01 Kris DavisLive at the Village Vanguard
Kris Davis Diatom Ribbons
Pyroclastic Records PR 28/29 (krisdavis.net)

Émigré Canadian pianist/composer Kris Davis here commemorates a landmark appearance at New York’s Village Vanguard with this two-CD set by a quintet form of her group Diatom Ribbons, ranging through a program that includes both compositions by celebrated jazz composers and several of her own works that sometimes incorporate the voices of a few singular influences. Essentially heterodox, broad-based and witty, the music is anchored by drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and bassist Trevor Dunn, while Val Jeanty contributes turntables and electronics and Julian Lage, perhaps the leading jazz guitarist of the day, matches the blistering virtuosity and manic playfulness that Davis brings to piano, prepared piano and arturia microfreak synthesizer.  

The occasion is clearly one to celebrate and the performance is carnivalesque in mood and variety. The opening Alice in the Congo, composed by Ronald Shannon Jackson, has roots in both funk and free jazz, and Jeanty’s contribution adds hip-hop before Davis solos with wild keyboard splashes and runs. Other pieces from the contemporary repertoire include Geri Allen’s The Dancer and two distinct versions of Wayne Shorter’s Dolores.  

The bulk of the set consists of Davis’ own compositions, some acknowledging more influences, Nine Hats referencing works by Eric Dolphy and Conlon Nancarrow and the comically lumpy VW overlaying an archival radio interview with Sun Ra. Composers’ voices are even more prominent in the three-part, 34-minute Bird Suite. The Bird Call Blues segment references both bird song and Charlie Parker with the voices of Olivier Messiaen and Paul Bley, while Karlheinz Stockhausen discusses “intuitive music” on Parasitic Hunter

Somehow Davis manages to merge all of these diverse elements into a coherent and original whole – at once pulsing, comic and touching – that’s a brilliant representation of the range, freedom, energy and inclusivity that jazz can achieve.

02 BalladextrousBalladextrous
Sienna Dahlen; Bill Coon
Cellar Music CMR060322 (cellarlive.com)

Guitarists and vocalists share a unique bond when coexisting as a duo, and the exposure present without a rhythm section contrasts ominous vulnerability with ample space to thrive. Vocalist Sienna Dahlen and guitarist Bill Coon double down on this sparseness with Balladextrous, and make the most of this intimate, dreamy format. 

My favourite duo albums throughout history tend to playfully eschew traditional roles of melodic interpretation and harmonic accompaniment, and Balladextrous walks this line brilliantly. Coon’s chordal work and melodic content never leave listeners unsure of song forms or harmony, but he wisely avoids bludgeoning anyone with the kinds of dense accompaniment weaker guitarists may hide behind in this context. 

Dahlen has a playful sense of rhythm and phrasing that is both confident and interactive. This is a treat to hear applied to jazz standards, as it breathes new life into classic repertoire. Consciously or intuitively, the duo treats upbeat numbers like Happy Talk and I’m In The Mood for Love with a playful vibe, while sticking more to the bare-bones structures of pieces like Too Late Now and I Get Along Without You Very Well. Contrasting choices like these may not be predetermined, which is yet another testament to the intuition these two musicians possess.  

Give Balladexterous a listen through quality headphones with your eyes closed, then try it again tomorrow while ironing or meal-prepping. This album promises to elevate in all contexts!  

03 Let it ShineLet It Shine! Let It Shine!
Dee Daniels; Denzal Sinclaire
Cellar Music CM111621 (cellarlive.com)

Singers Denzal Sinclaire and Dee Daniels take us to church with their new offering, Let It Shine! Let It Shine! Produced by the renowned jazz bass player, John Clayton, and recorded over several days while the band and crew were living together in a house outside Calgary, the love that went into this project is palpable. With gospel being the predominant style, the Hammond B3 by organ master Bobby Floyd is a centrepiece of the album, but all the players have their moments, such as Herlin Riley’s tambourine flair on some of the spirituals and Nick Tateishi’s groovy guitar work on God, Be in My Head.

Sinclaire’s signature warmth and gently swinging style is a nice contrast to Daniels’ powerful vocals, yet they blend beautifully on their duets. I confess I wasn’t very familiar with Daniels’ work before listening to this album and what a force she is. Her intensity is perfect on the blues-tinged If He Changed My Name while her emotional range is showcased on Sometimes It Snows in April. Sinclaire does a wonderful lilting reimagining of Row, Row, Row Your Boat and a simply gorgeous take of Blessings Upon Blessings. But where the group really seems to hit its groove is on the traditional spirituals like This Little Light of Mine and Every Time I Feel the Spirit. When they let loose and the choir kicks in, I defy even the staunchest non-believers to sit still and not sing along.

04 Schwager OliverSenza Resa
The Schwager/Oliver Quintet
Cellar Music CMR030123 (cellarlive.com)

Much can be said about both guitarist Reg Schwager and saxophonist and flutist Ryan Oliver. Suffice it to say that both musicians have paid their dues in and around Canada and elsewhere with demanding bandleaders. In many respects their wide experience and well-documented discographies make them ideally suited to this ambitious project called Sensa Reza

On sterling repertoire Schwager and Oliver can be heard firing on all cylinders throughout the kinetic-energy-filled music on this album. The ensemble also features the liquid harmonics of pianist Nick Peck, and sizzle and rolling thunder with bassist Rene Worst and drummer Ernesto Cervini. Together, these musicians meld melodies, harmonies and rhythms into songs with a preternatural roar from one chart to the next, giving no quarter and taking no prisoners. 

