01_min_ragerThere’s no shortage of forceful pianists in Montreal and one of the most promising on the A-list is South Korea-born Min Rager, whose First Steps (Effendi FND09 www.ragermusic.com) is very welcome five years after her sterling debut “Bright Road”. The all-original ten-track mostly mainstream program sparkles from the start of the opening blues Nothing To Gain, Nothing To Lose, heartily aided by an equally A-list of sidemen that includes excellent trumpeter Kevin Dean, alto Donny Kennedy and drummer Andre White. The title-piece is a sneakily smart take on the Coltrane classic (Giant Steps of course) while other unabashedly modern tunes have a plethora of slithery solos, confidently delivered, that punctuate melodies and attractive harmonic structures. As well as offering slick counterpoint, Rager conjures filigree runs that sound entirely appropriate on Bella, a duo with Dean, followed by the even more arresting ballad Persistence Of Memory a trio take with Dean and American tenor Walt Weiskopf. Passing is a high-voltage burner, Dean scores again on Portrait Of Miles, with Goodbye Manhattan a passionate slow blues, just one gem in an illuminating set.

02_al_hendersonBassist Al Henderson is a formidable bandleader (notably his quartet and quintet) and composer (notably his work with Time Warp and recasting Duke Ellington) so it’s no surprise he’s in ambitious mode on the Juno-nominated Al Henderson Septet - Regeneration (Cornerstone CRST CD 132 www.alhenderson.ca). He taxes his all-star companions with a 10-piece program anchored by a six-part suite inspired by the architectural vision of Raymond Moriyama, specifically his ideas for the Canadian War Museum. This in turn has led Henderson to muse on the nature of war and the result is a work of both quality and interest interpreted with some distinction by his team – hornmen Alex Dean and Pat LaBarbera, pianist Richard Whiteman, drummer Barry Romberg and a pair of cellists, Matt Brubeck and Mark Chambers. With a difficult set of ideas to convey, this nonetheless must be successful. There’s other material here that nods to Inuit artist Turataga Ragee (Spirit Owl) and punta rocker Andy Palacio (Palacio) plus other tracks that offer chamber jazz, vaudeville and reflective passages.

03_roy_pattersonToronto guitarist Roy Patterson is always worth hearing, a long-term member of the local string elite and an artist replete with driving notions and thriving imagination. He justifies this on Roy Patterson Trio – Atlantic Blues (Toronto Jazz Composers Collective TJCC AS 001 www.roypatterson.com). For this elegant eight-tune master class the leader is supported by ageless sidemen bass Don Thompson and drummer Terry Clarke for long workouts on a mix of standards and three Patterson tunes, a live session recorded at Zooma Zooma Café in Jordan Village on the Niagara Escarpment. The musical atmosphere is warm, subtle, sophisticated and intimate, ripe with creative ingenuity, and the threesome works as one unit with playing that’s almost spiritual. Patterson’s deft fingering keeps melodies intact and everything precise and detailed. His title tune is suitably broody, Water is freewheeling pleasure, the exotic sheen of Brazilian music comes through on Jobim’s Favela, yet one gets the feeling that the guitarist is even more appealing when he casts off the unmistakable influence of Jim Hall. One question remains. Why is this Patterson’s first album in eight years?

04_andrew_downingThe prolific Andrew Downing, his reputation as bassist-bandleader-composer already established, takes a bold step with his newest album Silents (Black Hen Music BHCD-0058 www.andrewdowning.com). His fascination with silent movies has led to this examination by a dozen musicians of a pair of early 20th century films – horror masterpiece The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari from 1920 by Germany’s Robert Weine and the fantasy tale Impossible Voyage from 1904 by France’s George Melies. Downing has created 18 tunes that pinpoint episodes in the films and the execution by the players – Downing forsaking bass for cello – is very satisfying. You’d love to be watching the plots unfold with this sophisticated music accompanying them, especially the 12 creepier pieces for Caligari, a tale wherein the evil doctor is exposed as a serial killer. Impossible Voyage is weird, narrating a trip by car, train and submarine by travellers who survive it all, even when the train reaches the sun! Among the players, clarinettist Quinsin Nachoff and bassoonist Peter Lutek stand out, while there’s disciplined work from the strings, notably bassist Joe Phillips – but all should take a bow.

