Assembled since the first significant 78s were collected in one package, the boxed set has traditionally been used to celebrate important anniversaries or extensive projects. CD collections are the same, with these improvised music sets aurally illuminating various programs.

Hemphill 00 boxThe most meaningful collection is the seven CDs that make up Julius Hemphill The Boyé Mufti-National Crusade for Harmony – Archive Recordings 1977-2007 (New World Records 80825-2 Consisting of 53 previously unreleased tracks, the box presents a full picture of composer and saxophonist Hemphill (1938- 1995), who was a member of the St. Louis Black Artists Group and founder of the World Saxophone Quartet. Hemphill is represented not only by numerous combo sessions with fellow sound innovators, but also by a disc of his chamber music compositions as well as multimedia creations involving solo saxophone forays and spoken word. While other tunes of his are interpreted by pianist Ursula Oppens and the Daedalus String Quartet, a more memorable compositional program on Disc 4 is of two pieces Hemphill conducted played by improvisers using traditional orchestral instruments and without solos. Slotted among Baroque, blues and bop, the tracks include achingly melodic motifs plus timbral extensions into multiphonics and swing that are unique. Roi Boyé Solo and Text is an entire disc dedicated to the vernacular trickster character the saxophonist developed in theatrical presentations where his horns comment on verbalized themes extended with Malinké Elliott’s recitation of the poetry of K.Curtis Lyle. With the rhymes personifying a variety of inner city St. Louis characters from shouting preacher to mumbling hustler, Hemphill’s flute or soprano and alto saxophone lines offer either measured cadences as affirmation or use screech mould, triple tonguing plus the addition of miscellaneous percussion to rhythmically solidify the urban imagery and underline the barbed explosiveness of the situation. 

However, it was as an improviser, composer and arranger that Hemphill’s identity was solidified, and these skills are expressed in cultivated and unique fashion involving numerous ensembles on the other five CDs. Hemphill’s best-known associates, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnette, joined the saxophonist and longtime musical partner, trumpeter Baikida Carroll, in 1979 for one concert. Known for affiliations with Keith Jarrett and Miles Davis, the bassist and drummer easily respond to Hemphill’s music, as percussion rolls and ruffs and stentorian string plucks smack and swipe alongside light-toned grainy brass smears and an unbroken line of reed shrills. Mirrors’ squirming exposition opens up for a jumping tempo-shattering snare-and-cymbal solo without upsetting the piece’s ambulating balance. Meanwhile, the concluding Would Boogie is defined by the title as a drum backbeat; walking bass lines match lockstep horn animation which splinters the theme into atom-sized reed bites and splayed brass flutters and then reconstructs it. This down-home quality is further emphasized with two groups on CD 6 which include electric bassists and guitarists. Pops and splatters from Jerome Harris’ electric bass evolve in tandem with Hemphill’s sax squeaks or flute trills as six duo selections become harsher and more pressurized. A similar intensity is expressed when bop meet blues on Pigskin, as Jack Wilkins’ echoing guitar licks and drummer Michael Carvin’s power backbeat add mainstream swing to the saxophonist’s astringent exploration. One/Waltz/Time+ projects the group’s multiple identities as guitarists Allan Jaffe’s and Nels Cline’s blues-rock twangs and frails connect with Hemphill’s shifting split tones, moving the piece from the hotel ballroom to the honky tonk. 

Country blues energy coupled with urban experimentation also enlivens the multiple bands that Hemphill led under different names featured on Discs 1 and 3. Usually including Carroll, Dimples: The Fat Lady on Parade is unique because the trumpeter’s strangled blows and the saxophonist’s foaming glissandi are moderated when joined by John Carter’s nasal clarinet tones. With the woodwind’s gentle trilling taking on the storytelling role, Hemphill’s soprano creates a sweet obbligato. As sprightly harmonies then unite over drummer Alex Cline’s ambulatory beat, the narrative resembles the topsy-turvy echoes of a retreating circus band. Cline and Carroll are part of the trio called The Janus Company on Disc 3 where boppy themes do-si-do among the band members. Spectacular drum rumbles enliven #4 as Hemphill’s supple cries buzz across the sequence while Carroll’s capillary screeches vibrate to a Pop Goes the Weasel burlesque until the two horns finally harmonize. Cellist Abdul Wadud joins the trio for a finger-snapping version of Dogon A.D., one of the saxophonist’s best-known compositions. Including guitar-like frails from Wadud, high-pitched bugling from the trumpet and a hearty drum backbeat, this variant combines a march rhythm, blues notes and splintered multiphonics. Wadud, who was on the saxophonist’s first recording, also partners Hemphill on Disc 2’s six tracks. Exemplary selections such as Syntax and Downstairs demonstrate how much energy and expression two simpatico players can generate. Hemphill’s alto saxophone curls out nearly ceaseless sound variations using techniques that range from Charlie Parker-like brusqueness to extended runs of doits, split tones and flattement. Meanwhile the cellist bends notes to not only propel the beat, but also to twang a pinched continuum that cements jagged detours and tone experiments into a connective narrative.

