07 Mark GodfreySquare Peg
Mark Godfrey Quintet
Independent PRAM004 (markgodfreybass.com)

Square Peg is a collection of jazz tunes bassist and composer Mark Godfrey wrote while commuting between Toronto and New York over a four-year period in his Dodge Caravan (a great vehicle for holding an upright bass). The album title could refer to how a vehicle associated with families and soccer is turned into a conduit for art and music. Many of the tunes are meditative, possibly because driving a familiar route often leads to introspection.

Highlights include the title piece which starts with a lilting melody played together by Allison Au (alto sax) and Matt Woroshyl (tenor sax) slightly in and out of sync giving it a nice edge. Then Chris Pruden plays a tinkling, arpeggiated and out-of-tempo piano solo that is quite beautiful. No Gig Today is a breezy up-tempo bossa nova tune that seems to say, “If we can’t get a gig, let’s groove on our own.” Nick Fraser’s stylish and complex drums provide the perfect jazz-samba backbeat. After a sophisticated solo by Pruden the two saxes heat things up with an unaccompanied duet break which evolves into trading eights when the rhythm section returns. This is a great tune with many nuances.

Square Peg is accessible yet sophisticated, with all musicians sounding impeccable. May I suggest slipping this CD into your car (or van) stereo system for one of those lengthy drives?

08 Heidi LaingeLet Your Honesty Shine – The Simon Project
Heidi Lange
Independent (music.apple.com)

Talented jazz vocalist and professor Heidi Lange’s newest release is a pleasant modern jazz take on famed singer-songwriter Paul Simon’s music, mixing in elements of pop and rock to create a unique whole. With current jazz greats like Mark Kieswetter on piano, Jordan O’Connor on acoustic bass, Eric St-Laurent on guitars and Ben Riley on drums, the album is a perfect soundtrack for a rainy day, for contemplation or relaxing. Lange’s voice is a balanced combination of wispiness and depth, pulling in the listener and invoking complete focus on her. 

Each track features a prominent piano melody that blends in outstandingly with Lange’s timbre and is further supported by beautiful guitar riffs, a moving, yet calming, drum rhythm and a sultry bass line. A touching version of Bridge Over Troubled Water is a definite highlight of the album, as is the unique take on Dazzling Blue and the captivating Another Galaxy. Standing out from the rest of the tracks for its upbeat tempo and slightly more driving melody and rhythm is The Boy in the Bubble, also unique for the fact that the entire band sounds the most blended here, intricacies of each instrument played out to create a cohesive but dynamic whole. This is where the listener can hear just how well these talents merge together. For longtime fans of Paul Simon’s work or for music fans interested in a modern jazz sound, this album is a definite recommendation.

09 John SneiderThe Scrapper
John Sneider
Cellar Music CM072819 (cellarlive.com)

In the same way a plethora of Canadian jazz fails to reach our neighbours to the south, there are also many American artists that we are not exposed to here. This is why I was delighted to see trumpeter and composer John Sneider’s first release under his own name in over 20 years appear on the Canadian Cellar Live label. Sneider’s album The Scrapper fits in perfectly with Cellar Live’s usual programming, which hosts artists from both sides of the border who play “timeless, swinging, heartfelt and resonant” music, as their website states. 

The core members of Sneider’s band remain the same as on his last release Panorama from 2000: John Hart on guitar, Larry Goldings on organ and Andy Watson on drums. It is the shared influences among these veterans of the New York City scene that give the group its contemporary yet grounded sound. The tracks on the album are a unified flow of originals by Sneider and Goldings, small-group arrangements of two Duke Ellington pieces, and tracks that feature its guest artists: vocalist Andy Bey and young trumpeter David Sneider. Bey contributes a conversational rendition of Miles Davis’ classic Solar, and Sneider demonstrates he shares his father’s mature yet playful compositional style on the two-trumpet closer Dinosaur Eggs. Overall, The Scrapper is an excellent release that pays homage to the tradition while still sounding current in 2020.

