14 Parker TrioLMusic for David Mossman
Evan Parker; Barry Guy; Paul Lytton
Intakt Records CD 296 (intaktrec.ch)

If musical publicity ran even with musical quality, there would be no need to introduce the trio of saxophonist Evan Parker, bassist Barry Guy and drummer Paul Lytton, a group with individual ties running back to the late 1960s that were formalized in this trio in 1980. It might be convenient to think of them as one of the signal groups of European improvised music, British chapter, but their roots and ties run further back and further afield, to post-bop and free jazz and the stunning tenor-bass-drums trios led by Sonny Rollins and Albert Ayler.

The music may be tender or explosive (it would be easier to detect if it were slowed down), but its dominant texture is that of philosophical dialogue, a rapid conversation in which participants discourse while responding to the simultaneous intrusions of partners in the fray, who may quibble or launch counter-offensives, sending the first speaker to submit background material or new support for his previous theses. Contrarily, it’s like a romantic Paris street fight among kickboxers and ballet dancers, or the sound of Tibetan throat singers polyphonically amused at a genuinely cosmic joke.

Are there individual highlights? Everywhere, including the first segment which begins with Lytton throwing down all the Latin and African drum patterns you might imagine at once, or the middle zone of the long third segment in which Guy sounds like a bass duet and Parker introduces a circular-breathing reverie.

01 BraxtonAlthough there were isolated experiments dating back to the 1940s, the watershed recording of saxophone solos was Anthony Braxton’s double LP For Alto in 1969. Comparably innovative sets by Evan Parker and Steve Lacy followed soon afterwards. Since then, many exploratory reedists have added their own challenging chapters to the solo saxophone literature.

One of them is Braxton himself, whose most recently recorded alto foray is Solo – Victoriaville 2017 (Victo cd 130 victo.qc.ca), nine tracks from a concert at last year’s Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville in Quebec. Nearly a half-century after For Alto, Braxton is still showcasing novel approaches. Interestingly enough, while all the tunes except for the standard Body and Soul have abstract titles, at this juncture hints of melodies and inferences to tunes as unanticipated as Everything Happens to Me, It’s Now or Never, Strike Up the Band and even The Anniversary Song insinuate themselves into the improvisations. This is no game of Name that Tune however, for Braxton’s talents are communicated through the technical alchemy obvious on each track. For instance, No 394c elongates the narrative line until it’s suddenly shaped into a balladic melody. The same sort of tunefulness informs the introductory No 392a; here, shaky cadenzas turn moderato when Braxton emphasizes the chalumeau register. At the same time no one would mistake Braxton for a member of Guy Lombardo’s sax section. Sophisticated funk works its way into the circular breathing and overblowing on No 392c, while its tremolo exposition showcases pauses and timbre extensions. More characteristically, No 394a consists of near-stifled reed screams, tongue slapping and pressurized action, culminating in terminal growling. Plus No 392b evolves with Flight of the Bumblebee-like buzzing swiftness, with multiple slurred and staccato notes tried on for size. As the balladic inferences slide by in nanoseconds, the improvisation’s finale is packed with innumerable pitches and tones. Yet, when Braxton tackles Body and Soul in tremolo double time, the distinctive theme is present along with a traditional final recapping of the head.

02 LatticeThree decades Braxton’s junior, Chicago’s Dave Rempis follows an analogous but distinct route on Lattice (Aerophonic 015 aerophonicrecords.com) by bookending his improvisations with two jazz standards. Although Rempis plays alto, tenor and baritone saxophone, his strategy is similar on each horn – using its distinctive properties to better describe the improvisations. Billy Strayhorn’s A Flower is a Lovesome Thing and Eric Dolphy’s Serene are treated no differently than the abstract improvisations. Playing baritone on the former, he digs deep, shaking textures from the instrument’s body tube that accelerate from snorts to screams before creating variations on a mellow version of the theme. Dolphy’s avant-garde credentials are emphasized with stratospheric whistles, duck quacks and chicken cackles in the middle of Serene following a near inchoate theme elaboration by the alto saxophone. However the piece climaxes with rhapsodic mellowness and the head recapped. The most impressive instance of Rempis’ solo musicianship is on If You Get Lost in Santa Paula, where he inveigles a collection of tongue slaps and pops into captivating textures that are almost danceable and certainly rhythmic, then maintains this mouth percussion until the end. A track like Horse Court demonstrates how he can output enough bites and beeps for two saxophonists in counterpoint while using spatial dimensions to bounce back the sound; meanwhile Loose Snus proves that split tones and spetrofluctuation can be vibrated into satisfying storytelling.

