01_tom_szczesniakWaltz for Bill
Tom Szczesniak
Independent SZC-27426-27 (www.tomszcz.com)

Waltz for Bill is veteran Toronto session player and arranger, Tom Szczesniak’s, love letter to the genius of Bill Evans. It is also the title of his very first CD under his own name after 40 years in the industry playing with everyone from Anne Murray to Thad Jones. Evans isn’t the only piano player to be honoured by Szczesniak, as the late and much-missed Doug Riley (Dr. Music) is remembered here both with a tribute song and a cover of one of his compositions, Dinosaurus. The progressive rock/bop fusion number is a bit of an incongruity, but a palate-cleanser amidst all the ear butterscotch that comes before and after. The disc is steeped in standards and even veers into chestnut territory a time or two, but is a class act from beginning to end. Starting with a mellow but harmonically fresh approach to What Is This Thing Called Love, we get taken on a lush, lovely journey of the likes of Gershwin and Hammerstein with lots of strings, a bit of sax (Michael Stuart and Vern Dorge) and the occasional velvety vocal from Doug Mallory and Cal Dodd.

02_sounds_and_silenceSounds and Silence - Travels with Manfred Eicher
A film by Peter Guyer and Norbert Wiedmer
ECM 5050 DVD 276 9886

Since I first heard Keith Jarrett’s Köln Concert in the 70s, I have been listening to ECM records. My musical tastes have been influenced over the years by the artists the label represents. Although the recording artists’ names would always vary, the producer’s credit seemed to be a constant: Manfred Eicher.

This film offers an intimate view of the recording process both in studios, and in various reverberant spaces around the world. The filmmakers follow Eicher as he travels to produce his discriminately selected artists from Scandinavia to South America. He is shown in most recording sessions as a man deep in listening, rarely communicating verbally with the musicians. It’s as though his presence alone offers reassurance and companionship in the creative process.

Eicher imparts very few words throughout the film, which leaves the viewer feeling equally unfamiliar with him upon completion. Nonetheless, Sounds and Silence is quite beautiful to watch as we travel through the different coloured locales and listen to the respective musical sounds.

In his humble presence, it seems apparent that Eicher is very devoted to his craft. Composer Eleni Karaindrou says of Eicher, “Wherever Manfred works, he is 100 percent involved. That is the true nature of his passion. He devotes himself to the moment and is entirely committed to the artist he is recording.”

01_bedardJazz in Quebec is a vigorous element of French-Canadian culture, though all too infrequently experienced in these parts. However, Montreal label Effendi has recently released a bumper crop of albums by provincial stalwarts that underscore the lively musical health of its practitioners. One features veteran bassist Alain Bédard, who skilfully demonstrates his roles as leader, anchor, frequent soloist and rhythmic engine of his Auguste Quintet on Alain Bédard – Homos Pugnax (Effendi FND 115 www.effendirecords.com). He wrote five of the ten tracks that include four by bandsmen and Carla Bley’s Fleurs Carnivores, which he’s arranged impressively. Supported by the nimble, versatile sax of Frank Lozano (mainly soprano), pianist Alexandre Grogg and subtle drummer Michel Lambert, Bédard has created an enticing album full of interest, unusual time signatures and sparkling work by all.

02_fieldIt’s odd to come across a fully-fledged band that’s only been around a short while yet clearly displays confidence and chemistry. Mike Field – Ashes (MFJCD 1101 www.mikefieldjazz.com) is a pleasing quintet outing led by trumpeter Field, a veteran of musical forms other than jazz, performing with tenor saxist Paul Metcalfe, pianist Matt Newton, bassist Carlie Howell and drummer Dave Chan. The boss wrote all nine pieces here, some with unconventional structures and all executed with considerable panache, though the music’s more unblemished than exhilarating. Field plays with authority, with obvious tonal smarts and ear-catching virtuosity. His album strongly suggests future success.

03_rombergIndefatigable drummer Barry Romberg has put out 11 CDs over the past decade featuring his Random Access combos and the newest maintains the group rep for sustained excitement and relentless drive. Recorded live at the Rex, Barry Romberg’s Random Access – Unplugged Live (Romhog Records 121 www.barryromberg.com) has the usual suspects in play for 70 minutes encompassing just four tunes – guitarist Geoff Young, keyboardist Robi Botos and power electric bassist Rich Brown. Guesting is American tenor saxist Donny McCaslin, who’s more than comfortable with the striking free improv that is RA’s trademark, his staccato phrasing meshing well with Young’s distinctively spiky approach, Brown’s gouging grooves and the fierce energy from keys and drums. The more-than-22 minutes of the burning In Pursuit is a stirring highlight, Botos sparkling on electric piano.

