19 John PizzarelliStage & Screen
John Pizzarelli
Palmetto Records JOPI01 (propermusic.com/label/p/palmetto-records.html) 

There can be no question that guitarist/vocalist John Pizzarrelli, as the son of the late, iconic guitarist Bucky, was born with special musical DNA… and for the past 40 years plus, Pizzarelli the younger has honed his craft and performed to sold-out concert halls and venues throughout the world. Joining him on a new project that pays tribute to a dozen compositions that have been presented on both stage and screen, are his intuitive collaborators Isaiah Thompson on piano and Michael Karn on bass.

The opening salvo, Too Close for Comfort is a jaunty, swinging take from the 1956 Broadway hit Mr. Wonderful that showcases Pizzarelli’s impossibly pure vocal instrument, as well as his gorgeous intonation. A snappy, sinuous piano solo from Thompson and a fine unison voice/guitar scat section are the icing on the proverbial cake. Another choice, up-tempo track is I Want to Be Happy, where prodigious 7-string guitar technique takes one’s breath away and Karn renders a facile “in the pocket” solo.

Bernstein’s Some Other Time from On the Town is performed as a pristine guitar solo that plucks our heart strings all-the-while weaving melodic and lyrical magic. Other delights include Pizzarelli’s percolating arrangement of Just in Time from Comden and Green’s Bells Are Ringing, and the Oklahoma Suite, which is the lovely synthesis of three tunes from the beloved American musical. Closing the set is a gleaming gem:  As Time Goes By, which is authentically performed with a fully restored verse. A stellar collection, lovingly drawn from our shared art forms of music, theatre and film.

01 Steve SwellFor Jemeel – Fire from the Road
Steve Swell’s Fire Into Music
RogueArt ROG0126 (roguart.com) 

Emerging in the 1970s, Chicago-born alto saxophonist Jemeel Moondoc was a firebrand of free jazz, his work characterized by original phrasing, emotional immediacy and unwavering commitment to musical liberation. In 2004 the younger trombonist Steve Swell put together a New York dream band with Moondoc, bassist William Parker and drummer Hamid Drake (the latter two a definitive rhythm section for rugged extended improvisation) for a tour ranging from the U.S. Midwest to the West Coast and then through Canada. Moondoc died in 2020, after a lifetime plagued by sickle-cell anaemia, just as the group planned a reunion recording; in lieu of that, Swell assembled this three-CD, three-hour set from 2004-5 concerts. 

Moondoc’s command is apparent on Space Cowboys, his style deeply rooted in essential bop and blues sources, but they are pressed into his own distinctive lines. Swell combines all the bends, smears and raw and celebratory bleats of generations of jazz trombonists. Junka Nu, from the 2005 Guelph Jazz Festival, moves with an Afro-Caribbean lilt, combining twisting, expressive lines with a dancing rhythm, creating a compound space that marks the special possibilities of free jazz. It’s a quality maintained here by Parker and Drake, whose compound rhythms are at once determined and celebratory. 

It’s rare to find documentation of this scale appearing for a band that wasn’t famous, but this is rare work with a consistent, incendiary power, a tribute to the band as well as to Moondoc. 

02a Bill EvansTreasures
Bill Evans
Elemental Music 5990444 (elemental-music.com) 

Blue Room
Chet Baker
Jazz Detective DDJD-008 (deepdigsmusic.com) 

Bill Evans and Chet Baker had much in common. Both born in 1929, they were great lyric talents. Both achieved tremendous acclaim, and both suffered the ravages of heroin addiction, contributing to Evans’ death in 1981, Baker’s in 1988. Baker had known stardom and decline before Evans emerged in 1958, and they were very different musicians, Evans a meticulous student of complex harmony, Baker a “natural” who could travel fluently through chord progressions without naming them. These boxsets, available on CD or LP, present aspects of their individual European careers, Evans a visitor, Baker a long-time resident.  

