05 Matthew StevensPittsburgh
Matthew Stevens
Whirlwind Recordings WR4779 (mattstevensmusic.com)

Toronto-born, New York-based guitarist Matthew Stevens might be familiar to many as playing an instrumental part in creating the distinctive sound on several records by Esperanza Spalding. On his third solo release, Stevens manages to yet again carry over a completely unique sound to a set of all original tunes, penned by himself. The album is captivating in the way that it’s all acoustic, creating a warm and intimate atmosphere where the listener can almost imagine what the musician had in mind while composing these pieces. You could absolutely say the album is an entire soundscape, with each song calling forth images of different landscapes and experiences.

 Stevens mentions that “playing acoustic is a great way to develop a touch and a connection to an instrument” and that connection as well as the exploration of it is very apparent throughout this entire album. Each tune tells its own short story, whether it be more interpretive as heard on Northern Touch, a little more folksy and tranquil as showcased in Foreign Ghosts or altogether energetic like Blue Blues. Although Stevens credits taking inspiration from greats such as Pat Metheny and John McLaughlin who have been known to do a lot of acoustic exploration, the sound on this record is completely his own; being able to create such a niche for yourself is the mark of a true musician. A picturesque and pleasing whole, this record is a true gem.

06 Michael Formanek DromeWere We Where We Were
Michael Formanek Drome Trio
Circular File Records CFCD 2922002202 (michaelformanekdrometrio.bandcamp.com)

Making the most of a new trio configuration, New York bassist Michael Formanek calls on local drummer Vinnie Sperrazza and Montrealer-in-Manhattan Chet Doxas playing tenor/soprano saxophones and clarinet, to skillfully interpret four of his extended compositions. Avoiding sameness is the result of canny arrangements by Formanek, who has written and performed in many ensembles of various sizes over the years. Each track features one or another of Doxas’ reeds.

For example, Never Odd or Even initially contrasts speedy clarinet trills with thickened double bass thumps. Then, as the pliable theme vibrates with additional energy from sul tasto string buzzes and cymbal vibrations, tenor saxophone scoops and flattement maintain the triple balance. Recurring clarinet flutters return to introduce a rhythm-section-driven swing groove which defines the tune’s last section.

Furthermore, while the fluid rhythm which characterizes both versions of Tattarrattat may be projected using Sperrazza’s popping press rolls and the bassist’s guitar-like strums, it’s the soprano saxophonist’s flutter-tongued twists, sometimes advanced a cappella, that fully personify the tunes. With a range that encompasses sweetened glissandi, slurping vibrations and fragmented split tones, Doxas’ dedicated reed individualism helps make the compositions stand out. These and others evolve linearly and confirm Formanek’s high-quality musical concepts.

Although each Drome Trio member gets some solo space on this, its fine first disc, perhaps next time out more, shorter tracks could create distinctive showpieces for each player.

Listen to 'Were We Where We Were' Now in the Listening Room

07 Joe McPheeRoute 84 Quarantine Blues
Joe McPhee
Corbett vs Dempsey CvsD CD 081 (corbettvsdempsey.com)

An engaged improviser for about 55 years, tenor saxophonist Joe McPhee adapted to COVID-19 restrictions in characteristic fashion. He recorded these individualistic tracks at night over a two-week period within a closet in his Poughkeepsie home. 

Unconstrained by claustrophobia, McPhee’s tracks are as radical as those on his other discs. Besides thematic riffs he adds extended reed techniques encompassing overblowing cries, dedicated multiphonics, doits and flattement, as well as speechifying and singing phrases associated with the Black Liberation Movement and the career of Charles Mingus. Twisting in and out of Mingus’ Self Portrait in Three Colors, he salutes the exploratory bassist/composer with fragmented bites and scooping squawks on two other tracks. He references Joni Mitchell and Carla Bley melodies during other intense improvisations and adds the percussive sounds of water splashing on a pie plate in a salute to Ruth Bader Ginsberg,

Expressing humour brought out by the pandemic, he inserts recordings of cars motoring on the actual freeway during the title track, which tweaks the 12-bar blues form. On it he also manages to simultaneously project two separate circling saxophone lines, one of which maintains the melody while the other becomes gradually louder as it fragments and hammers out sharp variations on variations. Elsewhere, other interpretations are lyrical and balladic.

