01_suzie_arioliAll the Way
Susie Arioli
Spectra Musique SPECD7832

Susie Arioli and her partner guitarist Jordan Officer have put out another fine collection of songs true to their easy swinging style. Although All The Way opens sombrely with a soulful, slowed down My Funny Valentine it ramps up a bit from there with an ironic, sax-laden Here’s to the Losers and a nod to Ol’ Blue Eyes with the title track and then the subtle emotional roller-coaster continues with the melancholic Forgetful and There’s a Lull in My Life.

Arioli has an understated delivery that’s a refreshing change from the showboating singing we hear so much of. Yet she still convincingly conveys the sentiment of the song and leaves the listener able to focus on the lyrics rather than on how awesome her voice is, or whatever. With the majority of the songs from the 50s and 60s the record is imbued with a Mad Men-esque mood that makes All the Way the ideal soundtrack for the end of a day filled with two-martini meetings, a pack-and-a-half of smokes and bitter disappointment.

03_aldcroft_parkerOne Sunday
Ken Aldcroft; William Parker
Trio Records and Productions

The performances of prolific Toronto improviser/guitarist/composer Ken Aldcroft and New York City’s double bass great William Parker here leave me speechless. The two improvisers weave a sonic journey through rhythm, colour, melody and ideas that just gets better with each listening.

Both performers utilize their strong jazz roots to foray into spirited uncharted territories. Sweet Beverley, one of two 20 something minute offerings, is a doll of a piece. Its laid back nature sets the mood for a musical conversation on diverse topics. The phrasing is clear and subtle, allowing each intricate idea, whether long or short, to grasp one’s attention. There is a sound surprise around every corner. Also outstanding is the shorter track Zum Schneide, where Parker plays a trombonium [an instrument shaped like a baritone horn including its three valves, but with the bore and tube length dimensions of a tenor trombone]. The opening passage cleverly refers to a classical music fanfare, and then abruptly changes course to slides, runs and garage band noise. It is a fine example of where free improvised music is headed. Parker also performs on shakuhachi on this five track release.

For listeners unaccustomed to the more atonal sense of free improvisation, the music here might be a stretch to understand but worth the patience to experience. Aldcroft and Parker are brilliant masters of their art form — one may not be able to whistle along with the “tunes” but it is the collective sounds of their “in the moment” music creations that resonate so impeccably.

04_ig_hennemanCut a Caper
Ig Henneman Sextet
Wig 19

Negotiating the boundary between noted and improvised music, Europe and Canada, is the all-star sextet of Dutch violist Ig Henneman which can be heard in concert at the Music Gallery June 24. The ten limpid pieces by Henneman which make up this disc are interpreted by a drum-less ensemble whose particularized arrangements and advanced technical requirements suggest contemporary new music. But when Berlin-based trumpeter Axel Dörner gargles altissimo air through his horn or when the violist lets loose with airborne spiccato snatches, the formalism is left aside. As well, there may be canon-like voicing on Moot, but Charles Mingus-like echoes appear on Toe and Heel, while the title tune adds marching band hops to other sound tropes.

Part of this CD’s textural freedom must be ascribed to the alternately metronomic hammering or sly soundboard stretches from Toronto pianist Marilyn Lerner. Upping the CanCon quota is Montreal clarinet and bass clarinettist Lori Freedman, although pinpointing which bracing chalumeau snorts or altissimo split tone squeals arise from her horns rather than the clarinet of Amsterdam’s Ab Baars, who also exposes liquid tenor saxophone runs and narrowed shakuhachi puffs, is nearly impossible. Fellow Netherlander Wilbert De Joode holds the disparate sections together with steel-fingered string slaps that at points expand the polyphony with braced sul tasto or col legno slides.

Beside Cut a Caper, where Lerner’s percussive echoes could as easily fit a performance of Morton Feldman as Mingus, another stand-out track is Narration. With a post-modern novel’s nonlinear form, this narration meanders among sections that highlight glottal echoes from the trumpeter, knife-sharp plucks from the violist, horns harmonized until their tones splinter into tongue slaps or intense trilling plus the bassist’s assured pedal-point ostinato.