Treasures packs a few facets of Evans’ career into visits to Denmark. It initially presents him in 1965 in his favoured trio format, a conversational form here completed by the necessarily virtuosic bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen and either Alan Dawson or Alex Riel on drums. The material ranges from standards to Evans’ own compositions, Time Remembered and Waltz for Debby. The rest of the disc, from 1969, has the trio with bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Marty Morell joined by the combined forces of the Royal Danish Symphony Orchestra and the Danish Radio Big Band in a suite of mostly Evans’ compositions conducted by arranger/trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg, who manages the massed ensemble with apt taste.

There follows a 1965 solo set that ranges from a moody ‘Round Midnight to a rhapsodic My Funny Valentine, then continues with trio sets from 1966, with Gomez and Riel, and 1969, with Gomez and Morell. Evans’ could return repeatedly to the same material, trusting to his bandmates and his own invention to reignite the composition in hand. Here Miles Davis’ exotic Nardis appears in each trio’s playlist, explored at contrasting lengths, and there’s a joyous account of Johnny Mandel’s Emily, another favourite Evans vehicle.   

02b Chet BakerLast year’s release of Chet Baker’s Live in Paris: The Radio France Recordings 1983 -1984 (Elemental) presented some of Baker’s finest performances, expansive, consummately lyrical and enlivened by intense support. On Blue Room’s two 1979 sessions one gets both very good Baker and some lesser work. Mercifully, the first session contributes 70 minutes of music, the second only 25. Baker travelled to Hilversum, The Netherlands, in April with mostly American partners. Pianist Phil Markowitz, a regular, is empathetic, embellishing Baker’s brilliant minimalism, evident on Wayne Shorter’s Beautiful Black Eyes. Drummer Charles Rice and Belgian bassist Jean-Louis Rassinfosse contribute firm underpinnings as well, for both Baker’s hesitant but engaged vocals and his warmly muffled trumpet balladry. The brief session from November had Baker driving a long distance, forgetting his sheet music and playing with a local band he had just met. The results are sometimes positive, but the relaxed communication that Baker enjoyed with the previous group is absent, and his vocals sound tired. That April quartet session, however, shows Baker in excellent form. 

As the parameters of jazz and improvised music continue to expand during the 21st century, so does the bedrock of theme material and instrumental extensions. While many improvisers still record classic discs that are completely free form, other creative musicians alter and bend exciting sounds to create original programs.

01 Monk on ViolaWhile interpretations of Thelonious Monk classics are nothing new, especially as his stature has grown among conventional and conservative players since his 1982 death, performances of these nine melodies on solo viola is almost certainly unique. But that’s exactly what Romanian-born George Dumitriu, who now teaches in Utrecht, has done with Monk on Viola (Evil Rabbit ERR 36 evilrabbitrecords.eu). While his playing encompasses microtones and repetition, and his instrument includes preparations, the dominant approach involves deftly reconstituting the pieces so that familiar themes are present along with original variations. This is aptly displayed on ‘Round Midnight, Monk’s best-known composition, which begins with woody slaps, and angled string sawing until a twanging variant of the melody is heard and recognized at the same time as it’s pinched and descends the scale. The concluding Crepuscule with Nellie gets a similar treatment, vibrating in and out of tempo as adagio rubs and spiccato slides change places, culminating in an exciting col legno finale. Analogous strategies are exhibited on the other seven tracks. Boo Boo’s Birthday almost becomes a simple country dance tune, then in a reversal deploys and fragments the theme with high-pitched, multi-string changes. Double stops finally become a jagged stroke representation of the melody. More traditionally Trinkle Tinkle begins and ends stating and recapping the head, with an initial high-pitched race up the scale sliding from presto to moderato and repeating melody variants as it descends. Fractured enough to be distinctive, this idiosyncratic program doesn’t subvert Monk’s purposeful body of works. 

