01 Brenda Earle StokesSolo Sessions Volume 1
Brenda Earle Stokes
Independent ASNM 007 (brendaearle.com)

Smooth and rather sultry-voiced, vocalist Brenda Earle Stokes has released a truly enjoyable collection of well-known pop and jazz songs that she has put her own twist on. Featuring her own compositions among pieces by significant musicians in the general music universe including Dave Brubeck, Huey Lewis and Michael McDonald, this album is a versatile and captivating journey. The title refers to the fact that it’s just her and the piano on this record, which creates such a charming sense of intimacy; the listener truly feels as if they are seated right by the piano, watching and hearing Stokes play.

If You Never Come to Me opens up the album with a sensual punch, showcasing Stokes’ very apparent vocal talent. Standing is an original, a unique and modern piece that features interesting chord and melodic progressions which easily catch anyone’s attention. Throughout the album, not only is the listener taken through various genres from traditional jazz to the blues, but Stokes’ talent as a pianist is very well showcased. Her voice and melodies blend in seamlessly for a satisfying whole. A favourite is undoubtedly the cover of Lewis’ Power of Love, in which the original song is still fully recognizable but has been jazzed up just enough to be refreshing. Anyone looking for a treat to the ears and something a little different from the norm will enjoy this album.

Listen to 'Solo Sessions Volume 1' Now in the Listening Room

02 U of T JazzEmbargo
University of Toronto Jazz Orchestra
U of T Jazz n/a (uoftjazz.ca) 

It is no easy feat to construct an eclectically programmed album that maintains its flow from start to finish, but this is exactly what the University of Toronto Jazz Orchestra, under the direction of Gordon Foote, has done with their most recent release, Embargo. The student compositions on the album all demonstrate intricacy and wisdom, ranging from swing numbers to more contemporary pieces, and everything in between. It is a testament to both the quality of these arrangements and the stylistic programming of the album, that they sound right at home next to legendary trombonist and arranger Rob McConnell’s version of Take the A Train. McConnell’s treatment of the Ellington/Strayhorn classic is a demanding one to execute, but the ensemble does a fine job, as do the four soloists featured. Hearing the music of the Boss Brass live on through a younger generation of Toronto musicians is a unique treat. It is apropos that this should happen at the University of Toronto, which inherited McConnell’s scores and library following his death in 2010.

From contemporary ballads like Jesse Marshall’s Summer’s Over, and the energetically uplifting title track, Embargo, which features solos from its composer Vonne Aguda and guitarist Julian Bradley-Combs, to Hannah Barstow’s Count Basie-esque Medium Blue, a wide scope of large ensemble jazz writing is present on this release. Full of arrangers, composers and soloists who are wise beyond their years, depth and maturity are the true themes of this album.

03 Greg RunionsSuite Vincent
Greg Runions Big Band
Independent Grind 2019 (gregrunions.net)

With the release of this superbly conceived, performed and recorded big band project, vibraphonist/composer/arranger Greg Runions has fashioned a magnificent musical celebration of the iconic, late Canadian trumpeter/composer/arranger Kenny Wheeler. To realize his concept, Runions built upon his longstanding septet, and also created a “live-off-the-floor experience” by recording in the studio of the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts. Wheeler was an unassuming, ego-less, gentle genius, who would no doubt be incredibly honoured by this inspired six-movement musical tribute.

The skilled A-list cast includes Andrew Rathbun, Tara Davidson and Bob Leonard on reeds/saxophones; John MacLeod, Brian O’Kane and Jason Logue on flugelhorn and trumpet; William Carn on trombone; Brian Dickinson on piano; Mike Cassells on drums; Dave Barton on guitar; Artie Roth on bass and the lithe vocals of Yoon Sun Choi, channeling Wheeler’s longtime collaborator, Norma Winstone – particularly on the vocal feature The Long Way (which also displays Dickinson’s moving, emotionally vulnerable and technically thrilling piano work).

The project opens with Chorale for Ken, composed by Runions in 1992, a stirring brass choir followed directly by Bass Interlude – an intricate and stunning bass solo by Roth. Wheeler’s profound influence as a seminal jazz composer and trumpeter saturates this arrangement of Bitter Tart, as does the exquisite flugelhorn work by MacLeod. Another stunner is Around About, featuring Barton with Davidson on alto and O’Kane on trumpet. The final Suite, Jeckle & Clyde, includes a nod to the more free aspects of Wheeler’s style, and Rathbun’s lush tenor incites the rest of the ensemble into gorgeous solos and heavenly, contrapuntal ensemble work.

Listen to 'Suite Vincent' Now in the Listening Room

04 Harrison2Trout in Swimwear
Harrison²
Independent (harryvetro.com) 

Harrison² (that’s Harrison squared) abounds in doubles. There are two Harrisons, saxophonist Harrison Argatoff and drummer Harrison Vetro, both newcomers, and they’re paired with two veterans, saxophonist Mike Murley and bassist Steve Wallace. Further, both saxophonists are playing tenors. The group began in an encounter between Vetro and Wallace, the latter a change-of-pace substitute for Vetro’s drum teacher (Nick Fraser deserves credit here) at the University of Toronto. Argatoff joined in on some standards at the end of the lesson; a performance at Toronto’s Rex followed with Murley making it a quartet.