01_lara_solnickiWith A Meadow in December (www.larasolnicki.com) Toronto singer Lara Solnicki has crafted an unusually compelling debut, avoiding all of the usual pitfalls. Solnicki isn’t an aggressive improviser — there’s no scatting here and she doesn’t take great liberties with melodies. What she does do is focus on lyric, sound and rhythmic insinuation, investing 11 jewels from the Great American Songbook with her own personality. Her classical training is immediately evident and she has a poet’s ear for nuance. She’s fine at up-tempos, but it’s the ballads that are most memorable, as Solnicki tackles challenging fare like Lazy Afternoon, creating a dream-like state with subtle shifts in pitch, all aided by the haze of Michael Davidson’s vibraphone and Ted Quinlan’s guitar. The concluding Softly as in a Morning Sunrise is almost as good — it may be the first time I ever noticed the lyrics. Solnicki is aided throughout by a stellar cast, including Pat LaBarbera, a tenor saxophonist of great lyricism.

02_joel_millerMontreal-based saxophonist Joel Miller doesn’t over-record. After a flurry of CDs early in his career, Swim (Origin 82613) is just his second recording as leader since 2004’s superb Mandala. It’s well worth the wait, for Miller is an outstanding tenor player, gracing the modern mainstream with a light touch, fleetly evanescent lines, and a shimmering, metallic sound that can hint at Stan Getz, John Coltrane or Charles Lloyd. That playing is strongly foregrounded here, with Miller backed by the sturdy rhythm team of bassist Fraser Hollins and drummer Greg Ritchie. Geoffrey Keezer, though, provides far more than solid support. He’s an explosive, virtuoso pianist — his solos sometimes burst into two-handed inventions — who matches Miller’s playful precision at very fast tempos, as on the brief Step into My Office.

03_trio_deromeAnother Montreal reed player, Jean Derome is best known for more experimental projects, but his explorations of jazz traditions are imbued with both passion and joy. Trio Derome Guilbeault Tanguay with bassist Normand Guilbeault and drummer Pierre Tanguay is a stripped-down machine for maximum propulsion. On Danse a l’Anvers (Ambience Magnétiques AM 205 CD) they mix Derome originals with a series of tunes by iconic jazz figures — among them Duke Ellington and Roland Kirk. Derome is fluently brilliant everywhere here, whether he’s playing funky baritone saxophone on his own Half-way House, flying brilliantly on flute and alto respectively on Eric Dolphy’s demanding 17 West and Straight Up and Down, or singing enthusiastically on Billy Strayhorn’s I’m Checkin’ Out, Goom-Bye. Veterans of this minimalist format, Guilbeault and Tanguay are forceful, inventive presences, creating waves of energy as well as distinguished solos.

04_roland_hunterRecently emerging on the vigorous Latin jazz scene in Toronto’s West-end, Roland Hunter is a guitarist of taste and rhythmic acumen. On Toronteros (www.rolandhunter.com) he immediately invokes the great Jim Hall, with whom he’s studied, showing something of the same warm sound, harmonic insight and melodic reserve. It’s a spare style that dances readily over Latin rhythms. You catch the effect especially in the truncated phrases and use of harmonics on the title track, while Hunter’s melodic invention shines on Wayne Shorter’s Infant Eyes. Pianist Ali Berkok is a consistent complement, soloing as well with aplomb, while bassist Paco Luviano, drummer Mario Allende and conguero Jalidan Ruiz create a dense polyrhythmic foundation. While it’s often a relief to hear a CD that settles for the old 40-minute LP length, Toronteros presses the virtue of brevity, coming in at a shade under 30 minutes.

