Demonstrating that accepted musical customs are often shibboleths — the equivalent of not wearing white after Labour Day — contemporary improvisers frequently express themselves unconventionally — even when it comes to instrumental choices. Take for example the fine duo sessions here. Unaccompanied by others, the players prove that there are enough textures available from nearly identical instruments to create full sound pictures. These sets show not only how much can be done with two guitars — a common combination — but also by two percussion sets, not to mention two saxophones of similar ranges and timbres.

01 StonesRecorded at the Vancouver International Jazz Festival, Stones (Rue Grammofon RCD 2136 CD matches the tenor and baritone saxophone of Swede Mats Gustafsson with the alto and bass saxophones of Montreal’s Colin Stetson. Although the strength and power available from lower-pitched woodwinds gives the two licence for frequent displays of sternum-shaking and bone-rattling overblowing, the four selections highlight more than just quivering throaty growls. Scattered throughout the dense and nearly opaque duets are mellow connective sequences and some that are created with panache. True, the elegance of tracks such as Stones that Need Not is predicated on acceptance of a climax of slowly melding textures, evolving from one saxman outputting linear tongue smacks and reed sucks, while the other decorates the sequence with chromatic split tones and quivering buzzes. Still, the reed variations are never overly bulky, but instead deconstruct the exposition with crying stutters and emotional in-throat vocalizing. Another strategy, as on Stones that Can Only Be, involves one player concentrating on a pedal-point ostinato with glottal punctuation and finger vibrations, while the second’s altissimo timbres of intense buzzing and slap tonguing decorate the narrative. Such unusual reed techniques may be expected from Gustafsson, whose outstanding free improvisations are on display in many jazz ensembles. However those who only know Stetson from his day job with the pop band Arcade Fire may be shocked and/or impressed.

02 NaglIf Gustafsson and Stetson utilize as well as overcome the elephantine qualities of their mammoth saxes, then London’s Lol Coxhill and Vienna’s Max Nagl transcend the perceived delicacy of their soprano saxophones’ timbres. Replacing the other saxophonists’ necessary gravitas with playfulness, the two skip through 16 tracks of solos and duos. Entitled In Memory of Lol Coxhill (Rude Noises 021, the CD celebrates instances where the experiences of Coxhill (1932-2012) as busker and pop sideman, as well as revered improviser, dovetailed with the skills Nagl, 28 years his junior, had amassed composing theatre and film music. Together the two produce profound improvisations that offer levity without a hint of condescension. Probably the best example of this is Charangalia where the saxophonists’ balanced and affiliated tones circle one another, swaying to a near oomph-pah-pah beat. You can almost imagine the players dressed in matching lederhosen, waltzing around the floor as they flutter-tongue their reeds. On his own, Nagl has a predisposition for calypso themes and breaks up the proceedings with brief asides on harpsichord and guitar; meanwhile Coxhill recounts a shaggy dog story in a plummy accent. Still the sonic fun never takes second place to instrumental excellence. On a track such as zweites Stockwerk, for instance, the two create an entire colour palate from a contrapuntal collection of slide-whistle-like trills, reed-biting squeaks and pronounced slurs plus a mellow, single-note interface. Eventually as the bent note distortions meet, a dual narrative emerges that is both multiphonic and moving.

03 EtudesPolyrhythms are the order of the day on Etudes (SoLyd SLR 0414, where San Francisco’s Garth Powell and Vilnius resident Vladimir Tarasov share the same extended percussion kit to do a lot more than drum banging. Composers as well as skin beaters, Tarasov and Powell cast these etudes as part faux tutorials and part virtuosic displays. With the American providing brief tongue-in-cheek commentary they proceed to extract beats and vibrations which are often as diaphanous as they are driving. Multiphonic as well as multi-rhythmic, a track like After All suggests the sounds that could arise from a wind machine; while crisp slaps on suspended gongs are matched with friction resulting from violin bows rubbed on cymbals during Strung Up On Your Bow. Picture View Postcards confirms that the correct drum stick sizzle on percussion tops can replicate a dancer’s soft-shoe routine; while the thundering bounces, timely rattles, cascading press rolls and splashing cymbals of No Compensation put aside any doubts as to the drummers’ time-keeping ability, as they swing as effortlessly as Buddy Rich or Max Roach. Despite those skills a track such as My Old Wings is the best example of why they continue to experiment. Spatially organized rather than concentrated, Tarasov and Powell make their triple flams and ratamacues plus mineshaft-deep bass drum reverb reflect the recording space, so that a feeling of powerful motion is present without either having to raise the volume of the performance.

