08 Andrew RathburnCharacter Study
Andrew Rathbun; Tim Hagans; Gary Versace; Jay Anderson; Bill Stewart
SteepleChase SCCD 31862 (andrewrathbun.com) 

Andrew Rathbun’s latest release Character Study takes the listener on a unique and varied musical journey; a journey that showcases his excellent and imaginative talents as a composer-arranger and saxophonist. All pieces on the album, with the exception of Etcetera, are written by Rathbun himself.

The foray into the proverbial musical jungle begins with the sensational opening track The Golden Fool, where bassist Jay Anderson’s energetic runs and percussionist Bill Stewart’s constant shuffle beat keep listeners on their toes, awaiting what unique elements Rathbun has in store for the rest of the piece and the record as a whole. Pieces such as Team of Rivals, His Quiet Determination and The Long Awakening display Rathbun’s contemplative and lyrical sides and are also a testament to his delightful, dance-like and extraordinary talent as a saxophonist. The title track provides an exemplary contrast between lyricism and liveliness, a theme that seems to present itself in several compositions.

Many of the tracks allow ample opportunities to appreciate the musicians who contribute to the musical journey as a whole through various thoroughly enjoyable and virtuosic solos. The ever-present and exceptional dynamic collaboration between instruments is very apparent and noticeable throughout the record and it is easy to appreciate the contribution of each musician to breathing additional life into Rathbun’s compositions. Character Study serves as yet another attestation to the undeniable talent and artistry of the Toronto native.

09 Lion Camel ChildThe Lion, Camel & Child
Johnny Griffith Quintet (Jeremy Pelt; Adrean Farrugia; Jon Maharaj; Ethan Ardelli)
GB Records (gbrecords.ca) 

This could well sound as if it is tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffith’s Le carnival des animaux, except that The Lion, Camel & Child, his menagerie – unlike Saint-Saëns’ – is affectionately symbolic and celebrates the iconography of two animals and a child, albeit that it is also written with his musician friends in mind. The result is a vivacious program of music which unfolds in the characteristic manner of Griffith’s rolled notes and elliptical phrases. When egged on by trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, however, the sound can emerge like a series of charmingly guttural Welsh-bound “gogs” that might seemingly recall the sound of his distant ancestors from another time.

Griffith’s repertoire is wholly homegrown and is centred in the jazz tradition, written for a quintet of musicians who parley with the familiarity of old friends, which indeed they are. The album leads off with the suite after which it is titled. The work’s opening is powerfully atmospheric – darkly lugubrious chords that are interpolated into one theme after the other built upon a kinetic restlessness that drives the whole suite until the fourth movement, its denouement, which resonates with characteristic vibrancy belying its title.

Throughout, Griffith’s tenor saxophone leads the charge, ringing in the changes in mood, structure and tempo. He is also joined in the musical adventure and with poetic melodicism by pianist Adrean Farruggia, and powerhouse rhythmic teamsters, bassist Jon Maharaj and drummer Ethan Ardelli.  

09 Clock RadioClock Radio
Michael Davidson; Dan Fortin
Elastic Recordings ER 001 (elasticrecordings.com)

Think of a duet featuring a vibraphone as one of the instruments in a jazz recording and the iconic ones with Gary Burton and Chick Corea jump to mind. So by association, vibraphonist Michael Davidson’s duet with bassist Dan Fortin is already in good company. However, it isn’t simply this fact that makes this a duo recording (albeit with a bassist) that merits curious, if not close listening; what matters much more is the fact that, between Davidson and Fortin, the musicians marshal their forces with superb discipline, producing a wonderfully fresh sound which also manages to possess the requisite amount of mystery – essential for a work this spare in sound.

Clock Radio is a collection of musical impressions and memories of Davidson’s apprenticeship, in 2017, with the celebrated mallet percussionist David Friedman in Germany. Davidson strikes the sound bars with hard and soft mallets to bounce bright, orotund tone colours off his instrument. He invites Fortin into this soundworld. The bassist engages in the musical conversation with angular counterpoint that is characterized by the ink-dark rumble of his instrument.

The disc is dappled with – among others – elements from a suite-in-the-making titled Berlin; miniatures imbued with contrapuntal unison passages, as well as restless, scurrying and brilliantly inventive features from one musician in response to the other. And the miraculous piece entitled zwei werden eins (Two Become One) makes vivid listening from a partnership we hope to hear much more from.

Listen to 'Clock Radio' Now in the Listening Room

10 Dream LibrettoDream Libretto
Marilyn Crispell; Tanya Kalmanovitch; Richard Teitelbaum
Leo Records CD LR 849 (leorecords.com) 

A rare departure for American pianist Marilyn Crispell and Canadian violinist Tanya Kalmanovitch, who are usually involved with spiky improvisational work, this mostly sombre program instead deals with loss and regeneration reflected in a five-part Crispell composition for trio and seven duo improvisations.

Showcased, Memoria/For Pessa Malka is the pianist’s formal composition, and it evolves in different sequences to reflect the emotions she felt following the recent deaths of close relatives and friends. Crucially, Richard Teitelbaum’s wave-form processing is funeral parlour-like muted, with the requisite sense of mourning really conveyed by brief violin sweeps that help amplify the pianist’s low-frequency threnody. Luckily when the final sequence is heard, Crispell has shaken off enough melancholy to enliven the coda with chiming piano chords.

