When inspiration refuses to be limited by the single disc format, enterprising musicians record multi-CDs in order to showcase more aspects of their work. Such collections are released throughout the year, but it’s usually the holiday season when music fans have the time and inclination for extended listening. Here’s a sampling of some of this year’s most accomplished multiple-CD sets from the exploratory side of creative music.

01 Essays 3CDA thriving but little-celebrated slice of the international jazz scene is in Hungary, and the appropriately titled Essays-Esszék (Adyton/Hunnia Records HRCD 1726 hunniarecords.com) offers improvisational dissertations in three configurations by two major Magyar improvisers, multi-reedist István Grencsó and keyboardist Barnabás Dukay. CD1, Waiting has Grencsó moving among saxophones, clarinets and flute, while Dukay sticks to piano, with both joined by associate Steven Kovács Tickmayer playing piano, samplers and electronics. CD2, Ritual Music, matches Grencsó’s soprano and tenor saxophones with Dukay playing church pipe organ. CD3, Two Visions Heard, is a live session from a Budapest club where Grencsó’s soprano and alto saxophones and bass clarinet and Dukay’s piano are joined by percussionist Aurél Holló. Ignoring the ecclesiastical canon on CD2, Dukay uses the dual keyboard vibrations as tersely as he plays piano. Here he downplays glissandi and cascades for minimal layering and slow-moving tone affiliations, allowing Grencsó to change interpretations from emotional tenor-saxophone storytelling to buzzing soprano sax lines that hiss as if propelled from a bagpipe blowstick and chanter. Tickmayer’s electronics create the continuum on Waiting, allowing more flow between the piano of Dukay, who is an academic, and the reed collection of Grencsó, who has been a major Hungarian jazzer since the late 1970s.

Tracks such as Bud and Blossom point out subtle differences in approaches. On the first, while the pianist plinks and stops high-pitched notes in a serious manner, as if Arthur Rubinstein were playing a toy piano, the tenor saxophonist’s basso blowing mixed with circular breathing suggest a marriage between Archie Shepp and Evan Parker. Both players bond quickly though, which sets up the following Blossom as a restrained intermezzo. As echoing tones hang in the air, Grencsó’s moderato bass clarinet flurries extend the exposition leisurely, as Dukay’s piano responses are speedier and expressive – with electronic samples providing the perfect ostinato.

In the freer club setting, prodded by Holló’s minimalist percussion, the pianist and reedist play at greater lengths, especially during the nearly 44-minute Part 1. As Grencsó restrains his output to minimalist shading, Dukay’s hesitant soundboard stops amplify powerfully to meet the saxophonist’s relaxed asides. Cold, isolated keyboard notes magnify to sweeps, allowing the narrative to quickly turn percussive as reed split tones are introduced. Still it’s the saxophonist’s mellow sluices that propel the narrative. Finally an unexpected change of pace in the penultimate minutes has Holló’s vibe-like clatters torquing the sequence as the piano explodes with contrasting dynamics and the saxophonist projects unbroken cadences with innumerable theme variations. Wrapping up the track with cultured tones, a final unsettling reed quack posits the concept that high-quality improvising doesn’t have to be solemn.

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02 Joelle LeandreAnother first-rate improviser who is the opposite of solemn is French bassist Joëlle Léandre. Strings Garden (Fundacja Sluchaj FSR 103/2018 sluchaj.org) consists of three CDs featuring her duos with violinist/violist Théo Ceccaldi, cellist Gaspar Claus or fellow bassist Bernard Santacruz. Playing it straight, Léandre only lets loose with gurgles, whimpers and mumbles on Leaves, the CD with Claus, alongside instrumentally pressurized spiccato lines in contrast to the cellist’s pointed timbres. Throbbing and stopping, his pizzicato twangs and her popping shudders unite to work up to a crescendo of rugged tones which overlap into double counterpoint. Leaf No.5 is the most invigorating duet with staccato sweeps from both evolving to storytelling along with the set’s most jazz-like groove. An instance of differing double bass POV, Trees, with Santacruz, finds both players dragging extended techniques from their respective string sets. Back and forth with jumps, buzzes and pulls, they manage to agree on a similar tone maturity by the climax, showcasing velocity and angularity without losing the underlying rhythm. Expressing herself with shrill multiphonics to counter Ceccaldi’s tendency towards impressionist sweeps on Flowers, the bassist’s low-toned scrubs add requisite fissure so the fiddler’s recital-like formula starts to splinter responsively. By the climactic Flower No.8, Ceccaldi’s paced twangs join the bassist in breaking the interface, first into sul tasto scrubs and latterly into wood-slamming pops and tremolo strands. The finale on Flower No.9 of stinging bow strokes echoing off tightly wound strings allows this suite to refer to the violinist’s Romantic-era roots without compromising the adventurous modernism implicit in both partners’ playing.

