11 Curran EndangeredEndangered Species
Alvin Curran
New World Records 80804-2 (newworldrecords.org)

American composer Alvin Curran is famed as a member of Musica Elettronica Viva, the pioneering improvising electroacoustic ensemble. Yet in his 80th year he has revived his primary musical experiences, playing American Songbook standards. But since this is Curran and this is the 21st century, this two-CD set of classic tunes arrives with a twist. Besides his subtle piano improvisations that impressively re-imagine the tunes, he employs a Yamaha Disklavier. Resembling a grand piano, but actually a blend of acoustic keyboard, player piano and digital computer, the Disklavier allows him to append any manner of previously recorded sounds to the tracks.

Take the nearly 17-minute rendition of Ain’t Misbehavin’. As Curran works his way through the familiar melody with aplomb, all manner of inharmonious and grating noises are interjected and then vanish, including whistles, yodels, bel canto arias, wolf calls, marching feet, erotic moans and duck calls. Incorporating these disruptions, he alters the melody at points to work in blues tonality and formal recital inferences, culminating in a thoroughly original re-creation.

Each of the 18 compositions goes through a similar transformation, whether it’s 1896’s Red River Valley or 1955’s Arrivederci Roma. While most include a humorous palimpsest of the original, only Arrivederci Roma with its sonic overlay of crying infants, street noises and snatches of Italian-language conversations, add a hint of seriousness to the familiar light-hearted melody, since Curran has lived and taught in Rome since the early 1960s.

12 Blake Lee CoverThe Newest Sound You Never Heard
Ran Blake; Jeanne Lee
a-side records 0005 (a-siderecords.com) 

When singer Jeanne Lee and pianist Ran Blake released their 1961 debut, The Newest Sound Around, it introduced a new interpretive freedom to a broad range of songs. The duo extended traditional roles to a genuine improvised duet between voice and instrument, from Lee’s frequent a cappella rubatos and chromatic fantasies to Blake’s playful keyboard explosions, all of it held together by near-telepathic attention to one another’s sense of inspired detail. This two-CD set combines unreleased studio and concert performances recorded in Belgium in 1966 and 1967.

One can simply celebrate the breadth of their repertoire, extending from Ellington, Monk (his Misterioso here set to Gertrude Stein’s words) and Harold Arlen to Ornette Coleman, Ray Charles, Lennon-McCartney and Bob Dylan; however, it’s their unique handling of the material that distinguishes the results, stringing songs together in vast medleys, then trusting to the individual song to hold the performance together.

In part they play on the familiarity of their material, Lee’s rich, nuanced delivery of a single phrase conveying an entire song’s depth. The live disc initially reminds that Out of this World started with Arlen and Johnny Mercer, even if the greatest debt here is to John Coltrane. It then segues to a fragmented Mr. Tambourine Man in a chain that includes an abstracted pointillist Blake solo and Lee’s roots-drenched versions of He’s Got the Whole World in his Hands and Billie’s Blues. This is rare and fine material.

13 Jon LundbomHarder on the Outside
Jon Lundbom & Big Five Chord
Independent HOT CUP 108 (jonlundbom.com)

The “avant jazz guitarist” Jon Lundbom has an eclectic and inventive history which includes studying jazz and classical guitar in Chicago and New York; playing in Bryan & the Haggards, a New York-based alternative Merle Haggard cover band; and releasing eight recordings with his own group, Jon Lundbom & Big Five Chord. (I fell in love with the Haggard’s 2013 Merles Just Want to Have Fun featuring Eugene Chadbourne).

Harder on the Outside is intense, aggressive, fun and solidly grooving. It is a combination of hardcore/alternative fusion with solid beats and free-form soloing. The “beats” come from a longer-term project between saxophonist Bryan Murray and Lundbom which is forthcoming, but Lundbom was inspired to record live versions of those songs with the Big Five Chord (Lundbom with Jon Irabagon on alto and soprano saxophones, Murray on tenor and balto! saxophones, Moppa Elliott on bass and Dan Monaghan on drums).

Two examples of this album’s range are: People Be Talking which features a 6/4 metre propelled by an eccentric bass and drum groove, melodic head, sputtering and energized tenor solo by Murray and then a reverbed, ethereal guitar solo from Lundbom. Prednisone is slower with a cautious, crawling melody played in fourths with the saxophones. Justin Wood (a guest “sixth chord”) plays a lyric alto sax solo and then Lundbom finishes with a fuzzed-out guitar displaying very solid fusion chops. None of the tunes end with the traditional recap of the melody; the solo finishes and that’s it. The beats are seriously heavy and the playing is intense.

