10 Egbo EgboA New Standard
Thompson Egbo-Egbo
eOne Entertainment EMC-CD-16 (egbo.ca)

The notion of standards and the Great American Songbook have defined much of jazz music’s history and each musician must choose a way to address this background. Pianist Thompson Egbo-Egbo’s playfully titled album A New Standard contains both classic and not-so-standard standards.

Egbo-Egbo is a graduate of Humber College, studied at Berklee and regularly plays in Toronto with his trio. He performs with a calm assurance and combines elements of jazz, pop and classical styles. His playing is often more chordal and rhythmic than linear. Drummer Jeff Halischuck and bassist Randall Hall provide a sensitive and nuanced accompaniment.

Album highlights include Sing to the Moon in which Egbo-Egbo offers restrained accompaniment to a gorgeous vocal by Nikki Ponte. Softly As in a Morning Sunrise has a great bounce and right-hand intricacy reminiscent of Oscar Peterson. Be Courageous has a pop feel and gradually increases in intensity throughout its first half, which is driven by swirling drums; there is a brief solo respite and then it pushes to the end. Coltrane’s Mr PC takes off at a blistering speed and after a frenetic solo it morphs into Spiderman which seems to just make sense. My Favourite Things brings together many of Egbo-Egbo’s ideas and techniques. It begins with a quiet semi-classical arrangement with a left-handed counterpoint to the melody. Over its six-minute length it gradually builds and becomes louder, more intense and majestic with its impassioned ending.

11 OctoblueCD006Octoblue
Joe McPhee; Jérôme Bourdellon
Label Usine l.u. 2016 (bourdellon.com)

American Joe McPhee has pursued an itinerant improvisers’ path since the mid-1960s; Octoblue is another of his significant discs for several reasons. Not only is McPhee’s versatility matched by France’s Jérôme Bourdellon, who plays C, bass and contrabass flutes, piccolo and bass clarinet, but McPhee’s expressiveness on clarinet and pocket trumpet is extended to toy piano, singing and bubbling water(!).

Switching among instruments, the two add the unexpected to the exposition throughout the CD. Deep Sea Dancers, for example, is a mini-suite in itself. Moving through plunger trumpet growls, whale-like sounds from the contrabass flute and dual key percussion, further elaborations include shrill brass whistles and reed tongue stops, with the finale half-valve brass extensions steadied by foot-tapping bass flute pacing. With Bourdellon’s woody clarinet as stop-time accompaniment, McPhee’s melismatic blues singing on the title tune is Ray Charles-like (if somewhat coarser), while still communicating profound sentiments like “freedom is a work in progress.”

Conversely, Across the Water reaches the zenith of atonality, as water-burbled mouthpiece timbres are stretched into strangled trumpet blasts contrasted with airy flute puffs, as both horns quicken to elevated pitches without losing the narrative. After McPhee unexpectedly introduces a toy piano to honour the deceased keyboardist on Tribute to Borah Bergmann, and a track like On the Way to History melds loping clarinet tones and graceful flute symmetry, both players expose almost every mood and modulation. For McPhee, itinerant is a synonym for inventiveness, as he demonstrates his cooperative skills at every performance.

Although there were vogues at points from the 1930s to the 1960s for stride and boogie-woogie keyboard teams, piano duos have never been as prevalent in jazz as in so-called classical music, starting in the late 18th century. More recently, however, with keyboardists cognizant of both notated and improvised music and with standard performance configurations liberated, duo piano pieces have become more common in exploratory jazz, as these sessions attest.

