Freed from the tyranny of section accompaniment, solo string concertos have long been a feature of notated music. A similar liberation for violins and violas happened years ago in improvised music. However it’s only during the past few years that use of these four-string instruments have been treated as more than a novelty. Sessions such as these, which feature a violin or viola as part of different ensembles, show how the prototypical instrument of so-called classical music is forging an equally impressive role creating freer sounds.

01 SettProbably the answer to the question, “when is a string quartet not a string quartet?” is illustrated on SETT’s First and Second (New Wave of Jazz nwoj033 during two extended improvisations. Consisting of one linchpin of the traditional string ensemble, the viola, played by the UK’s Benedict Taylor, the disc stretches the chamber music staple’s role by including a double bass, played by Briton John Edwards, and breaks the mould by adding the two acoustic guitars of England’s Daniel Thompson and Belgium’s Dirk Serries. Mercurial and harsh without being coarse, and fluid without depending on an expected groove, both polyphonic tracks contain numerous sequences of both calm and agitation. As viola and bass move through spiccato sweeps and ratcheting pressure, it’s often dual guitar strums which steady the pace and shepherd squeaks, slaps and shakes from all the players into crescendos of jagged glissandi and, later on, speedy intersection. Second SETT is more assured than the First as the collective guitar licks, plus swelling plucks from the bass, set up a clanking backdrop upon which Taylor’s stridently pitched strokes ascend to spectacular flanges. By midpoint, buzzing arco pushes and taut guitar finger picking define a communicative theme. With Edwards’ plucks creating an ambulating ostinato, the narrative stays constant to the end, while allowing for a series of stressed variations from the violist and some below-the-bridge plinks from the guitarists that almost strip strings of their coating. As spiccato sweeps rub against muted glissandi, SETT defines a form that is both exploratory and connected.

02 lighttiedBerlin-based pianist/synthesizer player Elias Stemeseder and drummer Max Andrzejewski create a more standard ensemble to show off their original compositions on light/tied (WhyPlayJazz WP J 054 During the program nine pieces are interpreted by the two leaders’ sometimes intensely percussive playing; clarion or deeper-pitched  smears from Joris Rühl’s clarinets; creamy Paul Desmond-like lines from alto saxophonist Christian Weidner; moistly decorative, but at times bordering on dissonant, shimmers by violinist Biliana Voutchkova and cellist Lucy Railton; plus additional programmed electronic whizzes. Furthermore, Stemeseder and Andrzejewski provide the rhythmic undercurrent; and churning wave form electronics undermine the string players’ more formalist impulses. The result is discordant at points, but without being off-putting. Paced by brief interludes of expansive string plucks and bass clarinet lowing, the compositions are gentle and melodic, as well as atmospheric. The best instances of how the admixture works are illustrated on Stemeseder’s Tied Light 1 and Andrzejewski’s Héritage. The first works its way from a tinkling piano and trilling clarinet duet to turn harsher, as thinner clarinet runs meet percussive slaps from the piano and drum beats contrast with alto saxophone calm. Until the end, the timbres vibrate between irregular and expressive without losing the thematic thread or slackening the pace. Sunnier, Héritage finds proper string swells intersecting with crackling electronics. as Rühl’s moderated clarinet defines the slightly off-centre exposition while string plucks vibrate sympathetically. Finally, a dramatic finale is constructed out of swift piano chording, sprightly vibrations from both reeds and stabbing string motions.

03 Perrick HardyAdapting the textures of a violin – or viola – so that it plays with equal prominence as other instruments in a small group is the preoccupation of other improvisers. Instances of this are expressed by Swiss violinist Laura Schuler’s quartet; French guitarist Pierrick Hardy’s quartet, featuring violinist Regis Huby; and the trio of American Jason Kao Hwang, who plays both viola and violin. Proclaimed an Acoustic Quartet perhaps because no electric instruments or drums are present, Hardy’s L’Ogre Intact (Émouvance emv 1041 includes bassist Claude Tchamitchian and clarinettist/basset horn player Catherine Delaunay. A hint of the fusion that informs Hardy’s compositions comes from clarinettist Delaunay’s other instrument. Throughout the disc the quartet aims for relaxed, pastoral interpretations that flow rather than upset. Yet between double bass thumps and acoustic guitar strums, a rhythmic groove is maintained. Flottements is the most realized instance of this traditional/innovative approach. Blending the basset horn’s muted tone with violin mid-pitches and a buzzing double bass continuum, an antique-styled introduction is attained, but it’s soon replaced with a contrapuntal melody from the fiddle that’s lively and dance-like. As the theme swells with spiccato squeaks from Huby, coupled with thin frails from Hardy, Tchamitchian confirms its contemporary relevance with a repeated rhythmic motif. Playing clarinet on the other tracks, Delaunay adds to the warm elaboration of the mostly largo narratives. Concerned with synthesis not confrontation, supple solos are worked into the warm-blooded adaptations. With his violin output usually caressing romantic themes, only rarely, as on Avant dire/Tamasaburö, does Huby demonstrate his command of multi-string coordination and swift triple stopping. Hardy’s skills are more prominent, with an approximation of folk-blues picking on La Violence du terrain; he moves past positioned strums to propel relaxed swing on the final La Fresque with tougher mettle via spectacularly chunky, rhythm guitar licks.

