08 Krik KnuffkeWitness
Kirk Knuffke; Steven Herring
Steeplechase SCCD 31859 (steeplechase.dk)

Shredding conventions, jazz cornetist Kirk Knuffke teams up with classically trained baritone Steven Herring for off-the-wall performances that range from operatic classics and spirituals, to poetry set to music, and standards. Raising the idiosyncratic interpretation stakes still higher, other accompaniment is from the patterning of Russ Lossing’s piano and the gruff oom pah pah of Ben Goldberg’s contra alto clarinet. Remarkably most of the transitions work.

Unsurprisingly Herring aces the declarative nuances of Iago’s Credo and Questo Amor with studied formalism. But his creativity isn’t solipsistic. Goldberg’s stentorian puffs and Knuffke’s capillary peeps match operatic chortles on the former. Meanwhile the amorous exposition on the latter owes as much to plunger brass notes and seductive piano chords as to ebullient vocalizing. Witness, A City Called Heaven and other traditional religious songs fare as well. However, mellow horn parts and broad melodic sweeps from the pianist on Witness, as well as carefully modulated vamps from all the instrumentalists, produce subtle swing on both tunes, leaving the emotion to Herring. The baritone’s parlando serves him appropriately when Knuffke’s musical setting of Carl Sandburg’s Subway is transformed into song. But the recitation is mated with the cornetist’s passionate grace notes to reach its goal. In fact, the only miscue is Sun Ra’s The Satellites are Spinning. While clarinet snarls and cornet blats enliven it, the vocalist’s theatrical declarations miss its sardonic and humorous aspects. Witness works wonderfully as long as the musical alterations remain down to earth.

As difficult as the idea of creating sophisticated improvisational music may sometimes seem, even more fraught with challenges is finding the inspiration behind any improvisation. Creation may be singular or involve ensembles of varying size, while the influence or incentive for the work may result from examining a work of art, an historical action, a physical or spatial location or even a realized sonic concept. Each of these notable discs defines inspirations in a unique fashion.

01 Blood HwangTake American violinist Jason Kao Hwang’s Blood (True Sound Recordings TS1 jasonkaohwang.com). His eight-member Burning Bridge ensemble mixes Eastern (pipa and erhu) and Western (three brass, double bass and drums) instruments on five of Hwang’s polychromatic compositions which make their points by twisting varied musical strands, but without trading efficiency for exoticism. Although reflecting on trauma inflicted on his mother in China and his associates in the Vietnam War, Blood isn’t agitprop. Instead, melancholy and aggression are portrayed through sounds. For instance, on the title track, stop-time counterpoint from Steve Swell’s trombone projecting from a bellicose march driven by Andrew Drury’s drums cedes space to delicate textures from Wang Guowei’s erhu and Sun Li’s pipa. Although the concluding Declarations references and resolves the CD with a peaceful overlay consisting of chromatic pipa strums plus pedal-point modulations from Swell and tubist Joseph Daley, theatrical woe is balanced by sophisticated virtuosity. Giving the Asian instruments parts that unselfconsciously swing, some of Hwang’s other tunes skip and soar with lively inferences. The two-part Surge for example, finds string parts swirling around Taylor Ho Bynum’s graceful, kinetic cornet, and if Hwang’s violin solo impresses with calculated flying spiccato then so do Li’s crunching strums with a blues sensibility closer to the Mississippi river than the Yangtze. Surge Part 2 is more memorable, since not only does Daley confirm his breath control as he matter-of-factly slides from basso-like to sopranino-like tones, but the composition’s uniqueness is confirmed when Hwang’s bluesy sweeps and Swell’s plunger yelps erupt from within a sequence that emphasizes string stretches from the traditional Chinese instruments.