04 HotColdThis sort of relaxed intensity also permeates Hogwild Manifesto (Jungulous 003, but the jagged electric guitar lines of the duo called Hot and Cold is closer to hearing two Jimi Hendrixes rather than the sedate picking of Chet Atkins and Les Paul or Herb Ellis and Barney Kessel. American Aaron Dugan and Swede Anders Nilsson are sophisticated enough in so-called post-rock and post-jazz styles that they are easily able to work up a track like For Albert which is both thorny and tuneful, wrapping single note finger-picking with arpeggiated climaxes. Elsewhere, one clunks chords and clicks out a slapping ostinato while the other probes the stratosphere with flanged reverb. They subsequently switch roles then cut off the sound in a split second. Like the other duos here they show they’re also capable of subtle swing. For example they approximate an Ellis-Kessel foot-tapping groove on Night Juice Agenda, than quickly splinter it into fuzz-tone reverb and staccato crunches. Tossing ideas back and forth they touch on Middle Eastern-styled licks and highly legato slurred fingering, contrasting buzzing intensity with an overlay of fingerpicking. Before summing up the meeting with exquisite cascades, innate lyricism is on show as much as heavily processed outer space twangs.

With the inventiveness implicit in free improvisation, contrasting textures can be sourced from instruments supposedly identical in tones and timbres. These duos confirm the thesis.

04 MarmiteHectorLe Cauchemar d’Hector
La Marmite Infernale
ARFI 2012 AM052 (

French Romantic composer Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) declared in 1859 that “music is free” so what better group to put a new spin on some of Berlioz’s compositions than Lyon-based free music ensemble La Marmite Infernale?

Asked by the Festival Berlioz, that takes place annually in the composer’s birthplace, to re-imagine works by France’s most iconoclastic 19th century composer, the 18-piece band treated Berlioz’s compositions as it does strains from the folk tradition, preserving the melodies, but appending solos and passages relating to improvisational jazz’s freedom, punk-rock’s unyielding beat and advances in electro-acoustic programming. Probably the most radical reworking occurs on La fantastique nain de Sophie where sampler player Xavier Garcia mixes extracts from the composer’s Symphonie fantastique with the live group playing its version of the work in arrangements midway between those for symphony orchestra and for jazz band.

Less radical, but more affecting, Marche funèbre, based on Berlioz’s Grande Symphonie Funèbre et Triomphale which was composed for a 200-strong wind band, removes the original piece’s nationalistic militarism but retains its melodic strength, substituting strained grace notes from trombonist Alain Gibert and trumpeter Guillaume Grenard plus splintery buzzes from saxophonist Eric Vagnon sparked by Christian Rollet’s rattling percussion. The climactic and close-knit result validates the composition not the jingoism. Then there’s Scène aux champs which confirms Berlioz’s bucolic interpretation of a pastoral scene, while simultaneously burlesquing it, by having the piece played by 12 guitars in unison.

Although classical purists may blanch at the liberties taken with the compositions here, it’s possible that Berlioz, with his sympathy for free expression, may have been impressed and honoured. For the adventurous listener of any stripe though, taken as a whole the CD is no cauchemar or “nightmare” of Hector, but rather a satisfying rêve or “dream.”


03a Aldcroft long and short03b Aldcroft MiasmsThe Long and the Short of It

Ken Aldcroft; Joel LeBlanc
Trio Records TRP-D502-016

Notes on the Miasms
Andy Haas; Ken Aldcroft
Resonant Music 010

Toronto guitarist Ken Aldcroft displays his formidable guitar technique and improvising acumen in two new “free improv” releases.