10 Nick FinzerCast of Characters
Nick Finzer
Outside In Music OiM 2000 (nick-finzer.myshopify.com)

With the release of his new 14-song concept recording, respected trombonist, producer and educator, Nick Finzer, has pushed the creative envelope into new, vital and challenging emotional territory. Long known as a formidable storyteller, Finzer’s new opus is a musical exploration of influential archetypes who are often common to the human experience, e.g. inter-connections with those individuals who inspire us, disappoint us, break our hearts, support us tirelessly and love us unconditionally. Finzer’s stellar sextet includes Lucas Pino on reeds, Alex Wintz on guitar, Glenn Zaleski on piano, Dave Baron on bass and Jimmy Macbride on drums.

There is no gratuitous soloing on this project, but there is intense and emotional, post-bop group exploration in which all of the members have a voice. On the evocative opener, A Sorcerer, the Ellingtonia is palpable. The sextet is pristine and swinging, gliding over the complex musical motifs with skill, insight and taste, and Pino’s inspired sax solo is full of longing and youthful joy. Another outstanding track is Evolution of Perspective – a sobering introspection that bounces back with a gymnastic, rapid-fire solo from Finzer, as well as equally superb, vibrant solos from the ensemble. 

Other standouts include Patience, Patience – a haunting ballad perfectly parenthesized by Zaleski’s luminous piano work, and Venus – a sensuous rhapsody, silkier than the finest satin. With this thought-provoking recording, Finzer guides the listener on a journey through seemingly chaotic, quantum entanglement, which eventually morphs into our sense of self as so eloquently put by the title of the last offering in the cycle, We’re More than the Sum of Our Influences.

11 AirCD007Air
Asmus Tietchens; Dirk Serries
New Wave of Jazz nwoj 0026 (newwaveofjazz.bandcamp.com)

Not lighter than air, but certainly as omnipresent, Air is a singular instance of what could be termed brazen (un)ambient music. Belgian Dirk Serries improvised sounds on accordion, concertina, harmonica, melodica and clarinet, which were then used as source material manipulated, splintered and sewn together again by the computers and electronics of German composer Asmus Tietchens. The result is a collection of six tracks that challenge much more than they soothe. 

On a sequence like Air Akkordeon for instance, as tremolo accordion reaches a juddering crescendo that spreads over the track like jam on toast, fragments of those vibrations, treated by Tietchens’ computer, are reflected mirror-like back into the mix, moving with hints of aviary whistles that hover alongside Serries’ initial tones, before both glide away.

That type of scenario evolves throughout the disc, as wafting clarinet quivers confront Big Ben-like repetitive chiming or minimalist concertina squeezes and/or harmonica breaths mix with whispery vocal-like echoes that ascend to ululating choral refrains. Carefully layered through granular synthesis and pitch manipulations, these congruent tones transcend solo instrument-like resemblance, to become mechanized or otherworldly-like vibrations by the final Air Klarinette 2. Becoming louder and more diverse, the layers of interspaced oscillations negate “real” or “treated” origins to become almost symphonic with impressionistic colourations.

Overall though, what’s also distinctive about Tietchens’ and Serries’ program is that kernels of impulsive audacity and strength can be heard beneath the unfolding ambience.

12 CanadaDayCD006Canada Day Quartet Live
Harris Eisenstadt
Clean Feed CF 533 CD (cleanfeed-records.com)

Perhaps an inadvertent comment on Canadians’ welcoming nature, this iteration of Toronto-born drummer Harris Eisenstadt’s Canada Day band is filled out by American trumpeter Nate Wooley, British pianist Alexander Hawkins and French-German bassist Pascal Niggenkemper. However, the equality expressed as the four animate Eisenstadt’s eight compositions in his Poschiavo series could relate to the harmonious melting pot-ideology that was a mark of the pre-Trump US.

Relaxed, but with a powerful, though understated rhythmic pulse, the tracks often feature hand-muted plunger expositions or open-horn clarion rasps by Wooley, a band member since it began in 2009. These are propelled in double counterpoint with the swift shading and lightly voiced textures by Hawkins, with whom the drummer plays in other bands. Leisurely or accelerated percussion ruffs, rolls and raps encourage this interaction. Meanwhile Poschiavo Four-Voice 4 is the one time Niggenkemper moves upfront with creaking sul tasto extensions and later col legno recoils which usher in moderato keyboard animation and a final lyrical brass blend.