04_keith_priceThe guitar toted by Winnipeg’s Keith Price makes untypical, attractive sounds, quickly manifested on his sophomore album The Keith Price Trio/Quintet – Gaia/Goya (KP201102 www.keithprice.ca). Bell-like chords, shining echoey notes, shimmering resonances are heard, which gives this disc surprising heft considering that it occupies only a measly 41 minutes as it combines four indie-pop tunes performed by his trio with bass Julian Bradford and drummer Curtis Nowosad and a six-part suite which adds alto saxist Neil Watson and pianist William Bonness. The groupings are well integrated, no one stepping out of line, though the pulse team is allotted occasional flights of fancy. The suite’s components come across as more fully realized, with a freshness of expression and frequent servings of heat.

05_butlerMontreal pianist Taurey Butler has plenty to offer on his impressive debut recording as leader, the self-titled Taurey Butler (Justin Time JUST242-2 www.justin-time.com), 11 cuts where he unabashedly illuminates his respect for late genius Oscar Peterson without consciously emulating him. The ferocious swing, eloquent skill at speed, pounding left hand and showy imagination are all there, however, markedly on opening burners Sunrise, Sunset and The Lady Is A Tramp. Butler gets exemplary support from bassist Eric Lagacé and drummer Wali Muhammad throughout, though the trio’s work on ballads is less satisfying than the verve they show on tunes mid-tempo and up, like the catchy Butler contributions An Afternoon Downtown and Grandpa Ted’s Tune, the latter a surging procession of ideas. And you can’t say OP doesn’t spring to mind on Butler’s tearaway Nobody’s Here.

06_mississaugaBig bands don’t rule the jazz roost nowadays but they’re often worth a listen, as is the case with Mississauga Big Band Jazz Ensemble – On The Periphery (MBBJE 5-2 rboniface@rogers.com), which offers 14 tunes and 73 minutes of classy, sprightly entertainment recorded live at Arnold’s Sports Bar in Oakville. The opening Steamsville is brisk and bright with gritty alto by Gary Martin, who also shines on Aluminum Baby. Section work is mostly splendid though soloists vary widely in ability (10 players get solo opportunities). The ensemble sounds best on relaxed material, especially well-worn standards, but it can swing hard and clearly enjoys challenging choices, including pieces from Burt Bacharach, the Average White Band and Charlie Mingus. Vocalist Catherine McGregor holds her own on four songs.

07a_cinque07b_weedsThree worth seeking: If you’re in the mood for tight fusion try Cinque - Catch A Corner (Alma ACD83012 www.almarecords.com), a quintet featuring Robi Botos, John Johnson and Joey DeFrancesco. For forceful swing there’s Cory Weeds – Just Like That (Cellar Live CL031311 www.cellarlive.com), a quartet helmed by Vancouver alto saxist Weeds with pianist Tilden Webb’s trio. If you want groove and funk hear Jason Raso – The Red Arrow (Summit Records DCD 569 www.jasonrasomusic.com), which showcases the Guelph-based bassist in action with assorted colleagues including B3 master Tony Monaco and drummer Ted Warren.07c_jason_raso

01_williamsonruppAlmost from the time the professional music business was established in this country, the expected route for success has been for artists to head off to the larger market down south and set up shop there. Canadians from Percy Faith and Maynard Ferguson to Joni Mitchell and Teresa Stratas effectively followed that formula. But today, as American musical hegemony lessens and modern communications almost literally shrink the world, musicians, especially those who play improvised music, can demonstrate that a permanent home in Europe is as beneficial as becoming an American resident. Take Vancouver-born Joe Williamson for instance. On Weird Weapons 2 (Creative Sources CS197 CD www.creativesourcesrec.com), the bassist, who now lives in Stockholm after stints in London, Berlin and Montreal, is matched with German guitarist Olaf Rupp and drummer Tony Buck, an Australian turned Berliner, for two extended selections of intuitive improv. No lounge guitar trio, this band creates sonic sparks that almost visibly fly every which way. Rupp’s constant, intense strumming often elasticizes into slurred fingering as Buck buzzes drumstick on cymbals, pops his toms, door-knocks his snares and rattles and reverberates any number of bells, chains and wood blocks for additional textures. Keeping the improvisations grounded is Williamson, who splays, stretches or saws upon his instrument’s strings, scroll and body wood when he’s not creating added continuum by slapping out pedal point resonation. On the nearly 30-minute Buckram, the three reach such a level of polyphonic coherence that the cumulative textures seem to ooze into every sonic space. Moving to the forefront then fading back into the ensemble, Rupp pinpoints jagged licks that eventually accelerate to stentorian multi-string runs, as Buck concentrates pitter-pattering and agitatedly clanking into tremolo whacks. Finally, a climax is reached, as Williamson’s multi-string variations, consisting of col legno strokes vibrating with a near-electronic pulse, push the three to a decisive conclusion.

