03 UofT Sweet Ruby SuiteSweet Ruby Suite – The Music of Kenny Wheeler
University of Toronto Jazz Orchestra
U of T Jazz (uoftjazz.ca)

The University of Toronto Jazz Orchestra is an 18-member student unit directed by Gordon Foote. On Sweet Ruby Suite, they pay tribute to the late Kenny Wheeler, Canada’s most esteemed jazz composer. The orchestra is joined by singer Norma Winstone, one of Wheeler’s closest collaborators and the distinguished American saxophonist Dave Liebman. The program also pays tribute to one of Wheeler’s finest Canadian chapters, his work as soloist, composer and orchestrator with the Maritime Jazz Orchestra: the group, which featured U of T faculty member Mike Murley, recorded two of the pieces here, the half-hour title suite and the brief W.W. in 2002, and another, Winter Sweet, in 1996.

The U of T orchestra brings admirable precision and taste to the performance, with Foote drawing lustrous brass textures from the ensemble in keeping with Wheeler’s Hindemith-inspired harmonies. Two of the trumpeters are featured as soloists on flugelhorn, Wheeler’s own frequent instrument of choice: Brad Eaton has a lively give-and-take improvisation with Liebman on the sprightly W.W., while Marie Goudy touches on Wheeler’s special lyricism, at once slightly muffled and soaring, on Winter Sweet.

Canter No.1, which Wheeler performed with both small groups and large, is effectively arranged here by Terry Promane, creating a delicate backdrop for Winstone’s brilliant wordless improvising and Liebman’s rapid, peppering soprano saxophone. The entire program is a worthy homage to Wheeler’s contributions to jazz composition and education.

04 trioTrio
Arthur Bull; John Heward; Adam Linson
Ambiance magnetiques AM 229 CD (actuellecd.com)

The title Trio celebrates the special unity of these three improvisers. Nova Scotia-based guitarist Arthur Bull has worked in contexts from folk to free jazz, including the avant-folk Surruralists with Éric Normand. Montrealer John Heward, now 82, is best known as a painter of minimalist abstractions: his drumming, which has led to partnerships with saxophonists Glenn Spearman and Joe McPhee, possesses the same qualities as his paintings – a series of subtle and definitive gestures. Los Angeles-born bassist Adam Linson, about half Heward’s age (Bull is in the middle), has wide experience in European free improvisation alongside esteemed musicians like Evan Parker and Axel Dörner.

Recorded in a stone studio in Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia, this music has a quality of elemental life. Bull brings something of country blues to it, a vocabulary of bending tones and percussive attacks rather than specific harmonies or rhythms. That helps root the music, contributing to a central stream, an emotional and dynamic continuum, to which Heward and Linson also subscribe. It’s improvised music in which the three are so in tune that it never seems responsive, resembling instead the inevitability, consistency and variegation of water, stone, earth or air.

Given that, there’s still development from piece to piece. There’s a general build in intensity and density as the program progresses: lines become thicker, pitches higher, attacks more percussive; the degree of abstraction grows as it becomes more animated, the notion of a lead voice becomes less appropriate. The absence of ego along with the heightened sense of communion and consistency make this an ideal introduction to improvised music, a kind of folk music of the future.

06 David RestivoThe Waves
David Restivo
Modica Music MM0015

David Restivo, one of the country’s most forward-thinking pianists, has employed a time-honoured format for his latest CD, The Waves. The music he has composed for the classic lineup of trumpet, tenor saxophone, piano, bass and drums is modern, challenging and beautiful. The album’s eight tracks are arranged like a suite and reward being listened to in one uninterrupted session.

The opening compositions provide a series of quick segues into the main body of music. The aptly titled Piano Intro showcases Restivo’s harmonically lush and adventurous playing in a solo context and perfectly sets up the band’s entrance on the short piece The Bull and the Roses. Honeydew Harbour settles into a straight eighth, odd-time groove and features Restivo on the Fender Rhodes piano. Trumpet player Alexander Brown builds from a relaxed approach into beautifully sculpted lines and Restivo solos with great energy and fluidity. The graceful ease of the ensemble’s performance belies the complexity of the music.

 The title track features Brown and tenor saxophonist Kelly Jefferson in a counterpoint line with Restivo and bassist Luke Sellick that gives way to a deep four-four swing courtesy of drummer Maxwell Roach. Restivo tastefully crafts lines that move in and out of double time. Jefferson starts sparsely, exploring the lower register of his horn and incorporating a restrained yet intense bluesiness. Kurt and Mark, a tribute to guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel and saxophonist Mark Turner, captures the spirit of the two musical comrades from the point of view of a very like-minded peer.

