12 Nate WooleyNate Wooley – Mutual Aid Music
Nate Wooley; Joshua Modney; Ingrid Laubrock; Mariel Roberts; Matt Moran; Russell Greenberg; Sylvie Courvoisier; Cory Smythe
Pleasure of the Text Records POTTR1309 (pleasureofthetext.com)

Trumpeter, composer, conceptualist, Nate Wooley is a major figure in current free jazz and improvised music, consistently focused on issues of meaning. This latest work is an outgrowth of Battle Pieces, a quartet project begun in 2014 in which one member acts as improvising soloist while the other members choose from Wooley’s supplied materials to develop the work. Mutual Aid Music extends this method for surmounting the usual alternatives of composition/improvisation, doubling the quartet with four more musicians chosen from the New York contemporary music community. 

The eight musicians play eight “concertos”: in each, one musician has a primary score; one improvises throughout, based on the other seven’s input; others freely adapt secondary materials that have been individually assigned. Surmounting Wooley’s complex methodology is a singular purpose: “It asks the musicians… to ask themselves, in each moment, how that gift will affect the community (ensemble) of which they are currently a member.” Wooley the conceptualist has effectively made each musician responsible for a work’s outcome in how they choose to make each transaction collectively meaningful.   

Clearly the work depends on its community of stellar musicians – saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, pianists Sylvie Courvoisier and Cory Smythe, percussionists Matt Moran and Russell Greenberg, violinist Joshua Modney and cellist Mariel Roberts – but the results are always remarkable, sometimes astonishing, everyone engaged in making the richest, most expressive, organized and communicative music possible. Beyond category in its structure and immediacy, this feels as much like a success for listeners as the composer and ensemble.

13 Roy HargroveIn Harmony
Roy Hargrove; Mulgrew Miller
Resonance Records HCD-2060 (resonancerecords.org)

In Harmony is a gorgeous time capsule displaying two performers at the top of their game and providing a sublime reading of jazz standards in two intimate live sessions. This album is made even more poignant by the deaths of both musicians at relatively young ages: Mulgrew Miller was 57 when he died of a stroke in 2013 and Roy Hargrove was only 49 when he passed away in 2018. Fortunately for jazz history and for us, these two concerts (Kaufman Music Center, New York, January 15, 2006 and Lafayette College, Easton PA, November 9, 2007) were recorded by Hargrove’s manager, Larry Clothier. The recordings have now been released by Resonance Records in a limited edition LP format and as a two-CD set. The package includes a thick booklet containing an essay on the musicians and these two concerts, several colour photos and interviews and statements by several prominent jazz musicians.

Hargrove can be bright and crisp with a Miles Davis feel, but also soulful and he plays bop and post-bop lines which makes him the complete jazz trumpet player. Miller has a more subtle style which has many influences (including Oscar Peterson who inspired him to learn jazz). He can play a solid yet sophisticated accompaniment, perform an elegant solo with complex lines that seem effortless, and add some angular blues licks on Monk’s Tune. These two concerts are even more impressive because although Hargrove and Miller had played together in the past, this was their first (and second) time performing as a duet and the concerts were put together very quickly (but of course, that’s the jazz thing to do). They sound sophisticated and completely at ease with each other, exchanging ideas, joking around in tunes like Fungii Mama, and generally paying an inspired homage to the tradition.

14 Paul PacanowskiPrayerful Thoughts (covid time improvisations)
Paul Pacanowski
Independent (paulpacanowski.com)

Polish born Toronto-based multi-instrumentalist jazz/classical performer/composer Paul Pacanowski is inspirational in his 57-minute solo “covid-time improvisations.” Home recording has become more popular for musicians during COVID. As he writes on the CD cover, he would play improvs in his basement studio late at night to lift his COVID-time spirits until it “dawned” on him to record his work at home. He plays all the instruments in eight tracks/sections, each introduced by a short musical wave-like undulation, all joined together as one long work.

Pacanowski’s piano expertise drives the improvisations. Calming, repetitive 1. undulation leads to reflective jazz-flavoured slow 2. piano with long phrases, shifting tonalities, conversational high and low pitch runs and detached notes. From calm to faster intense moments, a shift to major tonality closer to the end creates a happier hopeful feel of COVID ending. Two other piano-only tracks are included.