Overall the impression taken from this disc is that in responding musically to the pandemic’s limitations, McPhee uses it astutely as he has assimilated other stimuli throughout his remarkable career.

08 Angela VerbruggeLove for Connoisseurs
Angela Verbrugge
Independent (angelasjazz.com)

Although a relative newcomer to jazz, enchanting and witty vocalist/composer/lyricist Angela Verbrugge has already received numerous accolades. Verbrugge has created a vibrant presence internationally, performing at the world’s finest boîtes, concerts and festivals. Her latest offering was three years in development and features 12 original tunes (some written in collaboration with Ray Gallon, Ken Fowser, Neal Miner, Saul Berson, Nick Hempton and Miles Black). Joining Verbrugge (who also wears the producer’s hat here) are noted Vancouver jazz artists Dave Say on saxophones, Miles Black on piano, Jodi Proznick on bass and Joel Fountain on drums.

The original title track is a classic swinger, replete with witty lyrics, harkening back to Dorothy Parker, Cole Porter, Dorothy Fields and even Dave Frishberg, and Say’s warm, saxophone sound is the perfect complement to Verbrugge’s mellifluous vocal style. Enough’s Enough is a special, bebop-ish treat, co-written with Gallon and reminiscent of the great Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. Fountain tastefully urges the tune along, utilizing an array of tasty bop modalities. The sensual Je Ne Veux Pas Te Dire Bonsoir (I Don’t Want to Say Goodnight) is rendered here in perfect, sibilant French. Black manifests the mood with his exquisite, stylistic choices – superbly framing Verbrugge’s diaphanous and romantic vocal.

Other must-listens on this excellent vocal jazz project include Jive Turkey – rife with infectious lyrics and a lilting, cheeky Latin arrangement. Verbrugge’s charming trading of fours with Say are the icing on the jazz cake, and the closer, Maybe Now’s the Time (co-written with Black), is a clever tip of the hat to the great Charlie Parker tune. Proznick lays it down on bass with taste and a ridiculous, rich sound – seemingly channelling aspects of the late, great bassists Ray Brown, Leroy Vinnegar or Red Mitchell.

Listen to 'Love for Connoisseurs' Now in the Listening Room

10a Martin Wind Astorian QueenMy Astorian Queen – 25 Years on the New York Jazz Scene
Martin Wind Quintet
Laika Records 35103912 (laika-records.com)

Martin Wind New York Bass Quartet
Laika Records 35104002 (laika-records.com)

German-born first-call New York City-based Martin Wind arrived in his chosen home town more than 25 years ago. It wasn’t long before the talented young artist and his warm, fat sound, rock solid sense of time, intensity and excellent taste became the bassist of preference for an array of top jazz artists, bandleaders and Broadway conductors. Despite the global pandemic, he has created and released two brilliant, new recording projects in quick succession for the noted German label, Laika Records. 

My Astorian Queen, is a love letter to the adrenalin-churning, crazy roller coaster ride that is New York City. The CD features Wind’s longtime collaborators, pianist/composer Bill Mays, saxophonist/trumpeter/multi-instrumentalist Scott Robinson and drummer Matt Wilson all digging in to a delightful smorgasbord of Wind’s original, biographically infused compositions as well as classic tunes associated with The Big Apple and its colourful denizens.

Thad Jones’ Mean What You Say represents a high point in Wind’s career, the time when he was first invited to play in the world famous Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Band (now the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra). Wind’s solid and sinuous bass line propels the tune. Mays’ unmistakeable, lyrical, perfect touch and adventurous spirit are showcased here and Robinson also shines on well-crafted trumpet and sax solos. Wind’s haunting original ballad, Solitude, is a sometimes stark reflection on the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic, and how that seemingly un-ending isolation also stimulated generalized homesickness and longing for far-away friends and family – or just a place where you belong and feel safe.

Of special note is a thoroughly delightful arrangement of the Brazilian standard, È Preciso Perduar and Wind’s stunning original title track. My Astorian Queen references his arrival in NYC, and a lovely young lady named Maria who invited him to share her quaint Astoria pad until he found his way. As the fates would have it, that lovely young lady eventually became Wind’s wife!

