11 EastAxisCD006Cool With That
East Axis
ESP-Disk 5064 (espdisk.com)

Created by committed improvisers, this CD is one that won’t frighten those who shy away from free music. While engagement is present, alienating pressure is omitted. Strength isn’t missing, but is so much part of the New York quartet’s DNA that it doesn’t need to be emphasized. Drummer Gerald Cleaver’s powerful and elastic beat and pianist Matthew Shipp’s spidery pecks or cultivated patterning are guiding factors here. Bassist Kevin Ray’s pinpointed plucks move the program forward without demanding attention, while Allen Lowe operates in chameleonic fashion, alternately mellow or biting on tenor saxophone and smooth or raucous on alto.

Often harmonized by Lowe and Shipp, buoyed with straight-ahead rhythms from the others, themes swirl, splatter and slide as on the title track where Shipp’s single-note comping moves between Basie and Monk. Similarly, Lowe channels Sonny Rollins’ intensity and Lee Konitz’s invention depending on his chosen horn. These bolts between staccato timbre fanning and affable tonal exposition are most obvious on the final track. At 28 minutes, almost double any other, One offers space for the rhythm section’s only solos plus distinct transitions. Spurred by a drum backbeat, the initial metronomic swing encompassing reed bites and glossolalia allows everyone to trade breaks later, and in the final sequence descends to a sophisticated march with slurring saxophone lines and keyboard bounces. 

Play this CD for anyone and that person will probably confirm he or she is Cool With That.

13 LightAndCD007Light and Dance
Judson Trio
RogueArt ROG-0112 (roguart.com)

Taking advantage of the unique textures available with unusual instrumentation, members of the Judson Trio stretch the connective limits during this two-CD set of one live concert and a studio date. Following a five-year partnership, Paris-based bassist Joëlle Léandre, New York violist Matt Maneri and drummer/percussionist Gerald Cleaver can perfect searing or subdued improvisations with sonic understanding.

Except for the drummer’s crunching kit-exercising on the final selection, tracks pulsate fluidly since none of the players stick to standard forms. Besides refracting creaky spiccato scratches, Maneri’s pizzicato strums create mid-range continuum. Léandre’s command of connective pressure is a given, but she also expresses pointillist expositions with the speed and malleability of a small fiddle. Colourist Cleaver’s accompaniment is expressed with cymbal clanks, gong-like resonation, pointed ruffs or drum top spanks.

Frequently moving in three-layered narratives or broken-octave elaboration, the trio’s musical cooperation is expressed most succinctly on the live Wild Lightness #4. After the bassist’s singular string plucks state the theme, Maneri’s string scordatura counters with widened strokes. Directly transformed into squeaky below-the-bridge scratches, his unique tones intersect with Léandre’s sul tasto narrative elaborations and are decorated with Cleaver’s bell-tree-shaking tinctures.

Light and Dance is dedicated to exposing all the obvious, hidden and expanded textures available from the interactions of the three players’ instruments during all 18 tracks. If equivalent pliable concepts were expressed by governments, irritants like trade wars and Brexit could likely be avoided.

12 17 Days in December17 Days in December – Solo Improvisations for Acoustic & Electric Harp
Jacqueline Kerrod
Orenda Records 0093 (jacquelinekerrod.com)

Many people think of original music in a hierarchical sense, looking down on pure improvisation as something that doesn’t require mastery or discipline. One listen to Jacqueline Kerrod’s solo harp debut will serve as an epiphany for those cynics. In fact, I found myself awestruck by Kerrod’s seemingly limitless expressive range.

