04_GiaAnatomical Signatures
Gia & The Unpredictable Update
Independent GIA 00008

Don’t let the somewhat unwieldy title put you off. This is a double CD of music described by Romanian born Gia as “jazz meets symphonic meets rock meets balkanic meets world music.” And indeed it is an eclectic program of original compositions by the leader. Approach it with open ears and you will find much to enjoy.

The group comprises Pat LaBarbera (saxes), Johnny Johnson (saxes), Levon Ichkhanian (guitar), Wilson Laurencin (drums), Alan Hetherington (assorted percussion), Pat Kilbride (bass), Clifford Ojala (saxes/clarinet) and Gia Ionesco on keyboards. An all-star line-up indeed and I would have liked more information in the sparse liner notes.

There are, not surprisingly, European influences in the music and while you won’t end up singing many of the themes, you will be moved by the musicianship on this album.

05_Dusted_MachineryDusted Machinery
John Butcher; Toshimaru Nakamura
Monotype Records mono 041

Classic man versus machine improvisation: British saxophonist John Butcher matches his skills against the distinctive audio feedback produced from a so-called no-input mixing board given near-anthropomorphic cunning through the manipulations of Japan’s Toshimaru Nakamura. By connecting the board’s input to its output, Nakamura’s blurry oscillations evolve in ever-changing textural pitches from grinding croaks to ear-splitting yowls. It’s a tribute to the talents of Butcher that his perceptive reed thrusts and rejoinders evolve as appropriately as they do. Although by the final track he adopts a mechanized strategy by adding feedback loops to his reed playing, on the other pieces Nakamura’s signal processing, oscillations and indistinct mechanical static confront what Butcher can produce only with tongue, lips, mouth, throat and fingers.

On Maku for instance, while motor-driven drones pulsate from thunderously loud to blurry fuzz tones, Butcher’s tenor saxophone sequences involve smears and expansive vibratos so that each Nakamura-originated texture meets a responsive sonic action. Moreover, while the machine’s voltage flanges may be so powerful that they’re nearly visible, the reedist’s multiphonic overblowing produces equivalent timbres that in split seconds leap from dog-whistle-like altissimo to basso growls, and from pianissimo to fortissimo. Overall, Butcher uses flutter-tongued intensity to chip away at the board-created solid sound block.

Using the soprano saxophone on Knead and Nobasu respectively, Butcher’s nasal split-tones, nephritic growls, key percussion and surprisingly lyrical interludes substantiate his human-ness. Conclusively he demonstrates that with original ideas and profound techniques man can lead machine to cooperate in creating a memorable sound program.

06_Houle_DelbecqBecause She Hoped
Benoît Delbecq; François Houle
Songlines SGL 1592-2

Dazzlingly interactive, this third duo disc by Vancouver clarinettist François Houle and Parisian pianist Benoît Delbecq exposes rugged as well as impressionistic textures. Delbecq, who often prepares his strings with implements, and Houle, whose extended techniques include circular breathing and split tones, are modest as well. They allow the improvisations to evolve organically rather than calling attention to their skills.

Yet two versions of the clarinettist’s Pour Pee Wee end up being completely distinct. Houle smears intense vibrations atop Delbecq’s uninterrupted wooden key clicks in 120 seconds during the first variant; the second, three times as long, finds the pianist’s sour and percussive motifs enlivened by passing chords and staccato asides, as circling glissandi and tremolo flattement presage a final swinging pulse from Delbecq. This unforced jauntiness is also expressed on the un-clichéd Clichés, composed by saxophonist Steve Lacy who influenced them both. Delbecq’s marimba-like string pops are perfect down-to-earth accompaniment to the concentric and jaunty melody elaborated by Houle. When reed squeaks and syncopated lines unite for the finale the textural release illuminates the note-perfect, yet moderated playing of both.

Throughout, unmatched textural command from the two maintains a melodic flow. Whether the base performance encompasses atmospheric liquid clarinet runs and sympathetic keyboard chording on Duke Ellington’s The Mystery Song, or turns Delbecq’s castanet-like polyrhythms plus Houle’s tremolo pitchslides on the pianist’s Ando atonal, a final variant reveals an innate modern tonality. The reedist’s title tune similarly demonstrates that sympathetic romanticism can eventually result from a narration that begins with tongue slaps and key clipping.

Canadian and Russian Improvisers

01_Carrier_All_OutUnlike many Canadian improvisers, François Carrier is no homebody. Peripatetic, the Montreal-based alto saxophonist spent months gigging in Italy and England, was one of the few Westerners to play the Kathmandu Jazz Festival, and most recently has put out discs recorded during his 2010 Russian concert tour. A session such as All Out (FMR CD 321-0911 www.fmr-records.com), recorded with his long-time associate, Toronto drummer Michel Lambert, and St. Petersburg pianist Alexey Lapin, is not only notable musically, but also shows how erudite players from two of the world’s northern hemisphere nations have much in common.

