03 Brian DickinsonMusic for Jazz Orchestra
Brian Dickinson
Addo Records AJR036 (briandickinson.ca)

Music for Jazz Orchestra, a new big band album on Addo Records from pianist/bandleader/composer Brian Dickinson, is in part a tribute, although not a tribute album. The disc is anchored by The Gentle Giant Suite, an original three-part homage to the late Kenny Wheeler, written following Wheeler’s passing in the fall of 2014. Dickinson and Wheeler share a long history, collaborating both with other musicians (including drummer Joe LaBarbera and vocalist Norma Winstone) and on the duo album Still Waters, recorded in 1998 at Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto.

Dickinson’s exemplary compositional and arranging skills – which are on full display throughout The Gentle Giant Suite – are matched by his sophisticated piano playing, both as a soloist and as a member of the excellent rhythm section, which features bassist Jim Vivian, drummer Ted Warren, and guitarist Sam Dickinson, who shares his father’s harmonic maturity. Beyond the suite, the medium-slow 3/4 Gil (written for Gil Evans) is a beautiful, texturally rich piece that showcases the sensitivity of the horn section; it also features compelling solos from Brian Dickinson, saxophonist Kelly Jefferson, trumpeter Kevin Turcotte, and an especially strong showing from Sam Dickinson. Orion, written for Wayne Shorter, is perhaps the album’s most bombastic offering – the ferocious shout chorus alone is worth the price of admission – but it also contains a powerful, perfectly paced piano solo from Dickinson. Overall, an excellent album: confident, nuanced and captivating from beat one. 

04 Nick MacleanRites of Ascension
Nick Maclean Quartet
Browntasauras Records NCC-1701K (nicholasmaclean.com)

Rites of Ascension, the debut album from the Nick Maclean Quartet, is a tribute to Herbie Hancock’s elemental 1960s Blue Note era recordings, and a daring original musical statement on its own. Formed in 2016 under the leadership of Maclean, the group salutes the great improvisers while generating original tunes that are crisp and cognizant.

These four musicians – Maclean (piano), Brownman Ali (trumpet), Jesse Dietschi (acoustic bass) and Tyler Goertzen (drums) – have a great synergy and drive, and some serious chops. Their renditions of Hancock’s four classics are full of energy and forward momentum while managing to retain the unhurried character of the earlier compositions. The original tunes (six by Maclean and one by Ali) are both intimate and global, touching upon themes from mythology and history to personal growth and the critical mind. Maclean’s creative mind and aesthetics are obvious in every aspect of this album, his piano solos both lyrical and invigorating, supported by a stellar rhythm section. The album features fiercely strong trumpet solos, indicative of Freddie Hubbard’s style at times and distinctively unique.

Elasticity of Time and Space is a standout – I loved the opening theme, metric modulations and tempo changes, as well as playfully robust solos. Feral Serenity, a haunting and intimate ballad, unfolds a soulful bass and piano exchange. The liner notes, describing each tune in depth, allow the listener to peek behind the curtains of the album in the making.

05 BC Double QuartetDeparture
BC Double Quartet
Cellar Live CL091517 (cellarlive.com)

Bill Coon, JUNO-nominated guitarist and composer, is the mastermind behind BC Double Quartet’s new release Departures. The music on this album is refreshingly innovative and engaging. In the words of the composer: “Jazz quartet meets string quartet on this new recording, and each quartet has their unique universe of possibilities. As a writer, the gleeful rush for me is to explore the potential of these intersecting universes.”

Here we can hear several different (sub)genres, all blended together, sometimes in the same piece. The jazz quartet doesn’t deviate from their genre while string quartet writing is more varied – sometimes classical, sometimes cinematic, and when not densely lyrical, full of rhythmic life with groovy hooks and textures. Bill Coon is a clever arranger and a masterful guitar player, and the rest of the musicians are just superb. The ensemble has a wonderful chemistry. The title song, featuring splendid strings, a solid rhythm section and alluring solos, was conceived at the Banff Centre for the Arts. I truly enjoyed Coon’s arrangement of Chorando Baixinho by Abel Ferreira – the beautiful melody is enriched with pizzicato string textures, mellow guitar over the bass lines and a sultry trumpet solo. Another favourite is Zattitude, a catchy, lively number that exudes the infectious feeling of joy and charming zest. The liner notes offer short musings on each piece. Highly recommended.

Listen to 'Departure' Now in the Listening Room

06 Boule SpielBoule Spiel
Magda Mayas; Éric Normand; Pierre-Yves Martel
Tour de Bras TDB 9025 (tourdebras.com)

An enthralling sonic landscape encompassing mercurial harshness, unexpected contours and cultivated accents, Boule Spiel is an affirmation of the textural cooperation among German pianist Magda Mayas and two Québécois musicians, electric bassist Éric Normand of Rimouski, where the session was recorded, and Montreal viola da gamba player Pierre-Yves Martel. Those instruments, along with “feedback, snare drum, objects and speaker” are the only sound-makers listed. But the minimalist tones which blend to create this two-track journey, including keening whistles, string plucks, bell peals, percussive thumps, feedback flutters and oscillated hums, not only make individual attribution unlikely, but at the same time highlight the constant unexpected shifts within the understated unrolling sequences.

