09 Kelly JeffersonRituals
Kelly Jefferson
Cellar Music CMR022023 (cellarlive.com)

When the Canadian JUNO-Award winning star of the saxophone – curved or straight – Kelly Jefferson decides to bare key moments in the past decade or so of his life it must be something special. When he plays the momentous music with a stellar trio of his peers – pianist Amanda Tosoff, bassist Jon Maharaj and drummer Morgan Childs, whose idiomatic interpretations mark this music – then the album of songs does, indeed, become something truly special. 

The title of the album – Rituals – suggests a rite of passage for Jefferson. Each of the nine charts marks the memory of a milestone that, as the lyric of the iconic Sam Cooke song suggests “a change is gonna come,” or in Jefferson’s case, a change did, in fact come. What these events were, are poured into deeply songful charts by the saxophonist. Each is suited to a particular horn – tenor, alto or soprano – and his playing will drive listeners, happily, into a state of frenzy. 

Whether it be Kindling, or No Time Like The Present, or even Dimmer Switch, each is suited to his alternating ultra-virtuosity and languor. With hallmark rapid crescendos and decrescendos, accelerandos or decelerandos, sometimes within a few bars, almost as if a grenade has been tossed into the saxophone, Jefferson announces his unique musical charisma to us, his rapt audience.  

Tosoff, Maharaj and Childs, fully attuned to Jefferson’s vision, remain inspired choices to bring this music to fruition.

10 Ashley WeyHummingbird
Ashley Wey
Independent (ashleywey.bandcamp.com/album/hummingbird)

When pianist, vocalist and composer Ashley Wey opened for the great Lisa Fischer (of Rolling Stones and 20 Feet From Stardom fame) in Wey’s hometown of Victoria in 2018, she wrote a song for the occasion, inspired and actually titled by Fischer! Thus, Hummingbird became the name of both the album and title track of Wey’s most recent release. It’s also her first to feature mostly original music (written over a 15-year period).

Wey is an “uncategorisable” artist who, while firmly grounded in the jazz tradition, is equally at home in the worlds of alternative folk and indie pop – “genre-blending,” rather than genre-bending. I had the pleasure of hearing Wey perform live in Victoria this past spring, at Superior Jazz, a project by Victoria-based jazz vocalist, Heather Ferguson (whose debut album I reviewed in the Feb/Mar 2023 WholeNote). Wey impressed me with her versatility, generosity, energy and playfulness, qualities, along with some of that genre-blending, apparent throughout the album.

An overriding feeling of expansiveness repeatedly came up for me in listening to Hummingbird. It’s there, in abundance, in the title track, as well as in other instrumental tracks, Sterioso, Initially and Finally and Destiny – a lovely, fluid, Metheny-esque expansiveness that I found beautifully compelling. 

Along with her solid piano work were Wey’s breezily playful vocals on that old nugget, Just Squeeze Me. I could “hear” her smiling! 

Joining Wey are her longtime trio collaborators, Louis Rudner on bass and drummer Nicholas Bracewell, both masterful. Hummingbird will indeed leave you humming.

11 Josh ColeKind Mind
Josh Cole; Karen Ng; Michael Davidson
Cassiar Records CR02 (cassiarrecords.bandcamp.com)

Through much of jazz history, from New Orleans beginnings to free jazz, the music’s shifting character has been defined by relationships between formal structure and improvisation. In recent years that has changed, with some individual musicians embracing everything from completely composed to through-improvised forms. What distinguishes Josh Cole’s Kind Mind is not its place on the spectrum but the rough division into those extremes. 

Kind Mind, both CD title and band name, is bassist/composer Cole’s trio with Karen Ng (alto saxophone, clarinet and synthesizer) and Michael Davidson (vibraphone, marimba and pedals). That attention to sonic variety extends to Cole’s sampler, field recordings and synthesizer. Of 11 tracks on a concise 38-minute CD, six are credited to Cole, five to the three trio members. Those credited to Cole emphasize overlapping melodic gestures spread among Cole, Ng and Davidson. The effect is both lyric and timeless, almost ambient, made by instrumental sounds as engaging as you might hear, all apparent in Cole’s opening The Subway with Ng largely reconfiguring melodic content. Next up, talking makes it worse, credited to all three musicians, is taut free improvisation, marked by Cole’s scratching pizzicato and the flow of passionate saxophone and abstract vibraphone. In two tracks, totalling just 6’30” Kind Mind has constructed two different musical worlds, with several more to come. 

With some variations that pattern repeats, but with some looping and extensive field recordings enriching the experience, becoming increasingly hypnotic. The dilemma for the reviewer? I found I could listen to it forever.

12 Andrew RathbunThe Speed of Time
Andrew Rathbun; Gary Versace; John Hebert; Tom Rainey
Steeple Chase SCCD 31950 (andrewrathbun.com)

Andrew Rathbun is a saxophone player and composer who grew up in Toronto, earned a Master’s from the New England Conservatory in Boston and a PhD in Jazz Arts from the Manhattan School of Music. His compositions and performances have appeared on his own and others’ albums for over 20 years. Rathbun states that the works on The Speed of Time are «all connected with how the world has unfolded over the past few years» and are «influenced by the strange fluctuations» of his «perception of time during that period.» 

