John Russell
Emanem 5037 (emanemdisc.com)

As the musicians of the so-called second generation of British improvisers move into their seventh decade, many celebratory concerts are marking their undiminished skills. One of the best, preserved on this 78-minute disc, took place last December as 60th-birthday-boy, guitarist John Russell, played four sets with six improvisers. The result confirms the adage that free music keeps you young.

Measuring all four, the two shorter meetings are like extended bagatelles. On The Second Half of the First Half, Russell matches wits with his contemporary, sound-singer Phil Minton, who has never found a noise he couldn’t duplicate. As Minton bellows, burbles, moans, whistles and hiccups, the guitarist’s folksy picking is perfect accompaniment for a bawdy verbal Punch & Judy show with the singer taking all the parts. The Second Half of the Second Half signals a rare return to the electric guitar for Russell to battle the psyched-out, dial-twisting distortions from Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore. Propelling electronic shrieks, flanges and trebly rebounds likely not heard since Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck worked together, Russell rocks out while keeping the duet chromatic and with unexpected aleatory highlights.

True sonic sustenance comes with the extended trios. The First Half of the First Half unites three separate musical strands into congenial whole cloth. Trading licks with trumpeter Henry Lowther’s muted puffs as if the two are Art Farmer and Jim Hall in a cool jazz situation, Russell also plinks wide linear accents which lock in with the studied sweeps of violinist Satoko Fukuda expressing her classical training. Staccato stopping on the guitarist’s part knit the loose ends so the garment has no holes. Even more impressive is The First Half of the Second Half, where the trio is filled out by a younger – bassist John Edwards – and an older – tenor saxophonist Evan Parker – free-music lifer like himself. With the bassist digging a foundation scooping darker tones from within his wooden instrument, Russell uses resonating flanges and slurred fingering to build a modernist edifice, upon which Parker’s architecturally inventive vibrations provide the decorative detailing. With confirms Russell’s – and free improv’s – adaptability, foretelling many more creative years for both.

Since the realignment of East and West after the fall of the Berlin Wall, musicians of every stripe have found new playing opportunities and partners. In the former Soviet countries, one particularly fertile area for improvisers has been Poland. While westerners may figure Polish jazz begins and ends with Krzysztof Komeda’s score for Rosemary’s Baby and other Roman Polanski films, the country’s rich jazz history goes back to the 1920s and maintained its place during Communist rule. Today, like the equivalent attention paid to their ancestral roots among the children of immigrants, western improvisers have discovered the fulfillment of working with Polish bands or having Polish musicians part of their groups.

01_Unknowable.jpgCase in point is Montreal alto saxophonist François Carrier. Unknowable (NotTwo Records MW 928-2, nottwo.com), showcases a touring partnership he and his Montreal associate, drummer Michel Lambert, have formed with Krakow-based acoustic bass guitarist Rafal Mazur. Authoritatively using both the guitar and double bass properties of his instrument with equal proficiency, Mazur is like the third partner in a fantasy ménage à trois, adding to the situation without disrupting the others’ union. An equal opportunity companion, his hand taps add percussive weight to Lambert’s rolling ruffs and pops, while his array of thumb and finger positions animates Carrier’s skyward smears or stressed multiphonics. Listening Between, the first track, could serve as a description of how the three operate throughout: not only shadowing each other’s propelled textures, but also anticipating sound patterns to fit what will soon be heard. Carrier’s initial churlish reed-straining on that track for instance is soon pulled towards accommodating mezzo-like melisma as Mazur strums his guitar as if he was backing an operatic tenor. With Lambert beating away stoically, the bass guitarist loops out multiple theme variations, as compressed buzzes slide from Carrier’s Chinese oboe for a unique interaction. Broken-octave communication characterizes Unknowable, the date’s centerpiece. Like an extended length of hose unrolling, Mazur’s staccato finger style sets up a continuum that’s matched by the saxophonist’s rubato cries which retain some sweetness. Eventually rim shot crackles and cross sticking from Lambert resolve the outbursts into a satisfying thematic whole. Still, it’s indisputable that the three didn’t want to let go of what they achieved musically. Like guests at a great party who dawdle before leaving, Springing Out, the next track, and Dissolution, the concluding, barely 90-second one, come across as coda and then as coda to the coda of the title performance.