Carrier’s reed strategy includes elements of Cool Jazz note gliding as well as avant garde dissonance, and the Russian pianist constructs proper responses with alacrity. Ride, for instance, leaves the bomb dropping and clattering to Lambert’s kit as Lapin’s multi-fingered kinetic runs syncopate alongside Carrier’s spiky vibrations and false-register nasality plus dexterous explorations in the tenor register. Despite the saxophonist squeezing out multiple theme variants until he reaches conclusive downward runs, Lapin stays the course with unflappable chording as the drummer balances both men’s lines with military precision. In the solo spotlight, Lambert approximates the power of Art Blakey on Wit with cross-sticking rim shots and bass drum thumps, the better to later mix it up with Lapin’s dynamic cadenzas plus Carrier’s stuttering rubato lines and quivering split tones. The percussionist also asserts himself on Of Breath with a mallet-driven solo of whacks, bangs and ruffs, leading to the crescendo of high intensity further propelled by Lapin’s metronomic pulsing and Carrier’s flattement and triple tonguing.

02_Ex_VotoLambert’s talent is given full reign on the Maïkontron Unit’s Ex-Voto (Rant 1140 www.jazzfromrant.com). Although he and Carrier often seem like the inseparable Damon and Pythias of Canadian Jazz, this trio CD features the drummer with bassist/cellist Pierre Côté and saxophonist/clarinettist Michel Côté. Both Lambert and reedist Côté also play the maïkontron, a valves and keys reed instrument with a range below the bass saxophone’s. Lambert has divided the CD into tableaux based on images from Hieronymus Bosch, although the performance is actually less programmatic than intuitive, with straightforward pulsing as well as dissonant timbre extensions. Despite a forbidding title, a track such as Marinus (Tableau 9) for instance, is an out-and-out swing piece. It features pin-pointed snare work and clean cross sticking from Lambert, unbroken vibrations from the bassist and Michel Côté’s clarinet exploring the theme with mid-range chirping and tonguing. Other tunes such as Votivae Noctes (Tableau 4) are slow paced and constrained, as Côté’s supple clarinet line contrasts markedly with the maïkontron’s blurred snorts and an at first quivering, then walking, cello line from Pierre Côté. As reed split tones accelerate, they’re exposed nakedly beside splayed string motions. The reeds’ burbling and puffing plus the string player’s sul tasto strumming end up creating other tableaux elsewhere, with sly references to half-recalled ballads, or in contrast, intricate multiphonics. Lambert’s drum versatility is given expanded showcases on Fluctus …, the first part of Tableau 10, and Praestigator, the introduction to Tableau 19. Praestigator features kettle drum pops and faux gamelan-like resounds playing off rhino-like snorts from the maïkontron; the irregular counterpoint of Fluctus … matches clarinet shrieks with hand slaps and pats, suggesting congas and steel drums.

02_Melissa_LaurenThe Other Side
Melissa Lauren
Independent ML1111 (www.melissalaurenmusic.ca)

Singer-songwriter Melissa Lauren has been a part of the Toronto music community for a few years now, but with her sophomore release, The Other Side, she’s really making her mark. Lauren has a beguiling voice that mixes sweet playfulness with solid technique, control and range. Which would be plenty, but on top of that she has songwriting abilities that put her in another category from the legion of lovely crooners who enlist others’ work to tell their musical story. Harmonically speaking, Lauren’s songwriting doesn’t push a whole lot of boundaries, and she’s got a clever way with words that goes enough beyond cute to make things interesting without getting overly heavy. All of which suits the breezy, jazzy air of the album. The dozen songs each have a whiff of a bygone era hovering somewhere between the 1930s and the 60s, without being too derivative of any time or genre. So we get a bit of Mancini-esque cool on the opening Art Class, a touch of twangy longing on Somehow, a slightly Eastern European edge to Your Fool and an old tyme rollick from the title track. It all adds up to a special sound, much of the credit for which should be shared with guitarist Nathan Hiltz who is the main instrumental support and negotiates the shifts in style with taste and personality that never overwhelms. The rhythm section is ably rounded out by Ernesto Cervini on drums and Ross MacIntyre on bass. Lauren’s CD release event is March 1 at The Rex in Toronto. Check melissalaurenmusic.ca for details.

