One of the more exhilarating jazz listening experiences is the sound of a well-rehearsed big band firing on all cylinders and this is what we get with the Toronto Jazz Orchestra album 20. The recording and production is impeccable, so we hear the full aural effect of the dynamics from a tight rhythm section with clear bass, drums and piano fills, to full brass and saxophone harmonies. The album title refers to the band’s 20-year history, and where previous releases included several live recordings and used different Canadian composers, 20 was recorded completely in the studio and features the compositions and arrangements of artistic director Josh Grossman. An album highlight is 4 PN, a tribute to jazz icon Phil Nimmons on his 90th birthday. This piece’s four movements encompass several moods, from straight ahead swing, to an introspective third movement (Birdsong) and a very funky final section (Flat 10 Strikes Again). The first movement, The Land of 2 and 4, contains an excellent bop trumpet solo by James Rhodes that has a touch of Jack Sheldon to it. Ben Ball’s drum solo navigates us to the second movement, Under a Treeful, which contains a wonderful and idiosyncratic clarinet solo from Paul Metcalfe that I believe Nimmons would appreciate. Overall, 20 is full of catchy melodies and arrangements that leverage the big band pallette of sounds; the ensemble and solo musicianship is excellent. We can hope there are at least another 20 years in this band’s future.
Jazz and Improvised
Avery Raquel is clearly an artist for whom superstardom is just a matter of time – shorter than one might think, judging by the results of her performance on My Heart Away. On this disc Raquel reveals herself as an artist of the first order, broadening out from the run-of-the-mill pop repertory which many of her generation are stuck in. Her instrument is gorgeous: lustrous, precise and luminously powerful. Her musicianship is fierce as she digs into the expression of each word of the lyrics she writes and sings.
Raquel is accompanied here by a constellation of Canadian superstars – producer and guitarist Greg Kavanagh, pianist Adrean Farrugia, bassist Ross MacIntyre, drummers Joel Haynes and Ben Riley – to name just a few of those who flesh out the music here. Together they create the defining moments on the powerful ballad Who I Am.
The music on the disc recalls the heyday of Motown and Stax recordings with benchmark performances of vocal music characterized as soul. However, none of this work would soar quite so high into the rarefied realm of music were it not for Raquel’s genuine gifts. The manner in which songs speak to her leads one to believe that the connection is powerful and personal. How she responds to these narratives is nothing short of miraculous and each song gains enormously from this relationship between songwriter, song and vocalist. All of this makes Raquel a musical rarity.
Here and Now, a new album from Edmonton-based drummer/bandleader Sandro Dominelli, is something of an international affair. Recorded in New Jersey, it employs the talents of electric bassist Chris Tarry, a Canadian expat now based in the Garden State, and guitarist Rez Abbasi, a Manhattanite by way of California and Pakistan. Such time-zone-crossing projects, even when well executed, can sometimes suffer from a lack of intimacy, but thankfully, this is not an issue for Here and Now. Released this summer on Alberta’s Chronograph Records, Dominelli’s new album is a follow-up to The Alvo Sessions, which also features Tarry and Abbasi, released independently in 2010.
Here and Now begins with the title track, a medium-tempo, straight-eighths song that showcases the group’s well-developed chemistry, with compelling solo moments from Abbasi and Dominelli. The swinging D.H., written in tribute to bassist Dave Holland, balances rhythmic melodies with moments of eerie harmony. This vibe is ramped up on Through the Trees, a 16-bar blues that sees Abbasi making full use of his textural capabilities. Alternative Facts is a funky, backbeat-driven odd-metre song, with a powerful, overdriven solo from Abbasi. Exodus (the theme from the film of the same name, composed by Ernest Gold), the album’s last track, gives Dominelli a chance to show off his brushwork.
Here and Now is worth a listen because Tarry, Abbasi and Dominelli are all strong players with interesting instrumental voices; it is worth a second listen because the trio succeeds in creating a meaningful, unique group dynamic.
While many contemporary pianists seem to delve into the piano’s more percussive aspects today, Calgary’s Sheldon Zandboer is of the school of piano virtuosi who subscribes to the view that it pays to forget sometimes that the mechanics of the instrument involve hammers striking strings. His is a style of pianism that is given to the teasing caress of the keys. Not surprisingly this produces music – melodies and harmonies from right and left hands – that is exquisitely velvety in its tone and eloquently phrased. Throughout, Tipping Velvet displays inventive discourse progressing in nuanced measures.
Risks abound, but they are always in the service of the music’s spirit and they always pay off. Combining a darkness of theme with a wickedly humorous unveiling of the musicians, Snakes and Liars, for instance, ends up being one of the sunniest pieces on the recording. A similar conundrum exists at the beginning of Tear in a Smile; its illusory nature resolved once again, in the translucent longing-for-spring atmosphere of Zandboer’s delicate keyboard hands.