02 HomageAkin to this strategy of reconstitution and homage occurs on Montrealer-turned-Manhattanite Rick Rosato’s solo bass recreation of a set of distinctive country blues songs plus a couple of jazz classics on his aptly named Homage CD (rickrosato/bandcamp.com/album/homage). Applying full intensity to this less-than-23 minute disc, he uses different tunings and mutes to attain the yearning resonation of the original tunes. Throughout his full rounded tone and supple fingering makes up for any lack of accompaniment. Serendipitously he too interprets Crepuscule with Nellie. Remaining mostly in the instrument’s bass clef, he plucks his way though bluesy variations before exposing the theme at the two-thirds mark. Ironically Elvin’s Guitar Blues, composed by powerhouse drummer Elvin Jones, is more highly rhythmic and in context sounds as traditional as the venerable tunes surrounding it. These range from Mississippi John Hurt’s songster classic Boys, You’re Welcome played with a spry guitar-like lilt, to Muddy Waters’ I Can’t Be Satisfied, the epitome of hard blues and harbinger of R&B. On the latter Rosato emphasizes the beat with double and triple strokes and pumped-up theme variations before shaking his way to full theme statement. Overall, he signals his homage and adaptation best on Skip James’ Hard Time Killing Floor Blues. He hammers strings to bend notes and repeats choruses so that the original’s emotional pressure and his distinctive woody vibrations are given equal play. 

03 Christine CorreaMore of an undertaking, Indian-American vocalist Christine Correa’s Just You Stand and Listen with Me (Sunnyside Records SSC 1684 sunnysiderecords.com) interprets compositions from drummer Max Roach’s 1961 albums We Insist! and Percussion Bitter Sweet that chronicled his militant response to that era’s Civil Rights situation. As on the original discs, the singer’s dramatic personification of the mostly sardonic and defiant lyrics is doubled or commented upon by Sam Newsome’s soprano saxophone, with pianist Andrew Boudreau, bassist Kim Cass and drummer Michael Sarin adding the requisite accompaniment. Studied in guttural expressions, melismatic tone gyrations as well as bel canto euphony, Correa energizes some of the simpler lyrics. More to the point, she brings a proper mixture of sarcasm, fortitude and hopefulness to the songs, which range from the slavery evoking Driva’ Man – where her stabbing lyrics are punctuated by whip-like tambourine slaps – and the hypocrite-indicting Mendacity, to the more hopeful All Africa and Freedom Day. The latter concludes the album proclaiming a program of demand, defiance and realization. The former, like some of the other tracks, expresses its strength in spite of – or perhaps because of – wordless vocalizing. Matching her cadences to drum ruffs, the exposition is bolstered as Sarin adds percussion accents and Newsome treble slides and spits. This leads into Triptych: Prayer/Protest/Peace a protracted essay in blending voice ululations, yodels and murmurs with high-pitched saxophone loops and split tones sounding nearly identical to the voice, with both backed by a slithering bass line and drum clunks. Boudreau’s subtle comping or tinkling swing plus Cass’ thumping bass embellishments are clearly exhibited throughout as group instrumental prowess. Yet sadly the state of the world, and especially the US, make Correa’s recasting of some of the lyrics as relevant in 2023 as 1961. 