The long and the short of it features him with fellow guitarist Joel LeBlanc in two contrasting short and long works. Each “short” is a concise tidbit of colour and rhythm which sets up a lengthier (over 20 minutes) set. The Long (I) is a mellow soundscape which seems to emulate the soothing environment of the wilderness. The minimalistic patterns and atonal guitar effects are precisely placed in the relaxing soundscape. In contrast, The Long (II) is a wall of sound, giant stadium extended rock guitar extravaganza. It sounds like one giant guitar – riffs, extended solos and in-your-face sound bolts, combined with humour and wit in a stunning example of superb music.

Notes on the miasms features Aldcroft improvising with Andy Haas on sax and electronics. The music is more atonal than the above release making it perhaps a bit more of a difficult listening exercise for those not accustomed to this type of music. Haas’ rapid saxophone lines against Aldcroft’s guitar colours are brilliant in their textures, phrasing and energy. The occasional reference to traditional jazz and blues is a welcome musical commentary.

These two releases are fine examples of the flourishing creative music scene in Toronto. The improvisation skills, talent and dedication of musicians such as Ken Aldcroft guarantee a vibrant improvising future for players and listeners alike.


01 Amy McConnellStealing Genius
Amy McConnell; William Sperandei
Femme Cache Productions FCP0001

The debut record from singer Amy McConnell and trumpeter William Sperandei, with producer Feisal Patel, is a stylish romp through 20th century music originating from a range of genres and eras. The title, Stealing Genius, is a reference to Oscar Wilde’s quip “talent borrows; genius steals.” But since covering other songwriters’ work is standard practice in the world of jazz, the quip could be reworked as “talent borrows; jazz artists assume ownership.” In this case, the victims of the thefts are varied and sometimes unexpected such as Elvis Presley (Suspicious Minds), Led Zeppelin (Thank You) and James Bond (From Russia With Love).

McConnell’s background in theatre shows in her vocal phrasing and approach — she has a big sound and emotions are expressed in broad strokes that play to the back of the house. Her accent is beautiful and convincing on the few French offerings including, of course, Piaf’s La Vie en Rose. Sperandei’s nice, bright sound blends well with McConnell’s and his soloing is confident and concise. Singer/stride pianist Michael Kaeshammer’s guest turn on the Ink Spots’ I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire is inspired. But the real genius is in having Larnell Lewis and Rob Piltch play drums and guitar on this record. Lewis’ exuberant precision and Piltch’s subtle musicality elevate many of the songs from stylish to artful.

02 SpeakeasyThe Speakeasy Quartet –
Vintage Style Hot Jazz, Swing and Pop
Speakeasy Quartet
Independent WJS004

Hugh Leal may not be well known in Toronto but he has been a significant force for jazz in the Windsor area since the late 70s. He has been a real catalyst for the music as a guitarist/promoter/record producer; between 1983 and 2000 his Parkwood Records label recorded such veteran musicians as Doc Cheatham, J.C. Heard, Art Hodes, Franz Jackson and Sammy Price.

On this latest CD he features the Speakeasy Quartet in a program of jazz standards from the 20s and 30s including a couple of Bechet compositions, Egyptian Fantasy and the rarely heard Premier Bal, East St. Louis Toodle-oo and The Mooche by Ellington, Jubilee, Willie The Weeper, two trio numbers where the cello lays out, Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams and Indian Summer plus three originals by saxophonist Ray Manzerolle whose impressive playing is featured throughout the album. There are also fine solos from cellist Mike Karoub and pianist Mike Karloff.

All in all an enjoyable album from four musicians who respect and understand the traditions of the music. As the back of the jewel case accurately says: “Classic jazz with a unique fresh sonority.” Thank you Hugh for your seemingly tireless dedication to the jazz of an earlier era. To buy the CD contact $15 and it’s yours.