Pacanowski takes a memorable musical leap to improvise with himself playing on other instruments. In 8. flute/piano, he breathes life into dramatic high, held-flute notes, detached sections and energetic, almost new-music sounds, as his piano mimics and supports in modern jazz at its very best. More jazz with a brief atonal section in alto saxophone and piano stylings in 14. alto sax/piano. He plays clarinet, keys and piano harp elsewhere. 

Pacanowski’s well-thought-out “home-made” jazzy compositions and improvisations make for a great release to listen to, both upfront and as background music.

15 Natsuki TamuraKoki Solo
Natsuki Tamura
Libra Records 101-066 (librarecords.com)

Executive produced by the incomparable Satoko Fujii and recorded in Natsuki Tamura’s own home, Koki Solo is a collection of improvisations that equally showcase Tamura’s decades of playing experience and his boundless curiosity. He breaks with conventions of instrumentation and form with admirable enthusiasm and assurance. Beyond his typical innovations on the trumpet, he also experiments with piano, voice and even cookware from his kitchen. 

While he admittedly doesn’t have anywhere near the same mastery on instruments other than trumpet, it doesn’t stop him from doing amazing work. For example, during his piano improvising on Bora, Tamura’s patient drone in his left hand engages in compelling dialogues with both the open melodicism of his right hand and his arresting vocal exclamations. Similarly, on Karugamo, the detailed, textural tour through the contents of his kitchen gradually evolves into a rhythmical call-and-response with his forcefully enunciated syllables. 

Regardless of the various unfamiliar waters Tamura dips his toes into, he is the definition of a master improviser, and that translates to everything he does. Not a single phrase he plays or utters is an afterthought, or a throwaway. Every note is imbued with feeling and meaning and he expertly uses space to punctuate and emphasize. Fujii’s spotless production complements Tamura’s style perfectly, ensuring there is nary a detail in the music that sounds insignificant. An abundance of tangible passion can be felt in the performance of Koki Solo, and it’s infectious.

Like other out-of-the-ordinary keepsakes, boxed sets of recorded music are issued to celebrate a special occasion, to honour an unrepeatable situation or to assemble all parts of a unique situation. Each of these sets fit one of those criteria.

01 Wadada Leo SmithTo celebrate his 80th birthday, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, a founding member of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) who has created sounds ranging from hushed atonality to free-form funk, organized special projects for his transition to his ninth decade. The most noteworthy was the three-CD Sacred Ceremonies (TUM Records Box 03 tumrecords.com), which matched the trumpeter with two of his longtime associates, electric bassist Bill Laswell and percussionist Milford Graves (1941-2021), on one CD each plus a final disc trio session. The material combined new Smith compositions with free improvisations.

An expert in novel pulses, Graves’ intersection with the trumpeter shows how differing concepts of musical freedom can fuse. Especially during the three-part Nyoto suite, Smith’s fluttering grace notes create the horizontal expression that’s propelled to tenacious connections by Graves’ relaxed but vigorous metrical expression. Shaded, with sometimes unexpected   Baby Dodds in Congo Square is a nod to jazz history even through Graves’ postmodern non-timekeeping and Latin American and African influences are far removed from the cited New Orleans drummer’s straight-ahead beats. However, as Graves moves through rhythm permutations, Smith follows the narrative from adagio to allegro as he speeds up his playing from simple flutters to staccato squeals and shattering timbres at an elevated pitch. Laswell has produced the likes of Motörhead and Laurie Anderson, though as an instrumentalist he promotes the intersection between funk and free jazz. Smith, whose many projects include a recasting of Miles Davis’ electric period in the Yo Miles! group, is unfazed. Confirming this duality, one Smith-Laswell track is titled Donald Ayler’s Rainbow Summit, citing the free jazz trumpeter; and another – the longest – Minnie Riperton - The Chicago Bronzeville Master Blaster pays tribute to the Chicago-raised Rock/R&B singer. A more accomplished trumpeter than primitivist Ayler, Smith’s exposition mixes hardened slurs with accented shakes, and while playing motifs in the horn’s lowest register, retains an achingly clear brightness. Meanwhile, Laswell uses bass textures and programming to create not only a bumpy rhythmic bottom, but also a wash of electrified tones that mixes melancholy with atmosphere. Meanwhile on Minnie Riperton, a synthesized string section backs the trumpeter’s grace-note theme expansion. Moving from mellow to motion during the second half of the track, heavier beats are emphasized with sliding bass guitar pops among the shimmering interface. Later, brass triplets curve the narrative into distanced string vibrations as the final sequence widens and rolls the sounds upwards. The third and longest disc has the three musicians in trio formation, but without falling into conventional solo/accompaniment roles. Despite tracks moving in unexpected sequences, detoured motifs and shifting textures, Smith confirms his singularity with a distinctive brass sound. As in the Laswell duo, synthesized flanges and arrangements often push forward and suggest textures from additional ghost players. The only concession to convention is the introduction to The Healer’s Direct Energy which becomes a showcase for the expression of Graves’ rhythmic subtlety where his pounding ruffs and paced paradiddles set up an undulating narrative of guitar-like echoes and brassy triplet bugling from the others. Waves of Elevated Horizontal Forces is a more limited bass guitar elaboration, but brass bites and conga drum-like pops eventually predominate. Other than that, tracks evolve with three-part cohesion. Graves’ beats range from tom-tom-like pressure to near silent raps, which lock in to bass lines that include watery whammy-bar twists besides fluid improvisation. Additionally, Smith’s tongue tricks encompassing dissected runs, stratospheric trills and grainy ruggedness, fit appropriately among the other two players’ expressions.

