18 MaskedMasked
Kathryn Ladano
Independent (kathrynladano.com)

I have it on good authority from the most celebrated virtuosos of the bass clarinet that it is a challenging instrument to play and certainly diabolically difficult to master. In ensemble, the ink-dark character of its sound is featured prominently in the wall of lower register instruments, used almost percussively by its virtuosos to often create the effect of deep, staccato repetitions, played beneath the melody to conjure a feeling of slowly fluctuating cycles. Those who approach the instrument are extremely brave. The great bass clarinetist Eric Dolphy certainly was. Together with Gunter Hampel, Don Byron, James Carter and Paul Austerlitz he led a tiny tribe of others that now includes Kathryn Ladano.

Masked is the second solo album for bass clarinet by Ladano. Its title comes from her PhD thesis, The Improvising Musician’s Mask: Using Musical Instruments to Build Self-Confidence and Social Skills in Collective Free Improvisation. Like Austerlitz, an academic and performer whose work probes the relationship between Vodou, improvised music and altered states of being, Ladano also pays close attention to extra-musical aspects of improvisation as she translates elements of her thesis in the music of Masked.

Things socio-psychological, philosophical and spiritual apart, Ladano’s music gives wing to emotion. The plaintive bleats, nasal drones and breath-like human smears combine in yammering snorts, phrases and long, loping lines whose long and winding improvisations don’t always have beginnings and ends but often make you gasp in abject wonderment.

Probably the most misunderstood instrument in popular music, the double bass is hard to hear when any ensemble is playing full throttle. Yet the history of jazz, at least, would be markedly different if not for the rhythmic impetus propelled by sophisticated bassists. Not only that, but starting with iconoclasts like Charles Mingus and Oscar Pettiford in the 1950s, double bassists’ talents directing groups and as composers have kept pace with their burgeoning skill in playing both arco and pizzicato. This situation has only expanded over the years and these CDs offer some fine examples. Bassists may not be the designated leaders of all of them, but each highlights the bull fiddlers’ talents as accompanists, soloists, arrangers and composers.

01 FormanekMichael Formanek, who recently retired from teaching bass and jazz/improvised music at the conservatory level, combines those playing and composing attributes/ And Even Better (Intakt CD 335 intaktrec.ch) demonstrates this with the all-American Very Practical Trio, featuring longtime foil Tim Berne on alto saxophone and younger guitarist Mary Halvorson. Combining lilt and literalness, Formanek’s nine compositions are melodic, but work in enough space for the tang Berne brings with triple tonguing and slides into high-pitched peeps, along with Halvorson’s precise chording, that includes string distortion and Hawaiian-guitar-like shakes. With the exception of brief insertions, the composer’s solo skills stay in the background. Instead he fluidly propels the tunes with rhythmic pumps and stops. Still Here, for instance, finds the saxophonist’s slinky trills and the guitarist’s flowing surf-music-like wriggles adhering to the sparkling narrative advanced by bass string finesse, so that by the end modulating echoes from all are harmonized. The brief Bomb the Cactus and the introductory Suckerpunch may have similar country-folk, finger styling from Halvorson, yet Berne’s response with slurred altissismo variations, plus Formanek’s barely there thumps, convert both sequences into echoing essays in refined counterpoint. The Shifter demonstrates that the bassist can write a fast bebop theme with the instruments in triple counterpoint, as Berne’s stop-time snarls add emotion. Yet the trio’s reading of the concluding Jade Visions is even more telling. Written by Scott LaFaro, who helped liberate bass playing in the early 1960s, Formanek’s earthy polyrhythms pull the theme away from a near-lullaby and serve as a fitting salute to one master bassist from another.

02 Barry GuyThe UK’s Barry Guy has done even more to redefine the role of double bassist/composer/bandleader over the years with his large and small ensembles. As part of a trio on Illuminated Silence (Fundacja Sluchaj FSR01/2019 sluchaj.org), with Japanese pianist Izumi Kimura and American drummer Gerry Hemingway, he contributes three compositions, adds his muscular accents to the free-form improvisations and even recites a relevant verse at the beginning of one selection. Kimura, who sometimes purrs vocally as she plays, generates delicate, winnowing melodies, as her composition The Willow Tree Cannot Be Broken by the Snow demonstrates. But Guy’s spiccato string rappelling and Hemingway’s cymbal shatters add rhythmic heft to that piece. More emblematic of Guy’s skill are his tunes. Blue Horizon moves from an atmospheric introduction with lowing string patterns and keyboard runs to intersection among high-frequency key clinks, drum thumps and sluicing bass motion. Ancients is even better as crescendo build-up during the performance separates an exposition of keyboard sweeping lower-case moroseness with a fluid theme elaboration by Kimura that concludes at a slower pace. Finding It, the Guy composition which concludes this live concert, comes from his comic side, as the bassist’s resonating smacks and pumps are interrupted and amplified by Kimura’s Monkish asides that build up to a cascading climax, downshift to bass string-plucked pulses and finally let the pianist alternate between meandering theme variations and near frenetic key shading. In spite of their experience, both veteran players still give Kimura space to display her technique and voicing which is flawless at any pitch or tempo. That she keeps her cool in such fast company and is confident enough to assay Guy’s compositions and hardcore improvisations make this CD a celebration of her talents as much as the bassist’s.

