08 Tobias HoffmannConspiracy
Tobias Hoffmann Jazz Orchestra
Mons Records MR874757 (tobiashoffmannmusic.com)

Tobias Hoffmann’s 2019 recording was the celebrated Retrospective, featuring repertoire for nine musicians. The almost nonchalant manner in which he declared that he couldn’t express his new music unless he had his “…own band to make sure that my music was performed on the highest possible level” belies the enormous undertaking of leading an ensemble as large as this expanded Jazz Orchestra.

Hoffmann calls the disc Conspiracy, which is a title filled with both whimsy and the very real suggestion that the artist – by nature a (cultural) guerrilla – engages in conspiracy to manoeuvre his way into his listeners’ sensibilities. Using a language that is informed as much by classical symphonic idioms, devices and gestures, and the enormously popular, contemporary jazzy vernacular, Hoffmann has created a recording which fuses the styles with a naturalness and authenticity that eludes many ensembles of this size and scope.

Moreover, Hoffmann’s recording is not only conspiratorial, but also compelling. In particular, the extended narratives – Conspiracy, Trailblazers, Importer Syndrome and Awakening – are tone poems rich in imagery. In each of these works – as in the rest of the repertoire – we come face-to-face with performers who have interiorized Hoffmann’s singular mind and the poetics of his work, and go on to interpret it with idiomatic power and all the attendant drama, throughout the length of the disc.

Listen to 'Conspiracy' Now in the Listening Room

09 Joe BowdenBlack to the Roots
Joe Bowden Project
Independent (joebowden.bandcamp.com/album/Black-to-the-roots)

The Joe Bowden Project is actually a quartet that expands to a quintet on two songs. However, thanks in part to the elegant high jinks from behind a battery of rumbling drums and hissing, splashing cymbals, percussion colourist and leader Bowden makes his Project’s music sound as if it were a much larger ensemble. But that is not the best part of the album. 

What makes Black to the Roots an unforgettable experience is the quality of the repertoire. As a composer Bowden imbues his songs with vibrant drama and fierce urgency that makes their musical narratives utterly compelling listening. The word Black in the title may suggest a cultural awakening and while the often martial-sounding rattle and roll of the snare drums may raise its percussive head, the temptation to add unsavoury fire to the music’s pulse and timbre is largely eschewed. In fact, Bowden’s work – and his playing – is eminently poised.

An interesting aspect of his work is that he approaches Black music from the – almost parallel – perspectives of the American and Caribbean tributaries that flow out of the proverbial African river. The presence of the incomparable Cuban pianist Manuel Valera certainly energizes the musical excursion. Valera is an erudite composer himself and his presence and singular artistry have certainly impacted the expression of this music. Bassist Mike Downes, saxophonist Jesse Ryan and vibraphonist Dan McCarthy add their distinguished artistry to this disc.

10 Avie GraniteOperator
Avi Granite 6
Pet Mantis Records PMR016 (avigranite6.com)

This Avi Granite 6 recording, Operator, opens with two songs that ripple with a chugging pulse suggesting a disc-full of funky tunes. But the guitarist Avi Granite soon shows that his mellifluous aesthetics and wide-ranging stylistic tastes are born of an emphasis on melody and colour – with a little bit of off-the-wall humour baked into wholesome musical patty-cakes.

The repertoire on the album is front-loaded with opportunities for brass and reeds. Trumpeter Jim Lewis, trombonist Tom Richards and clarinetist (and saxophonist) Peter Lutek respond with vim and vigour, and virtuosity. 

Granite occupies the chordal chair, his guitar an endless source of surprise as he pumps both volume and pedals throughout – literally and metaphorically. The wonder of his playing is how engagingly, articulately, flowingly and idiomatically he pours himself into his music that is uniformly good and also quite different sounding. He leads a rhythm section that includes bassist Neal Davis and drummer Ted Warren and the three horn players in a lustrous exposition of mercurial work, full of slashing and nostalgic ideas that make this 37-minute musical romp a quite gripping experience.

Between such puckishly titled – and performed – works such as Crushing Beans, Voracious, Misanthropic Vindaloo and Many Bowls, these musicians come together for a performance vivid in interplay and keenly attentive to these charts that appear to resonate with mysteries and wonders seemingly unique to colourful Canada in general – and Toronto in particular.

11 Dave LiebmanDave Liebman
Live at Smalls
Cellar Music CMSLF004 (cellarlive.com)

Dave Liebman, éminence grise of the saxophone, holds court on Live at Smalls, a dizzying freely improvised (sometimes modal excursion) quintet recording on which he leads a group of younger acolytes – including pianist Leo Genovese, bassist John Hébert, drummer Tyshawn Sorey and trumpeter Peter Evans. And while each performer is his own man, so to speak, they are all musically speaking doppelgangers of Liebman. Evans is always closest, shadowing the soprano- and tenor-playing saxophonist down twisting paths and labyrinthine harmonic alleys as the pianist, bassist and drummer clear rhythmic paths for the two horn men.

Liebman himself plays wonderfully well, his vibrato characteristically vocal in its speed and intensity. The veteran saxophonist inspires fiery virtuosity from his younger journeymen. Each musician gives of himself with enormous generosity, making Live at Smalls an epic musical voyage.  

