01 Paul Novotny Robi BotosSummertime in Leith – In Concert at the Historic Leith Church
Paul Novotny; Robi Botos
Triplet Records TR10026-ATMOS (tripletrecords.com)

When two of Canada’s finest, most skilled and internationally acclaimed jazz musicians come together in a performance of phenomenal symbiosis, it is an occasion worthy of celebration. As the title of this fine recording would suggest, bassist/producer Paul Novotny and pianist (and Oscar Peterson protégé) Robi Botos graced the stage of the Historic Leith Church in Annan, Ontario on Georgian Bay and performed much loved compositions for an enraptured audience. With exquisite production, all of the electricity and spontaneity of the live event has been captured here. 

Six dynamic tracks are included in the recording – each one a rare jewel. Appropriately Gershwin’s Summertime opens the programme. The arrangement begins with a deep, languid bass pizzicato, which intertwines with diaphanous upper register piano keys as the tune morphs into a sensual, timeless journey. Novotny’s solo is lyrical, facile and loaded with emotional colours, and Botos answers with deeply rhythmic ideas, never overplaying.

A stand-out is the duo’s take on Wheatland from Peterson’s Canadiana Suite. Novotny and Botos capture the majesty of central Canada, grooving à la the iconic Peterson and yet putting their own, contemporary and harmonically complex stamp on it. Novotny uses the full scope of his bass to create fluid, gravitas-laden tones that are imbued with a profound sense of rhythm and joy, and Botos is just simply breathtaking.  

Another highlight is The Flick which comes from Earl VanDyke (Motown’s “Soul Brothers”). This track is pure adrenaline, excitement and elation, with Novotny relentlessly laying it down while Botos fearlessly dives deep into blues and American soul. On this brilliant and well-produced project, the pair have created not only an auditory delight, but healing music for our very souls. Bravo!

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02 Andrea SupersteinOh Mother
Andrea Superstein
Cellar Music CMR082823 (cellarlive.com)

Despite often deifying our mothers, as men we tend to allow ourselves to – wittingly or unwittingly – either ignore motherhood or push it so far into the background as to forget it might even be “a thing.” On her wonderfully lyrical jazz recording Oh Mother, and after sharing her experiences as a mother of course, Andrea Superstein reminds us of both the potent struggles and unfettered joys of motherhood.

The album comprises mostly originals, except for Everywhere by Christine McVie, May You by Ayelet Rose Gottlieb and So In Love by Cole Porter. The apogee of this fine record is, however, Superstein’s The Heart Inside, with its long, sculpted lines, arranged by Superstein and Elizabeth Shepherd, delivered with uncommon grace and beauty by Superstein. Here, as elsewhere, her vocals are light, plaintive and display a colourful, many-splendored sonority. 

Superstein’s introspective vocal exhortations are boosted by inspirational instrumentation that lift the songs into a higher realm. Best of all these are honest sounds of love, joy, and serenity – all of which are de rigueur the province of a woman who has made a life in which art and parenthood are aglow with success and pride.

The performers inhabit the songs with idiomatic allure, and a children’s choir adds charming recitations which are spliced into Superstein’s memorable vocals. This is a musical treat not simply for mothers – young or old – but for lovers of fine vocal music everywhere.

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03 Daniel JankeAvailable Light
Daniel Janke Winter Trio
Chronograph Records CR-104 (danieljanke.com)

Daniel Janke has had a varied career over several decades as pianist, composer, filmmaker and more. He is based in the Yukon where you might see him composing for and conducting the Problematic Orchestra, recording in his studio, playing jazz in a local lounge or directing a film. But a month later he could be in Berlin as the Musical Director for a Bowie retrospective, performing at a new music festival in Kitchener, Ontario or taking part in a music residency in France, which is where he met Basile Rahola (bass) and Ariel Tessier (drums). 

Available Light is his second album using the name Winter Trio and it contains original and traditional pieces emphasizing Janke’s gospel roots. For example, the final song Gospel for Betty is a gorgeously deliberate piece named for his mother who sang gospel songs. The traditional Blessed Assurance receives a beautiful treatment beginning with a sparsely improvised solo piano building into the full trio and then lightens into a modestly stated melody. Available Light is an elegant and subtle album that contains jazz and new music sophistication while never straying too far from its gospel fundamentals.

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04 Sarah JerromMagpie
Sarah Jerrom
TPR TPR-0019-02 (sarahjerrom.com)

The incredible Sarah Jerrom’s 2024 suite Magpie shows her heading – with a superbly orchestrated large ensemble – into the countryside of her (ostensible) childhood, making friends with the fabled magpie (and other birds) in the Canadian forest. I have long been an unabashedly dyed-in-the-wool admirer of the songwriter and vocalist; now I have decided that I would like to sojourn into the wilds of her interior landscape with her.

On the eight sections of Magpie, you will hear the sense of freedom in her voice as she remembers the birds of the Canadian Rockies and the elk of the forest, while the elegance of her voice and visionary music and the superbly rehearsed big band become part of a sweeping landscape that mixes beauty and danger, and the sounds of animals and birds, in particular the flight of her magpie. 

