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
L’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.

14 Code QuartetGenealogy
CODE Quartet
Justin Time JTR 8622-2 (justin-time.com) 

CODE is a Montreal-based outfit consisting of Adrian Vedady on bass, Christine Jensen on saxophone, Lex French on trumpet and Jim Doxas on drums. The similarity between this exact instrumentation and that of Ornette Coleman’s classic quartet is indeed intentional. In the late 1950s, Coleman and Sonny Rollins both found themselves drawn to the idea of playing with a chordless ensemble, feeling creatively boxed in by the harmony being stated outright. This is what makes the title of Genealogy so fitting; it suggests a following of this musical lineage. 

Coleman’s influence is inescapable for the entire duration of the album. On all tracks but the French-penned opener Tipsy (which has a pretty standard chord progression), the revolutionary “time, no changes” format is used as a medium for the band’s various modes of expression. Multiple heads can be described only as Coleman-esque, particularly the title track, but the band balances tribute and evolution quite well. Besides the band’s technically sound production (the entire quartet was responsible) and Doxas’ additional studio wizardry on the mix, there is also an aspect of this modernization that lies in the playing itself. The first “free” track on the album is Vedady’s Watching It All Slip Away, taking what would otherwise be a typical Latin groove until French goes off during his solo, and the take on O Sacred Head, Now Wounded beautifully combines reverence with freedom. Ultimately, Vedady is Charlie Haden, providing the foundation, adhesive and roadmap.

Listen to 'Genealogy' Now in the Listening Room

15 Brass KnuckleBrass Knuckle Sandwich
Marilyn Lerner; Nicole Rampersaud
Ambiances Magnétiques AM 258 CD (actuellecd.com)

Polished and powerful as the first part of its name and as layered as the second, Toronto’s Brass Knuckle Sandwich has produced a crunchy but powerful snack of seven in-the-moment improvisations. The duo of pianist Marilyn Lerner and trumpeter Nicole Rampersaud, longtime members of the city’s experimental music community, inventively displays every flavourful scintilla of sound from the furthest reaches of their instruments. Lerner clips, pumps and slides over the keys in groups or separately and strums, plucks and buzzes the piano’s internal strings. Making use of tongue stopping, tone crackling and half-valve effects, Rampersaud’s brass extensions include vocalized blowing, spittle-encrusted squeaks, strangled cries and plunger farts.

Expressing timbres ranging from the dulcet to the dissonant, the two produce a track like Evermore, which from its carefully shaped keyboard introduction to mid-range capillary slurs, conveys winnowing motion. Then they abruptly turn around during the following nat.pit.that to contrast the trumpet’s uppermost screech mode with dynamic piano pacing in the most fragmented mode before joining infant-like howls and resonating key clanks into a balanced ambulatory theme. Kinetics may edge out caution on most of the disc, but in spite of numerous advanced motifs, narratives are always fluid. The disc culminates in the almost 15-minute Rizoo, where broken-octave creativity, including hand-muted brass cries and staccato peeps from Rampersaud and bottom-board percussiveness and stopped key thumps from Lerner, predominate until the track and the CD’s finale settles into a connective mode.

17 TransformationGlenn Close; Ted Nash – Transformation
Glenn Close; Ted Nash; Wayne Brady; Amy Irving; Matthew Stevenson; Eli Nash; Wynton Marsalis; Jazz at Lincoln Center
Tiger Turn Productions (tednash.com)

This ambitious, multi-disciplinary recording project was co-imagined, produced, arranged, composed and conducted by Grammy winner and gifted multi-reed instrumentalist, Ted Nash. All of the accompanying spoken word segments were curated by Emmy- and Tony-winning actress Glenn Close, and performed by Close and a group of truly exceptional artists, including Wayne Brady, Amy Irving, Matthew Stevenson and Eli Nash. The skilled musical cast includes noted members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO), including the iconic Wynton Marsalis on trumpet.