10b Martin Wind AirAir features the dynamic New York Bass Quartet (Martin Wind, Gregg August, Jordan Frazier and Sam Suggs) in an eclectic program. Special guests include Matt Wilson on drums and percussion, Lenny White on drums and Gary Versace on piano, organ and accordion. This beautifully recorded project begins with J.S. Bach’s Air rendered here in a sumptuous bass quartet arrangement. It is difficult enough to capture every essence of an acoustic bass in the studio and here it has been done four times! Each bass has its own timbre, expression and innate sound – just as one would expect to hear from four human voice boxes. 

Next up is (Give me some) G-String, which is a Wind original as well as a tasty musical confection. The bass lines are almost whimsical at times, reflecting Wind’s dry sense of humour. Eventually, the funkadelic White and Versace (B3) jump into the soulful mix, driving the ensemble into some fabulous tight, harmonic sequences, culminating in an arco-gasm never before created by a jazz bass quartet. A triumph. Of spectacular beauty is the gorgeously arranged Beatles Medley, replete with some of Lennon and McCartney’s most lyrical compositions. A true standout is Wind’s arrangement of Joe Zawinul’s Birdland – replacing electronica with acoustica – utilizing those organic bass notes that can be felt in your solar plexus. Also stunning is Charlie Haden’s Silence, arranged here with sonorous tones creating a spiritual aura and Pat Metheny’s Tell Her You Saw Me, a cinematic arrangement in search of a movie. The fitting closer, a contemporary trio version of Air, perfectly parenthesizes this deeply moving and awe-inspiring recording.

Jazzlab Orchestra
Effendi Records FND164 (effendirecords.com)

Forget trying to pronounce the title of the disc; you’d be best advised to just jump right in to the relentless whirlpool of its music. LogusLabusMuzikus is propelled by steamy horns and radiant piano, held together by rumbling bass line ostinatos and thundering pizzicato runs and the odd-metre rattle of drums, punctuated by the incessant hissing of cymbals. 

This disc has something for every lover of improvised orchestral music, from flamboyant miniatures to endearing bluesy ballads. Conceptually this music appears to burble in hot, shifting sands, which obviously presents challenges to each of the players. The bedrock of the music is relentless counterpoint. To make it more interesting – and certainly more challenging for the musicians – abruptly changing tempi and metres are constantly thrown at everyone. 

The bass is the fulcrum of it all. And while colours are dark, the music seems to have a swirl of tonal glimmer reflected in an ocean of ink. The black dots, however, are made to leap off the paper and swirl and leap and pirouette in wide arcs and insanely tumbling ellipses. The horns are all silvery and bronzy, played with elegant brawn, which makes the music mesmerizing and enormously attractive to the ear – as in the tantalizing piece, Criucm.

The twin pistons of Montreal’s Jazzlab Orchestra are double bassist Alain Bédard and drummer Michel Lambert. Growling horns buzz and roar incessantly making music with a deeply furrowed brow occasionally bursting out with ebullient and snazzy musical flourishes.

Listen to 'LOGUSLABUSMUZIKUS' Now in the Listening Room

12 Nick MacleanCan You Hear Me?
Nick Maclean
Browntasaurus Records NCC-1701M (nicholasmaclean.com)

The prodigiously gifted pianist Nick Maclean asks a simple – apparently rhetorical – question with the title of his double-disc: Can You Hear Me? Listeners of this fine recording will get to reply in the affirmative, with loud, enthusiastic whoops for joy – the kind that audiences make wherever fine music – especially jazz – is created. 

Maclean is to be roundly applauded because he literally soars in splendid isolation, although he did admittedly get help from the celebrated producer Brownman Ali. Enough help, it turns out, to turn in a brilliant recording, where both standards and original compositions come alive with percussive growls, and daintily eloquent phrases. Some of these are curvy and elegantly sculpted, others are long inventions punched, poked and – eventually – shaped into bravura melodies and harmonies with thumping left-hand triads and chords. The left and right hand conversations are dynamic and full of surprises. You don’t even have to wait long for the energy to begin flowing. This happens right out of the gate – with Herbie Hancock’s Dolphin Dance.

The most outstanding songs of the set are Frank Churchill’s Someday My Prince Will Come, and interestingly, Jimmy Van Heusen’s It Could Happen to You. On the latter (presumably) producer Brownman Ali is heard suggesting an alternate opening which turns the interpretation into a wondrous re-invention. Maclean’s original compositions such as Why the Caged Bird Sings (an interpretation of Maya Angelou’s poem relocated to the pianist’s musical landscape) are exquisitely provocative and radically progressive.

Back to top