05 Hector QuartetUncharted
Hector Quartet
Independent hec001-cd (hectorquartet.com)

Hector consists of saxophonist Chris Gale, guitarist Ted Quinlan, keyboardist Jeff McLeod and drummer Chris Wallace. These are some of the most prolific and esteemed musicians in the Toronto scene and the results resemble something one might hear in the casual setting of a jazz club, albeit during a particularly loose and inspired gig. There is that signature flavour of guitar-driven funk, mixed with the stylistic versatility enabled by McLeod’s lyrical organ accompaniment, giving way to six tracks of truly impeccable jamming. One thing that stands out about Hector is how egoless the project is. Nobody dominates the soloing order, no force ever overwhelms the others, and most significantly, every compositional voice is heard.

Quinlan’s Building 8 is the perfect opener, enticing the listener by constantly taking harmonic left turns while managing to intangibly weave a melody through, capturing the intuitive enchantment of a lost standard. McLeod’s soulful 590 Blues showcases the band’s astonishing familiarity with the pocket, while McLeod’s solo sounds poised and comfortable, as if he were playing in his own home. What remains of the tracklist creates a beautiful contrast of moods, alternating between the richly melodious compositional style of Gale and the unflinchingly forceful grooves of Wallace. All the tunes are performed with equal respect, exertion and relish by everyone involved. For a debut album, Uncharted sounds a lot like the product of a true ensemble, one that has found its collective voice.

06 Cory WeedsO Sole Mio – Music from the Motherland
Cory Weeds; Eric Alexander; Mike LeDonne; Peter Bernstein; Joe Farnsworth
Cellar Music CM100619 (cellarlive.com)

For years, the venerable New York uptown jazz bôite Smoke featured Mike LeDonne on B3 Hammond organ, along with his funkadelic ensemble, the Groover Quartet. Canada’s own Cory Weeds – who is not only a fine alto saxophonist, but the founder of Cellar Records (a multiple award-winning, international jazz label) – was also long hip to this soulful group and began an extended performance and recording relationship with these fine musicians that continues to this day. Produced by Weeds and LeDonne and featuring Weeds on alto saxophone, Eric Alexander on tenor sax, LeDonne on B3, Peter Bernstein on guitar and Joe Farnsworth on drums, this exceptional new recording is a jazzy celebration of the Italian-American songbook, rife with traditional compositions, an offering from iconic jazz bassist Paul Chambers and cinematic hits from Henry Mancini and Nino Rota.

Not only can these guys groove, but they’re an incendiary device, as typified by a swing-infused O Sole Mio, featuring exquisite sax work from Weeds and Alexander. Mancini’s film noirish Mr. Lucky instigates Alexander’s bobs and weaves, while Pat Martino’s bebop anthem On the Stairs showcases pumpitude from all five members of the band.  

A deep, groove-infested Estate allows Weeds to shine – passing through each sultry emotional permutation. Also brilliant are Torna a Surriento, featuring the incredible Bernstein on guitar, with contributions from Alexander on tenor. A real standout is the funky-cool Moody Blues, which transports the band to California’s West Coast in the 1950s. Consummate keyboardist LeDonne is the star here – bringing to mind all of the greats of the B3, while being derivative of none. The closer, Chambers’ Capricci di Camere (Whims of Chambers) is pure, joyous boplicity!

07 Alyssa AllgoodWhat Tomorrow Brings
Alyssa Allgood
Cellar Music CM012121 (cellarlive.com/collections/all)

With this, just her third studio recording, Alyssa Allgood declares that she is comfortable in her own vocal skin and has also raised her game to become an artist of the first order. On What Tomorrow Brings she shapes the lyrics of these songs with élan, intelligence and passionate engagement, infusing fluid melodies with both a storyteller’s sense of detail and a dramatist’s sense of theatricality. 

The chosen repertoire features beautifully crafted arrangements of beguiling variety and sensuousness, expertly voiced in Allgood’s lovingly caressed phrasing. Listening to the way in which she seductively bends the notes in There Are Such Things and Memories, and how she sculpts the sustained inventions of Bridges, it’s clear that there’s not a single semiquaver of these melodies that hasn’t been fastidiously considered. Moreover – speaking of theatricality – Allgood turns into a quite riveting siren as she voices the character in Noel Coward’s Mad About The Boy, all but transforming what is usually a playful song into something darkly dramatic.

Allgood’s trio – guitarist Mike Allemana, bassist Dennis Carroll and drummer George Fludas – is completely attuned to her vision and artistry. The performances of each of the musicians melt eloquently into the vocalist’s highly expressive melodic stories. Melodies are intimately woven into filigreed lines from Allemana’s guitar, echoed in the rhythmic musicality of Carroll’s bass and Fludas’ drums. The music soars throughout, ending in Passing Glance, a powerful climax to this memorable album.

08 Aliens WizardsAliens & Wizards
Spike Wilner Trio
Cellar Music CM120120 (cellarlive.com/collections/all)

Throughout this pandemic, Spike Wilner has championed live performances at Smalls Jazz Club and Mezzrow, the two NYC venues he has singlehandedly helmed. On his trio recording Aliens & Wizards, Wilner slides behind the piano and into the spotlight, showcasing his prodigious pianism with two empathetic bandmates: bassist Tyler Mitchell and drummer Anthony Pinciotti. This release also debuts a significant new partnership between Wilner – through his SmallsLIVE Foundation – and the Cellar Music Group, curated by the Vancouver-based impresario, saxophonist and dyed-in-the-wool jazz fan Cory Weeds. 