01 PetroleCD005The closest link to the classic(al) duo concept is piano duo Pétrole’s Créations raffinées pour deux pianos [Refined Pieces for Two Pianos] (Pépin & Plume P&P 005 pepinetplume.com). The stated aim of French pianists Nathalie Darche and Carine Llobet (the former known as a jazz player and the latter specializing in chamber music) is to renew the duo piano repertoire by playing pieces by younger jazz composers. Tilts in varied directions enliven the interpretations. This is most obvious on Les pensées offshore d’Arthur, the first and longest piece. Relaxed romanticism, the adagio sequences are only slightly transformed by quick jazz-like modulations at the end. The obverse is evident on Pétrole Interlude, mostly concerned with vibrating the darkest parts of the instruments’ action and soundboard. Tremolo torque spreads the interpretation so that it’s mesmerizing as well as kinetic, with echoes created by four hands pumping at once. These are the CD’s parameters; the players’ high level of coordination allows them to slide nearly effortlessly from neo-classical, almost sugary passages that match crystalline fingering with front-parlour-like sentimentality, to bright, modernist sequences, where theme depiction is both lively and agitated. Overlapping cadenzas constantly move the melody delineation and tune decoration from one instrument to the other.

02 EightOctavesCD001Meanwhile, tremolo syncopation and overlapping piano percussiveness are taken to extremes without swing on Music in Eight Octaves (Immediata IMMO 11 anthonypateras.com), by two Australians performing as the duo 176. Chris Abrahams is a member of The Necks trio, and Anthony Pateras is involved with electroacoustic and multi-disciplinary projects. If the preceding disc could be compared to a volume of tasteful poetry, then this one is a novel, with colourful melodrama on every page. One super-fast and aggressive 50-minute track, Music in Eight Octaves is the result of the two recording four takes in each octave of the piano, which Pateras then multi-tracked and superimposed over each other. Overwrought and almost opaque textures call to mind Conlon Nancarrow player piano studies and George Antheil’s original Ballet Mécanique for synchronized player pianos. Besides the sinewy speed of this performance, which rattles through pan-tonality and double counterpoint, higher pitches suggest marimba timbres. Transitions in the piece are only obvious when both pianists cease playing in either the higher- or lower-pitched keys, leaving some breathing room, which quickly upsurges again to almost unyielding friction. Consistently pulse-quickening, the effects mash together Cecil Taylor-like kinetics and Oscar Peterson-like comprehension so that the combination of tempo changes and thickened discord becomes exhausting as well as exhilarating. Following its own logic, the session never climaxes; it just stops.

03a EveRisserCD004The next two CDs were recorded in concert: To Pianos (Clean Feed CF 448 CD cleanfeedrecords.com) with Paris-based Eve Risser and her Slovenian associate Kaja Draksler; and Octopus (Pyroclastic Records PR 03 krisdavis.net), featuring Canadian Kris Davis and American Craig Taborn. Interestingly enough the eight tracks on the first disc and six on the other are split between compositions and improvisations, except for a (different) Carla Bley tune on each, and Davis and Taborn also assaying Sun Ra’s Love in Outer Space. By contrast, the Risser-Draksler duo begins the concert in inner space, with ringing bell-like reflections, then diffuses the program in double counterpoint with ambulatory or more settled creations. Among the improvisations, To Pianists is notable for inner-string plucks and e-bow vibrations which play up the instruments’ percussiveness; inchoate drones and wood-echoing thumps almost turning the piano into 88 tuned drums. Unlike the inconclusive scene-setting of that track however, To Women’s key rattling and stopped strings, filtered through changing tempos, moves a hushed interaction from stiff to swinging. The duo’s playful mash-up of Bley’s Walking Woman and Batterie, with swelling variations on the theme(s), adds a springy sheen to the proceedings. Detours into funereal pacing and key slapping affect some other tunes, but To You, the concert encore, finds the two synthesizing their balanced approach. This moderated, meditative piece is both expressive and energetic, with sympathy as well as strength in evidence.

03b OctopusCD003Davis and Taborn work through material recorded at three concerts, ranging from the equivalent of Risser/Draksler’s supportive phrase-making to Abrahams/Pateras’ keyboard fluctuations, and a mid-course involving as many instances of adaptation as advances. Prone to Bill Evans-like meditations elsewhere, they demonstrate on tracks like the Davis-composed Ossining and Chatterbox their capacity for popping and plucking sequences where, by the tunes’ completion, harder voicing takes its place alongside a connective tonal blanket. Especially telling is the latter, with syncopation shifting between the two until singular paths evolve into unison tremolo and a final dual crescendo. Bley’s Sing Me Softly of the Blues mixed with Taborn’s Interruptions Two is supple and effervescent, with the piece becoming brighter as it evolves and the countermelody slyly appearing in a darker tempo and then transitioning without interruption into a more genteel theme before backing into a simple ending as contrasting expositions are joined. Played with more sweetness than the original, with tolling arpeggios and line extensions, the Ra composition almost becomes a lullaby. Once the melody is delineated, however, key clipping returns the dynamic upsurge.