07 KMJO Common GroundCommon Ground
KMJO (Kirk MacDonald Jazz Orchestra)
Addo Records AJR032 (addorecords.com)

Common Ground, the latest offering from saxophonist/composer Kirk MacDonald, is a major work of uncommon scope and depth. The double-CD set is also somewhat of a retrospective of material drawn from his impressive body of work, set this time in a big-band format by longtime collaborator, arranger and trumpeter Joe Sullivan. Sullivan, who has often worked with MacDonald in both large and small groups, displays an uncanny ability to interpret the composer’s tunes on a grand scale and the results here are outstanding. MacDonald has been generous in his allotment of solo space and the casting on this album is extraordinary, featuring a stellar lineup of Canada’s top jazz musicians.

PJ Perry and Pat LaBarbera are an inspired pairing on the title track. Perry’s beautiful alto tone and bop-ish sensibility sound perfectly at home in the contemporary harmonic context of MacDonald’s music. LaBarbera brings his huge tenor sound to a duet with bassist Neil Swainson for the opening of his solo. It’s a nice dynamic shift and the two master musicians take full advantage of the space it affords before the rest of the rhythm section kicks in and LaBarbera lets loose with impassioned, angular lines.

There are too many similarly brilliant moments to mention here. MacDonald’s rich tenor tone and deep linear concept can be heard several times throughout the album perhaps most notably on the final track Vanda Justina where he shares solo responsibilities with his daughter, the excellent clarinetist, Virginia Frigault-MacDonald.

08 Pink SalivaTropical Fun & General Lightness
Pink Saliva
Sono Sordo S02 (actuellecd.com)

Don’t be fooled by the tile of this album by Montreal band Pink Saliva. The two-CD set is anything but light and fun. That’s because the 24 tracks consist of moderato-paced oscillating drones, percussion pivots and brass squeals that in a (Morton) Feldman-like fashion unfold slowly while squirming forward. On the other hand, band members Alexandre St.-Onge who plays electric bass and electronics, Michel F. Côté, whose skill encompasses percussion, steel guitar and all manner of electronics, and Ellwood Epps, who varies his trumpet sound with a series of mutes, are canny enough to limit their compositions to between two and four minutes.

Overall, the tunes’ appeal is in how precisely like light bulbs in a socket, the musicians’ ideas adhere and subsequently illuminate. For instance a track such as Mario & Salvio is measured out in double bass thumps, making rhythmic sense of brass squeaks and hamster-wheel-like cranks, while (J. von P.) transforms from doom-laden drumming, as it’s opened up with molecule-sized brass bites to reach a theme of satisfying nonchalance. Like its subject matter, Nixon à la télévision shows that the band can be down and dirty in its exposition but by its conclusion use focused string pulses and relaxed drum pops to direct the narrative to soar sympathetically upwards.

Tropical Fun & General Lightness easily proves that the trio members are experts in creating the musical equivalent of Instagram photos or pointed tweets. But without appearing to be too old-fashioned, longer tracks with more extensive solos would demonstrate how well Pink Saliva stacks up against the work of earlier, innovative improvisers.

Infinite Distances
Noah Haidu
Cellar Live CL080216 (cellarlive.com)

Masters Legacy Series Vol.1 – Emmet Cohen
Emmet Cohen featuring Jimmy Cobb
Cellar Live CL03161

Sapphire Birds
Maya Rae
Cellar Live CL10181

The Cellar, Vancouver’s iconic jazz club, may have long-since closed and the hive of activity relocated to Coastal Jazz, but impresario Cory Weeds – the common denominator in it all – has retained executive producer privileges at Cellar Live. Virtually every month something resembling a gleaming gem (or three) pops up on the horizon. Here, for instance, are three such nuggets of plenty – two from American artists and one by a Canadian; or put another way, two featuring gifted pianists – Noah Haidu and Emmet Cohen – and one startling young songbird: Maya Rae. As is expected not a ray of daylight separates talent here. In the case of the pianists, styles may be disparate, but intellect and authentic pianism is of one piece. In Rae one is presented with the beckoning voice of a young woman that stands out in solitary splendour from among a crowded field.

10a Cellar Noah HaiduNoah Haidu’s jazz abstraction is, not for nothing, called Infinite Distances and is presented in the form of a ten-piece suite of the same name. The title is borrowed from the German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, who suggested: “Among the closest people there remain infinite distances.” In keeping with this inspired Rilke quotation all of the songs included here reflect this profoundly meditative state of being for Haidu, who has also been touched, it would seem, by the mortal nature of humanity. Each of the miniatures in the suite is a beautiful heart-offering, poetically crafted and ornamented by the gifted pianist with an all-star ensemble featuring saxophonist Jon Irabagon, trumpeter Jeremy Pelt and bassist Peter Brendler.