02_Uppercut.jpgA duo consisting of American pianist Matthew Shipp and Polish multi-reedist Mat Walerian illustrates another collaborative application. Involved with his own trio and other combinations, Shipp has worked sporadically with Walerian, who plays alto saxophone, soprano and bass clarinet plus flute, yet the ten selections on The Uppercut – Live at Okuden (ESP-Disk 5007 espdisk.com) document fulfilling rapport between the two. Like a method actor, Walerian portrays a different character on each horn, but the output is united in finding unique sounds. Because of this, Shipp’s narratives encompass everything from multi-note Art Tatum-like emphasis, out-and-out abstract key and string ratcheting reflecting both new music and free music, shaggy keyboard carpets of Chopin-like recital-ready intermezzos and primitive blues and early jazz echoes. The last is apparent on Blues for Acid Cold where a restrained lounge-like exposition from Shipp gradually hardens into a blues conception following Walerian’s rangy, elongated clarinet tone. By the climax the two could be Jimmy Noone and Earl Hines in 1920s Chicago. In contrast, what begins with the pianist and alto saxophonist propelling slick mainstream timbres at one another on Love and Other Species – think Phil Woods and Jim McNeely – evolves into a breathtaking display of complicit split tones, as the two deconstruct the melody as if it were a building being dynamited to smithereens, then rebuild the tune into a solid edifice for a sympathetic ending. As for the consecutive Free Bop Statement One and Free Bop Statement Two, a flexible intro works up from creamy Johnny Hodges-like alto playing plus juddering, pre-modern jungle-band keyboard splashes to attain a series of motifs encompassing key clips and dissonant reed squawks, though never abandoning underlying swing. Conventional and avant-garde simultaneously, Black Rain may be the CD’s most evocative track. A soothing duet, characterized by gentle keyboard patterning and graceful bass clarinet breathing, as if Shipp and Walerian were a long-time married couple finishing each other’s sentences, it’s suddenly ripped apart and replaced with Shipp’s key clips and harp-like piano string strums hewing out an ascending sonic path and Walerian’s intermittent tongue stops and flute peeps. Concluded with sparse sounds that wouldn’t be out of place in a new music recital, the two confirm their versatility and the vitality of the disc.



Another application of this international formula is the Ocean Fanfare quartet. Consisting of Polish trumpeter Tomasz Dąbrowski, two Danes, alto and tenor saxophonist Sven Dam Meinild and bassist Richard Andersson, and American drummer Tyshawn Sorey, the fusion results in an exceptional modern mainstream unit on its cleanly recorded CD Imagine Sounds Imagine Silences (Barefoot Records BFREC O40 barefoot-records.com), which consist of six Dąbrowski and three Meinild originals. Despite having composed the bulk of the material, Dąbrowski isn’t any more prominent in performance than other members. Like a new drawing superimposed over an existing one, Ocean Fanfare has the instrumentation and left-field orientation of an Ornette Coleman quartet plus the stamina of the Jazz Messengers. Crucially, Sorey’s broken time sense and cymbal swishes are less prominent than Art Blakey’s, leaving supple booms from Andersson’s bass to define the rhythmic bottom. Featuring the drummer’s time-clock-like pacing, a track such as Lotus positions crying split tones from the saxophonist and melancholic plunger work from the trumpeter for an emotional narrative. 7 Days to Go extends the Coleman-like comparison, starting off echoing Lonely Woman until the skirmish takes on the strength of a battle with a double bass vamp and interlocked horn bluster. On the other hand the crackling velocity that propels US 12 resembles that of a classic bop 78, with each player’s contributions tossed every which way, until a pseudo-march sequence introduces some spectacular brass plunger tones and climaxes with conjoined twin-like horn unison. By the final Meditation (on a Visit from France), the band appropriately trades in blunt reed smears, kazoo-like brass hums and popping bass and drum beats for a stable but buoyant ending. Following trumpet and saxophone tone slacking, the theme slips away leaving behind a bass string pluck and cymbal resonation.