Over the past few years as post-modernism has made anything fair game for musical interpretation, sophisticated improviser/composers have taken inspiration from the most unlikely sources, far beyond the motifs, historicism and pastels of earlier times. Canadian bassist in New York Michael Bates for instance, has organized a salute to Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-75), using his own music and variants on the modern Russian composer’s oeuvre. Iconoclastic American composer/saxophonist Fred Ho has produced a five-part suite honouring boxer Muhammad Ali (b.1942) as a militant, outspoken fighter for social justice. The luminous canvases of American visual artist Cy Twombly (1928-2011) stimulate Israeli saxophonist Ariel Shibolet’s creativity, while Polish saxophonist Adam Pierończyk recasts in his own fashion the distinctive film scores of composer Krzysztof Komeda (1931-69).

01_Bates_AcrobatMichael Bates’ masterful arrangements on Acrobat: Music For, and By, Dmitri Shostakovich (Sunnyside SSC 1291 www.sunnysiderecords.com) are so perceptive that during the course of nine tracks he almost reveals symphonic colours using only a top-flight quintet: his double bass; the perfectly timed drums of Tom Rainey; Russ Lossing’s shuddering smears from electric and regular pianos; trumpeter Russ Johnson’s brassy blasts; and the fluid lyricism of Chris Speed’s sax and clarinet. This is apparent from the first track, “Dance of Death,” from Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No.2 in E Minor. Very quickly the bouncy melody is transformed with plunger trumpet work and well-modulated reed trills to a motif that’s as much 1970s Miles Davis as it is a mazurka. Later Silent Witness uses fusion references to atmospherically suggest the composer’s Stalin-era paranoia, with Speed’s singular reed slurs becoming progressively lower-pitched and tonal as Rainey`s drums smack and rebound while Lossing’s ratcheting licks make it seem as if he’s playing electric guitar not piano. Held together by Bates’ reliable thumping, the cacophonous final section gives way to repeated theme variations and conclusive keyboard echoes. Elsewhere, with music derived from the Russian composer’s work or not, the tunes use varied strategies. Intermezzos can be atmospheric and formal, with the reedist approximating oboe-like burrs and timed runs arising from Lossing’s acoustic instrument; as loose and swinging as a Benny Goodman-led combo; or exploding with tougher near-Jazz Messengers-like harmonies. Arcangela is another highpoint, allowing both Russes sufficient solo space. The pianist showcases a series of repeated glissandi centred by Bates’ stentorian pulse; while the trumpeter’s capillary slurs evolve into a quicksilver flow cushioned by harmonized keyboard and reed textures. All in all the wrap-around themes simultaneously celebrate Shostakovich’s intent while exposing improvisations that are true to jazz’s ethos.

02_Komeda_PieronczykTransforming the sounds of another musician, whose short-lived but prolific career defined Polish jazz, popular and even notated sounds for years after his untimely death, is the task of Krakow-based tenor and soprano saxophonist Adam Pierończyk on Komeda-The Innocent Sorcerer (JazzWerkstatt JW 104 www.jazzwerstatt.eu). Luckily he has the help of Brazilian guitarist Nelson Veras, countryman Łukasz Żyta on percussion, including typewriter (!) plus two American veterans, bassist Anthony Cox and tenor saxophonist Gary Thomas. Actually it’s Veras who often sets the pace, since his delicate nylon-string strumming brings a bossa nova-like lilt to, and encourages equivalent horn harmonies on, later-period Komeda tunes like After the Catastrophe. Two of Komeda’s best-known themes are treated most substantially by the quintet: Sleep Safe and Warm used in Rosemary’s Baby and Crazy Girl from Knife in the Water. Typewriter sounds produced by Żyta underlie contrasting rubato split tones from Thomas’ tenor and Pierończyk’s soprano sax obbligato during variants on the first tune. Meanwhile sul ponticello bass work makes the theme more menacing, with the piece reaching a crescendo of sharp guitar licks and overlapping horn parts, drastically truncated as the sound of a typewriter’s carriage return completes the track. Bustling cool jazz-like harmonies give way to contrapuntal horn vamping, rapid twangs from the guitarist and broken-metre drumming on Crazy Girl. With the percussionist waving Latin percussion and Cox sliding up and down his strings, Thomas’ hard-toned blowing and Pierończyk’s parallel tongue fluttering define the song’s repeated motif, as the two reedists circle back to recap and draw out the initial head.

