More than 60 years after the big band era, improvising musicians still organize large ensembles to take advantage of its wider scope and range of colors. Such is the versatility of the arrangements possible with large bands as these sessions demonstrate, that each sounds completely unique while maintaining the same excellence.

01_InstabileOver nearly 71 minutes on Totally Gone (Rai Trade RTP J0021, the all-star aggregation of 17 of the country’s most accomplished players who make up the Italian Instabile Orchestra (IIO) demonstrate the combination of technical skills and rambunctious good spirits that has kept the band going since 1990. Unsurprisingly the climatic track, Ciao Baby, I’m Totally Gone/It Had to be You, is a case-in-point instance of the band’s expansive talents. Switching between timbral dissonance from squeaky spiccato strings and snoring brass slurs on one hand with sibilant, staccato section work that could have migrated from Fletcher Henderson’s band, the IIO’s texture is simultaneously mainstream and avant-garde. This is made clearest when a sequence of pure air forced from Sebi Tramontana’s trombone turns to plunger polyrhythm as he’s backed by harmonized reeds and strings, and ends with him vocalizing the second half of the title backed by Fabrizio Puglisi’s key-clipping piano and Gianluigi Trovesi’s undulating clarinet obbligato. This sense of fun is also expressed on No Visa, a jazzy hoedown which leaves room for sul ponticello fiddling from violinist Emanuele Parrini, funky tenor saxophone vamping from Daniele Cavallanti, a brassy mid-range fanfare and the entire band vocally riffing in unison. This doesn’t mean that compositional seriousness isn’t displayed alongside the theatricism. The multi-tempo Gargantella, for instance is as much a nocturne as a capriccio. Here closely-voiced and massed horns and strings move adagio beneath strained brass notes and a snorting, altissimo showcase for baritone saxophonist Carlo Actis Dato until the tone poem is completed by polished, string movements given shape by the clattering cymbals and wood block pops of percussionists Vincenzo Mazzone and Tiziano Tononi.

02_Pierre_LabbeWith rock-influenced electric piano and guitar prominent, Pierre Labbé’s 12-piece big band takes a different approach on Tremblement de fer (Ambiances Magnétiques AM 202 CD, performing a seven-part suite the saxophonist composed for a Montreal festival. A POMO sound essay, the composition is animated by contrapuntal clashes between sections which include four bowed strings, two brass, two reeds, plus guitar, piano, bass and percussion. Although linked, each track can be appreciated on its own. Despite its Arabic title, Le 2e Souk is actually a showcase for Jean Derome’s improvisations on successively, alto saxophone, flute and bass clarinet. Throughout his staccato peeps, sibilant slurs and flutter tonguing are matched by tremolo slides, sawing and scratches from the violinists, violist and cellist. Lavra, on the other hand masses Balkan-sounding string discord with irregular pulses from guitarist Bernard Falaise and drummer Pierre Tanguay as soprano saxophonist André Leroux carries the melody. Resolution comes when trombonist Jean-Nicolas Trottier abandons plunger tones to slurp his way up the scale, accompanied by the strings and pianist Guillaume Dostaler’s steady comping. Tanguay, whose hand taps are suitably exotic when playing darbuka, contributes muscular ruffs throughout. His steadying backbeat is particularly necessary on the final La Fille et la grenouille. Sounding like what would happen if a street-corner Sally Ann band wandered into a country music session, the tune mixes up the bugling from the brass players, rooster crows and spits from the reeds, a bow-legged rhythm with cow-bell pings from Tanguay, and Falaise contrasting his best pseudo-steel-guitar C&W twangs with the somewhat schmaltzy tutti horn lines.