NotTwo 00 boxAnother box set celebrates not one man’s musical vision but those of 13 musicians and the record label that disseminates their works. After releasing adventurous music for 20 years, in 2018 Krakow’s Not Two label organized a three-day-anniversary celebration in the Polish village of Wleń featuring players who regularly record for it. Not Two … but Twenty Festival (NotTwo MW 1000-2 is a five-CD box that preserves those performances. They consist of different combinations featuring saxophonists Mikołaj Trzaska of Poland, Peter Brötzmann from Germany, Ken Vandermark from the US and Swede Mats Gustafsson; bassists Barry Guy of the UK, Joëlle Léandre from France and Pole Rafał Mazur; drummers Paal Nilssen-Love from Norway and Zlatko Kaučič from Slovenia; plus Swiss violinist Maya Homburger, American trombonist Steve Swell, Swedish tubist Per-Âke Holmlander and Catalan pianist Agustí Fernández. 

Ranging in length from four minutes to over 20, none of the 28 tracks disappoint, with a few more outstanding than others. Demonstrating inventive flair for instance, Léandre is in her element whether it’s in a trio with Swell and Fernandez, a quartet with Guy, Kaučič and Swell or going one-on-one with Guy or Trzaska. The quartet set demonstrates that resonating pumps from two sophisticated bass players can stretch enough horizontal and splayed patterns to either provoke or accompany as many crashing percussion or slurring tailgate brassy smears as the others can produce. Swell’s almost ceaseless scooping tones and Fernández’s metronomic keyboard vibrations set up a trio challenge at even greater length, but Léandre’s concentrated string stropping with tandem vocalizing is so powerful and percussive that her string buzzing consolidates the exposition from allegro interaction to andante solidity. Solo, her string traction is such that she can create speed-of-light spiccato jolts from the bass’ highest-pitched strings with the same textural innovation with which she pushes the narrative with bottom-aimed sul tasto stops, all the while spanking the instrument’s wood and verbally gulping and crowing additional onomatopoetic colour. Her duet with Guy shows both in top form(s) as they harmonize or test one another, constantly switching arco and pizzicato roles, splintering shrill notes or modulating deeper pitched ones, so intermittent melodies share space with pressurized movement. 

Baritone saxophonist Gustafsson constantly challenges clarinetist Vandermark or alto saxophonist Trzaska in their meetings, but in each instance the reeds are part of an additional kaleidoscopic brass or percussion-affiliated canvas. With the clarinetist, contrapuntal reed trills and bites become shriller and more dissonant as Swell and Holmlander spread cascading burbles below them until all four reach screeching concordance. With Trzaska, Mazur and the tubist creating a continuum, double saxophone flutters can turn into barely there tongue slaps and whistles as flatulent brass quakes and sliding bass string crackles intersect to propel the narrative. Meanwhile, the Brötzmann, Guy and Kaučič meeting can be contrasted with the Gustafsson, Mazur and Nilssen-Love trio. The German saxist’s distinctive nephritic cry is met by the drummer’s calculated splashes and shatters as the bassist keeps the program chromatic. Each time the saxophonist spears unexpected split tones from his horn, Guy produces connective stops while adding further grainy character along with Kaučič’s cymbal rubs. But when Guy’s subsequently powerful string pulls threaten to unbalance the exposition and push it to dissonance, it’s Brötzmann’s unexpected elaboration of a snatch of Sentimental Journey that launches the three into a near-swinging finale. 

There’s no comparable respite with the other trio whose combination of reed glossolalia, sluicing string runs from Mazur and thumping drumming suggest heavy metal as much as free jazz. When Nilssen-Love repeatedly pummels his kit and the bassist strums rhythmic ambulation, Gustafsson’s timbral screeches and basso honks rest comfortably among the vibrations below. The set is appropriately concluded with a brief finale with all the musicians expressing group excitement from, and appreciation of, the proceedings as they spill out an organized free-for-all that humorously and abruptly ends. However the standout performance is a four-part dialogue among Fernández, Guy, Mazur and Kaučič. Creating a kinetic yet horizontal pulse, the bass work moors the exposition as the drummer decorates it with cymbal colours and drum pops while the pianist tinkles out a floating canter with sharper theme variations. The storytelling is further enshrined as kinetic piano lines join wide bass string pulses to slow down the allegro narrative to a cumulative responsive finale.

 Some innovating musicians need and deserve more than a single disc with which to express their far-ranging talents. These box sets show this can be effectively done.

