A quarter of a century is an important milestone, even more so when the 25-year-old is a jazz festival rather than a person. Yet from its minimalist beginnings, the Guelph Jazz Festival (GJF) has managed to expand and intensify its programs. As befits a young adult, this year’s festival, September 12 to 16, features some new acquaintances as well as old friends in diverse settings.

01 Like ListeningOne new visitor, who plays both a noon-hour solo concert at the University of Guelph’s MacKinnon building on September 13 and an evening duo on September 14 with Montreal alto saxophonist Yves Charuest at the River Run Centre’s Cooperators Hall, is Catalan pianist Agustí Fernández. Fernández is a sophisticated expert in such settings, as he proves on a duo CD with Swedish bassist Johannes Nästesjö, Like listening with your fingertips (Konvoj Records KOR 013 konvojart.com). Fernández, who can be as lyrical as he wishes when playing in any sized group, angles this musical partnership on the disc’s single improvised track by spending as much time as pseudo-percussionist as on the keyboard. Whacking the case, key frame and strung back of the instrument plus plucking, stopping and sliding the strings to create comparable reverberations, his actions match Nästesjö’s chunky thrusts and spiccato swells that are only a little less husky when bowed. The few times the pianist moves from soundboard stimulation to complete keyboarding, his cascading patterns feature speedy kinetics or high-frequency slaps. Eventually the two reach dynamic animation, where sul ponticello arco sprawls from the bassist are decorated with single keystrokes from the pianist, like diamonds sparking on a jeweller’s bolster.

02 Lake of LightOne musician who Fernández, and seemingly half of the international creative musicians, has played with often, is American bassist William Parker, who gives a solo concert on September 15 at Royal City Church. Besides double bass, Parker, who has played at the GJF many times, often expresses himself on a six-or-eight string doussin gouni and African wooden flute. Lake of Light – Compositions for AquaSonics (Gotta Let It Out GLIO 19 CD gottaletitout.com), is even more unique in that it features Parker and three associates, Jeff Schlanger, Anne Humanfeld, both of whom are visual artists, and percussionist Leonid Galaganov, improvising with the AquaSonic, which can be both bowed like a string instrument or struck like an idiophone. The results are audacious, adventurous and atonal in equal measures. Each of the seven soundscapes reference sci-fi film soundtrack bleeps as much as they resemble polyphonic timbres from steel drums, wooden flutes, vibraphones, mridangams and güiros. On tracks like Lake of Light, Parker’s double bass prowess is such that each stroke brings out not only one tone but also all the pseudo-string’s squealing extensions. The most insouciant and least percussive collaboration sounds like it could come from an offbeat string ensemble, with the finale both contrapuntal and chromatic. In contrast, Helium Butterfly is all steel-pan-like bangs and bops, with the echoes multiplying from piccolo-like airs and rushed mallet strokes into deepened riffs. These floating puffs, spiccato bowing and vibrating smacks join for the final track, Action. Here all players continuously rattle the idiophones so that wood and metal responses are directed towards group resonation.

03 Masters of ImprovParker often works with trombonist Steve Swell, whose Soul Travelers combo shares the bill at Cooperators Hall September 14 with Fernández/Charuest. Tellingly, one of the trombonist’s newer CDs, Masters of Improvisation (Valid Records VR-1016 validrecords.com) lacks a bassist – but includes tenor saxophonist Kidd Jordan, pianist Joel Futterman and drummer Alvin Fielder, all of whom have played with Parker. Within the three live selections are prime instances of in-the-moment improvisation. Moving from slow boil to eruptive textures, the tunes unroll on a carpet of cymbal raps, pinpointed smacks and timed rolls from Fielder, as Futterman’s contrapuntal contributions move from laid-back comping to kinetic keyboard scampers, while the saxophonist and trombonist intertwine textures like a 21st-century Archie Shepp-Roswell Rudd duo. Stuttering grace notes from Swell and undulating coloratura slurs from Jordan often define the theme. Deft enough to tunefully pivot 180 degrees on the final Sawdust on the Floor, the quartet uses triple-tongued brassiness, reed overblowing and keyboard sprinkles to turn the tune into a close cousin of Lonely Avenue, with the percussion backbeat and gutbucket smears that are part of the heritage of New Orleans, where this concert was recorded. Earlier, the nearly 26-minute Residue allows each member enough space for a multiphonic, multi-faceted solo. Brief celesta-like pings set up the track that soon has the horn players digging deep into their instruments’ innards as driving keyboard-pounding, sky-high graceful trombone blasts and seemingly limitless reed variations not only allow each to isolate almost any timbre and all its extensions, but create such passion that just when it appears that the track couldn’t get more intense, it does. By the finale, Swell and Jordan are exchanging briefer and briefer sound patterns at high-pitches that spin out into a graceful textural summation, with a concluding drum roll and cymbal splash leading back to the blues.

