When an idea of instruments associated with European high culture is broached, the violin, viola and cello instantly come into focus. But a lot has changed since the classical period. Contemporary notated music, and more emphatically, jazz and free music, has upset the paradigm for appropriate string sounds. As these sessions demonstrate creative music allows string players the freedom to play whatever and with whomever they choose.

01 Eligio das SombrasViolin and marimba are anything but conventional duo partners, but on Elogio Das Sombras (Clean Feed CF 583 CD cleanfeed-records.com) two Portuguese stylists, fiddler Carlos Zingaro and Pedro Carneiro, who play marimba with damper pedals, disregard the shibboleth. While the veteran Zingaro has moved among rock, jazz and free music, Carneiro has high art credentials, often playing with symphony orchestras. But the 11 tracks here are pure improv, rife with advanced techniques and tunings. They also rarely neglect nods to theme and melody. When the two are involved in intense cross-sound pollination on such tracks as Clarão and Luminescência it’s the unique dampened and hollow marimba patterns undulating with rosewood percussiveness that define the parameters. Still, building on the other instrument’s constant low-pitch resonations, Zingaro detours from unleashing staccato stops and skipping sweeps to direct the fragmented interface towards linear grooves. While some sequences may involve the pressure from string-screeching motifs or expose wooden bar thumps that sound as if they’re resonations from plastic milk bottles rather than tone bars, percussiveness and energetic sul tasto pulls are moderated into a global cooperative vision. A piece like the extended Luz presents unity at its most profound. Throughout, hollow bell-like echoes and multi-string pressure shake out into a dampened and designated exposition that climaxes with joint moderation. 

02 Mark Feldman TimDaisyIf balancing the timbres from violin and marimba appears quirky, imagine the challenges implicit when the improvisation involves a violin and a full drum kit. But that’s what transpires on Circle Back (Relay Recordings relay 032 timdaisyrelayrecords.bandcamp.com) during a live set by New York fiddler Mark Feldman and drummer Tim Daisy. The CD’s single improvisation starts off this side of conventional, but gets more atonal as it runs its course. Gifted with an ESP-like connection, Daisy and Feldman intuit each other’s next move before any note is sounded and come up with perfect timbral ripostes. Initially advancing in a straight-ahead manner, the violinist works in concise quotes from I Got Rhythm and later, Night In Tunisia, among the spiccato spawls and rounded stops which set up the exposition. For his part the drummer counters with cymbal clips, bass drum rumbles and persistent rim clipping. One-third of the way through however, the interchange heightens, with Feldman dynamically stroking several strings at once, sometimes both arco and pizzicato. As his string jittering starts creating on a strained, near-East European tone, Daisy’s sympathetic drum-top hand patting and hand claps anchor the duet. Transition comes a little past the halfway point however as the violinist’s spiccato swipes seesaw to squeaks so high-pitched that they reach a point above human hearing. Subtly, the tempo has also increased from moderato to presto, though with Daisy’s positioned clip-clops and rim shots keeping time. The violinist’s staccato dynamics finally meet up with the percussionist’s clock-ticking beats, with the brief coda signalled by Feldman’s single-string dobro-like plucks.

03 Quantum ViolinAcoustic timbres aren’t the only challenges which advanced string players face. On The Quantum Violin (FMR Records  CD 622-0721 fmr-records.com)’s eponymously titled 14-track suite, Vienna’s Mia Zabelka adds electronic devices to her violin and joins Brampton’s Glen Hall, whose electronic trick bag includes all manner of synthesized, sampled and programmed tools to create the interaction. Maneuvering on a line that’s as thin as a single violin string, Zabelka and Hall manage to preserve humanity among the programming, which include OMax, CataRt, SPAT and other oscillations. Sometimes though, they find themselves falling headfirst into electronic miasma. That’s why it’s best not to hear these sound sequences as duets between acoustic instrument and electronics but as the performance of one sophisticated electroacoustic instrument. After all, the basis of much of the disc is the impulses initially created by the fiddle. The entire session is permeated with distant drones and percussive whooshes which move from foreground to background, as watery undercurrents become as prominent as vibrating segments. Yet except for brief twangs and faint swift glissandi, brittle violin tones are deconstructed to create varied parameters and treatments which meld on the overall sound canvas. Snatches of the violinist’s vocoder-synthesized voice are sometimes heard. But the only real vocal, is mumbled on The Quantum Violin #8 by author Kenji Siratori reading from his William S. Burroughs-influenced cut-up text, which is embedded within the overall metallic buzz. Tempos and transitions climax several times. For instance, rapidly speeding string sawing and pitch elevation isolate variances within the percussive drones that permeate The Quantum Violin #4 and The Quantum Violin #5, but are resolved by spiccato bounces and switches to varied speeds. Meanwhile, spidery string squawks work their way through a thickset of synthesized non-linear vibrations on The Quantum Violin #9 to blend with pre-recorded descending vocal warbles for additional textural polyphony. The brief, concluding The Quantum Violin #14 - For Pauline Oliveros, is proposed as a sonic summation. However, as the narrative blend crests and declines, the mixture between rounded metallic oscillations makes it more of an elevated culmination than a separate coda. 

