wheeling trumpet solo from Frank Turner that is both loose and swinging. Motion begins with some fine gospel piano from Carlberg, and after the band enters to state a theme, he embarks on a solo grounded in solid rhythm with just enough notes to impart feeling and innuendo without hubris. After a brief ensemble interlude, Preminger lays down a solo that demonstrates why he won a Downbeat award. He begins with a sparse and wistful melody, his lines become more fluid, he and Carlberg perform some off-rhythmic riffing, and then he throws in a few angular and aggressive patterns before the band’s outro and Carlberg’s calm ending. 

Night Devoid of Stars is full of complex and surprising moments like these. In fact, the title has to be slightly ironic because there are many stars on this album: Hersog’s compositions and arrangements, his featured guests and the very fine jazz orchestra.

05 Still I RiseStill I Rise
Derrick Gardner & the Big dig! Band
Impact Jazz IJ002 (derrickgardnermusic.com)

Derrick Gardner’s musical journey began in Chicago, where both his parents were musicians and educators, moved to New York for more study, then around the world as he played in the Count Basie Orchestra and other groups. Since 2011 he has held the Babs Asper Chair in Jazz Trumpet at the University of Manitoba’s School of Music in Winnipeg. For Still I Rise, an album he composed and arranged, he gathered musical friends and family from the past two decades (from the United States, several players local to Winnipeg and others, like Curtis Nowosad who was originally from Winnipeg but has been making a name for himself in New York). 

Soulful Brother Gelispie, is dedicated to drummer Randy Gelispie, and contains excellent solos from guitarist Kasey Kurtz, Mark Gross on soprano sax and Nowosad on drums. Melody for Trayvon (dedicated to the teen slain in a “neighbourhood watch fiasco” in 2012) is slower and pensive, reminiscent of Mingus’ Goodbye Porkpie HatPush Come da Shove begins with a meditative introduction, then shifts gears when the band enters with a grooving blues riff, and full sax and brass ensemble sections work into a sophisticated trumpet solo by Gardner. 

The title piece starts rolling immediately with ensemble sections, some contrasting figures between saxophones and brass and then into an up-tempo solo by Gardner and a trombone solo by his brother Vincent. The closer, Heavens to Murgatroyd!, is a playful tune which includes cartoon samples and DJ Stop sounds all over a solid 3/4 time groove. Gardner’s orchestrations are expressive and contain full-on band sections as well as more restrained segments. All pieces are between seven and 15 minutes which gives the soloists time to stretch out so we can hear their individual personalities. Still I Rise swings from beginning to end.

06 Laubrock DavisBlood Moon
Ingrid Laubrock; Kris Davis
Intakt CD 345 (intaktrec.ch)

German saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and Canadian pianist Kris Davis met more than a decade ago as newcomers to the New York jazz world. They soon developed a trio, Paradoxical Frog, with drummer Tyshawn Sorey and have collaborated in various projects, including Laubrock’s Anti-House quintet and her orchestral Contemporary Chaos Practices. In recent years, each has achieved considerable prominence, recording frequently and topping international jazz critics polls. This state-of-the-art dialogue at chamber music dynamic levels demonstrates why. 

Davis’ opening Snakes and Lattice introduces a partnership of virtuosos as they fly through a complex series of glissandi and tremolos, leaping registers and shifting tempos, all delivered with a kind of playful aplomb. There’s more of the same in Laubrock’s Whistlings, music in which dexterity is not an end but a gateway to new terrain, soprano saxophone and piano so close as to suggest a single musician.

Much of the music here is simply beautiful, but often in fresh ways. Laubrock produces sonorities of rare lustre, while Davis’ clouds of limpid notes blur Debussy and Second Viennese School. Their inventiveness and sense of detail are evident in Davis’ Flying Embers in which Laubrock’s quiet long tones and subtly shifting pitches fuse with the sustained hum of the piano strings. Laubrock’s Maroon moves toward form: initially balladic, it moves through a sustained free exchange, eventually arriving at two distinct voices, a lyric saxophone and an insistently percussive, mechanistic piano.        

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