07 Joel SheridanSpellbound
Joel Sheridan
Independent JHS201801 (joelsheridan.com)

The distinctive vocal qualities of jazz vocalist Joel Sheridan keep the listener attentive to his unique sound in his appropriately titled debut release, Spellbound. His decade-long, varied artistic career (with stints in Stratford and other musical theatres billed as Joel Hartt), a 12-year, career-counsellor gig, and his 2006 return to music have undoubtedly influenced his honest take on jazz singing. His goal was a storytelling concept album about the many sides of love, yet his controlled emotional performances of 12 covers and three of his own compositions are never over the top. All are performed with class and style by Sheridan, and his band – Mark Kieswetter (piano), Maxwell Roach (drums), and Jordan O’Connor (bass) with Reg Schwager (guitar) on five tracks.

Fanny Brice’s vaudevillian Cooking Breakfast for the One I Love is given a novelty upbeat rendition. The Kay Ballard tune, Lazy Afternoon, features a slow atmospheric moment with mood-setting bass opening, piano chords, cymbal splashes and high vocal pitches. More clear vocal storytelling and piano backdrop are evident in Nat King Cole’s breakup tune, I Keep Going Back to Joe’s. Highlight is Sheridan’s You Were My First Love, a personal song of his two great loves, with a stellar piano, melodic lines, climactic dynamic buildup and quietly touching close. The danceable Antônio Carlos Jobim song No More Blues ends the disc with hope and happiness, like all great love stories. And all great releases like Spellbound!

08 Solon McDadeMurals
Solon McDade
Independent 19192476591 (solonmcdade.com)

Released in April of this year, Murals is the debut solo album from the Edmonton-born bassist Solon McDade, a veteran of the Canadian music scene, active in both the jazz and folk worlds. (McDade constitutes one third of the JUNO Award-winning band the McDades, along with his sister, Shannon Johnson, and brother, Jeremiah McDade.) Murals also features Jeremiah on tenor saxophone, as well as Donny Kennedy on alto sax, Paul Shrofel on piano, and Rich Irwin on drums, with Solon McDade handling the bass duties. (He is also the sole composer of the album’s nine songs.)

Murals starts with He’s a Problem In The Locker Room, a medium, hard-swinging song, with elements of Monk and mid-60s Miles, and is followed by Buy The Tractor, a driving, minor-key tune that begins with a beautiful trio introduction from both the McDades and Kennedy. (It should also be noted that most of the song titles on Murals are evocative and wryly funny; a welcome surprise in the world of modern instrumental jazz, in which naming conventions tend towards the painfully self-serious.) Off The Bed, Rose, a medium-up minor blues, is a definite highlight, with strong, creative solos from Kennedy, Shrofel, Jeremiah McDade and Irwin, with exceptionally supportive rhythm section playing throughout. Another highlight: the album’s final track, A Shorter Thing, a groovy, Poinciana-esque song on which Solon McDade takes a succinct, lyrical solo. Murals is an accomplished, confident album from a first-class band; highly recommended.

08 Grdina MarrowEjdeha
Gordon Grdina’s The Marrow
Songlines SGL2409-2 (songlines.com)

Gordon Grdina has a compound musical identity, as both free-jazz guitarist and devoted advocate of the middle-Eastern oud, the forebearer of many western plectrum instruments (“lute” is a corruption of “el oud”). In Grdina’s practice, however, the two overlap, the improvisatory traditions and subtle pitch distinctions of Arabic and Persian music clearly feeding into the kind of jazz he favours. The Marrow’s balance is perfect: he and fellow Vancouver-based percussionist Hamin Honari are matched with New York jazz mainstays, cellist Hank Roberts and bassist Mark Helias.

There’s no sense of conflict. It’s territory that’s been an element of jazz since Ahmed Abdul Malik (Jonathan Tim, Jr.) and Yusef Lateef (William Huddleston) first began crossing into this terrain some 60 years ago. Today Roberts and Helias navigate microtonal modes and compound rhythms as fluently as Grdina and Honari, and the result is a very special kind of music.