Still, it’s the extended Poschiavo 36 that is most outstanding. As Wooley’s insentient bestial yaps sourced from trumpet innards dominate the exposition, double-bass stops and expressive piano patterning subsequently lighten the narrative. The climax exposes a melodic groove seconded by drum backbeats and expressed by the trumpeter in warm heraldic tones.

For followers of expressive improvised music this live disc should be as welcome as Canada’s July 1 holiday.

Probably the most popular instrument in the world in its various forms, the guitar poses unique challenges for analytical players. With the six-string front-and-centre in so many branches of music, how can one forge an individual path? Yet each of the plectrumists here has done so as uniquely as there are makes of guitars.

01 RadicalCD005For instance Nels Cline is in a situation many others would envy. As lead guitarist for American alternative rock band Wilco, he has a steady gig with a large following. Yet Cline has been an integral part of Los Angeles’ improvised music scene since the 1980s and immerses himself back in that context any chance he gets. The Radical Empathy Trio’s Reality and Other Imaginary Places (ESP 5035 espdisk.com) is a recent example. During two extended tracks the guitarist finds a place among the swirling dynamics propelled by two committed improvisers: drummer Michael Wimberley and keyboardist Thollem McDonas. 

Propelling relaxed finger-style chording alongside McDonas’ acoustic piano on the second track and challenging a miasma of swirling synthesized kinetics from the keyboardist with corrosive string distortions on the first, Cline references either mainstream or fusion jazz. Yet in both cases backed by explosive rattles and ruffs from the drummer, confounding patterns trump convention. McDonas’ keyboard expression moves from sentient hunt-and-peck chording to repetitive extraterrestrial-like glissandi during his solos. Cline’s amplified bugle-like pulsations easily make common cause with McDonas’ distinctive sounds on the latter, as the guitarist’s gentling impressionistic fills do with the first strategy. Despite on-the-mark finger-styling guitar riffs alongside acoustic piano runs or knob-twisting guitar flanging meeting kinetic keyboard expansions, no one would confuse the two for Joe Pass with Oscar Peterson or, in the other case, with Sun Ra meeting Jimi Hendrix. Still, the way Cline fits both roles, while managing to propel his own guitar definition, demonstrates accomplishment. His individual musical empathy – and that of the others – comes across as radical as well as sympathetic, making the trio’s name highly appropriate.

02 VillageCD004Far away from mainstream jazz and jazz-rock fusion are the specially configured musical cycles of American guitarist Joe Morris and British saxophonist Evan Parker on The Village (Fundacja Słuchaj FSR 13/2019 sluchaj.org). A first-ever duo recording, each player arrives with a distinctive instrumental approach worked out over years of experimentation. Copasetic but not compounded, the key to the Morris-Parker duo is that neither abandons individual expression while propelling tandem association in double counterpoint. Sticking to moderated tenor saxophone smears on the nearly 40-minute opening, The Mound – a similar linkage with Parker’s intense nasal soprano saxophone tones is highlighted on the other brief track – the reedist’s multiphonics splutter, smear and slap beside Morris’ canny use of pointed patterning that encompasses high-pitched stings sourced from near the tuning pegs and mid-range, folksy strums. Meanwhile, as the duo’s key-in-lock cooperation is activated, enough distance is maintained so that episodes of Parker’s instantly recognizable circular breathing develop logically, as do those passages when Morris’ string pressure gives the sequence a low-pitched rhythmic feel. Eventually, scratching string fills backed by reed vibrations confirm that each player has adapted enough of the other’s distinctive approach to improvisation to create an intertwined finale. 