03 KutchenSwedish alto saxophonist Martin Küchen is also involved with spatial properties since Lieber Heiland, laß uns sterben (SOFA Music 60 sofamusic.no) was recorded in the crypt of the cathedral in Lund, Sweden and utilizes field recording, an iPod, speakers and electronics plus overdubbed saxophone lines. An idea of how this works is Ruf Zu Mer Bezprizorni…, where the distant sounds of piano students rehearsing Baroque classics cause Küchen to retaliate with mocking squeaks and puffs, plus percussive slaps that emphasize the saxophone’s metal body. Music To Silence Music in contrast makes the ancient crypt walls another instrument, as they vibrate and echo back the initial saxophone lowing and air-piercing extensions, the equivalent of overdubbed reed parts. Real overdubbing to a multiple of six is used on Amen Choir, but when coupled with low-pitched electronic drones and the outdoor noises leaking into the space, the results not only almost replicate scrubs and sawing on double bass strings, but also suggest a near visual picture of reed breaths floating across the sound field. Far-off pealing church bells make the perfect coda. Küchen’s solo design has non-Western precedents as well, as on Purcell in the Eternal Deir Yassin. Traces of the 17th-century composer’s music drift though an open window via a bel canto soprano’s vocalizing; more prominent are Indian influences, with an electronic tambura providing an appropriately sub-continental drone, while voluminous reed tones side-slip into various keys and pitches. 

04 HydroThis sort of solo contemplation is actually connected to an instrument’s technical versatility, rather than its nationalism. It’s the same way that Lithuanian soprano and tenor saxophonist Liudas Mockŭnas’ improvisations on Hydro (NoBusiness NBLP 110 nobusinessrecords.com) lack any overt Baltic musical inferences. But considering the titles of the seven-part Hydration Suite, three-part Rehydration Suite, and the final extended Dehydration, his relationship with the sea is highlighted. Conspicuously by utilizing “water-prepared” (sic) saxophones, the Hydration Suite includes liquid-related sounds, while denser echoes from vibrations of potential coastal and submerged objects share space with the saxophonist’s moist hiccups and puffs, plus seabird-like wails that expand or recede in degrees of pitch and volume. Oddly enough, Hydration Suite part 5, the most abstract outpouring, with dot-dash, kazoo-like treble textures, seemingly only using the sax mouthpiece, precedes the suite’s final sequences, which are delicate and almost vibrato-less. Melodic and expressive, the gentle curlicues could come from a so-called “legit” player. Wolf-like snarls and staccato peeping characterize the Rehydration Suite, but the track also emphasizes Mockŭnas’ reed fluidity, encompassing circular breathing, emphatic screams and gut-propelled emotional sweeps. A compendium of the preceding techniques, the multi-tempo Dehydration showcases the saxophone’s farthest reaches, including pressurized vibratos, whinnying cries falling up instead of down, and gusts that appear to be blowing any remaining water from his instrument, with pure air and key jiggling.

05 Parzen JohnsonAn individual adaptation of the equipment used by the likes of Küchen and Mockŭnas is offered by New York’s Jonah Parzen-Johnson, who plays baritone saxophone tones alongside an analog synthesizer’s textures. I Try To Remember Where I Come From (Clean Feed CF 430 CD cleanfeed-records.com) contains seven instances where his overblowing and split tones play catch-as-catch-can with the electronics. Avoiding loops, overdubbing or sampling, gutty textures either arise from mouth-propelled blowing or live processing. Since his preference is for simple, song-based material, the result is unlike any other CD here. Parzen-Johnson sparingly utilizes multiphonic screams or thickened vibrating quavering tones. On tracks such as Too Many Dreams, he comes across as if he were a folk or country balladeer, with the synthesizer taking the place of a backing combo. The machine can also deflect his sax’s tones back at him, doubling his exposition, but here and elsewhere he manages to overcome the dangers of reed overpowering with skill. While the title tune sets up distinctive contrasts between unaccented puffs and burbles from the baritone and the synthesizer’s pipe-organ-like cascades, What Do I Do with Sorry is the most notable track, since the split-second transformations come from man as well as machine. With his output shaped as if he were playing a bagpipe chanter and the synthesizer responding as if it were the bagpipe’s reservoir bag, Parzen-Johnson’s improvising takes on buzzing, triple-tongued aspects while the synthesizer’s echoing pulsations suggest both Celtic airs and the beats from a club DJ.