The Speed of Time offers pieces that are both sophisticated and funky. For example, the title composition has a very grooving piano ostinato that leads to a melodically complex saxophone line; the solos swing while also showing a strong intellectual component. Rathbun has a forceful and urgent tone on tenor sax that is not overblown. Widen the Doorway injects some great sax harmonies to add colour and contains vibrant sax and drum solo work. Rathbun’s soprano sax on Wandering is clear and beautiful. He cites Wayne Shorter as an influence but on Velocity Unknown I also hear the playful lyricism of Steve Lacy. The Speed of Time is an excellent album greatly aided by the subtle and fiery musicianship of Rathbun, Gary Versace (piano) and Tom Rainey (drums).

13 Curtis Nowosad If I HadIf I Had
Curtis Nowosad; Andrew Renfroe; Luke Sellick
Independent (curtisnowosad.com)

Curtis Nowosad, a drummer and composer born in Winnipeg and currently living in New York City, released his first album in 2019. In my WholeNote review of this eponymously titled work I stated its choice of covers such as Gil Scott-Heron’s Home Is Where the Hatred Is and Nina Simone’s Sea Line Woman combined “socially conscious history with assured jazz performances.” 

Nowosad has now released an EP called If I Had containing covers of four songs by Nick Drake (Road), Pete Seeger (If I Had a Hammer), Jimmy Webb (By the Time I Get to Phoenix) and Stevie Wonder (Heaven is 10 Zillion Light Years Away). These choices follow his tradition of mixing great classic songs with ones that are socially conscious. It is a pleasure to listen to these interpretations: Andrew Renfew’s guitar work is gorgeous and really shines on Phoenix while Luke Sellick (bass) and Nowosad (drums) offer complex and solid backing. Nowosad throws in seemingly effortless fills while keeping a solid and funky groove.

14 TriioMagnetic Dreaming
ER ER005 (alexfournier.bandcamp.com)

Extended plays can often be too concise, tapering off right as they begin, inviting a listener too late to an event that had long reached its peak. Triio’s Magnetic Dreaming follows you from the beginning, immediately arresting by means of hypnosis; vibraphone suggestions over chill-inducing ambient guitar swells. The music itself is a six-part suite – recorded during the sessions of last year’s longer Six-ish Plateaus – and rather than sounding like an accessory, it absolutely flourishes on its own terms. Its form is said to be influenced by “dream logic,” which is almost a perfect description of these woozy yet gentle transitions between states of consciousness. Each passage blends into the next with incredible patience, leaving one to float between its many dimensions, completely oblivious to where they just arrived from.

Alex Fournier’s steady bass intro on the climactic What Cycle or Identity, in Lie Group or Waking sounds like it’s emanating from the core of the Earth, creating a strong sense of unease that clenches the gut. As Stefan Hegerat’s drum groove borders increasingly on live turntablism, Bea Labikova and Naomi Carroll-Butler’s dual saxophone-clarinet attack remains steadfast; apocalyptic whispers piercing through a warm film noir fog. Tom Fleming (guitar) and Michael Davidson (vibraphone) lay an intoxicating foundation on the EP’s intro that, when scrubbing through each track, flows into each subsequent second supernaturally, with every drone feeling like a return flight to the mothership.

15 Brad TurnerThe Magnificent
Brad Turner Quintet
Cellar Music CM011523 (cellarlive.com)

All nine of the compositions here were penned by Brad Turner, with Cory Weeds and Turner producing. The title is an homage to a late great trumpeter, harkening back to the 1956 Blue Note release, The Magnificent Thad Jones. For this project, Weeds encouraged Turner to select a “band of his dreams” which, in addition to Turner on piano and trumpet, includes Weeds on tenor saxophone, Peter Bernstein on guitar, Neil Swainson on bass and Quincy Davis on drums.

 First up is the melodic You’re OK, replete with a stunner of a trumpet solo from Turner. His tone, intonation, ideas, expressiveness and sheer technical skill are mesmerizing. The equally gifted Bernstein seems to sing through his guitar, using all of the possible emotional colours. Next is Barney’s Castle – an up-tempo, bop burner, in which the ensemble moves as a one-celled organism, gliding through dynamic, unison horn lines. Weed’s exquisite sound and rhythmic sensibility create a heady mix and Davis masterfully drives the ensemble down the pike, while Swainson establishes the tempo in his unique, potent way. 

Another standout is the languid and sultry Virtue Signals. Turner has said that this track is “simply a complete chromatic scale (though ornamented and disguised) in descent” – and yet the lithe beauty of the composition is palpable. Bernstein shines here, as does Turner on piano. The title track does not disappoint, and the cohesion of the musicians’ ideas and approach are nothing short of luminous. A true highlight is the almost unbearably gorgeous Theme for Jocie – a ballad written for Turner’s partner and fellow trumpeter Jocelyn Waugh, where Turner wraps his warm, evocative, trumpet sound around every note.

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