02_hopscotchLess than 300 kilometres southwest, in Copenhagen, lives drummer Kevin Brow, an Orangeville native and part of the trio on Hopscotch (ILK 179 CD www.ilkmusic.com), completed by Italian-born tenor saxophonist Francesco Bigoni, another Copenhagen resident, plus local guitarist Mark Solborg. Paced and cooperative, Brow’s rhythmic sensibility here is like Williamson’s on the other CD. Brow’s backbeat alternately advances or bonds the others’ extended techniques during ten notable improvisations. With Solberg’s solos including distorted power chords with rock music antecedents plus organ-like echoes, and Bigoni’s bitten-off reed strategies accelerating to intense, repetitive phraseology, the drummer’s playing creates thematic definition. Case in point is Almost. Before Brow’s hard thwacks define a conclusive tipping point where unison harmonies from the guitarist and saxist advance to similar legato patterning, the variegated strategy from each differs markedly. Solberg’s licks are trebly and echoing, while Bigoni’s behind-the-beat tones split and squeak. The percussionist can also express himself more forcefully as he does with carefully positioned press rolls and flanges on Brainwashing. Meantime the saxophonist appears to be exploring the limits of his instrument with intense vibrato, lip bubbling sprays and pressurized staccato tones, as serpentine guitar strokes harden into splayed fingering plus crunching, echoing twangs, leavened by a bit of amp buzz. Bigoni’s tone alternates among magisterial reed quivers, speech-like inflection and legato lines, which helps define the remaining tracks’ scope(s).

03_spliceOver in the United Kingdom, the band Splice consists of two British players – trumpeter Alex Bonney and drummer Dave Smith – plus French reedist Robin Fincker who has lived in London for a dozen years, and Montreal-born Pierre Alexandre Tremblay. Tremblay, who plays bass guitar and electronics, has taught at England’s University of Huddersfield since 2005 and oversees its electronic music studio. Perhaps that’s why this disc is entitled Lab (Loop Records 1013 www.loopcollective.org). It certainly has a more extensive electronic palate than the others. Although slippery and shuddering bass guitar runs are heard infrequently throughout, Tremblay’s electronics maintain the sometimes opaque methodical pulsations which pervade the disc. A track such as The Wanderer is smooth and bouncy, built on Fincker’s chromatic clarinet runs, Bonney’s trumpet obbligatos, a shuffle drum beat and electroacoustic colouring that could be Arabic music played on an accordion. The blurry wave forms which elsewhere quiver alongside, process or complement instrumental textures such as alphorn-like vibration from Fincker’s tenor saxophone, Bonney’s brassy or muted asides and drum pops and backbeat, are more upfront on Luna Verde. Stacked horn lines, sliding bass guitar licks and percussion rebounds are accompanied by processed textures that come in-and-out of aural focus. This crackling interface concretely outlines the theme statement from the harmonized horns.

04_tony_malabyNot surprisingly of course, the stateside lure still exists and is beneficial for some musicians. Vancouver-born, Toronto-educated pianist Kris Davis, has, after a decade in New York, become one of the go-to musicians there. While the Canadians on the other CDs may provide the backdrop for improvisations, Davis not only plays on Novela (Clean Feed CF 232 CD www.cleanfeed-records.com), by Tony Malaby’s nine-piece band, but wrote all the arrangements and conducts. A career retrospective for Malaby, Davis recasts six of his original compositions to show off his tenor and soprano saxophone prowess. The extended Remolino, for example, is given a Mexicali flavour by intertwined horn lines broadened with Dan Peck’s harsh tuba snorts and drummer John Hollenbeck’s press rolls. Dramatic chording from the pianist introduces a Malaby soprano saxophone solo which reaches an elevated level of pressurized multiphonics before downshifting to moderato timbres in unison with the other horns. Before a climax of piano key plinks and a brass fanfare, the saxophonist winds his way among clanks and scrapes from the percussionist and trombonist Ben Gerstein’s brays as close harmonies are produced by alto saxophonist Michael Attias, baritone saxophonist Andrew Hadro and Joachim Badenhorst’s bass clarinet. Carefully shaping arrangements to expose distinct sound tinctures like xylophone rhythms or plunger trombone friction, Davis makes Floral and Herbaceous another highpoint. Following trumpeter Ralph Alessi’s lead and ending with a crescendo of staccato noises, the tune plays out as a duel between Malaby’s distinctive soprano reed bites and a sequence of more muted tones from the baritone saxophonist.