04 MetamorphosisIf Huby’s violin and the Acoustic Quartet include echoes of the 18th century, then Schuler’s quartet music is strictly 21st. The other members of the group are German tenor saxophonist Philipp Gropper, and fellow Swiss, drummer Lionel Friedli and Hanspeter Pfammatter playing synthesizers. Besides Schuller’s ability to move swiftly from formalist to semi-hoedown to pure improv and on to near fusion in her playing, the contemporary resonance on Metamorphosis (Veto-Records 020 centres on Pfammatter’s instrument, whose sonic permutations allow it to replicate the sounds of an acoustic piano, an organ, an electric guitar and even an accordion. Especially on more groove-oriented tracks such as Dancing in the Stratosphere, Friedli projects a popping backbeat which glues together various sound shards from the others; although elsewhere, his nerve beats and patterning help confirm other tunes’ jittery but relaxed melodies. Capable of romantic interludes or strident squeaks if needed, Gropper’s usual role is to serve as a foil for Schuller’s string elaborations. With ghostly synthesizer washes behind, they meld ribald squeaks on his part and banjo-like pizzicato clanks from her on the title tune; or with Pfammatter’s church organ-like chording on Broken Lines, harmonize barbed reed tremolos and rugged string strokes. Z, the CD’s wrap-up, projects variations of these tone permutations, with the outpouring compassing instances of sound unity and severance from all four. As drum ruffs and synthesizer pushes make the narrative more intense and heavier, positioned col legno stabs from the violinist lead to a measured and ambulatory last section and finale.

05 HumanRitesConfirming his allegiance to intense improvising Hwang uses his violin and viola as doubling lead voices in the role soprano and tenor saxophones or trumpet and flugelhorn would take elsewhere. Luckily he and his associates on Human Rites Trio (True Sound Recordings TS03, bassist Ken Filiano and drummer Andrew Drury, are perfectly matched, having worked in this configuration for years. Taking a far different approach to the viola than SETT’s Benedict Taylor, Hwang plays it almost exclusively pizzicato, treating it like a four-string mandolin. Most spectacularly, on the foot-tapping Conscious Concave Concrete he manipulates the instrument so at various junctures it takes on sitar and guitar-like affiliations as well as mandolin twangs. Without disrupting his low tones, Filiano also achieves guitar-like facility with fluid solos. Incorporating Drury’s cymbal clashes and steel drum-like suggestions, the trio achieves a singular sound which touches on the blues, as well as international inflections. Playing violin, as on Battle for the Indelible Truth, Hwang’s stretches and multiple stops are as pressurized and extended as the other two’s intense rhythm. Moving into an andante swing section, he backs Filiano’s Slam Stewart-like simultaneous bowing and vocal humming with high pitched trills; but later he creates a pseudo-violin concerto adding a romantic tinge to the tune’s dynamic unrolling. Still, the most dramatic display of the trio’s in-the-moment affiliation is heard on the two-part Words Asleep Spoken Awake. Setting the scene on Part 1, the three create an ambulatory introduction that is rounded and mellifluous until propelled to double in speed by drum rim shots and spiccato violin strokes. This leads to a repetitive multi-string motif that defines Part 2. As the violinist triple stops his strings at prestissimo tempo, Drury’s martial beats and striking pumps from Filiano prevent the narrative from breaking apart while maintaining intensity. Climactically altering his lines by loosening and tightening strings while strumming complementary tones, Hwang supplely and spectacularly demonstrates his skill with a final section where string splays bring up reed or brass intimations as the musical thoughts expressed at the CD’s beginning track are completed.

