01_Nick_Fraser.jpgIn his 20 years in Toronto, Nick Fraser has become first-choice drummer for numerous bandleaders ranging from the post-bop mainstream to free improvisation. He’s done it with aggressive musicality and consistently inventive drumming, combining drive and subtlety. He has also recorded his compositions with his own quartet and the collective Drumheller. His latest CD will introduce his talents to a far wider audience: Too Many Continents (Clean Feed CF336, cleanfeed-records.com) appears on the most active free jazz label in the world and presents Fraser at the heart of a trio with expatriate Canadian pianist Kris Davis and saxophonist Tony Malaby, two key figures in current NYC jazz activity. The opening title track achieves near telepathic interaction, the group moving synchronously from delicate opening figures through a co-ordinated tumult of sound in which each throws more and more complex bits into the mix, eventually reversing the movement to ebb gradually to silence. Episodes of extended free improvisation are separated by Fraser’s compositions, among which the moody, corrosive Also stands out.

02_Orchestre_national_jazz.jpgCanada rarely sees a jazz project as ambitious as Orchestre national de jazz de Montréal’s presentation of pianist-composer Marianne Trudel’s Dans la forêt de ma mémoire (ATMA Classique ACD2 2730, atmaclassique.com), a six-part suite for the 16-member orchestra recorded live with singer Anne Schaefer and trumpeter Ingrid Jansen as featured soloists with Christine Jensen conducting. Trudel might be new to writing extended works for a large ensemble, but there’s nothing here to show it. The work has strong themes and rich harmonies presented with vibrant brass and reed textures that spring from the traditions of composer/orchestrators like Gil Evans and Maria Schneider. Vent Solaire, the second movement, has a magisterial quality, enhanced by a moment when Trudel’s piano tremolos merge with the winds, while La vie commence ici has charging lines that demonstrate the precision of the all-star ensemble. Trudel and Ingrid Jensen provide plenty of individual highlights, but there are effective solo spots from trombonist Jean-Nicolas Trottier and bassist Rémi-Jean LeBlanc.

03_Michael_Bates_Northern_Spy.jpgThe cry, the shout, the laugh and the mutter of the blues have been part of jazz since its beginnings, not all jazz admittedly, but much of it and much of the best of it. Those tones are front and centre in Michael Bates’ Northern Spy (Stereoscopic 266-1, outsidesources.org) on which the Vancouver-born, Brooklyn-based bassist leads a trio with saxophonist (and former Vancouverite) Michael Blake and drummer Jeremy “Bean” Clemons, the latter providing some rock-solid, minimalist backbeats. It’s as visceral and soulful as one might expect of music inspired by Blind Willie Johnson, Otis Redding and John Coltrane. It also invokes saxophonist Julius Hemphill’s edgy Hard Blues. As the trio’s lead voice, Blake turns in a consistently masterful performance, stretching bop and blues to upper register multiphonic cries on End of History.

04_Jerry_Granelli.jpgJerry Granelli was a well-established drummer when he relocated to Halifax in 1987, and he’s been releasing adventurous CDs as a composer and conceptualist as well ever since. The latest is What I Hear Now (Addo Records AJR030, addorecords.com) by his Trio + 3. The basic group is Granelli’s trio with bassist Simon Fisk and tenor and soprano saxophonist Dani Oore, expanded with younger Haligonians, alto saxophonist Andrew McKelvey and trombonist Andrew Jackson, and topped off by Halifax-native Mike Murley. The four-horn front line balances sonic breadth with spontaneity. Mystery’s serene voicings lead to airy overlays and echoes among the saxophones, while Swamp’s combination of a rapid horn line and the rhythm section’s slow back-beat inspires a certain funky bluster from all the horns.

05_Gannon_Coon.jpgThere’s an infectious joy about Oliver Gannon and Bill Coon’s Two Much More! (Cellar Live CL011815 cellarlive.com), the elite Vancouver guitarists commemorating the decade-old launch of their project Two Much Guitar! with a studio session accompanied by bassist Darren Radtke and drummer Dave Robbins. Gannon is a propulsive swinger with a fuller, bright, hard-edged sound who generates continuous melodic flow; Coon is a subtler, more elusive musician, floating over the beat with a glassy, slightly muted sound, more focused on harmonic invention. What matters most, though, is their evident pleasure in one another’s musical company as they alternately lead and accompany in a program studded with masterful renditions of classic songs, many of them ballads like Billy Strayhorn’s Chelsea Bridge, Johnny Mandel’s Emily and Ellington’s In a Sentimental Mood, before closing with Bobby Timmons’ Moanin’.

