02 Brodie WestKick It ’Till You Flip It
Eucalyptus
Lorna 10/ HAVN 054 (brodiewest.com)

Alto saxophonist/composer Brodie West makes music that’s both exploratory and engaging, growing from varied experiences playing jazz and its transmutations in Toronto and further afield, including stints with Dutch drummer Han Bennink and Ethiopian saxophonist Getatchew Mekuria. West’s groups typically emphasize rhythm (his eponymous quintet has two drummers), but his octet, Eucalyptus, takes it further. Drummers Nick Fraser, Evan Cartwright and Blake Howard feed data to West and trumpeter Nicole Rampersaud as they bounce around the multi-directional polyrhythms and ostinatos.

West’s compositions can suggest African pop music, but they also have affinities with a broad swath of work, from Terry Riley to Ornette Coleman. Something Sparkly is perfectly dreamlike, its slow theme weaving through bright electric guitar and exotic overlapping rhythms. It suggests Sun Ra’s stately early music, a resemblance heightened by Ryan Driver’s trebly clavinet, a keyboard Sun Ra called a “solar sound instrument.” West’s solo seems suspended between melody and birdcall. The title track develops with the horns playing a short, taut figure, then gradually moving out of synch with one another amidst the various rhythmic paths at hand. The entire LP testifies to West’s artful concision, but his compressed, expressionist solo here is a miracle of improvisational economy.

The final track, Triller, is another beautiful floating mystery, its minimalist components ultimately weaving a complex whole; it’s enhanced by Alex Lukashevsky’s bending guitar tones, until parts drop away and only electric bassist Mike Smith’s pulsing ostinato remains.

03 One Night in KarlsruheOne Night In Karlsruhe
Michel Petrucciani; Gary Peacock; Roy Haynes
SWR Jazzhaus JAH-476 (naxosdirect.com)

Michel Petrucciani, who once said, “I think someone upstairs saved me from being ordinary,” followed up his proclamation with a vast discography of truly extraordinary music. He had the virtuosity of an Oscar Peterson and the fluttering lyricism of Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett. However, his playing is characterized by a singular voice driven by an almost primal energy and an edgy emotionality. Although he was marked, throughout his short life, with monumental pain from osteogenesis imperfecta, his music expressed unfettered feelings of joy.

One Night in Karlsruhe, made at a live performance in July 1988, captures him at the height of his pianistic powers and he appears to be made completely of music. Petrucciani always had an infectious way with dancing rhythms and the program is rich in expressive contrasts and diverse song forms in which dance and variation occupy a position of importance throughout. His playing – on 13th, In a Sentimental Mood, Embraceable You and a signature bravura version of Giant Steps – has a particularly magical touch to it and he responds to the diabolical changes on the latter with spontaneity – while at the same time communicating the music’s sense of colour and of pageant.

Petrucciani also approaches the music’s harmonic boldness and astringency with a kind of vivid bas-relief. He is accompanied, on this sojourn, by bassist Gary Peacock and living legend, drummer Roy Haynes. The intensity of this power trio is magnificently captured on this recording.

04 Kayla RamuLiving in a Dream
Kalya Ramu
Independent (kalyaramu.ca)

One of my favourite songs to request is You Go To My Head – a gorgeous ballad that, admittedly, is not all that easy to pull off if you haven’t done your homework. So when a singer nails it, I am won over, as I was upon hearing Toronto-based jazz vocalist Kalya Ramu’s sultry and soulful version, one of 11 beautifully rendered tracks featured on her debut album, Living in a Dream, which includes four of her original compositions. Ramu’s voice has a warmth, depth and maturity to it that belies her 25 years. As a young girl, she fell under the spell of Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee, and it shows; I also hear hints of Helen Merrill and Doris Day.

Like her jazz vocalist heroines, Ramu understands the importance of phrasing (something often lacking in younger singers), allowing time for the natural arc of a line to wend its way to the next one, as is evident in her sensuous rendition of What’s New, as well as in her lovely ballad, Find in Me, and her torchy/sexy She Drinks Alone.

