New jazz guitar releases are waning, compensated by a tsunami of albums from female singers. Fortunately piano mines are in full production – here’s a quartet of recent entries.
Start with Mike Janzen. Raised and classically trained on the Prairies, talents honed at U of T, he’s settled in Toronto now after a history with the Winnipeg Symphony plus a taste for rock, funk, folk and church music. Janzen plays piano and organ, with a dash of Rhodes, on Mombâcho (Signpost Music SP43-02 www.mikejanzen.ca), his sophomore follow to “Beginnings”. I wish he’d played more organ on these mostly original compositions. Where he’s most effective are the opening Around The Block (piano and organ), the title tune (organ alone) and then a delightful makeover of the movie hit Mrs Robinson where Janzen again doubles. With organ he’s forceful and effective, more à la Lonnie Smith than grits ‘n gravy Jimmy Smith. Big assists come from imaginative bass maestro George Koller and drummers Davide DiRenzo, Ben Riley and young Larnell Lewis. The leader also recruits tenorman Phil Dwyer and guitarist Kevin Breit to heighten lush textures but they’re not absolutely essential. Neither are the string section nor the leader’s strained Chet Baker/Willie Nelson influenced vocals. What’s enthralling is Janzen’s writing, woven with wit and inventiveness, and his playing’s sheer exuberance. His songs have catchy dance-floor hooks like Swankometer and are smartly arranged – plus there’s a deep core of spirituality in his emotional attack, which perhaps explains the meaning of life suggested by the album title. He can also caress keys with clarity on Where It Goes, but fusion-styled Trail Runner definitely doesn’t belong in dentists’ waiting rooms. This felicitous mix of funky chords and deep groove is well worth seeking.
An equally welcome surprise is the Julie Lamontagne Trio recording Now What (Justin Time JTR 8535-2 www.julielamontagne.com). The Montrealer has a big Quebec following after work with Radio Canada and pop artists Isabelle Boulay and Bruno Pelletier, but her jazz chops are well established with sympathetic trio-mates Richard Irwin (bass) and Dave Watts (drums). For five of her eight creations she’s brought in American tenor saxist Donny McCaslin and the result is every bit as auspicious as her debut disc “Facing The Truth”, his horn adding heft to a gaggle of pleasing hard-hitters such as the 10 minutes-plus opener Desillusionée. Lamontagne’s a strong performer and arranger, incorporating the complexities of a Fred Hersch with the flair and drive of Lorraine Desmarais. Note her boppish abstract concoction Lost In The Cycle, where her soloing is fleet yet keyboard touch light and lilting. The title piece’s quiet opening soon erupts into a power churn while K.O. and Damn ratchet up the tension, underscore the rampant surprise elements and point to dramatic jazz crammed with joyous spirit.
White Rock, B.C.’s pianist Amanda Tosoff fields her quartet on Wait And See (Cellar Live CL081208 www.cellarlive.com). To West Coast A-listers in her group, saxophonist Evan Arntzen, bass Sean Cronin and drummer Morgan Childs, she’s added ubiquitous trumpeter Brad Turner, who always pumps up energy levels. He’s needed here. She’s composed 9 of 10 tracks for a percussive approach but at times this is more efficient than inspiring, somewhat too polite. The opener’s called Soaring but it doesn’t - yet repeated hearing yields the sense of well-organized balance, deftly shaped melody, all within the subtle deployment of jazz convention. Tosoff won big this year when her team carried off the Grand Prix de Jazz at the Montreal Jazz Festival over 10 finalists - which means at least a new recording. In addition, she and Childs are expected to work in Toronto this winter.
American Dick Hyman at 76, with more than 100 albums to his credit, is also the performer of ragtime albums as Knuckles O’Toole, creator of scores for art forms such as Woody Allen films and much more. His solo offering In Concert At The Old Mill (Sackville SACD2) is a 12-song masterpiece through which he conjures the storied past of jazz in the styles of trailblazers such as Fats Waller (lively takes on Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Honeysuckle Rose), Gershwin and even John Lennon (Blackbird). Hyman is a versatile exploiter of what’s good about earlier music, and he tosses in a pair of his own, Ocean Languor done in Duke Ellington style and Pass It Along à la Teddy Wilson. You’ll hear lots of bouncing stride, sustained brilliance and dazzling examinations of harmony, melody and swing. The audience loved it. So will you.