10b Cellar Emmett CohenPianist Emmet Cohen draws on the gifts of the virtuoso drumming and all-round erudite musicianship of Jimmy Cobb to bring his trio recording to fruition with the ubiquitous and supremely talented bassist Yasushi Nakamura. The album includes two quartet features with the vibrato-rich voice of alto saxophonist, Haitian-born Godwin Louis as musical doppelgänger. Cohen’s playing is spry and his right-hand agility is wonderfully complemented by a genuinely expressive left hand punching out chords that recall the many-splendoured stride masters of a bygone era that still beg emulation. His breathtaking introduction to When I Fall in Love – easily the high point of the performance – beckons an ineffably delicate response from the legendary Jimmy Cobb on cymbals. A memorable performance from end to end.

10c Cellar Maya RaeMaya Rae’s disc must surely be a front-runner for many accolades to come. The Vancouver singer is an extraordinarily prodigious talent who is still barely 14 years old and who, even more incredibly, wrote the title track of Sapphire Birds when she was in fourth grade. It is impossible to overstate the genius of Rae who also displays maturity wildly beyond her years in So Caught Up. Showcasing those wondrous “vocalastic” skills, Rae turns up the heat in a fiery version of I Got Rhythm and then knocks it right out of the park with Summertime. There is ample evidence here that the world is Rae’s to conquer. What a coup for Cellar Live to have her on board.

Classic jazz, sometimes called Dixieland or trad jazz, can be a path into the music. However since the 100th birthday of recorded jazz passed last month, those who stick to recreating jazz standards of earlier eras are in the position of early music devotées who refuse to consider anything not played on period instruments. Ironically enough, some well-known Free players started out as Dixielanders, including saxophonist Steve Lacy and Toronto artist-pianist Michael Snow, but they soon switched to more challenging fare. Recently a new curiosity has emerged though. As a postmodern paradox some advanced improvisers are mixing old-timey classics with free-form sounds with unique results.

01 Looking BackTake for instance the Italian octet The Freexielanders. On Looking Back, Playing Forward (Rudi Records RRJ1032 rudirecords.com) the band brings the same rollicking, texture-stretching freedom to contemporary originals as they do to two-beat tunes that were even considered warhorses in the early 1950s. Yet starting with the first track which blends the hoary St. James Infirmary with Gotta Get to St. Joe, the foot-tapping performance is done with such finesse that it’s obvious that Alberto Popolla’s sparkling clarinet blowing and Giancarlo Schiaffini’s gutbucket trombone slurs would impress during this pseudo-march exposition whether played in 1917 or 2017. This same sort of transubstantiation is applied to standards like Yardbird Shuffle, borne on trumpeter Aurelio Tontini’s Gabriel-like high chortles and slap bass from Gianfranco Tedeschi; or Black Maria that evolves into a hearty swing-shuffle dance, following a jagged split tone intro from the five horns plus vibraphone-clanking extensions from Francesco Lo Cascio that could have been part of a 1965 free-jazz date. Like actors who are as convincing in a Shakespearean production as in an action flick, the eight perform reverse alchemy on modern tunes. Sabor de habanera, a Schiaffini composition, moves from tango to tea dance to something more within the contrapuntal challenge between the trombonist and clarinetist and ends with a Count Basie-like repeated riff. Meanwhile Voci del Deserto, treated as a cousin to Hoagy Carmichael’s Hong Kong Blues, features both free-form reed wiggles from Popolla and sizzling Gene Krupa-styled pumps from drummer Nicola Raffone. Relentless polyphony that characterizes the recasting of Jelly Roll Morton’s Cannonball Blues relates both to notated orchestrations with a Native Indian-like lilt that pulls it one way plus slap bass and so-called Jungle effects trumpeting pulling it in another. More distinctively Tontini’s sputtering tongue stops and Schiaffini’s well-modulated slides not only made a perfect topping for the stacked reed trio vamps on Come Sunday but by leaves space for altissimo clarinet puffs. The piece is deconstructed to the extent that the performances – like most of the CD – become timeless.

