01 Allison AuForest Grove
Allison Au Quartet
Independent AA-15 (allisonau.com)

Saxophonist and composer Allison Au’s aptly titled Forest Groveis a lush and inviting recording that takes the listener on a journey through a suite-like series of tunes. The compositions retain a remarkable unity of purpose despite the obvious sonic and stylistic differences between them. Au’s writing embodies an approach that blends arrangement with improvisation in a way that seems perfectly natural. One idea flows seamlessly into the next, regardless of whether the ideas are improvised or composed. The addition of vocalist Felicity Williams on three of the nine tunes ties the record together and helps to deepen its compelling mood.

The opening track, Tides, establishes many of the hallmarks of Au’s writing and the band plays through them with ease and assurance. Complex harmonies are played over unexpected rhythmic shots and melodies are doubled with bass and Fender Rhodes piano. Drummer Fabio Ragnelli and bassist Jon Maharaj mesh effortlessly on the tricky arrangement, providing both groove and conversation. Au solos confidently, displaying a rich alto tone and a sophisticated linear concept.

Bolero features bassist Maharaj, improvising a lyrical solo over Au’s and Williams’ ethereal melody. The post-bop-tinged Aureole showcases the band’s convincing, hard swinging up-tempo chops. Au’s strong sense of the tradition is highlighted by Todd Pentney’s bluesy B-3 playing. They Say We Are Not Here closes the journey with Felicity Williams’ voice spinning textures over its gorgeous, hypnotic, two-chord vamp.

02 Linsey WellmanManifesto
Linsey Wellman
Independent (linseywellman.com)

Recent publicity suggests that alto saxophonist Linsey Wellman is at the pinnacle of his improvisational powers. That remains to be seen (he may scale greater heights in the future) but even if he never achieves anything better than this album he has ample reason to be proud. This set of seven songs, Manifesto, carves its own niche in the realm of solo alto saxophone performances. The opener, la culture is a joyous, dancing piece which engages you and gets the album off to a decidedly flying start. It is followed by dans laquelle on investit (literally, In Which It Invests) a profound, slow and slightly mysterious ballad edged with a rueful feel. This chart features some thoughtful, melodic soloing by Wellman as does avec laquelle (With Which), which reminds me a little of the work of Greg Osby, another great and unjustly overlooked experimentalist.

The fact that the titles of the songs in French and English have a distinct phrase-like abruptness to them suggests the interconnectedness of the music on the album. This extraordinary linearity continues to intrigue and delight as Wellman rings in the changes in mood, structure and tempo, making for a constantly interesting program. The degree of balance, integration and melody, harmony and rhythm, of composition and improvisation, of exploration, individuality and tradition is impressively maintained throughout the program. It’s a manifesto that truly sings.

03 Linton GarnerThanks...
Linton Garner
Cellar Live CL062402 (cellarlive.com)

The late, great pianist Linton Garner spent the last 30 years of his life as a beloved and respected member of the Vancouver jazz scene. Garner relished his younger brother Erroll’s success, but focused his own musical career on orchestral, ensemble and small venue performance work – often sharing the stage with jazz luminaries, including Billy Eckstein, Nancy Wilson, Lester Young, Dizzie Gillespie and Miles Davis – all the while acting as a treasured teacher and mentor to several generations of Vancouver-centric jazz musicians.

This superb project is the brainchild of Don Fraser, who acts as producer here. Fraser enjoyed a long professional and personal relationship with Garner and was the drummer in his trio for more than six years. Thanks…is a labour of love for Fraser, and as Garner would have wanted – all proceeds from the project are earmarked for the Linton Garner Scholarship Fund at Capilano University in North Vancouver.

The album itself is comprised of remastered CBC recordings, from 1993 through 2002 (featuring Fraser on drums, Stewart Loseby on sax and bassist Peter Trill) as well as live tracks from a memorable B.C. concert performance (I Never Said Goodbye) dedicated to Garner’s late brother, Erroll.

