12 SeanceSéance
Philippe Lemoine; Simon Rose
Tour de Bras TDB9036cd (tourdebras.com)

Consisting of a dozen brief tracks that showcase the sweep of extended reed playing, Séance also confirms improvised music’s universality. French tenor saxophonist Philippe Lemoine and British baritone saxophonist Simon Rose, both Berlin-based, are on a Canadian label. Geographic considerations aside, the tracks, which last from just over one minute to almost six and a half, demonstrate that saxophone probing can be both penetrating and pleasing.

Hope River is the only track on which expected baritone and tenor tones are displayed with comforting familiarity; the others concentrate on testing as many reed tropes as possible. Sometimes, as on Worm Gill, it is tongue slaps; other times, as on Planchette, air is whooshed through horns’ body tubes without key movements, creating whale-like or bird-echoing textures; or on Now Séance the two fluidly modulate deep pitches to their farthest extensions without losing momentum.

Still it’s the longest pieces that meet the most reed challenges. Veering from squeaky to subterranean timbres during Dans(e) le flux, both burrow deep inside their horns for protracted rumbles that are cleverly harmonized with key percussion. Equally percussive as well as abstract, Medium is an essay in tongue slaps, key rattles, juddering cries and slurps that accede to a concentrated mass, but one in which both horns can be heard clearly.

Whether believing in contacting the deceased through a medium or not, this Séance is one in which many a saxophonist would want to participate.

14 Subtone MooseMoose Blues
Subtone
Laika Records 3510366.2 (subtone.eu)

Moose Blues is the fifth album from the German jazz quintet Subtone, a collective whose members include Malte Dürrschnabel (reeds), Magnus Schriefl (trumpet), Matthias Pichler (bass), Peter Gall (drums), and Florian Hoefner, a pianist who, after years working in New York, now teaches at Memorial University in Newfoundland. Released on the German label Laika Records, and recorded following a Subtone tour of Canada earlier this year, Moose Blues is a tour diary of sorts: a reflection on time spent travelling throughout Canada, during which the group’s music was developed and refined.

Moose Blues begins with the Hoefner-penned Orbit, a propulsive, groove-based song featuring confident solos from Hoefner and Schriefl, bookended by dark, texturally lush sections. E-Nuts, a Schriefl composition, is a strong, swinging entry, with tight melodic playing from Schriefl and Dürrschnabel, and a concise, interesting bass solo from Pichler. Gall’s Alphabet City is a simmering, mixed-meter affair that showcases the group’s ability to juxtapose intensity and shifting dynamic levels, and Upside Up, written by Hoefner, is a sophisticated, bluesy 3/4 song, with satisfying playing both from the rhythm section and from the horns.

Subtone is a group with firm roots in the tradition of artists such as Lee Morgan, and the album’s final track – the titular Moose Blues – is as close as they get to a conventional hard bop aesthetic. The real charm of Subtone, however, is their ability to synthesize the performance practices of hard bop – strong rhythm section playing, tight horn lines, bluesy flourishes – with modern harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic ideas.

Listen to 'Moose Blues' Now in the Listening Room

16 Sphereology Vol 1 CoverPlays Thelonious Monk: Sphereology Volume One
Andrés Vial
Chromatic Audio Chroma 111417 (chromatic-audio.com)

2017 marked Thelonious Sphere Monk’s centenary, but 2018 seems to be the year it’s commemorated. There’s guitarist Miles Okazaki’s brilliant six-album digital set with all 70 of Monk’s compositions played solo, and pianist Frank Kimbrough is releasing quartet versions of them on six CDs (each adding three tunes to Monk’s Casino, Alexander von Schlippenbach’s 2005 journey through the complete works). Montreal pianist Andrés Vial is also taking on Monk repertoire, though this Volume One gives no indication of how far he might pursue the impulse.

A crisp, inventive pianist, Vial here leads two quartets with different rhythm sections, one New York-based, one Montreal, both good. He emphasizes less-played repertoire from Monk’s canon and does so hand-in-glove with guitarist Peter Bernstein. Both treat Monk’s distinctive rhythmic and harmonic language with respect, though Bernstein’s warm guitar tone sometimes softens the edges. However, they retain Monk’s essential quality, which might be characterized as divergence, an ability to embody contraries. Thus Bernstein manages to be both oblique and funky on the opening Bluehawk, while both he and Vial are cheerfully dissonant on Green Chimneys.