The woman can also swing! With stellar assistance from tenor saxophonist and clarinettist Jacob Gorzhaltsan, pianist Ewen Farncombe, bassist Connor Walsh and drummer Ian Wright (and assorted special guests), Ramu serves up spirited takes on Just You Just Me, Four or Five Times and It’s A Good Day. A singer warranting your attention, Kalya Ramu’s debut CD is dreamy, indeed.

05 Jean DeromeSomebody Special
Jean Derome
Ambiances Magnetiques AM 249 (actuellecd.com)

Saxophonist/composer Jean Derome’s work ranges from explorations of modernist masters like Monk and Mingus to his own conceptual epics like Résistances, his orchestral homage to the North American electrical grid. Here he explores the work of Steve Lacy (1934-2004), a key influence on Derome who advocated strongly for Thelonious Monk’s compositions and developed the foundations of free jazz with Cecil Taylor. Lacy also created a large body of art songs unique in modern jazz. Derome explores the range of them here, including settings of works from ancient China to the Beat Generation.

Derome brings his regular trio partners to the project, bassist Normand Guilbeault and drummer Pierre Tanguay, masters of propulsive and varied grooves. They’re joined by pianist Alexandre Grogg and the singer Karen Young, whose eclectic background matches the varied demands of Lacy’s music. The text settings include surprising authors like Lao Tzu, Thomas Gainsborough and Herman Melville; the latter’s Art initiates the program with a minimalist setting that suggests Japanese court music.

While those lyricists are as famous as they are unlikely, several of the highlights here come from Lacy’s association with the relatively little-known Canadian expatriate Brion Gysin, a literary collaborator with William S. Burroughs. Gysin’s playful, vibrant, hipster verses fall naturally on modern jazz inflections: when Derome joins his voice with Young’s on Blue Baboon, the group creates a witty update on the scat vocal group of the 1950s who rarely found lyrics this germane.

07 VoyageCoco Swirl
Ratchet Orchestra
Ambiances Magnetiques AM 248 (actuellecd.com)

From Nimmons ‘N’ Nine Plus Six to Vancouver’s NOW Orchestra, despite the economics, Canadians have somehow produced highly creative big bands. Montreal’s Ratchet Orchestra was a quintet in 1993; today its founder-composer-bassist-conductor Nic Caloia leads a 19-member ensemble with the breadth and force of Sun Ra’s Arkestra or a Charles Mingus big band. Like them, it invokes Duke Ellington’s legacy of rich textures and intense turbulence while emphasizing distinctive solo voices. It has a traditional big band’s power, with five reeds and five brass, but expands its palette with violin, two violas and the eerie profundity of bass reeds and tuba.

Caloia’s compositions range from the traditionally modernist to the avant-garde, with a band composed of individuals who define Montreal’s free-jazz community. The opening Tub features the brilliant alto saxophonist Yves Charuest, as abstractly evasive as Lee Konitz. The rousing Raise Static Backstage, fuelled by Isaiah Ciccarelli’s rampaging drum solo, might appeal to any fan of Dizzy Gillespie’s legendary bebop big band, while Blood, an atmospheric setting for Sam Shalabi’s distorted guitar, touches on the later works of Gil Evans.

Caloia’s most personal and ambitious work is saved for the conclusion, the six-part Before Is After, a weave of compound rhythms and evasive fragments knit together with unlikely matchings of instruments and forceful soloists, including violinist Joshua Zubot and bass saxophonist Jason Sharp. Ratchet Orchestra is both a distinctive Montreal institution and national standard bearer for a creative tradition

08a ClockwiseClockwise
Anna Webber
Pi Recordings P179 (pirecordings.com)

Reaching an elevated trajectory following her last CD, BC-born, New York-based tenor saxophone/flutist Anna Webber aided by a seasoned septet, re-conceptualizes impressions of 20th-century composers’ percussion works into new compostions.

