02 Peggy Lee BandA Giving Way
Peggy Lee Band
Songlines SSL1636-2 (songlines.com)

The cellist Peggy Lee has been – with The Peggy Lee Band – very prolific in a composing career that has stretched across several years and, with A Giving Way, six riveting albums. Her work is always deeply thoughtful and often radiantly effusive, a sort of synthesis with masses of seething counterpoint set in a seemingly perfect acoustical sound-world. The songs played here are typical of the elegant compositions, innovatively interpretated, with richly laced textures and extravagant climaxes by musicians who – by virtue of their long-term association with Lee – know her music almost intimately.

This is repertoire full of the slithering and bittersweet glissandos of Lee’s cello, the elegant burbling of brass and winds from Brad Turner, Jeremy Berkman and Jon Bentley respectively. Together they make a joyful noise with guitarists Ron Samworth and Tony Wilson, with the tumbling rhythms of André Lachance’s bass guitar and rattle, hum and sizzle of Dylan van der Schyff’s drums and cymbals. 

It is difficult to fathom why Lee is not better known for the eloquence and uniqueness of the music that she creates around the solemn atmosphere of her cello. Perhaps this may have something to do with attempting to define it in terms of this genre or that. However, the uniquely beautiful sonorities of (for instance) Internal Structures, Justice / Honour; even the interpretation of Whispering Pines, and other songs on A Giving Way, show Lee to be an artist with a breathtakingly singular voice.

03 Will BonnessIs This a Dream?
Will Bonness
Manitoba Film & Music (willbonness.com)

The fourth album, Is This a Dream? by the pianist and composer Will Bonness, is an outstanding recording, informed by big-hearted originals and standards performed with brazenly romantic beauty. While each of the works is conventional in form, by turns tender and ardently lyrical, and feature the pianist’s favourite vocalist Jocelyn Gould, the head-turners are the seven (of nine numbers) that feature the scintillating young clarinetist Virginia MacDonald, with the inimitable alto saxophonist Allison Au doubling up with MacDonald on the final track, Cole Porter’s Don’t Fence Me In.

Bonness is a pianist with a naturally poetic bent of mind. In his pianism chromatic notes sigh – and often gush effusively – the harmonic cushioning always falling where you least expect it to. This often makes for the kind of surprise you expect, but never know when it will issue from his fluid right-and-left hand combinations. This is what makes his originals – particularly Round and Round and Contraption – full of great tunefulness. Both songs also feature MacDonald who, with her expressively woody clarinet sound, adds emotional depth and rhetorical eloquence to Bonness’ already-rich harmonic language. 

On the album’s finale the music reaches quite another level as Bonness’ score includes an alto saxophone, Au, who responds with glowing tones and the liquid grace of her notes. The album’s superb repertoire is further embellished by bassists Daniel Fortin and Andrew Goodlett and the irrepressible drummer Fabio Ragnelli.

04 Music of Kenny WheelerWho Are You? The Music of Kenny Wheeler
Duncan Hopkins; Reg Schwager; Ted Quinlan; Michel Lambert
Three Pines Records TPR-0015 (duncanhopkins.com)

The late Kenny Wheeler (1930-2014) was a Canadian composer and trumpet/flugelhorn player with an international reputation who pushed the boundaries past jazz standards and into free improvisation. He lived most of his life in England and recorded many albums, primarily for the ECM label. 

Who Are You? is Duncan Hopkins’ celebration of Wheeler’s music and includes Reg Schwager and Ted Quinlan on guitars with Michel Lambert on drums while Hopkins holds down the bass duties. Having two excellent guitarists provides an intriguing interpretation of Wheeler’s compositions and the interplay between Schwager and Quinlan creates many musical highlights. For example, their “almost unison” playing enhances Foxy Trot’s up-tempo melody and each solo is excitingly different. 

The final three tracks, MontebelloKitts and Salina St. are named after St. Catharines (aka “Kitts”) and the neighbourhood where both Wheeler and Hopkins lived. Kitts and Salina St. were composed by Wheeler and re-arranged by Hopkins. Montebello is a Hopkins original named after the park at the end of Salina St. where they met. This suite of three songs adds a very personal and delicate touch to the album.

05 Sam DickinsonDon’t Ask Me
Sam Dickinson Trio
Independent (samdickinsonguitar.com)

Don’t Ask Me is an enjoyable album from Toronto guitarist/composer Sam Dickinson who has studied at Humber College, the New England Conservatory, McGill University and received a Doctorate from the University of Miami in 2019. The album is an engaging and diverse set of works displaying his substantial guitar chops. 