Grdina’s subtle pitch inflections are apparent in the rapid, detailed lines of his rubato introduction to the title track, while Roberts exhibits comparable rhythmic detail in his bowed solo on Idiolect. The two pass from the largely middle-Eastern orbit to something equal-parts European in their opening reflection to Bordeaux Bender. Wayward is emblematic of the sheer rhythmic élan that Honari brings to the project, while Helias throughout moves fluidly from ostinatos to counterpoint to a lead voice.

In all, it’s a celebration of improvisation’s ability to cross frontiers and create new identities.

09 Steve KovenThe Koven Collective
Steve Koven
Bungalow Records SK 010 5 (stevekoven.com)

There is really no shortage of piano-driven ensembles, including those embellished by strings, vocals and inputs from other musicians, but the effervescence of each of the ten pieces performed by the Koven Collective must be applauded. The core group comprises pianist and songwriter Steve Koven, bassist Peter Eratostene and drummer Sarah Thawer, who is one of the most prodigiously gifted drummers in Canada today (the other being Larnell Lewis).

On a first encounter, the nonchalant, playful charm of Koven’s music can mask the challenges and the undercurrent of often complex profundity. Koven frames this musical excursion with two relatively well-known pieces from his repertoire. The first is Eleuthera, a piece that unravels like a cheeky vignette with an effervescent, tumbling percussive groove. The other is the more reflective (if simply titled) ballad Thinking of You. Preceding the first work and in between the others named here is spirited and insouciantly seductive repertoire that is illuminated not only by the core trio but also by saxophone, guitar, cello, banjo, vocals and very effectively employed electronic instruments.

All of this strategically employed instrumentation makes for a refreshing experience of music, informed by a variety of tone colours and rhythmic excellence together with a harmonic boldness and astringency that throws all of the pieces more vividly into relief. Koven, who shepherds the trio and others involved in this music, is a songwriter who has proved once again that his music is licensed to thrill.

10 UnchartedUncharted Territories
Dave Holland; Evan Parker; Craig Taborn; Ches Smith
Dare2 Records Dare 2-010 (daveholland.com)

Negating the generation gap, Britons, bassist Dave Holland, 71, and saxophonist Evan Parker, 73, join forces with younger Americans, keyboardist Craig Taborn, 48, and percussionist Ches Smith, 44, for an incandescent, two-CD set that nimbly cruises past any differences in age, nationality and orientation. Although playing together for the first time, the four easily negotiate improvised duos, trios and quartets which commingle Parker’s exploratory leanings with Holland’s solid time sense.

What that means is that when, for example, on tracks such as QW2 or Tenor-Piano-Bass T2, Parker splatters split tones or unleashes chesty timbral variations, the continuum is maintained by double bass rumbles including perfectly rounded and arrayed notes, usually seconded by brief keyboard inserts and relaxed drum patterns.

Together or separately, Taborn and Smith’s bravura skill is displayed, especially on Piano-Bass-Percussion T2 where a series of dynamic keyboard arpeggios expressively meld with double bass rhythms, or on Q&A where ambulatory vibraphone clips redefine the tempo alongside reed flutter-tonguing. But the CD`s apogee is in tracks from the Holland-Parker duo. Enough multi-string variables sound from Holland’s strings to personify a string quartet on Tenor-Bass-W2 for instance, making space for Parker`s instantly-identifiable multiphonic honks – with the ambulatory audacity of the track intensified by bent-string injections among brief bursts of characteristic saxophone circular breathing.

Comfortable in Uncharted Territories, this quartet deserves an encore. Instead of 23 tracks such as those here, however, the four should consider developing an un-segmented suite of major proportions.

More so than just about any other horn, the trumpet’s engineering makes it difficult to imagine as an unaccompanied solo instrument. Unlike woodwinds’ many keys, brass players have to make do with three valves, a mouthpiece and curved tubing. Yet increasingly in recent years, adventurous trumpeters have overcome these constraints to create notable sounds.