There may be as many ways to play solo saxophone as there are saxophonists, and these are a few instances of how it is done.

01 Carol WelsmanFor You
Carol Welsman
Welcar Music WMCD369 (carolwelsman.com)

I have long been up for any recording by Canadian jazz singer and pianist Carol Welsman (now Los Angeles-based), and my admiration continues with her most recent CD, For You. It is a solo recording except for three tracks on which expert guitarist Paulinho Garcia plays. The title refers to a social media process: after listening to 30-second soundbytes, around 5,000 voters selected the songs. The result is 16 standards in a wide variety of moods, styles and languages, each song presented with enough musical intimacy to suggest that it is indeed, For You.

On this disc Carol Welsman sings in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian – regardless, her excellent diction and sense of style are convincing as is heard in such titles as Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (Legrand) and Corcovado (Jobim). American numbers show the same clarity and sensitivity to lyrics, suggesting many different moods. Her delivery is direct and almost non-vibrato in Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered, breathy and sensual in My Foolish Heart, and vulnerable, almost down to a whisper in Skylark. Those remembering her exuberant singing and pianism in earlier times may be surprised by the restrained contralto and spare apt accompaniments on this CD. Yet she conveys a feeling of optimism, and a sense of more closeness is now gained, perhaps abetted by producer Takao Ishizuka. The disc has already been a bestseller among jazz listeners in Japan.

Listen to 'For You' Now in the Listening Room

02 Alex PangmanAlex Pangman’s Hot Three
Alex Pangman
Justin Time JTR 8610-2 (alexpangman.com)

In his 2010 book Perfecting Sound Forever, Greg Milner describes how Thomas Edison mounted thousands of “tone tests” across America in the early 20th century to prove how his Diamond Disc record player “perfectly” represented sound. The phonograph would play while a singer would perform intermittently and the audience would be stunned by how closely the recorded and live performances meshed. The “secret” of this demonstration was that the singers emulated the “pinched” quality of the recording which was the baseline against which everything else was measured. “Recorded versus live” has had a fascinating history, with many opinions regarding which sound is the best.

With Alex Pangman’s Hot Three, the Toronto jazz singer has created a bold experiment of her own by travelling to New Orleans and, with local musicians, recording an album of seven standards live to an acetate 78 rpm disc. She wanted to “explore the roots of the recording medium and how and why early recordings have the energy they do.” The results are conveniently available on CD.

This disc literally crackles with excitement; you can hear the sound of the needle cutting through the acetate and there is a low hum throughout. For authenticity only one microphone was used and the sound is high on treble but Tom Saunders’ excellent bass sax playing produces a solidly articulated bottom end. Matt Rhody (violin) and Nahum Zdybel (guitar) are also top-notch and Pangman’s vocals are energetic and manage to be nuanced within the limits of the medium. These tracks do not have the fidelity we are used to hearing and that is part of their appeal.

Listen to 'Alex Pangman’s Hot Three' Now in the Listening Room

03 TorcheTorche!
Xavier Charles, Michel F Côté, Franz Hautzinger, Philippe Lauzier, Éric Normand
Tour de Bras TDB90024cd (tourdebras.com)

Bandleader, electric bassist and organizer Éric Normand has become a central figure in Canadian improvised music, working from his unlikely base in Rimouski, Quebec to develop a large ensemble, a local festival and regular programs of international visitors, activities that have led to international touring for his ensemble GGRIL. Torche! comes from a 2016 quintet tour in which Normand was joined by Montreal-based drummer Michel F Côté and bass clarinetist Philippe Lauzier along with two distinguished European visitors, French clarinetist Xavier Charles and German trumpeter Franz Hautzinger.