Zandboer’s musical gems are a must-listen not only for his exquisite pianism, but also for the majestic work of Bob Tildesley’s trumpet, especially when the mute is employed and notes are squeezed out of the bell of his horn. The performances of bassist George Koller and drummer Andy Ericson crackle with genius and I Will Wait soars heavenward, not least because of the blithe spirit of vocalist Johanna Sillanpaa.
The late legendary Canadian trumpeter and composer Kenny Wheeler (1930-2014) was a quiet, complex genius. Although perhaps not a household name, Wheeler was held in incredible esteem by the global jazz/music cognoscenti (including John Dankworth, Dave Holland, Bill Frissell and Lee Konitz). His rhythmically and harmonically revolutionary compositions and arrangements have been performed worldwide – including in the United Kingdom – the place that he called home after 1950.
The recent release of Wheeler’s emotional and autobiographical work recorded by the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra (produced by, and under the direction of Tommy Smith) is a magnificent tribute, worthy of the great, humble man himself. Wheeler’s music is propelled by the contributions of trumpet, flugelhorn and voice – rendered here by skillful trumpet/flugelhornist Laura Jurd and vocalist Irina Arabatzi (although one could easily imagine the luminous voice of Wheeler’s longtime collaborator, Norma Winstone).
There are eight compositions in the Suite, beginning with Sweet Sister, which features heartbreakingly beautiful horn work by the gifted Jurd, and a pitch-perfect and gymnastic vocal line from Arabatzi, segueing into fine rhythm section work and culminating in sumptuous, swinging, contrapuntal, jazz-puro, big-band ear candy. Also outstanding is Keeper of the Light. The moving lyric reflects Wheeler’s journey into the realm of his most secret self, illuminated by a potent sax solo from Smith and equally potent playing by the entire talented ensemble.
Wheeler’s massive (and always modestly given) contribution to contemporary jazz is evident in every note of this recording – which is a stunning celebration of the man and his work.
What happens when you fuse a solid classical music background with a newfound love of jazz and Cuban music? Tricia Edwards’ Intaglios, that’s what! With a master’s degree in piano performance, studies at the Banff Centre and Salzburg’s Mozarteum, and several years performing chamber music while living in the Middle East in the 90s, the Calgary-based pianist launched her “second musical act” in the mid-2000s, having discovered the joy of jazz. Ultimately she found her way to some of the finest musicians heating up Calgary’s Latin music scene, three of whom appear on the album.
What makes this CD especially delightful is that while Edwards beautifully explores her affection for Latin music in seven original and terrific tracks, along with three covers, she clearly hasn’t forgotten her first love. I counted at least six neat little nods to the classical repertoire. On track seven alone, the fabulous and driving String Theory, which Edwards says was inspired by watching her cats at play, there are playful passages from Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor and Mozart’s Turkish Rondo; and I’m pretty sure there are some bars of Bach, too.
Track one, Trainwreck lll, owes its inspiration, in part, to the percussive energy of Ginastera, and the final track, the gorgeous, ballad-like Alegria, offers some lovely and lilting piano work, including a few notes from Debussy’s Clair de lune.
With Intaglios, Edwards honours the genres of classical, jazz and Latin music, imprinting upon them her unique style and a lifetime of experiences.
Released in July 2018 on Human Resource Records, This World of Dew is the third duo recording from trumpeter Aaron Shragge and guitarist Ben Monder, following 2010’s The Key Is In The Window and 2012’s Arabesque. While Monder will likely be the more familiar name to jazz listeners, Shragge is a busy member of the improvised/creative music scene in New York, with notable recent performances at the Montreal Jazz Festival, L’Off Jazz Festival and the Festival of New Trumpet Music. A big part of Shragge’s sound on This World of Dew is, in fact, a new trumpet: the Dragon Mouth Trumpet features a slide in addition to valves, allowing the player access to new expressive avenues.
Whether he is playing the Dragon Mouth Trumpet, flugelhorn, or shakuhachi, melody is at the forefront of Shragge’s contributions to This World of Dew, from the beautiful opener, Companion, through the album’s titular suite and beyond. The recording is texturally captivating from beat one; even during moments of intensity, Shragge’s tone tends to be warm and breathy, which contrasts effectively with Monder’s electric guitar tone, which, even at its gentlest, maintains an articulate edge.
Beyond the suite, highlights include spare, linear improvisation on Roll The Dice, ethereal, organ-like sounds on It’s Ours, and the unsettling urgency of Blue Bird. Do not let the contemplative mood of This World of Dew fool you: Shragge and Monder have created captivating, intricate music that rewards the active listener with unexpected delights.