06_Tony_Wilson.jpgAnother Vancouver guitarist, Tony Wilson, presents a dark vision of the city with his 6tet on A Day’s Life (Drip Audio DA01107, dripaudio.com), a musical complement to his eponymous 2012 novella about the lives of the homeless and addicted living in the Downtown Eastside. The opening title track has Wilson in a relatively consonant mood, stringing out bluesy melody in a classic jazz style. It’s a little harbinger of the music’s expressive depths or looming terrors to come, whether springing from the leader or from the torrents of sound produced by trumpeter JP Carter’s added electronics. Wilson’s compositional vision is fleshed out throughout by an outstanding band, whether it’s drummer Skye Brooks on The Long Walk or the strings of cellist Peggy Lee, violinist Jesse Zubot and bassist Russell Scholberg, all contributing to the piquant sweetness of Bobby Joe’s Theme.

01_Micah_Barnes.jpgNew York Stories
Micah Barnes
LoudBoy ODCD02

Micah Barnes has long established himself as one of the most engaging vocal performers and contemporary, jazz-infused tunesmiths on the scene today. Perhaps best known as a member of the iconic vocal group The Nylons, Barnes has also crafted a serious solo career by employing his considerable skills as a musician/keyboardist in conjunction with his sumptuous baritone voice, quirky narrative humour, showmanship and innate ability for direct emotional (and artistic) communication.

Barnes’ new recording is the result of many live performances that were focused on perfecting his original material prior to ever stepping into the recording studio – and the highly personal songs (of which three were co-written with J.P. Saxe and one with Russ Boswell) easily bring the rapt listener along for the wild ride. Barnes has surrounded himself here with a fine ensemble, including Michael Shand on keyboards, talented brother Daniel Barnes on drums and voice, the above mentioned Boswell on bass and voice and Saxe on vocals.

Top tracks include New York Story – a nostalgia-saturated valentine to the great city itself and the clever After the Romance (The Rent) – a character song in search of a Broadway show. Barnes’ voice has never been richer and more laden with experience, and his vocal control has never been more succinct, as illustrated by the bluesy standout Starting Tomorrow and the funky cool Harlem Moon. The heart-rending Some Other Man clearly establishes Barnes as a fine contemporary songwriter and the closing track, I’ve Been Awake Too Long evokes incredible, bittersweet longing.


Alister Spence; Joe Williamson; Christopher Cantillo
Alister Spence Music ASM 003 (alisterspence.com)

What world music really should be, this high-quality session involves the talents of multi-stylistic Australian pianist Alister Spence, subtle Swedish drummer Christopher Cantillo and authoritative Canadian bassist Joe Williamson. Now Stockholm-based, Vancouver native Williamson is part of this trio whose reference points are musically broad while lacking any affectation.

Constantly pushing each of the tracks forward, the pianist’s world view is as wide as the Australian outback, emphasizing attention to cultivated detail that melds Keith Jarrett’s exploratory feints, dynamic jabs à la Cecil Taylor and the bouncy playfulness of Paul Bley, usually simultaneously. Hear this at work on Place, where after probing piano innards and hammering the keys, Spence unexpectedly bursts out with a textbook definition of jazz swing. Consistently a group effort, though – even when Spence’s playing is at its most jaunty – his pointed improvising on Tip for instance is sympathetically extended with tap-dance-like clacks from Cantillo and Williamson’s bowed continuum.

Knowingly attuned to one another’s strategies and willing to mix up the performances to make them new, Williamson, for example, often uses a resolutely steady bass line to second the pianist’s widely spaced spikes and winnowing plucks on Fetch before Spence cunningly recaps his intro. Elsewhere, as on Allow, each rhythm partner uses static drum buzz or string pulls to create edginess on this warm balladic track. Other times as cymbals swirl and drum tops are scrubbed, Spence and Williamson expose nearly identical timbres, balancing inside-piano string strums and unforced bass string plucks.

