05 Gord MowatGord Mowat’s Skeleton Crew
Gordon Mowat; Chris Gale; Rececca Hennessy; Jeff Halischuk; Tom Richards
Independent (gordonmowat.com)

Gord Mowat’s Skeleton Crew is, as the title suggests, the debut album from bandleader Gord Mowat’s band Skeleton Crew, which includes trumpeter Rebecca Hennessy, tenor saxophonist Chris Gale, trombonist Tom Richards, drummer Jeff Halischuk, and Mowat, who, in addition to playing upright bass, is the sole composer and arranger of the album’s six tunes. The group is notable for its lack of piano, guitar, or other traditional chord-playing instrument, aligning itself with a rich lineage of “chordless” small ensembles that hearkens back to the Gerry Mulligan/Chet Baker recordings of the early 1950s.

For Skeleton Crew, the choice of instrumentation is a winning one, as it foregrounds both Mowat’s compositional prowess and the individual voices of each band member, resulting in an engaging, nuanced approach to music-making that places the emphasis on communication and group interplay, rather than on individual heroism. Nomads, the album’s first track, begins with a rubato section in which all five band members gradually enter, exploring the space and bringing things to a small climax before Mowat plays a propulsive figure and Gale comes in with the melody, effectively setting the tone for the rest of the album. The through-composed Spinnaker is both the album’s longest song and one of its highlights: it features a beautiful melodic treatment by Mowat and Hennessy, strong solos from Gale, Hennessy and Halischuk, and is structured much like a suite. Skeleton Crew is a confident, well-executed album with a clear concept, ably realized by accomplished players.

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06 Peripheral VisionMore Songs About Error and Shame
Peripheral Vision
Independent STEP3-007 (peripheralvisionmusic.com)

More Songs About Error and Shame is the fourth CD release from Peripheral Vision. Group leaders, guitarist Don Scott and bassist Michael Herring, wrote all seven tracks and are joined by Trevor Hogg on tenor saxophone and Nick Fraser on drums. They state the title is a reference to an “iconic album by famously neurotic band, Talking Heads” and it illustrates their desire to mix genres and themes along with different types of jazz and popular music.

The tunes are as inventive as their titles (e.g. The Blunder, Syntax Error, Click Bait) and each track evolves through melodic statements, repeated riffs, solos, duets and solid ensemble playing. The music sounds like elaborate conversations which ebb and flow, growing heated and then reflexive. For example, Mycelium Running begins with a lyric sax melody, develops into a lively interchange among sax, guitar and drums, followed by a long, lilting guitar solo and a pensive solo saxophone; then the rest of the band enters and it builds to a loud and majestic ending.

Scott’s guitar mixes inventive lines, chord melody and even some grunge/fuzz tones. Fraser’s drumming is always inventive and here he provides an engaging and shifting background to the mix of ensemble and solo playing. Hogg’s playing is clean, focused and versatile while Herring’s bass work is subtle, grooving and complex. More Songs is an inventive album with unique performances and a sense of humour.

09 Robert DiackLost Villages
Robert Diack
Independent (robertdiack.com)

Lost Villages, a new album from drummer/bandleader Robert Diack, is named for a collection of nine communities in Southern Ontario that were permanently depopulated and submerged in 1958 as part of the construction of the Saint Lawrence Seaway. With song titles such as Displace, Bittered and Placed, the album takes a certain literary influence from the Lost Villages, but the metaphor seems to run deeper: from the eerie, atmospheric opening notes of Displace, the album’s first track, it becomes apparent that Diack’s goal is to synthesize his disparate influences into a unique musical language that evokes – much like a glimpse of underwater ruins – a compelling vision greater than the sum of its parts.

While Lost Villages doesn’t restrict itself to the traditional, essentially acoustic format of a conventional jazz recording, it is a quartet album: bassist Brandon Davis, guitarist Patrick O’Reilly and pianist Jacob Thompson round out the group. O’Reilly often takes on the lead melodic role, as in Pluterperfect, which features an adventurous, overdriven guitar solo on a tightly controlled 11/8 vamp. Other noteworthy tracks include the laid-back, 4/4 Idyll, which features Thompson, whose articulate, clear playing serves as an effective foil for O’Reilly, and Sap, the album’s longest (and probably most open) song, in which all four band members gradually layer in new textures before Davis and O’Reilly play a short, repeated melody that ends the tune. Overall, Lost Villages offers an interesting, worthwhile listen, and functions as a thoughtful, unexpected bandleader debut for Diack.

