01 Alex MoxonAlex Moxon Quartet
Alex Moxon Quartet
Independent (alexmoxon.com)

The Ottawa-based guitarist, Alex Moxon, is a musical omnivore, his very personal style of playing clearly informed by an early diet of many styles and idioms of music. Best of all, Moxon is a shining example of what true musicality means and how it is meant to devolve from composition to performance. This 2020 recording is an exquisite example, from its unassuming title and the whimsical honesty of the cover photograph, the absence of liner notes to explain any gratuitous raison d’être for the music and, of course, the music itself. 

Not for Moxon are flurries of notes, dramatically rising and falling arpeggios, cerebrally dazzling runs up and down the fretboard. He strips bare the melody of each song that he has interiorized, distills the intended harmonic conception to the essential chords and rings in the changes to evoke mood and emotion very effectively. His single-note lines are beautifully moulded, the sound of his phrases are exquisitely elliptical. He turns harmony inside out, as on Piety in Crescent Park, and his sense of time is flawless. This is evident all over the repertoire of this album. 

Another interesting aspect is the sonic space that is created for both the chordal instruments – Moxon’s guitar and the piano played with character by Steve Boudreau, especially on the dancing, contrapuntal merry-go-round of Wood Chop. Empathetic performances are also shared by rhythm twins, bassist John Geggie and drummer Michel Delage, who also shine in their own right.

Listen to 'Alex Moxon Quartet' Now in the Listening Room

02 Will BonnessChange of Plans
Will Bonness
Independent (willbonness.com)

As a guitarist by trade, I have always been jealous of the harmonic possibilities available to pianists. Ten fingers and 88 keys, paired with the visual nature of the keyboard, gives them a unique advantage as orchestrators and arrangers. This is often rebutted by my piano-playing colleagues with things they’re jealous of in the guitar and saxophone worlds; easier legato phrasing and longer sustained notes come to mind. Winnipeg pianist Will Bonness’ new release, Change of Plans, does an excellent job of utilizing the piano’s advantages and showcasing his musicianship in a quintet setting, with vocals by Jocelyn Gould and Jon Gordon on saxophone. They are joined by Julian Bradford on bass and Fabio Ragnelli on drums. The resulting album strikes an imperturbable balance between modernity and grounding in the jazz tradition. 

It is refreshing to hear this kind of contemporary music being created in Canada. Particularly in Winnipeg, whose long thriving music scene unfairly receives less attention than those of many larger Canadian cities. Change of Plans’ originals, arrangements of standards and one Smashing Pumpkins cover, all call to mind the cutting edge often associated with New York City. While each of the quartet’s members has spent ample time in that scene, this album should receive extra attention for being a Winnipeg one at heart. While so many younger Canadian musicians move abroad, the commitment to community present on this recording makes it unique, and a globally relevant offering of Canadiana.

03 Doxas BrothersThe Circle
Doxas Brothers
Justin Time JTR 8624-2 (justin-time.com/en/album/631)

Tenor saxophonist Chet and drummer Jim Doxas are quite the power duo. Besides the obvious lifelong bond that comes with being brothers, they have the added privilege of considering each other lifelong musical counterparts. Their deeply rooted chemistry really shines through on their debut album as the Doxas Brothers. The welcome additions of pianist Marc Copland and bassist Adrian Vedady also contribute to the family vibe, as they have been associated with the brothers Doxas for years in a variety of contexts. The synergistic result is some of the most intoxicating post-bop you’re likely to find this year. 

Recorded in its entirety by Jim and Chet’s father George Doxas in their family’s Montreal studio, the album has an endearing homemade sound quality to it that really adds to the experience. Every aspect is built with TLC, and the level of comfort with which the musicians interact is extremely apparent. Chet carries a majority of the load compositionally, contributing six tunes out of a total of eight. His style is distinctive, while still remaining faithful to his influences, sometimes evoking greats such as pianist Andrew Hill. One of the most admirable characteristics of the music is Chet’s acute attention to detail. Each melody manages to leave an impression while still having his own brand of intricacy and nuance. This album is a restrained affair with a rather hushed approach, and the polished interplay within the tight-knit ensemble will leave the listener mesmerized.

Listen to 'The Circle' Now in the Listening Room

04 genius loci eastGenius Loci East
Jeannette Lambert; Reg Schwager; Michel Lambert
Independent (jeannettelambert.bandcamp.com)

A wonderfully eclectic and enlightening musical journey is what we embark on in velvet-voiced Jeannette Lambert’s newest release. Recorded during her travels with brother and guitarist Reg Schwager along with husband and drummer Michel Lambert, the album documents how local cultures affected Lambert’s music and fuelled her creativity which blossoms within each track. Perhaps the most unique part of the album, besides lyrical poems penned by Lambert, is that the entirety of the record is improvisational; the vocalist herself mentioning that she’d bring in the poem she had written only moments before recording. The result is a musical harmony between musicians, an inspirational freshness that can only be brought about by living in the moment. 