01 Mike MurleyFew cds will garner the immediate interest of Test of Time (Cornerstone Records CRST CD 140,, previously unreleased material recorded in 1999 by the trio of saxophonist Mike Murley, guitarist Ed Bickert and bassist Steve Wallace. The trio’s only previous CD won the 2002 Juno Award for best mainstream jazz album, shortly after Bickert’s 2001 decision to retire from playing. Bickert may be Canada’s most distinguished jazz guitarist (his tenure with Paul Desmond might be enough to establish that) but all his gifts are in evidence here, the gentle propulsion of his chording, the perfect voicings when he’s comping and the brilliant linear flow of his improvised lines. There’s likely no better forum to showcase his gifts than this trio without drums, his every nuance clearly audible and Murley and Wallace ideal associates to bring out his best as both soloist and accompanist. East of the Sun stands out.

02 Myriad3Myriad 3 is a group of young Toronto musicians in the traditional jazz piano trio format, with Chris Donnelly on piano, Dan Fortin on bass and Ernesto Cervini on drums. Tell (ALMA ACD13112,, however, doesn’t strongly suggest any traditional trio approaches. Instead the group’s affinities are with more recent paradigms, like Sweden’s EST or the American trio Bad Plus. Myriad 3’s style is distinctly spare and strongly rhythmic, with elements of classical and pop music frequently appearing. The opening Myriad may suggest Satie in its modal grace, while Drifters emphasizes forceful, broken rhythms and dramatically unexpected piano chords. There’s a sense here of an equality of parts, each member playing in a sparse, assertively gestural style. When older jazz elements appear, they’re equally lean and specific, whether it’s Duke Ellington’s almost monotone C Jam Blues or the bluesy Horace Silver-style bop of Donnell’s Mr. Awkward.

03 Lina AllemanoThe Lina Allemano Four has achieved remarkably consistent form, maintaining the same personnel for their fourth consecutive CD (beginning with Pinkeye in 2006). Trumpeter Allemano is joined by Brodie West on alto saxophone, Andrew Downing on bass and Nick Fraser on drums on Live at the Tranzac (Lumo Records,, the Toronto bar providing a comfortable setting for these close-knit, highly conversational dialogues on the leader’s compositions. The style is free jazz, the band reminiscent of Ornette Coleman’s original quartet, but the music couldn’t be more disciplined, the band working hand-in-glove to realize the most from each of Allemano’s tunes.

04 Michael BlakeTenor saxophonist Michael Blake has long been established in New York, where he’s best known for his decade-long membership in John Lurie’s high-profile Lounge Lizards. He still maintains strong ties to Vancouver, however, and he has just released In the Grand Scheme of Things (Songlines SGL159-2, featuringa quartet with Vancouver musicians. It’s a heady musical blend that delights in contrasting sounds, from Blake’s own, often straight-ahead tenor in lyrical ballad or forceful up-tempo mode to passages of eerie, electronically altered trumpet from JP Carter, techno and ambient electronic sound from Chris Gestrin on Fender Rhodes electric piano and a Moog Micromoog synthesizer and percussion that ranges from traditional trap drumming to the metallic grit of scraped cymbals from Dylan van der Schyff. It’s evocative work, but it’s Blake’s warm, keening tenor on the soulful Treat Her Right that leaves the strongest impression.

05 Ratchet OrchestraThe American composer and bandleader Sun Ra died in 1993, but his influence persists in new recordings from Montreal and Toronto. Bassist Nick Caloia has been building the Ratchet Orchestra since the early 90s. At times it’s been as small as a quartet, but the current personnel numbers around 30. While the band has performed and recorded Sun Ra compositions in the past, here the influence is apparent in Caloia’s own writing. It’s a mad explosion of sound that layers Caloia’s ceremonial melodies over processional rhythms and a thick undergrowth of improvising percussion. As heard on Hemlock (Drip Audio DA00820,, the band has also assembled the strongest core of soloists you’re ever likely to hear in a Canadian free-jazz band, including the reeds of Jean Derome, Lori Freedman, Christopher Cauley and Damian Nisensen, trombonists Tom Walsh and Scott Thomson and guitarist Sam Shalabi. The vitality and high spirits are palpable and they sometimes explode, as in the eruption of Beat poet Brion Gysin’s permutational Kick that Habit Man.

