15 station threecd001 x01cpStation Three
Quartet Diminished
Hermes Records Her 092 (quartetdiminished.com)

Despite the repressive theocratic regime that governs Iran, some form of music is still being performed, even progressive improvised music – as this decisive CD proves. Iranian-Canadian guitarist Ehsan Sadigh and his cohorts, soprano saxophonist/clarinetist Sohil Peyghambari, pianist Mazyar Younessi and percussionist Rouzbeh Fadavi make up Quartet Diminished. The band recorded its four extended group compositions in Tehran in a style that mixes jazz-rock fusion and purer improvisation with Persian musical overtones.

From the first track while guitar flanges, sliced string chording and cascading piano licks relate to Western music, there are also sections where Fadavi’s measured thumps take on doumbek-like resonations and Peyghambari’s pinched glissandi project ney-like characteristics. At the same time, there’s no attempt to shoehorn textures from either tradition onto the other, merely to work out a mutual blend. So, for instance, the title track is as focused on drum press rolls, calliope-like trills from the reeds and buzzing guitar twangs as on any Middle Eastern inflections. Other tracks project R&B-like sax snarls, arena-rock-like guitar shakes, modulated drum ruffs and an exploratory interlude on Rhapsody which vibrates between piano key plinks and Morse code-like reed bites.

Overall, the sophistication of the performances suggests the quartet’s name is a misnomer. Rather than diminishing sounds, the band is augmenting all timbres into a satisfying Persian-Western fusion.

Since at least after World War Two, the skill of Japanese players of every type of music has been unquestioned, and it’s the same for jazz and improvised music. However since non-notated music’s bias has been North American and European-centred, except for the few who moved to the US, numerous Japanese innovators are unknown outside the islands. But these discs provide an overview of important players’ sounds and the evolution of the form.

01 itaru oj4kjAlthough arriving from a dissimilar tradition, free-form experiments were common in 1960s Japan with several avant-garde ensembles throughout the country. One player who tried for more international renown was trumpeter Itaru Oki (1941-2020). He relocated to France in 1974 and was soon playing with locals. Occasionally he returned to gig in Japan, and Live at Jazz Spot Combo 1975 (NoBusiness NBCD 143 nobusinessrecords.com) reproduces one of those visits. Playing with drummer Hozumi Tanaka who was part of his Japanese trio, bassist Keiki Midorikawa and, crucially, alto saxophonist/flutist Yoshiaki Fujikawa, Oki’s quartet roams through five themes and improvisations. The trumpeter’s truculent flutters set the pace with speedy arabesques in counterpoint to slithery flute flutters. While keeping the exposition horizontal, the trumpeter prolongs intensity with triplets and half-valve effects. Backed by sul tasto bass string rubs and percussion slaps, Fujikawa is even more assertive beginning with Combo Session 2, where initial saxophone concordance with trumpet puffs soon dissolves into strangled reed cries and irregular vibrations. Dragging an emotional response from Oki, both horns are soon exfoliating the narrative, seconded by cymbal shivers. But the four stay rooted enough in jazz to recap the head after cycling through theme variations. These opposing strategies are refined throughout the rest of this live set. But no matter how often the saxophonist expresses extended techniques such as doits and spetrofluctuation, linear expression prevents aural discomfort. In fact, the concluding Combo Session 5 could be termed a free jazz ballad. While Oki’s tonal delineation includes higher pitches and more note expansion than a standard exposition, at points he appears to be channelling You Don’t Know What Love Is. That is, until Midorikawa’s power pumps, Tanaka’s clapping ruffs and the saxophonist’s stentorian whistles and snarls turn brass output to plunger emphasis leading to a stimulating rhythmic interlude. With trumpet flutters descending and reed trills ascending a unison climax is reached.