05_snow_umbrellasGuitarist Avi Granite, originally from Toronto, has been resident in New York since 2009, becoming a significant member of the intensely creative current Brooklyn scene. His group Avi Granite’s Verse is heard to fine effect on Snow Umbrellas (Pet Mantis Records PMR008), with Granite’s compositions ranging from song-like effusion to knotty kernels of possibility. The group — trumpeter Ralph Alessi, bassist Jerry Devore and drummer Owen Howard — has a distinct personality, a transparency in which bass and drums are as prominent in the mix as guitar and trumpet, and there’s a sense of group dialogue around rhythm, a constant weave of ricocheting short phrases. It’s a genuinely contemporary sound, moving from pensive introspection to moments of wonder, whether it’s Granite’s glassy, sparkling lines bubbling up through the mix or Alessi’s sudden spears of sonic colour.

06_craig_pedersenOttawa trumpeter Craig Pedersen openly acknowledges the inspirations for his quartet, mentioning John Zorn, the AACM, Ornette Coleman and Duke Ellington. Listening to Days Like Today (www.craig­pedersen.com), I’d opt for the original Coleman group, Pedersen’s band of trumpet, alto saxophone, bass and drums favouring expressive intensity and strong rhythms. The parallel is clearest on pieces like Little Bird, which sways to a Tex-Mex rhythm, but there’s more to Pedersen than just influences. The Baron (an allusion to Charles Mingus?) has a muted trumpet sound that harkens all the way back to the 1920s, while Points from Centre is a blast of overblown trumpet and drum thrashing that dramatically pushes the envelope. They’re all part of Pedersen’s methodological spectrum. The group empathy and first-rate performances by saxophonist Linsey Wellman, bassist Joel Kerr and drummer Mike Essoudry testify to the quality of the Ottawa free-jazz community.

Solo playing has always been the make-or-break yardstick for pianists of any genre. That’s solo playing not playing solo, an important distinction which differentiates between exhibiting showy breaks and having an overall musical plan for the mini-orchestra that is at his or her fingertips. The solo challenge is more pronounced for improvisers since even if they’re interpreting compositions, originality is the paramount concern. These challenges don’t prevent pianists from trying their hands at solo sessions. But it’s instructive to note that the memorable ones, such as the piano dates here by an American, a Canadian, a Catalan and a Russian, use different strategies to attain matchless quality.

01_agusti_fernandezAgustí Fernández’s El laberint de la memòria (Mbari Musica MBARI 04 www.mbari­musica.com) is the closest to what many expect from a solo recital. That’s because the Barcelona-based pianist, best-known for his improvisational work with experimenters such as bassist Barry Guy, based the 14 ruminations which make up this program on 20th century Spanish so-called classical music. The originality results because Fernández doesn’t play any of that music but instead offers interpretations birthed from careful, repeated listening to many of those compositions. Fernández’s magisterial elucidations include such chamber music staples as subtle dynamic shifts and exposing waterfalls of carefully positioned notes, but he isn’t limited to flourishes. A kinetic piece such as Catedral for instance may have metronomic theme elaboration, but his touch is such that soundboard echoes continue to ring long after syncopated octaves flash and flow. More moderated tunes such as Tonada which melodically echo both Hatikvah and Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child use both strains to never slip into bathos while sustaining a delicate interface. Balanced precisely, L’esmoldor not only proffers a baroque-like series of gentle key strokes, but contrasts them with kalimba-like string strokes. Also for every bouncing theme exposition or instance of breezy swing, Fernández brings a tougher stance to other tracks — or as contrast on the same ones. For instance his measured, mandolin-like strums on unwound treble strings during Pluja Sorda are coupled with repeated key slaps, with the narrative becoming more staccato as sympathetic rattles and rumbles move past the strings and soundboard and begin reflecting the timbres from key-frame wood.

02_kris_davisAnother sophisticated piano explorer is Calgary-born Kris Davis, whose musical studies in Toronto led to a New York career working with the likes of saxophonist Tony Malaby. On Aeriol Piano (Clean Feed CF 233 CD www.cleanfeed-records.com) she delves into the instrument which can simultaneously express the qualities of a harp and percussion. She can do so at near-warp speed as she demonstrates on Good Citizen where high-frequency glissandi skip and slither across the keyboard until dynamic tremolos give way to hesitant plinks that could be recasting Chopsticks. She also plays at moderate tempos as on A Different Kind of Sleep, where tones unroll with taffy pull-like slowness as lower-pitched harmonies sympathetically ring. Mallet-teased strings dominate the exposition of Saturn Returns, working up to a broken-octave confrontation among internal string pops, wooden exterior slaps and stopped keyboard pulses. Her technique isn’t all reductionist though as she demonstrates on the first track which backs away from repeated flourishes and affiliated note exaggerations to reveal a balladic recasting of All the Things You Are.