14 WeightingWeighting
Gabriel Zucker
ESP-Disk ESP5027 (gabrielzucker.com)

Gabriel Zucker is a New York-based composer and pianist who has been creating music which combines elements of contemporary composition, jazz improvisation and indie band music. He writes and performs for a band he calls The Delegation which has a revolving membership and recently toured Ontario. Weighting sounds similar to the music of The Delegation, but it is a specific project based on the novel The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner. The group comprises Zucker with Tyshawn Sorey (drums), Adam O’Farrill (trumpet) and Eric Trudel (saxophone).

Weighting contains sounds and motifs that unwind narratively in three parts: Soul, Appointments and Stones (each of which has two or three movements). The first movement of Part 1Would It Come Back to You? – begins with trumpet and saxophone playing lines that are part counterpoint, part call and response; they grow loud, then soft, interspersing flurries of notes with longer tones. The piano and drums enter after the piece is half over, filling out the sound with discordant clusters of notes and drum rolls and then all four players exchange several intense riffs until only the piano is left to calmly introduce the second movement, The Uselessness of Truth/Not to be Anything More. Soon Sorey joins with some bow-on-cymbal work and eventually Trudel plays primarily pads over a soft piano background.

Each of the movements contains contrasting composed sections and some improvised parts which maintain the sense of moving forward to the next idea. Zucker has carved out a unique vision with his music and Weighting is an engaging album.

Recording with a group of stringed instruments has always posed particular challenges for committed improvisers. Since the groupings of violin, viola, cello and the like are usually valued for their harmonic and melodic qualities, the challenge is to avoid a mawkish “& Strings” session, that buries innovation in schmaltz. Luckily these discs impress by using string players not as backup or afterthought, but as an integral part of the creative process.

01 Strings1CD007Take Brazilian tenor saxophonist Ivo Perelman for instance. As part of a seemingly endless series of discs that link his horn with other instruments, on Strings 1 (Leo Records CD LR 850 leorecords.com), the saxophonist creates a free music interpretation of high-art string quartet literature. Perelman, who played cello as a youth takes that part, while the others fit traditional roles: violinists Mark Feldman and Jason Hwang plus violist Mat Maneri. During the nine-track, 74-minute program, the four subdivide frequently so that when one violinist concentrates on sul ponticello squeaks, the other paces a moderato theme; or the saxophonist’s yelps, peeps and growls are answered with contrapuntal viola sweeps. Throughout, the fluctuating sequences move from stop-time to fragmented to extended legato, with abstracted string scratching as much a part of the expositions’ evolution as Perelman’s multiphonic asides. Although all four are capable of creating elevated timbres – despite the fact that the string players sometimes approximate angry birds – uncomfortable shrillness is usually avoided, with the quartet confirming that moderato storytelling can encompass just enough jagged and jerking notes to enliven the tracks without derailing them into atonality. The extended fourth track, for example, which begins with dissonant pizzicato plucks from the string players and elaborated sibilant reed squeaks, courses into a narrative where Perelman’s caustic tones settle within circling string layering, so that no matter how many spiky reed detours are tried, by the finale the parallel improvising becomes a four-part coordinated theme.

02 LisbonStringCD003American clarinetist Blaise Siwula is in somewhat the same situation on K’ampokol Che K’aay (Creative Sources CS 453 CD creativesourcesrec.com), Except in this case the Lisbon String Trio consists of violist Ernesto Rodrigues, cellist Miguel Mira and bassist Alvaro Rosso. Recorded at a Lisbon concert, the music on the disc – titled for a Mayan coffee-like shrub – gets steadily more salient as the program evolves and each player becomes more comfortable with the others’ skills. Initially, either strident or wispy, Siwula’s clarinet parts evolve to sinewy mid-range, with a woody overlay, as flutter-tongued elaborations become expressive storytelling. When the string trio isn’t involved with mid-range harmonies, each takes on a particular role. Rosso’s rugged program includes applying ground bass plucks to the tracks; Mira’s repetitive counterpoint challenges the narrative; and Rodrigues’ staccatissimo thrusts decorate the fluid interface with pumps and jumps. The four reach a climax midway through the third untitled improvisation when a section of high and low pitches dissolves into individual showcases. From that point on, despite ragged string sweeps, spiky textures, and slap-tonguing and modulated shrilling from the clarinetist, the polyphonic program touches on the pastoral, but includes enough sudden and unexpected pitch and tone switches that, symbolically, the hardscrabble work that underlies any bucolic scene ia sonically obvious as well.

