01_lovanoBird Songs
Joe Lovano; Us Five
Blue Note 509999 058610205

Joe Lovano is a colossally creative jazz performer on a par with vintage Sonny Rollins but on his 22nd album for Blue Note he’s outdone himself – with barely an original composition to be heard. It’s a tough challenge reinventing the classic material of 20th century jazz master Charlie Parker, but Lovano with his band Us Five (voted jazz group of the year in Downbeat’s 2010 poll) has achieved in spades what hordes of jazzers have essayed with this rich repertoire - he’s made it sound new. Playing four woodwinds, mostly signature tenor sax, he exhibits his insightful knowledge, terrific technique, thorough comprehension of melodic and harmonic language and questing curiosity. He’s backed on the 11 tunes by pianist James Weidman, Grammy-winning bassist Esperanza Spalding and two lively drummers, Otis Brown 111 and Francisco Mela. Among many treasures you hear an elegant slow Donna Lee usually done at reckless speed, a funky Moose the Mooche, a Lover Man on G mezzo soprano sax, Ko Ko played in trio format with furious drum polyrhythms, a mix of three of Bird’s blues (Blues Collage) featuring alto sax, piano and bass, the extraordinary Birdyard with the leader on aulochrome, a new instrument combing two soprano saxes and a mighty closing Yardbird Suite. This disc’s a keeper.

01_elmes_redshiftIt’s been years since sophisticated drummer Barry Elmes’ quintet entered the lists, but the wait’s worth it for Barry Elmes Quintet - Redshift (Cornerstone CRST 127 www.cornerstonerecordsinc.com), a nine-tune session showcasing leading jazzmen at the top of their game. The beat’s in a constant state of buoyant flux as tenorman Mike Murley, trumpeter Kevin Turcotte, guitarist Reg Schwager and propulsive bass Steve Wallace romp through seven artfully-arranged Elmes originals, joined on some tracks by hornman Kelly Jefferson and Montreal-based organist Vanessa Rodrigues. The opening Reading Week is an appealing blues in ever-changing meters and Stumpy updates “Pink Panther” themes with rugged tenor and glistening guitar that counterpoints jagged passages elsewhere. All the Elmes rhythmically-charged tunes suggest a long shelf life with their imaginative structures and unspooling lines that create their own elegant moments – and they get sterling, probing and vigorous execution here. Thus one can accept the leader’s indulgent inclusion of the hymn Abide With Me.

A new album by Russ Little showing off his vast trombone wares is always welcome, guaranteed to be both different from past entries (like the outstanding “Footwork” and “On The Shoulders of Giants”) and entertaining. Here Russ Little - Slow Burn (Rhythm Tracks RTCD0014 www.russlittle.com) roams 20th century music covering the musical waterfront from Jimmy van Heusen and Irving Berlin to Stevie Wonder and Marcus Miller. Plenty of guests enhance his basic quintet, with only drummer-arranger Brian Barlow ever-present on seven long tracks that demonstrate Little’s ease whatever the genre. The funky My Momma Told Me So has two tenors and regular pianist Tom Szczesniak on electric bass, the versatile leader offers soothing Glenn Millerisms on Body and Soul before jumping into lilting improve, while Jive Samba features slick playing by trumpeter Steve McDade before Little delicately growls on his Latin journey. Overall, the pace is too leisurely and Little could have challenged himself more, but each chart gets a colourful, subtle workout with strong contributions from skilful sidemen.

03_nordic_spiralsCanadian stars Ingrid and Christine Jensen help serve up a sonic treat on Nordic Connect - Spirals (ArtistShare AS0097 www.ingridjensen.com). Together with Sweden’s Maggi Olin (piano) and Mattias Welin (bass) plus Alaskan drummer Jon Wikan, the sisters underscore the notion that jazz is art with a program of lush and atmospheric, essentially cerebral music of superior quality. Ingrid on trumpet and flugelhorn is in splendid form, playing with fluent flair, a model of clarity tempered with a biting attack, Christine on alto and terrific soprano sax forcefully eloquent yet always tasteful. With the innovative Olin, composer of five of the nine cuts and also a dab hand on Fender Rhodes, they comprise a Pandora’s box of fresh, clever ideas, narratives big on melody sculpted within ethereal surroundings, precise but never predictable. This is significant jazz.

04_tara_davidsonHer continued rise to the top is exemplified by alto and soprano saxophonist Tara Davidson in her new release View (TD-11 www.taradavidson.ca). This seven tune set of originals, her third as leader, embellishes her talent as a composer as well as a horn player who first emerged hereabouts as a Mike Murley protégé who comprehends the importance of balance and contrast. Her colleagues – pianist James Reynolds, bass Jon Maharaj and drummer Fabio Ragnelli - are fully in sync with her expansive ideas. The opening Bunny, Bubs and Bodie has effective alto long-line improv with supple phrasing, while Reynolds eases June into a reflective mode that’s sweet but not sentimental before tempo is doubled for an undulating scamper that suits the bustle and ebb of the boss’ notions. Elsewhere she displays a sprightly soprano that particularly flourishes with Reynolds switching to electric piano. Tempos hew to the serene, which makes the bruising elements of South Western View a welcome, grittier proposition, but this album is a classy contender for your wallet.