04 Studies on Colour FieldAs inventively electroacoustic, but much less complex in execution is Studies on Colour Field Modulation (Creative Sources CS 708 CD creativesourcesrec.com) by the I/O duo of German cellist Ulrich Mitzlaff and Portuguese laptoppist Carlos Santos. Both also use so-called objects to add to the available textures. Blau, first of the CD’s two selections, confirms the noise-objects connection wrapping the laptop and cello in aluminum for increased playing turbulence. Simultaneously Mitzlaff’s sul tasto sawing and high-pitched swipes are often heard alongside thin voltage crackles and crinkles, although sounds hammered on the string or drawn from the hollow innards of the cello are most prominent.  Santos’ voltage crackles are less affected, so that throughout concentrated drones, splatters and whooshes are present as cello strains reach the highest string extensions. A mini-climax at the halfway point adds auto horns, police sirens and crowd noises and movement into the mix. Subsumed by a romantic string interlude, the narrative then blends street sounds, strident string scratches and ring modulator-like echoes into a gradually swelling tonal crescendo and fade. Orange, the other track, is a rural contrast to the urban interface of Blau. With cello pitches projected prominently in an aviary affiliated mode at the top, it’s only by later turning to pressurized string stops that the expected qualities of Mitzlaff’s instrument are heard through the squiggling electronic drone that takes up the remainder of the sound field. Harmonic concordance of woody cello slices and accompanying electronic buzzes marks the finale.

05 Dawn to DuskPairing one string instrument with another instrument can be expanded to include more players as Dawn to Dusk (JACC Records JR044/TRICO 18 jacc-records.com) demonstrates during two long and one short fully improvised tracks. Working through connected or contrapuntal impulses are Portuguese players, acoustic guitarist Marcelo dos Reis and trumpeter Luís Vicente, and French ones, violinist Théo Ceccaldi and his brother, cellist Valentin. As Chamber 4, the quartet, especially the bowed strings, play traditionally as the trumpeter projects strained yelping breaths and the guitarist designates unexpected plucks. As string swabbing becomes more concentrated, a motorized drone is created. Soon the stops and strops from the cello and violin are joined by angled guitar-string clicks to create a squirming amoeba-like background for Vicente’s rugged triplets to slide up the scale in increments. Higher and speedier his portamento effects move, until a climax at the end of a brief interlude melds clunking cello string pressure and downwards guitar strums. Resolution comes in the concluding Dusk as the fiddle and trumpet lines coalesce with cello and guitar providing the clinking and clattering continuum. Finally, as the arco strings reach a crescendo of concentrated glissandi, they’re joined by tough guitar strums to frame half-valve trumpet smears until all descend to a moderated conclusion.

These sessions confirm that with the right ideas and sophisticated techniques any instrument can create creative music with any other, even ones as traditional as those in the European string family.

01 Alex BirdYou Are the Light and the Way
Alex Bird and the Jazz Mavericks
Independent (alexbird.net)

Award-winning singer-songwriter Alex Bird has done it again on his newest release, showcasing his vocal prowess as well as great compositional skills. Along with pianist and songwriting partner-in-crime Ewen Farncombe, the pair has penned 12 new tracks with string and horn arrangements courtesy of the latter. Backed by the stellar Jazz Mavericks and several guest musicians this time around, Bird’s sound has grown to newer and greater heights with this record. This album would be a valuable addition to the collection of any jazz lover who’s looking to dive into the deeper and darker crevices of the genre. 