03 BlackPokeCD004Another method of pushing an already constituted string section into an anomalous challenge is to mate it with another group. Black Poker (Clean Feed CF 504 CD cleanfeed-records.com) does just that, as Italian drummer Francesco Cusa and his band the Assassins with trumpeter/electronics manipulator Flavio Zanuttini, tenor saxophonist Giovanni Benvenuti and keyboardist Giulio Stermieri are joined by the violinists Daniele Iannaccone and Lorenzo Borneo plus violist Agostino Mattioni and cellist Cristiano Sacchi who make up the Florence Art Quartet (FAQ). Although the two quartets each have a track to themselves – with the result too syrupy in the FAQ’s case – Black Poker’s achievement is how well the ensembles’ dissimilar textures integrate. Starting with Spades/Picche, the first track, the polished swing of the Assassins, expressed most obviously in processed upsurges from Zanuttini and pensive reed breaks from Benvenuti, is first buttressed and then challenged via pizzicato pops from the FAQ. Sophisticated enough to divide its role on Clubs/Fiore into high-pitched violin swirls and mid-range viola and cello vibrations, the FAQ is the antithesis of a clichéd string section. As Benvenuti’s altissimo runs plus Stermieri’s tremolo cadenzas – as well as Cusa’s faultless yet hard rebounds – move the narrative forward while making it more overtly rhythmic, the string shimmies provide the theme with flexibility and sparkle. Key role reversal occurs in the penultimate Kirtimukha (Hearts/Cuori), where the tenor saxophonist’s heartrending solo is more pulpy than anything the individual strings play; and it’s the FAQ’s bent note refrain and string scrubbing, plus shrill notes dug out from the trumpet’s innards, that ensure the tune returns the head’s jolly march and away from mawkishness.

04 CordameCD001With a sextet consisting mostly of orchestral instruments and half the 16 tracks based on works of Claude Debussy, Montreal-based Cordâme has given itself a challenge that goes beyond instrumentation. However on Debussy Impressions (Malasartes Mam 033 cordametrio.com), the composition and arrangements of bassist Jean Félix Mailloux, plus the playing of violinist Marie Neige Lavigne, cellist Sheila Hannigan, harpist Éveline Grégoire-Rousseau, pianist Guillaume Martineau and percussionist Mark Nelson, manage to use the French Impressionist composer’s concepts as a base to blend and broaden sounds on the 70-minute CD to much more than a Debussy homage or mimicry. While glissandi from the harp and the violin on a track such as Debussy au clair de lune may follow expected dancing expressionism, the seamless integration of a thumping bass line and piano syncopation introduce a jazz sensibility that buoys the piece. Similarly L’égyptienne may include some faux-Middle Eastern motifs like its model, but downcast fiddle cadenzas are secondary to percussive rebounds from Nelson and sweeping piano patterns that almost push the piece into rock music territory. Orchidées chatoyantes depends on below-the-bridge plucks from the strings plus a castanet-like clatter, giving the track a unique Spanish tinge. Meanwhile the polyrhythmic Ondine advances with keyboard rumbles and swinging harp pops, and includes sprightly violin sweeps that relate more to rural Quebec than Edwardian Paris. This old-timey fiddle concept also appears on Fougères, inserted in the middle of a stirring duet between double bass and harp, both swinging in a non-18th-century manner. This and other originals show off Mailloux’s skill even more. However he’s crafty enough to compose pieces that harmonize with the French composer’s ideas. Lotus bleu, for example, is lighthearted and speedy. Yet lurking among the piano clusters and bass-and-drum cross-rhythms is a hint of lighter syncopation close to what Debussy found in the sound of gamelan ensembles.