03 Gabriela FriedliA similar situation exists on Areas (Leo Records CD LR 828 leorecords.com). Although the leader is Swiss pianist Gabriela Friedli, half the compositions are those of her countryman, bassist Daniel Studer; Dieter Ulrich is the drummer. The main contrast in creative architecture between the bassist and pianist is how her reactively straightforward playing is nudged to more expressive freedom by Studer’s constant string pressure. A track like the Studer-composed Largo, which opens the disc, featuring dark contrapuntal bass-string scrubbing and lighter keyboard chording, seamlessly slides into Friedli’s Fil de Ramosa, whose dramatic impetus comes from plucks and stops on the piano’s inner strings in such a way that both bass and piano share the same pitch and emphasis as the tune evolves. With such compositional accord displayed throughout, elation comes in noting how the trio moulds turbulent dissonance into unexpected narrative sequences while maintaining flowing concordance. Studer’s Mildew Lisa, for example, uses sul tasto string thumps to push the theme forward as the pianist’s high-energy percussive notes, strengthened by Ulrich’s cowbell peals and drum ruffs, climaxes with high-frequency comping that is simultaneously imaginative and straight ahead. More complex, Masse, another Studer theme, introduces spurts of atonality as the bassist’s arco thrusts are echoed by dynamic patterning and asides from the pianist. The theme becomes more splintered as the speed intensifies. Sudden cymbal clatter adds to a finale of gradual tension release. Although there’s only one brief drum solo, Ulrich’s strangled bugle (!) cries on Um Su animate the program in a distinctive manner, as inner string cascades from Friedli and buzzing bass string sweeps, almost shatter the exposition before adroit keyboard flexibility calms the finale. Perfectly capable of composing a prototypical contemporary jazz piece with a walking bass line, a shuffling drum beat and a bouncing and sinewy exposition, as on Miedra, the pianist’s most exciting work, and that of the trio, confirms Friedli’s response to the challenge of Studer’s playing and writing.

04 MilesA younger bassist moving front and centre with his playing and writing is Canadian-in-Berlin Miles Perkin, who, on The Point in Question (Clean Feed CF 529 CD cleanfeedrecords.com), has put together an international quartet to improvise on his compositions. Consisting of British trumpeter Tom Arthurs, French pianist Benoît Delbecq and American drummer Jim Black, inclusive symmetry is maintained by contrasting dappled fluidity from the trumpeter with the chiming bulk of keyboard and drum strategies. As well as slick background prods, Perkin mostly confines himself to relaxed, vibrating scene-setting, as on the title tune. Leaving the best for last, however, the first three minutes of the concluding Blue Cloud are given over to an unaccompanied display of unhurried, often sul tasto double-bass pacing before the piece opens up into a semi-march. Arthurs’ lyricism is then harmonized with rhythmic percussion and piano key clipping before gradually upping the tempo to end with solidly measured arco sweeps. A leisurely pace is maintained throughout but never at the expense of subtle swing. The title tune also serves as a showcase for Arthurs, whose burbling flutters and smears move upwards to brassy shakes and slides. Before the conclusion is realized with additional capillary fillip, more spanked piano tones are added to the sequence. Additionally, when bass and drums lay back on Sea Drop, this ambulatory track is enlivened by a middle section of pointed trumpet smears and snarls, doubled by forceful and frequent bass string pops.