Whether it’s as co-leader, arranger, teacher or improviser, each of these Canadians appears to have found the proper foreign context for his or her musical development.

02_School_DaysSchool Days

Steve Lacy; Roswell Rudd; Henry Grimes; Dennis Charles

Emanem 5016 www.emanemdisc.com

Nearly 50 years later it seems unbelievable, but this all-star quartet broke up after a couple of years of almost no work because few wanted to support a band that exclusively played what was then thought of as far-out music by pianist/composer Thelonious Monk. Yet, on the basis of the material recorded here in 1963, with Henry Grimes’ stentorian walking bass timbres and Dennis Charles’ free-flowing drum beats, soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy and trombonist Roswell Rudd were already so familiar with the Monk canon that they were able to create their own swinging variations on such now-familiar Monk fare as Monk’s Dream and Brilliant Corners.

The seven spiky and unconventional songs, recorded in a New York coffee house by the late Toronto poet Paul Haines, then resident in Manhattan, demonstrate how Lacy’s gritty, yet lyrical tones imposingly blended with the modern gutbucket styling of Rudd. These treatments of Monk’s inimitable compositions also suggest the distinctive concepts that would help Lacy (1934-2004) develop into a major improviser and admired composer during the rest of his life.

As an added bonus this reissue contains two bootleg sound quality tracks – not recorded by Haines – from a 1960 jazz festival appearance with Lacy as a member of a Monk combo of heavyweights, the pianist, drummer Roy Haynes, bassist John Ore and tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse. Historically matchless, the versions of Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are and Skippy provide insight, showing how Lacy’s tart, taut tone created a sonic role for itself within the tight-knit group’s performances.

03_Sophie_MilmanIn the Moonlight

Sophie Milman

eOne Entertainment EOM-CD-215 (www.eonemusic.ca)

Vocalist Sophie Milman’s latest disc, In the Moonlight is a trip through the Great American Songbook (with a short detour by way of Feist) which places her on a new tier of her remarkable evolution as a jazz vocalist. Ms Milman is the veritable Grace Kelly of jazz – elegant, beautiful, skilled and always in good taste. Produced by Matt Pierson (who is responsible for discovering jazz star Joshua Redman, among others), the CD was recorded at famed Sear Sound in NYC and boasts an all-star line-up of jazz luminaries such as Gerald Clayton, Lewis Nash, Romero Lubambo, Randy Brecker and Chris Potter, matched with innovative arrangements by Rob Mounsey, Gerald Clayton, Julian Loge, Gil Goldstein, Alan Broadbent and Kevin Hayes. In addition, we are treated to six tracks with orchestral components – inspired settings for Milman’s luminous voice and persona.

This recording is the splendid result of exquisitely talented pairings between instrumentalists, arrangers and vocalist. The Oscar winning title track was written by The Bergmans for the 1980s re-make of the film Sabrina. Milman’s version utilizes strings in interplay with her lower register, in order to capture every romantic nuance. From The Music Man comes ’Til There Was You, rendered by Milman with a profound intimacy - a new twist on this familiar Broadway powerhouse. Also wonderful is Serge Gainsbourg’s romantic Ces Petits Riens, enhanced by atmospheric accordion work from pianist/arranger Gil Goldstein. Milman’s quick, parfait-like vibrato and impeccable phrasing is an elegant fit for this genre. This is a beautifully produced, recorded and performed CD – a perfect holiday gift!

01_Guido_BassoIs it possible to sound better than perfect? This improbable intellectual puzzle came to mind thanks to the new CD from Guido Basso, his first in eight years. His work on trumpet and flugelhorn has always been exemplary but he’s surely attained new heights on Changing Partners (Rhythm Tracks RTCD0015 www.cdbaby.com), an 11-tune excursion recorded over two years with five top-notch collaborators in duet formats. These settings, with no plan, no charts and no rehearsal, result in playing that’s often passionately inspirational, with wit and bravura technique added to his customary mellow fluency in all genres. His colleagues are pianists Robi Botos, John Sherwood and Don Thompson plus guitarists Lorne Lofsky and Rob Piltch. Botos is a particularly effective foil on three cuts, notably a sparkling There Is No Greater Love and a frolicking Down By The Riverside but there are no duds here. On Goodbye Basso adds a moving segment employing late bandleader Rob McConnell’s valve trombone in honour of his long-time associate. Apparently there’s plenty of material available for a second volume. Do it soon.