01 Aubrey WilsonHoneysuckle Rose
Aubrey Wilson Quartet
AW Music AWM001 (

Vocal standards albums get a worse rap than they should. Sure, it can sometimes be monotonous to hear the same old songs sung by a vocalist who sounds like about a thousand other vocalists. However, I would argue that for every derivative example there’s an original take on the style, and the latter can be some of the more exhilarating music that exists. 

Aubrey Wilson and company’s renditions may help refresh the listener’s memory of what makes these standards so standard in the first place. In terms of staying faithful to the tunes, starting with the opener Nature Boy, it becomes pretty plain that this is a group that won’t allow the pressure to compromise their sound. The quartet of Wilson, pianist/arranger Chris Bruder, bassist Tom Altobelli and drummer Sean Bruce Parker have been going strong for nearly a decade and they have honed an effortlessly prodigious feel for each other. Bruder’s arrangements are tight, danceable and audacious. The band’s interpretive abilities are most notable during the melancholic title track, completely turning Fats Waller’s masterpiece on its head in a way that would almost be sacrilegious, if it didn’t work so well. That isn’t to say there are no bones thrown for the more traditional-leaning consumers, but even when the ensemble isn’t subverting, they’re grooving. Wilson constantly impresses, both with her improvisational savvy and chutzpah. Well executed all around.

02 Monday NightsMonday Nights
Sophie Bancroft; Tom Lyne
LisaLeo Records LISALEO 0901 (

Scottish singer/songwriter/guitarist Sophie Bancroft and her husband, Canadian bassist/songwriter Tom Lyne, are respected UK-based musicians whose latest release was inspired by their weekly COVID-isolation, Monday night livestream sessions from their living room begun in spring 2020. The five originals and five covers here were recorded perfectly at Castlesound Studios. 

The covers are their own very personal take of famous tunes. Highlights include Cole Porter’s You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To, with a moving bass backdrop supporting the virtuosic scat singing and subtle vocal back phrasing; and a happy and positive feel for our difficult times in their rendition of Lerner and Lowe’s On The Street Where You Live. Bancroft sounds like she is singing only to her husband in the folksier emotionally charged Tom Waits’ tune Grapefruit Moon.

Lyne’s composition, Far From Mars, is a great jazz tune featuring his electric bass playing. Wish it was longer!! Bancroft’s Fragile Moon is slow, peaceful and delicately performed. Her Miles Away is so COVID isolation, with its storytelling lyrics about love at a distance and pitch leaps adding to the feeling of loneliness. Blue Room is mellow and enticing. Comfort, with more folky singalong qualities and repeated descending vocal melody, has a stress-busting calm, controlled feel.

Bancroft and Lyne are first-class jazz performers, improvisers and songwriters. Their performances here are upbeat, musical and subtle, and surprisingly made me totally forget our COVID outbreak isolation lockdown.

Listen to 'Monday Nights' Now in the Listening Room

Lina Allemano Four
Lumo Records (

Permanent Moving Parts
See Through 4
All-Set! AS014 (

03a Allemano 4These two CDs, both recorded by jazz quartets in Toronto in winter 2020 at Union Sound Company, both featuring trumpeter Lina Allemano as a lead voice, suggest very different approaches to band formation and conception.

The Lina Allemano Four’s Vegetables is the sixth CD by a band that’s been together since 2005 without a change in personnel, still made up of alto saxophonist Brodie West, bassist Andrew Downing and drummer Nick Fraser. Allemano’s compositions are touchstones, brief but distinctive rhythmic and melodic patterns that shape some of the patterns of development, but the group is tied together by a telepathic understanding of one another’s spontaneous processes. On Brussel Sprouts, Maybe Cabbages, it’s hard to draw a line between composition and improvisation in West’s dancelike repeating figure, even more so when he and Allemano happily land on exactly the same spot. Much of the music is conversational collective improvisation, whether it’s West’s whispered lyricism, Allemano’s exploration of mutating timbres, Downing’s spontaneous counter melodies or Fraser’s creative rhythmic chatter. Then there are the inspirations. I’m not sure how one might make sonic distinctions between Onions, Champignons and Leafy Greens, but I know all three are organic and their precise forms vary from any one to another, functioning as metaphor for the group’s intertwined creative evolution.

03b See Through 4 Permanent Moving Parts CoverA bassist may be the least conspicuous member of a band, usually the quietest, confined to a fundamental role, and often the last to solo. Bassist-composer Pete Johnston, however, stands out as his See Through 4’s one consistent element. Last year, the quartet – all first-rank Toronto musicians – released False Ghosts, Minor Fears. A year later, there’s another CD, but the other members have changed; while roles remain the same, the lead instruments have changed too. The place accorded saxophonist Karen Ng now belongs to trumpeter Lina Allemano; the chordal element is no longer Marilyn Lerner’s piano but Michael Davidson’s vibraphone; drummer Jake Oelrichs replaces Nick Fraser. There’s little change in quality, but there’s a completely different collective sound, with trumpet and vibraphone bringing a brighter sonority, even a certain brashness.   