By the second movement of this piston-driven set the musicians are firing on all cylinders. Liebman, long since having unbolted the proverbial guardrails, keeps the door open for the rest of the musicians to jump into the fray. The result is a free-flowing palimpsest, super-charged in almost every musical respect: texture, tempo relations and phrasing throughout the vortex-like three-part suite.

Furious fluid dynamics occur, one breathless variation to the next. The energy is unrelenting. An occasional low, crackling musical flame occurs when the overall volume drops to barely above a whisper before Liebman’s stuttering soprano in the final movement foreshadows the ensemble’s incandescent sprint to the finish.

12 Matt GreenwoodAtlas
Matt Greenwood
Independent (matt-greenwood.com)

Unencumbered listening seems to have gotten trickier in recent years, despite the myriad new methods available to access music. As an antidote to this phenomenon, I now make a point to absorb albums in their entirety at least once or twice before reading any liner notes or one sheets. 

With Atlas by Zimbabwe-born Toronto-based guitarist Matt Greenwood, all written material pertaining to it felt more like an affirmation than a barrage of new info. This is not because Greenwood wears his influences on his sleeve, or that any of his music falls short of unique, but more that it profoundly resonates with this writer’s musical tastes. Contemporary guitar in the 2020s can resemble anything from futuristic effects and textures to a neo-traditional renaissance of aesthetics from the 1950s and 60s. I can appreciate either of these extremes, which are far from mutually exclusive, but it is refreshing to hear a modern mélange of influences from across the board in Greenwood’s playing and writing.

Atlas’ opening and closing tracks Constellations and Commitment are tasteful vignettes that bookend the album, adding a sense of continuity when listening from start to finish. While the recording has the arching flow of a great concept album, each of its original tracks function on their own too. Dehyah and the album’s title track are cerebral yet heartfelt, and ballads like From Sunshine and Campfire Ghosts are unique enough to remain neighbours on the tracklist without sounding redundant. 

This album is an awesome offering of art for art’s sake, eschewing causes and homages in favour of focused, sophisticated, contemporary playing. Have a listen; I trust you will find Atlas as refreshing as I do.

13 Art Ensemble of ChicagoThe Sixth Decade from Paris to Paris
The Art Ensemble of Chicago
RogueArt ROG-0123 (roguart.com)

After almost a decade of evolution in their hometown, The Art Ensemble of Chicago arrived in Paris in 1969, their combination of free jazz and theatricality (their slogan – Great Black Music: Ancient to the Future) was greeted as the embodiment of the incendiary protests that had rocked the city in the previous year. The band was welcomed with frequent performances and multiple recording offers. Five decades later most of the original members – saxophonist Joseph Jarman, trumpeter Lester Bowie and bassist Malachi Favors – are deceased. Only multi-instrumentalist Roscoe Mitchell and percussionist Famoudou Don Moye remain. They’ve chosen to reinvigorate the band’s legacy by expanding it with a substantial number of young musicians and an even broader musical lexicon, entering their sixth decade with a 20-member ensemble for this 100-minute Paris concert from 2020. 

It’s alive with potent moments, including brilliant individual instrumental performances from Mitchell and Moye, trumpeter Hugh Ragin, flutist Nicole Mitchell, cellist Tomeka Reid and trombonist Simon Sieger. True to the band’s history, however, it continues to press the envelope – musically, lyrically and culturally. The ensemble includes chamber musicians who can execute Mitchell’s Webern-esque scores; a mixed improvising ensemble that suggests Tibetan ritual music; and three percussionists and three bassists who can launch a polyrhythmic maelstrom. There is also a self-explanatory track called Funky AECO. There are concert vocalists and the spoken word calls to consciousness of Moor Mother, activist-orator with such groups as Sons of Kemet and Irreversible Entanglements. 

Mitchell and Moye have made of their longstanding collaboration a gift to contemporaneity and the possibilities of the future. It’s as much about that promise as it is a platform for two celebrated senior warriors of music.

14 Trio DeromeSi tu partais
Trio Derome Guilbeault Tanguay
ambiences magnetiques AM 272 CD (actuellecd.com)

Saxophonist/flutist/vocalist Jean Derome, bassist Normand Guilbeault and drummer Pierre Tanguay have been playing together as a trio for over 20 years, embracing a broad repertoire and becoming an essential component of Canadian jazz in the process. Here they play 11 compositions, handily supplying dates to mark the range from 1917 (The Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s Tiger Rag) to 1963 (Eric Dolphy’s Iron Man). Throughout, the trio is polished and intense, engaging, yet fully engaged. 

On the first track, Ornette Coleman’s The Disguise, Derome manages to be at least as buoyantly joyous as Coleman himself might have been, while Guilbeault and Tanguay provide ideal support, balancing intensity and lilt. Love Me or Leave Me, a standard, is fused with Lennie Tristano’s variant, the boppish Leave Me. On Sy Oliver’s ‘Taint What You Do, Derome’s vocal, rich in comic inflection, frames a virtuosic duet of bass and drums. While Derome is not a great singer in any conventional sense, there’s a special combination of musicality and wit at work here that illuminates the performance of Duke Ellington’s Mood Indigo, achieving a consummate elegance in the contrast between the rough-hewn vocal and the refined invention of the instrumentalists. 

An anthology of recordings from Jelly Roll Morton to Anthony Braxton can serve as an excellent introduction to jazz, but this might serve as well: Trio Derome Guilbeault Tanguay fully share the abundant joy that they take in adding their own spontaneous dimensions to this far-flung repertoire.

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