08 David Leon Birds EyeDavid Leon – Bird’s Eye
David Leon
Pyroclastic Records PR 32 (pyroclasticrecords.bandcamp.com)

Captivating and distinctive aspects of the music of two cultures on opposite sides of the world unite and intertwine on Miami-born, Brooklyn-based saxophonist and reedist David Leon’s latest album. Experimental yet cohesive, freeing yet still grounded, this record is a musical experience that brings both the casual listener and avid contemporary, avant-garde jazz fan into a whole new world of storytelling and imagery. Leon is debuting a new trio on this release, bringing in percussionist Lesley Mok and Korean-born gayageum player Do Yeon Kim. All songs are composed by the saxophonist himself and highlight his skills as a composer very well. 

Perhaps the most intriguing part of this album is how Leon manages to bring together Afro-Cuban and Korean traditional music and intersperse jazz-esque riffs and, at times, grooving rhythms within his compositions. Listening to Nothing Urgent, Just Unfortunate for example, the Korean flavour is brought in with plucked traditional yet modern sounding rhythmic bits courtesy of Kim, soaring melodious saxophone riffs harken back to experimental jazz and Mok’s propulsive drumbeats underpinning it all unite it into a unique whole. The Afro-Cuban influence is why this album is so rhythmically focused, since that is a significant part of that traditional music scene. An interesting aspect that really jumps forward throughout the pieces is how each musician brings their culture and heritage into the compositions. The record is literally an outward reflection of these talented individuals.

09 Jonathan Guillaume Boudreau quartet Un SortilègeUn Sortilege
Jonathan-Guillaume Boudreau Quartet
Independent (jonathan-guillaumeboudreau.bandcamp.com/album/un-sortil-ge)

Spellbinding as its name suggests, Un Sortil​è​ge presents a fresh take on many old favorites, while showcasing the full potential of group improvisation as a medium for conveying emotional and even narrative depth. When the quartet is playing together, one can not only clearly sense the deep consideration and respect each musician’s ideas carry within the ensemble, but also how much room they are given to flourish. Make no mistake, as much as the quartet sounds like the embodiment of symbiosis, this is definitely a bassist’s group. 

Jonathan-Guillaume Boudreau’s impeccable, fluid and velvety time feel is absolutely everything, all the time. His bass lines are often simple, laid back and spacious, but provide a deeply satisfying cushion upon which everything constantly rests. The pocket on S.L. could not be deeper, and as the lush strumming of Jon Gearey and shimmering ride cymbal acrobatics of Vincent P. Ravary sink into these rich wells of honey; saxophonist Richard Savoie sounds as if he’s flying. Savoie himself mixed the album and emphasized only the warmest attributes of Boudreau’s bass tone, nary a single note allowed to die without being fully digested and cherished by all. As the melodic phrases taper off and feed into each other, and Ravary switches to hand percussion, Boudreau remains the raging bonfire in the midst of a blizzard. Those of us who are not there physically are invited to share the space.

10 Ches SmithLaugh Ash
Ches Smith
Pyroclastic Records PR 31 (pyroclasticrecords.com)

Proof positive that New York’s Ches Smith is more than an exceptional percussionist who plays with, among others, Marc Ribot and John Zorn, is this great sprawling CD highlighting his skills as composer and electronic programmer. 

Seconded by subsets of nine musicians, Smith’s tunes sew together a patchwork quilt of all of his interests encompassing voodoo; jazz and rock drumming; notated music harmonies from three string players; inventive use of studio samples and synthesis; improvisational passages from trumpeter Nate Wooley, clarinetist Oscar Noriega, flutist Anna Webber and saxophonist James Brandon Lewis; and singular or multi-tracked vocals from Shara Lunon that range from bel canto embellishments to sprechgesang.  

Constructed with faultless logic, disparate impulses are sutured without fissure so that on a track like Sweatered Webs (Hey Mom) string scratches are overlaid with reed flutters while Smith’s vibraphone reverberations harmonize with lyrical vocal recitation. Climax is reached when altissimo saxophone screams and triple tonguing is contrasted with a thick, processed bass and drum groove.

Clarinet riffs are prominent throughout. Noriega’s jaunty flutters add to the airiness of drum paradiddle and wordless scatting on Minimalism with the same clarity that his harsh clarion smears join trumpet triplets, programmed overdubbed vocals, unison strings and intense drum beats on Disco Inferred to inflate the resulting sound to almost orchestral capacities. 

Without neglecting percussion comprehension and connections, Smith provides another instance of how drummers’ rhythmic architecture also often make them sensitive and inventive composers. 

11 Richard Nelson DiissolveRichard Nelson – Dissolve
Makrokosmos Orchestra
Adhyaropa Records AR00053 (richardnelsonmusic.bandcamp.com/album/dissolve)

The realms of modern jazz and new-age classical, improvisation and composition mix and mingle for a unique sonic experience on composer, guitarist and bandleader Richard Nelson’s latest musical endeavour. Featuring a lineup of 15 talented musicians, including co-leader saxophonist Tim O’Dell, this record is the debut for a new and adventuresome group called Makrokosmos Orchestra. The album is set up essentially as a contemporary classical-jazz fusion symphony in three movements, each of them having their very own distinctive flavour and story. Not only do we see Nelson’s talents as a bandleader highlighted throughout the record, but also his experimental and progressive compositional style. 