Politically Nichi Nichi Kore Ko Nichi by the P.U.R. Collective (ForTune 0056 006 for-tune.pl) is instructive in a non-musical manner since the cohesive seven tracks of free improvisation match a Polish combo of guitarist Maciej Staszewski, drummer Tomek Chołoniewski and Krzysztof Knittel on electronics with two reed players, Alexey Kruglov from Russia and Yuri Yaremchuk from Ukraine. Rather than being at loggerheads like their respective governments, the players create a collective program where the keening vigor of Yaremchuk’s bass clarinet and soprano saxophone plus the jagged bites from Kruglov’s alto saxophone, basset horn and block flute snuggle alongside the others’ expressions like Matryoshka nesting dolls. Unlike these wooden Russian toys no player is more inside or outside than another. You can get an idea of this Eastern Bloc pact on U 01 where chalumeau lowing from the clarinet moves alongside uniform guitar strums as electronics create a convulsive ostinato of peeps and static. Even after the line mutates into a free jazz blow out from the saxophonists, intricate finger-style guitar lines and drum pops mute the explosions enough, while a moving block flute cadenza signals the finale. These ex-Soviets have a sense of humour as well. Cutting through the harsh flamenco-like runs from Staszewski and unorthodox beats from Chołoniewski on Extreme 07, Kruglov inserts some mocking rooster crows that presage his quicksilver reed smears and split tones as the factions unify distinctively. 

05_Panta_Rei.jpgOf course it’s still common for a visiting international soloist to hook up with Polish musicians to tour and record. One notable instance of this is Panta Rei (ForTune 0047 034 for-tune.pl), where Marco Eneidi Steamin’ 4 consists of the leader, an American alto saxophonist living in Vienna, plus three high-functioning Poles: tenor saxophonist Marek Pospieszalski, bassist Ksawery Wójciński and drummer Michał Trela. Comfortable in two-saxophone situations, Eneidi’s communication with Pospieszalski is at the highest level, often suggesting a funhouse mirror, where similar phrases from each are distorted with unique reflections. Ironically titled, Made in Pole Land highlights an emotional two-step which breaks down into speedy tremolos with snorts, horks and nasal buzzes goosed by Wójciński’s pacing and Trela’s wooden cracks. The swirl of buzzing double bass strings energizes White Bats Yodelling, although whether the flying rodents saluted with violent mammalian split tones, rumbling basso honks and agitated wing-like swishes are Polish or American isn’t made clear. What is clear is that, like intrepid (tone) scientists, the two saxophonists chase every phrase and note to the end, wringing each sonic nuance, expansion and implication from it. With measured bumps, but no bombast, the drummer follows up Wójciński’s sul ponticello intro to the concluding wordplay of Arco M. Adding additional string twanging later on, both he and Trela maintain the swinging pulse as the soloing of Eneidi and Pospieszalski contrast their intercontinental styles. When one architecturally builds a sleek Le Corbusier-like modernist line, the other counters with rococo detailing; then they switch roles with conclusive cooperation. Panta Rei may have been a first meeting for the American and the Poles, but the high level of musicianship exhibited by all confirms why collaborations involving adventurous Polish stylists and equally impressive out-of-country musicians are becoming increasingly common.