05 AmorgosCD002In a more contemporary setting and with a reduced ensemble, Athens-based composer/vocalist Ada Pitsou has created a suite of ten miniatures reflecting the most eastern Greek island in the South Aegean Sea with Amorgos (SLAM 592 slamproductions.net), interpreted by handpicked musicians: violinist Dionisis Vervitsiotis, cellist Angelos Liakakis, pianist Thodoros Kotepanos and drummer Niklos Sidirokastritis. Chief distinction is how well pre-recorded sounds of lapping waves, running water and breezy and blustery winds are adapted to sync with the instrumentalists’ expositions. However once this is accomplished, Pitsou’s compositions don’t take much advantage of the broad textures that could be sourced from unconventional string settings. More interested in mood and colouring than ambulation, unlike Mailloux’s re-orchestrations, here sprightly interchanges and austere harmonies are used for scene-setting rather than timbral advancement. There are a few instances where the mould is broken briefly, as on Yassemi, where drumming patterns interrupt a romantic string exposition; or on Seladi, where tempo-changing iterations cycle through percussive piano clips, warm violin and cello harmonies and inflated wind whooshes. But these attempts aren’t extended to full innovative dissonance or tried elsewhere. Overall, despite the CD’s somewhat unusual instrumentation, only simple musical goals are aimed for; and they are just as easily attained.

String groups have been utilized for fine chamber music since the 18th century. In the 21st century however, coupling the expected with output from other sources – mostly improvised creations – produces even more memorable results. 

01 Eldon Rathburn ProjectThe Romance of Improvisation in Canada: The Genius of Eldon Rathburn
Petr Cancura; Kevin Turcotte; Marianne Trudel; Adrian Vedady; Jim Doxas
Justin Time JTR 8613-2 (justin-time.com/en/album/588)

The Romance of Improvisation in Canada – The Genius of Eldon Rathburn celebrates the music of the late, titular composer, who wrote more than 250 film scores, the majority of them during his long career as a staff composer for the National Film Board. This album – released through Justin Time, and helmed by Adrian Matte and Allyson Rogers, who co-produce and arrange all the album’s music – is a labour of love to the memory of Rathburn, whose music will be familiar to multiple generations of Canadians, even if his name is not. Playing Matte and Rogers’ arrangements is the top-notch ensemble of Petr Cancura, saxophone, Kevin Turcotte, trumpet, Marianne Trudel, piano, Adrian Vedady, bass, and Jim Doxas, drums.

Working for the NFB, many of Rathburn’s assignments involved composing music for educational shorts, including the endearingly titled Fish Spoilage Control; the theme gets an up-tempo swing treatment on this album, with a jagged melody set atop a tense pedal point. The Industrial Revolution Comes to Canada, at a mere 31 seconds, is a brief foreboding delight; likewise the three sections of the Ox Driver’s Blues suite. Fresh Fish Delish! Le Poisson se mange frais! is a bouncy, bluesy number, which, like so much of the album, balances humour and levity with the ensemble’s sophisticated improvisational prowess; Vedady, Turcotte, Cancura and Trudel all take concise solos. An excellent and unique album, appropriate for those interested in Rathburn, jazz, Canadiana or any combination thereof.

03 Ben dCunhaThis Is Autumn to Me
Ben D’Cunha
Independent (bendcunha.com)

On his debut recording, compelling pianist, vocalist and composer, Ben D’Cunha culled the selection of tunes here from 27 original songs captured in a single four-hour recording session this past summer. D’Cunha’s voice is rich and lustrous, and his jazz sensibility and phrasing are superb. As a pianist, he is in the pocket, connecting on a psychic level with the superb musicians also featured on this fine recording – Bob Brough on tenor saxophone, Jordan O’Connor on acoustic bass and Mike McClelland on drums.

The CD gets going with Earworm – an up-tempo, beboppish salute to the great vocalese progenitors, such as Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. D’Cunha bops and scats joyously throughout this delightful tune, punctuated by the trading of fours with Brough, O’Connor and McClelland. Of special note is the title track, a lilting bossa with a charming lyric and thoroughly gorgeous vocal. D’Cunha seems to channel the late, great, Kenny Rankin here with his pitch-pure and vibrato-controlled vocal sound. Also of note is Where Are You Now – a touching ballad of a past love, loss and reflection. The pristine canvas of piano, bass and drums is the perfect setting for this deeply moving piece.

The ten tasty tracks continue with Sweet Honey Bee (Won’t You Walk With Me) – a bluesy, funky tune featuring the soulful tones of Brough on tenor; and also the brilliantly lyricized, You Expletive You – a contemplative ballad about toxic love. O’Connor sets the sultry tone with the wonderful voice/bass duet that kicks off this boppish ballad, and Brough’s languid solo is masterful, as is O’Connor’s.

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