More than a half-century after his recording debut, multi-reedist Roscoe Mitchell shows no sign of slowing down as a player or composer. One of the founders of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and the Art Ensemble of Chicago (AEC), Mitchell, who also teaches, keeps the AEC going alongside experiments with ensembles ranging from duos to big bands. Many of the bigger configurations are pliable, however, so what at first appears to be a large ensemble turns out to be several subsets of musicians who more faithfully portray some of Mitchell’s thornier compositions.

01 Mitchell BellsBells for the South Side (ECM 2494/2495, a two-CD set, is an example of this. Although an additional eight players are featured interpreting a dozen Mitchell originals, the band members – percussionists Tani Tabbal, William Winant and Kikanju Baku, trumpeter Hugh Ragin, reedist James Fei, keyboardist Craig Taborn, bassist Jaribu Shahid plus Tyshawn Sorey, who plays trombone, piano and drums – are usually divided into various-sized groups featuring Mitchell on soprano, sopranino, alto or bass saxophones, flute, piccolo, bass recorder and percussion. The resilient Winant skilfully employs tubular bells, glockenspiel, vibes and marimba during the 11 Chicago-recorded tracks, either in contrast to other instrumental motifs or as a clanging continuum. On the title track, for instance, his combination of bell shakes and bell-ringing echoes alongside washboard-like scrubs as a perfect backdrop for equivalent honks from Fei’s contralto clarinet and delicate storytelling from Ragin’s piccolo trumpet. Meanwhile, Spatial Aspects of the Sound, the leadoff track, demonstrates how tubular bell-hammering plus segmented scrapes from other players (using Mitchell’s specially constructed percussion cage) serve as discerning contrasts to formalist timbres from pianist Taborn and Mitchell’s piccolo. These sorts of meaningful challenges meander throughout the discs, as when Fei’s sopranino and Mitchell’s bass saxophone move from shrill peeps and tongue slaps to a pastoral-sounding coda; or when Shahid, Tabbal, Ragin, one pianist and Mitchell on The Last Chord work brass tweets, reed snarls, keyboard asides and bass-and-drum deliberations into a theme that extends the concept of how a free-oriented group should sound, offering simple swing and timbre scrutiny in equal measure. Slippery reed and brass excursions are as common as carefully harmonized and calming horn sequences here, as are delicate passages from vibes and piano which set off equally intense drum forays pulsating from any or all of the percussion kits. The extended and concluding Red Moon in the Sky/Odwalla wraps up these sound currents, then expands the program. Taborn’s and Fei’s electronically pushed wave-form pulsations and space-invader-like wiggles give way to martial drumming and screaming reeds that amplify the wistful, contemporary jazz narrative suggested earlier on Prelude to the Card Game, Cards for Drums, And the Final Hand, but with Ragin’s cascading grace notes and Mitchell’s nasal vibrations rejuvenating the narrative still further. Finally, the gentle swing of Odwalla, an AEC classic, is the setting for Mitchell’s mournful alto solo and some drum pitter patter.

02 Accelerated ProjectionA decade previously in Sardinia (2005), Mitchell, playing alto and soprano saxophone plus flute, met pianist Matthew Shipp, with whom he had been collaborating for more than a dozen years, for seven variations on Accelerated Projection (RogueArt Rog 0079 In these pure improvisations, the players alternate solo passages with those moments where their thought processes could be that of a single mind. Feeling out each other’s dynamics and drawbacks, they experiment with sweeping and clattering keyboard lines, pinched reed peeps and augmentations in solo and duo configurations. By the time the fourth track arrives, though, they’ve worked out an interactive concoction. At that point, just as they’ve serenely probed every musical nuance, they rev up to hardened staccato with so many timbres packed into their playing that they threaten to overflow the sound limits. Accelerated Projection VI is the climactic synthesis, where after experimenting with inner-piano-string pulls plus ethereal flute somersaults, they limit themselves to the keyboard and saxophones. On soprano, Mitchell’s honks and split tones vibrate every note and its extensions to the limit, as Shipp turns from key dusting and caressing to high-frequency chording that echoes and links to the reed output. From that point on, an exercise in smoothing out key jiggles and overblown reed shrills leads to an instance of sophisticated tonal fusion.