On paper that instrumentation might look like a jazz group, even a free jazz group, but the methodology is very different, with close listening the only directive, and the music’s evolution timbral and textural rather than linear. Wind instruments are sometimes played with oscillator-like evenness, even when they’re exploring complex multiphonics; the unfolding layers of sound can suggest an insect-dense forest or the compound sonic ambience of fluorescent lights, varied electronic appliances and of one’s own internal processes.

Individual instrumental voices disappear into the collective whole, so that one is less aware of personalities, more involved in the movement of sound. The music feels orchestral rather than like a collection of individual voices, collective purpose creating work that is as profoundly selfless as it is involving. It’s a highly evolved art, with the five musicians here shaping eight taut improvisations that are remarkably free of meanderings or those empty moments of merely getting acquainted.

04 CarnDavisonMurphy
Carn Davidson 9
Independent CD9-002 (taradavidson.ca; williamcarn.com)

The new recording from multi-reed player Tara Davidson and trombonist William Carn is not only named after their venerable cat, but is also a shining example of what fine jazz composition, arranging and performance should be. Co-produced by Davidson and Carn, the ensemble is loaded with jazz talent, including Davidson on alto and soprano sax, flute and clarinet; Kelly Jefferson on alto and soprano sax and clarinet; Perry White on baritone sax and bass clarinet; Kevin Turcotte and Jason Logue on trumpet and flugelhorn; William Carn on trombone; Alex Duncan on bass trombone; Andrew Downing on bass; Ernesto Cervini on drums and special guest, award-winning and luminous jazz vocalist Emilie-Claire Barlow on Carn’s tune, Glassman (arranged by Geoff Young).

All compositions on this project were written by Carn and Davidson, and they have collaborated on the skilled arrangements with other fine musician/composers (Cervini, Downing, Logue, Andy Ballantyne and Geoff Young). First up is Carn’s composition Try Again (arranged by Cervini). Rife with tricky contrapuntal horn lines and percussive drum work, this track swings with a distinctive quintessential bop viguor. Groovy, extended solos by White on baritone sax and Carn on trombone sail in and around Downing’s powerful and insistent bass lines. One of the most interesting songs on this recording is Downing’s arrangement of Davidson’s composition, Family Portrait. Gorgeous, lyrical and melancholy, Downing makes brilliant use of space and warm chord structures.

Other impressive tracks include Carn’s Glassman – Barlow’s sumptuous voice acts as an instrument here, moving in seamless musical symmetry with the others – and the joyous closer, Murphy! (written by Carn and arranged by Ballantyne), featuring buoyant solos from both Carn and Davidson.

05 Liebman Murley QuartetLive at U of T
Liebman/Murley Quartet
U of T Jazz (uoftjazz.ca)

Mike Murley has a decades-long musical relationship with celebrated American, fellow saxophonist Dave Liebman, and it has only strengthened since Liebman joined Murley as a visiting artist/adjunct professor in the University of Toronto’s jazz department. This CD documents a performance by the two at the department’s concert space, joined by the solid support of fellow faculty members Jim Vivian on bass and Terry Clarke on drums. The style is at the leading edge of the modern jazz mainstream, rooted in the music of John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins as well as Miles Davis (with whom Liebman worked in the 1970s). It’s energized, often joyous, and there’s a celebratory edge as well as a disciplined focus.

Liebman sticks to soprano and Murley to tenor through the first half of the program, developing sinuous, coiling lines on Vivian’s pulsing composition Split or Whole and a relaxed swing on Murley’s YBSN. The music becomes increasingly intense when Liebman turns to tenor as well, first setting an exotic jungle atmosphere on flute on Murley’s modal Open Spaces before the two press forward, exploring the expressive sides of their tenors, bending pitches and sonorities. Highlights abound, including Liebman’s Nebula, an astral soundscape that foregrounds Vivian’s arco bass, and the forceful take on the session’s only standard, And the Angels Sing.

Far more than a mere faculty event, Live at U of T sets the bar very high for Canada’s 2018 jazz releases.

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