03_denman_maroneyFernández’s and Davis’ under-the-hood, speaking-length explorations are taken to a logical extreme on Double Zero (Porter Records PRCD-4063 www.porterrecords.com). Inspired equally by the music of Conlon Nancarrow, Ornette Coleman, Henry Cowell and Thelonious Monk, New York state resident Denman Maroney uses temporal harmony on what he calls a “hyperpiano” to produce a keyboard program in several tempos at once. The instrument’s strings are plucked, slapped and bowed after being prepared with copper bars, steel cylinders, Tibetan prayer bowls and rubber blocks. From the first literal discord heard on this nine-part suite, the crackling friction exposed insinuates harpsichord and Celtic harp quivers, as well as kalimba and guzheng reverberations plus suggestions of a metal saw. Still his subtle keyboard phrasing on tracks such as Double Zero Part II confirms that it’s a piano which is the major sound source. This program reaches its climax on Double Zero Part VI where Maroney`s arpeggio-rich continuum that’s almost impressionistic in its exposition unfolds alongside low-pitched, tremolo blows on the prepared strings abrasive enough to sound partials and extensions as well as root tones, involving the back frame, bottom board and capotes bar as much as the speaking length. Finally a series of sweeping glissandi are backed by cymbal-like reverberations for the finale. Elsewhere his staccato touch implies a duet between a portable keyboard and an all-metal double bass, although there are still enough cascades and pitch-sliding polytones audible that the pianistic balance is never subsumed by friction-laden clips or excited string patterns.

04_simon_nabatovA disparate but even more demanding approach to solo playing is displayed brilliantly on Spinning Songs of Herbie Nichols (Leo Records CD LR 632 www.leorecords.com). Unaccompanied and only using the instrument’s accepted range and properties, Simon Nabatov creates original takes on eight compositions by under-appreciated American pianist/composer Herbie Nichols (1919-1963). Although the scholarly, sporadically-recorded Nichols was Bronx born of Trinidadian parents and never lived anywhere but New York, Nabatov’s position as an outsider allows him to bring more than technical skills to a rethink of Nichols’ tunes. Russian-born and educated, Nabatov lived in New York for a decade and now resides in Köln. Closer to the European tradition than the composer, who admired Prokofiev, Nabatov’s approach often slows down the originals, introducing his own harmonic language to the late composer’s running chords and subtle swing. Hear this on a stately elaboration of The Third World. Persuasively elaborating Nichols’ polyphony with hard syncopation and popping stops, the pianist’s take is both chromatic and creative. Similarly his jocular version of Terpsichore contains enough showy glissandi to advance the juddering melody in different tempos, while the sprinkling of staccato pumps overlaid with harsh passing chords creates a recurring syncopation that builds excitement like the repeated coda on Count Basie’s April in Paris. The most profound example of the ingenuity implicit in Nichols’ writing and Nabatov’s playing occurs with Blue Chopsticks. Pushing the composer’s kinetic variant of the amateur pianist’s hoary chestnut even further out, Nabatov never loses the groove. Yet with staccato extrusions and discursive glissandi he’s able to simultaneously reflect the original line, Nichols’ rearrangement and his own variation on the theme.

Judging by these CDs, and how different each sounds, there appears to be as many original methods to treat solo piano playing as there are piano keys and strings.

Product of musical miscegenation, jazz has always been most welcome to sound influences. Meanwhile, much of so-called ethnic music, especially from non-Western countries, features some variants of improvisation. Blending the freedom of jazz with aleatory additions from other cultures produces provocative sounds as these CDs attest. Yet all are noteworthy because, rather than using either music as mere exotica or rhythmic overlay, each is performed with the same respect.