17 Days was recorded in the format of a musical diary, comprising one-take improvisations on consecutive days in the month of December. In the liner notes, Kerrod stresses the importance of simplicity in her approach and letting the music “be what it want[s] to be.” As a result of this philosophy, each piece takes on its own distinct shape, and yet the entire tracklist is held together by Kerrod’s improvisational identity. The combination of patience and inventive musical vocabulary results in a sound that is entirely unique to her and there is a consistent logic to the myriad enveloping soundscapes and intricate shapes that she creates. The music is never predictable, but even when switching from glitchy electroacoustic moments to warmer, familiar tones, it never feels disjointed or arbitrary. Kerrod’s tremolos, kinetic phrasing and rhythmic jabs enable her to get incredible mileage out of even the smallest ideas. The tracks fit together beautifully, despite not being sequenced in chronological order, a testament to how fully fleshed-out these spontaneous compositions are.

Listen to '17 Days in December: Solo Improvisations for Acoustic & Electric Harp' Now in the Listening Room

14a LYLE MAYS Eberhard Cover Art 3000x3000pxEberhard
Lyle Mays
Independent (lylemays.com)

The Music Of Lyle Mays – Compositions, Transcriptions and Musical Transformations
Transcribed and edited by Pierre Piscitelli
(lylemays.com; pierrepiscitelli.com)

Lyle Mays is best known for his groundbreaking work as co-composer, arranger and keyboardist with the Pat Metheny Group. During his 30-plus years at the guitarist’s side, Mays co-created a new sound and language of jazz and improvised music, incorporating contemporary technology and elements drawn from classical, traditional jazz, rock and Brazilian music. Perhaps lesser known, but no less significant, is his work as a solo artist. Through his six previous releases, Mays explored different facets of his music and musicality, ranging from solo improvisation to small group and larger ensemble settings. 

In the wake of his passing in the winter of 2020, we now have the gift of one final posthumous recording, Eberhard, a 13-minute multi-section work dedicated to his close colleague, German bassist/composer Eberhard Weber, released as a single-track album. A ruminative marimba ostinato played by Wade Culbreath opens the piece, setting the stage for Mays’ reflective piano melody; he is joined in turn by Jimmy Johnson on electric bass and Aubrey Johnson with an exquisite wordless vocal. Gradually, Mays then builds a masterful solo over woodwinds and background vocals. (Bassist Steve Rodby, percussionists Alex Acuña and Jimmy Branly, guitarist Bill Frisell, keyboardist Mitchel Forman and a cello section also augment the excellent ensemble.) A riveting vocal section (Johnson plus Rosana and Gary Eckert) builds to a captivating, emotional climax that soars on Bob Sheppard’s dramatic tenor saxophone solo.

A recapitulation of the introduction completes the piece, leaving the listener with the feeling of having experienced an incredible musical journey. Eberhard is a bold, majestic masterpiece, both a summation of a remarkable career and a glimpse into where Mays might have ventured musically in the years ahead.  

14b Lyle Mays musicConcurrently, the Lyle Mays Estate, in conjunction with editor Pierre Piscitelli, has released The Music Of Lyle Mays, a comprehensive songbook covering his output as a solo artist, as well as previously unpublished material that he recorded with Pat Metheny. Piscitelli, a New York-based arranger/multi-instrumentalist, worked closely with Mays to ensure that the music was represented accurately and authentically in his transcriptions.

The reader is treated to a thorough artist biography, essays by Mays on various topics, and insights about the genesis of the compositions. One particularly fascinating essay recounts how Piscitelli came to know and work with Mays on both the songbook and Eberhard projects. Piscitelli deserves special acknowledgement for his great work on this long-awaited volume. 

Taken together, Eberhard and The Music of Lyle Mays form a vivid musical portrait of a remarkable artist whose legacy should endure for generations to come.

Although Paul Bley died in 2016 the extent of his legacy and associations are still being felt. That’s because the pianist was one of the few jazz players who moved through several musical areas and made his mark on each. Born in Montreal on November 10, 1932, he would have been 89 this year. A piano protégé, Bley began as a teenage swing pianist in his native city. Yet he became so proficient a bopper after his move to New York in the early 1950s that he was soon playing with Charles Mingus and Charlie Parker. An encounter with Ornette Coleman allowed him to bring freer ideas to his improvising and composing during the 1960s and he worked with members of the burgeoning free jazz movement during that decade and afterwards. Later on, while continuing to play contemporary jazz with various acoustic bands, he expanded his interests into early experiments with the Moog synthesizer and when he started his own record label he made sure that visual as well as audio tracks were created. He also taught part-time at the New England Conservatory (NEC) and over the years collaborated and recorded with a cross section of international musicians. Read a more detailed view of Bley’s life and career in the February 2016 issue of The WholeNote. 