With even more unexpected approaches they can utilize on this disc’s lucky 13 tracks, the hope is that this trio didn’t just Begin but will continue to make CDs like this for a long time.

01_EParker.jpgJust as international improvisers sometimes find a more welcoming atmosphere for their sound experiments in Canada than at home, so too have Canadian record labels become a vehicle to release notable free music sessions. Attesting to this openness, two of the most recent discs by British saxophone master Evan Parker are on Canadian imprints. But each arrived by a different route. One of the triumphs of 2014’s Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville in Quebec, this performance of Seven by Parker’s ElectroAcoustic Septet (Victo 127 victo.qc.ca) is available on Victo, FIMAV’s affiliated imprint. Consisting of one massive and one shorter instant composition, Seven literally delineates the electro-acoustic divide. Trumpeter Peter Evans, reedist Ned Rothenberg, cellist Okkyung Lee and Parker make up the acoustic side, while varied laptop processes are operated by Ikue Mori and Sam Pluta, with George Lewis switching between laptop and trombone, with his huffing brass tone making a particular impression during a contrapuntal face-off with Parker’s soprano saxophone during Seven-2. At nearly 46 minutes, Seven-1 is the defining work, attaining several musical crests during its ghostly, meandering near-time suspension. Allowing for full expression of instrumental virtuosity, dynamic flutters, flanges and processes, the laptoppists accompany, comment upon or challenge the acoustic instruments. Alternately wave form loops and echoes cause the instrumentalists to forge their reposes. Plenty of sonic surprises arise during the sequences. Undefined processed-sounding bee-buzzing motifs, for example, are revealed as mouth and lip modulations from Evans’ piccolo trumpet or aviary trills from Rothenberg’s clarinet. In contrast the electronics’ crackles and static are often boosted into mellower affiliations that sound purely acoustic. Eventually both aspects meld into a climax of bubbly consistency with any background-foreground, electro or acoustic displays satisfactorily melded. More percussive Seven-2 has a climax involving fragmented electronics pulsating steadily as first Evans, then Rothenberg and finally Parker spill out timbres that confirm formalism as much as freedom.

02_Extremes.jpgWhile Seven’s domestic release seems almost mandatory, Montreal-based Red Toucan’s decision to release UK-recorded Extremes (RT 9349 symaptico.ca/cactus.red) demonstrates its commitment to this music. Parker on tenor saxophone, alongside Paul Dunmall, another intense British tenor specialist, plus American drummer Tony Bianco, offer a three-track masterclass in free-form improvisation. With the drummer keeping up a constant barrage of smacks, whacks, ruffs and pops in the propulsive Elvin Jones tradition, the saxophonists dig into every variation and shading of reed and metal tones like an updated John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders. Unlike the maelstrom of bedlam-like expression in which some sound explorers operate, however, Dunmall and Parker play with relaxed intensity. This isn’t a cutting contest either, but a demonstration of how saxophonists can function as separate parts of a single entity. With the final Horus especially adding affirming motes to the jazz tradition via glossolalia and faint echoes of Sonny Rollins’ East Broadway Rundown, each player maintains his individuality no matter how many harsh snorts or siren-pitched expressions are unleashed. Parker’s tone is distinguished by lighter vibrations and swifter split tones while Dunmall’s timbres are darker and grittier. With intuitive timing the tenors attain concluding connection, showcasing rowdy theme variations on the 30-minute-plus title track and polyphonic expressiveness on Horus. Overall, the result is head expanding, not head banging.

03_Earnear.jpgA trio concerned with the linkage between notated and improvised sounds is Lisbon-based, EarNear; its self-titled debut CD appears on the Rimouski-based TourdeBras label (TDB90012 CD tourdebras.com). Conversant in many genres, violist João Camões, pianist Rodrigo Pinheiro and cellist Miguel Mira expose textures unique and unexpected for a chamber ensemble. Although strident, speedy and high pitched much of the time, generic continuum is maintained with Mira connectively thumping out what would be the bassist’s role in jazz. On the other hand barbed wire-like sharpened sweeps from Camões, plus inner piano plinks, plucks and crackles confirm the modernity of the performance on tracks such as Airfoil. The responsive nature of the trio’s narrative is such though, that even Gõmbõc, the lengthiest and most cerebral performance, is tempered with sympathetic piano chording and bass string pressure. This leads to a tonal resolution of what begins as a cacophonous battle, with rugged low-pitched string scrubbing on one side and euphonious textures expressed in bell-like, near-harpsichord vibrations on the other.

