01 Emilie Claire BarlowSpark Bird
Emilie-Claire Barlow
Empress Music (emilieclairebarlow.com)

One of the first delights of many upon opening Emilie-Claire Barlow’s latest album, is the care that’s gone into the design. For those of us who yearn for the days of physical CDs and LPs, Spark Bird delivers with a full package, including charming illustrations by Caroline Brown.  

The second thing that struck me was what a happy album Spark Bird is. For a project that was mostly produced during a pandemic, one might expect a little less joy. But it seems that spending a large part of her time on the west coast of Mexico enabled Barlow to slow down, listen and be inspired by the nature around her. This gorgeous ode to our bird friends is the result. 

The opening tune, Over the Rainbow, with Barlow’s warm, flawless vocals, feels like comfort food in musical form. Drawing on the maestro of joy, Stevie Wonder, and samba-fying Bird of Beauty, is inspired.

Even the melancholic moments can be uplifting when they’re as musical as Skylark, the Hoagy Carmichael/Johnny Mercer classic. The arrangement is a masterclass in how to reharmonize interestingly without venturing too far from the original. Credit for it goes to Reg Schwager (Barlow’s long-time collaborator and guitarist) and Steve Webster (who mixed and mastered the album) as well as Barlow herself. Coldplay’s heartbreaker, O, is no less masterfully rendered, courtesy of Amanda Tosoff’s piano playing and arranging, Drew Jureka’s strings and Rachel Therrien’s haunting trumpet solo. 

It’s been five years since Barlow graced us with an album, but she’s been anything but idle. As head of her own record label, Empress Music, plus half of the duo, Bocana, that’s been steadily releasing singles, Barlow is a busy lady. So, as terrible as a worldwide health crisis is, the fact that it enabled artists to slow down, smell the roses – and listen to the birds – is something for which we can be grateful. 

02 Jane BunnettPlaying With Fire
Jane Bunnett & Maqueque
Linus Entertainment 270788 (janebunnett.com) 

Innovative and consummate reed player Jane Bunnett has long been considered an unofficial Canadian Jazz Ambassador – particularly with regard to her deep relationship with Cuba and its music. The founding of Maqueque, a burning, all-female ensemble, occurred a decade ago, following a jam session in Havana with an array of talented, musician/composers and graduates of the Cuban Conservatory. The seasoned, award-winning group has travelled the world, and now includes vocalist Joanna Majoko from Zimbabwe, as well as artists from the Dominican Republic, Latin America, Spain and Lebanon. Produced by Larry Cramer, this latest release is beyond stunning.

First up is Human Race (Bunnett/Grantis), a solid groove replete with a facile soprano solo from Bunnett and fine support from bassist Tailin Marrero and Donna Grantis on electric guitar. A standout track is Bud Powell’s Tempus Fugit, featuring pianist Dánae Olano as well as gymnastic vocal scat sections from Majoko and Bunnett on flute. The lighter-than-air Daniela’s Theme, composed by and featuring Olano on piano, with her sister Daniela on violin, also includes a fine group vocal accenting traditional rhythmic motifs. Turquesa/Turquoise (Bunnett/Grantis) is a percussive, vocal and lyrical tour de force replete with another fine solo/call and response between Bunnett and Majoko.

Other delights here include Marrero’s Bolero a un Sueno, a ballad of rare luminous beauty and Charles Mingus’ Jump Monk – marvellously arranged to reflect upon and celebrate Monk’s and Mingus’ mutual quirky approach. Percussionist Mary Paz is absolutely incendiary on this track. The closing title song, also written by Bunnett and Grantis, features the ensemble in a composition of complexity and multiple musical motifs, coalescing in an exuberant expression of energy, power and pure joy.

03 astrocolorMoonlighting – AstroJazz Vol.1
Amelia Recordings AML0012CD (astrocolormusic.com) 

Fittingly timed with the extraordinary events taking place in regards to space travel at the moment, this latest record by Western Canadian Music Awards Instrumental Artist of the Year, Astrocolor is a perfect spacey, otherworldly musical foray. A mellow, ear-pleasing journey is exactly what these tunes call to mind, with an additional contagious repetitive rhythmic groove that just leaves the listener wanting more. With a lineup of great musicians such as Neil James Cooke-Dallin on synths, guitar, etc., Andrew Poirier on guitar, William Farrant on bass to name a few, these original compositions are propelled to great new heights. 

Astrocolor has managed to create a completely new niche for themselves in the jazz world, “blending elements of jazz, psychedelia and electronica — …resulting in the aptly dubbed [genre] ‘AstroJazz.’” The feeling throughout the album is as if you’re straddling the border of the modern and new, the traditional and contemporary; floating in this pleasant, almost trance-like musical state of mind that you don’t want to emerge from. It’s a complete, immersive musical experience quite unlike anything else, where the psychedelia of the past meets with the technology of the here and now. “Moonlighting imagines an exploratory trip into deep space… recalling the influence of late 90s electronic acts…” through layering fantastic synthesizer melodies and programming over a traditional band setup. For those who have been itching for something completely new and unique, this is the find you’ve been looking for.

04 Redline trioUnderdog
Redline Trio
Chronograph Records CR 102 (redlinetrio.com) 

Between the self-deprecating title Underdog and the extinct Dodo bird with one leg cut off as a cover image, the message being beamed at the listeners antennae could well be: “Help! We’re stuck in the past.” In truth, however, the forward-thinking musicians of the Calgary-based Redline Trio and their celebrated British Columbia associates, present their set, tongue firmly in cheek. The only thing that this music harks back to is a kind of creativity sans gratuitous virtuosity, which is often seen as a thing of the past.