The album starts off with the sultry title track You Are The Light and the Way, bringing the listener on a journey through the intriguingly seedy underbelly of the jazz world where the traditional and raunchy merge. The unique theme that carries throughout the record is a musical “path that blends the light and dark” in a way that holds the attention of the listener to the last note. From melancholy songs such as Way Back Home to positively toe-tapping pieces such as Old Soul and Back To You, Bird and the Mavericks bring a scintillating spark and charm that liven up these dreary winter days. This golden-voiced vocalist, reminiscent of Sinatra and Elling, brings the album to a close with the touching Honey Bee Lullaby, a promise of much more to come from this young talent in the near future.

Listen to 'You Are the Light and the Way' Now in the Listening Room

03 Roddie Elias Kellylee EvansNot This Room
Roddy Ellias Free Spirit Ensemble featuring Kellylee Evans
Independent (roddyellias.com)

With this latest recording, eminent guitarist Roddy Ellias shines not only as a gifted musician, but as a fine and facile composer and arranger. Every song in this collection was written by Elias, and the compelling, and often haunting lyrics were written by noted Canadian poetess Sandra Nicholls. Both the music and lyrics here require the participation of very special artists, and joining Elias on this deeply personal project is the inspired vocalist and lyrical interpreter, Kellylee Evans, as well as a lineup of skilled musicians, including Ellias on acoustic steel string guitar, Marc Copland on piano, Justin Orok on nylon string guitar, Chris Pond on bass, Jose Garcia on percussion, Petr Cancura on reeds and mandolin, Guy Pelletier on flute, Richard Page on bass clarinet and Pierre-Yves Martel on viola da gamba.

Evans’ emotional intelligence permeates the stunning title track, and beckons the listener to participate in the journey ahead. As the tune segues into a more rhythmic section, the ensemble playing, including Garcia’s subtle and driving percussion, is nothing short of breathtaking. These artists are clearly listening to each other and are creating every musical nuance in synchronicity – like a single-celled being,

Of special note is the moving and thought-provoking Draw Me a Circle, in which Evans’ warm and sinuous voice effortlessly scales the pure notes of her upper register, diving into her cello-like tones (the perfect complement for Martel’s gamba). Other gems include the stark and mystical Blood and Bone and the haunting, Middle Eastern-modality-infused Suddenly. The touching and uplifting Prayer is the perfect closer for this evocative project of nearly unbearable beauty and fragility.

04 Greg AmiraultNews Blues
Greg Amirault; Steve Amirault; Adrian Vedady; Jim Doxas
CUPFA GGA002 (gregamirault.org)

For his third release as a leader, Montreal-based guitarist/composer/producer Greg Amirault has brought forth an intimate, swinging, potent recording – comprised of seven of his own well-constructed tunes, as well as two tasty standards (both arranged in gorgeous solo guitar formats). He is also joined here by longtime collaborators, including his uber-talented brother Steve Amirault on piano, the deft Adrian Vedady on bass and Jim Doxas on drums.

The title track – a sassy, up-tempo blues – features superb soloing from Greg on guitar, while the rest of the rhythm session cooks like an incendiary device as Steve performs a consummate solo, utilizing his ridiculous chops and musical pumpitude. A true standout is Sweet Way (a tip of the hat to Dave Brubeck’s In Your Own Sweet Way), which is a groovy 5/4 cooker that brings to mind the Mundell Lowe-esque L.A. guitar sound of the late 1950s, replete with a contemporized perspective. Doxas drives everyone down the pike with an unwavering urgency – always making the right percussive choice – always listening and enhancing. 

Also intriguing is the sweet, folk-inspired Song for Nova Scotia – a heartwarming divergence, celebrating the Amirault brothers’ Yarmouth roots. Steve’s melodica and Greg’s guitar solo are perfect in their pristine simplicity. Other highlights include the bittersweet ballad, Meeting the Master, which is dedicated to the memory of the late, great John Abercrombie, featuring a moving and facile bass solo from Vedady and a solo guitar performance of Tad Dameron’s rarely performed classic, If You Could See Me Now. Greg’s brilliant interpretation invokes a hint of Jim Hall, and captures both the longing and hopefulness of the timeless lyric in a performance to remind us that Amirault is one of the most significant jazz guitarists/composers on the scene today.