The absence of a chordal instrument opens up the music, encouraging the saxophonists’ dialogue and heightening Wallace and Vetro’s presence. It puts Wallace’s strong lines in the foreground and adds more room for his sculpted solos; Vetro is a very good drummer, precise and assertive with a keen sense of form.

Argatoff and Murley each contribute four compositions, developing them in ways that suggest the classic pairing of Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh; lithe, convivial music with a harmonic focus, but with a harder edge to their sounds. The two play together, whether it’s the dovetailing improvised dialogue of Argatoff’s title track or the way the younger saxophonist trails Murley on his ballad Writers’ Tears, as much an invitation to reflection as the Irish whiskey for which it’s named. Though it’s set deep in the tradition, the band has a special vitality, some rare chemistry among different generations.

05 scott thomson bandcampMurray: Trombone Solos
Scott Thomson
Tour de Bras TDB90036CD (tourdebras.com) 

Trombonist, conceptualist, composer of site-specific works and programmer, Scott Thomson takes a speculative approach to improvised solo performance. In April 2014, he launched his first Trombone Solos at Odd Hours in Montreal’s La Poêle dance studio at times like 4 June, 9:11 am. Since then he has performed over 130 such concerts, often for a single listener. In 2016, the Calgary label Bug Incision released Heures Indues, a CD with three performances; Murray comes from a 2019 series in the Montreal studio of Thomson’s late friend and collaborator, the painter and drummer John Heward.

Thomson’s solos don’t explore a single idea; rather, they’re perambulations, here two half-hour long journeys through a variety of impulses and inspirations, with shifting melodies and timbres that can burst forth with marching band gusto or alight in a singing high register. Sometimes there’s a resonant partnership with some other material, whether an appended mute or something like furniture moving in the room. Sudden volume shifts suggest that Thomson is playing two trombones, one blasting loudly into the microphone, the other a distant, whispered aside.

The CD is packaged with cards reproducing a few of Heward’s starkly powerful abstractions, and the echoes of his studio may play a role in these performances, thematic as well as sonic. There’s something dramatic here, moods developing and changing along with the materials, a moving meditation in a terrain full of surprises, the shifting interior monologue of a musical flâneur.

06 MantecaAugmented Indifference
Manteca
Mmusic MM201913-4 (facebook.com/MantecaMusic) 

Happy anniversary, Manteca! A perennial audience favourite, Manteca returns to mark their 41st year with Augmented Indifference, a four-song EP bristling with their trademark energy, creativity and virtuosity. And a fitting celebration it is.

In the band’s 41-year history, they have been one of Canada’s leading musical ambassadors, sharing stages with Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald and Van Morrison. Founded by percussionist Matt Zimbel and bassist Henry Heillig, who ws the group’s music director for three decades, the group has been recognized as a musical innovator, drawing upon diverse influences in exhilarating performances. Accordingly, this latest release finds the group charting out new directions, while also revisiting more familiar musical territory. Miss Meteo, arguably the most experimental song, pairs electric guitar with spoken word, trumpet and the bass clarinet of Colleen Allen, along with alternating driving rhythms and spacey textures. Somehow, they make it all work! Busking In Deadwood, introduces a beautiful, majestic melody and features some outstanding work by Lucas Zimbel on accordion and Steve McDade on trumpet.

The aptly titled Avant Cool highlights the innovative pairing of guitar and alto flute, while the set closer, a Beach Boys-inspired Kowabunga, again features guitarist Nick Tateishi alongside bright, punchy horn backgrounds. Let’s all raise a glass to Manteca – here’s to another 40 years!

07 Aaron DolmanNostalgia and Other Fantasies
Aaron Dolman
Independent (aarondolman.com)

Montreal-born, up-and-coming drummer, composer and bandleader Aaron Dolman takes the listener on a meandering trip through music with his latest release. Closing your eyes while listening to this record evokes a feeling as if you were in a film, with each track bringing up a vivid image in the mind to accompany the melodies. Each piece is composed by Dolman himself and features younger musicians such as Marcus Savard-Lowry and Zacharie Bachand on guitars, Mathieu McConnell, bass, and Caitlin Smith on viola and vocals. The folk element imbedded in many of the pieces is a welcome and pleasing experience to the ear.

Gone for a While II is an atmospheric and ethereal beginning to the album, a fitting start to the journey on which the listener is about to embark. Stars in a Midnight Lake features a beautiful acoustic guitar riff underlying the entire piece, with the soft vocals by Smith joining in during the middle of the song for a wonderful and captivating interlude. The reprise of Willow Bunch is a joyful conclusion to the record and to the almost cinematic ride the listener has been taken on. The enjoyment in this album comes from not knowing exactly what’s going to be happening musically behind the next turn in the road, so to speak. It provides for an interesting listen that truly pulls you in and keeps you focused on the music.

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