It’s clear that the variety of ways violins and violas can be integrated into improvised music are as individual as the person playing therm. These discs confirm this truism.

01 Dave YoungIdes of March
Dave Young Quartet
Modica Music ( 

Toronto bassist Dave Young has a rich history as a partner to pianists, most notably Oscar Peterson, Kenny Barron and Oliver Jones. He also has a distinguished career as a bandleader, putting together groups devoted to specific modern jazz repertoire, including the compositions of Horace Silver and Charles Mingus. Ides of March continues that neo-classical approach, with half the repertoire composed by Herbie Hancock. There’s also a certain special resonance in the instrumental makeup. The quartet includes trumpeter Kevin Turcotte, guitarist Reg Schwager and drummer Terry Clarke, each a first-call musician with a refined execution. The band’s conception resembles trumpeter Art Farmer’s 1960s quartet with guitarist Jim Hall, an island of artful elegance in a clamorous decade. 

Turcotte’s role as the offscreen trumpet voice in Born to Be Blue, the dramatized biography of Chet Baker, testifies to his warmth and economy, while Schwager possesses liquid lyricism and harmonic depth. Together they emphasize the melodic grace of Hancock’s Speak like a Child or Gershwin’s My Man’s Gone Now (a favourite of Miles Davis and Bill Evans, here distinguished by a limpidly melancholic introduction by Young and Schwager), but they also find nuance in more aggressive material, like Lee Morgan’s Speedball or Hancock’s One Finger Snap, both consistently motivated by Clarke’s crisp articulation and subtle inflections.

It’s a thoughtful, often reflective program, further enhanced by a developed account of Niels Lan Doky’s angular, slightly dissonant The Target and Young’s own, slightly pensive, title track.

02 New HermitageUnearth
New Hermitage
Independent (

New Hermitage is a quartet from Halifax specializing in free improvisation and ambient music. It is comprised of Andrew MacKelvie (alto/tenor saxophone, bass clarinet), India Gailey (cello), Ellen Gibling (harp) and Ross Burns (guitar and effects). They have been playing together since 2017 and this is their fifth album. 

The premise behind Unearth is a dystopian world where “pollution has decimated the population of the Earth” and the “surviving humans ... live in nomadic clans.” The titles (Boiling Off, Collecting Vapours, Light Through the Rubble, Pine Bottle Skylight, Stalkers) evoke a quiet world of limited resources, and a civilization struggling to hold on. All the pieces are inventive and the sounds could be described as “environmental” where strings are as likely to be plucked and scraped as bowed. Lyricism is often eschewed for a sombre layering of sounds. In Signal Scan, MacKelvie’s saxophone is ephemeral and whimsical, sounding like someone searching through static for words or other signs of civilization. Stalkers has a science fiction air with forbidding noises and some kind of fog horn echoing through a tunnel. 

In Unearth, New Hermitage have created a sparse and inventive world with scarce resources and a compelling story.

03 Ontario 559Ontario 559 West
Harrison Argatoff; Ian McGimpsey
Independent n/a (

Nick Drake was a British singer/songwriter who released three albums and died in 1974. Since that time he’s attracted a larger-than-cult following who have enjoyed his soft and melodic singing, subtle guitar playing and enigmatic lyrics. His third album, Pink Moon, was his most sparse with just guitar and vocals. 

In March of 2020, Ian McGimpsey (guitar) and Harrison Argatoff (tenor saxophone) travelled on Ontario 559 West to Carling Township where they spent three days recording this album which is their tribute to, and interpretation of, Pink Moon. They have certainly captured the mood of Drake’s final album with the intricate guitar parts and luscious and melodic saxophone lines. Ontario 559 West is a genuine homage to the earlier album but maintains its own identity: I listened to Pink Moon before Ontario 559 West and could not identify any specific song or melody that is covered in the later album. The interplay between McGimpsey and Argatoff contains elements of jazz, folk and some freer improvisation. At points Argatoff’s playing and tone are reminiscent of Stan Getz (particularly in the final song Swings) and McGimpsey’s guitar is clean and nuanced. 

Ontario 559 West is an alluring concept which is executed by two sympathetic musicians.