The approach is often reflective, never more so than on Ask Me Now, a pleasantly pensive duet by Vial and Bernstein, and the bluesy, late night quality extends to Light Blue. New York bassist Dezron Douglas contributes structuralist bass solos while Rodney Green recalls the melodic drumming of Monk associate Frankie Dunlop; Montrealers Martin Heslop and André White shine on the extended Functional.

At least when it comes to exploratory music old definitions no longer apply. Only on the equivalent of a rigid Doug Ford-like populist disc will you find players insisting on one style, be it rock, noise, jazz-improv or so-called classical. Accomplished improvisers in contrast, draw on many sources to create unique musical programs, with sophisticated electronics regularly and effortlessly added to the mix.

01 OkkyungCase in point is Cheol-Kkot-Sae [Steel.Flower.Bird] (Tzadik TZ 4923 okkyunglee.info), by Korean-born, US-raised, Berlin-based cellist Okkyung Lee. Deciding to blend the Korean melodies of her youth with the spiky improv in which she now specializes, Lee was commissioned by SWR to create this CD’s music, performed live at the Donaueschingen Festival. Steel.Flower.Bird consists of textures that are neither wholly Asian nor Occidental, but variations on both genres. Lee’s cello strategy is aided by Korean folk opera vocalist Song-Hee Kwon and traditional Korean percussionist Jae-Hyo Chang representing one approach to the program; and experienced improvisers, saxophonist John Butcher and bassist John Edwards from the UK, American percussionist Ches Smith and Norwegian electronics player Lasse Marhaug embodying the other. No sooner are the first Korean phrases verbalized in a ghostly fashion at the beginning than they’re speedily joined by double-stopping string strokes, saxophone growls and droning electronic whizzes. Before this sequence is overwhelmed by a crescendo of rocket-ship-launching explosions from Marhaug’s knob-twisting, snarky kazoo-like tones from the saxophonist and string splaying, the narrative moves to a quieter place, where unhurried instrumental lowing makes the perfect accompaniment for Song’s bel canto warbling. Smith’s vibraphone ringing and Butcher’s swirling chirps create a connective intermezzo, which is also a prelude to a similar instrumental break that features a duet between Korean and Western percussion, showcasing a two-part backbeat rather than any exoticism. Building on a slinky counterpoint propelled by Smith’s vibraphone resonations and Edwards’ chunky thumps, the piece climaxes as tongue slaps and honks from Butcher sail on top of muted vocalizing and spiccato cello string pressure. When joined by tremolo percussion stops, the music continues to echo past as applause begins. Oddly enough the subsequent encore/coda includes dynamic chording from an un-credited pianist that puts into bolder relief shrill and strained strokes from the cello as both instruments join for a concluding melody that sounds like the children’s round The Worms Crawl In, The Worms Crawl Out.

02 CluttertonesEncompassing a five-part suite and shorter features, the array of musical paths followed on Toronto-based The Cluttertones’ Leeways (SnailBongBong SBB 005 robclutton.com) make the previous CD appear singularly directed. Tunes composed by bassist/leader Rob Clutton feature fine performances by the band – trumpeter Lina Allemano, guitarist/banjoist Ted Posgate, Ryan Driver on analogue synth and vocals plus Clutton – with pianist Lee Pui Ming joining for the title suite. Remarkably enough, Lee’s formalist/improv comping is no more prominent on those five tracks than the other players’ contributions. In fact it’s Allemano’s gritty, back-of-throat growls and rounded capillary exposition that make the greatest impression on Leeways Part 2, when backed by keyboard jumps; and a similar scenario unfolds on Leeways Part 3. Here Clutton agilely moves the tune forward with discursive-but-emphasized string drones, vibrating multi-string slaps and pinched sul tasto runs as Lee comps, the banjo twangs bluegrass-like and synthesizer tones tweet. Earlier on, the most fully realized group effort is Septiembre. Consisting of a slew of intermezzos, it highlights double-bass stopping, buzzing electric guitar licks and high-pitched trumpet slurs, with a conclusion that’s rhythmically solid and notably kinetic. Instructively Gull, the first track, effectively adumbrates what’s to come, as crackles and flutters from the synth underscore a near-vocalized, muted trumpet tone, sometimes harmonized with a walking bass line, spiky guitar flanges and Driver’s high-pitched scat singing. Unfortunately, it is these songs that undermine the entire disc’s effectiveness. Those times when Driver mouths the impressionistic folksy lyrics in a lachrymose fashion – almost halting the proceedings – are saved from stasis by pointed trumpet obbligatos. With the skill and sophistication displayed on the other tracks, it’s unfortunate that vocalizing prevents Leeways from reaching the highest musical rung.