01 PaulBleyCD003By the time Touching & Blood Revisited (ezz-thetics 1108 hathut.com) was recorded in 1965/1966, Bley had already perfected his mature style. The herky-jerky evolution he brought to his own compositions reflects those of his ex-wife Carla Bley plus Thelonious Monk’s quirkiness. Other tracks written by Carla or his then-wife Annette Peacock delineate phraseology that moves from animated runs on bouncy tunes to paused interludes on the slower numbers. These trio sessions also make particular use of Barry Altschul’s drumming. As the pianist varies the exposition with theme repetitions and unexpected asides, powerful press rolls, cymbal pops and reverb help preserve the tracks’ broken-chord evolution. A gentle ballad like Touching gives space to bassist Kent Carter’s widening plucks, with keyboard rumbles added for a dramatic interchange. Peacock’s writing is most spidery on Both, with the narrative created as shaded keyboard tones vibrate at quicker and quicker speeds alongside overt drum ruffs. On the other hand the almost-19-minute Blood from a year later with Mark Levinson on bass is more overtly rhythmic as the bassist and Altschul shake and rustle alongside Bley’s theme depiction. The pianist first outlines the exposition with hand pressure, adds thickening variations mirrored by drum ruffs and concludes with a dramatic keyboard flourish. Fluctuating between methodical and munificent, Closer and Pablo, two Bley originals, display the resolved contradictions in his playing and writing. Driven by single notes, the former is atmospheric and animated, working through muted expression; it swings without increasing the tempo. Just the opposite, Pablo rolls out a piano introduction that is as hard and heavy as Carter’s caustic pizzicato stops and Altschul’s smacks and tone shattering. The finale contrasts Bley’s rolling narrative with Altschul’s clips, rolls and ratamacues. 

02 FreeFallCD005Although defining experiences in more energetic improvising with Sonny Rollins and others would be in the future, the introspective approach in Bley’s developed style resulted from the two years he was in Jimmy Giuffre’s chamber-jazz trio. With only Bley’s piano and Steve Swallow’s bass backing him, the clarinetist created introspective miniatures that emphasized mood over motion. Free Fall Clarinet 1962 Revisited (ezz-thetics 1119 hathut.com) was the final session before the trio disbanded. Like the subsequent fame of the Velvet Undergound’s LPs, the Giuffe3’s sets were neglected in the early 1960s, but have since been recognized as the template for much subsequent free music. Giuffre projects his astringent a cappella clarinet solos with squeaks and peeps, yet his extended glissandi without pause on a track like Dichotomy presage circular breathing passages that are now almost commonplace. Not only did the group not include a drummer, but also (for the most part) avoided pulse and melody. Instead, eccentric harmony predominated, marked by Bley’s key clips and Swallow’s intermittent string pumps. Sticking to clarion or higher registers, Giuffre’s flutter tonguing and splayed trills connect often enough with keyboard pressure to keep tracks linear as on Spasmodic. At the same time his playing is often wide bore enough to suggest tonal extensions with interludes like that on Threewe completed against a backdrop of double bass plucks. Unlike Bley’s agitated minimalist asides, Swallow’s only solo is on Divided Man, and even there shares space with mid-range clarinet breaths. With those antecedents, the ten-minute The Five Ways seems like a swing session. Double bass bounces and low-pitched piano colouration introduce the piece which goes through numerous transitions. A piano crescendo introduces three-part modulations that lead to sprightly storytelling from Giuffre, with the track finally climaxing with a high-pitched reed slur, almost replicating the one which began the album.  

