Esperanza Spalding

Ayva Music AYVA036 (www.esperanzaspalding.com)

Chamber Music Society

Esperanza Spalding

Heads Up International HUI-31810-02

A shockwave went through the pop music community and a small thrill of delight was felt by a lot of jazz fans when Esperanza Spalding beat out Drake and Justin Bieber for Best New Artist at the recent Grammy Awards. Finally here was someone a) we've heard of and b) who can play something other than an iPhone. The young bass player and singer has solid and wide ranging training – she studied jazz at the prestigious Berklee School of Music in Boston where she went on to become the youngest faculty member at age 20. She taught herself the violin at age five when she landed a spot in the Oregon Chamber Music Society. And it all shows in her two discs “Junjo” from 2005 and 2010’s “Chamber Music Society,” for which she won the Grammy. (Spalding has a third solo album from 2008, not being reviewed here.) “Chamber Music Society” is produced by the masterful Gil Goldstein (check his work on Karrin Allyson's “Wild for You” and Boz Scaggs “Speak Low”) and the free-form improvisation that is rife throughout her debut “Junjo” is still dominant but reined in a bit and tempered by a string trio. Her singing – which was done completely without words on “Junjo” - leans toward the light classical side, without the encumbrance of actual melodies for the most part. Except for Loro, which is a brilliant vocal chord twister written by Brazilian composer Egberto Gismonti, which Spalding handles with ease. The most mainstream song on her latest disc is the opening track Little Fly which is a William Blake poem Spalding has prettily set to music. The disc then ventures through a series of mostly Spalding compositions that mix percussion from a variety of musical cultures, courtesy of Terri Lyne Carrington and Qunitino Cinalli, with angular string trio arrangements and Spalding's solid acoustic bass playing. Spalding is a playful performer who stretches her considerable imagination and skills to the fullest.

06_100_bluenote100 Best of Blue Note

Various Artists

EMI 5 099990 530326

The first of 100 tunes in this collection is a 1937 recording of tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins and guitarist Django Reinhardt playing Out Of Nowhere. It was recorded two years before Blue Note Records was founded. The taping was done for EMI’s Capitol label’s French division. This is an ominous hint as to the content of the 10-disc “100 Best of Blue Note” box set, which at first glance appears to have all the trimmings of a slick 21st century collection. It comes in a box you’d expect to contain two or three CDs, not 10 with 10 cuts on each of them. Individual disc covers please the eye, the name of each track leader coloured differently from its successor. The same design is employed on the back, with each tune named. However, a closer look shows that’s just about all the information you’ll get, forcing listeners into guess-that-sideman mode. Most recordings here don’t have just the named leader in action while there are numerous odd selections taken from albums that contain much better jazz. Just one example is on CD2 where Gil Fuller and the Monterey Jazz Festival Orchestra featuring (trumpeter) Dizzy Gillespie plays a feeble version of Man From Monterey. The same LP has Gillespie and Charlie Parker roaring through Groovin’ High… no contest. While it’s too easy to be picky, these sorts of choices nonetheless make you wonder what organizers were thinking and who chose the music. It’s compiled by EMI Belgium, tracks selected by 2Sounds.

I’m sure most jazz fans believe the Blue Note golden years were the 1950s and 60s, fruitful times when hard bop had taken over from bebop and torrents of vinyl LPs were illustrated with gorgeously expressive player portraits. This music was distinctive, the ancestor of modern mainstream. Jazz changes its forms, but jazz history does not.

Given the convulsions in the music business and ownership changes, it’s not surprising that the EMI empire has many labels under its belt, with the result that recording dates in the terse accompanying notes cover a period far longer than the Blue Note heyday and cite labels other than Blue Note. Overall most recording dates are meaningless in that a large number are reissues.

