04 CarnDavisonMurphy
Carn Davidson 9
Independent CD9-002 (taradavidson.ca; williamcarn.com)

The new recording from multi-reed player Tara Davidson and trombonist William Carn is not only named after their venerable cat, but is also a shining example of what fine jazz composition, arranging and performance should be. Co-produced by Davidson and Carn, the ensemble is loaded with jazz talent, including Davidson on alto and soprano sax, flute and clarinet; Kelly Jefferson on alto and soprano sax and clarinet; Perry White on baritone sax and bass clarinet; Kevin Turcotte and Jason Logue on trumpet and flugelhorn; William Carn on trombone; Alex Duncan on bass trombone; Andrew Downing on bass; Ernesto Cervini on drums and special guest, award-winning and luminous jazz vocalist Emilie-Claire Barlow on Carn’s tune, Glassman (arranged by Geoff Young).

All compositions on this project were written by Carn and Davidson, and they have collaborated on the skilled arrangements with other fine musician/composers (Cervini, Downing, Logue, Andy Ballantyne and Geoff Young). First up is Carn’s composition Try Again (arranged by Cervini). Rife with tricky contrapuntal horn lines and percussive drum work, this track swings with a distinctive quintessential bop viguor. Groovy, extended solos by White on baritone sax and Carn on trombone sail in and around Downing’s powerful and insistent bass lines. One of the most interesting songs on this recording is Downing’s arrangement of Davidson’s composition, Family Portrait. Gorgeous, lyrical and melancholy, Downing makes brilliant use of space and warm chord structures.

Other impressive tracks include Carn’s Glassman – Barlow’s sumptuous voice acts as an instrument here, moving in seamless musical symmetry with the others – and the joyous closer, Murphy! (written by Carn and arranged by Ballantyne), featuring buoyant solos from both Carn and Davidson.

05 Liebman Murley QuartetLive at U of T
Liebman/Murley Quartet
U of T Jazz (uoftjazz.ca)

Mike Murley has a decades-long musical relationship with celebrated American, fellow saxophonist Dave Liebman, and it has only strengthened since Liebman joined Murley as a visiting artist/adjunct professor in the University of Toronto’s jazz department. This CD documents a performance by the two at the department’s concert space, joined by the solid support of fellow faculty members Jim Vivian on bass and Terry Clarke on drums. The style is at the leading edge of the modern jazz mainstream, rooted in the music of John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins as well as Miles Davis (with whom Liebman worked in the 1970s). It’s energized, often joyous, and there’s a celebratory edge as well as a disciplined focus.

Liebman sticks to soprano and Murley to tenor through the first half of the program, developing sinuous, coiling lines on Vivian’s pulsing composition Split or Whole and a relaxed swing on Murley’s YBSN. The music becomes increasingly intense when Liebman turns to tenor as well, first setting an exotic jungle atmosphere on flute on Murley’s modal Open Spaces before the two press forward, exploring the expressive sides of their tenors, bending pitches and sonorities. Highlights abound, including Liebman’s Nebula, an astral soundscape that foregrounds Vivian’s arco bass, and the forceful take on the session’s only standard, And the Angels Sing.

Far more than a mere faculty event, Live at U of T sets the bar very high for Canada’s 2018 jazz releases.

07 Mario RomanoFenyrose non Dimenticar
Mario Romano
Modica Music MM0020 (marioromano.ca)

I’ve got to admit that at first I was somewhat skeptical about reviewing a jazz CD by a big-time Toronto real estate developer who returned to his piano playing roots after almost four decades. But listening to Mario Romano’s Fenyrose Non Dimenticar – his second CD since 2010 – I was quickly disabused of my skepticism. Romano is the real McCoy, to risk punning on the fact that the legendary Mr. Tyner’s influence is apparent in Romano’s keyboard style; there are shades of Chick Corea, too. The man has sophisticated chops!

Of the eight tracks on the CD, five are refreshingly arranged covers, two are Romano originals and one is by guest solo pianist, Nahre Sol. Romano is joined by four distinguished musicians, all but one Toronto-based: Pat Labarbera on sax, William Sperandei on trumpet, bassist Roberto Occhipinti and Toronto born, New York-based drummer Mark McLean.

Throughout, Romano’s playing is elegant and understated, sometimes driving, sometimes effortlessly languid, all in service to his novel arrangements. Cream’s Sunshine of Your Love features Sperandei, and the band just swings! The sax and trumpet work on Non Dimenticar is absolutely lovely, as is Romano’s shimmery and stylish keyboard approach. His Hymn for Padre Pio has a grand, sweeping opening, some tasty drum work and splendid sax and trumpet solos. Estate is given a gorgeous, silky treatment, and Romano’s Encanto de Mi Niña features him on accordion in a tender, slow-tango serenade.

Each track shines on this gem of a CD. Non dimenticare to check it out!