03 Big BoldSubtract vocals, piano and double bass and add drums and In Search of the Emerging Species (Shhpuma SSH 032 CD shhpuma.com) provides a glimpse of how The Cluttertones would sound if tunes were trimmed even further to languorous microtones. Consisting of Swiss musicians, trumpeter/slide trumpeter Marco Von Orelli and Sheldon Suter, who plays prepared drums, plus Portuguese stylists, guitarist-object manipulator Luis Lopes and Travassos on electronics, Big Bold Back Bone (BBBB) creates a single slab of darkened calculations where undulating pulses and metal-against-metal buffeting underlie a hard drum beat and guitar string strumming, as distant brass puffs advance the theme. Collective in execution, BBBB links Immerge to some of Morton Feldman’s compositions which stretch out without climaxing, but this quartet reveals its jazz and rock roots by, for instance, reaching a crescendo of trumpet slurps and sighs two-thirds of the way through. With this breakthrough, the heart monitor-like pacing of electronics is further breached by drum clatters and a near solo from Von Orelli that speeds up into expressive whistles and buzzes, backed by ascending drum raps, until the entire performance dissolves into silence.

04 CarbonMuch more aggressive in performance with its mixture of improvised jazz, noise, heavy rock and notated music tropes is Elliott Sharp’s Carbon, whose five selections on Transmigration at the Solar Max (Intakt CD311 intaktrec.ch) could be mistaken for metal music until examination reveals that it’s head-expanding rather than headbanging. Sharp’s unrestrained and mangled expositions on eight-string guitarbass, soprano saxophone, electronics, samples and textures don’t mask his university studies in electronics and composition with Feldman and others. He manages to be both aggressive and accommodating in his solos, joined by Zeena Parkins on electric harp and Bobby Previte on drums. Nowhere is this more apparent than on Orrery, where backbeat drum rhythms and blips from electronic samples are transmogrified through tempo changes into a psychedelic blues. In similar fashion, while slurred guitar licks and irregular drum beats serrated by electric harp tension on Perihelion may resemble standard rock tropes, the conjoined patterns that slowly build up alongside them recall the perpetual drone-stretching in the works of notated composers like Charlemagne Palestine and La Monte Young. Not committed to any overriding style however, Sharp also ensures that his five compositions include contrapuntal challenges, with Parkins’ often bottleneck-style vibrations bringing in multiple note extensions, and his own flashing guitar excursions human enough so that his finger positions on the strings are almost visible. 

05 Pavilion RougeUtilizing the brass timbres advanced by The Cluttertones and BBBB and intertwining them with electronic processing common to all these discs is Solution n°5 (LFDS Records LFDS 006 lefondeurdeson.fr) created by the Paris-based Pavillon Rouge trio. With trumpeter Nicolas Souchal’s sometimes eloquent and sometimes expeditious flights, plus alternately growling and blasting tones from Matthias Mahler’s trombone, the acoustic improvising program is satisfied, while the wide range of Jean-Marc Foussat’s electronics that include sampling, signal processing and granular synthesis takes care of the computerized input. Not only do the stop-start loops of Foussat’s machine provide a continuous base on which the horn players can expose their sometimes brief improvisational forays, but his collection of tones and timbres balance, parallel and surprise with such interjections. Add ring modulator-like bell ringing, the replication of Jew’s harp twanging and time and pitch stretched verbalization that takes the form of blurry mumbled phrases or layered textures that build up to the breadth, but not the volume of a choir performing Gregorian chants. While some sections are obtuse and others nearly opaque, the tracks make room for fluid contrapuntal challenges among the three players, with brassy tones turning calliope-like or to atonal triplets before acceding to regularized pulses. Meanwhile, the effect of the electronic undertow is to reconcile all parts so that the sonic performance of these instant compositions is stretched to the absolute limits, without splintering, eventually wrapping up with a finalized hiss.

Each of these sessions could define modern improvising. All draw on electronic interface and nod to various strands of music without hierarchy. And except in high quality, not one resembles any of the others.

