07 Jakob BroReturnings
Jakob Bro
ECM 2546 (ecmrecords.com)

Danish guitarist Jakob Bro appears here in a stellar quartet that includes two elders of Scandinavian jazz, trumpeter/flugelhornist Palle Mikkelborg and Norwegian drummer Jon Christensen. The result is a classic program in the Nordic school that ECM has perfected, a clear, spacious essay in spare melodies, nuanced emotions and subtle background shadings. While Christensen and American bassist Thomas Morgan supply optimum, empathetic foundations with subtle comments and suggestions only occasionally coming to the fore, much of the music feels like a close collaboration between Bro and the 77-year-old Mikkelborg, who composed and produced the orchestral suite Aura with Miles Davis in 1985 when Bro and Morgan were young children.

The profound affinity between guitarist and trumpeter even inflects their luminous timbres as well as their economy of line, Bro’s electric guitar sound clarified to the point that it might be a brass instrument. Their empathy is apparent immediately in the opening tracks in which the two develop ballads with contrasting moods. The opening Oktober is pensive and introspective, foregrounding Mikkelborg’s Harmon-muted trumpet, while Strands is pure reflection in pastoral hues. The title track provides contrast: it’s a collaborative composition between Bro and Mikkelborg with an edge of metallic feedback to the guitar and an echoplex for the trumpet, summoning up something of Miles Davis’ electric period. The concluding track, Mikkelborg’s yearning Youth, restores the dominant texture.

While this description might suggest background music, the CD would likely prove too distractingly beautiful for that.

08 Emmet CohenMasters Legacy Series Volume 2
Emmet Cohen featuring Ron Carter
Cellar Live CL062917 (cellarlive.com)

Masters Legacy Series Volume 2, from New York-based pianist Emmet Cohen, represents a confluence of multiple productive collaborations. The first: between Cohen, drummer Evan Sherman, and bassist Ron Carter, the latter of whom, for the unfamiliar, is the titular master whose legacy is being celebrated. Now 81, Carter has appeared on over 2000 recordings, and came to prominence in the 1960s as a member of Miles Davis’s “second great quintet,” along with Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams and Wayne Shorter. The second collaboration: between Cohen and Vancouver-based record label Cellar Live, helmed by Cory Weeds. Initially a label that predominantly released live recordings made at the now-defunct Cellar Jazz Club in Vancouver, Cellar Live has grown into an independent powerhouse, with over 120 releases since its inception in 2001. The third collaboration, in a somewhat broader sense: between New York and Vancouver. Weeds and Cohen first met in 2016, as part of an annual Weeds-conducted jazz-centric tour of New York, and Masters Legacy Volume 2 was recorded at Vancouver’s Pyatt Hall.

With 12 tracks and over 70 minutes of music, the album is packed with interesting material. All Of You kicks things off, recalling, in its tasteful, playful minimalism, the work of Ahmad Jamal, another living jazz master. The Carter-penned blues It’s About Time is an album highlight, with strong, swinging playing from the trio, and a fiery, tempo-shifting Joshua closes the show, showcasing Carter’s propulsive facility. A strong album, both in concept and execution.

Ninety-Nine Years
Satoko Fujii Orchestra Berlin
Libra Records 211-047

Bright Force
Kira Kira (Satoko Fuji)
Libra Records 204-048 (librarecords.com)

09a Fujii BerlinThe brilliant Japanese avant-garde composer and improviser Satoko Fujii, who happens to play piano and accordion and conduct three separate orchestras on three continents, celebrates her 60th year in 2018. Japanese tradition calls it kanreki, which is best explained to a Eurocentric as literally coming full circle in life. The Japanese (lunar) calendar, unlike our Gregorian one, completes a whole cycle covering 12 junishi or animals – mouse, cow, tiger and so on. But with each animal comes the mystical elements, measures of space and time or five jikhan which, when factored in means that a person completes a life cycle at 60 (12x5). And so Satoko Fujii has been born again. To mark the fire and brimstone of youth Fujii has decided to celebrate her 60th year with 12 new albums, one for each junishi.