04 Radiant ImprintsYoung enough to be Jordan’s grandson, but sometimes playing in the same free jazz style, is tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis, whose trio plays at the Market Square stage on September 15. Radiant Imprints (Off CD 038 jblewis.com), which features him in a duo with drums/mbira player Chad Taylor, proves that he’s his own person though, since he mixes ecstatic outbursts with well-paced melodies. Almost half the tracks whoop and howl as both players push past buoyant multiphonics to reed snarls and snorts and ambulatory drum pacing whose splayed extensions touch on John Coltrane’s most outré improvising as they slip in and out of various keys and pitches. But while Trane is an acknowledged influence, pieces such as Imprints and Radiance confirm that the duo can move past these restrictions. The latter features an expansive bass drum-tinged intro, which presages a saxophone groove that relates to pre-modern tenacious tenor players like Ben Webster and Arnett Cobb. As the tenor slurps and swings, the irregular vibrations and note extensions operate as almost dual call-and-response. Imprints has the same sort of relaxed feel, but with flutter-tongued dips from mid-range to the horn’s darker registers for added emphasis during solos. By the mid-point, Taylor’s backbeat meets up with the saxophonist, who works in a quote from A Love Supreme and exits with pure air blown through his instrument. Another distinguishing feature is on tracks such as First Born, when Taylor uses the glockenspiel-like resonance of the mbira with the facility of a guitarist to set up and stretch out the accompaniment to Lewis’ dissonant but artful interpretations.

05 Fujii This Is ItIf mbira and saxophone seems an unusual combination, so too is a trio of trumpet, piano and percussion, featured at the GJF on September 15 at Cooperators Hall. This afternoon gig on a double bill with the Dutch-Canadian Groven, Lumley & Stadhouders group, is the GJF debut of the 1538 trio of pianist Satoko Fujii, and trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, who have both played the GJF before, with drummer Takashi Itani. This Is It! (Libra Records 203-049 librarecords.com), the trio’s CD, convincingly demonstrates how easily the unfazed Itani adds his talents to the duo, which after decades of playing together anticipates each other’s every move. Named for the Celsius melting point of iron, this CD justifies the title. For instance, the drummer’s timed side ruffs on Prime Number push Fujii’s staggering chord exploration and Tamura’s mercurial grace notes into harmonic proximity so that the result is a unique squirming theme. And the drummer performs a similar gluing on Riding on the Clouds, but this time his prod is temple bell-like echoes, in sync with the trumpeter’s distantly strained tones and the pianist’s minimized chromatic movements. Swoop, however, proves that the three don’t have to operate at a hushed level, with Fujii’s high-frequency key pummelling and percussive arpeggios and Itani’s nerve beats and cymbal clashes creating a showcase where frequently-repeated note patterns define progress.

These concerts and others confirm that the GJF offers maturity tempered with experimentation – and it’s these qualities which draw fans to the city every September. 

01 KollageNo Fuss, No Muss
G-THREE GT0012 (kollage.ca)

If Norman Marshall Villeneuve’s bands from the 1980s and 90s earned him the title of Canada’s (or at least Toronto’s) Art Blakey, then drummer Archie Alleyne (1923-2015) would certainly have been this city’s Philly Joe Jones. Dependably swinging and, or at least it seemed, often employed, Alleyne had catholic tastes and could be heard accompanying singers, hard-hitting ensembles, musical veterans or new faces alike at an unending series of clubs, pubs, Ethiopian restaurants and pizza joints. He was a major force in Toronto’s jazz community. Full disclosure, I knew and admired Archie, having worked alongside him on a number of projects. He was equally fun both on and off the bandstand and, similar to the musicians he most admired, had sly turns of phrase. If a musician had gained a few pounds since their last meeting, Archie would coyly tell them they were looking prosperous. And when he gave musical direction, not that it happened very often, it was “No Fuss, No Muss,” meaning, swinging, joyful music delivered in an authentic and non-pretentious manner without unnecessary complications.