02 ISTAnother trio which worked with near-extrasensory perception was the UK’s IST consisting of cellist Mark Wastell, harpist Rhodri Davies and double bassist Simon H. Fell. A More Attractive Way (Confront Core Series/Core 21 confrontrecordings.com) is a five-CD compendium of concerts from the turn of the century which proves that a string ensemble can create improvisations as intense as one with horns and percussion. Celebrating the trio’s 25-year existence it’s also a memorial to Fell, who died of cancer in 2020 at the age of 62. Avoiding for the most part charming harmonies associated with traditional chamber instruments, the 25 selections are reductionist with the frequent use of preparations to create staccato and percussive definitions. Predominately an improvised ensemble, IST devotes most of Disc V from 1998 to interpreting compositions, including Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Intensität. Understandingly, that version, which judders between string buzzing and harmonic clusters as well as proving how IST plays notated scores, isn’t far removed from the group’s pure improvisations. Ironically though, the swelling mid-section of Davies’ Wstrws, from the same concert, is the most the trio sounds like a conventional string trio. Still the harpist’s sped-up plucks and the trio’s sprinkle of squeaks and buzzes at the finale, confirms its individuality. Overall the three work within lower case parameters, but with frequent col legno bow strokes, below-the-bridge squeals, spiccato thumps and pressurized glissandi, so the tracks are never enervating. A particular instance of this is on Disc II’s Restrictive Parallels I. Climaxing with an explosion of jumps and sul tasto echoes plus door-stopper-like twangs, it follows a gradual deconstruction of the exposition. Cogwheel-like ratcheting portends later near-metal squeals after concentrated textures are augmented by modulated cello sweeps and double bass drones. IST hosts guests on two discs. Four tracks with violinist PhIl Durrant add more dynamic timbral excitement but don’t resemble conventional string quartet fare either. But when the quartet’s affiliated string rubs reach a crescendo, the interface is even more kinetic. On Aesthetic Triage II-IV the expositions augment to include wood raps, screw twisting and wound-string bending as all four alternate between harsh arco squeals and plinking pizzicato frails until the already elongated theme is stretched thinner and thinner. More low-key, tenor/soprano saxophonist John Butcher’s contribution to three other tracks moves the group within a mercurial suite illuminated by how well reed flattement and bubbling multiphonics are situated among IST’s vibrating string pressure encompassing sul ponticello splatters, crammed whines and plinks. The concluding Trenchant Observations II and III first torque the narrative to its highest-pitched confluence with whistling string tones and tongue slaps until thumping double bass stopping combines with cello string stretches and downwards harp glissando to widen the connection until the improvisation’s parameters are pulled down to reflective silence.

