07 Brandi Disterheft CoverSurfboard
Brandi Disterheft
Justin Time JTR 8626-2 (justin-time.com)

The theme of bassist/vocalist Brandi Disterheft’s fifth album as a leader, Surfboard, is ostensibly Brazilian jazz, but this writer finds the recording’s second underlying theme to be a love note to New York City. This could be a projection on my part, but hear me out, as it nonetheless provides an interesting lens through which to listen. Disterheft, special guest drummer Portinho, and pianist Klaus Mueller are all transplants to this “jazz mecca.” The move is a logical choice for many musicians, in this case Disterheft hailing from Canada, Mueller from Germany (via Asia and South America), and Portinho leaving Brazil in the 70s for the U.S. The second featured guest, Memphis born saxophone legend George Coleman, who made a name for himself playing with B.B. King, Ray Charles and later Miles Davis, is a veteran New York resident.  

Portinho, representing all things Brazil, and Coleman being an ambassador for the New York side of things, give Surfboard a sense of balance that allows it to contain 14 unique tracks without ever becoming monotonous. Its title work, an upbeat piece by Antonio Carlos Jobim, is balanced by an interlude to the rhapsodic Coup De Foudre, which continues the Brazilian theme and introduces Coleman’s playing. Coleman shines on the fourth track My Foolish Heart, which continues the theme of alternating straight-eighths numbers with swung ones. These alternating themes curate a unique album that’s “radio friendly” while maintaining its artistic integrity.

Listen to 'Surfboard' Now in the Listening Room

08 Larnell LewisRelive the Moment
Larnell Lewis
Independent LLM 002 (larnelllewismusic.com)

Born and raised here in Toronto, internationally famed drummer Larnell Lewis has released a scintillatingly snazzy new album of funk and neo-soul goodness that has the power to bring any listener right out of the day-to-day rut brought on by everything that’s going on in the world right now. Featuring legends such as fellow Snarky Puppy band members Mark Lettieri and Shaun Martin, as well as renowned names like Robi Botos and Rich Brown, the album has a star-studded lineup that carries Lewis’ compositions to new heights. The record acts as a “reimagining of six compositions from [his] debut album In The Moment,” in Lewis’ own words, with most pieces having updated drum tracks recorded and only one composition being completely new. 

Right off the bat, the first track, Rejoice, starts the listener off on a funk-filled journey with Andrew Stewart’s catchy bass line and Lettieri’s soulful guitar riffs taking us to a higher musical dimension. No Access takes a different turn, diving full force into modern jazz with soaring trumpet melodies courtesy of William Sperandei and Botos’ pianistic skills being brought clearly to the forefront throughout the fast-paced piece. Closing out the album is the aforementioned new composition, The Forgotten Ones, a piece that is essentially one long drum solo showcasing the drummer’s percussive talents and highlighting an Afro-Caribbean drum groove that serves as a fitting end to a stunning collection of compositions.

09 Jesse RyanBridges
Jesse Ryan
FWE Culture (jesseryanmuzik.com)

People call upon music for a multitude of reasons. Those reasons can take the form of motivation, social fulfillment, spirituality, intellectual stimulation and/or therapy. Trinidadian-born Toronto saxophonist Jesse Ryan’s debut recording as a leader can serve all of these purposes. As far as I’m concerned, music doesn’t get much more mood-enhancing than this. First and foremost, Ryan’s compositions are consistently melodious, meticulous and memorable. Perhaps too consistently, as singling out a highlight has proven to be a difficult undertaking. 

The music is never challenging per se, but Ryan shows an incredible range as a writer and evokes a variety of moods throughout. Each track is well thought out, and the amount of labour that went into the arranging is quite evident. The unison lines written for the rhythm section are a great touch, as they provide each passage with an extra layer of vitality. Overall, I find that the rhythm section is the main driving force behind what makes this music so mesmerizing. There are three guitarists on the record, each with distinct musical personalities that complement Ryan’s sound perfectly, in different ways. Vocalist Joanna Majoko also shines, especially her harmonizations on Zambian Offertory

Ryan’s debut features an incredible roster, showcases his ingenious approach to songwriting and is profoundly enjoyable. It is everything a debut should be.

10 David RestivoArancina
David Restivo Trio
Chronograph Records CR-082 (chronographrecords.com/releases/arancina)

Arancina is jazz pianist and composer David Restivo’s album about “meditations on home” and includes stops in Italy (Sicilian Suite), Nova Scotia (Raven’s Wing) and more metaphoric inspirations like Baby Steps (based loosely on Coltrane’s Giant Steps) and It’s You or No One (a standard which showcases his “bebop roots”). There are also two songs co-written with Fawn Fritzen (and featuring her exquisite vocals). Kintsugi and Bittersweet Goodbye originally appeared on Fritzen’s own release, How to Say Sorry and Other Lessons.

Arancina’s strengths include its originality, diversity of the works and the supportive musical family Restivo has collected to perform. Some highlights include Sicilian Suite which has four movements exemplifying different scenes inspired by travelling through that area: Train to Catania begins with a lilting and circular melody and works into some fast and nuanced keyboard gymnastics, as if the train is picking up speed. It then has a rest stop with a thoughtful bass solo from Jim Vivian before returning to the melody. Palermo Street Scenes does a great job of reflecting the busy bustle of an urban centre and begins and ends with invigorating drum solos from Alyssa Falk. 