10 Kurt Elling The QuestionsThe Questions
Kurt Elling
OKeh/Sony Masterworks 886446753768 (okeh-records.com)

The stark dramatic intro to the first track, Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, sets the tone for Kurt Elling’s latest album. A response to the widespread anxiety of the times we’re living in now, The Questions brings together a collection of songs that are sometimes cynical, sometimes hopeful and all thoughtful.

The jazzy and powerful singing we’ve come to expect from Elling is in abundance here. I should note that people fall into two camps when it comes to Elling – love him and hate him. I’m solidly in the love-him camp, but I can understand how some may not enjoy his vocal tone, which can be strident at times. His technical skills, big range and beautiful handling of ballads override any cringe-making bits for me though. His bandmates turn in equally powerful and emotive performances. Jeff “Tain” Watts is particularly strong on drums on A Secret in Three Views, a revamp of the Jaco Pastorius instrumental Three Views of a Secret that Elling has set lyrics to, with help from the 13th-century Persian poet, Rumi. This is just one of three songs on the album for which Elling has adapted existing poetry. The others are Endless Lawns – Carla Bley’s Lawns with lyrics from a poem by Sara Teasdale (with a gorgeous trumpet solo from Marquis Hill) and The Enchantress, a beautiful new song by pianist Joey Calderazzo with a bit of a bossa nova feel, and lyrics using lines from a Wallace Stevens poem. A lovely, swooping take on Skylark, with sensitive piano solo by Stu Mindeman, closes out the album with an appropriate sense of expectant longing.

11 CurranSchFrom The Alvin Curran Fakebook
Curran; Schiaffini; C. Neto; Armaroli
Dodicilune Dischi Ed 886 (dodicilune.it)

Turning the use of a “fakebook” on its head, instead of improvising on famous standards’ lead sheets, Rome-based American composer Alvin Curran and his Italian associates use 13 of his compositions as the basis for creativity. Known for his pioneering electroacoustic soundscapes for Musica Elettronica Viva, Curran, plus trombonist Giancarlo Schiaffini, multi-reedist Alipio C Neto, vibist/percussionist Sergio Armaroli, bassist Marcello Testa and drummer Nicola Stranieri, creates two CDs of music that sounds both aleatoric and arranged.

Although the brief final tracks on CD2 could be performed by a lounge combo, the disc’s crucial concepts occur when the first CD foregrounds the composer’s talents on computer (Max’d Out) and piano (Why Is This Night Different from All Other Nights). Electronic oscillations and circular-breathed saxophone sluices on Max’d Out contrast with plunger trombone vibrations and bell-shaking tones until climaxing as a balanced narrative. On the second tune, wolf-whistle-like reed lines and theatrical keyboard cadenzas are not only expanded, with soothing trombone burrs and delicate vibes’ resonation, but also dissembled, with granular synthesis that dissects pre-recorded voices into backwards-moving mumble and mysterious textures.

These machine-instrument explorations, plus other unique challenges, are resolved on the over-33-minute The Answer Is. With vibraphone pings maintaining the melody, computer crackles, tailgate trombone and gibberish vocal mutations move aside, as polyphonic cacophony or perfectly performed cool jazz are tried on for size then regularized into a tonally fluctuating finale. Technical mastery and dazzling sonic surprise are never faked on this session.

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12 MudderstenPlaymates
SOFA 565 (sofamusic.no) 

Despite the photo of a muscle man flexing on the CD cover, musical exercises by the Danish trio Muddersten are anything but broad and powerful. In fact, microtonal tubaist/electronic manipulator Martin Taxt, Håvard Volden, who plays guitar and tape loops, and Henrik Olsson, whose equipment includes objects, piezo and friction, wouldn’t reach the podium in an artistic weight-lifting contest. Instead the band’s programmed continuum, distant object lacerations and intermittent blares add up to featherweight strategies that subtly score, literally without fanfare.

With an electronic ostinato perpetually bonding sequences from below, air whooshes and metronomic friction occasionally minutely recede so that guitar flanges and twangs or brass bites and whistles can be heard. Watery, baleful and somewhat threatening, the tracks’ challenges are met and enlivened as near-static tones suddenly open up to reveal unique juddering counterpoint. Seemingly plodding, in spite of many short episodes of commotion, compared to noisier, flashier programs, Muddersten ultimately impresses by the realization that the trio’s bursts of musical quality are presented in such a way that they can be appropriately savoured. Plus no matter how many ring-modular-like gongs, menacing object scratches or distanced brass buzzes appear and vanish along the way; the tale of these Playmates never ceases long enough to disrupt a stable chronology that also highlights a strapping contest of timbral strength.