Transformations begins with Creation, Part I. One can feel the contrapuntal influence of Gil Evans in this full-throttle, intricate, challenging music, as the ensemble slides through the primordial ooze. Creation, Part ll features the JLCO as they swing, wail and bop with exquisite precision. A sturdy and solid trombone solo punctuates the air, followed by a well-placed baritone comment or two. Dear Dad/Letter is the transcript of an incredibly moving letter to Nash from his transgender son, accompanied by masterful work on soprano sax by Nash. Other memorable movements include One Among Many, constructed around Judith Clarke’s journey of liberation, as interpreted by the incredible Irving.

The justifiable rage and hurt, and subsequent illumination in Brady’s A Piece by the Angriest Black Man in America (or, How I learned to Forgive Myself for Being the Angriest Black Man in America) is an awakening in itself, as is Reaching the Tropopause – which features a face-melting rhythm and sax sections in concert with the dynamic Wynton Marsalis on trumpet. Ted Nash, Glenn Close, the gifted actors and the nothing-short-of-exquisite musicians of JLCO cement this recording as an artistic triumph.

18 Jesup WagonJesup Wagon
James Brandon Lewis; Red Lily Quintet
Tao Forms TAO 05 (jamesbrandonlewis.bandcamp.com/album/jesup-wagon)

James Brandon Lewis was voted Rising Star – Tenor Saxophone in the 2020 DownBeat magazine’s International Critics Poll. His tone is urgent and emphatic and Jesup Wagon, recorded with his Red Lily Quintet, is his ninth release. The title refers to the wagon built by George Washington Carver to travel the Alabama countryside and teach farming techniques. It was a travelling road show of science and hope and Lewis’ seven compositions are based on Carver’s words and experiences. The quintet includes William Parker (bass), Chad Taylor (drums), Kirk Knuffke (cornet) and Chris Hoffman (cello). The lack of a chordal instrument like piano or guitar gives the group an open sound which, combined with Knuffle’s cornet and Lewis’ tone, reminds me of the early Ornette Coleman group with Don Cherry playing pocket cornet.

The detailed liner notes describe both the music and how each work refers back to Carver’s ideas and legacy. For example, Lowlands of Sorrow is Carver’s phrase from when he discovered the extreme poverty of farmers in Macon County. Lewis’ saxophone is wailing and, with Knuffke’s cornet, blows forth a song of suffering. The melody and solos are deftly underscored by Parker’s contrapuntal bass and Taylor’s effortlessly polyrhythmic percussion. Fallen Flowers has a solemn opening melody which is soon contrasted by a playfully melodic and staccato theme tossed back and forth between sax and cornet. This back and forth movement continues throughout the piece occasionally making way for the soloists. Jesup Wagon ends with one of Lewis’ recitations that could describe this intense and brilliant album as a whole: “Embedded seeds crack through tormented shells of one colour, giving birth to many hues.”

19 Ben GoldbergEverything Happens To Be
Ben Goldberg
BAG Production Records BAG018 (bengoldberg.net) 

Since debuting with the New Klezmer Trio in 1991, clarinetist Ben Goldberg has produced consistently inventive, often witty music, whether playing works by John Zorn or Merle Travis. His four stellar partners here all have previous connections. Tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin shares a breadth of reference, sentiment and humour. Goldberg has played duets with bassist Michael Formanek, while guitarist Mary Halvorson and drummer Tomas Fujiiwara have previously joined Goldberg in the improvising trio The Out Louds.  

The opening What About suggests the gentle melodic clarity and sudden surprise of Jimmy Giuffre, while Cold Weather and Chorale Type are updates of early jazz textures, given added authenticity by Goldberg’s acquisition of an E-flat Albert System clarinet, the kind employed by New Orleans musicians a century ago. It lends a particularly woody warmth to the kind of abstracted counterpoint Goldberg and Eskelin practise here, sometimes further enhanced by Halvorson’s electronic squiggles. 

That Goldberg wit surfaces as well with Tomas Plays the Drums: Fujiwara does, but not in a solo feature; instead, he appears at the end of a collective blast of bass clarinet, saxophone multiphonics and electric guitar squall, one more unlikely episode in Goldberg’s surprise package. The program ends with Abide with Me, a 19th-century hymn set to the melody of Eventide, composed by William Monk, a tune Goldberg first encountered as a child in a rendition by Thelonious Monk. It’s played straight, for 1’10”. Now that’s jazz wit.

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