With each successive CD, Darren Sigesmund has become a more distinctive and accomplished composer and bandleader. His previous one, Strands III, made brilliant use of Eliana Cuevas’ wordless vocals on ensemble passages and here he employs two New Yorkers, violinist Mark Feldman and pianist/accordionist Gary Versace, to create dramatically different instrumental textures in company with his own trombone. While that last CD had a certain Brazilian feel to it, New Quintet (darrensigesmund.ca) sometimes has a distinctly French quality, Feldman’s dramatic and impassioned violin combine with the reediness of Versace’s accordion to suggest an ancient café ambience. Much of the music has a limpid lyricism but it moves with an underlying rhythmic power, propelled by bassist Jim Vivian and drummer Ethan Ardelli. Sigesmund is as tuneful an improviser as he is a composer, bringing a special, slightly muffled warmth and subtle inflections to his every solo.


When Ross Taggart passed away at 45 in January of 2013, he was among Vancouver’s most prominent musicians, an accomplished saxophonist, pianist and composer who inspired the love and respect of his community. Several recordings have been dedicated to Taggart since his death, but two new releases highlight the breadth of that community. Legacy, The Music Of Ross Taggart (Cellar Live CL122914480, cellarlive.com) by the Jill Townsend Big Band is a substantial document of his work by a band in which he had played saxophone for a decade. It’s a crisp, precise big band with some outstanding soloists, including special guest Campbell Ryga who plays soprano sax on three tunes. Townsend and guitarist Bill Coon have done a fine job of arranging Taggart’s small-group music (and even a piano solo) for big band, ranging from fairly conventional, hard-swinging fare like Don’t Call Before 10 to the CD’s finest work, Light at the End of the Tunnel, on which Coon expands Taggart’s imaginative harmonies into a lustrous orchestral gem. Reminiscent of Kenny Wheeler’s work, it’s highlighted by Brad Turner’s flugelhorn solo.


A very different work is also dedicated to Taggart: A Bowl of Sixty Taxidermists (Songlines SGL 1611-2, songlines.com) by Waxwing, a trio that seems to create its own genre, a kind of jazz suffused with folk music. Much of the music is composed by saxophonist (and over-dubbed multi-instrumentalist) Jon Bentley, who played in Taggart’s quartet and possesses a gorgeous tone from the school of Stan Getz. The mood is reflective, at times playful, rather than somber, with cellist Peggy Lee and guitarist Tony Wilson contributing strongly melodic compositions and improvisations to this often spare and resonant music. Taking its title from a phrase of Taggart’s, the work is less about loss than passage, a gentle trip into the unknown. Lee’s contributions include a distinctive arrangement of the traditional Clementine while Wilson’s tunes commemorate both Taggart (For Ross) and drummer Claude Ranger (For Claude), who disappeared in 2000.


Canada has had few sustained specialist jazz labels and nothing else like Toronto’s Sackville, running from its launch in 1968 by John Norris and Bill Smith until Norris’ death in 2010, recording music from stride piano to the avant-garde. Chicago’s Delmark has now revived the label, and many of Canada’s best jazz recordings are back in circulation, like guitarist Reg Schwager and bassist Don Thompson’s Live at Mezzetta (Sackville 2057, delmark.com). The two craft intimate, masterful versions of a series of standards, bringing fresh perspectives to In a Sentimental Mood and Willow Weep For Me.


One unusual item from the catalogue is Humphrey Lyttelton in Canada (Sackville SK3033, delmark.com) which matches the English trumpeter with a stellar Toronto supporting cast, including Scottish transplant Jim Galloway on saxophones and the highly flexible rhythm section of guitarist Ed Bickert, drummer Terry Clarke and bassist Neil Swainson, here tempering their more modernist bent. While Lyttelton gained fame in the English trad revival, here he blends a Louis Armstrong influence with a swing style rooted in Basie and Ellington. The music is lively, joyous and consistently well-played, its happiest moments coming on the West Indies-flavoured Caribana Queen.

06_Red__Blue_Aldcroft.jpgGuitarist Ken Aldcroft and trombonist Scott Thomson present a series of four freely improvised duets on Red & Blue (Trio Records TRP-D503-021, kenaldcroft.com/triorecords.asp). The music is continually shifting and evolving, moving from rapid-fire runs to pointillist exchanges and dialogues in which one offers empathetic support to the other. Aldcroft stays close to the traditional timbre of a lightly amplified jazz guitar, while expanding the vocabulary with percussive effects and skittering chord runs that move in and out of tonal expectations; Thomson’s explorations of the trombone include barnyard noises, extreme upper register effects and very rapid tonguing. However, it’s what they have in common that’s most significant: a willingness to reduce their sounds to whispers and to listen to one another intently and creatively. This is subtle, challenging music that responds best to the same kind of close listening that the musicians bring to it.


