15 Natsuki TamuraKoki Solo
Natsuki Tamura
Libra Records 101-066 (librarecords.com)

Executive produced by the incomparable Satoko Fujii and recorded in Natsuki Tamura’s own home, Koki Solo is a collection of improvisations that equally showcase Tamura’s decades of playing experience and his boundless curiosity. He breaks with conventions of instrumentation and form with admirable enthusiasm and assurance. Beyond his typical innovations on the trumpet, he also experiments with piano, voice and even cookware from his kitchen. 

While he admittedly doesn’t have anywhere near the same mastery on instruments other than trumpet, it doesn’t stop him from doing amazing work. For example, during his piano improvising on Bora, Tamura’s patient drone in his left hand engages in compelling dialogues with both the open melodicism of his right hand and his arresting vocal exclamations. Similarly, on Karugamo, the detailed, textural tour through the contents of his kitchen gradually evolves into a rhythmical call-and-response with his forcefully enunciated syllables. 

Regardless of the various unfamiliar waters Tamura dips his toes into, he is the definition of a master improviser, and that translates to everything he does. Not a single phrase he plays or utters is an afterthought, or a throwaway. Every note is imbued with feeling and meaning and he expertly uses space to punctuate and emphasize. Fujii’s spotless production complements Tamura’s style perfectly, ensuring there is nary a detail in the music that sounds insignificant. An abundance of tangible passion can be felt in the performance of Koki Solo, and it’s infectious.

Like other out-of-the-ordinary keepsakes, boxed sets of recorded music are issued to celebrate a special occasion, to honour an unrepeatable situation or to assemble all parts of a unique situation. Each of these sets fit one of those criteria.

01 Wadada Leo SmithTo celebrate his 80th birthday, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, a founding member of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) who has created sounds ranging from hushed atonality to free-form funk, organized special projects for his transition to his ninth decade. The most noteworthy was the three-CD Sacred Ceremonies (TUM Records Box 03 tumrecords.com), which matched the trumpeter with two of his longtime associates, electric bassist Bill Laswell and percussionist Milford Graves (1941-2021), on one CD each plus a final disc trio session. The material combined new Smith compositions with free improvisations.

An expert in novel pulses, Graves’ intersection with the trumpeter shows how differing concepts of musical freedom can fuse. Especially during the three-part Nyoto suite, Smith’s fluttering grace notes create the horizontal expression that’s propelled to tenacious connections by Graves’ relaxed but vigorous metrical expression. Shaded, with sometimes unexpected   Baby Dodds in Congo Square is a nod to jazz history even through Graves’ postmodern non-timekeeping and Latin American and African influences are far removed from the cited New Orleans drummer’s straight-ahead beats. However, as Graves moves through rhythm permutations, Smith follows the narrative from adagio to allegro as he speeds up his playing from simple flutters to staccato squeals and shattering timbres at an elevated pitch. Laswell has produced the likes of Motörhead and Laurie Anderson, though as an instrumentalist he promotes the intersection between funk and free jazz. Smith, whose many projects include a recasting of Miles Davis’ electric period in the Yo Miles! group, is unfazed. Confirming this duality, one Smith-Laswell track is titled Donald Ayler’s Rainbow Summit, citing the free jazz trumpeter; and another – the longest – Minnie Riperton - The Chicago Bronzeville Master Blaster pays tribute to the Chicago-raised Rock/R&B singer. A more accomplished trumpeter than primitivist Ayler, Smith’s exposition mixes hardened slurs with accented shakes, and while playing motifs in the horn’s lowest register, retains an achingly clear brightness. Meanwhile, Laswell uses bass textures and programming to create not only a bumpy rhythmic bottom, but also a wash of electrified tones that mixes melancholy with atmosphere. Meanwhile on Minnie Riperton, a synthesized string section backs the trumpeter’s grace-note theme expansion. Moving from mellow to motion during the second half of the track, heavier beats are emphasized with sliding bass guitar pops among the shimmering interface. Later, brass triplets curve the narrative into distanced string vibrations as the final sequence widens and rolls the sounds upwards. The third and longest disc has the three musicians in trio formation, but without falling into conventional solo/accompaniment roles. Despite tracks moving in unexpected sequences, detoured motifs and shifting textures, Smith confirms his singularity with a distinctive brass sound. As in the Laswell duo, synthesized flanges and arrangements often push forward and suggest textures from additional ghost players. The only concession to convention is the introduction to The Healer’s Direct Energy which becomes a showcase for the expression of Graves’ rhythmic subtlety where his pounding ruffs and paced paradiddles set up an undulating narrative of guitar-like echoes and brassy triplet bugling from the others. Waves of Elevated Horizontal Forces is a more limited bass guitar elaboration, but brass bites and conga drum-like pops eventually predominate. Other than that, tracks evolve with three-part cohesion. Graves’ beats range from tom-tom-like pressure to near silent raps, which lock in to bass lines that include watery whammy-bar twists besides fluid improvisation. Additionally, Smith’s tongue tricks encompassing dissected runs, stratospheric trills and grainy ruggedness, fit appropriately among the other two players’ expressions.