No Fuss, No Muss is about as close to a mission statement as a jazz musician could have, and congratulations to producer/label owner Greg Gooding and the assembled cast of very fine musicians whom Archie either worked with in Kollage or supported as a mentor for their work here. This recording both continues and punctuates the hard bop legacy of Kollage begun by neighbourhood friends Alleyne and Doug(ie) Richardson. By the sound of things, their musical legacy is in good hands for many years to come.

02 James HallLattice
James Hall
Outside In Music OiM 1801 (jameshallmusic.com)

Lattice, the sophomore release from New York-based trombonist/bandleader James Hall, is, as the title implies, an album whose themes are rooted in the productive promise of intersectionality. As a metaphor for improvised music, latticework – with its criss-cross construction, multiple points of intersection, and inherently open form – seems so apt that it is a wonder that the term has not seen wider use. Beyond Hall’s compositional skills (he wrote six of the album’s eight tracks) and trombone, the strands that constitute this particular Lattice are Jamie Baum (flute and alto flute), Deanna Witkowski (piano and Rhodes), Tom DiCarlo (bass) and Allan Mednard (drums), with the addition, on Black Narcissus and Brittle Stitch, of special guest Sharel Cassity (alto saxophone).

Shoy, the album’s first track, begins with a beautiful melody, played by Hall and Baum. The combination of trombone and flute is another unusual but apposite element of Lattice: the direct, lower-register trombone and the breathy, higher-register flute create an unexpectedly compelling texture. The propulsive, swinging Brittle Stitch showcases the talents of Witkowski and Cassity, both of whom take memorable, concise solos, with the assistance of DiCarlo and Mednard, who are excellent here and throughout the album. Traveller, another Hall original, builds intensity slowly but surely, and features brief marvels from Witkowski and Mednard. Beyond its strong compositions and performances, Lattice also scores points for its high production quality: special mention to engineer Aaron Nevezie, mixing/mastering engineer Katsuhiko Naito, and to Ryan Keberle (who co-produced with Hall).

03 Francois RichardLibération – Jazz Flute
François Richard
Effendi Records CMFR004 (effendirecords.com)

How many times can one reach the pinnacle of his compositional and flute-playing powers? Well, if you are the Québécois virtuoso François Richard, then the answer is probably several times; in fact, it might even be a bit risqué to suggest a definitive figure. He may scale even greater heights in future, but if he never achieves anything better than Libération he still has ample reason to be proud. Richard’s take on the lineage of the cool, spacey flute is infinitely less than conventional here, seeing him summoning woody tones from the instrument that float benignly over Guillaume Martineau’s languid piano, the growling gravitas of Rémi-Jean Leblanc’s contrabass and the delicate thunder of Martin Auguste’s drums.

Each musician takes turns adding rich and not entirely predictable harmonic inventions to the music. The opener Ponctuation is a joyous, dancing piece which engages the senses. It’s followed by Winter Blues, a slow, slightly mysterious and ballad-edged tune with a rueful feel. Winter Blues features a thoughtful melodic solo by Richard, as does Une tempête, which reminds one of the leaping virtuosity of the late, great Eric Dolphy. Richard continues to ring in the changes in mood, structure and tempo, making Libération a program of constantly interesting repertoire.

The considerable degree of balance and integration of melody, harmony and rhythm, of composition and improvisation, of exploration, individuality and tradition, is impressively maintained throughout.

04 Noam LemishPardes
Amos Hoffman; Noam Lemish
Independent (hoffmanlemish.com)

Pardes (pronounced par-DES) is the Hebrew word for orchard or “fruit garden” and, according to the liner notes, the origin of the word “paradise.” This makes a lot of sense: listening to Pardes, the Amos Hoffman and Noam Lemish Quartet’s first collaborative CD release, it’s easy to feel like you’ve been transported to a musically intoxicating Garden of Eden.