Percussiveness not percussion is the major focus, even though her studio reassembling of Ches Smith’s echoing tympani on the Feldmanesque King of Denmark II is suitably staggering. Mostly though Smith sticks to drums and vibraphone to provide the precise clamour and ringing clatter that swing alongside Jacob Garchik’s emotional trombone flow; place-marking stops or sweeping glissandi from Christopher Hoffman’s cello and Chris Tordini’s bass; pulsing chromatics from pianist Matt Mitchell; and stylistic chirps or snarls from Webber and tenor saxophonist/clarinetist Jeremy Viner.

Oddly separated on opposite ends of the disc, three variations on King of Denmark and two of Korē are equally striking. Sparkling piano chords mixed with squirming saxophone riffs build up to a heraldic crescendo in the first part of King of Denmark. Meanwhile Mitchell’s intermittent comping, percussion breaks and audacious plunger vocalizing from Garchik’s trombone bring passion to the Xenakis-inspired Korē I. Webber even manages to extract a melodic groove from Array, a homage to Babbitt. Her delicate flute whistles are challenged by precision trombone glides and clarinet swells, until the piece becomes harder edged with Mitchell’s keyboard cadenzas, but still maintains unexpected warmth.

Overall the performances, which also touch on Cage, Varèse and Stockhausen influences, aren’t merely turned clockwise, but highly original creations directed by Webber.

Accomplished and profound music – especially when including a hearty slab of improvisation – can call on many inspirations and be played on an infinite number of soundmakers. Proof of these statements is discernible on these notable discs, featuring a range of traditional, novel, electric and acoustic instruments and with influences encompassing mainstream composition, wave form experimentations, and even legumes.

01 BartokThe most conventional of these unconventional sessions is Bartók Impressions (BMC CD 254 bmcrecords.hu) since the tracks are based on works by Béla Bartók (1881-1945). The most notable feature on this Budapest-recorded disc is that besides the double bass of Hungarian-in-France Mátyás Szandai and the violin of Paris-based Mathias Lévy, one prominent sound here is from the traditional hammered zither called the cimbalom played by Hungarian Miklós Lukács. Perhaps the program is also notable since, with two-thirds of the band Magyar and Bartóks themes sometimes based on Eastern European folk melodies, familiarity is paramount. At the same time, Lukács’ dexterous skill gives the 13 improvisations a unique quality. When struck, the cimbalom takes on vibraphone and percussion qualities; when plucked, harp or guitar-like tones. A defining instance of this is on Romanian Folk Dances No.4, where Levy’s elaboration of the melancholy theme is soon toughened by seemingly simultaneous harp-like twangs and rhythmic mallet string stabs from the cimbalom. This virtuosic versatility is expressed from the first track onwards. On that one, Reflections on New Year’s Greeting No.4, for instance, boiling double bass plucks cement the pulse as mallet lopes create a bouncy countermelody to the gorgeous tones of the fiddle’s airy narrative. The jittery, jazzy Improvisations on Romanian Folk Dances No.4 finds Lukács comping like a pianist, Szandai with well-modulated plucks and with Levy’s staccato stopping in the highest register suggesting both Transylvanian wedding music and tavern revelry. In contrast, a few other tracks are recital-like formal, at least in the expositions. They include a mellow showcase of balanced cello-like tones from the bassist on Improvisations on Romanian Christmas Carols No.7, completed by foot-tapping glissandi with klezmer overtones. The most accomplished, intricate transformation, which highlights another aspect of Lukács’ adaptability, occurs on Reflections on Six Bulgarian Rhythms. The cimbalom’s mallet reverberations turn him into a Magyar Milt Jackson, at the same time as fiddle squeaks at dog-whistle pitches amplify the pulse, and double bass plucks intensify the rhythms. Staying true to the composer’s initial vision though, the piece ends with a wide connective interlude of warm romantic timbres.