03 Mitchell MTOFlash forward 11 years to Toronto and Ride the Wind (Nessa ncd-40 preserves a concert Mitchell was involved in, featuring an 18-piece Montreal-Toronto Art Orchestra (MTAO) specially assembled by trombonist Scott Thomson and bassist Nicolas Caloia to play expanded arrangements, transcribed and orchestrated from some of the saxophonist’s compositions, many of which were previously recorded with Taborn and Baku in trio form. With Gregory Oh as conductor, Mitchell supervises rather than plays, except for a brief sopranino saxophone solo of boomeranging circular breathing on They Rode for Them-Part Two. So how do the Ontarians and Quebeckers fare? Quite well, especially on the CD-ending runthrough of Mitchell’s vintage Nonaah, played by a quartet of Caloia, trumpeter Craig Pedersen, alto saxophonist Yves Charuest and clarinetist Lori Freedman. A squirming chipper compendium of string bounces, tongue slaps, nimble trumpeting and reed whistles, the head gives way to a harmonized middle section, while sombre asides maintain the tune’s ambulatory pace. It’s a nimble confection to complete the multi-course sonic banquet served by the 18 players on the preceding six tracks. The sonic half-dozen pieces are pre-eminently group music, although Charuest, bassoonist Peter Lutek and pianist Marilyn Lerner, among others, manage brief interpolations. Offering the flavors derived from both notated and improvised sounds, sometimes, as on Ride the Wind, the accumulated vamps are almost symphonically orchestral, with a rumbling trombone/tuba intro booming like the initial motif of Beethoven’s Symphony No.5 before the darkened textures are balanced by decorative reed smears plus sunnier respites from flute peeps, cymbal raps and chromatic stopping from piano and vibes. More dissonant, with intermittent pacing, the other tracks include twinned instrumental passages, some as challenging as Jean Derome’s piccolo face-off with Isaiah Ceccarelli’s snare drum on They Rode for Them-Part Two, after which drum ratamacues usher in surround sound from the MTAO that takes up every remaining open space. The key instance of this mass movement is RUB, which moves without pause into Shards and Lemons. Profoundly abstract, the expressive squeaks, gurgles and small animal cries on RUB undulate sporadically until superseded by the spiritual tone poem that is the latter tune. The placid surface of orchestral harmonies is sometimes upset by trumpet peeps and trombone slurs until a harsher interlude weighted towards percussion and lower-pitched reeds enlarges the unrolling slow-motion, culminating in a crescendo that distinctively connects understated, stentorian, shrill and lowing textures into a pulsating whole.

04 Seraphic LightMitchell’s influence as a polymorphous soloist and composer is enormous and is reflected in the work of other master musicians such as Daniel Carter. On the three-part improvisation Seraphic Light (AUM Fidelity AUM 106, Carter plays soprano, alto and tenor saxophones, clarinet, flute and trumpet with frequent Mitchell collaborators Shipp and bassist William Parker. Obviously less structured than Mitchell’s work often is, Seraphic Light does confirm how an integrated combination of motion and emotion can create a narrative both spellbinding and stirring. Initially graceful and formal due to Carter’s muted trumpet grace notes, the tune shortly becomes foot-stomping swing due to Parker’s crunching and buzzing bass line, Shipp’s repetitive chording and Carter’s riffs that sprawl from moderato to altissimo. With Carter switching among so many horns and the others playing percussive when appropriate to bypass the need for a drummer, the three sometimes recalls a miniature AEC. The program’s apogee occurs midway through Part II, when carefully thought-out polyphony means that a groove is established even as each of the players creates a separate, though related, theme variation. The track culminates with this layered mass dividing into a walking bass line, segmented reed textures and connective keyboard comping. A coda as well as a culmination, Part III allows a pause to acknowledge applause on this live set, and then miraculously picks up where the previous tune ends, reaching the same energetic groove. Then the track is slowly allowed to fade via rolling piano textures, string slams from the bassist and breathy up-and-down flutter tonguing from Carter’s tenor saxophone.

The musical advances which Mitchell helped pioneer are still being showcased and extended by himself and others, 50 years on. 