04 AppliedCS002Ra’s cosmic explorations might serve as a starting point on Applied Cryptography (pfMentum CD 106 pfmentum.com) since Tim Perkis’ electronics are the foil to the piano of Scott Walton. During the 11 tracks, ranging in length from 90 seconds to almost six minutes, the strategy of the California-based players involves the pianist pinpointing a formalist theme and Perkis’ processed whooshes and burbles advancing it in unexpected directions. That’s advancing, not accompanying, though. So while the Perkis/Walton concept may appear somewhat celestial compared to the other duos’ terrestrial expositions, both players’ creativity is as evenly matched as the duo work on the other discs. On a track such as Naked Egg, for instance, what begins with Walton’s precise narrative meeting unruly buzzes and signal-processed flanges from the electronics soon changes to treble frequencies from the piano that elaborate the theme in the bass clef, as Perkis’ twangs and chirps expand the sound palette. Conversely, Perkis’ elaboration of pressurized sound envelopes on Subliminal Channel and other tracks is framed with key rattles and modulated glissandi from Walton. With the pianist predisposed to concentrate on the instrument’s lyre in order to either pluck harpsichord-like tones (as on Possible Objects B) or bellicose scratches and stops (as on Normal Form), the subsequent musical drama is evoked as much from Walton’s dynamic movements as the blurry textures from Perkis’ laptop-directed machine. By the climactic Blind Signature, as electronic drones fluctuate, kinetic key flourishes allow Walton to interject timbres with the same intensity, adding up to a process where it’s impossible to imagine the incisive tune expressed without droning oscillations or without the clear linear process from the piano.

To be memorable, a keyboard duo must blend exploratory concepts so that the two instruments are nearly indistinguishable, while maintaining individual identification. Each of these duos demonstrates that this can be done.

01 Justin GrayNew Horizons
Justin Gray & Synthesis
Independent (justingraysynthesis.com)

New Horizons, the debut album from Justin Gray and Synthesis, features a large ensemble – 19 musicians total, over the album’s nine tracks – playing both Western and Indian classical instruments. While this unique instrumentation helps to realize the stylistic fusion at the heart of New Horizons, the album’s distinct sound also comes from Gray’s performance on the bass veena, a custom string instrument that Gray designed and co-created.
The spirit of fusion – or synthesis, to borrow the album’s own vernacular – extends to the performances on New Horizons’ strong, balanced tracks. Highlights include the brooding, contemplative Eventide, which features beautiful bansuri playing from Steve Gorn, and Unity, with a winning contribution from guitarist Joy Anandasivam. The backbeat-heavy Rise is perhaps the most overtly rock-influenced piece, with confident solos both from Gray and from guitarist Joel Schwartz.

Along with rock-solid percussion playing – most notably from drummer Derek Gray and tabla player Ed Hanley – the sound of the bass veena anchors the album. On songs like New Horizons and Migration, on which Gray plays the melody, the effect is compelling, as the bass veena, while sharing some obvious similarities with the fretless electric bass and Indian classical string instruments like the sarod, has a deep, nasal, melodic sound that is all its own. The same spirit of invention applies to New Horizons as a whole: it is an album that makes no mystery of its influences, choosing instead to celebrate them in a beautiful, fully formed vision that transcends its own composite parts. 