Just as definitions of various forms of music have changed over the decades, so has the interpretation of what exactly constitutes a large jazz or improvised music orchestra. Sure, there are still plenty of bands that stick to the popular Ellington-Basie mode with a fixed number of players and tunes. But that’s no longer the norm. As music becomes more open and global, orchestral and so-called exotic instruments beef up the sections; a pre-determined number of players in each section is ignored; and the use of electric instruments and electronics has soared. Equally outstanding in execution, here are some instances of how uniquely constituted large ensembles operate.

01 LargeUnitIn this context, the Scandinavian Large Unit is the most traditional. The group on Fluku (PNL Records PML 038 paalnilssen-love.com) includes three reed players, three brasses and a rhythm section. The reed players double or triple among saxophones and clarinets; the brass section is a trumpeter, a trombonist and a tubaist; rhythm is divided among an electric guitar, two acoustic/electric bassists, and two percussionists, including leader/composer Paal Nilssen-Love; plus there are electronics from Tommi Keränen. Using the ensemble’s elements to maximum effect, the band creates passages that rebound from presenting everyone in full flight to individuals, such as Thomas Johannson’s clean trumpet leads or the gnarly this-side-of-metal shronk from guitarist Ketil Gutvik. Extended tracks such as Playgo and Fluku emphasize divergent aspects of the band. A Latin-inflected swinger, Playgo highlights contrapuntal reed-brass textures, and then divides into duets: almost human vocalized smears from trombonist Mats Äleklint matched with slap percussion; heraldic trumpeting with rippling sax riffs; and finally, crying alto saxophone vibrations challenging vigorous ruffs from drummers Nilssen-Love and Andreas Wildhagen. Keeping the theme consistent is one of the Unit’s three alto saxophone players; a Bolero-styled counterline intersects, and synthesized wave form crackles finally subsume the narrative. Almost 27 minutes long, the title tune develops in several seemingly incompatible directions, initially suspended between Gutvik’s rough twangs and Keränen’s twisted drones. Interjections from other instruments make the performance murkier, until a distinct theme appears one-third of the way through and stays audible until the end. As Per Åke Holmlander’s tuba burbles open and shut, petal-like, to add or subtract low-pitch ballast to the creation, dollops of swing infuse the narrative via patterning vamps from baritone and tenor saxophones plus near-funk drumming. Concentrated riffs are finally pushed into a crescendo of polyphonic solidness pierced by harmonized brass flutters moving up the scale and latterly pulled aside to allow for a slurred showcase from the guitarist, accompanied by subtle drum beats that eventually harmonize with the theme that has been there all along.

02 LeTombeau PoulencWith the same number of players but different instrumentation, Le Tombeau de Poulenc (Yolk Records J2069 yolkrecords.com) provides a contrasting view of ensemble orchestration. Invoking the Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra by French composer Francis Poulenc, the group’s three composers – pianist Jean-Christophe Cholet, saxophonist Alban Darche and Mathias Rüegg – created 12 themes which slyly interpolate swing into formalist concepts, ending with a tight, rhythmic program, making this group sound twice the size of Large Unit. Tracks reflect each composer’s perceptions. For instance, the exposition of the supple and multi-hued 2nd Convergence by Cholet, who shares piano duties with Nathalie Darche, is a keyboard continuum that melds with munificent string harmonies as backdrop to laughing saxophone vibrations and graceful trumpet tones, with the parallel counterpoint climaxing as it’s pushed by bass string rubs and prodded by drum pulses. Meanwhile, the chromatic gusts propelled by Pascal Vandenbulke’s flute on Cholet’s 3rd Convergence are as formal as a chamber piece, until cabaret-style keyboard clipping and a low-key alto saxophone solo alter the moderato theme to animate pastel-like orchestral colours. Rüegg is most interested in instrumental layering. On Dans les Idées de Poulenc, a matching three-dimensional sonic picture is created though speedy keyboard bravura plus ascending saxophone counterpoint. Layering the tones of trumpet, trombone and tuba on Dans le Sens de Poulenc (with Matthias Quilbault’s tuba as prominent as the others), proves that such instruments can swing without expected call-and-response patterns. Closest to mainstream jazz, the blues inflections which enliven the choppy piano lines of the Darche-composed Le Tombeau de Poulenc 1 find violinist Marie-Violaine Cadoret’s contributions sliding from precise romanticism to silent-movie-like melodrama to double-stopping dissonance. Clanking claves and Latinized piano-fills on the concluding Le Tombeau de Poulenc 4 (another Darche piece) extend the polyphony enough so that subsequent showcases for saxophones and brass can trade orchestral strictness for musical freedom. This CD banishes the spectre of a jazz-classical pastiche and confirms the group’s and the composers’ ability to create rousing sounds that don’t stray that far from European precision.