02 ISTAnother trio which worked with near-extrasensory perception was the UK’s IST consisting of cellist Mark Wastell, harpist Rhodri Davies and double bassist Simon H. Fell. A More Attractive Way (Confront Core Series/Core 21 confrontrecordings.com) is a five-CD compendium of concerts from the turn of the century which proves that a string ensemble can create improvisations as intense as one with horns and percussion. Celebrating the trio’s 25-year existence it’s also a memorial to Fell, who died of cancer in 2020 at the age of 62. Avoiding for the most part charming harmonies associated with traditional chamber instruments, the 25 selections are reductionist with the frequent use of preparations to create staccato and percussive definitions. Predominately an improvised ensemble, IST devotes most of Disc V from 1998 to interpreting compositions, including Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Intensität. Understandingly, that version, which judders between string buzzing and harmonic clusters as well as proving how IST plays notated scores, isn’t far removed from the group’s pure improvisations. Ironically though, the swelling mid-section of Davies’ Wstrws, from the same concert, is the most the trio sounds like a conventional string trio. Still the harpist’s sped-up plucks and the trio’s sprinkle of squeaks and buzzes at the finale, confirms its individuality. Overall the three work within lower case parameters, but with frequent col legno bow strokes, below-the-bridge squeals, spiccato thumps and pressurized glissandi, so the tracks are never enervating. A particular instance of this is on Disc II’s Restrictive Parallels I. Climaxing with an explosion of jumps and sul tasto echoes plus door-stopper-like twangs, it follows a gradual deconstruction of the exposition. Cogwheel-like ratcheting portends later near-metal squeals after concentrated textures are augmented by modulated cello sweeps and double bass drones. IST hosts guests on two discs. Four tracks with violinist PhIl Durrant add more dynamic timbral excitement but don’t resemble conventional string quartet fare either. But when the quartet’s affiliated string rubs reach a crescendo, the interface is even more kinetic. On Aesthetic Triage II-IV the expositions augment to include wood raps, screw twisting and wound-string bending as all four alternate between harsh arco squeals and plinking pizzicato frails until the already elongated theme is stretched thinner and thinner. More low-key, tenor/soprano saxophonist John Butcher’s contribution to three other tracks moves the group within a mercurial suite illuminated by how well reed flattement and bubbling multiphonics are situated among IST’s vibrating string pressure encompassing sul ponticello splatters, crammed whines and plinks. The concluding Trenchant Observations II and III first torque the narrative to its highest-pitched confluence with whistling string tones and tongue slaps until thumping double bass stopping combines with cello string stretches and downwards harp glissando to widen the connection until the improvisation’s parameters are pulled down to reflective silence.