Aliens & Wizards comprises nine works featuring Wilner at his best, teasing out melodic and harmonic lines that are poignant, urbane and stylishly introspective. His six original works are resolutely head-driven, delivered with characteristic warmth and personality. Not for Wilner an empty display of pyrotechnics or sentimental indulgence: as we hear on Adagio and Aliens & Wizards, the music is sculpted with fluid architectural acuity. 

In the latter piece Wilner uses moody chord changes and melodic acceleration to build a monumental abstract structure, unveiling seemingly supernatural themes and characters, and connecting the rhapsodic opening with a grandiose conclusion. This is followed by the indigo blue Prayer for Peace, expertly crafted and eloquently performed by the trio. The program ends in the wonderful rhythmic rush and tumble of Trick Baby. This album highlights Wilner’s captivating pianism against the rumbling backdrop of Mitchell’s bass and the percussive colours of Pinciotti’s drums.

09 Saskatchewan All StarsSaskatchewan Suite
Saskatchewan All Star Big Band
Chronograph Records CR-094 (chronographrecords.com/artists/saskatchewan-all-star-big-band)

The darkly passionate sound of creation gives rise to long-limbed rhythmic excitement that builds, one melodic and one harmonic variation at a time into this homage to Saskatchewan. Fred Stride’s exquisitely visual, ever-swinging eight-part narrative – the Saskatchewan Suite – is one of the best long works to be put down on record in a long time. Significantly, almost all the band members are homegrown Saskatchewanians. 

The symphonic music is powerfully and lovingly delivered by musicians who bring a deeply interiorized reading of Stride’s homage to a Canadian prairie province in a composition that is astutely and idiomatically driven by improvisation. The atmospheric opening movement describes seemingly endless vistas and melts into a series of big-boned movements that depict the fascinating character and history of Saskatchewan. What could have been dry music because of the density of its subject is lifted off the page with the passionate advocacy of this Saskatchewan All Star Big Band, which – in soli and ensemble passagework – brings uncommon tonal refinement to this epic piece. 

Beautifully executed contrapuntal writing weaves in and out of free-flowing sections. Especially noteworthy is Thank You, Mr. Douglas, a tribute to the iconic premier of the province, Tommy Douglas, father of Canada’s universal healthcare system. Tempi, ensemble and balance – all seem effortlessly and intuitively right as this group of some of the most celebrated Canadian musicians parley with extraordinary eloquence and power building up to the suite’s dénouement, so appropriately entitled Saskatchejazz.

Listen to 'Saskatchewan Suite' Now in the Listening Room

11 Jessica AckerleyMorning/mourning
Jessica Ackerley
Cacophonous Revival Recordings CRR-009 (jessicaackerleyguitar.tumblr.com)

Though it’s no exchange that one might choose, the COVID-19 lockdown has often replaced the social and convivial elements of music with the depth of solitary reflection. A series of remarkable solo performances has been the result, and Alberta-born, Honolulu-based guitarist Jessica Ackerley’s contribution, recorded during self-isolation in a friend’s New York apartment in the final days of 2020 and the first of 2021, is among them.. 

Her music straddles free jazz and free improvisation, and there’s a special power afoot here – part expressive determination, part introspection – that the intimate recording captures: the textures of fingers, strings and guitar in close proximity. Ackerley’s roots in jazz guitar run deep, evident in the precision and imagination of her plectrum technique. It’s especially noteworthy in a set inspired in part by the deaths of her teachers Vic Juris and Bobby Cairns.

That accelerated picking would mean nothing if it weren’t intimately connected with Ackerley’s quality of thought. As Inner Automation develops, she seems to be dial-twirling in space: contrasting and discontinuous figures leap from the fingerboard, colliding, then exploding into auditory fireworks. Much Gratitude to You, for You takes the same approach to more traditional techniques with its rapidly muted gestures and occasional hanging chords suddenly broken up with the emotional drama of rasgueado strums, derived from flamenco. The concluding Morning, another contrast, matches folk reverie with strangely dissonant, glassy harmonics. 

Ackerley makes music of significant depth. It’s music that insists on being heard.

13 LAbimeL’ABÎME
Multiple Chord Music (labime.ca)

From French, L’abîme translates to “the abyss.” That fact, combined with the equal parts striking and confounding cover art (courtesy of the design savvy of Rosie Landes), appears to scream “concept album.” I can neither confirm nor deny whether that is the intent of the artist, but the music possesses the same cinematic stage-play pomp of Carla Bley’s early 1970s music. Much like Bley, the members of L’abîme find themselves all over the place, in the best way possible. Whether it’s the progressive faultlessness of the title track, the nocturnal balladry of L’étang au crépuscule, the improvisational masterclass of Perdu dans les bois, or all of the above over the course of the show-stopping Le Culte suite, L’abîme manages to fearlessly explore avenues while never allowing these risks to compromise its sound. 

Jonathan Turgeon has mastered his craft. His compositions are unlike anything I’ve ever heard prior to stumbling across his work. They are dumbfoundingly complex mosaics of various miniscule rhythms and lines, interlacing with each other before ultimately giving way to the next contrasting section. It has often been said that the great writers know how to write for their band, and Turgeon ensures that every part, be it Alex Dodier’s flute or Hugo Blouin’s contrabass (considering he’s a pianist, Turgeon is a tremendous writer for bass), is maximized. From front to back a mind-bending musical experience, L’abîme’s eponymous debut will leave an impression.

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