I delight in re-experiencing vintage classics such as Sonny Rollins Misterioso with Monk, Silver, J.J. Johnson, Chambers and Blakey, and appreciate the fresh recognition given Golden Age stalwarts such as Tine Brooks, Dexter Gordon, Kenny Dorham, Hank Mobley, Ike Quebec, Baby Face Willette, Donald Byrd and Jimmy Smith. At the same time I wonder about the inclusion of bands like the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Chick Corea, Patricia Barber, David Axelrod, Stacey Kent, Lionel Loueke and, heaven help us, Norah Jones however good that was for sales. The sole piece of Canadiana is Holly Cole singing Hum Drum Blues with saxman Javon Jackson. Enough said.

07_ella_oscarElla and Oscar

Ella Fitzgerald; Oscar Peterson

Original Jazz Classics Remasters OJC-32693-02 www.concordmusicgroup.com

Even with less than essential bonus material, “Ella and Oscar” – recorded May 19, 1975 – is a welcome reissue that warrants repeated listening. Bassist Ray Brown, closely associated to both artists, appears on four tracks, but this is a decidedly duo effort that focuses on two close friends who happened to be among jazz’s most historic figures. To imply that Ella was at her vocal best here would be dishonest; at the time, 58-year-old Fitzgerald’s failing health caused a golden voice that was previously 24-karat to tarnish; for the first time in her career she sounded less than effortless. Thankfully there was more to the First Lady of Song than a pretty voice: there was improvisational prowess, sensational swing, delectable joy and a chameleonic hypersensitivity to her musical surroundings. Ella’s finest moments here are sumptuously spontaneous, from the miraculously phrased Midnight Sun to the mighty fine I Hear Music. Each and every ballad is enhanced considerably by Peterson’s performance, which is pitch-perfect throughout. Expectedly, O.P. brightly dazzles on every solo taken, and as accompanist, he displays an acute sensitivity that was arguably lacking in his early years. The album’s most charming tracks are an 8½-minute exploration of April in Paris that flies by in executive first class, and a lively When Your Lover Has Gone, boasting glorious four-bar trades between voice and piano that will likely never be equalled. Turn up the volume and you will hear Ella and Oscar smiling.


01_macdonaldKirk MacDonald is one of Canada’s premier tenor saxophonists, shining first as a performer and latterly adding composing gifts to his arsenal. His Juno-nominated Kirk MacDonald Quartet - Songbook Vol.2 (Addo AJR006 www.addorecords.com) is first class, a seven-tune session with classy sidekicks that cements his stature. The opening burner You See But You Don’t Hear has power playing from all with Cuban-born pianist David Virelles, bassist Neil Swainson and whirling drummer Barry Romberg matching the leader’s invention and intensity while succeeding songs underline the presence of vigorous probing spirits, plenty of mercurial moments and execution that’s fleet and fluent. Vanda Justina is a pleasing ballad, The Torchbearers a surging up-tempo piece with long logical runs that feel just right and an inspired contribution from Virelles, while Starlight and other tracks showcase darting solos with seamlessly evolving and thoroughly developed ideas.

02_westrayVeteran trombonist Ron Westray, alumnus of Wynton Marsalis’ Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, holds the Oscar Peterson Chair in jazz performance at York University and it’s good to find new recorded evidence of his talent. On Ron Westray Thomas Heflin - Live From Austin (Blue Canoe Records BCR-1094 www.ronwestray.com) he co-leads a hard bop quintet at the Elephant Room in Austin with trumpeter Heflin, engaging pianist Peter Stoltzman, alternating bassists and drummers plus on four pieces starring tenor saxman Elias Haslager. Westray, who was at Texas U before York, wrote two of the seven cuts (Exile: Remember The Homeless, Inside Out) and demonstrates stunning agility with muscular open tones that stop short of brash yet are always exciting. He’s clearly in the J.J. Johnson tradition, ever-rousing but sweetly elegant when required.

03_braidPianist David Braid is without doubt in Canada’s leading jazz ranks, testing his diverse talents in numerous genres. His newest venture - David Braid - Verge (DB 20110120 www.davidbraid.com) – is a solo effort comprising eight pieces, six by him, a remodelling of Broadway ditty The Way You Look Tonight and a traditional Chinese folk song. On the opener Le Phare he’s in Brad Mehldau mode, active counterpoint embellishing the melody amid a sheen of classical music influences. You get a fulsome and quirky deconstruction of the standard tune done with wit and superior craft, a spiritual treatment of El Castillo Interior and nods to contemporary pop structures with subtle chord alterations on Richmond Square. Braid exudes confidence, at times a model of concision, at others ranging from fiercely edgy through to sweetness as he creates complex narratives told with flair and always favouring finesse over sheer power.