Kintsugi – the Japanese word for repairing pottery – is a beautiful meditation which delicately and poetically extends that image to describe a failing relationship and hope for an artful rebuilding of love. Restivo balances a fine jazzy solo with an accompaniment that throws in some subtle pop licks; and Restivo even provides a nice harmony vocal part. Arancina is an Italian snack which can include different combinations of ingredients, so it is an apt metaphor for this compelling collection of music and musicians.

11 Allan GillilandDreaming: The Prague Sessions
Allan Gilliland
James Campbell; PJ Perry; Chris Andrew; Neil Swainson; Dave Laing; Prague FILMharmonic Orchestra; Raymond Baril
Bent River Records BRR-202001CD (allangilliland.com)

Approaching through-composed music with an improviser’s bent of mind can prove to be quite a daunting task, especially when composer and improvisers are separate entities. Allan Gilliland is, however, eminently qualified to make this work with first-hand knowledge of both aspects of the musical process. This he certainly does on Dreaming: The Prague Sessions, featuring a Canadian quintet and the Prague FILMharmonic Orchestra.

Dreaming of the Masters I and Dreaming of the Masters IV suggest that Gilliland is drawn to the heritage of jazz music from New Orleans Second Line to swing and the legendary idiom of bebop. But these compositions are much more than trace elements of historic African American music melded together with orchestral music. Gilliland also makes clever use of contrafacts in Dreaming I, for instance, and he also goes further in Dreaming IV by building into that composition some very challenging rhythmic variations. 

While Gilliland had access to an orchestra of conservatory-trained musicians adept at reading, he also landed in Prague with a highly literate Canadian jazz quintet comprising clarinetist James Campbell, saxophonist PJ Perry, pianist Chris Andrew, bassist Neil Swainson and drummer Dave Laing. Both quintet and orchestra seem made for each other. The result is thoughtful, melodic soloing bolstered by superb ensemble playing. A considerable degree of balance and integration of melody, harmony and rhythm, of composition and improvisation, of exploration, individuality and tradition are also impressively maintained throughout.

12 JCA OrchestraThe Jazz Composers Alliance Orchestra – Live at the BPC
JCA Orchestra; String Theory Trio
JCA Recordings JCA1805 (jazzcomposersalliance.org)

Founded in 1985, the Jazz Composers Alliance (JCA) Orchestra feeds off the inspirational energy of its founder and director, Darrell Katz. However, over the years it has also played host to an impressive roster of (other) composers from Muhal Richard Abrams to Wayne Horvitz, thus earning itself an impressive reputation for growing and enhancing the art of orchestral jazz music.

This live recording from the Berklee Performance Center features repertoire that is an extraordinary testament to the lengths to which this collective will go to bring each contemporary large-ensemble work to life, while blurring boundaries between genres and challenging its musicians to interiorize music with a view to expressing what they play with idiomatic grace and power.

The performance is bookended by two compositions by Mimi Rabson: Romanople a mesmerizing and rhythmically challenging tale of the two cultures of Rome – Latin and Byzantine – and the rhapsodic Super Eyes – Private Heroes, which closes the set. Meanwhile, more magical moments come to life during each of the works in between; David Harris’ inspirational melding of jazz and the sounds of a gamelan orchestra on The Latest; Bob Pilkington’s The Sixth Snake that marks his 60th birthday, Japanese Kanreki-style; Harris’ mystical Orange, Yellow, Blue which pays tribute to composer and revolutionary conductor Butch Morris; and Katz’s reworking of his iconic composition A Wallflower in the Amazon, a remarkable musical setting of the late Paula Tatarunis’ poem, eloquently sung, aria-like, by Rebecca Shrimpton. A rather compelling album indeed.

13 Alexander HawkinsTogetherness Music For 16 Musicians
Alexander Hawkins
Intakt CD361 (intaktrec.ch)

A six-part work composed by British pianist Alexander Hawkins, Togetherness Music synthesizes multiple methodologies, from free improvisation to orchestral composition, with Aaron Holloway-Nahum conducting an ensemble that includes the string quintet Riot Ensemble, several improvising soloists of note and a further assortment of strings, winds, percussion and electronics. A distinguished improviser himself, Hawkins appreciates the distinct qualities of his soloists, sometimes matching complex, varied improvisations against clarifying structural elements.  

The opening movement, Indistinguishable from Magic, begins with one of Evan Parker’s spectacular soprano saxophone solos, combining circular breathing with multiphonics to suggest a flock of birds in a dome. He’s eventually joined by a cluster of electronics and strings that gradually ascend in pitch, creating tremendous tension. Sea No Shore foregrounds the varied timbres and attacks of percussionist Mark Sanders and trumpeter Percy Pursglove with a series of brief and melodic string figures that later reappear fully developed in Ensemble Equals Together. Hawkins wittily plays with expectations in Leaving the Classroom of a Beloved Teacher, setting his own kinetic piano improvisation against a wobbling “walking bass” with uneven rhythms and spontaneously determined pitches played by the Riot Ensemble with additional bass and cello. The composed materials of Ensemble Equals Together return in the concluding segment, layered with improvisations. 

Compositions melding diffuse methodologies are increasingly common, but Hawkins’ effort is a fully realized work, a celebration of possibilities by a musician versed in diverse musical dialects who is finding new ground in the mix.

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