02 GGRILConcerned with the realization of musical concepts, rather than reflecting tangible actions or emotions, is Façons (Microcidi 014 tourdebras.com), a two-CD set where the 20-odd members of Rimouski, Quebec-based GGRIL interpret free music tropes created specifically for the ensemble. Describing exactly his aim, Organon, by Montreal’s Isaiah Ceccarelli, aims to transform the orchestra into a gigantic pipe organ, and the inflated crescendo which introduces the piece does just that with a collection of tremolo polyrhythms and polytones making distinctive sonic colours judder every which way. As the organ-like chording intensifies however, helped by wave form pressure from GGRIL’s low-energy synthesizers, individual contributions such as Alexandre Robichaud’s trumpet slurps, undulating split tones from all four reedists, plus bell clangs and glockenspiel smacks from percussionist Antoine Létourneau-Berger, bring singular personalities forward. By the climactic finale, brass and reed parts retain the concentrated theme, while fissures in the form of idiosyncratic runs from the three electric guitarists, percussion and two violinists create a contrapuntal challenge. On disc two, rather than concentrated textures, London-based soprano saxophonist John Butcher, who joins the group as it plays his six-part Local Fixations, emphasizes tonal contrasts. As metallic guitar frails from Olivier D’Amours and Robert Bastien sharpen the exposition, string section modulations join with Robin Servant’s accordion vibrations to create divergent drones. By midpoint, the development divides between solo snatches of high-pitched flute echoes, reed bites and fiddle sweeps plus stop-time from the entire ensemble. An interval of triple-tongued saxophone, bowed bass and guitar plucks creates wider intervals on the penultimate Collective Memories II until cogwheel ratchets signal a hushed interval. A concluding sequence, Floating Amphora emphasizes sul ponticello string bowing, mechanized thumps, cawing brass and reed cries as well as tough rebounds from Éric Normand’s electric bass; a final orchestral tutti sways into conclusive snorts from Gabriel Rochette-Bériau’s trombone and Mathieu Gosselin’s baritone saxophone that blur the disparate timbres into a distinctive finale.

03 Ulrich MitzlaffShrinking the personnel down to one and the inspiration to description, is Lisbon-based cellist Ulrich Mitzlaff’s Sonic Miniatures about Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” (Creative Sources CS 531 CD creativesources.com), During ten brief tracks, Mitzlaff’s cello figuratively examines the famous Norwegian painting from every perspective, using extended techniques to make each diminutive track distinctive. The most significant is Miniature #5, a multi-hued sketch in itself. Beginning with the sound of the bow clattering on the ground, it evolves to resonating pizzicato plucks advanced one at a time in ascending pitches, until aggregate stops vibrate all strings with below-the-bridge drags, and then suddenly fade to one concluding twang. Shaded differently, Miniature #9 is almost as dramatic, with speedy spiccato shuffles shading the melody as it moves at a frenetic pace, only to end with lulling timbres. Also displaying col legno pops, chamber music-like formalism, sul ponticello echoes, distinctive low pitches and strongly focused stops, the cellist doesn’t echo the message of Munch’s painting as much as create a distinctive art work of his own.

04a Ochs CleaverOriginal methods of using spatial considerations inspire two other sessions. Songs of the Wild Cave (RogueArt ROG 0084 roguart.com) was recorded in the dark and silence of a Paleolithic cave in southwestern France by Americans, saxophonist Larry Ochs and drummer Gerald Cleaver. The other CD was recorded in the Chihuahuan Desert in West Texas by American alto saxophonist Joe McPhee and tenor saxophonist John Butcher, far removed from GGRIL. Named for the massive brick sculptures constructed in the desert by a reclusive American sculptor, the improvisations on At the Hill of James Magee (Trost TR174 CD trost.at) were created as much in the desert air as inside the shale-rock structures.

On Songs of the Wild Cave though, shadowy haze masking prehistoric cave paintings and stone walls dripping moisture become part of the program as Ochs and Cleaver first tentatively and then sonorously pierce the oppressive quiet with contemporary noises. Fully acclimatized, midway through the program with a track literally titled Deeper, Ochs’ combination of glossolalia, horn shakes, reed bites and dyspeptic tones breech the opaque air to such an extent that reed cries could bring out ghosts of more than Albert Ayler. Meanwhile the drummer complements these saxophone spurts with cymbal smacks, wood pops and rebounding patterns. Adapting to the cave’s spatial qualities, by Ringing It In, the saxophonist’s harsh narrow vibrations and squealing split tones seem to be figuratively digging through the murk and the clay-encrusted walls beyond. Dispersing the cavern’s chill, the drummer performs a similar feat, warming the air with subtle tambourine and maracas-like shakes and bass-drum smacks. As the improvisations thicken on the penultimate Rooted in Clay, a quasi-melody, never previously heard in these primeval surroundings is constructed out of repeated breaths, slurs and vocalized cries, and moulded linearly with bell ringing and rattling strokes. When wide honks and inflated multiphonics bounce off the earth and rocks during the final extended Light from the Shadows, it appears as if the title’s promise is fulfilled; Cleaver’s subsequent near-bebop rhythm, decorated with intermittent saxophone peeps, confirms the sound illumination. 