05_red_blue_greenThe group dubbed Red Blue Green offers a debut album of 11 originals where de facto leader – pianist Tom Richards – dominates action with playing that suggests he’d be comfortable in any musical niche. On Transparent Thesis (Pet Mantis Records PMR006 www.petmantisrecords.com) he has clearly digested diverse approaches and revels in dark compositions, shifting time signatures, switching from lyricism to abstraction and is fully in control though there’s less jazz focus on occasion. He gets sympathetic backing from bass Andrew Pacheco and drummer Jay Sussman in what’s free improv with an innate sense of structure. The trio is both thoughtful and adventurous, keeps jarring elements to a minimum, inserts classical influences and, importantly, play quieter than The Bad Plus. Best tunes: Song For Under A Bridge, Recovery and Lost Arrow.

03_little_heartsLittle Hearts
Shannon Butcher
Independent SB2010

Jazz singer Shannon Butcher has come out with another great album and its main strength is in the material she’s chosen to cover. She’s done what I think all modern jazz singers should be doing, i.e. quit covering the done-to-death standards and look to a more modern songbook for fodder. Sure there’s a place for the Gershwin and Porter rehashings now and then - especially in live performance - but when greats like Ella and Sarah have recorded them before, a singer had better be bringing something pretty interesting to the party, or why should we buy it? So when I see 70s and 80s tunes on a CD cover, as is the case with “Little Hearts,” it’s a sign that an artist is thinking outside the box, and that’s what jazz is all about. The Bacharach-David beauty Walk on By gets a moody, heartfelt treatment that reflects the sentiment of the lyrics better than the peppy Warwick original (sorry Dionne!) and Bryan Adams’ Run to You goes Latin American with Daniel Stone on cajon and Rob Piltch doing his usual tasteful nylon string guitar work.

Butcher has also done some very fine songwriting on this album. Joy in My Heart kicks off the disc with a soulful ode to staying positive and the duet with the enormously talented Michael Kaeshammer - The Last Word - is a cute nod to 60s romantic comedies. The one older standard covered here - Irving Berlin’s What’ll I Do - has been given an inventive alt-country facelift courtesy of Piltch’s twangy, plaintive guitar work.

Concert Note: Butcher’s CD release event is at Hugh’s Room on June 2.

02_brown_sugarBrown Sugar
Shakura S’Aida
Ruf Records Ruf 1155

What a sweet blast. Shakura S’Aida has earned praise in Canada as a singer, songwriter and actress of substance and now she’s got a firm grip on the solo career ladder with a scintillating new CD to follow her excellent album “Blueprint”.

Released in North America in April and before that in Europe, “Brown Sugar” lets S’Aida, whose family arrived in Toronto in the 1970s, use the vast experience gained from working with luminaries such as Jimmy Smith, Ruth Brown and Patti LaBelle.

It’s a startlingly good album that bears repeated listening, diction so clear that the cool sounds one might expect don’t happen. There’s emotional connection and passion aplenty here on a dozen tracks, 11 of which employed power guitarist Donna Grantis to work with S’Aida in lyrics and music. The band is tight, featuring organist Lance Anderson, bass Dave Smith, drummer Steve Potts and Rick Steff on keyboards.

Mr. Right is a superb opener best at big volume and offers a glimpse of the vocalist’s attractive high warble. Walk Out That Door is a fetching shuffle while Gonna Tell My Baby is a slow burner with fierce wails. Two successive tunes, the grittily intimate Did It Break Your Heart and the swinging Missing The Good And The Bad would have been great fodder for Janis Joplin and they’re followed by a delightful trio of songs that break the raunch barrier - Sweet Spot, the bitter title track and Anti Love Song.

01_for_the_first_timeFor the First Time
Hugh O’Connor; Mark Ferguson; John Geggie; Don Johnson
True North Records TND532
In an age when almost anyone can put out a CD and almost everybody does, in some cases reducing the music to the status of a calling card, it’s refreshing to come across a first time album by a veteran player who simply wants to “tell his story”.