09b Fujii Bright ForceThis very unique and year-long Japanese birthday fête also means that we get to experience the full force of Fujii’s creativity. It’s clear from the fecund surge in the music of two of the 12 albums that Fujii’s music comes from a part of her being that is highly imaginative. The music that ensues is audacious and is propelled through her body to the nerve endings of her fingertips, from where it explodes out of the instruments that she plays. Magically, on the music of Ninety-Nine Years with Orchestra Berlin and on Bright Force with the quartet Kira Kira, the spark of the Fujii-electricity also reaches the members of both ensembles in such a manner as to ignite each one like a nuclear burst from the corona of the sun.

On the former recording Fujii simply acts as conductor; the proverbial catalyst in the detonation of her musical bombs. There are five songs on Ninety-Nine Years – each forming a vignette in an unravelling scroll that begins with a mystery in Unexpected Incident, and ends with another one, Follow The Idea, as well. Meanwhile each work on the disc is linked to the other like a series of arresting complexes of musical events characterized by movement, from immobility through acceleration, to a vanishing point propelled by both metronomic pulses and effusive lyricism. The music of Bright Force – as the album title suggests – emerges from its own proverbial solar explosion and is resolved in the quietude of the mysterious Luna Lionfish suite, a strikingly lyrical feature that closes an extraordinarily edgy album.

10 Globe UnityGlobe Unity – 50 Years
Alexander von Schlippenbach; Globe Unity Orchestra
Intakt Records CD 298/2018 (intaktrec.ch)

Recorded at Jazzfest Berlin in 2016, this CD marks the half-century of an experiment that has become a great instrument and a flexible institution. In 1966, pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach was invited to present a free jazz big band at the same festival. He created the 13-member Globe Unity Orchestra, combining and expanding the Manfred Schoof Quintet and the Peter Brötzmann Trio. The group has frequently reconvened, with nine to 19 members, demonstrating that minimal organization and committed listening can create both order and ecstatic chaos. By current standards of inclusion, it represents a small “globe,” but it celebrates an ambition that began in the European Union and crossed the Iron Curtain.

This edition has 18 members – three from the 1966 assembly (Schlippenbach, saxophonist Gerd Dudek and Schoof, the band’s eldest member at 80 in 2016) and seven significantly younger newcomers. Among the members are some of the most lyrical of improvisers (Dudek and trumpeter Tomasz Stańko [both joined in 1970]) and great sonic explorers (saxophonist Evan Parker [also 1970] and trumpeter Axel Dörner [2006]).

From the pointillist beginnings in which the members assemble in pecking isolation, the work moves organically through sub-ensembles and solo turns and moments of full-tilt incandescent glory. The trumpeters and trombonists – functioning with nothing resembling a conventional score – stretch a swing-era harmonic model to a mind-melding vision. The ultimate 44-minute piece celebrates the joy of untrammelled improvisation, testimony to the invention, openness and generosity of its members.

11 Peggy LeeEcho Painting
Peggy Lee
Songlines SGL1626-2 (songlines.com)

The artistic genius of Vancouver-based composer/performer/leader Peggy Lee is in top form in Echo Painting, a suite commissioned by the 2016 Vancouver International Jazz Festival. The Lee-composed tracks touch on free improvisation, jazz, and classical genres, providing her new ten-piece ensemble (comprising veteran and younger Vancouver area musicians) eloquent music to interpret. 