03 Ivo PerelmanA unique box variant is Embrace of the Souls: (SMP 2020 smprecords.bandcamp.com/ album/special-edition-box), which packages three examples of the almost-25-year musical partnership of Brazilian tenor saxophonist Ivo Perelman and American pianist Matthew Shipp. Included is an audio CD of a 2019 New York concert, a DVD of a São Paulo concert later that year, and a 49-page booklet discussing the musicians and 14 of their recordings by Belgian writer Jean-Michel Van Schouwburg. Building on the time he produced a Brussels concert with the duo, Van Schouwburg defines what he calls their sense of aesthetic familiarity, which allows them to create first-class music. Designed for both free jazz insiders and those exploring the sounds, Van Schouwburg describes the duo’s individual histories and situates their references and influences to swing era and bop stylists as well as more recent exploratory players. He insists on the unique qualities of every improvisation, live and recorded, and offers a succinct description of each disc. Meanwhile Perelman and Shipp’s art can be experienced audibly and/or visually. Filmed on a darkened stage and occasionally cutting away to show Perelman’s paintings, the DVD is one hour of uninterrupted improvisation that shows interwoven creativity. Consisting of a dozen tracks that take from between slightly over two to slightly over seven minutes to be resolved, the majority of the CD’s untitled tunes are pensive and romantic. Demonstrating again that free improvisation doesn’t have to be loud to be profound, logical shifts and slides are heard. Despite the saxophonist’s frequently climbing to altissimo or sopranissimo pitches with fragmented peeps, squeaks and screams, the two press on resolutely. Sometimes accelerating to a gallop to counter Perelman’s discursive reed lines or violent keyboard squalls before subsiding to double counterpoint, Shipp’s measured pattering and percussive asides indicate how he too subtly contributes to the tracks’ floating coordination.

No vanity projects, each of these collections has something to offer and celebrate.

01 Holly ColeMontreal
Holly Cole Trio
Rumpus Room Records 8088910067 (hollycole.com)

Recorded live during a four-day stint at the intimate Lion d’Or during the 2019 Festival International de Jazz, Montreal is a succinct six tracks. I don’t know if it’s because my attention span has deteriorated in this information-overloaded age we live in, but I quite enjoyed this shorter album size.

I also enjoyed the energy that a live performance lends. So although the majority of the tracks are Cole classics that most fans will have heard before, these renditions have slight differences from the studio versions as well as a unique presence and spontaneity that’s difficult to achieve in studio. The sound recording is so good (thanks to Ken Friesen) that you might not even know it’s live until the appreciative audience makes its presence felt.

Cole is in top form, doing what she does best: delivering great songs with style, wit and heart, starting with the atmospheric Whatever Lola Wants. A singer’s dream, Cole’s longtime bandmates – Aaron Davis, piano, David Piltch, bass, Davide DiRenzo, drums and John Johnson, woodwinds – deliver their usual imaginative, tasteful support. Each band member has a chance to shine – Piltch on the stripped down Little Boy Blue, a playful duet with just bass and voice. Davis solos beautifully on Girl Talk and Talk To Me Baby and Johnson’s evocative clarinet playing strikes just the right note on You’ve Got a Secret.

02 Swing ShiftCelebrations!
Swing Shift Big Band; Jackie Richardson; Larisa Renėe; Dave Statham
Palais Records SSBB2021CD (swingshiftbigband.com)

The homegrown, nationally acclaimed Swing Shift Big Band has been operating for 25 years and in these tough times has released a wonderful album full of all-time favourites from the genre that are sure to get any listener toe tapping right along. Led by multi-instrumentalist Jim John, through interesting and unique arrangements of well-known pieces, the band does a great job of breathing new life into a genre that can often get pushed slightly to the background. The listener is taken on a time-travelling journey of sorts, one that is just the perfect getaway paired with warmer weather and quickly approaching summer. 

The record starts off with a bossa nova classic Summer Samba, a sultry and rhythmic piece with scintillating solos by tenor saxophonist and musical director Jeff Pighin, as well as lead trombonist Rob Williams. Compared to the original, Swing Shift’s version may even become the preference for some due to the organ melody being replaced by a softer and mellower combination of trumpets, alto saxophones and trombones in this rendition. In Here’s to Life, renowned vocalist Jackie Richardson lends her rich and soulful voice to bring a melodious jazz ballad to new heights; the subtle yet poignant big band accompaniment pairing perfectly with her timbre. For any jazz fans looking to renew their interest in the big band subgenre or for new listeners alike, this album is a definite must.

03 Erin Propp Larry RoyWe Want All the Same Things
Erin Propp; Larry Roy
Chronograph Records CR-079 (erinpropp.com)

From the first downbeat of this fine recording, the listener is immediately drawn into Erin Propp and Larry Roy’s refreshing blend of folk and jazz, a bright world chock-full of catchy melodies, thoughtful lyrics and great musicianship. On this collection of 12 songs, mostly originals, the Winnipeg-based singer highlights her ongoing collaboration with Roy, one of Canada’s finest guitar players. The creative partnership has been a fruitful one, encompassing their 2012 Juno-nominated album Courage, My Love, as well as performances with the Winnipeg Symphony.