04_swing_shiftBig bands have always been a Canadian favourite (except perhaps in today’s parlous economic times) and the reputation of Swing Shift, led by Jim John on alto sax and clarinet, is increasing. A dozen tunes including a three-pack of blues and pop vehicle Whatever Lola Wants on the outfit’s third CD taped live at Humber College, illuminate its well-drilled abilities. Swing Shift Big Band - Mostly Canadian, Eh! (Palais Records SSBB2019CD www.swingshiftbigband.com) features lively swing, strong charts and solid transcriptions of versions by earlier Canuck greats like Art Hallman and Bert Niosi (thanks to pianist/musical director Brent Turner). Solo skills vary, with my choice tenor saxist Jeff Pighin, with trombonist Rob Williams a whisker behind. Old-style vocalists Larisa Renée and David Statham get two songs apiece. The only flaw – there’s just 46 minutes of music here.

05_francois_carrierIt’s always worth hearing Quebec’s alto saxist François Carrier, a veteran of the improv scene who never records “outside” jazz that’s off-putting to listeners. Taped on Canada Day 2002 at the Vancouver jazzfest but just released is François Carrier - Entrance 3 (Ayler Records AYLCD-106 www.francoiscarrier.com), a heady romp by his trio with Sweden’s Bobo Stenson a piano-playing guest. Four collectively “composed” long workouts are always ambitious and adventurous with huge contributions from the upright electric bass constructed by Pierre Côté and regular Carrier companion Michel Lambert’s frantically busy drums. Sax and piano swap smart ideas with great urgency in a session throbbing with energy and atmosphere peppered by heated moments, catchy hooks that arrive and depart without overstaying their welcome and splendid passages signalling imminent menace. Great stuff.

06_EngineThe Toronto band Engine doesn’t aim for the same visceral impact, preferring to achieve its spontaneous aims by employing jagged-edged ideas and contrasting creations suggesting off-kilter chamber jazz, abrupt shifts of mood and time, playful sounds off the conventional music map and rumbling passages suggesting a Mingus-influenced uprising. That makes Engine - Start (Pet Mantis Records PMR007 www.enginequintet.com) an interesting disc, nine of its ten tersely-titled items from reedman-leader Peter Lutek. Bandsmen, notably trombonist Tom Richards and pianist Greg de Denus, revel in the discomfort zones with bassist Dan Fortin and drummer Ethan Ardelli trolling rhythmic possibilities with verve. Best crank-turning tune among many good ones is the closing The Lawnmower, with Lutek et al at full wail.

Accommodating and adaptable improvising musicians from the Netherlands are as open to out-of-country influences as working with players from different countries in Holland or abroad. Confident in their own skills, they see non-local musicians’ participation as additions to their music, not competition. These beliefs characterize two ostensibly Dutch ensembles in concert in Toronto this month: The Ex with Brass Unbound is presented by the Music Gallery at Lee’s Palace on May 18; while Ig Henneman’s Kindred Spirits Sextet is at Gallery 345 May 19. Violist Henneman’s combo includes two Canadians, pianist Marilyn Lerner and clarinettist Lori Freedman plus German trumpeter Axel Dörner. Meanwhile the Brass Unbound, working with the guitar-heavy, Dutch anarchistic punk-jazzers The Ex, is made up of Swedish saxophonist Mats Gustafsson, American saxophonist Ken Vandermark and Dutch trombonist Wolter Wierbos. A careful listen to some of these players’ own CDs demonstrates the sort of adaptability that characterizes these Dutch-centred combos in general.