04 PSMDTaking a detour from established icons to his contemporary, Marc Ducret – Palm Sweat’s Plays the Music of Tim Berne (Screwgun/OOYH 001 outofyourheadrecords.com) has the French guitarist sonically enriching compositions by the American saxophonist whom he has worked with since the mid-1990s. Throughout Ducret, who plays a variety of guitars, basses and hand drums, is backed on and off by brass players Fabrice Martinez and Chrstiane Bopp, flutist Sylvaine Hélary and cellist Bruno Ducret. A variant of Dumitriu’s and Rosato’s solo showpieces, the guitarist used the tools and frequencies available in his home recording studio to multi-track his playing on various instruments then mixed the results, later adding other musicians’ contributions. Neither auto-tuning nor artificial intelligence, the multiple Ducrets heard produce an organic aggregate that snugly bonds spatial and spectral elements. This is obvious from Curls/Palm Sweat/Mirth of the Cool, the triptych first track that logically moves from electric guitar fuzz tones that migrate across the sound space to become dissonant when backed by secondary guitar riffs. Rooted bass guitar strums linked to frame drum ruffs provide a rhythm that underscores the performance, which reaches a high point as a pleasant finger-style melody is answered by high-pitched string frails. Broken up by sequences where guitar interludes suggest hesitant mandolin-like hard picking or primitivist folksy strums, this approach is used throughout the session. Development of Berne’s themes is linked to techniques as varied as sophisticated slurred fingering, intense string hammering, a pivot to hard rock-like screaming flanges and even jagged strokes on Rolled Oats that sound as if a Thelonious Monk motif has been transferred to the guitar. For added variety, these distinctive frails or chordal development are sometimes cushioned by vamps from the entire horn section to fill in dangling spaces. Bopp’s echoing trombone-plunger tones add portamento resonance to Shiteless which is otherwise given over to a string mash-up among chiming smacks, lyrical acoustic asides and buzzsaw electric riffs. The session’s real climax occurs on Static, as Martinez’s trumpet smears and open-horn flutters are a contradictory harbinger to a squeezed cello-guitar conclusion that almost sounds like an Eastern European dance and is further emphasized with wordless vocalizing and hand clapping.

05 Rite of SpringIt isn’t only classical jazz themes which are reinterpreted by creative musicians, so-called classical music is part of a retrofit as well. The Rite of Spring – Spectre d’un songe (Pyroclastic Records PR 26 pyroclasticrecords.com) came about after the family of Igor Stravinsky insisted that any piano performance of the famous 1913 ballet and orchestral concert work had to be played by two pianists. Swiss pianist Sylvie Courvoisier had already created a solo version of the composition. She then recruited American pianist Cory Smythe, who has experience similar to her own, playing improvised and notated music, to perform and record the two movements of Rite and her own Spectre d’un songe. The key to this disc is that the two pianists are so cognizant of the source that they’re not creating improvisations on, but improvisations along with, the Stravinsky score. The performance isn’t a miniaturization of the composition, but a particular diversification of it. During Le Sacre du Printemps, Pt.1: The Adoration of the Earth and Le Sacre du Printemps, Pt.2: The Sacrifice they use tropes encompassing bright keyboard bounces, high-pitched glissandi, crescendos of rolling notes and pedal- point pressure, but don’t neglect the underlying theme. Passing motifs between them or having one decorate a line as the other impels the theme, the enhanced rhythmic pressure or lyrical sequences always refer back to the original composition. Throughout, the familiar motif frequently appears and reappears and is expressed without extemporization at the end. Courvoisier’s Spectre d’un songe which takes up as much space as both Stravinsky tracks isn’t really ghostly or dream-like. Instead, its droning andante exposition is toughened through inner string reverberations and bass clef emphasis to double in tempo and loudness by mid-section. As the sequence sways while each keyboardist interjects key clips, clanks and cascades, it diverts into rumbles and pressure, but like the previous notated piece never loses the narrative thrust. A slow methodical examination of each note and pattern typifies the final section, which refers back to the introduction as it fades away.

In their own ways each of the musicians confirms that all sorts of music composed by many musicians of very different attitudes can be interpreted in an uncommon and individual fashion. And they go on to demonstrate that.

01 Eye MusicMontreux 1988
Eye Music
Independent (markduggan1.bandcamp.com/album/montreux-1988)

Toronto-based band Eye Music’s superb 2023 debut album is an actual throwback: it was recorded live in 1988 at the Montreux Jazz Festival, Switzerland. To my ears this 35-year-old novel take on folk-inflected jazz still sounds compellingly fresh today. 

Eye Music featured the late, great violinist Oliver Schroer, guitarist Don Ross, percussionist Mark Duggan and bassist David Woodhead, all gifted musicians at the brink of substantial careers. Their inspired music on Montreux 1988 is a snapshot of a made-in-Southern Ontario musical moment.