02 lovely ab4d9Flash forward 15 years and more instances of first generation Japanese free music are on Live at Jazz Inn Lovely 1990 (NoBusiness NBCD 135 nobusinessrecords.com). In one way it was a reunion between two pioneering improvisers, guitarist Masayuki Jojo Takayanagi (1932-1991), who began mixing noise emphasis and free improvisation in the mid-1960s with in-your-face groups featuring the likes of saxophonist Kaoru Abe and pianist Masabumi Puu Kikuchi (1939-2015). Kikuchi evolved a quieter style after moving to the US in the late 1980s and this was the first time the guitarist and pianist played together since 1972. Problem was that this was a Takayanagi duo gig with longtime bassist Nobuyoshi Ino until Kikuchi decided to sit in, creating some understandable friction. Agitation simmers beneath the surface adding increased tautness to the already astringent sounds. This is especially obvious on the trio selections when the guitarist’s metallic single lines become even chillier and rawer. Initially more reserved, Kikuchi’s playing soon accelerates to percussive comping, then key clangs and clips, especially on the concluding Trio II. For his part, Ino serves as a bemused second to these sound duelists, joining an authoritative walking bass line and subtly advancing swing to that final selection. On the duo tracks, he and the guitarist display extrasensory connectivity. He preserves chromatic motion with buzzing stops or the occasional cello-register arco sweep. Meanwhile with a minimum of notes, Takayanagi expresses singular broken chord motion or with slurred fingers interjects brief quotes from forgotten pop tunes. On Duo II as well, Ino’s string rubs move the theme in one direction while Takayanagi challenges it with a counterclockwise pattern. Still, fascination rests in the piano-guitar challenges with Kikuchi’s keyboard motion arpeggio-rich or sometime almost funky, while Takayanagi’s converse strategies take in fluid twangs, cadenced strumming and angled flanges. 

03 littlejohn jo4o1Abandoning chordal instruments and concentrating on horn textures, Live at Little John, Yokohama 1999 (NoBusiness NBCD 144 nobusinessrecords.com) provides an alternative variant of Nipponese free music. Backed only by the resourceful drumming of Shota Koyama, a trio of wind players creates almost limitless tonal variants singly, in tandem or counterpoint. Best known is tenor saxophonist Mototeru Takagi (1941-2002), who was in Takayangi’s New Direction Unit and in a duo with percussionist Sabu Toyozumi. The others who would later adopt more conventional styles are Susumu Kongo who plays alto saxophone, flute and bass clarinet, and Nao Takeuchi on tenor saxophone, flute and bass clarinet. No compromising of pure improvisation is heard on this CD’s three lengthy selections, although there are times when flute textures drift towards delicacy and away from the ratcheting peeps expelled elsewhere. Whether pitched in the lowing chalumeau register or squeaking clarion split tones, clarinet textures add to the dissonant sound mosaic. This isn’t anarchistic blowing however, since the tracks are paced with brief melodic interludes preventing the program from overheating. The more than 40 minute Yokohama Iseazaki Town gives the quartet its greatest scope, as vibrating split tones pass from one horn to another with percussion crunches keeping the exposition chromatic. Takagi’s hardened flutters and yowling vibrations may make the greatest impression, but Kongo’s alto saxophone bites are emphasized as well. Although space exists for clarion clarinet puffs and transverse flute trilling, it’s the largest horn’s foghorn honks and tongue-slaps that prevent any extraneous prettiness seeping into the duets. Still, with canny use of counterpoint and careful layering of horn tones backed by sprawling drum raps, the feeling of control is always maintained along with the confirmation of how the balancing act between expression and connection is maintained.

04 misak jj0kaTakagi’s former duo partner, percussionist Sabu Toyozumi (b.1943) continues playing free music as he has since the mid-1960s. Recently he’s formed a partnership with American alto saxophonist Rick Countryman, with Misaki Castle Tower (Chap Chap Records CPCD-0190 chapchap-music.com) the most recent session. It’s fitting that one track is entitled Ode to Kaoru Abe since the saxophonist who overdosed at 29 in 1978 is a Charlie Parker-like free jazz avatar in Japan. While the healthy duo’s homage is strictly musical, Countryman’s spiralling tones, modulated squeaks and brittle reed interjections are aptly seconded by Toyozumi’s hard ruffs and cymbal pops. Segues into shaking flattement, renal snarls and multiphonics characterize the saxophonist’s playing on other tracks and the drummer responds with positioned nerve beats, complementary rim shots and restrained press rolls. Hushed tone elaborations, during which Countryman moves pitch upwards with every subsequent breath, distinguish the concluding Myths of Modernization from the preceding tracks. But the saxophonist’s ability to snake between clarion peeps and muddy smears when not eviscerating horn textures, remains. The summation comes on that track, as articulated reed squeezes and stops meet irregular drum bops and ruffs. 