Scott Thomson also appears on another recent recording that may be the least abstract CD of the year. Led by drummer Dave Clark, the Woodshed Orchestra is a joyous musical free-for-all, part brass band and part parody thereof. On Brass Bandit (Independent, thewoodshedorchestra.com), the 11-member group includes other distinguished improvisers like bassist Michael Herring and saxophonist Karen Ng. Here you might think of it as a New Orleans funeral parade that keeps getting lost. A couple of times it wanders into streets that lead to the Balkans and the Adriatic, while at others it appears to get the sequence confused, celebrating first (Love Letter to New Orleans with a great blatting solo from Thomson) and mourning later (Prayer) with funk in between (The Griff). Everybody in the band sings, including Susanna Hood, though her vocal talents aren’t required for group recitatives like Pennie + Mousie’s Antidotal Lullabye and A Politician. The CD lasts a brief 26 minutes, but it has energy and spirit to spare. 

01_Robi_Botos.jpgMovin’ Forward
Robi Botos
A440 Entertainment A440 010 (robibotos.com)

Robi Botos, the highly respected jazz piano player, has released a fourth CD as leader. Since arriving in Canada in 1998 from his native Hungary he has become one of the most in-demand piano players in Toronto for both recordings and live gigs. His mentoring by the great Oscar Peterson shows in his prodigious but not overly showy technique. Movin’ Forward is mostly originals – with the exception of Close to You by Bacharach/David and the standard Softly as in a Morning Sunrise – and, like his mentor, Botos’ songwriting style is melodic and swinging. There are influences of funk and Eastern European music and some tracks edge over into modern, but the style is mostly mainstream and accessible.

The album opens with the New Orleans-style EurOrleans then goes more hard-driving with CapTAIN KirkLAND, a tribute to Kenny Kirkland, a friend of Jeff “Tain” Watts who is featured on the track. Botos’ bandmates for Movin’ Forward are among the American jazz elite – in addition to Watts on drums, Robert Leslie Hurst III is on bass and Seamus Blake plays saxes and EWI. These multiple Grammy Award-winning players bring authority and facility to the tracks as they are given ample room to stretch, both on the lovely ballads such as Violet (a tribute to Botos’ wife) and the hard-driving Heisenberg which I can only assume is a tribute to the TV drama Breaking Bad. Which shows that inspiration can come from just about anywhere.


Ariel Pocock
Justin Time JTR 8592-2 (arielpocock.com)

For her debut CD, young, fresh and talented keyboardist/vocalist/composer/arranger Ariel Pocock has assembled a team of skilled colleagues – beginning with veteran Producer Matt Pierson, who, during his tenure at Warner Bros. Records, discovered and successfully produced an array of today’s top jazz luminaries, including Joshua Redman and Brad Mehldau. Pocock’s instrumental colleagues include some of our finest contemporary jazz artists, including Larry Grenadier on bass, Julian Lage on guitar, Eric Harland on drums and percussion and Seamus Blake on tenor saxophone. Indeed, Pierson and Pocock’s indisputable and intuitive good taste has informed every track of this fine opening salvo.

Like many emerging artists, Pocock feels free to incorporate a plethora of musical styles, and although firmly rooted in jazz, she seems to reject categorization – freely drawing upon the musical influences of Cuban and Brazilian folk music, standards from The Great American Songbook, iconic jazz composers such as Keith Jarrett and Thelonious Monk, and the contributions of meta-genre pop artists Tom Waits, Randy Newman and James Taylor.