01 Brodie WestClips
Brodie West Quintet
Independent LORNA/011 (brodiewest.com)

In the world of scientific laboratories, an experiment is defined as “a procedure carried out to support, refute, or validate a hypothesis.” Experiments provide insight into cause and effect by demonstrating what outcome occurs when a particular factor is manipulated. Experiments vary greatly in goal and scale, but always rely on repeatable procedure and logical analysis of the results. However, in music the word experimentation ought not to exist, as no scientifically repeatable procedure can be used to support, refute, or validate its hypotheses.

The music of the Brodie West Quintet validates its constructs with magic and mystery, both becoming the quintessence of their improvisational musical world. Truth be told, when it comes to West and his music – particularly on Clips – mystery and magic all collide in one unscientifically glorious big bang, producing art that always defies and blurs any categories. The alto saxophonist continues to destroy the proverbial artificial walls erected in music.

Goal and scale are tossed into the unknown with the wickedly intense scope of the music on Clips. The fractured rhythms of the radiantly irreverent Prel and Fug are an exemplary experience of the sparkling wit and ingenuity of West’s yammering melodic and harmonic conceptions. The saxophonist also draws into this musical web pianist Tania Gill, bassist Josh Cole and the drummers Nick Fraser and Evan Cartwright. Together they penetrate West’s riddle-filled music at a deeper level, creating art that’s radically fresh and intuitive, and plucked as if from ether.

02 Chris MonsonSeldom in the Well
Chris Monson
Independent (chrismonson.bandcamp.com)

Chris Monson’s debut album, Seldom in the Well, showcases his original jazz compositions while maintaining the stylish 60s feel. At times it is reminiscent of Blue Note records from that period, with a subtle rhythmic drive and touch of sultriness. It also features a stellar sextet – Monson on guitar, Kelly Jefferson on tenor saxophone, Kevin Turcotte on trumpet/flugelhorn, Anthony Panacci on piano, Artie Roth on acoustic bass and Tom Rasky on drums. Monson’s early roots in progressive rock are not necessarily obvious here; rather, his arrangements are an intricate map of sounds and stories.

The album opens with the rich-sounding Where the Leaf Has Been, a sonic hint of what is to come. That hint is revealed perfectly in my favourite tune on the album, Distant. Solid. Figures. As I was listening to it with my headphones, I was immersed in the sounds constantly moving from the left to the right in some sections – it was incredibly intimate and engaging. The Passing Through finally showcases Monson’s funky guitar grooves and his taste for understated melodies. Although he often takes a backseat, allowing each of his fellow musicians to shine, Monson maintains constant rhythmic conversations with the piano. As a matter of fact, many of the subtle rhythm hooks are this album’s gems. If We Dreamed of Soaring features another jewel – the bowed bass solo, so unexpected and so beautiful that it makes this music come full circle.

Seldom in the Well has a combination of aural density and airiness that appeals to both seasoned jazz listeners and novices in the genre. Recommended.

04 John PirmanKinship
John Pittman; Shirantha Beddage; Jeff McLeod; Mike Downes; Curtis Nowosad
Slammin Media SMO001 (pittmanmusic.com)

Released on August 24 through the Toronto-based company Slammin’ Media, Kinship is the debut solo release from trumpeter/composer John Pittman. Pittman is a veteran member of the Heavyweights Brass Band – probably Toronto’s best-known New Orleans-style horn ensemble – and he has been a mainstay on the local scene for some time, performing with a wide range of musical artists. Pittman is joined on this outing by baritone saxophonist Shirantha Beddage, pianist Jeff McLeod, bassist Mike Downes and drummer Curtis Nowosad, all of whom share some degree of personal history with Pittman; the concept of kinship, as Pittman writes in his liner notes, is “at the heart of this album.”

Kinship starts with the up-tempo Ties That Bind, an exciting piece that sets the tone for the rest of the album, both musically and thematically. For Siobhan – written by Pittman for his wife – is a bouncy, backbeat-driven affair, with solid rhythm section playing, and Homio-stasis, a satisfying, swinging song, is as close to a standard as Kinship gets, featuring a blistering muted solo from Pittman and an articulate, lyrical contribution from Downes. Of the album’s eight songs, only two are covers: As, the Stevie Wonder classic, and Where Is The Love?, from the catalogue of the Black Eyed Peas. Throughout Kinship, Pittman’s trumpet is strong, athletic and mature, and – much like his arrangements – displays a winning combination of hard bop, New Orleans and modern jazz influences.

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