04b McPhee ButcherInventively displaying meditations on a comparable structural challenge on At the Hill of James Magee, at least McPhee and Butcher had the advantage of defining their art above ground. At the same time, the opportunity to produce sounds within and outside 40-foot high edifices, made of shale with iron doors and encompassing shattered glass, rust, flowers and textile shards, is as daring as it is unique. Turning acoustics to advantage, natural amplification makes saxophone strategy stand out even more. On Mine Shaft for instance, the width of a pit is marked with circular breathing, that while touching the saxophone’s highest reaches, also relaxes into a melodic theme. Oddly, the echoes on Butcher’s Paradise Overcast, more than the previous improvisation, reflect a near-bottomless pit, as his darkened slurs and key percussion are coordinated into a rhythmic smear. Otherwise using vamps and asides to emphasize tonal differences between their horns, the duo’s most profound application of this spatial inspiration is the almost 21-minute introductory Sometimes Yes, Sometimes No. Apparently convening from opposite angles of the structures, ghostly reed tones connect in concentric circles of growls and buzzes that inflate as they deepen. The alto saxophonist’s moderated tone and the tenor saxophonist’s harsh overblowing fragment in a climatic intermezzo after which watery but lyrical timbres predominate. Individual textural variations appear before a protracted pause with a finale that balances McPhee’s narrowed tweets with dampened snarls from Butcher.

Whether rooted in cerebral hypothesis or a physical object, fascinating improvisations can have many sources. These CDs show some of the ways this happens.

01 Cynthia TauroMoments
Cynthia Tauro
Independent (cynthiatauro.com)

There can be no doubt that emerging jazz pianist and vocalist Cynthia Tauro is a stunning, talented breath of fresh air. Her debut CD is a clever juxtaposition of interesting standards, and Tauro’s original, irresistible compositions. With a musical pedigree that goes back generations, Tauro has a wealth of musical technique, as well as a recognizable and appealing vocal sound – alternatingly soft as velvet and sharp as a razor. On her debut recording, Tauro has put together a talented ensemble, led by eclectic, brilliant and intuitive producer/composer George Koller on bass and A-list jazz players Ted Quinlan on guitar, Davide DiRenzo on drums, Perry White on tenor saxophone and Colleen Allen on soprano sax, clarinet and flute.

The CD kicks off with Tauro’s original tune, Dancin’ On My Own. Interesting chord changes, superb musicianship and a no-nonsense lyric make this track a standout (including Perry White’s Hank Mobley-esque solo). Another excellent choice by Tauro is her version of 1937’s Someday My Prince Will Come. Tauro’s pitch-pure soprano sails over the lyric, imbuing it with a contemporary emotional edge, while her piano work is both substantial and swinging.

Without question, Cara Valente is sung with skill and precision in luscious Portuguese. Tauro’s deep, innate rhythmic feel, as well as her vocal timbre and fluidity are nothing short of breathtaking – bringing to mind the late Elis Regina. The CD’s bilingual closer, One Note Samba, is a triumph. Despite her jazz ingénue status, Tauro is already a fully realized pianist, songwriter and vocalist, and it will be fascinating to see what’s next for this talented artist!

02 Fuat TuacLate Bloomer
Fuat Tuaç
Independent (fuattuac.com)

With the release of his debut CD, Turkish/Canadian vocalist, Fuat Tuaç has presented an intriguing, multicultural jazz recording, comprised of freshly arranged, under-trodden standards and Tuaç’s original title track. He is joined here by a superb group of musicians, including Paul Shrofel on piano, Dave Watts on bass, Richard Irwin on drums and Dave Turner on saxophone. Tuaç is equally comfortable singing in English, French, Turkish, Portuguese and Italian – easily capturing the lyrical essences of each language.

Manha de Carnaval (A Day in the Life of a Fool) is a standout. The rich, rhythmic arrangement is enhanced by Turner’s warm, mellifluous alto lines, which soon metamorphose into a gymnastic and powerful solo; Tuaç’s acoustic, unvarnished, exotic sound is beautifully complemented in this Luis Bonfa classic. Another highlight is Ellington’s Caravan. Profound, throbbing bass lines from Watts and Eastern rhythmic patterns succinctly executed by Irwin define this interpretation, as Tuaç seamlessly segues between straight ahead bop and heady pentatonic vocal motifs. The scent of exotic spices and the sight of auburn-tinged Bedouin tents are almost palpable here.

Two additional highlights include a vigorous and contemporary rendition of Chick Corea’s Spain, in which Shrofel’s luminous musicianship and Irwin’s inventive, Iberian and rock-steady propulsion are featured; and also the cinematic Rendez-vous vers huit heures (Drault), which is an elegantly performed possible movie theme in search of a black and white French film – Tuaç is reminiscent of the late Charles Aznavour here... musical, mysterious, evocative and très sensual!