05 taku rxoepAlthough they play the same instrument as Takayanagi, the sounds from Taku Sugimoto (electric guitar) and Takashi Masubuchi (acoustic guitar) on Live at Otooto & Permian (Confront Core Series core 16 confrontrecordings.com/core-series) reflects a new minimalist genre of Japanese improvisation. Called Onkyo, which loosely translates as quiet noise, it’s as introspective as free jazz is brash. Through a sophisticated use of voltage drones, string percussion and harmonic transformation, these two guitarists prevent the five selections recorded at two Tokyo clubs from being bloodless. With the electric guitar projecting a buzzing undercurrent, harsh jabs, bottleneck-like twangs and inverted strums inject rhythmic and harmonic transformation into the tracks even as the narratives unroll horizontally. While the gradual evolution is rigid, there are sequences as on At Permian II, where repetitive undulations from both join singular cells into a distant melody. Plus, by moving patterns between guitarists, the duo ensures that neither droning continuum nor singular string prods predominate, making sound transformation as logical as it is unforced. 

Too often Western listeners think of unconventional Japanese music as foreign, frightening and impenetrable. As these sessions show there’s actually much to explore and appreciate with close listening.

01 Nick AdemademiLAN
Nicholas Adema
Independent (nickadema.com)

Toronto-based composer/trombonist Nick Adema’s latest offering is teeming with originality and confidence from front to back. Everything from the writing to the execution feels like the product of an artist who is conscious of their identity. 

One aspect that immediately jumps out is Adema’s astounding attention to detail. Each of his compositions contains a myriad of ideas, gradually revealing themselves over time and yet all coming together to form a satisfying whole. His melodies are intuitive enough to feel eerily familiar and yet elaborate enough to make anybody’s head spin. Much like the greats, Adema’s writing possesses immense beauty while also managing to zig where others would normally zag. Another trait of his that resembles top all-time composer/bandleaders is the rare ability to make full usage of his whole group. The effects of this tendency particularly shine through the kinetic rhythm section during the final climactic minutes of Rise, and the three-man-weave in the horn section of demiLAN

Due to the nature of Adema’s bandleading, along with the sheer talent he assembled, the most memorable moments on the album consist of celestial synergy between musicians. One definitive instance was the combination of lyricist/vocalist Alyssa Giammaria’s deeply poignant prose and the reassuring warmth of bassist Evan Gratham’s tone on the intro of the stunning Lament for the Future to Come. Ultimately, it is due to Adema’s knack for working with these parts that the whole far exceeds the sum.

02 GGRILSommes
Tour de Bras TDB9051CD (tourdebras.com)

In 2014 I wrote my first sustained account of GGRIL, Grand Groupe Régional d’Improvisation Libérée, the large-scale, Rimouski, Quebec-based orchestra devoted to free improvisation, conduction, graphic, text-based and any other kind of score that falls into its wide purview. The article was based on hearing and talking to GGRIL members at FIMAV (Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville), and the final sentence read: “GGRIL is currently recording scores by a wide variety of composers for their next album, Collection, a three-CD set that includes the pieces by Robert Marcel Lepage and Jean Derome performed at FIMAV.” Though it’s taken longer than expected, that ambition is now realized with Sommes, a three-CD commemoration of GGRIL’s 15-year history, 11 works dated from 2013 to 2020 by Québécois, Canadian and international composers, all newly recorded in fall 2020 by an edition of GGRIL that includes 21 musicians and a guest appearance by Quatuor Bozzini.  

