03 Erin Propp Larry RoyWe Want All the Same Things
Erin Propp; Larry Roy
Chronograph Records CR-079 (erinpropp.com)

From the first downbeat of this fine recording, the listener is immediately drawn into Erin Propp and Larry Roy’s refreshing blend of folk and jazz, a bright world chock-full of catchy melodies, thoughtful lyrics and great musicianship. On this collection of 12 songs, mostly originals, the Winnipeg-based singer highlights her ongoing collaboration with Roy, one of Canada’s finest guitar players. The creative partnership has been a fruitful one, encompassing their 2012 Juno-nominated album Courage, My Love, as well as performances with the Winnipeg Symphony.

On this new recording, the duo continue to develop and deepen their artistry. Highlight tracks such as Farther On, The Light and Give Me More feature some exemplary songwriting, with Propp’s thoughtful, highly personal singing and lyrics matched alongside Roy’s distinctive arranging and harmonic approach. 

Propp’s versatility and strong affinity with the music of Brazil and Brazilian songstress Luciana Souza is highlighted on Recomeçar, a memorable melody composed by Humberto Piccoli. She also displays great vocal and emotional range on her interpretation of Hoagy Carmichael’s The Nearness of You. When Propp offers her highly individual take on this much-covered American Songbook standard, it is as if she is pausing to savour every syllable and nuance of the song. It takes a great singer to pull something like this off on such a high musical level.

Special mention also goes to the incredible crew of supporting musicians, Larnell Lewis, Mike Downes, Julian Bradford and Will Bonness. Hopefully this fine recording will help to give Propp and Roy the wider recognition they so deserve.

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04 OcelotOcelot
Yuma Uesaka; Cat Toren; Colin Hinton
557 Records 5859 (557records.com) 

With its gorgeous sweeping melodies and fine ensemble communication, this album was juicy listening from start to finish. Sax/clarinet player Yuma Uesaka, Canadian pianist Cat Toren and drummer/percussionist Colin Hinton deliver a finely arced album, each track a diverse departure from the last but cohesive as a whole. Well known as individual jazz improvisers around the New York scene, the trio has gelled to create this gorgeous debut album, co-composed by the group, a culmination of a year’s worth of composing, rehearsing and touring, including a 2019 residency that allowed them to deepen their chemistry and work on the material for the album. This is an ensemble cast; three skilled players and improvisers whose trust in each other shows in the delicate patience and fine balance throughout the album. 

It’s impossible to name a favourite track. Daimon ll is a solid opening, with melodic and deep, pulsating support for the soaring sax. The broadly sweeping Factum is a great listen, compositionally perfect and beautifully played, while Post is mesmerizing and fun. Anemone is tightly constructed and finely mixed; Iterations shows the group blowing off steam. Sequestration is contemplative and spacious, with stunning sonorities, and Crocus leads us to a beautiful closing. 

Throughout the album, Hinton’s percussion never overpowers the other two, showing a fine sense of balance that manages to never sound held back. All three players show a remarkable patience for the natural expansion of the melodic content. 

This vibrant trio delivers an authentic and welcome breath of fresh air at the beginning of what will hopefully be a long and fruitful flight.

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05 Hector QuartetUncharted
Hector Quartet
Independent hec001-cd (hectorquartet.com)

Hector consists of saxophonist Chris Gale, guitarist Ted Quinlan, keyboardist Jeff McLeod and drummer Chris Wallace. These are some of the most prolific and esteemed musicians in the Toronto scene and the results resemble something one might hear in the casual setting of a jazz club, albeit during a particularly loose and inspired gig. There is that signature flavour of guitar-driven funk, mixed with the stylistic versatility enabled by McLeod’s lyrical organ accompaniment, giving way to six tracks of truly impeccable jamming. One thing that stands out about Hector is how egoless the project is. Nobody dominates the soloing order, no force ever overwhelms the others, and most significantly, every compositional voice is heard.

Quinlan’s Building 8 is the perfect opener, enticing the listener by constantly taking harmonic left turns while managing to intangibly weave a melody through, capturing the intuitive enchantment of a lost standard. McLeod’s soulful 590 Blues showcases the band’s astonishing familiarity with the pocket, while McLeod’s solo sounds poised and comfortable, as if he were playing in his own home. What remains of the tracklist creates a beautiful contrast of moods, alternating between the richly melodious compositional style of Gale and the unflinchingly forceful grooves of Wallace. All the tunes are performed with equal respect, exertion and relish by everyone involved. For a debut album, Uncharted sounds a lot like the product of a true ensemble, one that has found its collective voice.

06 Cory WeedsO Sole Mio – Music from the Motherland
Cory Weeds; Eric Alexander; Mike LeDonne; Peter Bernstein; Joe Farnsworth
Cellar Music CM100619 (cellarlive.com)

For years, the venerable New York uptown jazz bôite Smoke featured Mike LeDonne on B3 Hammond organ, along with his funkadelic ensemble, the Groover Quartet. Canada’s own Cory Weeds – who is not only a fine alto saxophonist, but the founder of Cellar Records (a multiple award-winning, international jazz label) – was also long hip to this soulful group and began an extended performance and recording relationship with these fine musicians that continues to this day. Produced by Weeds and LeDonne and featuring Weeds on alto saxophone, Eric Alexander on tenor sax, LeDonne on B3, Peter Bernstein on guitar and Joe Farnsworth on drums, this exceptional new recording is a jazzy celebration of the Italian-American songbook, rife with traditional compositions, an offering from iconic jazz bassist Paul Chambers and cinematic hits from Henry Mancini and Nino Rota.