01 All the RiversDivergent players utilize various strategies to do so. Take Susana Santos Silva for instance. During the 42-minute piece that is All The Rivers (Clean Feed CF 458 CD cleanfeed-records.com), the Portuguese trumpeter not only adds textures from bells and a tin whistle to augment her brass tones, but uses the arched spaces and marble detailing of Lisbon’s Panteão Nacional to add spatial properties to her improvisations. Tentatively testing the space with a column of pure air, she soon expands her exposition with rubato growls, which echo back in the form of heraldic grace notes. Adding to the mesmerizing narrative, tinkling bells underscore sputters and bugle-like bites; then, midpoint, half-valve effects signal a detour into melodic melancholy characterized by antiphonal extensions of each rounded tone. Turning more upfront, as brassy patterns and their playful extensions sound over and over, Silva eventually expands the narrow peeps and brief chiming into an assemblage of dyspeptic snarls and resulting vibrations which define her journey while referring back to the introduction. When the climax is followed by protracted applause, you realize that an enthralled audience has been listening in rapt silence throughout.

02 ChimericAnother improviser who assuages brass singularity is Chicago’s Rob Mazurek, who on Chimeric Stoned Horn (Astral Spirits MF154/AS054 robmazurek.bandcamp.com) processes timbres from his piccolo trumpet and voice through a modular synthesizer and sampler. Created in tandem with an exhibition of Mazurek’s 3D lithographs, the 16 brief tracks don’t accompany the visuals, but amplify the artist’s ideas in an allied medium. Almost totally abstract from the start of the first track, Arrival from a Distance, Mazurek teases the brass instrument’s definition, by not only ringing bells and murmuring under his breath but constantly distorting the alternately sweet and sour textures with blurry processing. As sequences run into one another almost without pause, scratchy, intermittent buzzes as well as playful trumpet spurts, often with multi-part harmonies created by live sampling, judder every which way. By the time the midpoint Hollers Charged is reached, with its collection of heraldic and echoing tones that resembles guitar flanges, the preceding tracks have introduced unique palindromes ranging from stentorian blasts to echoing wisps. A similar assembly line of undulating mechanized drones moves almost without pause through the remainder of the suite until half-valve effects and triplet trills on Planets Lower Crust finally assert a rugged rhythm from the horn. Like two parts of an equation drawing together for a solution, on the penultimate three tracks the rumbles and drones from granular synthesis move closer to intermittent trumpet variations, so that by the final Swarm Hands, an interlude of through-the-horn humming plus intermittent bell ringing sets up a shamanistic and sophisticated conclusion.

03 FullMoonCheating slightly, Alberta-born, Brooklyn-based Stephanie Richards’ nine trumpet tracks inspired by moon phases on Fullmoon (Relative Pitch RPR 1066 relativepitchrecords.com) are given added verisimilitude by her own percussion playing and live sampling from a second musician: Dino J.A. Deane. Still, by treating the trumpet as both a brass instrument and a sound source, Richards’ improvisations are the dominant force here. Stripping her tone to its core, she determines the rhythmic and thematic essence of the suite by contrasting brass peeps and puffs plus percussion rebounds, as Deane’s machine simultaneously reconstitutes her original sounds. As the sequences move from the introductory New Moon to the final Full Moon (Part II), the most sympathetic and unique timbres are heard in the middle phases. That’s because the first track depends on low, then higher pitches that emphasize the brassy part of the horn’s output and are paced by Deane’s jiggling flanges. In contrast, the concluding lunar phase is notable not only for a multiphonic narrative elaboration, but also because the torqued air and grace-note puffs during the finale confirm the lead instrument’s brassy identity. Earlier on, the waxing of the cycle brings forth hefty puffs and pants which, aided by sampled oscillations, appear to accompany themselves with multiple asides that are simultaneously rough and smooth. Eventually passing through the two parts of Gong, resonations as muted airs are distorted with granular synthesis as the narrative toughens, so that the waning phases suggest bull elephant-like trumpeting. In truth, the piece climaxes during the penultimate Full Moon (Part I). As Deane’s crashing oscillations create sonic peaks and valleys on the lunar surface, Richards’ integration of dirty growls and ethereal puffs create an impressionistic tour-de-force that not only balances Deane’s electronics judders, but also cunningly relates back to the introductory lunar phase.