01_WolterWierbosA series of duos, Walter Wierbos - Deining (DolFijn Records 02 www.wolterwierbos.nl) is most intuitive when the trombonist’s rugged and multiphonic timbres stack up against those from the reeds of Ab Baars, who coincidentally is a member of the Henneman band playing the following night. On Buitengaats, for instance, Baars’ altissimo irregularly vibrated warbling and fluttering cross tones come up against bugle-like chromaticism from the trombonist. This emphasis towards linear connections works even more effectively on Op de Warf, as the play-anything Bennink works his way staccatissimo all around his kit – and the nearby floor – while tooting a harmonica and whistle blowing. Right beside him, and similarly intense is Wierbos using elephantine brays, capillary burbles and rubato snorts to eventually shift the tempo so the two end up swinging with identical microtones.


02(web)_GustaffsonBaritone and tenor saxophonist Mats Gustafsson, another of the Unbound hornmen, has had even more experiences trading licks with rock-influenced groups – even in Canada. As a matter of fact, Barrel Fire (Drip Audio DA00651 www.dripaudio.com) captures a raw face-off between the reedist and the Vancouver-based members of guitarist Gord Grdina’s Trio, including bassist Tommy Babin and drummer Kenton Loewen. Unfettered in his playing during all of the CD’s five tracks, Gustafsson snorts, slurs, stutters and spits out elasticized, almost never-ending glottal punctuation. Meanwhile Grdina counters – as the Ex’s guitarists do as well – with distorted reverb, harsh downstrokes and staccato bent notes as Loewen’s ferocious backbeat encompasses ruffs, rolls and ricochets. Bringing the same sort of nephritic gut-wrenching blasts to Enshakoota, a traditional Iraqi tune mostly limited to the splayed and coiled runs Grdina picks on oud, the saxophonist’s stentorian tones and the others’ contrapuntal responses also get an extended showcase on Burning Bright. As Babin’s fingers slither along his strings so that the notes fairly glisten and the drummer pounds and smashes relentlessly while swishing his cymbals, ringing guitar chords deconstructed with reverb and distortion are matched polyphonically with diaphragm-vibrated split tones and triple-tonguing from the saxman. Gustafsson’s ejaculated shrills and shaking vamps, Grdina’s skyward-chiming chording plus Loewen’s backbeat come as close to a definition of Heavy Metal Jazz as can be imagined.

03(web)_AxelDornerIf Gustafsson’s altissimo cries and renal grunts define unfettered excesses of one sort of Free Improvisation, then Kindred Spirit Axel Dörner takes the opposite track with reductionist microtones, which favour sound exploration over melody. A convincing illustration of this occurs on the appropriately titled Super Axel Dörner (Absinth Records 018 www.absinthrecords.com), with his duo partner Argentinean percussionist Diego Chamy. It’s near a solo showcase since Chamy spends more time mumbling and vocalizing while distractedly hitting percussion instruments than laying down a beat. To compensate the trumpeter pushes grainy, flat lines through his open horn without moving his valves so that these textures parallel, rather than blend with Chamy’s sonic expressions. With intermittent noises that sound variously like nakers being hit, the whirl of chukka sticks and the bouncing of a stick on cymbal tops from the percussionist – as well as rapid-fire Spanish statements – Dörner has plenty of scope to decorate the sonic grisaille in such a way that harmonic and rhythmic contours are nearly visible. At one point he alternates bright, open-horn blasts with tongue slaps against the mouthpiece, inflating agitato triplets to full-bore whistles. When discord suggests the drummer is eccentrically scrapping a putty knife against the drum’s rims, Dörner livens up the interchange with fortissimo brass blasts, immediately followed by extended circular breathing. This so vibrates the trumpet’s insides that partials and microtones are audible alongside brass textures. It’s this sort of instant response to a non-pulsating beat that serves the trumpeter well in the Henneman sextet where the underlying beat is really supplied by the bass of Wilbert de Joode, who is also featured on more than half of Wierbos’ CD here.