02_Kevin_DeanAnother stylish veteran trumpeter is Montreal’s Kevin Dean, always eloquent and always striking. On Kevin Dean Quartet - A Message From The Dean (Cellar Live CL060711 www.cellarlive.com) he demonstrates an assured, flowing yet unhurried approach with a big, round sound that has none of the rough edges you’d expect in a jazzer schooled in hard bop. He’s also an imaginative composer, penning all ten tunes on which he has well-seasoned support from splendid pianist Andre White, bass Alex Walkington and drummer Dave Laing. The opening Famous Last Words is particularly impressive, Gone By Morning brisk and bracing with Dean’s contribution seemingly effortless despite daunting structure, in marked contrast to the yearning ballads Ultra Sounds and Thank You Notes. Quality is high throughout, concluding with the lovely Epitaph.

03_Bill_EvansMore great music emanates from Montreal on Donato Bourassa Lozano Tanguay - Autour de Bill Evans (Effendi FND112 www.effendirecords.com), an all-star quartet showcasing the current cornerstones of that city’s superior jazz history. The group led by excellent pianist François Bourassa tackles the repertoire of Bill Evans, the lyrical master who died in 1980, although of the disc’s 11 tunes just four are Evans originals. This tribute pushes the right buttons, sounds classic yet up-to-date and highlights the considerable talents of the team, with saxman Frank Lozano adept at capturing Evans’ melodic strengths, bass Michel Donato’s rich deep tones proving a super-strong anchor, drummer Pierre Tanguay exercising his precise subtleties and the leader his expansive imagination and crafted harmonies. The band’s easy cohesion and flair for innovation within the tradition will ensure this album is a candidate for top ten year-ending lists.

CD Note: Effendi has recently issued four more classy discs by Montreal headliners, groups led by Lozano (Destin), pianist Josh Rager (Kananaskis), saxophonist Alexandre Cote (Transitions) and bassist Alain Bédard (Homos Pugnax).

05_Gelcer_HoffertPianist Paul Hoffert and drummer Jim Gelcer have long paid their musical dues (Hoffert a founder of Lighthouse) but their jazz inclinations get a workout here on Gelcer Hoffert Trio - How High The Bird (Breaking Records 110110 www.paulhoffert.ca), an 11-track exploration combining classic standards, much unison playing by the principals (bass duties shared by Lew Mele, Russ Boswell and Justin Gray) and a large dose of Thelonious Monk. The combinations don’t always work – the opening All Weep For Blues has definitive parts of All Blues and Willow Weep For Me and so on – but this seems just enforced cleverness rather than boundary-breaking concept. Elsewhere the unison work is more appealing, while the basics of Monk’s great compositions like Straight No Chaser and Well You Needn’t need no tampering and are handled well, as is Moe Koffman’s hit Swinging Shepherd Blues (done in 5/4). I didn’t care for Gelcer’s channelling Chet Baker vocals.

04_Bob StandardBob Stevenson is probably better known hereabouts as Robert Stevenson, long a force in classical circles as former artistic director of innovative Arraymusic and many other roles. He’s also into jazz improv, demonstrated on The Bob Standard - Out Of Nowhere (Urban Meadow www.urbanmeadow.ca), his clarinet aided by guitarist Justin Haynes, bassist Victor Bateman and eclectic percussionist Blair Mackay. They tackle ten standards, trying to make the chestnuts palatable in different ways – like avant-garde music without its frequent ventures into the ugly. Results can be bizarre; witness the ensemble output on Out Of Nowhere and the sonic massacre perpetrated on Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise. The leader hews closest to familiar melodies while his subversive team assaults harmony, rhythm and a whole lot more. However, this risky venture is always interesting; Caravan works.

06_Phil DwyerJazz with strings was a popular experiment when bebop arrived, but mega-talented saxophonist, pianist and composer Phil Dwyer has gone much further, creating a violin concerto integrating jazz and classical music. On the enterprising – and beautifully recorded – Phil Dwyer Orchestra - Changing Seasons (Alma ACD10252 www.almarecords.com) he employs 21 strings led by admirable violinist Mark Fewer and a 17-piece jazz band. It’s a seamless showcase, a pleasing companion to baroque composer Vivaldi’s 18th century triumph, The Four Seasons.

07_Have_Yourself_A_MerryIf you must have Christmas fare but don’t want to cringe at the season’s usual mawkish musical sentiments, get Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas (Justin Time JUST 245-2 www.justin-time.com). The album features performers such as Oliver Jones, Diana Krall, Rob McConnell, Montreal’s Jubilation Gospel Choir and some fine but undervalued singers.

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