Created without electronics, the seven equally brief improvisations are a requiem respite. Accelerating from the first four tracks which crisply outline how grief can lead to musical artistry, the pieces become livelier with, for instance, Kalmanovitch’s snapping spiccato strings and Crispell stretching arpeggios into tremolo chording. By the time Stones Remain Still and Walked through to Sleep (the penultimate tracks) arrive, the mood has been elevated to become more stimulating. This is done with inner-piano string strums and keyboard surges alongside upward string swells from the violinist. Instructively though, the musical uplift reflected in these duos still maintains the solemn mood that is intensified in the final Stars Visible and Invisible which cannily reflects back on the initial suite.

11 Curran EndangeredEndangered Species
Alvin Curran
New World Records 80804-2 (newworldrecords.org)

American composer Alvin Curran is famed as a member of Musica Elettronica Viva, the pioneering improvising electroacoustic ensemble. Yet in his 80th year he has revived his primary musical experiences, playing American Songbook standards. But since this is Curran and this is the 21st century, this two-CD set of classic tunes arrives with a twist. Besides his subtle piano improvisations that impressively re-imagine the tunes, he employs a Yamaha Disklavier. Resembling a grand piano, but actually a blend of acoustic keyboard, player piano and digital computer, the Disklavier allows him to append any manner of previously recorded sounds to the tracks.

Take the nearly 17-minute rendition of Ain’t Misbehavin’. As Curran works his way through the familiar melody with aplomb, all manner of inharmonious and grating noises are interjected and then vanish, including whistles, yodels, bel canto arias, wolf calls, marching feet, erotic moans and duck calls. Incorporating these disruptions, he alters the melody at points to work in blues tonality and formal recital inferences, culminating in a thoroughly original re-creation.

Each of the 18 compositions goes through a similar transformation, whether it’s 1896’s Red River Valley or 1955’s Arrivederci Roma. While most include a humorous palimpsest of the original, only Arrivederci Roma with its sonic overlay of crying infants, street noises and snatches of Italian-language conversations, add a hint of seriousness to the familiar light-hearted melody, since Curran has lived and taught in Rome since the early 1960s.

12 Blake Lee CoverThe Newest Sound You Never Heard
Ran Blake; Jeanne Lee
a-side records 0005 (a-siderecords.com) 

When singer Jeanne Lee and pianist Ran Blake released their 1961 debut, The Newest Sound Around, it introduced a new interpretive freedom to a broad range of songs. The duo extended traditional roles to a genuine improvised duet between voice and instrument, from Lee’s frequent a cappella rubatos and chromatic fantasies to Blake’s playful keyboard explosions, all of it held together by near-telepathic attention to one another’s sense of inspired detail. This two-CD set combines unreleased studio and concert performances recorded in Belgium in 1966 and 1967.

One can simply celebrate the breadth of their repertoire, extending from Ellington, Monk (his Misterioso here set to Gertrude Stein’s words) and Harold Arlen to Ornette Coleman, Ray Charles, Lennon-McCartney and Bob Dylan; however, it’s their unique handling of the material that distinguishes the results, stringing songs together in vast medleys, then trusting to the individual song to hold the performance together.

In part they play on the familiarity of their material, Lee’s rich, nuanced delivery of a single phrase conveying an entire song’s depth. The live disc initially reminds that Out of this World started with Arlen and Johnny Mercer, even if the greatest debt here is to John Coltrane. It then segues to a fragmented Mr. Tambourine Man in a chain that includes an abstracted pointillist Blake solo and Lee’s roots-drenched versions of He’s Got the Whole World in his Hands and Billie’s Blues. This is rare and fine material.

13 Jon LundbomHarder on the Outside
Jon Lundbom & Big Five Chord
Independent HOT CUP 108 (jonlundbom.com)

The “avant jazz guitarist” Jon Lundbom has an eclectic and inventive history which includes studying jazz and classical guitar in Chicago and New York; playing in Bryan & the Haggards, a New York-based alternative Merle Haggard cover band; and releasing eight recordings with his own group, Jon Lundbom & Big Five Chord. (I fell in love with the Haggard’s 2013 Merles Just Want to Have Fun featuring Eugene Chadbourne).

Harder on the Outside is intense, aggressive, fun and solidly grooving. It is a combination of hardcore/alternative fusion with solid beats and free-form soloing. The “beats” come from a longer-term project between saxophonist Bryan Murray and Lundbom which is forthcoming, but Lundbom was inspired to record live versions of those songs with the Big Five Chord (Lundbom with Jon Irabagon on alto and soprano saxophones, Murray on tenor and balto! saxophones, Moppa Elliott on bass and Dan Monaghan on drums).

Two examples of this album’s range are: People Be Talking which features a 6/4 metre propelled by an eccentric bass and drum groove, melodic head, sputtering and energized tenor solo by Murray and then a reverbed, ethereal guitar solo from Lundbom. Prednisone is slower with a cautious, crawling melody played in fourths with the saxophones. Justin Wood (a guest “sixth chord”) plays a lyric alto sax solo and then Lundbom finishes with a fuzzed-out guitar displaying very solid fusion chops. None of the tunes end with the traditional recap of the melody; the solo finishes and that’s it. The beats are seriously heavy and the playing is intense.

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