04_GoldenState.jpgGolden State II’s (SGL 1610-2 songlines.com) situation is atypical since drummer Harris Eisenstadt is a Canadian and Songlines is a Vancouver imprint. But Eisenstadt is based in Brooklyn and other members of this working quartet – bassist Mark Dresser, bassoonist Sara Schoenbeck and clarinetist Michael Moore – are Americans, natives of California: the Golden State. Here much of the emphasis builds on the divergences between Schoenbeck’s rhinal smears and Moore’s honeyed trills. For example, Agency, a near blues, validates the bassoon as a frontline instrument with hard gusts from Schoenbeck’s horn doubled by Moore as the theme is propelled by rim shots and double bass stops. A Kind of Resigned Indignation is an analogous showcase for Dresser’s profound facility, as he moves from sul ponticello minutiae to focused walking, maintaining bedrock toughness while spurring the others. Defining chamber jazz much differently than EarNear does, the drummer’s knocks and sweeps give the CD a rhythmic base propelled with sophisticated understatement. Animatedly reaching a climax of suspended time on Seven in Six/A Particularity with a Universal Resonance, the quartet blends reed smoothness, curlicue percussion pops and string sweeps into a distinct chromatic form. The result is as mellow, unhurried and sunny as the Golden State or Vancouver.

05_Braxton.jpgCanadian labels’ openness to experimentation goes back at least to the early 1970s, with Sackville’s series of Toronto-recorded original sessions featuring then-emerging players from Chicago and New York. Reissued with two additional tracks, 1974’s Trio and Duet (Sackville/Delmark SK3007 delmark.com) hints at why Anthony Braxton’s vision may have been too difficult for some jazz fans of the time. Accompanied by bassist Dave Holland and playing alto saxophone on five tracks, Braxton creates his own variations of standards. While his stripped-down performances may appear slightly frenetic compared to mainstream versions, despite solid timekeeping and a triple-slicing showcase from the bassist on You Go to My Head, the melody remains. If tracks such as Embraceable You or On Green Dolphin Street include more altissimo slurs or squeaking sheets of sound than were common four decades ago, in 2015 the versions would frighten only the most hidebound neo-cons. Yet if Braxton’s standards side was accepted he turns around on what was the LP’s other side and creates a 19-minute modernist piece titled HM-421 (RTS) 47, featuring himself on clarinet, contrabass clarinet, chimes and percussion, Leo Smith on pocket trumpet, trumpet, flugelhorn and percussion plus Richard Teitelbaum on Moog synthesizer, with textures the keyboardist pioneered as a member of Musica Elettronica Viva. Spatial and carefully sequenced, the Moog’s flanges set up a juddering, staccato ostinato over which Smith and Braxton layer muted peeps and stentorian puffs plus chime and conga-like pumps. Yet even if Teitelbaum’s oscillations resemble a Model T warming up rather than the futuristic electronics of today, the graceful playing expressed by all means that at this early date Braxton and the others had perfected the subtle art of matching electronic and acoustic textures without conflict.

The brilliance of this CD substantiates Sackville’s vision. It also suggests that years from now the concept of Canadian labels releasing foreign-sourced experimental music will more likely be praised for foresight rather than eccentricity.

01_Kris_David_Save_Your_Breath.jpgCalgary-raised, Toronto-educated and now based in New York, pianist/ composer Kris Davis has built a substantial reputation at the cutting edge where jazz blends freely with classical and improvised inspirations. However, Save Your Breath (Cleanfeed CF 322 CD, cleanfeed-records.com), by her new ensemble Infrasound, is her most exciting work to date. What might draw a composer to create an octet combining the chordal density of piano, organ and guitar with the inchoate depths of four bass clarinets? The answer is apparent everywhere here in thick, welling music that moves from haunted opera house to the real depths provided by shaking low frequencies, all of it combined in ways both masterful and mysterious to create a music that you definitely haven’t heard before. Among the cast of bass clarinetists, Ben Goldberg is profound on Always Leave Them (Wanting More) and Joachim Badenhorst incendiary on Whirly Swirly.