Those “permanent moving parts” are also the building blocks of Johnston’s evocative compositions. True to its title, Weathering Teenage Hopes is a study in evolution, Allemano’s melancholy trumpet initially accompanied by Johnston’s empathetic bass alone; Davidson eventually enters, the vibraphone’s bell-like brightness carrying the piece and the band to a certain comfortable groove, which continues right down to Allemano’s ebullient bursts and wandering, scintillating lines. Other pieces may eschew such narrative development, but Johnston’s compositions seem knitted from experience, expressing ambiguous states of mind, here conveniently named, whether it’s Everything Happens Once, Possible Daylight Dreams or the tone painting of Imperfect Sunlit Room. Allemano, Davidson and Oelrichs are here to provide colour, bringing each piece to life, but the forms and their patterns of development are definitely Johnston’s department.

04 BloopProof
Lumo Records (

An awkward name for adroit innovators, BLOOP is actually Toronto trumpeter Lina Allemano extending her horn’s timbres with mutes, percussion and whistling as well as having them live-processed with effects by Mike Smith. Playful, pugnacious and profound, the eight improvisations multiply and mulch brass textures so that Allemano often seems to be playing more than one horn simultaneously, with a singular mid-range narrative and at least one other tone squeaking and peeping at elevated pitches. Below and beside this are percussion additions created by her maracas-like shakes, cow bell raps, bolo-bar-like smacks and synthesized rumbles, which are concurrently inflated electronically in real time. The trumpet bell shoved against the mic or metal, plus mouthpiece sucking and tongue pops, add to the jolting progressive impact. 

Digging deep into the horn’s body tube to produce growls and whines as on Recanting or propelling fluid melodies on tracks such as Actual Bloop, Allemano never really creates alone. Palimpsest-like, grainy processed pitches are always present, undulating below the narrative surface at the edge of hearing. She can dip to Taps-like ennui at points or inflate notes balloon-like to pressurized burbles, but she – and Smith – never lose the thread of communicative connections.

Want Proof of this local trumpeter’s skill as a soloist? You’d do well to investigate BLOOP.

05 Colin FisherReflections of the Invisible World
Colin Fisher
Halocline Trance HTRA017 (

Colin Fisher has been a dynamic and industrious part of the Canadian music community for 20 years. He is a multi-instrumentalist with remarkable facility on saxophone, guitar, drums, electronics and other musical objects. With Brandon Valdivia he formed Not the Wind, Not the Flag, fronts the Colin Fisher Quartet and has played in many other groups and produced solo projects like his Gardens of the Unknowing.

The new vinyl and digital-only release, Reflections of the Invisible World, is another solo project with Fisher playing guitar, saxophone and electronics. Each of the seven pieces creates its own sonic environment and the tone and architecture is determined by the structure of the electronic sounds. The guitar and saxophone performances waft amongst the walls and corridors of those sounds which are sometimes melodic, other times primarily rhythmic. Salient Charm begins with a pulsing rhythm which develops into wafting, ephemeral melodies where the saxophone is barely discernible as a colour. Double Image has a moody, noir vibe with some edgy background sounds, while Fisher’s tenor saxophone plays great jazzy longer tones with just a touch of vibrato and eventually works into some full-blown wailing. It could be an updated Blade Runner soundtrack, though more experimental than Hollywood usually ventures. The sounds and shapes in Fisher’s album drift between ambient and arresting with each “reflection” offering its unique glimpse of another “invisible” world.

06 Kind MindKind Mind
Josh Cole
Independent (

Kind Mind is Josh Cole (bass), Karen Ng (alto saxophone) and Michael Davidson (vibraphone). Recorded live on January 4, 2020 at the Open Waters Festival in Halifax, the music wastes no time getting straight to the point. The opening track, Inside Voices, begins when you press play. There is no prolonged silence and no gradual introduction of each musical element. There is Cole alone for exactly a second, and then the ensemble takes off. 

One thing that stood out for me is how effectively space and subtlety are used throughout the duration of this project. Despite being a trio, there are long stretches where only one or two instruments can be heard simultaneously. Phrases often seem deliberately tentative, and exclamations sometimes evaporate into question marks. Part of this phenomenon comes from impeccable listening on the part of all three players. The sparsity seems even more intentional when you hear the end of each idea, as the musicians step aside, allowing the person behind them to take centre stage. Karen Ng, especially, proves to be a master of restraint, really only contributing texturally at many points, and her astonishing timing is really the adhesive that makes this recording so seamless. The group’s use of space allows for their improvisations to possess distinctive shape and structure, so that when Kind Mind goes full throttle the element of surprise is on their side.

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