05 From the AstralFrom the Astral
Oli Astral (Oliver Grenier Bédard; Frédéric Alarie; William Regnier)
Multiple Chord Music (oliastral.com)

The word “astral” in the title of the album, the name of the ensemble and the role of electronic instruments played by two musicians from the trio may lead to the assumption that the music that ensues fuses the spacey and the terrestrial. In reality, this music is far more profound. It is as if Oli Astral – guitarist Olivier Grenier Bédard (aka Oli Astral), bassist Frédéric Alarie and drummer William Régnier – lean into a theosophical belief, dwelling in an ethereal region comprising their sound world, where each of their artistic auras melds into music. 

It is a lofty ideal, but Oli Astral makes good on that extra-terrestrial promise. The repertoire on From the Astral comes from a place of considerable imagination and intuition. The six songs are woven from elements created by the guitarist’s MIDI controllers and digital audio processing techniques as well as the bassist’s modular synthesizers that retain the feel of orchestral textures. Add the palette that the drummer’s percussion colours create and you have rhythmic frescoes onto which are projected a poignant musical artwork with purity of tone where jazz guitar meets the electronic realm.

The music of From the Astral also suggests that this trio’s inspiration lies at the juxtaposition of jazz and neoclassicism. The idiomatic adaptation of what ensues from those imaginary crossroads is altogether atmospheric, best experienced on charts such as L’envoi and Spectre Sonore.

06 Carn DavidsonThe History of Us
Carn Davidson 9
Three Pines Records TPR-005 (threepinesrecords.ca/home/carndavidson9)

The History of Us is the latest studio album from the Carn Davidson 9, and the third since the group’s inception in 2010. The 50-minutes-worth of music heard on this disc stands on its own enough to pique the interest of any jazz fan, and behind the excellent compositions, solos and interplay, lies much personal inspiration. Listeners are treated to multi-movement suites by both of the group’s namesake members, William Carn and Tara Davidson, sandwiched around the brief but poignant Goodbye Old Friend, a tribute to their late feline Murphy – namesake to their last release in 2017. 

Both suites heard on the album utilise personal narratives from Carn and Davidson’s lives. Carn’s Finding Home Suite documents his parents’ migration from Hong Kong to Canada, and Davidson’s Suite 1985 is described as “a collection of love letters to her family.” Alongside these non-musical themes, there is an ever-present balance between composition and improvisation. After first hearing the Finding Home Suite, I was craving more improvisation amidst the composed notes. But this ratio is definitely a creative choice, and a valid one given the quality of the writing. Each member of the nonet is an excellent soloist as well as a great section player, and Kevin Turcotte exemplifies this perfectly, soloing on the first movement of both suites. The album has a superb flow to it, and benefits from being recorded exceptionally well too. I recommend The History of Us for casual listeners and diehard jazz fans alike!

07 Genius Loci NorthGenius Loci North
Jeannette Lambert; Reg Schwager; Michel Lambert
Independent (jeannettelambert.bandcamp.com)

I enjoy reviewing more abstract music, as I rarely run out of things to discuss. This applies to subtler and more ambient projects, as well as more boisterous spontaneous improvisations. This is why I was excited to have Montreal vocalist Jeannette Lambert’s Genius Loci North grace my desk. Lambert, her brother Reg Schwager on guitar, and husband Michel Lambert on percussion, all have a knack for playing improvised music that is both creative and mature. There is a genuineness to their interactions as a group that allows the smoother moments to sound fresh and the more angular offerings to remain inobtrusive. 

While the recording is made up of 15 individual tracks, they flow naturally into one another and give the entirety of the album an undulating feel. This leaves an untrained listener with a lengthy but interesting meditation, while maintaining enough ebbs and flows to keep even the most expert set of ears enthralled. 

Lambert’s vocals sound simple and pure enough to emphasize the poetry she has written, but the way she shapes her pitch over Schwager’s chordal textures is virtuosic as well. The same can be said of Michel Lambert’s percussion, which seamlessly traverses grooves and out-of-time textures. To know that most of these tracks were recorded in one take, moments after the words had been written, is another testament to the creative ability of these players. While far from being “straight ahead,” Genius Loci North offers something interesting for all listeners.

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