04 QuadrantsUnadorned solo trumpet playing can be spectacular as well, as Baltimore’s Dave Ballou proves on Quadrants for Solo Trumpet (pfMentum CD 113 pfmentum.com). Dividing his one-hour suite into four equally timed tracks named for the points of a compass, Ballou uses a particular pitch set as connective thread to turn technical virtuosity into continuity. Variety is provided as he moves without pause among trumpet, piccolo trumpet, flugelhorn and an assortment of mutes. Sticking to hourglass-timed limits, the most surprising exposition occurs on South, the third quadrant. The preceding North and East tracks are awash with Morse-code-like brass spurts: abstract open-horn sound bursts, sour tones and wavering growls on the first; whiny puffs, unexpected hocketing phrases, fortissimo blasts and legions of tone patterns expressed in tremolo variations on the second. Putting aside bent notes and grating breath-draining blasts, Ballou on South expands on the few moments of melody in earlier tracks to create a beguiling line. Before capillary dissonance is introduced at the halfway point, Miles Davis’ mellow soloing on Sketches of Spain or a variant on Ol’ Man River is suggested. Maintaining the mood, Ballou speeds up the tempo in a variety of keys and pitches to adumbrate a second trumpet’s timbres as the underlying theme diminishes to moderato and finally to a breathy ending. With the praxis defined, West becomes the session’s coda, as Ballou summarizes the preceding sequences by alternating among spittle-encrusted skyward blasts, guttural growls and whimpering puffs. Precisely knitting chromatic runs and capillary trills, the resulting sound reflects both the session’s abstract explorations and balladic affirmation.

05 RefectionsA trumpeter who artfully illuminates the balladic, as well the boisterous underpinnings of unaccompanied brass creation, is Connecticut’s Wadada Leo Smith, who has released solo records since 1971. Distinctive, Reflections and Meditations on Monk (Tum CD 053 tumrecords.com) is notable because he assays four Thelonious Monk tunes with an equal number of his own compositions. Playing the more familiar material here doesn’t make the set conventional, though. While lines such as Ruby My Dear and the inevitable ‘Round Midnight are given respectful readings, with hesitant pacing and dissonant smears, Smith’s refined delicacy on Crepuscule with Nellie – which Monk wrote when his wife was undergoing surgery – implies tenderness, as the trumpeter chromatically builds up the narrative to reach the instrument’s highest pitches without distress, then smears the performance back to relaxed pacing for the finale. More crucially, Smith’s own Reflections manages to honour the pianist/composer without sounding anything like Monk’s work. The slyly titled Monk and Bud Powell at Shea StadiumA Mystery is the apex. Eschewing baseball and bop clichés despite the two obvious references, the trumpeter slyly starts breaking up the horizontal exposition into short bursts of vibrating and extended grace notes without strain, including note-flurry details to maintain motion. Eventually, the stretched-to-its-limits sequence turns whispery, but not wimpy, as Smith’s capillary slur gradually runs out of air.

Deep thoughts and even more profound playing ability went into each of these sessions. On its own, each proves that following an unaccompanied trumpet recital for a protracted period can be as fascinating as listening to any quality sounds. 

01 Alex LefaivreYUL
Alex Lefaivre Quartet
Multiple Chord Music (alexlefaivre.com)

YUL, a new release from bassist/bandleader Alex Lefaivre, is a modern jazz album whose compositions take inspiration from the “dreamy, hazy summer vibes” and “gritty, metropolitan edge” of Montreal, the city in which Lefaivre is based. For those unfamiliar with Lefaivre, he has been an active member of the Canadian music scene for well over a decade, both as part of the award-winning Parc X Trio, and as a founding member of the independent jazz label Multiple Chord Music.

Joining Lefaivre on YUL are Erik Hove, alto saxophone, Nicolas Ferron, electric guitar, and Mark Nelson, drums (Lefaivre plays electric bass throughout). It speaks both to the open quality of Lefaivre’s compositions and to the group’s instrumentation that there is ample room for each player’s individual voice to come through clearly, and, consequently, for a compelling group dynamic to emerge. This is certainly the case on the album’s first track, the medium-slow 3/4 time The Righteous, which features dynamic solos from Ferron and Hove, set atop patient, supportive comping from Lefaivre and Nelson. Even during YUL’s most bombastic moments – such as the breakbeat-heavy song The Juggernaut – there is considerable attention to balance and to dynamic detail. The album closes with the title track, a 5/4, straight-eighths song that contains some of the most exciting moments of the outing from all four band members, including a short, memorable drum solo from Nelson. YUL is a cumulative success – reflecting Lefaivre’s mature, cohesive musical vision.

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