02 Never DieNEVER DIE!
Independent (gordonhyland.com)

NEVER DIE! is the debut album of Living Fossil, a group led by tenor saxophonist Gordon Hyland. Hyland is joined on NEVER DIE! by Mike Murley (tenor sax), Mackenzie Longpré (drums), Andrew Roorda (electric bass), Vivienne Wilder (acoustic bass), Neil Whitford (electric guitar), and Torrie Seager (electric guitar). Having two guitarists is somewhat atypical, even on a modern jazz album with rock and fusion elements, but it is part of the album’s magic that Whitford and Seager’s complementary voices are deployed so well, including on the title track, which features one of the most compelling sax solos of the album. Hyland is an exciting, technically-accomplished player – imagine Donny McCaslin with the gain turned up – but his dedication to musicality is evident throughout the album, whose most bombastic moments tend to be anchored by strong melodic statements. Murley joins the band on three tracks, including baby steps, a 3/4 rewriting of Coltrane’s Giant Steps. Far from the hard-driving, up-tempo treatment that Giant Steps usually receives, baby steps is restrained and sweet, with intelligent, engaging trading between the two tenors.

While this particular project is new, the members of Living Fossil have been playing together for over ten years, and this shared history goes a long way to explain the remarkable confidence and cohesiveness of this album. Credit, of course, must also be attributed to Hyland, whose clear vision – as composer, bandleader and producer – is sharply realized throughout the recording’s fastidiously-constructed program.

03 Brian DickinsonMusic for Jazz Orchestra
Brian Dickinson
Addo Records AJR036 (briandickinson.ca)

Music for Jazz Orchestra, a new big band album on Addo Records from pianist/bandleader/composer Brian Dickinson, is in part a tribute, although not a tribute album. The disc is anchored by The Gentle Giant Suite, an original three-part homage to the late Kenny Wheeler, written following Wheeler’s passing in the fall of 2014. Dickinson and Wheeler share a long history, collaborating both with other musicians (including drummer Joe LaBarbera and vocalist Norma Winstone) and on the duo album Still Waters, recorded in 1998 at Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto.

Dickinson’s exemplary compositional and arranging skills – which are on full display throughout The Gentle Giant Suite – are matched by his sophisticated piano playing, both as a soloist and as a member of the excellent rhythm section, which features bassist Jim Vivian, drummer Ted Warren, and guitarist Sam Dickinson, who shares his father’s harmonic maturity. Beyond the suite, the medium-slow 3/4 Gil (written for Gil Evans) is a beautiful, texturally rich piece that showcases the sensitivity of the horn section; it also features compelling solos from Brian Dickinson, saxophonist Kelly Jefferson, trumpeter Kevin Turcotte, and an especially strong showing from Sam Dickinson. Orion, written for Wayne Shorter, is perhaps the album’s most bombastic offering – the ferocious shout chorus alone is worth the price of admission – but it also contains a powerful, perfectly paced piano solo from Dickinson. Overall, an excellent album: confident, nuanced and captivating from beat one. 

04 Nick MacleanRites of Ascension
Nick Maclean Quartet
Browntasauras Records NCC-1701K (nicholasmaclean.com)

Rites of Ascension, the debut album from the Nick Maclean Quartet, is a tribute to Herbie Hancock’s elemental 1960s Blue Note era recordings, and a daring original musical statement on its own. Formed in 2016 under the leadership of Maclean, the group salutes the great improvisers while generating original tunes that are crisp and cognizant.

These four musicians – Maclean (piano), Brownman Ali (trumpet), Jesse Dietschi (acoustic bass) and Tyler Goertzen (drums) – have a great synergy and drive, and some serious chops. Their renditions of Hancock’s four classics are full of energy and forward momentum while managing to retain the unhurried character of the earlier compositions. The original tunes (six by Maclean and one by Ali) are both intimate and global, touching upon themes from mythology and history to personal growth and the critical mind. Maclean’s creative mind and aesthetics are obvious in every aspect of this album, his piano solos both lyrical and invigorating, supported by a stellar rhythm section. The album features fiercely strong trumpet solos, indicative of Freddie Hubbard’s style at times and distinctively unique.

Elasticity of Time and Space is a standout – I loved the opening theme, metric modulations and tempo changes, as well as playfully robust solos. Feral Serenity, a haunting and intimate ballad, unfolds a soulful bass and piano exchange. The liner notes, describing each tune in depth, allow the listener to peek behind the curtains of the album in the making.

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