What fascinates listeners is how Nelson has masterfully navigated both jazz and classical genres and brought aspects of both into his compositions, which are a completely seamless blend of the two. Take Dissolve as an example: winding bass lines and catchy drum grooves paired with a full, powerful orchestral sound, with feathery flute melodies and strong horn lines taking us into a world where new possibilities and opportunities of combining the old and the new are found. Improvisational sections with syncopated solos contrasted with beautifully written and thought-out cohesive parts within the pieces are what keeps the listener captivated, just waiting to hear what’s around the next curve. This disc would be perfect for those looking for an album that excites and draws in, that both energizes and allows for contemplation and reflection.

12 Disaster PonyDisaster Pony
Disaster Pony
Love Town Records LTR-003 (disasterpony.com)

Remaining sonically and aesthetically consistent while taking continual risks can be a difficult balancing act, yet Gordon Hyland’s Disaster Pony project seems to thrive on this razor’s edge. Much like the narrative one can glean from scanning its wonderfully bemusing track titles, Disaster Pony is equal parts pleasurable and unpredictable. Tracks like Fruit Flies in Cola are imbued with an infectious sense of humour and yet in the same breath will dismantle conventional wisdom on the dynamic range of a cello, completely rendering any timbral distinctions between instruments non-existent until all the ear is left with is a disarming, uncannily human cry. This instance of cellist Liza McLellan’s counterpoint with Hyland’s saxophone completely commands the listener’s undivided attention in a way the rest of the soothing ambient track does not and yet this climax was not reached abruptly. The old (scientifically-debunked) allegory about a frog in gradually boiling water applies to this album very well, as it is easy to get lost in the head-nodding grooves and gorgeous repeating sections, to the point where any drastic changes to the music are almost imperceptible as they occur. For the music to constantly operate on stealth-mode and flow this organically means that the hypnotic effect extends even to repeated listening.  Grab a book, hit the loop button and feel an afternoon slip away. Or, simply lean forward. Foreground or background, Disaster Pony is a form of time travel.

Listen to 'Disaster Pony' Now in the Listening Room

13 James Brandon LewisTransfiguration
James Brandon Lewis Quartet
Intakt CD 400 (intaktrec.ch)

Putting an individual stamp on a common jazz grouping, tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis and his quartet of pianist Aruán Ortiz, bassist Brad Jones and drummer Chad Taylor stretch the configuration’s parameters, but maintain steadying cadences that balance exploratory flights.

Backed by bass pops, supple percussion chops and keyboard dynamics, like John Coltrane before him, Lewis is free to open up improvisations that undulate and advance to reed cadenzas that roar, ripple and reverberate into split tones and harsh smears. Yet no matter how many textures he crams into his solos, as on the session defining Per 6, other players’ timbres are there not to harness invention, but to mix tradition with transfiguration. Ortiz outlines melodies as often as his modal time suspensions or rhythmic note sprinkles impressively challenge the saxophonist’s pivots to double-tongued altissimo on the balladic Trinity Of Creative Self or to preaching glossolalia on the intense Empirical Perception.

Never exceeding tasteful boundaries, Lewis’ saxophone control means that his onomatopoeic cries, bites and peeps are harmonized as well as transformative. He harmonizes with the others throughout, constantly returns to the theme by tunes’ conclusions and somewhat manages to quote Rhapsody in Blue during his solo on the title track.

Transfiguration is the band’s third outing, each of which is sturdier and tighter and more coordinated than the previous one. If this trend continues this may become the most significant jazz quartet of the beginning of the 21st century.

14 Satoko FujiiJet Black
Satoko Fujii Tokyo Trio
Libra Records 203-073 (librarecords.com)

The paint chips and the frame splinters, allowing the textures to deepen, the gradient to sharpen. The level of tonal and timbral depth that has been achieved on this recording is incredible; you can constantly sense the impact of strings on neck, finger upon key, hammer upon trembling copper and reverberations within receptacle. So strikingly vibrant are the gestures of each musician, each exchange of spontaneous notions leaves the impression of rainfall on one’s shoulders. 

Yes, Satoko Fujii is a legend in the field of improvised music, but her playing and creative direction here pushes that stature into something that feels more meaningful and interpersonal. This is dialogue that lays the processes of its interlocutors bare, enticing the listener to guess and guess, but never making the anticipation laborious, only subliminal. 

During the first few minutes of Sky Reflection, Takashi Sugawa takes a simple extended technique – the act of dragging the horse hair of the bass bow perpendicular to the string rather than across it – and whips up a feast for the ear, a roaring sound vacuum populated with a bouquet of rasps and scrapes. It is out of this jagged tranquility that a secondary drone materializes, one that is low and drawing ever nearer. Ittetsu Takemura’s first drumstick drops, suddenly assuming the form of that tension created, while Sugawa’s arco dusts your spine. The paint deepens and the frame sharpens, allowing the textures to chip, the gradient to splinter.

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