08 Ethio JazzEthio Jazz Vol.1
Jay Danley Band
Independent (thejaydanleyethiojazzproject.bandcamp.com)

Ethiopian Jazz (Ethio Jazz) began with Mulatu Astatke, the first African student at the Berklee College of Music in the 1960s. He fused jazz with Ethiopian music to create a sub-genre which employs heavy rhythm, horns and several minor sounding scales. On Ethio Jazz Volume One, the Toronto jazz guitarist Jay Danley states Ethio Jazz has shown him “an entirely new way to play guitar, compose and most importantly how to hear” by combining the freedom of jazz with the “discipline of applying the scales, rhythms and ‘feel’ of Ethiopian music.”

The Jay Danley band has a core group of guitar, bass, drums, percussion and two saxophones. This is augmented on several tunes with “special guests” Hilario Durán on piano and Alexander Brown on trumpet. The arrangements are in a straightforward melody, solos and melody format. The rhythm is in the pocket for the whole album, creating a smooth and grooving background. The fat bass, combined with horns using fourths and fifths in their harmonized lines, creates a rich but edgy sound. The melodies and solos use the Ethio-jazz scales, which provide extra tension that contrasts with the funky background. All the musicians are excellent: Danley’s solos are well crafted and Durán’s piano playing is another highlight. Bring on Volume Two!

09 Keith ORourkeSketches from the Road
Keith O’Rourke
Chronograph Records CR054 (chronographrecords.com)

Even if the name of the disc – Sketches from the Road – is a dead giveaway, nothing can really prepare the listener for the vivid nature of the music. In fact, Keith O’Rourke may just as well be a graphic artist for the creation of these memorable works. Moreover, when O’Rourke and the other soloists get underway they become more than just painterly in the manner of their musical sojourns; indeed, they also become creators of the very landscapes that are brought to life – from New Orleans in Port NOLA with its breathtaking second line harmonic and rhythmic features to Sketch in Green, Bayswater and Lost Blues that spread their melodies in all their pastoral glory.

Make no mistake however, with all of its frequent and profound impressionism this is still very much a rollicking, swinging jazzy record. Songs such as Double Black and Early Bright are not going to let us forget that; not when they feature the smoky vibrato and rustic tone of O’Rourke’s tenor saxophone and the hushed whisper of André Wickenheiser’s flugelhorn. And there’s no mistaking the swing when both instruments collide with Jon Day’s sparkling piano, Kodi Hutchinson’s strutting bass and Tyler Hornby’s chattering drums on Sonny’s Tune. As with that material, so too with the rest of the fare on this memorable disc; O’Rourke shines in his ability to write the most interestingly complex and wonderfully arresting music.

10 Ron DavisRhythmaRON
Ron Davis
Really Records RR 17002 (rondavismusic.com)

Both subtlety and joie de vivre are pervasive qualities that pianist Ron Davis communicates performing on his first solo disc in 40 years. A sincere and persuasive musician, Davis’ playing reveals a long and fond relationship with the 13 works by an array of composers (including Davis himself) on RhythmaRON. Here Give Me the Simple Life, A Child is Born and You Must Believe in Spring are suffused with a distinctive atmosphere. Elsewhere, when the music raises its voice above the proverbial whisper as on Jitterbug Waltz and Rockin’ in Rhythm, the narratives are skillfully crafted to maintain a certain expressive decorum. And everywhere Davis alters harmonies and structural elements with impressive restraint, heading in directions that surprise and captivate the ear.

As in the recreations of familiar pieces, his own compositions unfold in a series of dramatic gestures, with droll stops to swing and dance along the way in a salute to the great pianists – jazz stylists from James P. Johnson and Art Tatum to Thelonious Monk and McCoy Tyner – who have inspired his work over the years. Also like them, his sonic palette is stretched in telling ways on RhythmaRON, Cullibalue and Swing Street through the magic of a layered, double-handed virtuoso performance. In all of the works, Davis performs with consummate artistry, blending superior control and tonal lucidity with a cohesive sense of line and motion. As a result, jazz music could hardly be better served.

Listen to 'RhythmaRON' Now in the Listening Room

11 Fukushima CD CoverFukushima
Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York
Libra Records 214-044 (librarecords.com)

Today big jazz bands only exist outside of academic institutions because of the commitment of a collection of musicians and a singularly devoted leader. That said, it becomes possible to gauge the extraordinary calling of Japanese pianist-composer Satoko Fujii and the degree to which she can inspire fellow musicians. Since 1997, when she first unveiled her Orchestra New York, she has also convened chapters in both Tokyo and Berlin. One of the most remarkable features of this new release is that most of the musicians present on the inaugural release, South Wind, have gathered again for the band’s tenth, highly exploratory release.

Fujii’s inspiration here comes from the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and the sustained merger of composed and improvised textures insists on comparison with the best of the jazz orchestral tradition, from Duke Ellington to Charles Mingus, Carla Bley and Sun Ra. From its haunting, near silent beginnings with breath passing through wind instruments, to harsh tangles of dissonance, electronics and rhythms sometimes forceful and plodding at once, then on to passages of almost bird-like subterfuge, Fukushima summons up all the dimensions of national memory and tragedy, bearing with it the hopes of an awakened population and the possibilities of change.

Along the way, Fujii is assisted in realizing her vision by a 13-member ensemble that includes saxophonists Oscar Noriega and Andy Laster, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura and guitarist Nels Cline, whose complement of electronic effects consistently enriches the music’s already varied textures. 

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