05 TorbjornAnother bassist of similar age and experience as Perkin is Swede Torbjörn Zetterberg. However, Live (Corbett vs. Dempsey CvsD CD 058 corbettvsdempsey.com), is a rawer and more raucous affair than the Canadian’s carefully modulated creations. Recorded live in a Stockholm club, members of his Great Question sextet expand on six of Zetterberg’s compositions. Another EU affair, the band includes Portuguese trumpeter Susana Santos Silva and Italian baritone saxophonist/clarinetist/flutist Alberto Pinton plus Scandinavians, tenor saxophonist/flutist Jonas Kullhammar, trombonist Mats Äleklint and drummer Jon Fält. With an effervescent stylist like Äleklint in the band there are times when it’s best to get out of the way. This is proven on 1+1=1, The Oracle in Finnåker and the extended Song from the End of the World, which also demonstrate the bassist’s compositional versatility. A hard bop stomper driven by the composer’s slap bass runs, the first piece is quickly broken up with slurs and stutters from the other horns as Äleklint moves from plunger growls to gutbucket blats, whinnying cries and staccato smears until Fält’s measured bangs end the program. Midway between jolly oomph-pah-pah and parade-ground music, The Oracle in Finnåker features the trombonist working up and down the scale with tailgate slides plus disruptive assault-rifle-like blasts. Torquing the tension with an extended series of pats and smacks from the drummer, drooling clarinet squeezes and trumpet peeps keep the narrative moving until a final release. Although supple guitar-like fingering characterizes Zetterberg’s work elsewhere, in contrast on Song from the End of the World, his chiming pulse sets up a crepuscule-tinged muted trumpet solo and a series of puffs and whistles from one flutist which confirm the theme’s exotica. Reflecting the introduction, the bassist brings the tune to a close with double-and-triple stops and low-pitch string swabs.

Varied as they may be, each of these discs – and the bassists directing them – show how 21st-century bassists are moving music forward.

01 Diana PantonA Cheerful Little Earful
Diana Panton; Reg Schwager; Don Thompson
Independent (dianapanton.com)

In 2015, vocalist Diana Panton released I Believe in Little Things, with Don Thompson, Reg Schwager and Coenraad Bloemendal. The album has a lot going for it: intelligent arrangements, strong performances, and classic songs from sources such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Pinocchio and The Muppet Movie. While Panton had released a number of records previously, I Believe in Little Things was her first children’s album.

Panton’s project continues with A Cheerful Little Earful, a new album of jazz for kids, which was released in October 2019. Schwager and Thompson are back, as are succinct arrangements of songs from television, film and music theatre. Panton has a gift for singing with simple phrasing and with an unaffected delivery that places emphasis on the melody at hand; this stripped-down style works perfectly in the small-ensemble setting with Schwager and Thompson, and also focuses the listener’s attention on the songs’ lyrics.

Like I Believe In Little Things, A Cheerful Little Earful is being marketed as a “jazz album for kids.” It might, however, be more accurate to say that it is an album for adults looking back with fondness at the music of their own youth (and their parents’ youth, for that matter; Happy Talk, the album’s first track, is from South Pacific). But whether Panton’s listeners are swept up in a rush of nostalgia or experiencing these songs for the first time, it’s safe to say that they’ll enjoy this well-crafted record.

Listen to 'A Cheerful Little Earful' Now in the Listening Room

02 Nick Fraser ZoningZoning
Nick Fraser; Kris Davis; Tony Malaby; Ingrid Laubrock; Lina Allemano
Astral Spirits (astralspiritsrecords.com)

At times, Nick Fraser has been Toronto’s busiest jazz drummer, but he’s increasingly involved in developing his own music and some key international partnerships. Among his projects is this trio with New York-based saxophonist Tony Malaby and pianist Kris Davis. For the trio’s second outing (Too Many Continents appeared in 2015), they’ve enlisted guests: New York saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and Toronto trumpeter Lina Allemano appear on the three Fraser compositions included here.

It’s a hard-edged band with a disciplined intensity that shows in each taut track, with or without guests, a give and take between form and freedom that often moves toward form. The incendiary opening dialogue between Malaby and Laubrock (he has the warmer jazz tone; she’s responsible for the weirder hollow harmonics and deliberate bleats) is eventually drawn into form. Throughout the program, tight-knit figures are frequently employed to develop structural tensions that will ultimately explode before reassembling themselves.

Fraser’s Sketch 46, a dance between restraint and expression, begins with the most incidental wisps of sound: the lightest piano flurries, a muffled cymbal, air through a trumpet, saxophone plosives. These events, increasingly pointillistic, gradually increase in length and intensity, volume remaining low, relations among parts sketchy. Eventually the band activity expands to an increasingly dense collective. Drawn into Fraser’s fierce knitting drum figures, the horns emerge for brief solo episodes, until a long-toned melody, almost choral, emerges.

It’s just one crucial piece in this demanding set of brilliantly realized works.