But should I journey with Jerrom, I couldn’t match the brilliance of her travelling companions: among them the inimitable flutist Laura Chambers, oboist Cheih-Ving Lu, saxophonists Tara Davidson, Mike Murley, Kirk MacDonald and Shriantha Beddage, trumpeters James Rhodes and Kevin Turcotte, trombonists Olivia Esther and William Carn, the magical pianist Nancy Walker, bassist Rob McBride and drummer Ernesto Cervini.

In such songs as Circling Feathers, or The Mountain Cries, and in Jerrom’s ethereally beautiful vocals everywhere – whether evocative of freezing nights or long rainy days – each track takes us into some wild place with trusted and inspiring musical friends.

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05 Mike DownesMike Downes – The Way In
Mike Downes; Robi Botos; Ted Quinlan; Joaquin Nunez Hidalgo; Davide di Renzo
M Music (mikedownes.bandcamp.com/album/the-way-in)

Versatility and the ability to bend and cross genres are valued qualities in musicians. Multi-JUNO award winning, renowned bassist Mike Downes is the embodiment of these qualities. His newest release is a great showcase of his prolific talents as a unique and captivating musician and composer. The track list is chock-full of songs penned by the bassist himself and his lyrical compositional style is accessible  and able to be enjoyed and appreciated. Downes himself says the album showcases his “deep gratitude to the long lineage of extraordinary bassists who blazed the way forward.” There’s a certain beauty and humbleness there when a musician who so many look up to pays homage to his idols in such a way. 

These pieces are such a fitting example of Downes’ sensitive and melodious style of playing, he makes his instrument truly “sing.” What is exceptional is how he draws out such emotions and creates a truly clear imagery in the listener’s mind; he has a way of making the bass into a storyteller, almost as if we’re listening to it speak and sing to us. Coming back full circle to the versatility mentioned earlier, each song has a completely unique and distinct feel, even very specific textures which come to the forefront through the different ways in which Downes creates sounds and layers them; from bowing to rhythmic tapping and melodious pizzicato. A must-add to your music collection!

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06 Bill McBirnieReflections (for Paul Horn)
Bill McBirnie
Extreme Flute (billmcbirnie-extremeflute.bandcamp.com/album/reflections-for-paul-horn)

At the beginning of his liner notes McBirnie acknowledges flutist Paul Horn as “…unquestionably the earliest, the strongest and the most enduring of all my influences on this instrument.”  What touched him about Horn’s playing was his “…use of space, coupled with …often stark – but heartfelt – phrases to communicate musically. …now, a decade after his passing, I decided to take some time and make an effort to acknowledge all he has done for me... and so many others...”

In this recording we hear McBirnie’s similar use of space and stark, heartfelt phrases, particularly in his alto flute improvisations, like track three, Masada Sunrise. It is especially in McBirnie’s sound that I hear something of his feeling for Paul Horn. There is an openness, a spaciousness that he conveys through the sound, that I know could not be conveyed in any other way.

Speaking of the spaciousness of his sound, however, I do have one small quibble. While Horn released a couple of dozen albums and most were not in exotic locations, he famously recorded in some acoustically extraordinary spaces, like the Taj Mahal and the Great Pyramid at Giza. In these locations the acoustic properties of the spaces participated, so to speak, in the improvisations. McBirnie’s recordings were made in a studio, with the “acoustics” added after the fact. What is missing for me is the Horn’s interaction with the environment in this handful of extraordinary spaces. I found myself wistfully thinking of buildings in and near Toronto that offer acoustical environments which could have been co-participants in these recordings – Holy Trinity Church in Toronto, and the Foster Memorial north of Uxbridge, for example – thereby keeping the artistry in the hands of the artist himself, and not those of a recording engineer.

That being said, kudos to McBirnie for keeping the memory of Paul Horn so resonantly alive – a worthy reminder of Paul Horn and the tremendous influence he had “back in the day” on Jazz. This album is a real labour of love.

07 Susanna HoodunPacked
Susanna Hood Trio
ambiences magnetiques AM 278 CD (actuellecd.com/en/accueil)

In certain cases, a collection of music can live multiple lives. One such incarnation is that initial blind exposure, where the listener purely immerses themselves in the way an album sounds, sometimes without even a glance at the artist’s name or album cover. This allows the music to at once have a sense of anonymity to it, but also enables it to create meaning entirely for itself, free from the burden of its association with symbols, description and faces. Another such incarnation exists nearly at the opposite end of the spectrum, which puts the agency for meaning-making in the hands of the listener. 

Some projects become more compelling as one gleans more information surrounding its process. unPacked is a prime example of this, as Judith Malina’s words carry even more weight upon realization that they are giving voice to the often text-less compositions of Steve Lacy, as Susanna Hood’s endlessly expressive vocalizations feel even more like they’re touching upon new ways to communicate with the human soul upon discovery of the improvised dance dimension of this work. Hearing “...can be transfii-ii-igured” when you find the extremely thorough Kickstarter campaign for the recording process that details the entire background of the project, which prompts you to return to the original Lacy Packet suite, starting the exploration cycle anew. unPacked, in all its multitudes, is absolutely stunning and warrants the deepest of dives.

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