On this new recording, the duo continue to develop and deepen their artistry. Highlight tracks such as Farther On, The Light and Give Me More feature some exemplary songwriting, with Propp’s thoughtful, highly personal singing and lyrics matched alongside Roy’s distinctive arranging and harmonic approach. 

Propp’s versatility and strong affinity with the music of Brazil and Brazilian songstress Luciana Souza is highlighted on Recomeçar, a memorable melody composed by Humberto Piccoli. She also displays great vocal and emotional range on her interpretation of Hoagy Carmichael’s The Nearness of You. When Propp offers her highly individual take on this much-covered American Songbook standard, it is as if she is pausing to savour every syllable and nuance of the song. It takes a great singer to pull something like this off on such a high musical level.

Special mention also goes to the incredible crew of supporting musicians, Larnell Lewis, Mike Downes, Julian Bradford and Will Bonness. Hopefully this fine recording will help to give Propp and Roy the wider recognition they so deserve.

04 OcelotOcelot
Yuma Uesaka; Cat Toren; Colin Hinton
557 Records 5859 (557records.com) 

With its gorgeous sweeping melodies and fine ensemble communication, this album was juicy listening from start to finish. Sax/clarinet player Yuma Uesaka, Canadian pianist Cat Toren and drummer/percussionist Colin Hinton deliver a finely arced album, each track a diverse departure from the last but cohesive as a whole. Well known as individual jazz improvisers around the New York scene, the trio has gelled to create this gorgeous debut album, co-composed by the group, a culmination of a year’s worth of composing, rehearsing and touring, including a 2019 residency that allowed them to deepen their chemistry and work on the material for the album. This is an ensemble cast; three skilled players and improvisers whose trust in each other shows in the delicate patience and fine balance throughout the album. 

It’s impossible to name a favourite track. Daimon ll is a solid opening, with melodic and deep, pulsating support for the soaring sax. The broadly sweeping Factum is a great listen, compositionally perfect and beautifully played, while Post is mesmerizing and fun. Anemone is tightly constructed and finely mixed; Iterations shows the group blowing off steam. Sequestration is contemplative and spacious, with stunning sonorities, and Crocus leads us to a beautiful closing. 

Throughout the album, Hinton’s percussion never overpowers the other two, showing a fine sense of balance that manages to never sound held back. All three players show a remarkable patience for the natural expansion of the melodic content. 

This vibrant trio delivers an authentic and welcome breath of fresh air at the beginning of what will hopefully be a long and fruitful flight.

Listen to 'Ocelot' Now in the Listening Room

05 Hector QuartetUncharted
Hector Quartet
Independent hec001-cd (hectorquartet.com)

Hector consists of saxophonist Chris Gale, guitarist Ted Quinlan, keyboardist Jeff McLeod and drummer Chris Wallace. These are some of the most prolific and esteemed musicians in the Toronto scene and the results resemble something one might hear in the casual setting of a jazz club, albeit during a particularly loose and inspired gig. There is that signature flavour of guitar-driven funk, mixed with the stylistic versatility enabled by McLeod’s lyrical organ accompaniment, giving way to six tracks of truly impeccable jamming. One thing that stands out about Hector is how egoless the project is. Nobody dominates the soloing order, no force ever overwhelms the others, and most significantly, every compositional voice is heard.

Quinlan’s Building 8 is the perfect opener, enticing the listener by constantly taking harmonic left turns while managing to intangibly weave a melody through, capturing the intuitive enchantment of a lost standard. McLeod’s soulful 590 Blues showcases the band’s astonishing familiarity with the pocket, while McLeod’s solo sounds poised and comfortable, as if he were playing in his own home. What remains of the tracklist creates a beautiful contrast of moods, alternating between the richly melodious compositional style of Gale and the unflinchingly forceful grooves of Wallace. All the tunes are performed with equal respect, exertion and relish by everyone involved. For a debut album, Uncharted sounds a lot like the product of a true ensemble, one that has found its collective voice.

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