Highlights of this fine recording and tribute include the gospel-infused piano solo Pittsburgh Blue; the evocative I Never Said Goodbye and the elegant trio tune Won’t You Come Dance With Me. The final track on the CD is saxophonist Loseby’s deeply moving Lament for Mr. G, which features Miles Black on piano and was recorded following Garner’s passing in 2004.

04 Ches Smith The BellThe Bell
Ches Smith; Craig Taborn; Mat Maneri
ECM 2474


Ches Smith is a young American percussionist/composer whose CV criss-crosses a musical landscape in which jazz, rock and experimentation have tumbled into one another, working with musicians like John Zorn, Tim Berne, Mark Ribot and Mr. Bungle. For his ECM debut, his musical language is shaped by impulses from post-serial classical music to free improvisation. He’s joined here in his longstanding trio by pianist Craig Taborn and violist Mat Maneri to play a series of pieces that consistently blur the lines between the composed and the improvised.

From the opening clang of a bell on the title track, there’s an air of high drama and mystery emerging from the muffled undercurrent of the piano and Maneri’s vibrant sustained tones. Repeating motifs may temporarily stabilize the pieces, but it’s an illusion, as patterns either disappear or build to menacing intensity amidst a maelstrom of sound. The furies loosed on I’ll See You on the Dark Side of the Earth give way to the subtle, almost random prettiness of the vibraphone and piano beginnings of I Think. Moods turn subtly from joyous to pensive in a piece like It’s Always Winter (Somewhere).

Smith’s music succeeds on its mix of unlikely elements and its own internal tension patterns, its successively reimagined drives to order and freedom, but it could only arise from the trio’s instrumental brilliance. Smith can wittily deploy assorted rock and jazz beats, as well as reveal the beauty of a bowed vibraphone; Taborn can bring a precise and distinguishing touch to individual notes in the most complex flurry; while Maneri practises an exemplary combination of passion and control.

05 Wes Montgomery One Night in Indy CoverOne Night in Indy
Wes Montgomery
Resonance HCD-2018 (resonancerecords.org)

In October 1959, Wes Montgomery recorded his debut LP, The Wes Montgomery Trio, for Riverside Records. It would rapidly make him the most eminent guitarist in jazz, famed for his sheer invention and drive as well as his unorthodox thumb-picking and improvised lines in unison octaves. The previous January, when this was recorded, Montgomery was a 35-year-old Indianapolis factory worker who regularly played in local bars and astonished visiting stars. Documenting a performance in an unnamed venue put on by the Indianapolis Jazz Club, a loose association of fans, One Night in Indy presents the Chicago-based trio of pianist Eddie Higgins with Montgomery as a special local guest.

Passed down by members of the club until it reached Resonance Records (even the name of the bass player is unknown), the tape documents a great set of club jazz from a year when the modern mainstream was in full flower. It’s a joyous meeting of musicians who speak the same idiom with fluency and imagination, no doubt with spirits raised by the sheer surprise of Montgomery’s creative energy and distinctive approach, complete with runs executed in chords. The program begins and ends with standards – Give Me the Simple Life, You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To – and relies on classic jazz anthems in between, delivering liquid beauty to Ellington’s Prelude to a Kiss and plenty of momentum to Stompin’ at the Savoy and the Basie hit Li’l Darlin’.

It’s all carried forward by the masterful drumming of Walter Perkins and that solid, anonymous bassist, with Higgins and Montgomery matching one another in swing, invention and sheer elan. One of the most special moments comes on Thelonious Monk’s subtly dissonant ballad Ruby, My Dear, with Higgins supplying an abstract, bell-like introduction.