Unfolding in six short songs, each with a simply (sometimes) evocative title, is the imaginative music captured on a recording of considerable creativity. Composed by all the band members – saxophonist Mark DeJong, bassist Steve Shepard and drummer Jeff Sulima, and guests, trumpeter Brad Turner and pianist Steve Hudson – the musical stream of ideas unfolds with energy and vitality.

The Redline Trio is harmonically anchored by pianist Hudson and the horns soar with acoustically aerodynamic figures and patterns, gliding along nicely. Shifts occur through rapid changes in direction of rhythmic temperature. (Cue No Limes for Jeffery, The Waltz and the album’s pinnacle Underdog that closes the set.)

The group’s source of inspiration is certainly swing and time, and there is plenty of this reverberating throughout the recording. But the music here bodes well for the future of jazz.

Listen to 'Underdog' Now in the Listening Room

05 Andre DuchesneCh’val
André Duchesne
ambiences magnetiques AM 271 CD (actuellecd.com) 

André Duchesne, as he tends to do, manages to accomplish something resembling complete expressive purity on Ch’val. It feels like a deeply personal project, with Duchesne himself being responsible for every instrument, click, clack, whisper, wander and runaway brushstroke the listener can perceive. Guitar notes in the left channel dissolve in the mix, as if muttering something under their breath, or a notion abruptly turning into an afterthought. Freewheelin’ ride cymbal grooves in the right channel are aborted on a snare hit, the upbeat a helium balloon with a combusting string. There is a charming baldness to the all-around sonic stew, with a notable scarcity of studio effects imposed on Duchesne’s musicking, which makes every utterance completely unmistakable. 

This stripped-back approach makes this virtual rock band (as Duchesne puts it) reminiscent of Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time ensemble, particularly with the polyphony created by the sharp guitar and drum tones. So many sounds are in the forefront, and yet there is a beautifully intricate organization to the soundscape. The presence of transparency and humility Duchesne creates is quite sobering, allowing the entire process to be laid bare in the product. Perhaps most astonishingly, this act of constantly layering numerous takes on top of each other never compromises the music’s sense of spontaneity, and certainly doesn’t take away from the listener’s feeling of adventure on this glorious odyssey.

06 William CarnChoices
William Carn (octet)
Independent WC004 (williamcarn.com) 

This beautiful recital on Choices wraps carefully chosen instrumentation led by trombonist (and now) a singing William Carn, with elegantly played repertoire around fascinatingly atmospheric keyboards. While Carn is one of the fascinating keyboardists here, the music draws significant substance from the keyboards and bass pedals of Todd Pentney, reincarnated as producer and sound designer extraordinaire, HiFiLo.

The Toronto-based Carn is fast gaining a reputation as one of the finest virtuoso trombonists in Toronto. His reputation as a fine sight reader and an imaginative, idiomatic interpreter of music is making him a much sought after member of brass sections in small, medium and larger ensembles too. However, it is as a composer that he deserves to be much better known. 

Conceptually and thematically this album is a significant follow-up to The History of Us, a marvellous, very personal recording he produced with his saxophone-playing wife, Tara Davidson and their ensemble, Carn-Davidson 9. 

Choices reflects the thoughtful nature of Carn’s compositions. Like his previous album, some of the music often reveals a propensity for plumbing the depth of socio-political and personal passions and the need to exhale – both musically as well as emotionally. Thus, between Breathe In and Breathe Out we are treated to profound meditations on Ukraine (Heroyim Slava), discrimination (Get Up) and love (The Gift and Goodbye Old Friend). Through it all Carn and colleagues bring trademark acoustic and electronic energy and virtuosity to a hugely enjoyable program.

07 Itamar ErezMay Song
Itamar Erez Independent
Independent (itamarerez.bandcamp.com/album/may-song) 

Itamar Erez’s 2019 “pre-pandemic” CD, Mi Alegria (Spanish for “my joy”) was, indeed, a purely joyous, musical celebration. Now, with May Song, conceived and recorded amid the incessant COVID-19 lockdowns, and released in October 2022, we have Erez’s reflective response to those uncertain and unpredictable pandemic times (not that the virus is done with us, just yet). Erez characterizes the project as “emerging from darkness and doubt into lightness and joy.”

May Song is unique among Erez’s recordings, in that unlike his five previous releases, Erez, an Israeli-Canadian, world-class (and globetrotting) guitarist, pianist and composer based in Vancouver, is heard only at the piano. In addition to Erez’s focus on the keyboard, which has evolved over the last three to four years, a more improvisational approach to his music-making is also evident throughout May Song, and immediately apparent on the haunting, improvised intro of the first track, Chant. And thus begins this musical journey out of darkness.

Hourglass is pulsing and polyrhythmic, with a dynamic dialogue between piano and clarinet. Catch Me If You Can feels jaunty, expansive, optimistic, edging towards the light. You and Me, evocative and yearning, maintains a steady, forward-moving momentum with taught piano/bass/drum interplay. The deeply emotional title track is the penultimate stop, offering hopeful resolution.

Outstanding collaborators on this journey are clarinettist François Houle, bassist Jeff Gammon, Kevin Romain on drums and Chris Gestrin guesting on synths. Like Erez himself, May Song is inspired and original.

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