Booked on the strength of their Portastudio cassette demo, they were reportedly the only Canadian act to play Montreux that year. Impressive enough to land a spot sight-unseen at a major European festival, why haven’t we heard of Eye Music? Part of the answer is that the group was active only between 1987 and 1989.

We finally get a chance to hear what the excitement was about on this album, their Montreux concert artfully distilled into seven tracks digitalized from aging original analogue tapes. 

Five titles were composed by Ross – his use of alternate guitar tunings and unique “fingerstyle” was an essential part of the group’s sound – plus one each by Duggan and Schroer. Each tune has its own character and charm, the album filled with spiky rhythms, lush harmonies and a lighthearted feel, further enlivened by imaginative virtuoso solos. The cherry on top is the sensitive ensemble musicianship of all four members.

More good news: Eye Music is reforming with a new violinist and planning live performances for the 2023 summer festival season.

Listen to 'Montreux 1988' Now in the Listening Room

02 Kirk LightseyKirk Lightsey – Mark Whitfield; Santi Debriano; Victor Lewis
Live at Smalls Jazz Club
Cellar Music CLSMF003 (cellarlive.com)

Legendary pianist, Detroit-native Kirk Lightsey, has been gracing the ears of listeners around the world for nearly 70 years. The same energy that the stellar musician started out with has carried on within this latest release, a special live recording at New York City’s Smalls Jazz Club that highlights the fantastic work of this jazz great. As a little aside, the Smalls LIVE Mastering Series is a great set of recordings, showcasing the best of jazz musicians that are still with us. Joining Lightsey is a stellar backing band featuring renowned musicians such as Mark Whitfield on guitar, Santi Debriano on bass and Victor Lewis on drums. The album is chock-full of great renditions of classic tunes, such as In Your Own Sweet Way by Dave Brubeck and Lament by J.J. Johnson. Scintillating talent is present on this record; it’s an all-encompassing musical journey that draws the listener right in.  

The musicianship and thought put into detail throughout these pieces and renditions is just marvellous. A perfect example of this is Freedom Jazz Dance, featuring rhythmically tight piano riffs, a moving bass line that underpins soaring solos and keeps the energy constantly brewing and an intricate guitar melody that just pulls you in and captivates you with those tiny nuances. In these tunes, magical feeling develops where the music completely envelops you and everything else disappears. For new and seasoned jazz lovers alike, this is one record to check out.

03 Rachel TherrienMi Hogar
Rachel Therrien Latin Jazz Project
Outside In Music OiM2307 (outsideinmusic.com)

Wanting a mini-vacation from these dark and dreary winter days, imagining sunny beaches and a sparkling blue sea? Montreal native, star flugelhornist, trumpeter and bandleader Rachel Therrien’s newest album is for you. Sultry rhythms and mellow melodies instantly transport the listener to a far-away world where the sun shines and the balmy breeze blows. Therrien has gathered top musicians who have been involved with the Latin jazz world over the years, including Michel Medrano Brindis on drums, Miguel de Armas on piano, Roberto Riveron on bass… the list goes on. The record features fresh takes on classic tunes by greats such as Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane and Francisco Tarrega with a few of Therrien’s own compositions thrown into the mix. 

The impressive bandleader has always been inspired by the world of Latin jazz, which led to the eventual recording and release of this album. Therrien describes her travels to Cuba: “The experience changed my life and is probably the reason why I am still a musician today. I always felt good playing Latin-influenced music, it is where I feel I can express myself the most musically.” A couple of pieces that stand out are Moment’s Notice, a rhythmically charged, spicy little ditty that instantly raises the spirits of the listener and Mojo, featuring a fiery piano solo and funky bass line underpinning a soaring horn solo that gets you moving and grooving. A truly worthy addition to any jazz connoisseur’s collection. 

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