04(web)_CecerelliFreedmanIntertwining horn work is another leitmotif of Henneman’s combo, and in Toronto, Dörner shares the front line with Ab Baars and Montreal’s Lori Freedman. This sort of timbre blending is a regular facet of the bass clarinettist’s performances. It can be sampled on Isaiah Ceccarelli’s dramatic Bréviare d’épuisements (Ambiances Magnétiques AM 199 CD www.actuellecd.com). Much different than the Henneman sextet’s jazz-oriented fare this session amalgamates the ecclesiastical and the atonal. Émilie Laforest and Josée Lalonde intone or vocalize Marie Deschênes’ texts, with distinctive sonic timbres heard alongside these lyric sopranos arising from Freedman’s and Philippe Lauzier’s bass clarinets, Pierre-Yves Martel’s viola de gamba and Ceccarelli’s percussion arsenal. The drummer’s most common strategy involves scrapping cymbals against drum tops, acoustically producing the sort of grinding and buzzing textures that otherwise would be associated with electronics. Meanwhile the cleverly harmonized singers personalize the poetic lyrics while stretching the songs with hocketing pitch variations. One standout passage occurs on La disparation est un mur de plus when the nearly vibrato-less parlando of one vocalist is cushioned by clarinet harmonies. During some pure instrumental passages the similarities between trilling reeds and stroked strings is emphasized as mutual tonal expansions appear to be both notated and aleatoric.

Performances by either the Kindred Spirits, the Ex or both, means exposure to noteworthy soloists as well as well-thought-out group conceptions. Torontonians get a rare chance to hear them both over a two-day period in May.

01_lovanoBird Songs
Joe Lovano; Us Five
Blue Note 509999 058610205

Joe Lovano is a colossally creative jazz performer on a par with vintage Sonny Rollins but on his 22nd album for Blue Note he’s outdone himself – with barely an original composition to be heard. It’s a tough challenge reinventing the classic material of 20th century jazz master Charlie Parker, but Lovano with his band Us Five (voted jazz group of the year in Downbeat’s 2010 poll) has achieved in spades what hordes of jazzers have essayed with this rich repertoire - he’s made it sound new. Playing four woodwinds, mostly signature tenor sax, he exhibits his insightful knowledge, terrific technique, thorough comprehension of melodic and harmonic language and questing curiosity. He’s backed on the 11 tunes by pianist James Weidman, Grammy-winning bassist Esperanza Spalding and two lively drummers, Otis Brown 111 and Francisco Mela. Among many treasures you hear an elegant slow Donna Lee usually done at reckless speed, a funky Moose the Mooche, a Lover Man on G mezzo soprano sax, Ko Ko played in trio format with furious drum polyrhythms, a mix of three of Bird’s blues (Blues Collage) featuring alto sax, piano and bass, the extraordinary Birdyard with the leader on aulochrome, a new instrument combing two soprano saxes and a mighty closing Yardbird Suite. This disc’s a keeper.

01_elmes_redshiftIt’s been years since sophisticated drummer Barry Elmes’ quintet entered the lists, but the wait’s worth it for Barry Elmes Quintet - Redshift (Cornerstone CRST 127 www.cornerstonerecordsinc.com), a nine-tune session showcasing leading jazzmen at the top of their game. The beat’s in a constant state of buoyant flux as tenorman Mike Murley, trumpeter Kevin Turcotte, guitarist Reg Schwager and propulsive bass Steve Wallace romp through seven artfully-arranged Elmes originals, joined on some tracks by hornman Kelly Jefferson and Montreal-based organist Vanessa Rodrigues. The opening Reading Week is an appealing blues in ever-changing meters and Stumpy updates “Pink Panther” themes with rugged tenor and glistening guitar that counterpoints jagged passages elsewhere. All the Elmes rhythmically-charged tunes suggest a long shelf life with their imaginative structures and unspooling lines that create their own elegant moments – and they get sterling, probing and vigorous execution here. Thus one can accept the leader’s indulgent inclusion of the hymn Abide With Me.