03 Tyshawn SoreyAdvanced modernism could also be used describe to Pillars (Firehouse 12 Records FH12--01-02-028 firehouse12records.com), a three-CD exploration by New York drummer/composer Tyshawn Sorey. Conceived of as a triptych, each of the 75-minute-plus discs deals with a multiplicity of moods ranging from the melodic to the abstract and from nearly static drones to emphatically flowing free jazz. No cynosure composer, Sorey’s elaboration of the material is established by its interpretation by the ensemble of bassists Mark Helias, Carl Testa and Zach Rowden; guitarists Todd Neufeld and Joe Morris; trumpeter Stephen Haynes and trombonist Ben Gerstein plus Sorey. Inchoate or intense inventions are expanded throughout, as the band divides into smaller groups, and as multi-instrumentation adds textures from more brass, percussion, melodica, Tibetan horn and electronics. Divided into several sequences, Pillars I, for instance, evolves into ritual-like percussion pumping, encompassing a three-and-a-half-minute drum roll and overlapping patterns that are intermezzos rather than solos. Mostly concerned with the timbres available from massed strings, brass grace notes and flutter tonguing are secondary to the piece’s flow, with the theme splintering into micro-motions as sledgehammer-like percussion thumps and bizarrely oscillating electronics underline it. In sharp contrast, the concluding Pillars III fluctuates between a minimalist composition and full-out jazz improv, as assertive brass extensions gradually replace the microtonal string drone. As timbres vacillate among sonorous brass, low-pitched percussion power and distant signal-processing, guitar licks come to the front. Concussive idiophone rolls are unexpectedly succeeded by guitar strategies that could be straight out of a swing session only to vanish when trumpet and trombone snarls and shakes suggest hard bop, with blasting brass and guitarists’ slurred fingering alternating alongside drum rolls for a free jazz-like position. Eventually the jagged brass spits and guitar flanges are subsumed by rugged, reductionist electronics. Finally, a drum roll completes the section, while subtly linking it to Pillars I’s introduction.

04 William ParkerSorey’s multi-disc sessions demonstrate another facet of his talent; so does Voices Fall from the Sky (Centering 1015/1016/1017 aumfidelity.com) for William Parker. Known as an exceptional bassist and bandleader, Parker is also a poet and songwriter and these three CDs, which feature 17 (!) singers plus ensembles ranging from big bands to solo, interpret Parker’s writing for vocalists. Putting a lie to those who say free improvisation is divorced from lyricism and the song form, the 34 selections are performed in rhymed or free verse and deal in the main with themes of anti-materialism, universal love and the uplifting achievements of jazz heroes. The five-part The Blinking of the Ear, for instance, features mezzo-soprano AnnMarie Sandy interpreting the Dadaist lyrics a little differently than she would formal recital material. City of Flowers is an anti-war lament sung by Andrea Wolper with only bassoon backing, while We Often Danced, Fay Victor’s extended song-recitation about slavery and the African-American diaspora, is performed with additional theatrically due to a complementary trumpet obbligato and spackling string pulses throughout. The most affecting creations, though, are voiced by free-form specialist-singers Ellen Christi, Lisa Sokolov and Leena Conquest. Sokolov’s take on Band in the Sky for example, with its celebration of departed jazz figures, and backed by sprightly piano lines, manages to be profoundly dramatic whether she’s declaiming lyrics or speaking in tongues. Christi’s version of Falling Shadows, backed only by Parker’s sprawling double bass tones, includes wordless ululations and supple bel canto warbles. And Conquest’s extended delineation of the life of a civil rights activist, For Fannie Lou Hamer, is a moving portrait that slips back and forth from reined-in operatic theatricism to down-to-earth folksiness, with Parker using string and reed instruments for unique backing. Besides these serious themes, Conquest also provides some Nancy Wilson-like posturing on another tune and Ernie Odoom swings creatively on more rhythmic numbers like The Essence of Ellington.

Mixing serious sentiments and exceptional sounds, Voices Fall from the Sky emphasizes more aspects of Parker’s considerable talents, with enough audio space in which to display them. That is the collective achievement of these multi-disc sets: rather than collecting a lot of similar music, the expanse demonstrates the pliability of each leader’s vision.