The musician is Ottawa born saxophonist, Hugh O’Connor. At age 81 O’Conner, who began playing in the late 1940s, has just released his first CD. His approach is refreshingly melodic and he plays with an authority that says, “For me, here’s where it’s at.”

Recorded in the Almonte Ontario Old Town Hall, the CD consists of a programme of superior standards ranging from the seldom played A Portrait Of Jenny to the frequently performed My Funny Valentine on the opening chorus of which there is a Desmond-ish quality to the sound of his horn. But Hugh is definitely his own man and puts an individual stamp on this recording which also includes such great songs as In The Wee Small Hours, How About You and The More I See You.

He is ably and tastefully accompanied by pianist Mark Ferguson - yes the same Mark who used to be a trombone player in Toronto - bassist John Geggie and, on five of the twelve tracks, drummer Don Johnson.

Although active and successful, mainly around the Ottawa area, he has maintained a relatively low profile on the Canadian jazz scene. Perhaps that can change with the release of this very welcome CD.

More an enhancement than a replication of Quebec’s Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville (FIMAV), Toronto’s VTO2010 festival cherry picks some of FIMAV’s international performers, presenting them with invited Canadian musicians. As these CDs indicate, the improvisers are impressive no matter the location or formation.

04_ShamanOne of the most anticipated concerts is the Six at the Music Gallery May 26. An all-star European ensemble, one of its distinguishing characteristic is the supportive synthesizer work of Köln’s Thomas Lehn. Close Up (MonotypeRec. mono024 www.monotyperec.com) demonstrates Lehn’s skills providing the underpinning for Bertrand Gauguet, a technically adroit French saxophonist, plus Viennese quarter-tone trumpeter Franz Hautzinger. As with the Six, electronics are part of this trio’s mix. So on Close Up’s three extended tracks blurry intonation encompasses loops of granulated tones mixed with rumbles and pulses from Lehn, air burbled through the body tube of Gauguet’s saxophones and tremolo buzzing from Hautzinger. Building up in sonic fervor through the intersection of synthesizer pitch shifting, distortion and flanging plus wide-bore whizzes and echoing patterns from the acoustic instruments, the CD climaxes with the over 26-minute Close Up 03. Cricket-like reed chirps and hand-muted brass vibrations are put aside for spectral processing which adds the affiliated extensions of most timbres as they sweep by staccato or glissandi. While the electronics’ wave forms undulate symmetrically, they also output enough percussive drones to subsume technical flaunting. The trumpeter’s braying bell-like reverb and the saxophonist’s feral animal-like squeals consequently meld with thumping synthesizer pedal-point expressions for a satisfying finale.

02_AndyMoorColin McLean’s computer processing is also prominent on Everything but the Beginning (Unsounds U17 www.unsounds.com). But so is the prowess of British guitarist Andy Moor, a member of the EX. In Toronto his Music Gallery performance – also on May 26 – is as part of a long-standing duo with French poetess Anne-James Chatton. On this CD, his technical command of the six-string is showcased with McLean’s hardware usually confined to patched rumbles and processed burbles and rebounds. Moor often uses the laptop undercurrent as a click track, linearly exposing single-string snaps, rough twangs or chuffed reverberations. His improvising can be playfully decorative, as when he seconds the sample of a squeak toy on Delta Block. In contrast on The Flower of fixed idea it appears that piezo pickups multiply his twangs so that the theme is pulsed, pushed and twisted into voltage-shaking signals.

