11 Saku MantereUpon First Impression
Saku Mantere; Various Finnish and Canadian Artists
Orchard of Pomegranites (sakumantere.ca)

Finnish-born Montreal-based jazz vocalist/composer Saku Mantere’s ten-song debut release is a very personal musical project, touching on his diverse, emotionally moving life experiences. Mantere divides his time between Canada, where he works as a McGill University organizational theorist professor, and Finland. His English original compositions and cover song arrangements were recorded in Montreal and Helsinki with his musical collaborators from both countries.

Mantere’s setting of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas’ And Death Shall Have No Dominion, is a storytelling jazz and pop mix. Canadian musicians support Mantere’s clearly articulated wide-pitch-range vocals like Lex French’s opening trumpet to mid-tune improvised Kate Wyatt piano and Adrian Vedady bass duet, to Jim Doxas’ upbeat drums throughout. Mantere reharmonized Tom Waits’ Time, upon which his childhood friend renowned Finnish arranger/conductor Jussi Lampela based his nonet score featuring Finnish instrumentals-like counterpoint and trills contrasting Mantere’s especially touching high-pitched singing and vocal whispers. 

Mantere’s originals are amazing. Highlights include his classic slightly edgy jazzy ballad Radio Silence, with broken-hearted emotionally sad lyrics and softer vocal and instrumental held notes. Nice change of pace with his closing upbeat tango-nuevo song Leap of Faith. His colourful vocal duet with Jennifer Gasol about a couple drifting apart, perhaps referencing Mantere’s own marriage breakup, and virtuosic Finnish musicians’ instrumental solos held together by drums is super fun.

Mantere’s music is superb. A song sung in Finnish next time would be illuminating too!

12 Avi GraniteAvi Granite’s In Good Hands
Avi Granite; Various Artists
Pet Mantis Records PMR015 (avigranite.com)

Suffice to say, Avi Granite is in good hands with this one. The concept of this record is one of humility and gratitude, with Granite enlisting his distinguished friends in the Canadian jazz scene to interpret 11 of his compositions. Granite strictly plays the role of sonic curator on this album, and while one could argue, it’s difficult to fall short when working with such talent, In Good Hands proves that a steady hand can go a long way. 

In this reviewer’s mind, the biggest concern before listening was whether a scattered project of this nature could earn the “album” qualifier. An album is a collection of songs, sure, but there also normally exists a unifying logic that connects the various parts comprising an overall sum. If there are dissonances in this regard, they are intentional, or they unintentionally add intrigue to the overall atmosphere. 

In Good Hands is an example of everything falling into place. For starters, the way Granite sequences the tracks is nothing short of brilliant. Going beyond mere aesthetics, there is not only an even distribution of the specific instruments, but if one were to display images of all 11 sine waves alongside each other, they alone would tell a story. It is truly a revelation how many different ways there are to interpret a composition. Ted Quinlan makes Like John sing triumphant, while Nick Fraser’s Critical Eddie is a modest detonation in a wormhole.

13 Chet DoxasRich in Symbols II – The Group of Seven, Tom Thomson & Emily Carr
Chet Doxas
Justin Time JTR8636-2 (justin-time.com)

You couldn’t create a more Canadian session than this one involving Montrealer-in-Brooklyn saxophonist/clarinetist Chet Doxas’ modernist musical interpretation of paintings by the Group of Seven, Tom Thomson and Emily Carr. Doxas, who says he hears music whenever he looks at a picture, curates an art gallery’s worth of his own compositions which sonically reflect the mostly rural, remote and rawboned canvases. 

Intriguingly the tracks, which resonate with energetic but understated syncopation due to drummer Eric Doob’s nerve beats and hard ruffs, bassist Zack Lober’s controlled pulse and pianist Jacob Sacks’ calm comping and bent-note accents, reflect both Arcadian and urban impulses. Mellotron fluctuations and electronic whizzes provide an oscillating background for some tunes, while muted old-timey field recordings and echoes and clangs from Joe Grass’ pedal steel or banjo evoke rustic timelessness on others. 

That means a performance like Thomson’s The Jack Pine rotates among preserved radio sax licks and live assertive reed slurs as current drum rumbles overlap shaking steel-guitar licks. Still it ends with irregular tongue stops from Doxas. Or note lap steel echoes which join loon-like cries to describe Lawren Harris’ North Shore, Lake Superior and climax with string-shaking bass and piano harmonies topped by undulating saxophone runs.

CanCon that doesn’t have to apologize for expressing Canuck pride, the rich symbols defined here can be easily appreciated both musically and visually. Plus, the tracks also posit new concepts to consider when you next observe that iconic visual art.

Listen to 'Rich in Symbols II' Now in the Listening Room

14 Jairus SharifWater & Tools
Jairus Sharif
Telephone Explosion Records (jairussharif.bandcamp.com)

The fattest and grimiest of synth tones kicks this one off. It gives way to a shimmery soundscape that cascades down both channels, akin to a chorus of wind chimes, while the harsh drone reintroduces itself with the panicked urgency of a boat horn. Then, the tides part briefly for a rubato saxophone statement, with just the right amount of reverb and panning sprinkled on it to slice through the noise. All this simmering tension is released in sublime fashion when the drums arrive in an explosion of ecstasy, adrenaline and violence, setting the spectator free. 

