04 Yorgos DimitriadisBeing Five
Relative Pitch RPR  1181 (relativepitchrecords.com)

Collectively creating an essay in forceful improvisation, the Being Five quintet is as international as its five-part program is intense. Percussionist Yorgos Dimitriadis is Greek; bassist Christopher Williams and accordionist Andrea Parkins, American; clarinetist Lori Freedman is Canadian; and trumpeter Axel Dörner, German. Adding understated but effective electronic trappings throughout, the quintet members achieve a notable balance between the spontaneous and the synthesized. Additionally, intervallic pauses distinguish the astute alternations between luminous solos and the shaded, sometimes menacing, group wave-form expositions.

As the session evolves, Dimitriadis stays in the background with an occasional drum slap or cymbal plink, affirming slippery clarinet peeps, or pressurized bass string slices that can be distinguished in the midst of intermittent crackling voltage that is also strengthened by tremolo accordion pulses. Other times, as on Amusik Bis, Freedman’s pedal point clarinet and Dörner’s portamento squeezes outline a variant of tandem lyricism. But it’s the concluding Freeze that most precisely defines the program. With only the occasional clarion reed bite cutting through the machine-generated buzz and hiss at first, continuous voltage drones become louder, more concentrated, strident and synthesized, so that by the penultimate sequenced sound concatenation seems almost impenetrable. That is until chalumeau clarinet purrs and inflating accordion pumps reassert the session’s acoustic side before a collective finale. 

An exemplary interpretation of electro/acoustic improvising, Being Five also demonstrates that musicians’ geographic origins mean little when creating a vivid group project.

05 Phillips KurtagFace à Face
Barre Phillips; György Kurtág Jr.
ECM New Series ECM 2736 (ecmrecords.com)

More of a realized experiment than a full-fledged program, the dozen brief tracks here mark veteran American bassist Barre Phillips’ first accommodation with the electronics produced by Hungarian keyboardist György Kurtág Jr. Using three stand-alone synthesizers and digital percussion, Kurtág burbles, drones and vibrates ever-evolving oscillations with textures ranging from the daunting to the delicate.

All the while the bassist, whose improvisational experience goes back to the early 1960s, crafts parallel constructs that involve every part of his instrument during tracks that are timed from 90 seconds to nearly four and a half minutes. Phillips uses techniques such as col legno string bounces or pressurized sul ponticello bow slices to cut through the often-confined density from the machine-generated programming. Occasionally, as on Sharpen Your Eyes and Ruptured Air, more melodic suggestions are introduced with woody slaps from the bass meeting recorder-like peeps from the synthesizer on the former, and low-pitched string twangs evolving alongside high-pitched synthesized wriggles on the album describing the second title. 

Overall, since Phillips can also finesse textures among other motifs encompassing measured violin-like runs and banjo-like clangs, the expanding programmed pressure never becomes oppressive. Genuinely fascinating, at points the disc also clarifies how acoustic and electronic timbres can unfold face à face with each prominent in its own space.

06 Jeannette LambertOpera of the Unspoken: Island of Unrest
Jeanette Lambert
Independent (jeannettelambert.bandcamp.com)

This significant and ambitious project is best described by the composer/creator herself as “an experimental jazz opera that is also a musical investigation into the mysteries of an ancestral tragedy from World War II, as revealed through vocal rituals, ancestral tarot, free jazz and dreaming.” Jeanette Lambert was seeking a way to honour her forbearers, and also tell the horrific story of her multi-racial ancestors who passed through the horrors of the war, and their ultimate survival, achieved through the spiritual strength of her female ancestors. The tragedy originates with Lambert’s German grandfather – a civilian interned (along with his Javanese wife) by the Dutch in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) during the war. In order to manifest this epic, Jeanette called upon her own family as well as vocalists, poets and descendants of those who had also suffered the horrors of war and captivity.  

In the construction of this large-scale piece, Lambert has used the structure of the Tarot to explore the truth of the Van Imhoff tragedy (the violence in Banten), and to ultimately instigate the dream-laden ancestral healing of all. The opera begins with Three of Pentacles – comprised of ancient, dreamy, diatonic a cappella chants that begin the journey. Ace of Wands follows… descriptive and poetic, and punctuated by percussive (Michel Lambert) and guitar (Reg Schwager) motifs. Lambert’s potent vocal instrument begins to relate the story through the infrastructure of the tarot, and with Dreaming of Pomelo a portrait of Indonesia begins to emerge as the tragedies loom. 

On Four of Wands, gamelans and spoken word rail against the immoral incidents while military drum tattoos and vocal distortion plumb the horror. On Sorrow Unleashed, the weeping, wailing and keening of the mothers – reaching back into the mists of time – is underscored by heartrending string and flute lines. Lambert’s potent opera ends with the dream of hope and healing. This is a multi-disciplinary master work, and a journey that is essential for all free-thinking human beings. Brava.

07 ThermoBirdLike
GB Records (thermomusic.com)

This exquisite jazz recording is the result of the creative pairing of pianist/composer Mike Manny and guitarist/composer Nathan Hiltz. Their duo, Thermo, manifested during the pandemic by playing/performing “together” in separate places, through the use of low-latency recording technology. Both gentlemen wear producer’s hats here, and not only have they assembled a dazzling program of tunes, but they have also created the ultimate jazz quartet with the addition of bassist Neil Swainson and drummer Morgan Childs. In addition to two of their individual compositions, Manny and Hiltz have also served up a sumptuous jazz buffet, featuring works from icons Hank Mobley, Freddie Hubbard, Johnny Mercer, Hoagy Carmichael, Cedar Walton, Wayne Shorter and Horace Silver.

