02 Robert LeeAscension
Robert Lee
Independent (robertleebass.com) 

Up-and-coming Toronto acoustic bassist, composer and bandleader Robert Lee, has released this delightful debut album, an energizing and unique foray into the contemporary jazz world. The record maintains an interesting balance showcasing Lee’s talent as a composer and bassist while putting the spotlight on the other fantastic musicians featured throughout, such as JUNO Award-winning saxophonist Allison Au, well-known guitarist Trevor Giancola and vibraphonist Michael Davidson. The album takes inspiration from songwriters such as Bon Iver, Christian McBride, Brian Blade and Iron & Wine, making for a unique musical blend of “modern chamber music, jazz and contemporary folk.”

Whether the listener likes traditional or more modern jazz, each piece brings forth elements of both, making this a downright treat for the ear. The title track starts off the album and is a deeply personal and introspective story about “searching for the greater meaning in life” which is reflected in the wandering, yet positivity inducing saxophone melody and a general sense of discovery felt throughout the piece. Burton’s Bounce is a great, swing-style piece with nimble movement in Lee’s pizzicato bass line and the dancing saxophone, vibraphone and guitar solos. Closing out the album is Cardinal on the Cobblestone, a beautiful track in which Mingjia Chen’s captivating voice, Ginacola’s soft guitar riffs and Lee’s gracefully plucked notes meld together for an uplifting and wonderful end to this musical journey.

03 Frankenhorn CoverFranken Horn
Audrey Ochoa
Chronograph Records CR-080 (audreyochoa.com) 

Surely many jazz enthusiasts who have kept up on contemporary artists have come across famed Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews and his unique style of trombone-centric jazz, but Canadian Audrey Ochoa’s newest release proves yet again that we have our own northern version of the aforementioned golden horn talent. Ochoa manages to successfully blend the old and the new, invoking feelings of nostalgia while introducing elements of modernism through electronic remixes of some tracks by electronica DJ Battery Poacher alongside more traditional pieces. Genre boundaries are cast aside here as we travel through sultry Latin-flavoured tracks to chamber music and unique string arrangements by Ochoa herself thrown into the mix. 

Swamp Castles starts off the album with a driving drum and bass groove which is overlaid by an energetic trombone line supported by a beautiful and captivating counter melody within the strings. Benchwarming takes the listener into a Latin musical world with smooth trombones, Chris Andrew’s diverse chord progressions on the piano and Luis Tovar’s sizzling conga rhythms pulling everything together. The track The Huggy Dance is a personal favourite as it really showcases how electronica can be successfully brought into the jazz world to add a fascinating contemporary flavour that is just delightful to listen to, a lo-fi groove that pulls you right in. A true breath of fresh air suitable for anyone getting into the jazz scene or just looking for something new.

Listen to 'Franken Horn' Now in the Listening Room

04 Allemano OhrenschmausRats and Mice
Lina Allemano’s Ohrenschmaus
Lumo Records LM 2019-10 (linaallemano.com) 

Splitting her time between Toronto and Berlin, local trumpeter Lina Allemano now has a European combo to complement her longstanding Canadian bands. Rock-solid German drummer Michael Griener and agile Norwegian electric bassist Dan Peter Sundland bring startling originality to the trumpeter’s compositions which broaden from Allemano’s cunning use of extended techniques. Frequently shadowing Allemano’s lead, the bassist’s thumb pops and moderated slaps perfectly augment trumpet timbres whether they’re spit out at a speedy pace or as grounded gurgling growls. As for the drummer, his tasteful side clips and rolling ruffs ensure the tunes maintain a steady pulse.

Allemano’s lead encompasses everything from creating expanded multiphonics, spitting out shrill brass runs, hand-muted effects and unexpected basso snarls. She exhibits a variety of effects on a track like Ostsee. Mixing textural advances and heraldic overblowing, positioned drum cracks help establish the tune’s horizontal groove which she then decorates with repeated note patterns sequentially squeezed from the high and low pitches. While her aggressive capillary asides and the bassist’s juiced twangs sometimes threaten to upset the session’s ambulatory pace, the trio is sophisticated enough to avoid sonic stalemates. You can hear this on Hooray Norway, the final, extended track which includes Allemano answering her own brassy trills with tongue flutters, as string slaps and cymbal beats help preserve a notable theme which emphasizes grace as well as melancholy. Overall, Allemano’s tale of two cities has an obviously happy ending.

05 Harrison ArgatoffToronto Streets Tour
Harrison Argatoff
Independent (harrisonargatoff.com) 

With the release of his debut solo recording, uber-talented, Toronto-based tenorist Harrison Argatoff has rendered a recording of remarkable creativity. In 2019, Argatoff undertook a daunting project – he performed 30 consecutive solo concerts on the streets of the Tdot, which were exclusively promoted by releasing only the postal codes of the concert locations! Subsequently, the (I assume) highly motivated music listeners had to embark on an urban quest (throughout the revealed postal code area) for the exact location of the concert in question.

Originally from Kelowna, B.C., Argatoff is a recent graduate of the University of Toronto jazz program. He has included nine original compositions here, as well as the traditional Zimbabwean folk song, Muroro (taught by Moyo Mutamba) and the haunting Russian lullaby White Acacia, which comes directly from Argatoff’s own Doukhobor heritage, and which he heard sung by his grandmother as a child. Both Argatoff’s gorgeous singing voice and his lyrical tenor sound are featured here.  