Whether Pocock is scat singing, rendering a powerful lyric or exercising her considerable keyboard chops, her innate musicality shines through. There is so much “right” about this recording, that it is a challenge to distill it into comments about just a few of the exceptional tracks… but clear triumphs include Bob Dorough’s Devil May Care, Randy Newman’s Real Emotional Girl, Charles Mingus’ Ugly Beauty/Still We Dream and Kate Bush’s Mother Stands for Comfort.

No doubt, this auspicious debut bodes well for Pocock’s forthcoming long and relevant artistic career.


03_BradfordCarter.jpgNo U Turn
Bobby Bradford & John Carter Quintet
Dark Tree DT (RS) 05 (darktree-records.com)

Two of his earliest associates demonstrate how thoroughly Ornette Coleman’s concepts of freedom had penetrated the music’s lingua franca, in this 1975 never-before-released concert from Pasadena. Profoundly analytical, yet with an animated pulse, cornetist Bobby Bradford – an on-off member of Coleman’s quartet for years – and influential clarinetist and soprano saxophonist John Carter, divide the compositional chores during nuanced performances that are craggy and irregular as a mountain path, but always explicit in direction. Pointedly using two basses – Roberto Miranda and Stanley Carter – at times playing arco, the results suggest the calmness of a chamber intermezzo, though drummer William Jeffrey’s dislocated rhythmic accents keep the sounds edgy as well as swinging.

Consider how the fluent clarinet passages arch over the others’ notes, while playing in near tandem with the cornet bringing up pseudo-Dixieland memories on the concluding Circle for instance. Still chiming double-double bass line and a freer percussion tempo confirm the tune’s modernity, a certainty strengthened by Bradford’s sky-high blasts and Carter uniquely exploring the woody qualities of his horn. This sense of continuum plus imminent discovery permeates the four other tunes, especially one like She. Initially developed from a series of slurred grace notes from both horns, its passionate mood is maintained by euphonious string motions and the drummer’s positioned rim shots. After Carter’s syncopated tremolos set up a counter melody, he joins Bradford’s melancholic chirps for a dual coda of heart-breaking sighs.

Like Coleman who died this June, Carter (1929-1991) is no longer with us; but Bradford is still going strong at 80. Both Texans, again like Coleman, singly and together the co-leaders demonstrate how sound deconstruction isn’t frightening, as long as it, like Coleman’s concepts, is coupled with a direct rhythm. No U Turn may be the paramount expression of this truism.


04_halie_loren.jpgButterfly Blue
Halie Loren
Justin Time JTR 8591-2 halieloren.com

Gifted vocalist and composer Halie Loren’s latest recording (her eighth) is all about transformation and the resilient nature of the human heart. In keeping with these themes, Alaskan-born Loren has deftly selected a musical palette that incorporates not only beloved standards from The Great American Songbook, but well-written contemporary and original compositions as well as a beloved jazz anthem of hope. Loren acts as co-producer here, along with pianist/composer Matt Treder – and she is firmly and beautifully supported by her longtime rhythm section including Treder, bassist Mark Schneider and drummer Brian West. Tastefully arranged horns and strings also grace the project in all of the right places.

The original opening track, Yellow Bird, is a stunner and Loren’s sumptuous, multi-tracked vocals and jaunty horn arrangement makes this tune a total delight. Another gem is I Wish You Love (Que reste-t-il de nos amours?), which was a huge hit for Keely Smith in 1957. It is no easy task to perform a venerable song that has been previously interpreted and imbue it with your own special emotional language and musical statement… but Loren has done just that, in spades. With her smoky, resonant alto voice, gorgeous French and innovative instrumentation, she has firmly affixed this classic ballad with her own special stamp.

Other delights include a languid and smouldering take on Harold Arlen’s Stormy Weather, a bluesy reboot of the Dubin and Warren tin-pan alley classic Boulevard of Broken Dreams and the late jazz giant Horace Silver’s heartbreakingly beautiful Peace – the ultimate song of transcendence and healing, rendered simply, movingly and lovingly by Loren.


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