No wonder that producer Luigi Porretta titled this album Senza Reza, Italian for “no surrender.” This powder-keg music explodes out of the gate with the incendiary Another Happening. There is no letup as the quintet negotiates the fast and oblique-angled rhythmic changes of Rushbrooke. This magnificently frenetic pace continues throughout, changing to elegiac only for Tender Love. The musicians on Senza Reza present an edge-of-the-seat experience from end to end, brilliant in both long-limbed soli and in ensemble.

05 Nimmons TributeVolume 2 – Generational
The Nimmons Tribute
Independent (nimmonstribute.ca)

While F. Scott Fitzgerald may have opined that there are no second acts in American life, apparently there are second, third and even fourth acts possible in the lives of Canadians, particularly if the Canadian in question is the talented and thankfully, still meaningfully recognized and among us, Phil Nimmons. With Volume 2-Generational, The Nimmons Tribute, under the skilful direction of Sean Nimmons (composer, arranger, producer, pianist and grandson of the now centenarian Phil), again aligns the Nimmons name with musical excellence and uncompromising artistry. And while the artistic conceit of the project is clear, do not be fooled into thinking that the album is the work of an ersatz cover band. Quite the opposite is true in fact, as this recording again shines a light on the ongoing relevance of Nimmons’ music. 

Continuing the legacy work that began with 2020’s To The Nth, this 2023 recording treads an appropriately reverential path in its careful handling of Nimmons’ canonic music now interspersed with new compositions by the younger Nimmons, whose fine original contributions to this recording do much to further the legacy of the family name. Supported by an impressive multi-generational cast of jazz musicians representing some of the finest players in Toronto, it is clear that either as a pedagogue (mainly at the University of Toronto, but also dating back to his work at the Advanced School of Contemporary Music), or as a bandleader and jazz community member, Nimmons’ impact on the scene has been considerable and his contributions to the canon of great Canadian jazz sacrosanct. 

Listen to 'Volume 2 – Generational' Now in the Listening Room

06 Toronto ProjectThe Toronto Project
The Composers Collective Big Band
Independent (christianovertonmusic.com/ccbb)

Christian Overton has been a long-term journeyman, paying his proverbial musical dues in ensembles of varying size and celebrity from the city of Toronto and elsewhere. In addition to his renown as a virtuoso trombonist, Overton also runs a music publishing company and is an almost ubiquitous presence in Toronto’s musical scene. This has led to his being at the helm of this creative ensemble – The Composers Collective Big Band – modelled in the spectral shadow of his mentor, trombonist Rob McConnell and the legendary Boss Brass. The Collective now pays tribute to the city of Toronto. 

The Composers Collective comprises 19 rather successful musicians plus six celebrated guests. While such a large group of artistic voices could rub uncomfortable shoulders with one another, the differences in style – sometimes subtle, often striking – enhance the overall impact of these superbly crafted and affecting miniatures making up The Toronto Project. Engaging pieces like the cinematic West Toronto Ode, the tongue-in-cheek Non-Sequitur and postmodern Spadina, draw you inexorably into their sound-world as voiceovers from subway announcers draw you into their subway narratives. 

Torontonians and visitors to the teeming multi-cultural city will be able to put visuals to the miniatures that, collectively, act as a soundtrack for the city. The repertoire includes music by other commendable Canadian composers, capturing atmospheres in music that glows, expertly balanced and alive to Toronto’s unique rhythmic and harmonic nuances. 

Listen to 'The Toronto Project' Now in the Listening Room

07 undoundoneundoundone
Christof Migone; Alexandre St-Onge
ambiences magnetiques (actuellecd.com)

In the final static seconds of undoundone, as the muffled distorted vocalizations cease and the imaginary entity imprisoned in the microphone concedes to an all-encompassing windscreen, a switch is flipped. This can be interpreted in the figurative, as an indicator of change or a fixed transition between states. In this case however it is a computer switch, more specifically a spacebar; as implied by the bluntness of the attack and the timbre of its softer rebound. This is a demarcation device shared with Jay Electronica’s 2020 release Rough Love, opting not to edit out the sound of a decisive spacebar click. Electronica uses the spacebar as a mark of finality, to emphasize that his verse was recorded on a laptop in a single take. It can be either refreshing or jarring to a listener when an artist steps off their pedestal to show this level of vulnerability in the creating process. 

Christof Migone and Alexandre St-Onge’s last ambient pas de deux as “undo” is filled with increasingly brazen spacebars. As if on the heels of a late arrival Néon aléatoire dans le hasard inessentiel begins with the tail end of a sonic happening, initially akin to a wiry bass string being plucked from a singed stream of feedback, while each listen defies categorization until you’re left with a falling shoe. Therein lies the beautiful irony of this project: endless sonic detail to obsess over, the definitive is ultimately undone. 

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