08 ITACA 1Vortex
ITACA 4tet
Nusica nusica.org 17 (nusica.org)

Four musicians – clarinetist François Houle, alto saxophonist Nicola Fazzini, bass guitarist Alessandro Fedrigo and drummer Nick Fraser – have managed to create music exactly as promised: that is, a Vortex of sound. Vortices are formed – in the physics of fluid dynamics – by stirring fluids or gasses into whirlpools, smoke rings, tornadoes and dust devils. And while a turbulent artistry might characterize the curl of the flow velocity of this music, perhaps in the opening bars of Sketch 26, the most mesmeric musical vectoring shows up as the music progresses into Saturno and beyond. 

In later repertoire such as Chorale and Calanques, for instance, we discern a degree of artistry that is highly commendable. There are displays of controlled instrumental pyrotechnics. These have a direct bearing on the resulting music, which is always rigorous and driven by architectural acuity. Houle, Fazzini, Fedrigo and Fraser, all ooze impetuosity and their performances are full of vitality especially on ‘Nette, a boppish song with diabolical harmonic inversions. The musicians may not play together often, as they are located in disparate places, yet they parlay with the familiarity of old friends. 

Nothing is forced or exaggerated, an error often observed in consciously experimental music. Tempos, ensemble and balance – all seem effortlessly and intuitively right. There is much sensitive give and take between the four instruments, much intimacy and subtle variation of momentum, colour and feeling. In sum, this music suggests uncommon gem-like craftsmanship.

09 Francois Carrier WideWide
François Carrier; Tomek Gadecki; Marcin Bozek; Michel Lambert
FMR Records FMRCD556 (fmr-records.com)

When opening the CD case containing my copy of Wide for the first time, a piece of what I assumed to be packaging dropped out. Upon further inspection, this hand-ripped offering was not wrapping (though it resembles part of an envelope), rather it was a sort of calling card for ColyaKooMusic, the co-production and publishing outfit François Carrier created in 1994. This well-designed paper, with its quirky and compelling hand-stamped insignia, is a harbinger of what’s to come on the rest of the album. 

Before my first listen, I was next intrigued by the disc being over 64 minutes long and containing just three tracks. This may be alarming to a listener expecting a bevy of jazz standards or bite-sized original compositions, but anyone familiar with the playing of Carrier and Michel Lambert, or their Polish bandmates Tomek Gadecki and Marcin Bozek, will know to expect bold and spontaneous improvisation. The album does not disappoint! 

During this COVID-19 pandemic I am self-isolating with my mother, who was quick to raise an eyebrow when I first played the disc. Her response is not an unsurprising one, given the dense and at times chaotic improvising one hears frequently throughout the album, but it is upon listening to this recording as a whole that one notices the sensitive arcs these masterful musicians are able to create while improvising freely.

10 Rarefied AirRarefied Air
Huet; Fournier; Kuhl
Furniture Music Records AF003 (alexfournier.bandcamp.com)

This month, my assignments included two discs of freely improvised music, which are at the same time the simplest and most difficult to review. In one way it becomes all about the vibe of the recordings, and in another there are no traditional compositions/tracks/solos to discuss in a more formal manner. The review of Wide dealt with an offering that was recorded live and fit more into the free-jazz realm we associate with the likes of Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy, whereas this disc is far more ambient, in one way smoother to listen to, and in another more subdued and introspective. 

Edwin Huet, Alex Fournier and Mike Kuhl have collaborated on Rarefied Air which consists of four freely improvised tracks involving double bass, drums and electronics. Fournier, who has for years been a mainstay on the free-jazz scene in Toronto, brings his usual mix of stoic restraint and instrumental proficiency to the table. Huet and Kuhl hail from the Baltimore area, and are both known for their expertise in freely improvised music and a variety of other styles. Kuhl’s drumming is exciting and uplifting, while Huet’s use of electronics gives the recording a unified, produced sound. We are living in odd and unprecedented times, but avant-garde recordings like Rarefied Air now provide a thought-provoking and welcome release from the strangeness of this era.

11 Dennis KwokWindward Bound
Dennis Kwok Jazz Orchestra
Independent (denniskwok.ca)

Windward Bound is an elegant album of program music written for a 19-piece jazz orchestra. Thematically, it is based on multi-instrumentalist/composer Dennis Kwok’s teenage years spent sailing on Lake Ontario and its six movements (The CallingReady, Aye, Ready; A Flat Boat is a Fast Boat; The TempestElegy and Red, Right, Returning) chronicle different elements of journeys over water. Kwok was only 22 years old when he wrote the music and assembled the excellent group of players, and one can feel his excitement about combining two of his consuming interests in this project. 

The first two sections are quite evocative: The Calling begins with the musicians blowing through their wind instruments behind a beautiful oboe solo which conjures the idyllic stasis of the beach. Ready, Aye, Ready opens with a faster tempo and a repeated piano riff, then flute and bass enter and it builds into the full band which generates the excitement of setting out to sea (or lake) on an adventure.