02 Nuclear FamilyTimeless too is a 1979 Paris duo between American cornetist/saxophonist Joe McPhee and French saxophonist/clarinetist André Jaume on Nuclear Family (Corbett vs Dempsey CD031 corbettvsdempsey.com). At a time when so-called young lions claimed ownership of all of jazz’s pre-1960s vocabulary and ignoring modern currents, these players presented their own originals alongside classics from the Duke Ellington band, Monk, Coleman and Charles Mingus. With a layer-cake-like recipe of dense and voltaic alto saxophone licks atop guttural bass clarinet slurps, the narrative of Ellington’s Come Sunday is more emotional yet grounded than the Freexielanders’ version. This combination of jump-through-hoops modernism coupled with heart-on-sleeve sentiments conveyed by Jaume’s tenor saxophone is augured on the preceding Chelsea Bridge and echoed on Nuclear, the free improvisation that follows. With variable snorts and spits nearly electric in output, the half-atonal, half-accessible theme is transformed when the pocket cornet’s sprightly grace notes add a whiff of Come Sunday to the exposition, completed by staccato growls and slurred snarls from reeds and brass. This tightrope-balancing act between affiliation and avant-garde is expressed throughout, whether the two play off one another’s advances with punchy note nips during Pithecanthropus Erectus or make jittery Blue Monk even more antsy in execution, as Jaume’s outer-space-like bass clarinet rumbling and McPhee’s tongue slaps and bites beak down the theme into atoms before reconstructing it. Echoes of early jazz even work their way into Rue St. Jaume. Here New Orleans-style tongued exaggerations from both saxophonists swirl around the theme like a handkerchief waving at a parade, with high-pitched split tones overlapping with the equivalent of a reverent coda at a jazz funeral.

03 CravePianist Jelly Roll Morton’s jazz funeral took place in 1941, but pianist Dave Burrell and tuba player Bob Stewart pinpoint the adaptability of Morton’s arrangements to contemporary setting on The Crave (No Business Records NBLP 100 nobusinessrecords.com) by splitting the program between three Morton compositions and three by Burrell. A commanding stylist, Burrell’s performances bring an Ellington-like refinement to this bare-bones format, opened up on tracks such as his own Pua Mae ‘Ole. But at the same time, like a couturier who insists on classic detailing on a leading-edge garment he’s crafting, the pianist doesn’t mute echoes of the past, such as primitive blues on Morton’s New Orleans Blues and ragtime reflections on Morton’s The Crave. On the latter Stewart defines the function of a so-called brass bass, huffing a grounding ostinato alongside the pianist’s jaunty interpretation that also twists tango intimations into Jazz, with intelligent pauses and contemporary chord augmentations not upsetting the piece’s terpsichorean orientation. In contrast, the tubist’s dramatic growling, coupled with the pianist’s meditative pace, ups the intense storytelling that is Burrell’s I Am His Brother. Instructively enough Burrell’s savvy conversion of two other Morton tunes points out the lineage between 1920s ivory ticklers and Monk. These Monkish allusions are especially noticeable on the harder-edged Spanish Swat, where Burrell’s keyboard creeping leads to opaque, moderato and angled patterning. His narrative, which slides from high-pitched glissandi to segmented bass chords, is held up like the top man on a human pyramid by Stewart’s puffing continuum. New Orleans Blues is taken at a more leisurely pace than the original, with contemporary note variations pockmarking the stone face of Morton’s original. These improvisations not only stretch the theme with the looseness of a cat chasing a string, but allow the tuba player’s contemporary oom-pah-pahs to march in rhythmic lockstep with Burrell’s deeply felt and relaxed tune elaborations.

04 Monk n MoreWith many Monk compositions now nearly 70 years old, they’re as much classic jazz as Morton tunes. On Monk ’n’ More (Leo Records CD LR 780 leorecords.com), Russian-American pianist Simon Nabatov tries for a similar alchemical updating of five Monk lines by interspacing them among five originals that probe keyboard extensions using live electronics. Nabatov no more takes the Monk canon as immutable than a Talmudist would take the Torah’s words as unavailable for interpretation. Like that scholar’s theories, Nabatov’s explorations provide alternative readings of the pieces. Nabatov’s take on Skippy, for instance, is more herky-jerky than the original, while Oska T. is taken thicker and faster. Using pedal shading Nabatov adds echoes of the Russian Romantic tradition, while paradoxically emphasizing the tune’s swinging pulse that in turn links it to the blues and stride Morton and Ellington were perfecting in the 1920s and 1930s. Re-harmonized, Pannonica becomes more expansive, with the triplet-timed note colouration adding unexpected tenderness to its habitual angularity. Although most of the electronic experiments are concerned with laboratory-condition-like probes into pitch and timbral extensions, the additional clanging results confirm Monk’s unique orientation. The discontinuous interface on Electroacoustic Extension 4, for example, with its blurry pulses reflecting back onto the initial stop-and-start theme posits how Monk could have utilized computer programming. This is confirmed on Sunrise Twice Redux, the CD’s 14-minute centrepiece. Unfolding like a flower probed by a buzzing bee, unique pitch-bending techniques allow for tone examination, rhythmic asides and protracted pauses that add honeyed chamber music allusions to the jazz and electronics already present.

Gathering these strands together to revamp existing parts of the jazz canon is Nabatov’s contribution to examining classic music from new angles. All of these CDs are instances of how intermingling new ideas and older themes rejuvenates venerable material.

Back to top