Emphasizing atmosphere over narrative or instrumental virtuosity, the trio’s blended output, especially on the more-than-30-minute introductory Lancer, contains enough processed drones, electric bass stops, keyboard patterning and inner-piano-string plucks to vary the aural scenery enough to create a sense of harmonic and rhythmic progress, but without jarring interludes. By the time the concluding Spiegelbildauflösung or “mirror image resolution” fades away, the three confirm how carefully each can reflect the others’ cerebral improvisations. An enlightened sound journey has been reflected and completed, but the details of what transpired individually are impossible to accurately analyze.

07 John HollenbeckAll Can Work
John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble
New Amsterdam NWAM094 (newamrecords.com)

Drummer John Hollenbeck convened 20 of New York’s most accomplished improvisers to interpret his newest compositions and arrangements. Concerned mostly with the harmonic relationship among instrumental sections and textures which blend into pastel billows, Hollenbeck’s conception is horizontal and flowing, with limits on solos. It’s characterized by this kiss, composed for a Romeo and Juliet project, which embeds pianist Mat Mitchell’s dynamic theme elaborations within a buoyant, sprightly narrative. That said, the introductory lud is built around multiple idiophone vibrations, cushioned by horn breaths that quickly draw you into Hollenbeck’s multiple creations. The final track The Model, lifted from the repertory of German electronica band Kraftwerk, is light, bracing and wraps up the session with hints of a spirited I Love Paris-like vamp.

Still, the paramount performances salute two of the composer’s deceased heroes. Kenny Wheeler is celebrated with a galloping arrangement of his Heyoke, where flugelhornist Matt Holman personifies Wheeler’s expressiveness within waves of brass accompaniment even as trombonist Jacob Garchik’s hairy outbursts confirm the arrangement’s originality. Theo Bleckmann’s wordless scatting adds distinct harmonies to Heyoke, but he’s put to even better use on All Can Work, saluting New York teacher/big band trumpeter Laurie Fink. Treating phrases from Fink’s humorous emails as found poetry, the sumptuous performance subtly builds up to an atmospheric crescendo, where the sung words and instrumental passages become virtually indistinguishable. With Hollenbeck now teaching at McGill, this CD is another reminder of the US’ loss to Canada.

08 Francois BourassaNumber 9
François Bourassa Quartet
Effendi Records FND150 (effendirecords.com)

With the release of his ninth CD, François Bourassa reminds us why he is considered to be one of the jazz world’s finest pianist/composers. All of the superb material here has been written and produced by Bourassa. His talented group includes longtime collaborators André Leroux on tenor sax, flute and clarinets, Guy Boisvert on bass and Greg Ritchie on drums. From the downbeat, this is a group that communicates on a psychic level, soaring together through the highest realms of musical creativity and jazz expression, travelling via the emotional pathway of the heart.

The compositions reflect a nostalgic reverie for Bourassa – melodic portraits of people, places and events, now revisited with a big dose of mature vision as well as the muted and misty sepia-toned colours of memory. All members of the Quartet are really time travellers who (in addition to firm linear time) also intuitively understand the quantum multi-dimensional nature of spacetime, and that the “now” is the conceivable and creative aspect of all that is.

Standouts include Carla und Karlheinz, which was written in honour of avant-garde pianist/composer Carla Bley and electronic music pioneer Karlheinz Stockhausen. The clever juxtaposition of styles here is simultaneously mindbending and delightful. Bourassa’s technical skill on this challenging track is also thrilling, and Leroux sizzles on his gymnastic solo. Also evocative are Frozen, which conjures isolated, inescapable fields of nothingness, and Past Ich, featuring gorgeous, melodic playing from Bourassa, punctuated by Leroux’s alternately caressing and yowling soprano sax.

Clearly, this profound, beautifully recorded project will be considered one of the finest international jazz recordings of the year.

09 Kathleen GormanI Can See Clearly Now
Kathleen Gorman
Independent (kathleengorman.bandcamp.com)

Kathleen Gorman is already an accomplished pedagogue, adjudicator and clinician. Add to these a light and high-sprung rhythmic pianism, and this recording adds yet another prismatic facet to her multi-dimensional musical personality.

Gorman’s three compositions reflect the evolution of a pianist deeply immersed in the forms and performance of classical music, with the touch-sensitive music of Arabesque and Mysterioso, redolent of dazzling runs and parabolic arpeggios. Influence, played in a dark, minor mode, is wonderfully arranged to capture the characteristic mystique of what has come to be called the Blue Note sound, one that recalls not just early iconic Herbie Hancock but also Freddy Hubbard and Wayne Shorter. And in all songs Gorman reveals a singular virtuosity that eschews showmanship and accentuates a phrasing style pregnant with emotion.

Other works reflect a composer-like skill in re-harmonization of original melodies to reflect a new angular perspective on the songs. Gorman does this by turning the original tonal colours of a piece into black and white before recolouring it in her own unique new way and guiding her wonderful ensemble into performing each new piece memorably. Both Sides Now, which also features her seductive voice, is a poignant example, as is the instrumental Over The Rainbow. The entire repertoire makes this a disc to die for.

Listen to 'I Can See Clearly Now' Now in the Listening Room

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