03_Pierre Favre CDTaking a different tack is percussionist Pierre Favre’s Le Voyage (Intakt CD 186, which mutates standard big-band harmonies with unique sound blocks in the drummer’s compositions. Utilizing a saxophone choir of soprano, alto, tenor and baritone to create concentrated organ-like chord pulsations, Favre’s intermezzos parcel the solos out among guitarist Phillipp Schaufelberger, trombonist Samuel Blaser and clarinettist Claudio Putin. With the rhythmic thrust doubled by string bass and bass guitar, the results evoke baroque ballads as certainly as big band swing. An example of the latter is Wrong Name where Putin’s florid twitters trill chromatically, while around him harmonized reeds throb in unison, prodded from adagio to andante tempo by cross-patterning cracks and pops from the drummer. Les Vilains on the other hand could be modernized Renaissance court music, with the reeds playing formalized close harmonies as if they were a string quartet, with cascading and irregular timbres doled out from Schaufelberger’s harsh, slurred fingering. Favre’s sound architecture is most obvious on Akimbo where reed shading becomes sonically three-dimensional as the drummer’s clips emphasize the symmetry between the guitarist’s string snaps plus Blaser’s plunger grace notes.

03_Fred_HoPractically standing the big band tradition and its head, American gigantism is emphasized on Fred Ho and the Green Monster Big Band’s Year of the Tiger (Innova 789 since the Chinese-American composer bursts with so many sociological and musical tropes that a 21 musicians are needed to express them. A Marxist populist Ho packs within 70 minutes, a five-part suite honouring African-American big bands; a trio of Michael Jackson songs; the Johnny Quest TV show theme song; a couple of Jimi Hendrix hits; plus excerpts from his chamber opera featuring the band plus an adult and a children’s choirs. These extracts are notable for how he blends formalist bel canto singing with instrumental looseness from an improvising ensemble, whereas Ho’s arrangement of the Hendrix melodies play up their jazz-rock linkage as tremolo trombone slurs and roistering sax vamps parallel the double-tracked vocals. More seriously, adding an anti-capitalist recitation from poet Magdalena Gomez to Jackson’s Bad and Thriller, already evocatively sung by Leena Conquest, defines the werewolf and zombie sound effects within the context of mindless consumerism, mocked by guffawing brass and a slurping tenor sax solo. The CD’s heart is contained in the six selections of Take the Zen Train, which manages to reference both Pete Seeger and Duke Ellington. Using instrumental pulsations and layering, with bellowing brass reverb and tension-and-release variants plus the vibrancy of frequent tempo changes, Ho composes tonal portraits for his soloists. Outstanding are cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum’s whispering and peeping ballad feature; the stop-time slurs and gutbucket expansions from bass trombonist David Harris; plus an interlude which matches alto saxophonist Jim Hobbs’ reed masticating alongside the composer’s snorting baritone sax runs. Seeger’s left-wing orientation is apparent in some of the tune titles including Quarantine for the Aggressor. Whether used for program music or for timbral amplification, big bands remain a preferred form of expression for players and composers.

01_Larry BondOut In Front

Larry Bond Quartet

Independent (

A little over a year ago we reviewed a CD by the Larry Bond Trio. Now they are back, but they have grown to a quartet. The original three members, Larry Bond on piano, Bob Mills on bass and Richard Moore on drums have been joined by Bruce Redstone on saxophones. As with their earlier CD, if you enjoy good quality relaxed jazz, this could be for you.

Unlike the earlier trio CD, which was a mix of standards and lesser known numbers, on this CD all selections are original compositions by Larry Bond. Although all numbers were new to my ears, they are all very accessible. I could easily have imagined lyrics being written for many of the tunes. The addition of Bruce Redstone’s sax stylings provides a greater variety of colours than the earlier CD. Since all tracks were new, it was almost impossible to tell when the members were playing the charts and when they were improvising. There is a good variety of rhythms including a few up tempo numbers, but they are never in the frantic category. Recording quality is excellent with a crisp, clean bass line and smooth sax work in all registers. In addition to his musical talents, Bruce Redstone provided all of the photography and art work for this CD.

02_MarkSeggerThe Beginning

Mark Segger Sextet

18th Note Records 18-2011-1 (

Cunningly arranged so that each instrument is appropriately voiced, the compositions of drummer Mark Segger are given a first-class showcase on this exceptional CD. An Edmonton-native, now Toronto-based, the drummer’s eight tunes are multi-faceted solidly contemporary efforts with avant-garde flashes. On hand to enliven the pieces are veterans, trumpeter Jim Lewis, bassist Andrew Downing and Tania Gill on piano and melodica; plus younger soloists trombonist Heather Segger, tenor saxophonist and clarinettist Chris Willes, plus the drummer.