03_zachAcoustic interaction is also featured on May 19, with the Dans Les Arbes quartet at the Music Gallery. Consisting of one French and three Norwegian musicians, it offers the same sort of extrasensory perception its percussionist Ingar Zach brings to Mural Nectars of Emergence (SOFA Records 528 www.sofamusic.no). Interestingly enough Zach’s “Mural”-mates, Australian flautist/saxophonist Jim Denley and guitarist Kim Myhr, are at FIMAV in a different configuration. Minimalist and atmospheric, the CD’s seven tracks are built up from pointillist dabs of sonic colors, soaking together without abrasion. That doesn’t mean the performance is modest, just unshowy. Zach for instance use wood pops, bowl scrapes, chiming bells and drum-skin rubs to make his points. Meantime Myhr’s guitar preparations allow him to produce hefty church-organ-like chords in some instances, loops of electrified signal-processed clangs elsewhere and constant harsh strumming. Throughout Denley’s masticated split tones propel his saxophone pitches to the patchy edge of hearing with strident wolf whistles, tongue slaps and subterranean growls, while there’s nothing delicate about his buzzing flute expositions. Flash Expansion is particularly noteworthy. With Myhr’s rhythmic rasgueado meeting up with amplified drum-top rubs and harsh reed reflux, the processed loops bring the narrative in-and-out-of-focus, with the sound menacing and motor-driven one minute, the next as weightless as waves lapping against the sea shore.

04_ShamanA weightier Canadian balance to the international sounds is the exclusive-to-VTO triple bill at the Tranzac club May 14. The Rent and Hat + Beard are locals, while Shaman from Montreal is also on hand. Consisting of Jean Derome and Joane Hétu on woodwinds, voices and objects Nous perçons les oreilles (Ambiances Magnétiques AM 200 CD www.actuellecd.com) exposes Shaman’s strategy of D-I-Y ethnomusicology. Like ancient tribal healers the duo expresses itself through verbal screams, squeaks, murmurs, mumbles and cries as well as inchoate instrumental textures. The two recount 12 short narratives which are as much Dada as primitive, wrapped in onomatopoeia that bonds mouth expressions such as cheers, yelps and gurgles with slide-whistle peeps, unsequenced altissimo saxophone stridency, key percussion, clipping chromatic timbres and reverberating body tube echoes.

Bassist John Geggie is based in Ottawa but has achieved much in jazz and other art forms nationwide. Two new additions to his huge discography are of gripping interest.

01_geggie_project_across_skyHis Geggie Trio + Donny McCaslin - Across The Sky (Plunge Records PR00632 www.plungerecords.com) particularly emphasizes his compositional skills, seven of the 14 tracks here his, the rest collaborative contributions from the foursome with pianist Nancy Walker, drummer Nick Fraser and saxman McCaslin. The album is zesty, tunefully inventive, stacked with shifting time signatures and superior, finessed work on the bass. This is top-grade contemporary jazz, McCaslin often straying outside the mainstream with dramatically engaging work that has a meaty individuality to match the forceful leader and Walker’s ability to make surprise connections and balance lyricism with toe-tapping passion. Quick-witted and poised, the group creates playful experimental music though it’s anchored by restless, absorbing imaginations.

02_geggie_projectWith Geggie Project (Ambiances Magnetiques AM 179 CD www.actuelle.com), Geggie is in more avant-jazz heavyweight mode, with spacey Marilyn Crispell on piano and Nick Fraser drumming. Again there are 14 tracks, seven spontaneous appetizers by the trio and seven entrees from the leader - you get the idea with Geggie’s pliant and expressive if sober opening Credo with bass predominant, haunting colours and suggestions of anguished subtext and then the trio’s mercurial Ice And Meltwater. The album teems with incredible invention. Run-Away Sheep shows off superb bass craft and hints at Fraser’s pyrotechnic tendencies before gate-crashing Crispell-fuelled chords arrive. The threesome covers a wide swath of stylistic territory with lofty flights of notes yet remains very accessible compared to free skronk mayhem. The music’s impish and erudite, keeping the peace between energy and atmosphere, sometimes luxuriant, sometimes wallowing in dark sonorities and overall more melodic than impassioned. Especially attractive are the trio’s Weather Forecast and the leader’s Canon.

03_alex_bellegardeA third recording led by a bassist is also a great buy. The CD/DVD package is the Alex Bellegarde Quintet’s Live (Chien Noir 09-999 www.alexbellegarde.com) with the boss in virtuoso form at a Montreal Maison de la culture Mercier concert. He wrote the 10 cuts, including some with a global jazz viewpoint and an elastic pulse that’s underlined with the presence of Kiko Osorio on congas. Bellegarde’s other comrades - pianist Yoel Diaz, alto saxist Erik Hove and drummer Yvon Plouffe – are almost his match in versatility, with many tunes featuring unison leads, lucid soloing and passages that vary from church calm to bucolic celebration. This band plays with impetus and conviction, aided by miraculously layered textures and a sensitive range of inflections, with Bellegarde’s bass a brilliantly crucial inner voice.

