06 Alex FrancouerMissing Element
Alex Francoeur Group
Effendi Records FND151 (effendirecords.com)

Even the abundant Québécois music scene throws up a particular surprise every once and a while; such is the case listening in wonder to the saxophonist Alex Francoeur. A superb technician who plays with tremendous élan and whose music allows the unimpeded flow of emotion without ever descending into gratuitous sentimentality, Francoeur plays with eloquent articulation and astounding control capped off by erudition and temperament that eludes many woodwind players of his generation.

The audience of the Upstairs Jazz Bar and Grill in Montreal was certainly in the best position to experience all of his unique gifts, as this recording, Missing Element, certainly proves. It is a brilliant record of the proceedings that eschews pyrotechnics for depth of feeling, couched in the restrained liquidity of the music. Francoeur’s playing feels extraordinarily reflective and relaxed throughout, and is especially rewarding in his limpid account of I Hear a Rhapsody, a standard that is all too often covered with fire and brimstone which, in turn, destroys its emotional content completely.

The rest of this wonderful repertoire comprises original material and here too one gets a glimpse of Francoeur’s musical stature. Works such as Tides are layered and complex and the musicians in his group (Chris Edmondson, alto sax; Gentiane MG, piano; Levi Dover, bass; Louis-Vincent Hamel, drums) respond with great musical intellect and intuition to meld the infectious allure of each with consummate skill and wholehearted enthusiasm.

07 Harry VetroNorthern Ranger
Harry Vetro
TOSound TSND-02 (harryvetro.com)

Northern Ranger is both an ice-breaking ferry operating in Newfoundland and Labrador and the name of an album by drummer and composer Harry Vetro. Vetro was inspired by Canada’s 150th birthday and a desire to travel across the country and learn more about our geography and Indigenous communities. An undergraduate special projects grant from the University of Toronto to record his first album allowed him to create this ambitious project.

The album creates an illusion of travelling through its descriptive names and some programmatic elements in the music. Many of the compositions are named after travel, for example: Gondola to Blackcomb, Hawk Air. Another way of creating movement is the mixing of several shorter pieces (solo guitar, solo piano and two trios), with works using a larger group with rhythm section, trumpet, saxophone and a string quartet.

The album opens with Northern Ranger: Leaving Goose Bay, an almost two-minute guitar solo played in a semi-classical style by Ian McGimpsey over the sampled sounds of the ocean. This leads into a thoughtful drum solo by Vetro which begins Buffalo Jump. Then the whole ensemble plays but quiets for a solo violin poignantly playing the main melodic motif, which is repeated by guitar, and then all strings and brass join for an animated central section.

Repeatedly beginning small and gradually building could be a cliché in music but in the context of this album it is a thoughtful exposition of the travel theme, where soft beginnings lead sometimes to rousing excitement and other times to quieter introspection. Vetro’s compositions are mainly jazz-oriented but have heavy folk and classical influences. The performances and solos are excellent and Lina Allemano has a marvellous trumpet sound, with a broad lyricism that reminds me of Kenny Wheeler.

08 Gelcer HoffertJim and Paul play Glenn and Ludwig
Jim Gelcer; Paul Hoffert; George Koller
Centrediscs CMCCD 25818 (musiccentre.ca)

Curiosity and doubt surprisingly quickly turned to delight and respect when listening to Jim Gelcer (drums), Paul Hoffert (piano) and George Koller (bass) with guests Bill McBirnie (flute on three tracks) and Ifield Joseph (guitar on one track) face the music and develop their jazz ideas based on recordings of pianist Glenn Gould playing Beethoven.

Why you may ask? Well, why not? Following the Glenn Gould Estate’s suggestion to create a recording, Gelcer and Hoffert listened to the wealth of Gould-recorded Beethoven music, and subsequently chose to arrange themes from the Moonlight Sonata, Fifth Symphony, Fifth Piano Concerto and Pathétique Sonata to create nine tracks.

Touches of classical and jazz resonate throughout. Opening track Moon Light starts with an almost traditional piano Moonlight Sonata performance but with drum accompaniment, until the bass moves the music into a dramatic jazz direction featuring a witty jazzy flute middle section. The closing track Day Light takes the same Sonata in a more classical direction with shifts in major and minor tonalities and a contrapuntal jazz flute development above a piano backdrop playing the opening sonata-line ideas. The famous four-note opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony takes on a toe-tapping upbeat fun jazz sound in Vitamin B51. First Path has the trio lead the Pathétique theme into a tight, fun jazz trio and duet improvisations

With their jazz brilliance, all the musicians give new life and colour to the music of Glenn and Ludwig!

Listen to 'Jim and Paul play Glenn and Ludwig' Now in the Listening Room

09 Bitter SuiteThe Bitter Suite
Marie Goudy 12tet featuring Jocelyn Barth
Independent (mariegoudy.com)

Haunting, poetic, imaginative – The Bitter Suite grabs the listener right away and doesn’t let go. A love story told through five movements, each chapter of the story connected with a particular season, a song cycle that is enchanting in atmosphere and brimming with emotion.

The Bitter Suite feels intimate, like late night confessions, yet universal in meaning. Written and arranged by Marie Goudy, it has an interestingly varied musical language – elements of jazz and mariachi styles combine very well here. Goudy’s musical world is gentle and transcendent but she is fiery in her expression as a composer and as a trumpet player. The large jazz ensemble lays out harmonies and rhythms across the board, creating a mellow landscape for engaging solos in each piece. But what really links the pieces together is the mesmerizing voice and phrasing of the vocalist Jocelyn Barth.