02_Pedersen_Ghosts.jpgOttawa trumpeter Craig Pedersen’s Quartet has just released its third CD, Ghosts (cpm-006, craigpedersen.com), as remarkable for its concentration as its brevity. Less than 18 minutes long, the five-part work suggests roots in the 1960s avant-garde – the braying, village-band dirges of Albert Ayler (Ghosts, though, is Pedersen’s, not Ayler’s) and the linked suites of Don Cherry – but Pedersen has his own voice. His compositions can reduce and repeat melody, insisting on its essence in Something to Like, or hint at musical travels: a Latin beat, a Middle-Eastern mode, the wail of flamenco. Within the intensely collective enterprise, each individual voice presses forward, whether it’s alto saxophonist Linsey Wellman and bassist Joel Kerr on Sung Song or drummer Eric Thibodeau on Clothesline. At the work’s conclusion, the highly vocal trumpet and saxophone give way to actual chanting.

03_Chantal_de_Villiers.jpgChantal de Villiers emphasizes the connection between jazz and soul music on Funky Princess (Independent CDV 052014, chantaldevilliers.com) and lives up to the billing by delivering the kind of rich tenor saxophone sound – think Gene Ammons to Grover Washington – that saturates a melody as much as it articulates it. The emphasis is definitely on fundamentals, with strong rhythmic grooves provided by some of Montreal’s finest, bassist Fraser Hollins and the drummers Rich Irwin or Dave Laing. The Shadow of Your Smile and Dexter Gordon’s Panther supply further touchstones, but de Villiers is adept at fashioning her own anthems, like the opening Groovy Step, a slice of solid jazz funk. Alto saxophonist Rémi Bolduc appears, adding a lighter touch, while Burt De Villiers contributes further heft with Hammond B3 organ.

04a_Cory_Weeds.jpgCory Weeds closed his Cellar Jazz Club in Vancouver at the end of February 2014, but it hasn’t hampered his career as a saxophonist or his vigorous Cellar Live record label, which continues to release sessions from the club and further afield. Weeds’ musical ideal is hard bop: hard-edged, blues-inflected, modern jazz as defined in New York in the late 50s and early 60s. It’s much in evidence in several recent releases.

Weeds marks the label’s 100th release with his own Condition Blue, The Music Of Jackie McLean (Cellar Live CL111214, cellarlive.com), paying tribute to the great alto saxophonist. Weeds brings his own alto sound to this – no one should try to duplicate McLean’s unique, acid-toned, slightly sharp delivery – touching on aspects of McLean’s style from the drum-like phrasing of the title track to the abstract Capuchin Swing and the serpentine coil of Jacknife. The back-up is an organ trio, with Mike LeDonne, guitarist Peter Bernstein and drummer Joe Farnsworth bringing a gentler, burbling, almost dream-like ambience to McLean’s visceral art.

04b_Curtis_Nowosad.jpgDrummer Curtis Nowosad made his recording debut two years ago. A recent graduate of the University of Winnipeg’s Jazz Studies Program, he led a band made up of his teachers, mixing a hard bop approach with material sourced from Pink Floyd to Tupac Shakur. Nowosad is currently living and studying in New York, but he reassembled the same band for Dialectics (Cellar Live CL010115), including the stellar saxophonist Jimmy Greene. The repertoire is much more conventional, mostly Nowosad originals that frankly reference works by hard bop masters like Horace Silver and Duke Pearson. It’s consistently lively work, and Nowosad stands out on his Afro-Cuban arrangement of Monk’s Bye-Ya.