Dickinson’s trio includes Jim Vivian on bass, with Adam Arruda and Terry Clarke alternating on drums. South Florida Task Force has a funky 7/4 groove and the guitar part is fusion inspired, effortlessly jumping through lithe melodies. Old Folks is a beautiful piece featuring acoustic guitar which begins slowly as a solo with some jazzy folk chords, then bass and drums enter and it builds into some expressive solo lines. Memory Lane also has some very nice acoustic playing and features Vivian›s bass, initially playing an exquisitely bowed melody and then evolving into intriguing pizzicato lines. Don’t Ask Me is an impressive and assured debut album and we look forward to more work from Dickinson.

06 Artie RothResonants
Artie Roth Quartet
Three Pines Records TPR-0016 (artieroth.bandcamp.com/album/resonants)

Resonants has many overarching themes, but sonically one in particular hits the ground running and never looks back: Artie Roth’s bass sounds nothing short of astonishing in this mix. Whether this reality is brought to the actual forefront as on the delicate Sound and Sky or greatly heightening the impact of every single Anthony Michelli drum hit on Refrain, Roth is the bedrock of what gives his group its distinctively substantial and grounded sound. The band itself displays an incredible grasp for mood, accessing a palette that not only delights in its sophistication, but fluctuates considerably between each track with effortless precision. The entire tracklist only consists of two (showstopping) segues, but the thoughtful sequencing and Roth’s refined compositional touch binds Circle Maker and Second Moment together as soulmates. 

Resonance makes up one half of the album’s conceptual namesake (“tenants” is the other), and it is a key element that is manipulated by the entire band to great effect. Soloing throughout is divorced from the idea of isolation that is often associated with the practice, taking the form of calculated traversal through a living soundscape rather than self-contained reactions to a set of harmonic constraints. Sam Dickinson’s guitar work shines in this respect, with active accompaniment that provides a resolute sense of warmth. The most energetic sections are characterized by an irresistible swing, kept page-turning by a constant shifting of beat emphasis, never allowing momentum to yield. Freshness flourishes.

07 LOrigine EclateeL’Origine Éclatée
Jean-Marc Hébert; Lex French; Morgan Moore; Pierre Tanguay
Independent (jean-marchebert.bandcamp.com)

L’Origine éclatée is an interesting album, and in many ways a rather selfless offering from guitarist Jean-Marc Hébert. It is one thing to have an understated style, or to showcase compositions and ensemble over one’s individual prowess, but Hébert truly takes an egalitarian stance with this recording, letting his great band shine on the seven unique original compositions we are treated to. The album doesn’t eschew the fact that Hébert is an excellent guitarist, but rather celebrates the trust and confidence he has in his bandmates to interpret his musical vision in a way that is extremely engaging to listeners. 

This is the guitarist’s third album as a composer and leader, and perhaps this is why Hébert has no problem stepping back and letting his music breathe through his bandmates. Another factor could be that he is classically trained. To me, this training is reflected in his mature and fully realized compositional style, as well as his technique on the instrument. I can’t point to a single moment on the album that displays the types of virtuosic shredding so many guitarists are drawn to, but each note Hébert plays is deliberately placed and full of intention. 

If you are starved for virtuosity and shredding, you won’t be disappointed after hearing trumpeter Lex French’s rich contributions to the album. French, bassist Morgan Moore and drummer Pierre Tanguay, are all represented on L’Origine éclatée as features and supporting artists. Check it out for yourself.

08 Francois BourassaSwirl
François Bourassa Quartet
Effendi Records FND169 (francoisbourassa.com)

I have had the pleasure of reviewing two albums from Quebec this month, and this province continues to produce the kind of outstanding art our country has come to associate with it. Pianist François Bourassa’s latest release Swirl: Live at Piccolo is a beautiful mix of improvised and composed elements and is full of contrast to its core. 

Years ago, there was a stereotype that contemporary jazz from Quebec tended to be either avant-garde or straight ahead, with little room in the middle. Whether that was ever entirely true stands to be determined, but the improvised music currently being produced in La Belle Province is an amazing melange of improv and tradition, and to this listener it contains a better range of influences than most other music forged in our country. 

I assumed Live at Piccolo meant this album was recorded live off the floor at Studio Piccolo in the east of Montreal, but audience applause quickly alerted me to the fact that this was a performance as well. This brings a certain realness to the music, which is expertly choreographed and precise while simultaneously sounding entirely improvised. Bourassa has been working with reed player André Leroux and bassist Guy Boisvert for more than two decades now and the most recent addition to the group, Guillaume Pilote, does more than hold his own. The album is just over an hour in duration but manages to keep even the most distractable ears glued to their stereo. I recommend it to curious listeners nationally and globally.

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