On Wait, Argatoff presents us with not only the hiss and whirr of Big Smoke traffic, but also a trance-inducing, Philip Glass-ish piece, rife with circular breathing and an almost whimsical air. Conversely, the delightful Muroro bobs and weaves through melodic intervals and comforting triads. A true standout is the deeply moving Rainfall, which seems to conjure all of the sadness and longing that the human heart can hold. Long, powerful, sinuous tones define this piece and also underscore Argatoff’s considerable technical skill. With Flicker, Argatoff transforms his tenor into a resonant fog horn, a helicopter and perhaps the sprockets of a Super 8 projector; while Outro perfectly parenthesizes this innovative, and thought-provoking recording.

06 Cory WeedsDay by Day
Cory Weeds Quartet
Cellar Music CM082619 (cellarlive.com) 

Cory Weeds has made so many recordings with David Hazeltine that you wouldn’t be wrong in assuming that the two are musical twins. Day by Day offers more evidence of this. The recording, an exquisite borehole into the jazzy stratum, reveals a treasure of both standards and original material, masterfully arranged by Hazeltine. Joining in the festivities are two other West-Coast masters: percussion colourist Jesse Cahill and Ken Lister, a bassist with a glorious rumble. Far from being on the sidelines, they play themselves into the proverbial thick of things.

Trios have captured our musical imagination from Art Tatum to Oscar Peterson, Keith Jarrett and Jimmy Giuffre among others. But this quartet does so too, reminding us of another classic quartet where magic occurred time and again. Weeds’ alto saxophone and Hazeltine’s piano are the lead voices and they sing mighty songs – song after song – as they jostle and joust with one another. Two bodies, one brain is a phrase that comes to mind. Once Blues de Troye kicks things off there’s no stopping them. This repertoire is riveting from start to finish. Not many recordings have that quality these days.

Hazeltine’s arrangements ensure that there is plenty of showtime for all four musicians. The joys of this music are also heartily celebrated by Cahill whose fizzing brushes and sticks are goaded by Lister’s gravitational bass. Put this all together and indeed you have the classic Canadian quartet.

07 Johnny SummersBaker’s Dozen – Celebrating Chet Baker
Johnny Summers
Cellar Music CM100819 (cellarlive.com) 

How timely, amid this global pandemic, with folks who have never so much as turned on an oven now cultivating sourdough starters and baking up a storm, that I have the pleasure of reviewing Calgary-based trumpet player and vocalist, Johnny Summers’ Baker’s Dozen: Celebrating Chet Baker. Most notable, and impressive, about Summers’ tribute to the jazz great is that rather than emulate Baker’s style, he takes us on a refreshing journey of some of Baker’s classics, putting his own distinctive spin on each track, of which there are 13 (as you likely surmised by the album title). 

Take My Funny Valentine for example. While Baker’s approach is spare and ruminative, here Summers ingeniously employs the talents of both a string quartet and the 17-piece Calgary Jazz Orchestra, which he founded in 2004 and leads with his trumpet. The result is a lush and layered arrangement, featuring Summers’ warm, inviting vocals and beautiful horn work.

Other lovely, and lively, turns can be heard in the strictly instrumental versions of Time After Time and You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To, where the bass, piano and drums really swing, and Summers’ solo work is stellar!

Summers’ vocal work on Embraceable You and You Go To My Head is also outstanding: luxurious, sensitive and sensual; some serious crooning there. So, while you’re waiting for that loaf of sourdough to rise, kick back with a julep or two and enjoy some time with this delectable Baker’s Dozen.

08 Grdina ResistResist
Gordon Grdina Septet
Irabragast Records 012 (gordongrdinamusic.com) 

Vancouver-based guitarist and oud player Gordon Grdina has emerged forcefully over the past decade, whether integrating jazz and Middle Eastern music or blending free jazz and fusion with a series of all-star bands. Resist is his most ambitious recording to date, both as composer and bandleader. The group combines two of Grdina’s Vancouver ensembles, his trio with bassist Tommy Babin and drummer Kenton Loewen and the East Van Strings with violinist Jesse Zubot, violist Eyvind Kang and cellist Peggy Lee. There’s also a special addition, saxophonist Jon Irabagon, whose intensity and invention often come to the fore.    

The title track is the main event, a 23-minute suite that begins with an elegiac string passage that compounds a distinctive musical language from the Second Viennese School and microtonal elements that suggest Middle Eastern modes. Other movements include an oud interlude that dramatizes an intense isolation, while passages of tumult are focused by Irabagon’s inventive squall. At the conclusion, rising string patterns express resolute determination.

Two other tracks isolate and develop materials from Resist: Resist the Middle intensifies a central passage, with Irabagon and the classical strings slashing and twisting through one another’s phrases; Ever Onward revisits a passage of the strings and oud with a stark, welling drama. There are also two distinct pieces that hold promise for the future: an evocative classical guitar composition, Seeds 11, and the incandescent free jazz of Varscona from Grdina, Babin, Loewen and Irabagon.

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