Both Israeli-born and exceptional musicians, oudist, guitarist and innovator Hoffman, now based in South Carolina, and Toronto-based pianist and composer Lemish, have been collecting Jewish melodies from around the world for over 20 years. With Pardes, Kurdish, Ladino, Yemenite, Moroccan, Russian, Bukharian and Israeli songs have been uniquely transformed by Hoffman and Lemish’s shared jazz sensibilities and inspired arrangements. The results? These songs – many well-known and beloved – have been reimagined into sultry, sexy, evocative, compelling and just plain gorgeous jazz-infused jewels.

Each track is worthy of its own review but for now, some “quick pick” standouts: Hoffman’s stunning oud work on Adon Haslichot; Lemish’s exhilarating piano on Dror Yikra; the exquisite contribution by guest clarinettist Jacob Gorzhaltsan on Äji Tü, Yormä, Äji?; the exuberant exchanges between guitar and piano on Tchol Hamitpachat; and the deeply expressive work by both Lemish and Hoffman on Ets Harimon. Guest tombak player, Pedram Khavarzamini, adds yet another layer of beauty on three tracks, and the Gray brothers, Justin (bass) and Derek (drums and percussion), round out this remarkable quartet with their skilful and sensitive musicianship.

Plug into Pardes and enjoy your stay in paradise!

Listen to 'Pardes' Now in the Listening Room

05 Adrean FarrugiaBlued Dharma
Adrean Farrugia; Joel Frahm
GB Records GBCD1804 (gbrecords.ca)

It was while on tour with drummer Ernesto Cervini’s band in 2014 that the idea of recording a duo album emerged for Toronto-based pianist Adrean Farrugia and New York City-based saxophonist Joel Frahm. Fortunately for us, Blued Dharma, released last month, is the result of a splendid idea taken seriously and brought, beautifully, to fruition.

Farrugia and Frahm are masterful musicians and improvisers. And clearly, these two mutual fans and musical friends revel in playing together. Simpatico, musical connection, uncanny understanding, empathy – call it what you will – these two have it, and it permeates the CD. Of the album’s eight tracks, five are originals by Farrugia – as insightful a composer as he is a pianist – two are utterly refreshing and intriguingly different turns on Roy Noble’s Cherokee, and track five is Farrugia and Frahm’s joyful jaunt through Kern and Hammerstein’s Showboat classic, Nobody Else But Me; listen for the brief, playful nod to Over the Rainbow. The title track sounds like what you’d imagine something called Blued Dharma would: contemplative, expressive, deeply personal. The third track, For Murray Gold, is a heartaching ballad. If someone ever writes a piece of music for me, please let it be that gorgeous!

Farrugia and Frahm do not merely improvise. They complement, interact with, enhance, cajole, inspire, coax and charm each other. Blued Dharma is nothing short of magical. You, too, will be charmed.

06 PlantPlant
Éric Normand & Jim Denley
Smeraldina-Rima 26/Tour de Bras TDBLP990002 (tourdebras.com)

Quebec’s smaller cities sometimes spawn radical music. Michel Levasseur has produced 34 annual editions of the epic FIMAV festival in Victoriaville, while Éric Normand has created an extraordinarily active scene – complete with record label and improvising orchestra – even further afield in Rimouski. One of Normand’s ongoing collaborations is with Australian saxophonist/flutist Jim Denley: they first recorded together in a Rimouski quintet in 2010 on Transition de Phase. Plant, available as a beautifully packaged, limited-edition LP or a download, presents the two in a 2013 performance. If the title suggests organic growth, a first hearing suggests it’s a pun, linking garden and industrial plants.

If the combination of flute or saxophone and electric bass might suggest sparse work, that’s hardly the case here. There are dense, sustained sounds, whether alternating or layered, coming from Normand’s electric bass and Denley’s “field recordings” of a clothing factory. Whether playing flute or saxophone, Denley often focuses on the slow alternated notes and trills, sometimes sustained with circular breathing. Normand and the field recordings suggest the factory, Denley’s winds in the glade.

Together they create a kind of post-industrial pastoral in which the vibrating amplified strings and machinery ultimately fuse with Denley’s minimalist, gestural language, his flute sound almost a kind of first brush with music in a primeval forest. The result is an extended meditation on the nature and meaning of sound, its threats, codes and ambiguities transfigured into resonant repose.

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