03 Ivo PerelmanA unique box variant is Embrace of the Souls: (SMP 2020 smprecords.bandcamp.com/ album/special-edition-box), which packages three examples of the almost-25-year musical partnership of Brazilian tenor saxophonist Ivo Perelman and American pianist Matthew Shipp. Included is an audio CD of a 2019 New York concert, a DVD of a São Paulo concert later that year, and a 49-page booklet discussing the musicians and 14 of their recordings by Belgian writer Jean-Michel Van Schouwburg. Building on the time he produced a Brussels concert with the duo, Van Schouwburg defines what he calls their sense of aesthetic familiarity, which allows them to create first-class music. Designed for both free jazz insiders and those exploring the sounds, Van Schouwburg describes the duo’s individual histories and situates their references and influences to swing era and bop stylists as well as more recent exploratory players. He insists on the unique qualities of every improvisation, live and recorded, and offers a succinct description of each disc. Meanwhile Perelman and Shipp’s art can be experienced audibly and/or visually. Filmed on a darkened stage and occasionally cutting away to show Perelman’s paintings, the DVD is one hour of uninterrupted improvisation that shows interwoven creativity. Consisting of a dozen tracks that take from between slightly over two to slightly over seven minutes to be resolved, the majority of the CD’s untitled tunes are pensive and romantic. Demonstrating again that free improvisation doesn’t have to be loud to be profound, logical shifts and slides are heard. Despite the saxophonist’s frequently climbing to altissimo or sopranissimo pitches with fragmented peeps, squeaks and screams, the two press on resolutely. Sometimes accelerating to a gallop to counter Perelman’s discursive reed lines or violent keyboard squalls before subsiding to double counterpoint, Shipp’s measured pattering and percussive asides indicate how he too subtly contributes to the tracks’ floating coordination.

No vanity projects, each of these collections has something to offer and celebrate.

01 Holly ColeMontreal
Holly Cole Trio
Rumpus Room Records 8088910067 (hollycole.com)

Recorded live during a four-day stint at the intimate Lion d’Or during the 2019 Festival International de Jazz, Montreal is a succinct six tracks. I don’t know if it’s because my attention span has deteriorated in this information-overloaded age we live in, but I quite enjoyed this shorter album size.

I also enjoyed the energy that a live performance lends. So although the majority of the tracks are Cole classics that most fans will have heard before, these renditions have slight differences from the studio versions as well as a unique presence and spontaneity that’s difficult to achieve in studio. The sound recording is so good (thanks to Ken Friesen) that you might not even know it’s live until the appreciative audience makes its presence felt.

Cole is in top form, doing what she does best: delivering great songs with style, wit and heart, starting with the atmospheric Whatever Lola Wants. A singer’s dream, Cole’s longtime bandmates – Aaron Davis, piano, David Piltch, bass, Davide DiRenzo, drums and John Johnson, woodwinds – deliver their usual imaginative, tasteful support. Each band member has a chance to shine – Piltch on the stripped down Little Boy Blue, a playful duet with just bass and voice. Davis solos beautifully on Girl Talk and Talk To Me Baby and Johnson’s evocative clarinet playing strikes just the right note on You’ve Got a Secret.

02 Swing ShiftCelebrations!
Swing Shift Big Band; Jackie Richardson; Larisa Renėe; Dave Statham
Palais Records SSBB2021CD (swingshiftbigband.com)

The homegrown, nationally acclaimed Swing Shift Big Band has been operating for 25 years and in these tough times has released a wonderful album full of all-time favourites from the genre that are sure to get any listener toe tapping right along. Led by multi-instrumentalist Jim John, through interesting and unique arrangements of well-known pieces, the band does a great job of breathing new life into a genre that can often get pushed slightly to the background. The listener is taken on a time-travelling journey of sorts, one that is just the perfect getaway paired with warmer weather and quickly approaching summer. 

The record starts off with a bossa nova classic Summer Samba, a sultry and rhythmic piece with scintillating solos by tenor saxophonist and musical director Jeff Pighin, as well as lead trombonist Rob Williams. Compared to the original, Swing Shift’s version may even become the preference for some due to the organ melody being replaced by a softer and mellower combination of trumpets, alto saxophones and trombones in this rendition. In Here’s to Life, renowned vocalist Jackie Richardson lends her rich and soulful voice to bring a melodious jazz ballad to new heights; the subtle yet poignant big band accompaniment pairing perfectly with her timbre. For any jazz fans looking to renew their interest in the big band subgenre or for new listeners alike, this album is a definite must.

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