Things kick off with Avita and Tequila by Mobley. Manny and Hiltz dig in here with a solid bop sensibility, and their unison lines morph into the full, satisfying quartet sound. Swainson and Childs lock in immediately and propel the action, with elegant solos from all. Next up is Betty’s Buns – a groovy, swinging original by Manny dedicated to the Cape Breton piano player and baker of delicious buns, Betty Lou Beaton. Big fat chords and a cooking melodic line define this delightful tune featuring an effortless solo by Swainson. Of special beauty is Carmichael and Mercer’s Skylark. One of the loveliest ballads ever written is performed here with sensitivity, skill and deep emotion. Manny seemingly channels the great Bill Evans without ever being derivative.

Hiltz’s composition, Fountain Scenery, is a guitar feature and a bit of a nod to Richard Rodgers’ Mountain Greenery. His sound here is warm, succinct and utterly pure, reminiscent of Jim Hall. Although every track on this project is a shining bebop bauble, other highlights include Wayne Shorter’s This is for Albert, where Manny and Hiltz soar through the arrangement in synchronous motion and the listener gets dipped into some serious jazz juice! A triumph!

Listen to 'BirdLike' Now in the Listening Room

08 Tobias HoffmannConspiracy
Tobias Hoffmann Jazz Orchestra
Mons Records MR874757 (tobiashoffmannmusic.com)

Tobias Hoffmann’s 2019 recording was the celebrated Retrospective, featuring repertoire for nine musicians. The almost nonchalant manner in which he declared that he couldn’t express his new music unless he had his “…own band to make sure that my music was performed on the highest possible level” belies the enormous undertaking of leading an ensemble as large as this expanded Jazz Orchestra.

Hoffmann calls the disc Conspiracy, which is a title filled with both whimsy and the very real suggestion that the artist – by nature a (cultural) guerrilla – engages in conspiracy to manoeuvre his way into his listeners’ sensibilities. Using a language that is informed as much by classical symphonic idioms, devices and gestures, and the enormously popular, contemporary jazzy vernacular, Hoffmann has created a recording which fuses the styles with a naturalness and authenticity that eludes many ensembles of this size and scope.

Moreover, Hoffmann’s recording is not only conspiratorial, but also compelling. In particular, the extended narratives – Conspiracy, Trailblazers, Importer Syndrome and Awakening – are tone poems rich in imagery. In each of these works – as in the rest of the repertoire – we come face-to-face with performers who have interiorized Hoffmann’s singular mind and the poetics of his work, and go on to interpret it with idiomatic power and all the attendant drama, throughout the length of the disc.

Listen to 'Conspiracy' Now in the Listening Room

09 Joe BowdenBlack to the Roots
Joe Bowden Project
Independent (joebowden.bandcamp.com/album/Black-to-the-roots)

The Joe Bowden Project is actually a quartet that expands to a quintet on two songs. However, thanks in part to the elegant high jinks from behind a battery of rumbling drums and hissing, splashing cymbals, percussion colourist and leader Bowden makes his Project’s music sound as if it were a much larger ensemble. But that is not the best part of the album. 

What makes Black to the Roots an unforgettable experience is the quality of the repertoire. As a composer Bowden imbues his songs with vibrant drama and fierce urgency that makes their musical narratives utterly compelling listening. The word Black in the title may suggest a cultural awakening and while the often martial-sounding rattle and roll of the snare drums may raise its percussive head, the temptation to add unsavoury fire to the music’s pulse and timbre is largely eschewed. In fact, Bowden’s work – and his playing – is eminently poised.

An interesting aspect of his work is that he approaches Black music from the – almost parallel – perspectives of the American and Caribbean tributaries that flow out of the proverbial African river. The presence of the incomparable Cuban pianist Manuel Valera certainly energizes the musical excursion. Valera is an erudite composer himself and his presence and singular artistry have certainly impacted the expression of this music. Bassist Mike Downes, saxophonist Jesse Ryan and vibraphonist Dan McCarthy add their distinguished artistry to this disc.

10 Avie GraniteOperator
Avi Granite 6
Pet Mantis Records PMR016 (avigranite6.com)

This Avi Granite 6 recording, Operator, opens with two songs that ripple with a chugging pulse suggesting a disc-full of funky tunes. But the guitarist Avi Granite soon shows that his mellifluous aesthetics and wide-ranging stylistic tastes are born of an emphasis on melody and colour – with a little bit of off-the-wall humour baked into wholesome musical patty-cakes.

The repertoire on the album is front-loaded with opportunities for brass and reeds. Trumpeter Jim Lewis, trombonist Tom Richards and clarinetist (and saxophonist) Peter Lutek respond with vim and vigour, and virtuosity. 

Granite occupies the chordal chair, his guitar an endless source of surprise as he pumps both volume and pedals throughout – literally and metaphorically. The wonder of his playing is how engagingly, articulately, flowingly and idiomatically he pours himself into his music that is uniformly good and also quite different sounding. He leads a rhythm section that includes bassist Neal Davis and drummer Ted Warren and the three horn players in a lustrous exposition of mercurial work, full of slashing and nostalgic ideas that make this 37-minute musical romp a quite gripping experience.

Between such puckishly titled – and performed – works such as Crushing Beans, Voracious, Misanthropic Vindaloo and Many Bowls, these musicians come together for a performance vivid in interplay and keenly attentive to these charts that appear to resonate with mysteries and wonders seemingly unique to colourful Canada in general – and Toronto in particular.

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