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03 EnsembleSupermusiqueLarger than the former group and more obvious in its use of strings, percussion and electronics is Montreal’s Ensemble SuperMusique (Ambiances Magnétiques AM 239 CD actuellecd.com). The tracks on Les porteuses d’Ȏ are also less homogeneous than on other discs. Although these single compositions by ensemble founders, percussionist Danielle Palardy Roger and saxophonist Joane Hétu (plus one from Vancouver’s Lisa Cay Miller) utilize a mixture of notation and improvisation, the results are undeniably divergent. Ostensibly about Canadian drinking water rights, Miller’s Water Carrier is multi-sectional, with strident tutti interludes. Otherwise, the narrative depends on contrasts between upbeat concert band-like melodies from the horns and Guido Del Fabbro’s delicately formal violin elaboration, with the churning rural landscape characterized by Bernard Falaise’s clanking guitar effects, plus primitivist slashes from Alexandre St-Onge’s electric bass and electronics. Additional strength is given to the track’s political message by repeated scrapes on bare acoustic strings plus Ida Toninato’s gusty baritone saxophone. Describing a journey among the planets, Roger’s En arrivant par le nuage de Oort uses electronic crackles and pops to underscore the extraterrestrial journey. With echoing percussive swats from her kit and that of Isaiah Ceccarelli, rugged reed smears and sprung sul ponticello pressure from Del Fabbro, violist Jean René and cellist Rémy Bélanger de Beauport, plus some snarls and growls from trombonist Scott Thomson, the composition reflects the energy and turbulence of the heliocentric world. And like the predicted end of the universe, the tremolo piece doesn’t climax, it just ends. Based on mumbled vocalese, Hétu’s Préoccupant, c’est préoccupant is more problematic since her gargles, whoops and whines are often incomprehensible. Melodramatic and dissonant string section swipes, guitar flanges, buzzing wave forms and unfocused drum beats contribute to the verbal commotion, rather than framing or defining it.

04 Glasgow Improvisers OrchVoices in plural or solo (Maggie Nichols) are also featured on the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra’s The Word For It Now (FMR CD 458-0817 fmr-records.com). Although its selections are text based, the improvisational skill of Nichols and four backing voices mean that phrases are so swaddled in gurgles, gargles and growls that only the occasional word slips through. Designed to highlight the gamelan-like reverberating clanks from specially fired ceramic sculptures, A Bit in the Air also reduces the 30 instrumentalists (including eight string players and four guitarists) to interpolate with yelping tenor saxophone trills or bolstered triple-tongued trombone slurs, as Nichols’ agile soprano sashays around the sculptures’ crystalline timbres. With the vocalist(s) as capable at actualizing pseudo choking as lyrical warbles, the result is distinct energetic music that yokes metallic scrapes and distinct cries into a unique commentary. The two variations on A Peculiar Slumber are designed to showcase spatial and word-based response to the concert location, but with Nichols’ quirky scatting reigned in, there’s more pure instrumental space available. Highpoints include a duo between Marilyn Crispell’s studied piano pressure and emotional slurs from one of the trombonists; a swirling near-bop exposition from alto saxophonist Raymond MacDonald and one of the tenor saxophonists; and an undulating line from one of three double bassists that provides scope for Nichols’ mercurial syllable swallowing. In contrast, A Peculiar Slumber’s climax jams enough electronic-stressed clicks, reed slurs and brass flutter tones into the orchestral frame, so that the track reaches a crescendo of massed exuberance before subsiding. 

05 TheDorfExuberance also engulfs Lux (Umland Records 53 umlandrecords.de) with the 27-member, Essen-based The Dorf orchestra pumping out nearly opaque sound pieces. Their squirming timbres are directed as much by rhythm – including Theremin, synthesizer, three electronic players, two drummers and three guitarists – as by the comparable reed, brass and string tones. Infused with coagulated sequences that blend Wagnerian and metal densities, the characteristic tracks are Jour and Mill. The first augments seemingly without breathing space, through hardened guitar torque and drum beats like the thump of hobnailed boots, until a noisy climax gives way to the aural equivalent of afterimages. More attuned to orchestral colours from the acoustic instruments which tint the grisaille-like narrative, Mill mixes the crackles and smacks of programming and percussion, with whinnies and bellows from brass and reeds. As a commanding backbeat directs the narrative in a linear manner, trumpet grace notes and tongue splutters from the reeds provide the humanity and calm to the otherwise over-the-top creation. Finally, with all 25 players joined in a crescendo of muddied ecstasy, the ending explodes and is quickly cut off. With other tune variations on these themes, The Dorf demonstrates that rawness can be expressed and then tempered into a draining but dramatic program. So it is with all the ensembles here, whose similarities relate only to group size and the performance’s musical sophistication. 

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