That original Lepage work, the 14-minute Alice, appears on disc one, an abstracted comedy reimagining Lewis Carroll’s work as a series of jagged, pecking dialogues between individual instruments, frequently in the bass register, occasionally reshaping the scenes with rapid-fire percussion. A brief solo episode, Chat de Cheshire, becomes a leitmotif through the set, appearing first as a bass prelude by Luke Dawson, then twice on each succeeding CD, by classical guitarist Pascal Landry, trombonist Gabriel Rochette-Bériault, cellist Rémy Bélanger de Beauport and electric bassist Éric Normand, the GGRIL founder and firebrand whose modesty limits his credits here to electric bass and a single conducting appearance.

Fifteen years in, GGRIL’s achievement seems extraordinary, a miraculous collaboration of state arts funding, local isolation and rare vision, involving composers from across Canada and Western Europe as well as Quebec. Alison Cameron’s In Memoriam Robert Ashley, a work of startling evanescence, drips beauty; Martin Arnold’s Éistphéist, featuring Quatuor Bozzini and the composer’s banjo, turns the gestural phrases of folk music into a 25-minute dreamscape. The ensemble’s devotion to chance and the unique realization is apparent in the textural surprises of Lori Freedman’s playful Chances Are and in two distinct realizations of England-based saxophonist Caroline Kraabel’s Une note n’écoutant qu’elle-même. Other composers represented are Lisa Cay Miller, Malcolm Goldstein, Michel F. Côté, Jean Derome (his La courbe du moment from 2014) and Gus Garside.

The most ambitious performance here may be the opening one, French pianist Frédéric Blondy’s Îlots turgescents, a work of segments (“islands”) that demonstrates the orchestra’s range and power, from sudden, airliner-like, ascending glissandi to an extended, shifting drone that might model the ultimate funerary chord, stretching out to perpetuity until it includes within it an extended, gradual upward glissando increasing in amplitude. Weird Polynesian lounge jazz follows.

03a Grdina Square Peg KLOTSKI Klotski
Gordon Grdina’s Square Peg
Attaboygirl Records ABG-2 (gordongrdina.bandcamp.com)

Gordon Grdina
Attaboygirl Records ABG-1 (gordongrdina.bandcamp.com)

Over the past decade, Vancouver-based composer/guitarist Gordon Grdina has emerged as one of Canada’s most prolific jazz musicians. He has formed and recorded with a series of distinct bands, including New York-based ensembles – his eponymous Quartet with Oscar Noriega, Satoshi Takeishi and Russ Lossing and the trio Nomad with Matt Mitchell and Jim Black – and such Vancouver groups as his string-dominated Septet and the Arabic music ensemble Haram. All that activity has now led to Grdina’s own label, Attaboygirl Records, which launches with two releases, one introducing a new international quartet, the second a program of solo music for classical guitar and oud. Each testifies to Grdina’s remarkable capacity for growth.

With Square Peg, Grdina blends his electric guitar and oud with two Americans, violist Mat Maneri  (a long-standing explorer of quarter-tone improvisation) and bassist Shahzad Ismaily (also making adept contributions on synthesizer) and German drummer Christian Lillinger, a rising star in Europe who brings a special animation to any ensemble of which he’s a part. Klotski is a 53-minute work in eight parts, modular pieces that can be introduced by any member of the group and which are linked by collective improvisations. At the core of the music is the strong rapport of Grdina and Maneri who share a fondness for nuances of pitch and subtle shifts in repeating motifs. At times the musical thought is so close that one may cease distinguishing between oud or guitar and viola, as if they’re being played by a single mind, particularly evident in the kind of profound reverie that arises in a work like Bacchic Barge, in which the music’s ultimate effect includes both the intertwined strings and the metallic glitter of Lillinger’s snare and cymbals.