The influence of time the group spent in Java and Kyoto is evident within each song; it’s as if we are able to catch a glimpse into what Lambert experienced day to day; a travel journal that’s brought to life through her highly evocative text, Schwager’s flowing and meandering guitar melodies in combination with percussionist Lambert’s constantly driving and originative rhythmic grooves. Use of the thumb piano (kalimba) as well as the vocalist’s integration of local vocal techniques such as Japanese kobushi, a specific type of warble or vibrato, are applied within several pieces to add that authentic, cultural flavour. In times where we can’t physically travel, this record is a brilliant and melodious escape that any jazz fan would thoroughly enjoy.

05 Mark Hynes TributeTribute
Mark Hynes Trio; Dennis Irwin
Cellar Music CM050120 (cellarlive.com/collections)

New York City bassist Dennis Irwin, was not only one of the most gifted jazz musicians to ever breathe air, but he was a prince among men. Talented saxophonist (and friend and colleague of Irwin) Mark Hynes has just released a never-before-heard collection of tracks recorded in 2007 that feature Irwin. They were intended to be part of a much larger project, which sadly never materialized, due to Irwin’s untimely death in 2008 – the tragic result of no health insurance. The fundamental trio here features facile and soulful Hynes on tenor, Darrell Green on drums, and of course the late Irwin on bass.

Things kick off with B’s Monk, a Hynes original, channelling the quirky artistry of the late Thelonious Monk. This track (and the entire CD) is recorded exquisitely, with a perfect acoustic balance between instruments, propelled by the big, fat, commanding sound of Irwin’s bass. Hynes’ soloing is both compelling and skilled, with ideas flowing out of his horn like lava. Comes Love is a standout – a jazz standard strongly associated with Lady Day. Hynes’ beautiful tone is delightfully reminiscent of Cannonball Adderly, but his contemporary slant and New York City energy is all his own. Irwin’s lyrical solo on this track is a thing of rare beauty, and a fine example of his dedication to excellence.   

Included on the recording is a luminous version of the rarely performed Ellington/Strayhorn composition, Isfahan, and the trio renders this sumptuous ballad with layer upon layer of deep emotional content. Other delights include Monk’s Let’s Cool One and the touchingly appropriate closer, Gordon Jenkins’ Goodbye. A wonderful tribute to an amazing artist.

06 Mary HalvorsonArtlessly Falling
Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl
Firehouse 12 Records FH12-04-01-034 (firehouse12records.com)

In recent years, guitarist Mary Halvorson has transitioned from brilliant avant-gardist to a central figure in contemporary jazz. Her first Code Girl CD from 2018 – introducing Amirtha Kidambi singing Halvorson’s artful, newly minted songs – contributed to that recognition. The project extends to language the edgy intensity – ”Atrophied crucibles, charred Russian dolls” – previously signalled by the funhouse-mirror electronics that light up her guitar playing.  

Halvorson has a keen sense of some special traditions. Her lyrics carry on the art song, whether it’s adapting the sestina form employed by 12th-century troubadours in the title track or matching avant-jazz to surrealism in Bigger Flames, recalling composer Carla Bley and poet Paul Haines’ Escalator over the Hill; she’s also convinced a longstanding influence, singer-songwriter Robert Wyatt, to bring his wanly artful voice to three of her songs. There’s also an insistent contemporaneity, however unpleasant: the words to Last Minute Smears are phrases from Brett Kavanaugh’s 2018 testimony before the U.S. Senate.  

Including Halvorson’s almost decade-long partnership with bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, collectively Thumbscrew, Code Girl has all the musical intimacy of a genuine band. It’s evident everywhere here but especially in the close tracking and exchanges that Halvorson shares with new band members – trumpeter Adam O’Farrill and saxophonist/vocalist Maria Grand – on A Nearing. When Halvorson unleashes her virtuosity and electronics on Mexican War Streets (Pittsburgh), there are few contemporary performers who can match the urgent complexity and authority of her work.

07 Edward Simon25 Years
Edward Simon
Ridgeway Records RRCD016 (edwardsimon.com/store#!/25-Years)

Edward Simon is one of the most unique and gifted pianists of his generation. Since landing in New York during the late 1980s, he’s been extremely prolific and has worked with some of the biggest names in jazz. The singular path he’s paved for himself and fellow musicians, mixing traditional jazz and Latin-American music, has garnered him kudos and respect from peers and aficionados. However, due to the lack of publicity under which he tends to operate, a significant portion of his 17-album-strong catalogue remains largely unheralded. 

It is the fact that many people will enter this new career retrospective unfamiliar with his body of work that gives the concept so much power. Sure, they’ll come for Simon’s high-profile collaborators such as Mark Turner, Avishai Cohen and the incomparable Brian Blade, but they’ll undoubtedly stay for the bandleader himself. Edward Simon is the complete package. As a composer and arranger, he is not only a soulful melodist and an adept polylinguist, but he also knows how to maximize the potential of the jazz ensemble. The reassuring tranquility he gets out of his trio on the appropriately titled Simplicity works in magnificent contrast to the SFJAZZ Collective’s torrential sonic hurricane on the track Venezuela unida. As a player, he manages to be equal parts precise and expressive. His solo on Pere is a particularly devastating display. If, for whatever reason, you aren’t aware of Edward Simon’s stunning work, now’s as good a time as any to familiarize yourself.

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