With sounds ranging from those reminiscent of baroque rounds to those which pick up Latin-funk inferences, many announce their individuality by concentrating the rhythm in an ostinato from trombonist Segger. In other places she snorts subterraneously or resonates alphorn-like trills, often in dual counterpoint with the trumpeter’s flutter tonguing. Joining Segger’s percussive ratamacues and flams to meticulously expose dynamic key clips and intense rubato lines on an uncomplicated swinger like Soca You Play It, Gill turns around to add jittery melodic pumps on other tunes such as Steam Engine. Here Downing’s walking bass and a light shuffle beat provide solid back-up as burping trombone and heraldic trumpet roll and tongue the theme with lyrical abandon. Another highlight is My Dog Has Fleas, where Willes’ saxophone response to the canine affliction ranges from unaccompanied chromatic slurs to narrowed and striated shrills to melodic, decorated peeps, accompanied by the drummer’s rim-shot rebounds and challenged by top-of-range tremolo trombone slides.

Appropriately the final track here is the title tune, for the strength of the performances makes you hope for future Segger sound elaborations.

03_purcorPurcor - Songs for Saxophone and Piano

Trygve Seim; Andreas Utnem

ECM 2186

The work of this Norwegian duo offers a blend of original melodies accompanied by adaptations of a few indigenous folk songs. The recording is very subdued and creates an intimate atmosphere for the listener that is both alluring and interesting. This album also exemplifies many genre defying qualities which make it rather difficult for one to categorize.

Andreas Utnem’s piano style is vaguely reminiscent of Robert Schumann’s work, while Trygve Seim’s playing echoes that of Dexter Gordon. When the two distinct styles converge, a beautiful fusion emerges with affluent melodies and unique lyrical qualities – it’s as if Trygve is speaking to the listener through his saxophone.

The recording itself accentuates the expressive saxophone with close proximity microphone placement. This enables the listener to hear every detail of Trygve’s performance from the deepest bellow to the most ethereal whisper. Conversely, the piano feels distant and ominous, leaving reverberant trails of melody in the background of the soundscape.

One can easily discern that these fourteen songs have been chosen and placed in order with much deliberation. Although they are songs without words, a story unfolds in such a way that one should surely listen to this album from beginning to end.

04_rita_di_ghentAll Baby Wants is Me

Rita di Ghent

Groove Classic (

In her seventh and latest recording “All Baby Wants is Me” evocative songstress Rita Di Ghent presents a tasty sampling of much loved standards as well as two original compositions, including the jaunty title track. Di Ghent’s trademark haute-cabaret presentation and impeccable good taste are in full swing on this highly enjoyable recording. She effortlessly conjures up visions of smoke-filled speak-easies, and the bluesier numbers are well-served by her smoky, understated vocal style - reminiscent of the late great Lee Wiley.

Rita served as producer and arranger on this project, and she has surrounded herself with an elegant supporting cast of Dave Restivo on piano and B3 organ, Marc Rogers on bass, Daniel Barnes on drums, multi-cultural jazz artist Kenny Kirkwood on saxophone, Nick “Brownman” Ali on trumpet and Fred Raulston on vibes/percussion. The ensemble is nothing short of perfection, and never overpowers the diaphanous Di Ghent. Dave Restivo is acknowledged as one of the most gifted jazz pianists on the scene today, and on this recording he also shows himself to be a masterful accompanist - in the best possible Alan Broadbent sense.

Di Ghent’s clever composition, Nicely Situated is a song in search of a Broadway show, and she delivers it with humour, flair and melodic integrity. Other outstanding tracks include an up-tempo What a Little Moonlight Can Do and George Gershwin’s classic I’ve Got a Crush on You, replete with a gorgeous string arrangement and performance from Jaro Jarosil.