03 LedererCD001Malleability and volume may have predisposed Swallow’s shift to the five-string electric bass guitar in the early 1970s, and at 81 he’s still playing in a more audible, but just as tasteful fashion. On Eightfold Path (Little (i) music littleimusic.com) he’s part of the Sunwatcher Quartet. Leader, tenor saxophonist Jeff Lederer, and the other players, organist/pianist Jamie Saft and drummer Matt Wilson, are two or three decades younger than the bassist. No matter, Swallow’s echoing frails provide these tracks with bedrock, and all put a 21st-century sheen on soul jazz. Boisterous, where Giuffre’s sound was muted, most tracks pulsate with jumping organ runs coupled with the saxophonist’s energetic cries and split tones that mate Albert Ayler and Lockjaw Davis. With the drummer’s rugged shuffles or backbeats, the few piano-accompanied ballads like Right Effort also find Lederer flutter tonguing changes that are both mellow and barbed. More typical are tunes such as Right Resolve where saxophone honks and bass guitar pops glue the bottom alongside Saft’s herky-jerky tremors, creating a bluesy afterimage. Add in Wilson’s stop-time drumming and the image presented is of a good-time after-hours party somehow interrupted by austere free jazz multiphonics. That’s also why Right Action stands out with post-modern insouciance. Using Swallow’s continuous patterns as rhythmic glue, Wilson’s tambourine-on-hi-hat-splashes take on a Latin tinge while the saxophonist’s extended altissimo screams seem to relate as much to pioneering rock’n’roll tenor saxist Big Jay McNeely as to free jazz proponents like Ayler. 

04 LongTallCD004Like Swallow, Barry Altschul had been germane to Bley’s trio music, but over the years he’s worked with numerous other advanced musicians. Now 78, Long Tall Sunshine (NotTwo MW 1012-2 nottwo.com) by his 3DOM Factor features his compositions played by the drummer plus saxophonist/clarinetist Jon Irabagon and bassist Joe Fonda, whose broad woody strokes open this live set. Energy music of the highest order, there’s delicacy here as well as dissonance. These attributes also emanate from the drummer, who on the eponymous first track and especially the final, Martin’s Stew, projects solos that thunder with taste. Pounding rim shots, clanking cymbals and bass drum rumbles cement the beat without unnecessary volume and quickly lock in with Fonda’s logical pumps and arco asides. Outlining and recapping the theme here and elsewhere, Irabagon races through a compendium of staccato squawks, yelping bites and altissimo burbles. His a cappella deconstruction of the title tune with foghorn-like honks, key percussion and strangled yelps is like aural sleight of hand. Extended techniques appear almost before you realize it and they ease into a more standard playing before the finale. Irabagon’s ability to source phrase after phrase and tone after tone in expanding and extended fashion is complemented by Altschul’s composition. As outside as they become with reed split tones, percussion splatters and weighty string slithering, a kernel of melody is referred to on and off. Fragmented quotes from disguised modern jazz classics lurk just below the surface and are heard in the saxophonist’s theme statements and asides.

05 MoonCD002During Bley’s 1990s tenure at the NEC, one student who stood out was Japanese pianist Satoko Fujii, whose first American disc in 1996 was a duo with Bley. Now involved with ensembles ranging from duos to big bands, you can sense the Canadian pianist’s influence and how Fujii evolved from it when she heads a trio. Moon on the Lake (Libra Records 203-065 librarecords.com) with her Tokyo Trio is completed by bassist/cellist Takashi Sugawa and drummer Ittetsu Takemura. Taking from both the mainstream and the avant garde, she allows ideas to squirm along the piano keys and sometimes dips inside the frame to pluck the strings for added resonance. Quick to feature her partners, she plays percussively to match Takemura’s clanking rolls and whistling ruffs or slowly, chords to extract the proper colours alongside temple bell-like cymbal vibration, or the trembling pulls of Sugawa’s formalist arco work. While the title – and final – tune is quiet and romantic, individual internal string plucks and a dry processional pace prevents it from sinking into sentimentality. Keep Running, and especially the extended Aspiration on the other hand, are progressively dissonant. Beginning with spinning drum top raps, then press rolls, the former tune gains its broken chord shape as the pianist pounds out kinetic patterns with one hand and relaxed fingering with the other. The narrative climaxes with rifle-shot-like pops from the drummer. Aspiration sums up both sides of her keyboard personality. From slow and stately her chording works up to florid impressionism and then relaxes into low-pitched shakes mated with the cello’s mournful interlocution.  Later, barely there cymbal shuffles and rim shots accelerate to woody thumps and pumps as Fujii’s stopped piano keys unearth a spreading metronomic rhythm. Reaching a crescendo of allegro key pummeling seconded by metallic percussion rattles and rugged bass string plucks, the piece sinks back to its lento beginning framed with single piano notes.