01 FalaiseLézardes et zébrures
Bernard Falaise
Ambiances Magnétiques AM 237 (

Guitarist Bernard Falaise is a significant contributor to Montreal’s musique actuelle movement, a member of the expansive Ensemble SuperMusique as well as the trio Klaxon Gueule and Quartetski, a group that regularly re-imagines high modernist composers like Bartók and Stravinsky. Lézardes et zébrures is a solo record, but one without solos, a series of pieces constructed from minimal materials. Each begins with short figures, intervals and arpeggios played on an acoustic guitar in open tunings to emphasize steel string resonance and ringing harmonics; these are then looped, with Falaise adding layers of other instruments, among them electric guitar, glockenspiel and melodica.

The opening Au zoo sets both a pattern for the music and an intermittent theme, one that’s reflected in titles like Langue de girafe and Mémoire d’éléphant, and even in the CD title – literally “cracks and welts” but with the bi-lingual suggestion in this context of lizards and zebras. These notions of other species’ consciousness are matched with alternative substances and spaces – Marcher sur la glace or Stalactites et stalagmites – all of them implicit in sounds that repeat and reconfigure. All of Falaise’s works here are at once immediate, luminous and strangely dream-like.

The oscillating figure of Le compas dans l’œil suggests Steve Reich’s minimalism, while the clicks and suspensions of Distillations reference the turntablist’s art, but it’s all part of Falaise’s bright, immediate, sonic universe, developed at greatest length in the imagination of another materiality in Porcelaine 360°.

02 Dan PugachPlus One
Dan Pugach Nonet
Unit Records UTR 4816 (

Israeli-born, Berklee-educated drummer Dan Pugach’s debut bandleader album, Plus One, recorded in Brooklyn and released on the Swiss label Unity Records, is a compelling offering that functions both as a celebration of diverse influences and as a unified statement of artistic intent. Plus One is a nonet record, and Pugach arranged (or co-arranged, with vocalist Nicole Zuraitis) all of the album’s nine tracks, the majority of which – with the exception of Jolene, Crystal Silence and Love Dance – are original compositions.

Brooklyn Blues, the opening track, is a fitting beginning for the album, as it showcases Pugach’s confluent interests: while the harmonic and textural choices may be Brooklyn, the song is anchored by a classic New Orleans second-line rhythmic feel. The influence of modern large-ensemble composers such as Maria Schneider is evident on the 7/4 Coming Here, a driving, lyrical Pugach original, which features a powerful trumpet solo from frequent Schneider collaborator Ingrid Jensen, as well as great solo work from tenor saxophonist Jeremy Powell and, in the song’s final section, from Pugach himself. Our Blues, an original 12/8 blues that recalls Bonnie Raitt as much as it does Charles Mingus, is a tongue-in-cheek piece that features Zuraitis’ strong vocals. The exciting, medium-up Discourse This! ends the album, with great solos from alto saxophonist Andrew Gould, trumpeter David Smith and Pugach. Plus One is a robust, intelligent debut, and is as notable for its arrangements as it is for its top-tier playing.

Listen to 'Plus One' Now in the Listening Room

04 Jerry GranelliDance Hall
Jerry Granelli
Justin Time JTR 8606-2 (

Listening to this marvellous recording by drummer Jerry Granelli, one cannot help but be seduced by the mood and atmosphere – sometimes genuinely spooky – and with the drummer’s sublime ability to coordinate shade and structure to a rare degree. Every one of the eight pieces here is played by Granelli with languid ease, each rhythmic variation following the other inexorably, from the bluesy brilliance of Boogie Stop Shuffle to the sinister elegance of Driva Man.

As if things could not get any more perfect, guitarists Bill Frisell and Robben Ford team up with Granelli and his son and bassist J. Anthony Granelli to sculpt and shape the sustained inventions of The Great Pretender, Caldonia and other pieces with endless craftsmanship, beguiling variety and sensuousness.

The power and stylishness of this music makes this a champagne disc, full of fizz and finesse. It is also music of enormous drama, full of glinting lights, mysterious depths, expectations, frustrations, hopes and doubts, like the shattered shadows of a sinister quasi-existential soundtrack to life glimpsed by moonlight in a forest. There’s an unhurried quality to this approach, a lived-in character to the rhythmic phrase-making that is endlessly engaging, as the fire and brimstone of youth is melded with the well-honed values of experience.

In sheer colour and variety, in the exceptional refinement of its musicianship, Granelli here imparts a monumental stature to the eternal blues, seemingly played in the shadows of the Dance Hall.

Listen to 'Dance Hall' Now in the Listening Room

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

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 (

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 (

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.

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