03 NomadCD003Nomad Trio (Skirl Records 044 skirlrecords.com), as a trio filled out by Americans, pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer Jim Black join Vancouver’s Gordon Grdina to interpret six of his compositions. While only the final Lady Choral picks up the exquisite bass and treble patterns Grdina can create using the multi-string oud, playing guitar his robust finger styling sounds nothing like Morris’ introverted interval stings or Cline’s throbbing rock-inflected fills. Instead his playing is both sharp and swift, as if he’s an elated Jim Hall, coursing and flaring against the drummer’s active clatter or cymbal rebounds, as the pianist slides from Grdina’s string-and-fret architecture on Ride Home allows for story-telling reflection, as he moves from note constriction to expansive flanges. Meeting percussion splashes and processional keyboard lines, guitar pulsations make the finale so connectively opaque that it’s almost overbearing.

05 qloopCD001On the other hand, few tropes point out the diversity that can exist among guitar-focused combos than the following sessions, both of which include French cellist Valentin Ceccaldi. One-quarter of the oddly named qÖÖlp group, the band’s eponymous CD (BMC CD 257 bmcrecords.hu) defines the symmetry expressed by a working group that includes the cellist and his violin-playing brother Théo Ceccaldi, as well as two Germans, guitarist Ronny Graupe and drummer Christian Lillinger. With Graupe and Lillinger serving as the counterbalance to the cultivated arco and pizzicato strategies of the Ceccaldis, guitar motifs are all over the ten selections in solo features or in duo or trio pairings. The antithesis to this is Points (MultiKulti Project MPSMT 016 multikulti.com). Consisting of four lengthy improvisations, the performances featuring cellist Ceccaldi and three Lisbon-based players are better integrated. Connection is such in fact, that the string shadings of guitarist Marcelo dos Reis sometimes almost vanish into the synchronous sounds created by the blended textures of percussionist Marco Franco, trumpeter Luis Vicente and the cellist.

On the qÖÖlp session, Graupe’s assertive soloing is best defined on WröökJ. Sweeping up from an interconnection of string-based tones, the guitarist suddenly breaks out rock-related runs that almost literally punch a hole in the sequence and, backed by Lillinger’s power pops, quickly expose a series of frailing and plinking theme variations. With a selection of moods ranging from refined to raw, the four musicians take cohesion to its logical conclusion. No matter how radical the motifs become, continuity remains. This is expressed best on the textural framed finale of Get Together, when a combination of energetic, near impenetrable ruffs from the drummer and intermittent picking from the guitarist threaten to spin out of control before being reined in. Additionally, there’s the, unusual-for-a-European-band, track titled Toronto. Yet this stop-time near-ballad seems to describe the city with a moody collection of sliding string harmonies. In fact, when the four stretch out, as on extended tracks like Mermaids and Sperm Whales the qÖÖlp members can dazzle. Speedily they move from unison moderato expositions to delicate minuet-like narratives. Fusing arco cello and violin lyricism to guitar frails that emphasize impressionism, they’re completed by favouring the metallic properties of energized violin and guitar runs plus precise drum runs. Never is momentum lost nor does any linkage seem artificial.

04 PointsCD002Valentin Ceccaldi’s other affiliated outing is much more exploratory, but no matter how long the tracks are, or how the extended techniques upend the program, the tracks always right themselves into harmony variants. Rotating the introductions among band members, as themes are elaborated, spontaneous interactions occur, such as having downward slithering Harmon-muted trumpet tones underscored by sul tasto cello responses; or how melding cymbal splashes, gutbucket brass smears and spiccato strings produces memories of both Debussy and Dixieland. Throughout, dos Reis forges a singular path, with his contributions more felt than heard. Only at the very end of the Exclamation Mark for instance, are distant flanges and plucks audible. Meanwhile among sequences where all members’ elevated pitches or foundation croaks are emphasized, Question Mark is the most fully realized. Almost an assembly line of effects, it begins with distant guitar string plucking, exposes pure air forced through the trumpet without valve motion, introduces drumming clip clops and completes the first cycle with swift strokes from the cellist. The climatic resolution finally arises as brass tones brightly flutter on top of drum press rolls while Ceccaldi and dos Reis combine into a flurry of percussive near-Andalusian cadences. Instructively the finale evolves into warm lyricism as trumpet peeps and finger-style string emphasis gently combine.

Upfront or reticent, each of these guitar strategies uniquely complements the improvised musical situation in which it is placed and suggests that many other strategies are feasible. 

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