01 Natashia dagostinoEndings Rarely Are
Natasha D’Agostino
Independent (natashadagostino.com)

What a bold move for Natasha D’Agostino to begin Endings Rarely Are, a debut album, with an original song in a minor key and sung with a seemingly endless line of wordless vocalastics. It immediately sets the tone for a very unusual album. But the young Vancouver-based Canadian is not only an audacious vocalist who has decided to buck the conventional trend, but also leaps off a musical cliff time and again when singing her own compositions, and also four wonderful jazz standards.

D’Agostino’s agile, luminous voice seems ideal for this kind of derring-do and she sings with power and subtlety. Immediately after two originals, including the aforementioned show-opener Flutter, she serves notice that she will worship at the altar of originality by swinging Earl Brent’s Angel Eyes at a blistering pace, turning the 1946 original on its proverbial head. And we find her taking a similarly bold and angular approach to the rest of the standards, especially in an intoxicating version of You Go to My Head and a touching rendition of I’ll Be Seeing You.

But the highlight of the album are D’Agostino’s originals, each of which she illuminates with wonderful control not only of narrative and emotion but also of lyricism and texture of word and line, which boasts some beautifully controlled singing in the deft tapering of quiet dynamics. Her resonant timbre deepens in Home, where she engages a wonderful band completely attuned to her artistry.

02 Joani TaylorIn A Sentimental Mood
Joani Taylor (featuring PJ Perry; Miles Black; Neil Swainson)
Cellar Live CL111517 (cellarlive.com)

After the sudden passing of her husband and musical partner, followed by a brutal (but victorious) battle with leukemia, veteran Vancouver-based jazz vocalist Joani Taylor was in no mood to record an album of standards. Fortunately for jazz listeners everywhere, Taylor was ultimately coaxed back to the microphone by iconic saxophonist (and lifelong friend) P.J. Perry. As the project began to take shape, inspired pianist, Miles Black, created arrangements of Taylor’s personally-selected tunes that framed her voice like a Tiffany setting, and fully embraced the considerable talents of multi-saxophonist Perry and bassist Neil Swainson.

Each of the 12 tracks are rife with skill, inspiration, and of course, Taylor’s sumptuous alto voice. There is no gratuitous, ill-informed scat-singing here – just superb musicianship, flawless and fluid interpretation, as well as a voice that reflects a lifetime in jazz. The CD kicks off with the Rodgers and Hart classic, This Can’t Be Love. The sound is authentic, warm and swinging – as is Taylor! The fine title track is a languid trip to the smokiest, hippest jazz boite in town. Taylor’s voice is full of power and intent, and her phrasing wrings every last emotional drop out of each Ellingtonian phrase.

A true standout is Taylor’s rendition of the Vincent Youmans hit, More Than You Know. Black and Swainson move contiguously through the bluesy, musical landscape while Taylor’s voice lilts and wails like a horn, until Perry enters the scene with a sax solo that elevates the tune to a whole new level. No doubt, this is one of the finest jazz vocal recordings of the year, and should be a required part of any serious jazz curriculum.

03 Amy CerviniNo One Ever Tells You
Amy Cervini
Anzic Records ANZ-0062 (amycervini.com)

No One Ever Tells You, released this summer on New York’s Anzic Records, is Amy Cervini’s fifth solo album, and marks the singer’s continuing interest in exploring the connections between jazz and other kinds of American roots music. Where her previous release – 2014’s Jazz Country, also on Anzic Records – featured intelligently arranged, acoustic guitar-driven versions of country songs from artists such as Hank Williams and Carrie Underwood, the focus of No One Ever Tells You is on the link between jazz and rock-inflected blues, with a decidedly more electric feel than its predecessor. While this new album is as much Susan Tedeschi as it is Blossom Dearie, Cervini maintains a distinct small-ensemble vibe throughout, with all of the nuance and communicative interplay that one would expect from Cervini’s seasoned band (Jesse Lewis, guitar, Michael Cabe, piano, Matt Aronoff, bass, Jared Schonig, drums, with special guest organist Gary Versace on four tracks).

I Don’t Know, the album’s opener (and the sole Cervini original), is a groovy, smouldering 12/8 blues, with strong solos from Versace and Lewis, and aptly establishes the mood for the nine tracks to come. Please Be Kind and You Know Who! hew closer to the jazz end of the blues-jazz spectrum, and Bye-Bye Country Boy – something of a feature for Lewis – is a fun highlight. Also a highlight: the album’s penultimate track, a beautiful rendition of One For My Baby, which Cervini performs in duet with Versace.