The opening Incantation sets the stage with mellow, slow, full ensemble held-note soundscapes and a jazz-tinged tenor saxophone solo against florid drumming. A Strange Visit touches on many styles with its fast, almost minimalistic string opening leading to a slower atonal improvisational section, and finishing with a march-like groove. More diverse style references emerge in Snappy, as Lee’s opening cello improvisation leads to atonal squeaks and repetition. A surprise polka-sounding section with string lead follows, with more fun in the subsequent wall-of-sound drum section. It all ends with crackling new music sounds. Hymn is a relaxing, reflective work with classical tonal harmonic changes. which develops into a more modern-day jazz number. All but three tracks were composed by Lee, the most notable being a straightforward cover of Robbie Robertson’s The Unfaithful Servant sung by guest vocalist Robin Holcomb, a surprising yet gratifying closing musical moment.   

Lee and her musicians move seamlessly between musical ideas with tight ensemble playing whether from notated scores or improvising. This is an original, detailed, unique recording.

12 Core Tet ProjectThe Core-Tet Project
Dame Evelyn Glennie; Jon Hemmersam; Szilárd Mezei; Michael Jefry Stevens
Naxos 8.573804 (naxos.com)

All of us who love to free improvise (and all the rest of you too) need to listen to The Core-tet Project improvising over 70 minutes of in-the-moment illuminating, live musical sounds. Members Dame Evelyn Glennie (percussion), Jon Hemmersam (guitar), Szilárd Mezei (viola) and Michael Jefry Stevens (piano) are each musical superstars, but the big surprise here is how well they create music together.

From the initial piano ping in Steel-Ribbed Dance, each soloist joins the cohesive tight group with virtuosic rapid lines, beating repeated notes and tinges of guitar and piano jazz flavours. The Calling is a quieter, slower soundscape. I love the hypnotic percussion and piano opening leading to a classic middle free improv section with piano and percussion strikes, guitar lines and viola slides. A sense of humour and individuality shines in Walk of Intensity. From the opening pacing piano feel, each instrumentalist runs at their own pace, building to a higher pitch, then gradually subsiding to a final piano note. Silver Shore is a moving, expressive piano and viola duet with its counterpoint and harmonies emulating a notated piece of music. Black Box Thinking features a wall-of-sound setting with the percussion and viola in a “Who will win this percussive banging conversation?” contest. The closing Rusty Locks has a fun groove-driven upbeat dance feel.

The booklet notes, penned by Glennie and Stevens, give a sneak peek to each track. Recording is clean and alive. Enjoy!

13 Sylvie CourvoisierD’Agala
Sylvie Courvoisier Trio
Intakt Records CD 300 (intaktrec.ch)

Nearly 15 years of collective rumination about the jazz trio tradition has led to this collection of original compositions by Swiss pianist Sylvie Courvoisier, dedicated to many of her inspirations. Here, Courvoisier is joined by her American associates, bassist Drew Gress and drummer Kenny Wollesen. Intense, but not insensate, Courvoisier’s tunes are unique enough to equally incorporate brooding meditations, solemn threnodies and springy acknowledgments.

Dedicated to pianist Geri Allen, for instance, D’Agala is actually more reminiscent of Bill Evans’ trio elaborations, where emphasized keyboard tones move forward crab-like, as each texture is shadowed by connective double bass thumps and underscored by echoing bell-tree-like and chain-shaking percussion that frames each carefully thought-out pattern. Éclats for Ornette, honouring saxophonist Coleman, jostles with a wobbly effervescence as the semi-blues melody and walking bass emphasis work into a clanking climax that’s as self-possessed as it is solid. South Side Rules for guitarist John Abercrombie is as sparse, distant and darkened as his work, yet each isolated note is kept from formalism by cymbal swirls and drum shuffles; while Fly Whisk, for Irène Schweizer, isolates the celebrated pianist’s distinctive keyboard tapestry, relieved by bursts of forceful chording, without every compromising Courvoisier’s singular identity.

Immersing herself in these nine demonstrations of jazz trio wizardry, the pianist does more than appropriately honour her important influences. Her playing and compositions confirm her membership in the coterie of innovative improvising keyboardists.

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