01_MahanthappaIndian-American alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa has dealt with his dual heritage before, but on Samdhi (ACT Music 9513-2 www.actmusic.com), recorded just after he had attended an intensive two and a half week Carnatic music festival in India, it is upfront with the inclusion of the mridangam and kanjira drum playing of “Anad” Anantha Krishnan. Not willing to settle for mere Indo-Jazz lines, Mahanthappa also recruited guitarist David Gilmore and drummer Damion Reid plus Toronto electric bassist Rich Brown to lay down the sort of funk-inflected licks they would bring to a jazz-rock session. The most emblematic example of this is simply titled Ahhh. On the surface it sounds like a folksy tune with Mahanthappa’s saxophone taking the singer’s role. Yet beneath the folksiness Krishnan is pumping and double tapping as if he was on a Mumbai-recorded session, while at mid-point Gilmore and Brown churn double-timed licks as if preparing for an R&B gig. Meantime Mahanthappa’s reed line echoes as if he’s playing with a varitone attachment. Still the arrangement here is traditional enough to include a recapped head. A similar strategy is used on Killer, but there sax timbres reflect both jazzy slurs and a snake-charmer’s flute’s quivers. Overall the feature includes echoing vamps from Gilmore and Brown, heavy bashing from Reid and some shuddering frame-drum licks. With other tracks ranging from the mid-tempo ballad For all the Ladies, that includes delicate finger-style licks from Gilmore mixed with Carnatic beats, to Breakfastlunchanddinner suggesting what avant saxophonist Ornette Coleman would sound like if he played in a session built on powerful drum pops and twanging guitar runs, the sonic permutations and innovations of this CD are nearly limitless.

02_ElSaffirSo too are the polyphonic textures expressed by Iraqi-American trumpeter Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble in a suite inspired by the ancient Mesopotamian god of carnal love and warfare that is Inana (PI Pi41 www.pirecordings.com). Mahanthappa was initially a member of this ensemble but has been replaced by saxophonist Ole Mathisen. ElSaffer, who studied Mangam vocalizing and playing the santour or hammered dulcimer in Iraq, utilizes Middle Eastern currents alongside his microtonal trumpet skills. The sextet is filled out by bassist Carlo DeRosa and drummer Nasheet Waits plus two experts in Arabic modal scales: oudist/percussionist Zafer Tawil and Tareq Abboushi who plays buzuq or fretted lute. Throughout, Mesopotamian rhythms jostle against Balkan horn patterns, co-existing next to double bass slaps and percussion backbeats. Thus lockstep Europeanized harmonies often abut frenetic cadenzas from the soloists. Yet even at their most “ethnic,” Abboushi’s rasgueado string movements coupled with Mathisen’s multiphonic slurs could still be those of saxophonist John Coltrane working with guitarist Wes Montgomery. Furthermore, ElSaffar’s capillary blowing ranges from heraldic to hushed, with contrapuntal explorations reflecting Miles Davis’ experiments with modes and frequently seconded by bass-string pops and drum kit colouring. Note the allusions when a track such as Inana’s Dance (I, II, III) is contrasted with the extended Journey to the Underworld. On the former as free-form percussion ratamacues mix it up with layered horn notes, the tremolo trumpet slurs have more to do with New Orleans than New Babylon, while Abboushi could be strumming a Dixieland tenor banjo. Meanwhile the bassist walks as the different sections evolve parallel to one another. Journey to the Underworld, on the other, hand begins and ends with keening vocalization from ElSaffar that evolves to melismatic yodeling, with dumbek crunches, kinetic strumming and Arabic-sounding reed accompaniment. However the middle section balances on off-centre thump bass, rolls and rim shots from Waits, contrapuntal trills from Mathisen and sharper retorts from the trumpeter.