04 TurbopropAbundance
Ernesto Cervini’s Turboprop
Anzic Records ANZ-0063 (ernestocervini.com)

Is there a more perfect time to release a CD titled Abundance than amid the lush colours of October and the overflowing riches of the fall harvest? Drummer, bandleader and composer Ernesto Cervini’s JUNO-nominated sextet Turboprop’s third CD, released on the eve of the Thanksgiving weekend, is a study in abundance and gratitude.

A seasoned, thoughtful (and grateful) bandleader, Cervini consistently draws out the best in his bandmates. Featuring Tara Davidson on alto and soprano saxophones and flute, Joel Frahm on tenor sax, William Carn on trombone, Adrean Farrugia at the piano and bassist Dan Loomis, the CD’s eight tracks include innovative originals from Davidson, Farrugia, Loomis and Cervini, as well as inventive takes on three classics, Dameron’s Tadd’s Delight, Arlen’s My Shining Hour and Smile by Charlie Chaplin, the latter showcasing some absolutely lush trombone work by Carn.

Davidson’s The Queen is a driving tour de force; The Ten Thousand Things by Farrugia opens with Loomis’ rich and resonant bass work; Cervini’s Gramps is a lovely, contemplative ballad dedicated to his late grandfather; and his Song for Cito celebrates legendary Blue Jays manager, Cito Gaston (remember those back-to-back World Series titles in 1992/93?). Evident throughout are Farrugia’s stellar piano solos, Davidson’s and Frahm’s saxophone mastery and Cervini’s always-tasteful work on the drums.

In the liner notes, Cervini expresses heartfelt gratitude to several important and inspiring people in his life. However, it is we, the listeners, who should be abundantly grateful for the existence of this outstanding album.

Listen to 'Abundance' Now in the Listening Room

05 Alexis BaroSandstorm
Alexis Baro
G-THREE GT0015 (alexisbaro.com)

Released in August on G-THREE Music, Sandstorm is the newest album from Havana-born, Toronto-based trumpet player Alexis Baro. An accomplished musician, Baro’s résumé includes performances with a wide range of artists, such as saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera, organist Joey DeFrancesco and producer David Foster. Inspired by Baro’s experiences living in a big city, Sandstorm is framed as a celebration of “the vibrant energy of diverse cultures living together in a rapidly changing urban environment.” Nine of the album’s eleven compositions are Baro’s; of the remaining two, one is a reworking of the traditional Latin American lullaby Drume Negrita, and the other is a cover of The Beatles’ Come Together. In addition to Baro, Sandstorm features keyboardists Jeremy Ledbetter and Anthony Brancati, bassists Yoser Rodriguez, Roberto Riveron and Andrew Stewart, and drummers Amhed Mitchel, Anthony Daniel, and Larnell Lewis.

After an exploratory, searching intro, in which Baro demonstrates the range of his melodic and timbral control, Sandstorm’s hard-driving title track begins with a repeated 5/8 motif that is woven throughout the song. The B Side of A, one of the album’s funkier entries, sees Baro playing with a filtered, electric trumpet sound while trading with Brancati, with a strong drum solo from Lewis. Baro’s trumpet glides smoothly atop the programmed drums in Drume Negrita, and Come Together is arranged with a sophisticated, understated groove. Central to Sandstorm is Baro’s sound: warm, articulate and confident in both the lower and upper registers, reassuring and surprising throughout the album.

06 Alex FrancouerMissing Element
Alex Francoeur Group
Effendi Records FND151 (effendirecords.com)

Even the abundant Québécois music scene throws up a particular surprise every once and a while; such is the case listening in wonder to the saxophonist Alex Francoeur. A superb technician who plays with tremendous élan and whose music allows the unimpeded flow of emotion without ever descending into gratuitous sentimentality, Francoeur plays with eloquent articulation and astounding control capped off by erudition and temperament that eludes many woodwind players of his generation.

The audience of the Upstairs Jazz Bar and Grill in Montreal was certainly in the best position to experience all of his unique gifts, as this recording, Missing Element, certainly proves. It is a brilliant record of the proceedings that eschews pyrotechnics for depth of feeling, couched in the restrained liquidity of the music. Francoeur’s playing feels extraordinarily reflective and relaxed throughout, and is especially rewarding in his limpid account of I Hear a Rhapsody, a standard that is all too often covered with fire and brimstone which, in turn, destroys its emotional content completely.

The rest of this wonderful repertoire comprises original material and here too one gets a glimpse of Francoeur’s musical stature. Works such as Tides are layered and complex and the musicians in his group (Chris Edmondson, alto sax; Gentiane MG, piano; Levi Dover, bass; Louis-Vincent Hamel, drums) respond with great musical intellect and intuition to meld the infectious allure of each with consummate skill and wholehearted enthusiasm.

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