04c_Louis_Hayes.jpgLouis Hayes and the Cannonball Adderley Legacy Band Live at Cory Weeds’ Cellar Jazz Club (Cellar Live CL120513) was recorded in December 2013, shortly before the club closed. Though the presence of Canadian musicians is limited to Weeds sitting in on Sack of Woe, he fits right in, no small accomplishment. Hayes was 76 at the time, as precise as when he was propelling Adderley and Horace Silver in his 20s. With alto saxophonist Vincent Herring and trumpeter Jeremy Pelt in the front line, the band plays the soulful bop and blues of Adderley’s repertoire (Dat Dere stands out) with as much élan as any contemporary group might manage.

04d_Grant_Stewart.jpgThe highpoint of Weeds’ current crop is by an expatriate Torontonian, tenor saxophonist Grant Stewart who established himself in New York 25 years ago. His Trio (Cellar Live CL111014) is boiled down to just tenor, bass and drums, but while it’s reminiscent of Sonny Rollins’ great orations, the resemblance takes nothing away from Stewart’s achievement. It’s spontaneous dialogue at the highest level, with the saxophonist at once as meaty and abstract as his model, whether cascading through chord changes or in intimate rhythmic dialogue with bassist Paul Sikivie and drummer (and brother) Phil Stewart. The trio spins particularly memorable variations on Everything’s Coming up Roses.

01_Throne.jpgThe Throne
Ochs-Robinson Duo
NotTwo MW 918-2 (nottwo.com)

Eschewing all regal trappings, this game of throne strips interactive improvisation to its bare bones, demonstrating how expansive a duet between one saxophonist and one drummer can be. Rova member, soprano and tenor saxophonist Larry Ochs, doesn’t need other reed backup on these nine tracks, carving out strategies involving sharpened abstraction plus an underlying swing, which at points is surprisingly harmonious. Responsive rather than confrontational, Donald Robinson uses all parts of his kit from cymbals to bass drum to push, promote or punctuate the interface.

Tarter tunes such as Red Tail and Breakout give Ochs a Sonny Rollins-like showcase to extract all possible tonal consideration from a theme, abandoning it like a dog with a bone only when maximum improvisational nourishment has been extracted; other lines are more sympathetic. Push Hands for instance, one of two memorials to departed musicians, is a study in pinched chromatics. Here Robinson bends his beats with an Africanized lilt, in order to accompany Ochs’ gravelly threnody. Song 2 is another revelation. What starts off as an essay in modulated reed slides and smears wedded to a rumpled pulse becomes a vibrant, coherent narrative that assumes song form.

Near-human vocalized cries which Ochs pulls from both his horns throughout are refined from stacks of timbral smears to a growly renal-like exposition that defines the concluding title track. At the same time Ochs’ thematic exposition relates back to Open to the Light, the first track, memorializing another musician. Ultimately Robinson’s emphasized ruff marks a distinct ending both to the final piece and this well-balanced program.

Jazzland Recordings Norway No. 2
471-991 B (jazzlandrec.com)

First formed in 2000, the quintet Atomic has developed into a key voice in current jazz, its distinct identity comprised of strong rhythmic grooves, free jazz fireworks and the edgy ensemble precision of post-bop jazz. The Scandinavian band has honed its art in the furnace of frequent tours over years, becoming a genuinely international presence. Lucidity is the band’s first CD since drummer Paal Nilssen-Love’s 2014 departure and Hans Hulbœkmo’s arrival, the band’s first personnel change. Atomic has done more than survive the loss of Europe’s most dynamic younger drummer: it’s found a new balance.

With compositions provided by saxophonist and clarinetist Fredrik Ljungkvist and pianist Håvard Wiik, Atomic presses forward on strong personalities and rare flexibility, with the aggressive brassy presence of trumpeter Magnus Broo defining the ensembles and bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten the group’s molten core. While Ljungkvist’s Major swings hard and continuously, Wiik’s Laterna Interfuit touches down on many bases, a gentle folk-like opening, a brashly dissonant fanfare and improvised passages that range through collective blowing from the horns and Wiik’s own airy, post-bop interlude.

That quicksilver creativity extends to Ljungkvist’s descriptively titled Start/Stop, from its eerie and slightly muffled night music beginning to its eventual rapid theme filled with wide intervals and accompanying clusters. Negotiating a shifting ground between composition and improvisation and a host of sounds, moods and methodologies, Atomic is devoted to keeping themselves and the audience engaged.


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