Esperanza Spalding

Ayva Music AYVA036 (

Chamber Music Society

Esperanza Spalding

Heads Up International HUI-31810-02

A shockwave went through the pop music community and a small thrill of delight was felt by a lot of jazz fans when Esperanza Spalding beat out Drake and Justin Bieber for Best New Artist at the recent Grammy Awards. Finally here was someone a) we've heard of and b) who can play something other than an iPhone. The young bass player and singer has solid and wide ranging training – she studied jazz at the prestigious Berklee School of Music in Boston where she went on to become the youngest faculty member at age 20. She taught herself the violin at age five when she landed a spot in the Oregon Chamber Music Society. And it all shows in her two discs “Junjo” from 2005 and 2010’s “Chamber Music Society,” for which she won the Grammy. (Spalding has a third solo album from 2008, not being reviewed here.) “Chamber Music Society” is produced by the masterful Gil Goldstein (check his work on Karrin Allyson's “Wild for You” and Boz Scaggs “Speak Low”) and the free-form improvisation that is rife throughout her debut “Junjo” is still dominant but reined in a bit and tempered by a string trio. Her singing – which was done completely without words on “Junjo” - leans toward the light classical side, without the encumbrance of actual melodies for the most part. Except for Loro, which is a brilliant vocal chord twister written by Brazilian composer Egberto Gismonti, which Spalding handles with ease. The most mainstream song on her latest disc is the opening track Little Fly which is a William Blake poem Spalding has prettily set to music. The disc then ventures through a series of mostly Spalding compositions that mix percussion from a variety of musical cultures, courtesy of Terri Lyne Carrington and Qunitino Cinalli, with angular string trio arrangements and Spalding's solid acoustic bass playing. Spalding is a playful performer who stretches her considerable imagination and skills to the fullest.

06_100_bluenote100 Best of Blue Note

Various Artists

EMI 5 099990 530326

The first of 100 tunes in this collection is a 1937 recording of tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins and guitarist Django Reinhardt playing Out Of Nowhere. It was recorded two years before Blue Note Records was founded. The taping was done for EMI’s Capitol label’s French division. This is an ominous hint as to the content of the 10-disc “100 Best of Blue Note” box set, which at first glance appears to have all the trimmings of a slick 21st century collection. It comes in a box you’d expect to contain two or three CDs, not 10 with 10 cuts on each of them. Individual disc covers please the eye, the name of each track leader coloured differently from its successor. The same design is employed on the back, with each tune named. However, a closer look shows that’s just about all the information you’ll get, forcing listeners into guess-that-sideman mode. Most recordings here don’t have just the named leader in action while there are numerous odd selections taken from albums that contain much better jazz. Just one example is on CD2 where Gil Fuller and the Monterey Jazz Festival Orchestra featuring (trumpeter) Dizzy Gillespie plays a feeble version of Man From Monterey. The same LP has Gillespie and Charlie Parker roaring through Groovin’ High… no contest. While it’s too easy to be picky, these sorts of choices nonetheless make you wonder what organizers were thinking and who chose the music. It’s compiled by EMI Belgium, tracks selected by 2Sounds.

I’m sure most jazz fans believe the Blue Note golden years were the 1950s and 60s, fruitful times when hard bop had taken over from bebop and torrents of vinyl LPs were illustrated with gorgeously expressive player portraits. This music was distinctive, the ancestor of modern mainstream. Jazz changes its forms, but jazz history does not.

Given the convulsions in the music business and ownership changes, it’s not surprising that the EMI empire has many labels under its belt, with the result that recording dates in the terse accompanying notes cover a period far longer than the Blue Note heyday and cite labels other than Blue Note. Overall most recording dates are meaningless in that a large number are reissues.

I delight in re-experiencing vintage classics such as Sonny Rollins Misterioso with Monk, Silver, J.J. Johnson, Chambers and Blakey, and appreciate the fresh recognition given Golden Age stalwarts such as Tine Brooks, Dexter Gordon, Kenny Dorham, Hank Mobley, Ike Quebec, Baby Face Willette, Donald Byrd and Jimmy Smith. At the same time I wonder about the inclusion of bands like the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Chick Corea, Patricia Barber, David Axelrod, Stacey Kent, Lionel Loueke and, heaven help us, Norah Jones however good that was for sales. The sole piece of Canadiana is Holly Cole singing Hum Drum Blues with saxman Javon Jackson. Enough said.

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