03_Baro_101These discs involve Westerners coming to terms with their dynastic roots, but Baro 101 (Terp Records AIS-19 www.terprecords.nl) follows a different path. Named for the Addis Ababa hotel room in which it was recorded, Baro 101 captures a jam session among free jazz improvisers, Swedish baritone saxophonist Mats Gustafsson and Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love who were performing in Ethiopia, and local Mesele Asmamaw, who plays the pentatonic scale-tuned krar or six-stringed bowl-shaped lyre. Asmamaw creates licks that could be attributed to guitar, mandolin, banjo, steel guitar or string bass and the Europeans surmise different strategies to complement each twang. Gustafsson’s bulky snorts, resonating tongue slaps and subterranean burbles usually dominate the tunes’ percussive base. This leaves Nilssen-Love free to use everything from cross sticking to bass-drum clobbering as polyrhythmic responses to Asmamaw’s multi-string forays. Nephritic cries from the reedist merely deepen the creative tension. Alternately, when he’s fully in the moment, Asmamaw vocalizes in high-pitched Amharic, accompanying himself with rapid frailing. It’s likely the Arabic lilt that appears in Gustafsson’s riffs is purely illusionary. Yet his vamping counterpoint can be related to Scottish or Iberian bagpipe vibrations the same way that Asmamaw’s percussive finger-picking simulates a banjoist’s claw-hammer picking or a mandolinist’s rapid chromatic runs. Eventually, after many crescendos of saxophone tongue stops and altissimo slurs, steady backbeat or gliding stick pressure on the drums plus string patterns that use a wah-wah pedal as well as straight strumming, the three reach a satisfying climax of chromatic snaps, pops and plucks.

04_David_SaitAlone, but not quite solo, Brampton’s David Sait produces a unique take on mixing ethnic sounds with improv on History Ship (Apprise Records AP-05 www.guzheng.co). Although he plays a 21-string Chinese guzheng or plucked, half-tube zither with movable bridges, Sait uses arbitrary tuning to produce alternative intonation that alters the expected timbres of an instrument whose antecedent was developed about 220 B.C. As the CD progresses, the results are simultaneously deconstructed and cacophonous. Plus he adds samples of echoing voice to further counter any tendency towards the harmonious. By the time The Bells of Ischgl arrives, Sait’s improvising resembles that of two tandem guitarists, one whose crunching runs are bluesy and the other whose slurred fingering layers tone extensions on top of individual plucked notes. Processed samples, introduced here and on the concluding Wood Stack Rockslide Avalanche make the sequences dissonant, inchoate and fascinating. Creating additional percussion sounds by hand hammering the strings, while elongating glissandi so they judder as much as they skim, Sait formulates oscillations that should come from electronics but are created acoustically. Similarly, bent notes alongside distorted flat picking coupled with sampled drum smacks create a bottom for his experiments. Decisively he isolates the occasional harp-like arpeggio so that the buzzing interface plus abrasive wood patterning don’t completely obliterate string characteristics.

Using an ancient ethnic instrument for 21st-century improvising, Sait creates a soundfield well worth exploring, as do the other CDs here, which bend and blend traditional non-Western music with free-form improvisation.

01_Kenny_WernerMe, Myself & I
Kenny Werner
Justin Time Records JUST 248

Kenny Werner has been around for a long time, is a brilliant pianist, accompanist, composer and educator, and yet somehow has never received the public recognition he deserves. This album was recorded at the Upstairs Jazz Bar & Grill in June 2011 as part of the Montreal Jazz Festival and the choice of music ranges from such standards as Round Midnight, Blue in Green and Giant Steps, to Joni Mitchell’s classic I Had a King and the pianist’s own gem, Balloons. There is an ethereal quality to the music right from the opening bars of the first cut which is sustained throughout the album.

Balloons is literally inspired by the life and death of helium balloons. Balloons bought for his daughter’s birthday would float up and touch the ceiling, but eventually they’d come down. So the tune is sort of a musical joke — a balloon from the party to its end. If you recognize something familiar in the performance of Balloons, it has the recurring strain of Barbara Allen, a 17th century Scottish ballad inserted a couple of times, perhaps because the Werner original is about the life and death of a helium balloon and the ballad is about the death of a young love.

Giant Steps turns into a flight of fancy while A Child Is Born is a delicate, introspective voyage of sensitivity taken with haunting simplicity. There is nothing negative to say about this CD. I have been a Kenny Werner fan for many years and I have never heard him play better than he does on this recording.

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