04 Francois HouleRecoder
François Houle 4
Songlines Records SGL1632-2 ( 

Canadian clarinetist/composer/improviser and all-round inspiring musician François Houle works here again with Canadian Gordon Grdina (guitar), and in first-time collaborations with Americans Mark Helias (double bass/clarinet) and Gerry Hemingway (drums). The eight free-improvised Houle/Helias clarinet duets, and seven full-band Houle compositions, are memorable in their smart stylistic modern jazz/contemporary diversities and performance virtuosities.

Houle’s spontaneous single-take improvisations with Helias are short – some less than a minute – yet bursting with musical ideas. Each duet is placed between the longer Houle compositions, giving a welcome contrast. The opening Prelude features tonal, short, sweet and calming two-clarinet melodic interchanges by the two masters. At under one minute, it tweaks interest in what is to come. Interlude 1 features high-pitched contrapuntal lines, like the little birds singing outside my window, and is a great contrast to the fast, complex, dense full-band The Black Bird – the track just before it – with its slower guitar solo midsection and touches of superimposed jazz and avant-garde full-band sounds. The brilliant title track Recoder has all things musical, from pacesetting staccato guitar opening plucks, full-band, wall-of-sound effects, standard swinging grooves, amazing Houle rapid clarinet lines and clear production values.

Houle writes in his notes that he formulated “an approach that would be mindful of giving each instrument within the quartet complete involvement.” From calm to intense, his brave musical approach drives Recoder to timeless musical permanence.

Listen to 'Recoder' Now in the Listening Room

05 palladium 2020Palladium 2020
Independent (

In celebration of the legendary Wayne Shorter’s 87th birthday, inspired impresario and producer Jesse Markowitz has created a two-disc, 22-track recording project featuring 30-plus musicians performing compositions written and/or made famous by the iconic saxophonist/composer. Released on Shorter’s birthday, August 25, this project is also an uplifting response to a world thrown into the harsh reality of a global pandemic. The impressive roster of artists on Palladium 2020 has been handpicked/curated by Markowitz, and reflects Shorter’s eclectic and luminous creative life, as well as many of his seminal collaborations, including those with Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Wynton Kelly, Weather Report and Herbie Hancock.

There are myriad brilliant contributions to this project, however several tracks stand out, having been culled from some of Shorter’s most memorable recordings. Embracing the length and breadth of his stellar career, it includes the ultra-cool bop exploration The Summit, taken from Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers’ 1960 release Meet You at the Jazz Corner of the World, and features Nicole Glover’s burning tenor. Consummate pianist Eric Reed’s interpretation of Sydney (from Wynton Kelly’s 1959 Kelly Great) is not only masterful, but has captured the very essence of Shorter’s deeply sensitive soul. 

Of special profundity is legendary soprano player Dave Liebman’s journey around the galaxy, flying on Shorter’s Footprints, first released on Miles Davis’ 1966 Miles Smiles, and arranged in a fresh way – as an elemental duo with the great Willy Rodriguez on drums. Leibman is as dynamic and rife with ideas as usual. This entire project is a tribute not only to Shorter himself, but to the very elemental power of music – power to heal and transform – which is exactly what Shorter has done through his art for his entire career.

08 West meets EastWest Meets East
Adam Shulman Septet
Cellar Music CM110219 ( 

San Francisco-based star pianist, bandleader and composer Adam Shulman has let his passion for the golden era of jazz shine with this latest release featuring a stellar gathering of musicians who really bring a unique light to each piece. With key talents such as David Wong on upright bass, Rodney Green on drums and Joe Magnarelli on trumpet, the tracks take on a life of their own, as everyone’s contribution brings out a different facet and aspect within the sonorous melodies. The album does a great job of showcasing Shulman’s talent as both a pianist and composer. Seven out of eight pieces are penned by him and bring forth a tremendous horn section balanced out by driving bass lines and sultry melodies from the keys. 

The record starts off with a toe-tapping tune titled Nickel and Dimed and is a little wink at a “borrowed chord structure from Tin Pan Alley’s Pennies from Heaven.” It’s a traditional swing piece that has an addictive groove to it carried forward by Green’s constant shuffle, Wong’s moving bass pizzicato topped off by Magnarelli’s soaring and bright trumpet melody. Lean and Mean is a unique composition with the main tune following a stepped pattern that meanders along the scale and truly shines a spotlight on the gifted horn section in the septet. Traditional jazz flavour with a renewed breath and twist to it makes this album a new staple for any jazz enthusiast.

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