03 Mark KelsoThe Chronicles of Fezziwig
Mark Kelso Jazz Project
Maisamark Music MKJE003 (groovydrums.com)

Could this musical yarn of Fezziwig, whose chronicles the Mark Kelso Jazz Project so expertly spin, hark back to a character from the novel A Christmas Carol created by Charles Dickens? If the time and circumstance of Dickens’ story and our time were to inhabit similar capsules, then the jovial, foppish man with a large Welsh wig might just as well be evoked by this breathtakingly effervescent music for our rather dark times, to sweep away the turmoil of our century into a Green Revolution, just as the character in Dickens’ story did at the cusp of the Industrial Revolution.

Opening the fold-over package to get to The Chronicles of Fezziwig we read the words: “Inspire creativity.” This is the kind of spark that Kelso’s drumming inevitably provides whenever he becomes the rhythmic and catalytic pivot in any ensemble. Here too, the electrifying drummer plays that role in this sextet. In Fezziwig’s character, Kelso’s songs can be quirky (Elliptical), elegiac (A Message from Idris), mesmerizing (Pinwheel) and more. Each song evolves into a gripping narrative evoked by a riveting melody laced with glorious harmony. The rippling jazz grooves that ensue gently build into boppish saxophone and piano runs, launched, of course, by Kelso’s broodingly percussive funky and tumbling rhythms.

The ensemble includes heavyweight musicians: saxophonist Pat LaBarbera, guitarist Ted Quinlan, pianists Gordon Sheard and Brian Dickinson, and bassist Mike Downes, all of whom interpret Kelso’s vivid works idiomatically.

04 Surefire SweatSurefire Sweat
Surefire Sweat
Independent (surefiresweat.com)

This debut album is a breath of funky, fresh air by JUNO-nominated musician Larry Graves’ project, Surefire Sweat. All eight tracks on the record are originals written by Graves and are “an emotive journey, offering real-time reflections… on the human condition.” The mostly instrumental nature of the album truly allows the rhythmic complexity of each piece to be brought to the forefront, which the first-time bandleader himself has mentioned is an incredibly important factor throughout. Featured is a lineup of talented musicians such as Elena Kapeleris on tenor sax and vocals, Paul Metcalfe on baritone sax and Paul MacDougall on guitar and vocals.

Threshold is a fiery, rhythmically hot start to the record and manages to pull the listener right into the catchy groove. Throughout the album, it is easy to hear the fusion of funk, jazz and world music not only through the instrumental riffs, but even through the rhythms themselves. The distinct flavour of percussion and drums tells an extremely expressive story all on its own. Sunshine Interference has an especially addicting bass groove that just gets your head bopping along and Number Nine takes the listener on a journey through completely dance-worthy rhythms inspired by Nigerian drummer Tony Allen. Ending the record is Scoffle Strut, a sultry, positively scintillating tune. For those looking for a pick-me-up for the longer fall and winter days ahead, this album is a perfect candidate to get you out of your daily rut.

Listen to 'Surefire Sweat' Now in the Listening Room

05 Trevor GiancolaSonnet 18
Trevor Giancola
TQM Recording TQM-1315 (tqmrecordingco.com)

Guitarist Trevor Giancola’s sophomore album, Sonnet 18, is one of the season’s most anticipated modern straight-ahead jazz releases. A follow-up to 2016’s Fundamental, which saw Giancola in trio format with bassist Neil Swainson and drummer Adam Arruda, Sonnet 18 is one of the first offerings of the new TQM Recording Company, helmed by Ron Skinner. Recorded live-off-the-floor at Toronto’s Union Sound in February 2019, this new album is notable for its rich, warm sound, for Giancola’s intelligent compositions, and for its personnel list: joining Giancola are Arruda, bassist Rick Rosato and saxophonist Seamus Blake. (For those unfamiliar: though Arruda, Rosato and Blake are Canadian, all three are based in the US, and are well-established names on the international scene.)

Sonnet 18 has many highlights, including Retrospect, a bouncy, medium swinger that features a stop-time melody played tightly by Giancola and Blake. It’s All Good, Man, a trio track, is a beautiful, reflective journey, with relatively simple melodies sitting atop lush harmony. A + B sees Arruda in fine form, crisply tracing the contours of the 5/4 song’s structure; Stream, the album’s final track, patiently builds in intensity to one of Blake’s most exciting solos. Throughout Sonnet 18, Giancola is the tie that binds the music together, playing with clarity, intelligence and enviable tone, from the album’s most sensitive moments to its most aggressive. A commendable second album, and a strong beginning for TQM.

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