The album notes state the group is comprised of “musicians under 35 from the southern Ontario region” and that the music is “dedicated to preserving the big band tradition while staying relevant to our generation.” This is a well-produced album with solid musicianship that fully realizes its engaging premise.

13 Laila BialiOut of Dust
Laila Biali
Chronograph Records CR-085 (lailabiali.com)

2019 JUNO Award-winner for Vocal Jazz Album of the Year, stunning singer-songwriter Laila Biali’s latest release is a truly interesting musical journey and, in her own words, a “deeply personal… album” that reflects the roller coaster the last few years have been for her. The record has a clearly positive tone, it’s almost as if you can feel the warm spring sun shining down on you throughout each track. Most of the songs have been composed by Biali herself, with drummer Ben Wittman and her son Joshua Biali-Wittman listed as co-composers on a couple of the tracks. The album includes several renowned musicians such as vocalist Lisa Fischer, drummer Larnell Lewis and bassist Rich Brown, making for a star-studded release overflowing with stellar talent. 

As a groovy starter to the record, Revival features a bass riff by Brown that goes straight to the soul of the listener, unique chord progressions and a catchy chorus that quickly have you singing along. Wendy’s Song is a touching tribute to a friend of Biali’s, Wendy Nelles and is a song that could be considered among the most positive and uplifting on the entire record. The album closes with Take the Day Off, the track co-composed by Biali’s son, and has a certain childlike element of wonder to it, amplified by the backing vocals and choice of instruments. A fitting piece to close out the musical journey, as it leaves you with a positive outlook to the world and a curiosity to explore and engage more with your surroundings and loved ones.

14 DuchessDuchess – Live at Jazz Standard
Duchess Trio (Amy Cervini; Hilary Gardner; Melissa Stylianou
Anzic Records ANZ-0066 (duchesstrio.com)

Quick! Think of the Boswell Sisters, the Andrews Sisters and the Barry Sisters, and what immediately comes to mind? Some jazzy, Swing Era singing, tight harmonies, impressive vocal gymnastics and a rollicking good time. Well, fast forward from the 1930s and 40s to 2020, and you’ve got Duchess, a trio of talented, New York-based, sisters-in-song, Amy Cervini, Hilary Gardner and Melissa Stylianou, deftly channelling the infectious (we are in pandemic times, after all) energy of those vintage, vocal groups, while adding their own modern and comedic spin to the mix, in their latest release, recorded live at one of New York City’s most beloved jazz joints, Jazz Standard.

Duchess has been singing and swinging together since 2013. And it appears there’s been a love affair going on between the trio and Jazz Standard for about as long (if not longer). Their first CD was released there in 2015, and according to the Duchess website, an eponymous cocktail was created especially for them by the venue’s master mixologist. That’s some serious respect!

Respect must also be given to the superb quartet performing with the trio: Michael Cabe, piano; Jesse Lewis, guitar; Matt Aronoff, bass; Jared Schonig, drums.

With this live album, you can “hear” the women smiling as they perform such nuggets as Heebie Jeebies, Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen and Everybody Loves My Baby before a very appreciative audience. Live at Jazz Standard is a fun and fabulous romp, sure to make you smile, too!

15 Aubrey Johnson Album CoverUnraveled
Aubrey Johnson
Outside In Music OiM 2002 (aubreyjohnsonmusic.com)

Wisconsin-born, New York-based vocalist Aubrey Johnson makes her solo debut with Unraveled, a ten-song collection that is an equal testament to her formidable skills and artistry as a bandleader, composer, arranger, storyteller and world-class singer. Just ten years into her professional music career, Johnson has garnered multiple awards and has worked with an array of stellar musicians including Lyle Mays, Bobby McFerrin and Fred Hersch. It is her singular, captivating vision that is on display here though, in the company of her phenomenal working group: pianist Chris Ziemba, bassist Matt Aronoff, drummer Jeremy Noller, along with Michael Sachs on alto sax and bass clarinet. Violinist Tomoko Omura and accordionist Vitor Gonçalves also contribute beautifully to several songs.

The title track, an outstanding Johnson original with heartfelt, thought-provoking lyrics, is a bold statement about facing and overcoming depression. There is also a refreshing take on The Peacocks (lyrics by Norma Winstone), and the inclusion of Jobim’s Dindi is pure pleasure, with lovely accordion/voice unison passages. Egberto Gismonti’s Karate is a fitting upbeat closer, featuring stunning piano, vocal and accordion solos, along with playful ensemble interplay, all imbued with a positive energy and inherent lyricism. Special mention also goes to Omura for her magnificent piece, Voice Is Magic, and to Steve Rodby for his sparkling production work.

There is so much to recommend here. One could not ask for a better debut.

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