The aforementioned sonic elements in dialogue have one thing in common: they were curated by one-man ensemble Jairus Sharif. Sharif’s canvas is the bedrock of uneasy tranquility his music unfailingly returns to and, sprawling across this induced tabula rasa, the continuum of visceral sonic paint he draws from is emphasized ingeniously throughout this album. 

The textures and shapes the music evokes bears a striking resemblance to the vibrant cover art. While sounds coexist altruistically, there is also a separation created in the way they disrupt each other, creating concrete space between these expressions. On the track Earth III, the drum groove moves like it spitefully diverges from the electronic blips, each additional snare hit feeling like an evasive maneuver. Maximilian “Twig” Turnbull is credited with mixing this album and what he pulls off is nothing short of astonishing. Dissonance is embraced, but so is clarity.

15 Micro NapMicro-Nap
Walking Cliché Sextet (SeaJun Kwon)
Endectomorph Music EMM-013 (seajunkwonmusic.com)

Have you ever been drifting off into a much needed, deep afternoon nap; still lingering in that in-between state that acts as a transition from wakefulness to dreamland? These types of liminal spaces, where uniformity and chaos coexist are what the Walking Cliché Sextet attempt to reflect within their music on this latest release. Korean-born, New York-based composer, bassist and improviser SeaJun Kwon, has always been fascinated by liminal spaces and the duality within them and so decided to gather a fantastic group of musicians and classmates to give this concept a musical voice. Featured in the backing band are rising stars such as Aaron Dutton on alto sax, Jacob Shulman on tenor sax and Erez Dessel on piano.

Throughout the album, songs reflect that aforementioned duality incredibly well; even allowing for a clear image unique to each piece to be called forth in the listener’s mind. Muad’dib is a track where dissonance and consonance, peace and chaos co-exist, taking the listener on a true dream-like journey. Possibly most intriguing, intense mental imagery aside, is the way that both traditional and modern aspects of jazz have been incorporated into the pieces and how they peek through; constantly toeing the line between the familiar and unfamiliar. A truly unique example of contemporary, experimental jazz, this album would be a great addition to the collection of the adventurous aficionado.

Listen to 'Micro-Nap' Now in the Listening Room

16 ason Kao HwangUncharted Faith
Jason Kao Hwang; J.A. Deane
Tone Silence Music/Blue Cross Music TSM 00013 (jasonkaohwang.com)

A combination of triumph and tragedy, this devastating six-track project was created over a two-month period as New York violinist Jason Kao Hwang and Colorado synthesizer/software expert J.A. Deane improvised live sounds sent to one another over the Internet, which were then tone-shifted, synthesized, mixed and mutated into this comprehensive program. Believing in spiritual transition, Deane, 71, had already refused treatment for his illness and died of cancer just as the CD was completed.

Using electric and acoustic violins, Hwang’s initial and overdubbed string sweeps and strained buzzes are amalgamated with a series of watery whooshes and constantly rotating live processes from Deane whose screaming and gonging reflect fiddle glissandi at the same time as they mutate them. The mid-point Shamans of Light moves the timbre fusion to even higher levels as two separate layers of string stops and strums become audible. As granulated synthesized tones widen into thunderous drones, Hwang’s angled violin swipes include brief lyrical interludes. These remain during the climactic title track. A concluding sequence, Uncharted Faith, finds Deane’s processed wash of interlocking textures projecting an organ-like tremolo continuum over which near-melodic violin drones pitch-shift, connect and highlight disparate parts of the reconstituted improvised mixture. 

A fitting memorial to an electroacoustic pioneer, the CD once again confirms the sympathetic interaction of Hwang’s playing in many and some seemingly difficult contexts.

17 Dave DouglasSongs of Ascent, Book 1 – Degrees
Dave Douglas Quintet
Greenleaf Music GRE-CD-1096 (davedouglas.com)

Trumpeter Dave Douglas is a musician so prolific that he has been hard not to notice over the past handful of years. While Douglas may not yet be a household name, achieving this kind of notoriety within the jazz and improvised music realm is a feat unto itself. Douglas’ label Greenleaf Music has been a brilliant springboard for the trumpeter’s ample releases under his own name, while simultaneously fostering a space for likeminded talents to produce and promote their music.

Greenleaf employs a smart business model, offering traditional sales and streaming of album-length content alongside subscription only “optional extras.” Songs of Ascent, Book 1 is offered in the former format, with Book 2 available only when curious listeners subscribe to Greenleaf Music. This writer was only given a copy of Book 1 to review, but this was enough of a journey to make me curious about what lies on its counterpart recording. 

Several noteworthy things jumped out during my first listen, namely the smooth high-quality studio sound. This is almost a contrast to the often-avant-garde music heard on the disc, but makes for an immersive listening experience. The sound quality of the band as a whole is even more impressive given that this album was recorded remotely.

Early tracks are loose and ethereal in nature, but from the very start of Peace Within Your Walls listeners are offered more traditional sounding song forms. The contrast between loose and composed moments sets a precedent for the rest of this exciting album.

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