06 Ken Aldcroft Sneeky PeteToronto guitarist Ken Aldcroft’s Convergence Ensemble has released a 2-CD set of the leader’s compositions called Sneaky Pete/Slugs’ (Trio Records try 015, Disc one is a collection of pieces that emphasizes sub-groups and solo improvisations; Disc two, by the full sextet, presents Slugs’: Suite for Sun Ra, named for the New York club where Sun Ra once played regularly. It’s animated at once by Aldcroft’s melodies and swaying rhythms, but it’s elevated by the focused improvisations of the ensemble, from Aldcroft’s own divergent approaches (sometimes a lyrical minimalism, at other times tumbling, rapid flurries of notes) to the extended techniques of trumpeter Nicole Rampersaud, playing multiple tones at once, and trombonist Scott Thomson (yes, he manages to appear in both these bands) who explores seemingly contradictory low-pitched whistles. The final piece, combining themes from both Sneaky Pete and Slugs’, goes through numerous textures, highlighted by the intensity of saxophonist Evan Shaw.

01 BrotzSoloTrioAlthough the witticism that “free jazz keeps you young” has been repeated so often that it’s taken on cliché status, there’s enough evidence to give the statement veracity. Many improvisers in their eighties and seventies are still playing with the fire of performers in their twenties. Take German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, who celebrated his 70th birthday and nearly 50 years of recording a couple of years ago. Case in point is Solo +Trio Roma (Victo CD 122/123,, recorded at 2011’s Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville (FIMAV) in Quebec. Not only does Brötzmann play with unabated intensity for almost 75 minutes, while fronting a bassist and a drummer about half his age on one CD; but on the other inventively plays unaccompanied, without a break, for another hour or so. The multi-reedist still blows with the same caterwauling intensity that characterized Machine Gun, 1968’s free jazz classic, but now a balladic sensitivity spells his go-for-broke expositions.On Solo, his overview is relentlessly linear mixing extended staccato cadenzas with passages of sweet romance that momentarily slow the narrative. Climactically the nearly 25-minute Frames of Motion is a pitch-sliding explosion of irregular textures and harsh glissandi that seems thick as stone, yet is malleable enough to squeeze the slightest nuance out of every tune. Slyly, Brötzmann concludes the piece with gargling split tones that gradually amalgamate into I Surrender Dear. Backed by Norwegian percussion Paal Nilssen-Love and Italian electric bassist Massimo Pupillo, Brötzmann adds lip-curling intensity and multiphonic glissandi to the other program. Centrepiece is Music Marries Room to Room that continues for more than 69 minutes. Besides wounded bull-like cries tempered with spitting glissandi from the saxophonist, the piece includes jet-engine-like drones from Pupillo as well as shattering ruffs and pounding shuffles from the drummer. Several times, just as it seems the playing can’t get any more ardent, it kicks up another notch. Indefatigable, the saxophonist spins out staccato screams and emphatic abdominal snorts in equal measures, with his stentorian output encompassing tongue slaps, tongue stops and flutter tonguing. Brief solos showcase Pupillo crunching shards of electronic friction with buzz-saw intensity, while Nilssen-Love exposes drags, paradiddles, rebounds and smacks, without slowing the beat. There are even lyrical interludes among the overblowing as Brötzmann occasionally brings the proceedings to a halt for a capella sequences, which suggest everything from Taps to Better Git It in Your Soul. Finally the broken-octave narrative reaches a point of no return to wrap up in a circular fashion with yelping reed cries, blunt percussion smacks and dense electronic buzzes. Rapturous applause from the audience spurs the three to go at it again at the same elevated concentration for an additional five minutes.