Not only can these guys groove, but they’re an incendiary device, as typified by a swing-infused O Sole Mio, featuring exquisite sax work from Weeds and Alexander. Mancini’s film noirish Mr. Lucky instigates Alexander’s bobs and weaves, while Pat Martino’s bebop anthem On the Stairs showcases pumpitude from all five members of the band.  

A deep, groove-infested Estate allows Weeds to shine – passing through each sultry emotional permutation. Also brilliant are Torna a Surriento, featuring the incredible Bernstein on guitar, with contributions from Alexander on tenor. A real standout is the funky-cool Moody Blues, which transports the band to California’s West Coast in the 1950s. Consummate keyboardist LeDonne is the star here – bringing to mind all of the greats of the B3, while being derivative of none. The closer, Chambers’ Capricci di Camere (Whims of Chambers) is pure, joyous boplicity!

07 Alyssa AllgoodWhat Tomorrow Brings
Alyssa Allgood
Cellar Music CM012121 (cellarlive.com/collections/all)

With this, just her third studio recording, Alyssa Allgood declares that she is comfortable in her own vocal skin and has also raised her game to become an artist of the first order. On What Tomorrow Brings she shapes the lyrics of these songs with élan, intelligence and passionate engagement, infusing fluid melodies with both a storyteller’s sense of detail and a dramatist’s sense of theatricality. 

The chosen repertoire features beautifully crafted arrangements of beguiling variety and sensuousness, expertly voiced in Allgood’s lovingly caressed phrasing. Listening to the way in which she seductively bends the notes in There Are Such Things and Memories, and how she sculpts the sustained inventions of Bridges, it’s clear that there’s not a single semiquaver of these melodies that hasn’t been fastidiously considered. Moreover – speaking of theatricality – Allgood turns into a quite riveting siren as she voices the character in Noel Coward’s Mad About The Boy, all but transforming what is usually a playful song into something darkly dramatic.

Allgood’s trio – guitarist Mike Allemana, bassist Dennis Carroll and drummer George Fludas – is completely attuned to her vision and artistry. The performances of each of the musicians melt eloquently into the vocalist’s highly expressive melodic stories. Melodies are intimately woven into filigreed lines from Allemana’s guitar, echoed in the rhythmic musicality of Carroll’s bass and Fludas’ drums. The music soars throughout, ending in Passing Glance, a powerful climax to this memorable album.

08 Aliens WizardsAliens & Wizards
Spike Wilner Trio
Cellar Music CM120120 (cellarlive.com/collections/all)

Throughout this pandemic, Spike Wilner has championed live performances at Smalls Jazz Club and Mezzrow, the two NYC venues he has singlehandedly helmed. On his trio recording Aliens & Wizards, Wilner slides behind the piano and into the spotlight, showcasing his prodigious pianism with two empathetic bandmates: bassist Tyler Mitchell and drummer Anthony Pinciotti. This release also debuts a significant new partnership between Wilner – through his SmallsLIVE Foundation – and the Cellar Music Group, curated by the Vancouver-based impresario, saxophonist and dyed-in-the-wool jazz fan Cory Weeds. 

Aliens & Wizards comprises nine works featuring Wilner at his best, teasing out melodic and harmonic lines that are poignant, urbane and stylishly introspective. His six original works are resolutely head-driven, delivered with characteristic warmth and personality. Not for Wilner an empty display of pyrotechnics or sentimental indulgence: as we hear on Adagio and Aliens & Wizards, the music is sculpted with fluid architectural acuity. 

In the latter piece Wilner uses moody chord changes and melodic acceleration to build a monumental abstract structure, unveiling seemingly supernatural themes and characters, and connecting the rhapsodic opening with a grandiose conclusion. This is followed by the indigo blue Prayer for Peace, expertly crafted and eloquently performed by the trio. The program ends in the wonderful rhythmic rush and tumble of Trick Baby. This album highlights Wilner’s captivating pianism against the rumbling backdrop of Mitchell’s bass and the percussive colours of Pinciotti’s drums.

09 Saskatchewan All StarsSaskatchewan Suite
Saskatchewan All Star Big Band
Chronograph Records CR-094 (chronographrecords.com/artists/saskatchewan-all-star-big-band)

The darkly passionate sound of creation gives rise to long-limbed rhythmic excitement that builds, one melodic and one harmonic variation at a time into this homage to Saskatchewan. Fred Stride’s exquisitely visual, ever-swinging eight-part narrative – the Saskatchewan Suite – is one of the best long works to be put down on record in a long time. Significantly, almost all the band members are homegrown Saskatchewanians. 

The symphonic music is powerfully and lovingly delivered by musicians who bring a deeply interiorized reading of Stride’s homage to a Canadian prairie province in a composition that is astutely and idiomatically driven by improvisation. The atmospheric opening movement describes seemingly endless vistas and melts into a series of big-boned movements that depict the fascinating character and history of Saskatchewan. What could have been dry music because of the density of its subject is lifted off the page with the passionate advocacy of this Saskatchewan All Star Big Band, which – in soli and ensemble passagework – brings uncommon tonal refinement to this epic piece. 

Beautifully executed contrapuntal writing weaves in and out of free-flowing sections. Especially noteworthy is Thank You, Mr. Douglas, a tribute to the iconic premier of the province, Tommy Douglas, father of Canada’s universal healthcare system. Tempi, ensemble and balance – all seem effortlessly and intuitively right as this group of some of the most celebrated Canadian musicians parley with extraordinary eloquence and power building up to the suite’s dénouement, so appropriately entitled Saskatchejazz.

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