02 FullmanEven though another modern composer is involved, there are no warm romantic timbres heard during the The Air around Her (Skivbolaget 1703-3 edition-festival.com), since American composer Ellen Fullman and Korean-American cellist Okkyung Lee are concerned with the dynamic contrasts or blends produced by exposing the latter’s string techniques, with the possibilities engendered by plucking Fullman’s self-created Long String Instrument (LSI). The LSI is tuned in just intonation, and in this instance, stretched 26 metres across a room in Stockholm’s Performing Art Museum. During the performance the LSI creates a droning continuum, plus almost imperceptible timbre shifts throughout the two tracks of about 20 minutes each, subtly redefining the relentless drone with multiple layers of speed, volume and pitch. Eventually variegated cello definitions move forward to challenge the LSI’s unhurried horizontal interface with col legno-created percussive raps on wood and strings, plus stropping and slicing sul ponticello vibrations. Part II finds LSI’s organ-like tremolo grinds subsiding from taking up the entire room’s aural space so that palimpsest-like cello’s nuanced narratives are more obvious. These serrated bow jiggles and cello expansions reach a crescendo of almost identical inflated tones from both instruments before dissolving into microtones. In retrospect the recital has been enthralling without being deadening or frightening.

04 SnipettesWhile electronics are now accepted as instruments, some musicians have accelerated the search for innovative sounds further, creating programs from collages of already existing material. For instance, Martin Tétreault’s Plus de Snipettes!! (Ambiances Magnétiques AM 245 CD actuellecd.com), is a sprawling 77-minute program in which the Montrealer constructs a wholly original recital from audio cassettes, tape reels, short-wave static, radio soundchecks and excerpts of untouched or cut-up vinyl. With each of the 31 [!] tracks lasting from about seven seconds to around seven minutes, the collages captivate with sheer audacity. Entertaining while sometimes making sardonic comments, this homage and burlesque of recorded sound is satire mixed with love. Not adverse to snipping French or English narrations from educational or instructional discs to foreshadow subsequent noises, Tétreault’s mashups are free of cant. Snippets of a Verèse or Boulez composition are slotted next to a flute improvisation, a snatch of disco sounds or a piano picking out Polly Wolly Doodle. Crunching noises created by train movement can fuse into a drum instruction record and then the flanges of backwards-running tape. At point his manipulations make succinct inferences, as when Dave Holland’s bass solo on Emerald Tears is juxtaposed with the sounds of a man crying. Other times connection leads to spoof, as when a ponderous lecturer’s voice outlining a complex phrase with the word “basis” in it is cut to become “bass” and later “mace” and repeated numerous times, becoming an electronic-dance rhythm in the process. Manipulations in speed and pitch turn juxtaposition of Sidney Bechet’s soprano saxophone and a Dixieland drum solo into frantic microtones. And if that isn’t enough, Tétreault creates abstract sound collages by cutting several LPs into many sections, gluing together the parts and recording the results so that a chorus of Soviet military singers fades into jazz piano chording and unknown speechifying, with the entire exercise surmounted by the crackles from divided and sutured vinyl.

05 VegetableShould Tétreault’s experiments not be organic enough, then an established Viennese ensemble can provide the antidote. On Green Album (Transacoustic Research tres 009 transacoustic-research.com), the ten-piece Vegetable Orchestra performs music on instruments that are made entirely from vegetable parts. On highly rhythmic tracks such as Fasern and Beet-L for instance, the funk arises from the beats of calabash bass and celery bongos with the vamping melody courtesy of a carrot marimba. Or multiphonic whistles from the carrot recorder evolve alongside the beanbag shaker and calabash bass on Bamako. While elastic sound animation is maintained throughout the 14 tracks, that doesn’t mean there aren’t serious sounds in this vegetable stew. The hissing counterpoint that enlivens tracks such as Schwarzmooskogel, for example, could be part of the recipe for any advanced music program, even if the horizontal swirls are from a leek violin, the high-pitched peeps from a radish horn and the beat propelled by a pumpkin bass drum.

While only the final disc could in some circumstances provide nourishment for the stomach as well as the mind, each of these CDs captures a way of using unusual instruments to create profound sounds.

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