A new album by Russ Little showing off his vast trombone wares is always welcome, guaranteed to be both different from past entries (like the outstanding “Footwork” and “On The Shoulders of Giants”) and entertaining. Here Russ Little - Slow Burn (Rhythm Tracks RTCD0014 www.russlittle.com) roams 20th century music covering the musical waterfront from Jimmy van Heusen and Irving Berlin to Stevie Wonder and Marcus Miller. Plenty of guests enhance his basic quintet, with only drummer-arranger Brian Barlow ever-present on seven long tracks that demonstrate Little’s ease whatever the genre. The funky My Momma Told Me So has two tenors and regular pianist Tom Szczesniak on electric bass, the versatile leader offers soothing Glenn Millerisms on Body and Soul before jumping into lilting improve, while Jive Samba features slick playing by trumpeter Steve McDade before Little delicately growls on his Latin journey. Overall, the pace is too leisurely and Little could have challenged himself more, but each chart gets a colourful, subtle workout with strong contributions from skilful sidemen.

03_nordic_spiralsCanadian stars Ingrid and Christine Jensen help serve up a sonic treat on Nordic Connect - Spirals (ArtistShare AS0097 www.ingridjensen.com). Together with Sweden’s Maggi Olin (piano) and Mattias Welin (bass) plus Alaskan drummer Jon Wikan, the sisters underscore the notion that jazz is art with a program of lush and atmospheric, essentially cerebral music of superior quality. Ingrid on trumpet and flugelhorn is in splendid form, playing with fluent flair, a model of clarity tempered with a biting attack, Christine on alto and terrific soprano sax forcefully eloquent yet always tasteful. With the innovative Olin, composer of five of the nine cuts and also a dab hand on Fender Rhodes, they comprise a Pandora’s box of fresh, clever ideas, narratives big on melody sculpted within ethereal surroundings, precise but never predictable. This is significant jazz.

04_tara_davidsonHer continued rise to the top is exemplified by alto and soprano saxophonist Tara Davidson in her new release View (TD-11 www.taradavidson.ca). This seven tune set of originals, her third as leader, embellishes her talent as a composer as well as a horn player who first emerged hereabouts as a Mike Murley protégé who comprehends the importance of balance and contrast. Her colleagues – pianist James Reynolds, bass Jon Maharaj and drummer Fabio Ragnelli - are fully in sync with her expansive ideas. The opening Bunny, Bubs and Bodie has effective alto long-line improv with supple phrasing, while Reynolds eases June into a reflective mode that’s sweet but not sentimental before tempo is doubled for an undulating scamper that suits the bustle and ebb of the boss’ notions. Elsewhere she displays a sprightly soprano that particularly flourishes with Reynolds switching to electric piano. Tempos hew to the serene, which makes the bruising elements of South Western View a welcome, grittier proposition, but this album is a classy contender for your wallet.

05_michelle_gregoireEnterprising Winnipeg pianist Michelle Gregoire is an intense and engaging performer, as you’ll hear on Diversity, her second CD as leader (MG3332 www.michellegregoire.com), a quintet outing with seasoned companions in tenor Kirk MacDonald, trumpeter Kevin Turcotte, bass Jim Vivian and drummer Ted Warren. Of the nine pieces three comprise the Gratitude Suite with Vivian offering a fourth, the solo Gratitude Interlude. The opening title track is typically intricate with a surging pulse, and others flow with appealing concepts at their core. The minor key Dichotomy rumbles in hard bop idioms illuminating MacDonald’s fluency and Streak has Gregoire in fine fettle, continually prodding bandsmen to greater vigour. Throughout the session she demonstrates an acute sense of mood that’s perhaps most dramatic in the vaulting cadences of Three or Four in the Morning. More please.

06_amanda_tosoffPianist Amanda Tosoff is justifiably carving a solid niche in Toronto since emigrating from Vancouver, exemplified on Looking North (Oceans Beyond Records OBR0008 www.amandatosoff.com). With Evan Arntzen (saxes), Sean Cronin (bass) and Morgan Childs (drums) plus guests she highlights a talent for catchy composition and an impressive command of the keyboard and the inevitable Rhodes at all tempos. Among a batch of intriguing tunes M.I.A. struts delightfully and Concept 2010 is most certainly compelling contemporary piano, direct and thrusting. Tosoff conveys a sense of resilient optimism in her creations, fiercely inventive when it matters.

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