The album opens with Goudy’s dreamy solo trumpet Intro. Playful Son for Sunshine and passionate Autumn’s Embrace follow in its footsteps, each different in expression but both influenced with mariachi rhythms and style. Winter is simply beautiful, a story about the world covered in snow and a heartbreak. The suite itself concludes with Lilacs, a classy tune with a melancholy feel. Although the last piece on the album, Remember the Days, does not belong to the suite (it is an ode to a cherished friendship), it makes for a lovely postscript.

10 McBirney and BernieThe Silent Wish
Bill McBirnie; Bernie Senensky
Extreme Flute EF08 (extremeflute.com)

The Silent Wish brings the two loves of flutist Bill McBirnie – his mastery of the flute and his love for his wife – together in a sunburst of 12 familiar and rarely performed gems. A true virtuoso, who counts the great classical flutist Sir James Galway as a diehard fan, McBirnie does not make many records. Consequently, each production is a work of several months (sometimes years) of painstaking selection and agonizing rehearsal which always yields a work of polished, honed craftsmanship.

This bejewelled 2018 masterpiece is a duet with another celebrated Canadian musician, the pianist Bernie Senensky. Both McBirnie and Senensky have acquired reputations for being fine craftsmen on their respective instruments, but while they are masterful virtuosos their music eschews ornament for the ornament’s sake. Instead their virtuoso flights are completely dedicated to the melodic beauty of the music, which is tossed from flute to piano in great flights of harmonic fancy.

To that end the two musicians infuse these 12 conventional songs – a variety of idioms and styles – with an intimacy and an emotional intensity which can only be described as the poetry of feeling; and there is no finer example of this than the performance of Charlie Haden’s First Song. There is a feeling that this record is ballad-like, but tempi often vary and songs often abound in quite startling dramatic contrasts with moments of lyric tenderness being followed by passages of tumultuous energy, always played with unruffled grace.

11 Hard Rubber OrchestraKenny Wheeler: Suite for Hard Rubber Orchestra
Hard Rubber Orchestra featuring Norma Winstone
Justin Time JTR 8614-2 (justin-time.com)

Though Kenny Wheeler left Canada for England in 1952, the distinguished composer/ trumpeter/ flugelhornist always maintained close relations with musicians and audiences here. In 2013, the year before Wheeler’s death, composer (and sometime trumpeter) John Korsrud commissioned Wheeler to compose a suite for Vancouver’s Hard Rubber Orchestra, an 18-member group Korsrud has been leading since 1990, debuting Canadian works from jazz to new music. Wheeler provided five movements, and Korsrud has sequenced them, adding improvised interludes.

The music is distinctively Wheeler’s, bringing a Hindemith-like richness and clarity to the big-band format to evoke joy and wistfulness, celebration and memory, then shading and mingling them with sometimes astonishing harmonic nuance. Singer Norma Winstone, a longtime collaborator, is an essential component of the orchestra, her wordless parts soaring through the massed brass and saxophones.

The music, too, is a celebration of the subtlety and art that Wheeler brought to the trumpet: two orchestral movements feature Mike Herriott, while the brief and lustrous interludes have Brad Turner improvising duets with bassist André Lachance, pianist Chris Gestrin and guitarist Ron Samworth. Among other soloists, tenor saxophonist Eli Bennett is aggressively creative on Movement I.  

The quality of the music is such that one doesn’t mourn, but instead celebrates Wheeler’s continuing presence – a national legacy that now stretches from Nova Scotia and the Maritime Jazz Orchestra’s Siren’s Song to the University of Toronto Jazz Orchestra’s Sweet Ruby Suite to this suite for Vancouver’s Hard Rubber Orchestra.

Listen to 'Kenny Wheeler: Suite for Hard Rubber Orchestra' Now in the Listening Room

12 SeanceSéance
Philippe Lemoine; Simon Rose
Tour de Bras TDB9036cd (tourdebras.com)

Consisting of a dozen brief tracks that showcase the sweep of extended reed playing, Séance also confirms improvised music’s universality. French tenor saxophonist Philippe Lemoine and British baritone saxophonist Simon Rose, both Berlin-based, are on a Canadian label. Geographic considerations aside, the tracks, which last from just over one minute to almost six and a half, demonstrate that saxophone probing can be both penetrating and pleasing.

Hope River is the only track on which expected baritone and tenor tones are displayed with comforting familiarity; the others concentrate on testing as many reed tropes as possible. Sometimes, as on Worm Gill, it is tongue slaps; other times, as on Planchette, air is whooshed through horns’ body tubes without key movements, creating whale-like or bird-echoing textures; or on Now Séance the two fluidly modulate deep pitches to their farthest extensions without losing momentum.

Still it’s the longest pieces that meet the most reed challenges. Veering from squeaky to subterranean timbres during Dans(e) le flux, both burrow deep inside their horns for protracted rumbles that are cleverly harmonized with key percussion. Equally percussive as well as abstract, Medium is an essay in tongue slaps, key rattles, juddering cries and slurps that accede to a concentrated mass, but one in which both horns can be heard clearly.

Whether believing in contacting the deceased through a medium or not, this Séance is one in which many a saxophonist would want to participate.

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