02 BrotzSnakeThree months after FIMAV, at a Portuguese jazz festival, the trio was joined by Japanese trumpeter Toshinori Kondo and under the name of Hairybones recorded the single-track blow-out that is SnakeLust (Clean Feed 252 CD Affiliated with the reedist on and off since the early 1980s, the trumpeter who also uses electronics, adds several sonic colors to sounds from the basic trio. Given a wider canvas, Pupillo transcends holding the ostinato, and uses slurred fingering, buzzing flanges and frailing distortions. Similarly the drummer contributes several extended hand-drumming sequences, most notably as accompaniment to Brötzmann’s investigation of the woody tárogató. Kondo’s most common strategy mixes muted tongue flutters with electronic extensions reminiscent of Miles Davis’ 1970s work. He often plays allegro as well, using his familiarity with the reedman’s ideas to blend capillary grace notes with Brötzmann’s visceral strains, often played parallel. The expanded sound field not only creates polyphonic textures with at least five sonic colours, but warms the saxman’s staccato slurs and altissimo cries. Following Brötzmann’s and Nilssen-Love’s tárogató-drum intermezzo, Kondo’s mellow, electronically enhanced trills add enough French-horn-like timbres to almost make that theme variation low key. By the improvisation’s conclusion however, Kondo presses down on his effects pedal to add wide vibrations. These join enough torqued multiphonics from the other players to create a finale that’s strident, contrapuntal and ultimately satisfying.

03 BrotzYatagarLess than 90 days afterwards, peripatetic Brötzmann performed at Krakow’s Autumn Jazz Festival in another mammoth improvisation captured on Yatagarasu (NotTwo MW 894-2 Billed as The Heavyweights, his associates were both Japanese and his contemporaries: pianist Masihiko Satoh is his age and drummer Takeo Moriyama four years younger. Despite the abundance of grey hair the set was characterized by the same unparallelled toughness as the others. Another free jazz marvel, Satoh has the matchless technique and indefatigable stamina to match the saxophonist’s snaky inventions, while Moriyama’s double-time paradiddles and martial press rolls open up spacious sound territory. On some tracks, Brötzmann appears to never stop playing, emptying his lungs with staccato whinnies and visceral battle cries. Not that the pianist’s raw-power chording takes second place. Should the saxophonist metaphorically examine every tone facet before letting it loose, then Satoh’s voicing emphasizes each note with key-clipping enthusiasm. On Icy Spears, the pianist cuts through the cacophony to surprise with low-frequency, cross-handed chording, prodding Brötzmann to briefly slow the tempo with breathy vibrations before deconstructing the line into shards once again. Full-blast saxophone shrills are other Satoh challenges, which he counters by redoubling his kinetic key fanning. Eventually cymbal clashes blend with swelling piano pumps and altissimo reed passion for an expressive climax which appears to have reached the limits of endurance; at least the trio suddenly stops playing.

04 BrotzSonoreBrötzmann is also a mentor to – and often employer of – younger saxophonists involved with unbridled free expression. Recorded one month before his FIMAV gig, Sonore Café Oto/London (Trost TR 108 is a showcase for another of his distinctive working groups. An all-reeds trio, other members are American tenor saxophonist/clarinettist Ken Vandermark and Swedish baritone saxophonist Mats Gustafsson, leaders of their own bands, each two decades Brötzmann’s junior. Tellingly the older saxophonist doesn’t pull rank, with solos parceled out equally. Furthermore the program consists of a composition by each member plus a free-form blow-out. More crucially despite the juxtaposition of jagged split tones, altissimo runs and deep-seated bellows vibrating during the program, Sonore is in no sense Brötzmann times three. While a layered narrative like Le Chien Perdu features the three harmonizing in triple counterpoint, each player retains his individuality. Gustafsson does so by propelling pedal-point pops. Still even as Brötzmann’s and Vandermark’s staccato timbres swell to bird-whistle territory, neither would be mistaken for the other.

Youthfulness may have a particular meaning in general. Yet when it comes to innovative musical expression, Brötzmann provides the textbook definition.

Back to top