06 FrictiveFiveThe Fictive Five
Larry Ochs
Tzadik TZ 4012 (rova.org)

Clues to saxophonist Larry Ochs’ expansive cinematic approach to composition are that three of four lengthy tracks here salute filmmakers Wim Wenders, Kelly Reichardt and William Kentridge. Just as those cineastes advanced diverse takes on the language of film, so Ochs references the free music breakthroughs of John Coltrane and Albert Ayler. More crucially though, in the same way that none of these filmmaker’s work replicates earlier productions – or each other’s ideas – so too is The Fictive Five project a step beyond the visions of Ayler and Trane. Plus like filmmaking this project is a group effort, the concepts of Ochs as writer-director are interpreted by a cast of Nate Wooley’s truculent trumpet sneers, drummer Harris Eisenstadt’s irregular splashes and snare splatters, the dynamo-like pressure that emanates from dual bassists Ken Filiano and Pascal Niggenkemper, and like auteurs such as Orson Welles or John Cassavetes, a role for jagged abrasions that make up Ochs’ outlay on tenor and sopranino saxophone on the CD.

Take By Any Other Name, the appropriately animated salute to South African artist and animator Kentridge, for instance. Here the bassists reveal their Internet-era adaptation of experimental music, judiciously tinging the thumping interchange with virtuosic strumming and twanging amplified by preparations and effects. As excitement is intensified via crying reed split tones, rim-shot pitter-patter and bugle call-like brassiness from Wooley, the bass lines eventually divide, with one bassist ruggedly advancing the theme while the other comments on it with an archer’s bow-like vibrations.

It’s this sort of intuitive communication that characterizes the rest of the CD as well. But expressiveness doesn’t have to mean stringent discordance. Translucent for example, dedicated to Reichardt, begins with Eisenstadt’s metal garbage-can lid approximating commotion intersecting with slobbering puffs and smears from the horns as the bassists put a choke hold on their instruments’ necks for more percussive pummelling. But by its climax – and the CD’s completion – tongue slaps and snarls turn to gnarly harmonies aided by banjo-like rhythmic plinks from the bassists.

Like the themes engendered in a well-made film, the sounds here highlight affinity, as well as agitation, for proper dramatic effects.

07 LivingRoomLive at Literaturhaus
The Living Room; Barry Guy
Ilk 239 CD (ilkmusic.com)

Demonstrating the distinction between fission and fusion, veteran British bassist Barry Guy partners the Danish Living Room trio in a timbre-suturing-like program that sounds like three improvisations from an integrated quartet rather than from a trio plus one. Sophisticated in the use of multifold string techniques, Guy has spent a half century intersecting with improv visionaries, so the challenges advanced by reedist Torben Snekkestad, keyboardist Søren Kjærgaard and drummer Thomas Strønen don’t faze him.

However Live at Literaturhaus doesn’t become a Guy quartet session. Strønen’s cross-cut cymbal scratches and percussive buzzing; Kjærgaard’s high-frequency piano chording and judicious electric keyboard interjections; plus Snekkestad’s timbres from soprano and tenor saxophones and reed trumpet which often seem to be aggressively forced through a stainless steel strainer, are just as prominent. These pared guttural blows alongside the telephone static-like crackling from the other two Living Roomers in Part 1 bring out staccato stops from Guy, that alternate between lowing and squeaking. Before the 51-minute performance wraps up with an evocative yet muscular finale at the completion of Part 3, it’s only one strategy advanced by the four. Midway through Part 2, for instance, Snekkestad’s tenor timbres turns boudoir-like sensuous with equivalent hedonistic splashes from Kjærgaard’s piano. While Part 3 eventually locks together winnowing reed draughts, bass string pounding and drum ruffs, the first part of the last selection is as belligerent as a declaration of war. Triple-stopping sul ponticello strokes from the bassist, crowded, circularly breathed pitch alternations bubbling from Snekkestad’s horns and swelling dynamics from the keyboard(s), and descending accents and pauses from the drummer, lead to a narrative that slowly disappears, leaving echoes of peace and power.

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