Listen to 'Late Bloomer' Now in the Listening Room

03 Dave YoungLotus Blossom
Dave Young
Modica Music (daveyoung.ca)

Lotus Blossom is a fine disc that was recorded immediately after One Way Up, the acclaimed previous album by Dave Young and his band. I enjoy hearing these top Canadian jazz artists in fine form, interacting and supporting each other with spontaneity and precision. At the centre is distinguished acoustic bassist Dave Young, whose playing I would not label a harmonic and rhythmic foundation because from high-up thumb position to the lowest bass tones his style is so melodic. In Dexter Gordon’s Fried Bananas, his solo is richly lyrical, followed by the fluent playing of guitarist Reg Schwager. Terry Clarke accompanies with a wet cymbal wash preceding his own dry turn on the theme. On the jazz waltz title track, Young’s plaintive bass and Clarke’s cross-rhythms are affecting for me while pianist Renee Rosnes displays a mastery of touch and tone, creating a pensive, languorous mood in dragging the tune’s return. The tasty interplay between Schwager and her on Modinha, along with Clarke’s playful drumming and Young’s convincing solo, make this track a highlight.

By contrast to Rosnes, pianist Bernie Senensky’s energetic style on Bolivia and I Thought About You is chord-rich, with blazing riffs and hard swinging in the latter that evoke Oscar Peterson (who Dave Young played with regularly). Finally, trumpeter Kevin Turcotte and tenor saxophonist Perry White join in with able two-part counterpoint on Softly as in a Morning Sunrise. Highly recommended.

04 jean deromeSudoku pour Pygmées
Jean Derome
Ambiances Magnetiques AM 242 CD (actuellecd.com)

Composer, saxophonist and flutist Jean Derome has been a central voice in Quebec’s musique actuelle movement for decades, along the way creating works that fuse improvisation with larger structural forms. Here he leads his quartet Les Dangereux Zhoms and nine other musicians in a cross-country retrospective of works commissioned by Canada’s landmark mixed-method contemporary ensembles.

The title track, originally performed by Halifax’s Upstream in 2010, uses the idea of the Sudoku puzzle to create polyphonic canons of pentatonic scales in a way that suggests Pygmy vocal music. It’s a scintillating work, leavening its complexity with sonic transparency and some brilliant reed soloists, most notably Derome on baritone saxophone and André Leroux on tenor. 7 danses (pour <<15>>), originally performed by Toronto’s Hemispheres in 1989, demonstrates Derome’s longstanding interest in creating hybrid works, juxtaposing popular and serious genres that mingle Bernard Falaise’s rock-inspired electric guitar with abstract harmonies.

The concluding 5 pensées (pour le caoutchouc dur), composed for Vancouver’s Hard Rubber Orchestra in 2001, encompasses a range of moods and inspirations and highlights some of the group’s strongest voices. The playful second pensée, suggests Thelonious Monk’s work, with Lori Freedman’s bass clarinet approaching comic speech, while the third invokes Duke Ellington’s sacred music, with a pensive, reflective lead provided by trombonist Scott Thomson. The concluding Pensée matches a rapid hoedown with anarchic collective improvisation, literally an ultimate stylistic collision, and the ideal conclusion for this boundary-blurring set of works.

05 JV BoogalooGoing to Market
JV’s Boogaloo Squad
Flatcar FCR-009 (jvsboogaloo.com)

In 2015, Toronto-based keyboardist Joel Visentin got together with fresh, younger talents, guitarist Adam Beer-Colacino and drummer Jeff Halischuk, to form JV’S Boogaloo Squad. Their long-awaited debut album has finally reached eager audiences and is a soulful, funky kick in the pants that will get anyone bopping and tapping their foot on the dreariest and coldest of winter days. Visentin’s riffs and solos on the unique and instantly distinguishable Hammond B3 organ are the powerhouse and driving force behind the music. All pieces except for one are original works by Visentin.

Slacktivison starts off the record with a great groove and catchy beat provided by Beer-Colacino and Halischuck respectively. As we move through pieces such as Fashionably Lazy, Forty Filth and Different Times, it is apparent that the fluidity and cohesion between musicians is fantastic and that the talent concentrated within this group is immense. The collective has been mentioned as having a “vintage yet modern sound” and that is clearly showcased by the timeless sound of the B3 throughout the pieces. Yet, modernity comes into play when paired with the sultry riffs of Beer-Colacino and Halischuck’s contemporary beats. A personal favourite is Squadzilla, which has a true funkiness and energetic quality to it with a smooth hint of tenor saxophone contributed by Kelly Jefferson.

In a music scene where pure funk and soul have been slightly pushed aside, this record is a true breath of fresh air.

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