04_chet_doxasMontreal is the base, too, for another rising star whose bold new quartet CD should fly off record shelves. On tenor saxist Chet Doxas’ Big Sky (Justin Time JTR 8558-2 8558-2 www.justin-time.com) he has the support of a close-knit, sympathetic team - Ben Charest (guitar), Zack Lorber (bass) and brother Jim on drums. The leader penned six of the eight lengthy tunes and from the opening For Jim games swiftly begin with time, harmony and undulating narrative themes, which leader Doxas attacks with confident tones and a breadth of ideas in the manner of Chris Potter, with Charest effectively counterpointing all the way. There’s delicate treatment for L’Acadie, off-meter challenges and twisting lines outside the melody on Sideshow and a melancholic farewell to Jimmy Giuffre with Goodbye, all of interest, and outstanding work on the title piece, a homage to guitarist Bill Frisell.

05_gale_rodriguezMontreal supplies half the Gale/Rodrigues Group in B3 organist Vanessa Rodrigues and guitarist Mike Rud for the quartet’s debut release Live At The Rex (Indie CGVR01 www.vanessarodriguez.com), a potent package that also features Torontonians in saxophonist Chris Gale, and drummer Davide DiRenzo. Here’s a bustling session that exploits the famed tenor-organ combos of yesteryear with great aplomb with a pleasing mix of standards and hard-hitting originals. Players take long, often bruising solos, notably the versatile Gale on the opening Wes Montgomery’s Full House with Rud in fine comping form as well as constructing clean lines. The big-hearted ballad Statement gets a searching reflection from its composer Gale while throughout the more-grounded Rodrigues ratchets up tension when needed to the level of bristling exchanges. The co-leaders have fun on the happy honker One-Eyed Monster while elsewhere the room’s full of quick turns of phrase, fierce careening solos and runaway grooves, with timely relief on calmer pieces such as Bye Bye Blackbird.

The Django Reinhardt tribute band Croque Monsieur has won the Canadian Collectors Congress annual album–of-the-year award given out at the organization of vintage jazz lovers’ 39th gathering in Toronto. The winner beat out four other finalists - the Happy Pals, Ron Joseph and friends, Dinny and the All-Stars and Braithwaite & Whiteley.

03_wm_parkerAt Somewhere There
William Parker
Barnyard Records BR 0313

An almost hour-long solo recital may seem daunting, but New York bassist William Parker easily impresses, as this bravura invention recorded at a local performance space attests. Cathedral Wisdom Light, this CD’s over-48-minute showpiece, is animated by his nearly limitless technique which prods, pulses, pummels and propels polyphonic tones and textures from the four-strings and resonating wood of the bull fiddle.

Resolutely arco – although sporadic plucks sometimes parallel the bow movement – the tempo is never less than andante or more than allegro. Within these parameters Parker layers phrases, note clusters and unexpected vamps, chafing wood and splitting string tones as well as agitato stops and chunky sul tasto expansions into the multiphonic narrative. As the shuffle-bowed fantasia evolves, taunt, creaking and swabbed timbres distend so that these pressured strokes shudder with affiliated partials as well as fundamental notes. Sometimes displaying portamento finesse, at points Parker mercurially showcases split-second variants on reveille, parallel bebop vamps and even a minor variant on legato chamber music.

With every part of the instrument in use, including the belly, waist and the strings beneath the bridge, the bassist is able to craftily shift the tonal centre throughout, introducing novel harmonies and rubato asides to the ongoing improvisation. A final variant drives the chromatic performance to a mellower low-pitched climax, before replicating the exposition with shrill sawing.

Short addenda on dousin’gouni and double flute complete the program, but after Parker’s exceptional bass solo, these are somewhat akin to hearing Glenn Gould’s harpsichord recording.

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