Unlike others, there will never be a Bley school of improvisation. Yet musicians like Fujii continue to build on his ideas and guidance and many of his associates are still producing notable advanced music.

01 Caity GyorgyNow Pronouncing
Caity Gyorgy
Independent (caitygyorgy.bandcamp.com)

Full disclosure: I know Caity Gyorgy from her time in Toronto when she was a college student. That said, whether you are previously familiar with Gyorgy and her marvellous vocal and musical abilities or you are new to her considerable talents, time listening to Now Pronouncing is indeed time well spent for jazz and vocal fans alike. 

This short recording, five songs in length, may be a manifestation of her degree-end capstone school project, but it is anything but an academic student affair. Leading a top-shelf, large-sized professional musical ensemble through a program of original compositions and arrangements, Gyorgy states a melody and lyric with aplomb and, as on Secret Safe, trades improvisatory lines with the assembled and stacked roster of horn players, demonstrating her clear mastery of the bebop and jazz language. And while I have no doubt that she is capable of singing just about anything, regardless of style or genre, how refreshing it is to hear a jazz singer be a jazz singer, foregrounding scat singing, swing, ornamented bebop vocal lines and total band leadership from out front on this fine recording. 

Backed capably by a great Toronto rhythm section of Felix Fox-Pappas (piano), Thomas Hainbuch (bass) and Jacob Wutzke (drums), Gyorgy, who has since relocated and is now showcasing her talents on the Montreal jazz scene, demonstrates why this Calgary-born singer is a talent worth watching regardless of the city in which she takes up residence.

Listen to 'Now Pronouncing' Now in the Listening Room

02 WaxwingFlicker Down
Waxwing
Songlines SGL1633-2 (songlines.com)

Formed in 2007, Waxwing is a co-led trio created by three veterans of the Vancouver music scene: Tony Wilson on guitar, Peggy Lee on cello and Jon Bentley on saxophones. Flicker Down is the third album from this energetic group: not just veterans of the busy Vancouver scene where they are based, individually these three players collaborate in dozens of other musical combinations from folk to jazz to classical around North America and beyond. When they reunite, each brings their best in not only their playing experience, but as equal composers and co-leaders. The result of this fine balance is exquisitely produced on this album. Already a huge fan of this trio, and though their first two albums were thoroughly enjoyable, Flicker Down is a whole other listening experience.

As improvisers, the group keeps their freshness alive with a freedom of expression and a nuanced sense of timing that decades of experience has only heightened. With several manipulated improvisations added to some tracks, this album has a more composed feel but manages to retain the creative freedom and melodic flow that the group is revered for. As cultural travellers, there is a flavour of world music mixed with jazz, folk and contemporary composition, sublimely polished with fine chamber playing. With 18 beautiful tracks there is a plethora of favourites. Montbretia Gates (1’49”), featuring guest flutist Miranda Clingwall, is one of many gems. The decisiveness of Highway of Tears – based on lyrics that concern the murder of Indigenous women – avoids sentimentality and keeps clear the social messaging. Each player’s technical execution is sheer perfection; gorgeously subtle mixing and production from Bentley only raises the bar.

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