03_Fred_HoMoving on from celebrating masterful musicians’ compositional influences to appreciating the political subtext of someone dubbed “Athlete of the Century,” is The Sweet Science Suite (Mutable/Big Red Media 003 www.bigredmediainc.com), a five-part suite Fred Ho composed for his 19-piece Green Monster Big Band. An activist as well as a musician, Ho’s arrangements are as outstanding and unique as Muhammad Ali’s boxing style. Unafraid of outside references, on Shake up the World the piece’s staccato exposition quotes liberally from Cream’s Sunshine of Your Love for a proper period feel, although that theme is intertwined with vamping section work echoing the Count Basie band, a funky backbeat, fiery brass triplets and a slinky boppish tenor sax solo. Other variants, such as Rope-A-Dope frame Salim Washington’s muscular big-toned tenor saxophone in a lusty big band arrangement that’s part ballad and part free form. Still other tunes expose and bury references to interludes ranging from Chinese court music to American TV show themes, to speeding train-like riffs plus Charles Mingus’ particular blend of gospel and blues. Other examples of bravura (over)blowing include Ho’s double-tonguing a staccatissimo baritone sax interlude from pedal point to altissimo range that is outlined clearly among brass fanfares and gruff snorts from two bass trombones plus broken beats from percussionist Royal Hartigan. The climactic key to the suite is the constantly expanding No Vietnamese Ever Called Me a Nigger, where Hartigan’s stylized gongs and hammered cross tones suggest the sounds of the Vietnam War that Ali avoided, costing him his championship status. Throughout the more-than-16-minute narrative, sonic interpolations, encompassing split-second theme inferences, bluesy harmonies from the six-piece sax section, twanging guitar riffs, discordant trumpet blasts, pedal-point bass trombone snorts and a final, unexpected, smoothing coda describe the discordance of the era and its final resolution. This resolution, personified by abrasive guitar solos and split-tone reed explosions, leads to Worthy of Praises Most High, a concluding theme that acknowledges Ali’s undiminished skill. Triumphantly fortissimo and atonal, the finale highlights guitarist Amanda Monaco’s rock-like chording arching over sequences of juddering pitch dislocation from brass triplets until decisive orchestral calmness prevails.

04_Shibolet_MarriageIn contrast to the other CDs’ inspirations, Ariel Shibolet’s Scenes from an Ideal Marriage (Kadima Collective KCR 28 www.kadimacollective.com) expresses in music his interpretation of Cy Twombly’s acrylic and pencil painting of the same name. Part of a trilogy of CDs by the tenor saxophonist dedicated to the recently deceased visual artist, Scenes also features violist Nori Jacoby. Despite obvious differences, like partners in an ideal marriage, the timbres from Shibolet’s soprano saxophone and Jacoby’s viola are sometimes indistinguishable, especially when involved in intertwined dialogue. At times polyphonic, polytonal or polyharmonic, the instruments’ textures mix without blending or losing individual identities. Masterful in his use of multiphonics, the reedist lip burbles, pushes unaccented air through his horn’s body tube, hums through his mouthpiece while sounding a tone, and squawks wet glissandi. Meantime the fiddler’s strategy involves sul ponticello scrapes, flying spiccato scrubs and jagged, angled vibrations. By the time the climactic second theme variant is heard, Shibolet’s pinched ney-like whistles and Jacoby’s sul tasto strokes surmount abrasive atonalism. The defining intermezzo is unexpectedly lyrical in contrast to the exposition, but doesn’t neglect pressure for prettiness. When each player’s timbres become as thin as pencil strokes, the subsequent split tones (from the saxist) and angled strokes (from the violist) stretch the sound without breaking it and eventually combine for wide-bore smears which advance then conclude the recitation.

Sonic inspiration can come from anywhere. It’s up to the canny improviser to do the best he or she can with it, as these musicians demonstrate.

01_tom_szczesniakWaltz for Bill
Tom Szczesniak
Independent SZC-27426-27 (www.tomszcz.com)

Waltz for Bill is veteran Toronto session player and arranger, Tom Szczesniak’s, love letter to the genius of Bill Evans. It is also the title of his very first CD under his own name after 40 years in the industry playing with everyone from Anne Murray to Thad Jones. Evans isn’t the only piano player to be honoured by Szczesniak, as the late and much-missed Doug Riley (Dr. Music) is remembered here both with a tribute song and a cover of one of his compositions, Dinosaurus. The progressive rock/bop fusion number is a bit of an incongruity, but a palate-cleanser amidst all the ear butterscotch that comes before and after. The disc is steeped in standards and even veers into chestnut territory a time or two, but is a class act from beginning to end. Starting with a mellow but harmonically fresh approach to What Is This Thing Called Love, we get taken on a lush, lovely journey of the likes of Gershwin and Hammerstein with lots of strings, a bit of sax (Michael Stuart and Vern Dorge) and the occasional velvety vocal from Doug Mallory and Cal Dodd.

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