03b Grdina PENDULUMOn Pendulum, his third solo CD, Grdina concentrates on classical guitar and oud. On guitar he creates mysterious tonal intersections out of contrasting cultural references, a quality immediately apparent on the opening Koen Dori, initially written for a Japanese ensemble. The solo performance here hangs between East and West, idiomatic pentatonics and a broad vibrato on slow passages emphasizing the former within a context of richly European harmonies. The effect is not dissonant, however literally that might be applied, but concordant, similar to the quality achieved with Square Peg. Western harmonic conceptions strongly colour the glassy reverberating chromatic weave of Contra, while Wayward, the longest track here and one of two oud pieces, is characterized by rapidly shifting dynamics, an expressive intensity and a movement from traditional modality to increasingly complex pitch distortions and relations.

04 Nick FraserIf There Were No Opposites
Nick Fraser
Independent (nickfraserthedrummer.com)

Drummer/composer Nick Fraser’s eponymous quartet is amongst the most distinctive Canadian bands to emerge in the past decade, maintaining consistent personnel that includes New York saxophonist Tony Malaby as well as Fraser’s longtime Toronto associates, bassist Rob Clutton and Andrew Downing, here playing cello rather than his more customary bass. If There Were No Opposites is the group’s fourth CD since 2012, and it marks another step in their evolution, with a kind of telepathy arising in the collective handling of Fraser’s compositions and sketches. 

Fraser’s subtle sense of form adds a special element to the program. The CD begins with Improvisation (Part 1), a flurry of upper-register pizzicato, soon joined by gruff tenor saxophone and a high-pitched keening string melody; within a minute, it shifts to a somber ballad, the tenor tamed and mingled with bowed strings and cymbal washes. The CD’s concluding piece, Improvisation (Part 2), which begins with unaccompanied drums, is literally the continuation of the first, a clever bracketing of the composed pieces within the spontaneous, inverting the traditional jazz pattern of enclosing improvisation within form-defining statements.   

In between there are five Fraser compositions, each a distinct springboard for the band’s often tumultuous creativity, lines and timbres constantly assembling, dissolving and reassembling in ways that are at once loose and precise, whether it’s the rapid-tempo explosion of Sketch #50 or the piquant, transformations of The Bulldog and the Capricorn. This is exceptional music making.

05 June GarberOff the Carousel
June Garber
Vesuvius Music VMI-005 (junegarber.com)

Luminous chanteuse and performer June Garber has just released a compelling, emotionally and musically profound recording. A deeply personal project, every track is like a small, perfect piece of cinéma vérité – a journey through the commonality of the human experience through Garber’s autobiographical musical lens. Musical genius Lou Pomanti produced and arranged the recording, and also performed on a variety of keyboards. As the CD was created when it was impossible (due to COVID) to record together in the studio, under the expert direction of Pomanti the tracks were created individually and remotely, and then assembled. The talented musicians here include Steve Heathcote on drums, Marc Rogers on bass, Jake Langley on guitar, Drew Jurecka on strings, William Sperandei on trumpet and Robyn Black on background vocals. 

The moving opener, He Never Mentioned Love, sets the tone for this romantic, emotional journey of an album, where Garber acts as both muse and tour guide. Langley’s soulful guitar solo moves in and out of the languid string lines of almost unbearable beauty as Garber captivates with every note and nuance. Of special, remarkable beauty and delicacy is the inspired composition of the Bergmans and Michel LeGrand, Windmills of Your Mind. Garber fearlessly sails through this melodically and lyrically challenging tune on the wings of a truly inspired arrangement by Pomanti.

Every track on this recording is a luscious listening experience – from Lil Hardin’s sexy, bluesy Just for a Thrill (with special guest Jackie Richardson) to a unique, rhythmically infused take on Chick Corea’s Spain, where Garber’s rich, warm tones elicit pure joy! Of special mention is the rarely performed Johnny Mercer/Barry Manilow ballad, When October Goes, performed here to perfection with pristine guitar and voice. The deep emotional honesty in Garber’s interpretation is nothing short of breathtaking.

Listen to 'Off the Carousel' Now in the Listening Room

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