05_michelle_gregoireEnterprising Winnipeg pianist Michelle Gregoire is an intense and engaging performer, as you’ll hear on Diversity, her second CD as leader (MG3332 www.michellegregoire.com), a quintet outing with seasoned companions in tenor Kirk MacDonald, trumpeter Kevin Turcotte, bass Jim Vivian and drummer Ted Warren. Of the nine pieces three comprise the Gratitude Suite with Vivian offering a fourth, the solo Gratitude Interlude. The opening title track is typically intricate with a surging pulse, and others flow with appealing concepts at their core. The minor key Dichotomy rumbles in hard bop idioms illuminating MacDonald’s fluency and Streak has Gregoire in fine fettle, continually prodding bandsmen to greater vigour. Throughout the session she demonstrates an acute sense of mood that’s perhaps most dramatic in the vaulting cadences of Three or Four in the Morning. More please.

06_amanda_tosoffPianist Amanda Tosoff is justifiably carving a solid niche in Toronto since emigrating from Vancouver, exemplified on Looking North (Oceans Beyond Records OBR0008 www.amandatosoff.com). With Evan Arntzen (saxes), Sean Cronin (bass) and Morgan Childs (drums) plus guests she highlights a talent for catchy composition and an impressive command of the keyboard and the inevitable Rhodes at all tempos. Among a batch of intriguing tunes M.I.A. struts delightfully and Concept 2010 is most certainly compelling contemporary piano, direct and thrusting. Tosoff conveys a sense of resilient optimism in her creations, fiercely inventive when it matters.

01_FMP_CoverThroughout jazz history, independent labels have typified sounds of the time. In the Swing era it was Commodore; Modern jazz was prominent on Blue Note and Prestige; and with Improvised Music, FMP is one of the longest lasting imprints. Celebrating its 40th anniversary, the Berlin-based label has given listeners a spectacular birthday present with FMP In Rückblick – In Retrospect 1969-2010 (www.fmp-publishing.de): 12 [!] CDs representing FMP’s past and future – the oldest from 1975, the newest, by American cellist Tristan Honsinger and German guitarist Olaf Rupp from 2010, half previously unissued – plus an LP-sized, 218-page book, lavishly illustrated with contemporary photographs, posters, album covers and a discography.

FMP’s musical scope was overwhelming. In this box, for instance, are discs by an early Pan-European ensemble, the Globe Unity Orchestra (GUO); solo sessions by Belgian pianist Fred Van Hove, German bassist Peter Kowald and others; outstanding combo dates including British saxophonist Evan Parker and Swiss pianist Irène Schweizer; and instances of minimalism from German string-player Hans Reichel and Austrian trombonist Radu Malfatti. Ferocious German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, who almost single-handedly formulated Free Music in Germany and helped create FMP, is represented on three CDs. No exercise in nostalgia, the book outlines in unsentimental details how the revolutionary climate of the late 1960s sustained the growth of tough, experimental, music modeled on American-influenced Free Jazz. FMP’s value was that by 1971 it was recording distinctively European Free Music, blending layers of contemporary notated and electro-acoustic music, Fluxus art ideas plus folk-based material onto the American base. Triumphs such as FMP’s documentation of American pianist Cecil Taylor and its wide dissemination of essential American, European and created-in-East-Germany discs are also noted.

02_Steve_LacyBroadminded, FMP never asserted European musical superiority however. For example, Steve Lacy Solo 1975 & Quintett 1977 In Berlin CD 02 (FMP CD 138), is a reissue by Americans Lacy on soprano saxophone; alto saxophonist Steve Potts; bassist Kent Carter and drummer Oliver Johnson plus Swiss cellist Irène Aebi. The band’s super-fast harmonies plus the contrast between Potts staccato and linear style and Lacy’s bugle-like moderato blowing atop Carter and Johnson’s Freebop backbeat, demonstrate why the quintet was admired. Most of the CD consists of some of Lacy’s earliest solos, including The Duck. Characteristically that thrilling improvisation is built from a collection of kazoo-like reed bites, split-tone yelps, hissing and rasping growls and muffled mid-range retorts. Lacy defines free music.

03_ManuelaAnother way to mark the evolution of FMP and European Free Music is by following the thread from Schweizer/Carl/Moholo 1975/77 Messer und… CD 03 (FMP CD 139) to MANUELA+ Live In Berlin 1999 CD 10 (FMP CD 146). Almost 25 years later Rüdiger Carl’s mercurial and atonal saxophone squeals sprayed out in never-ending blasts alongside Louis Moholo’s paced drumming and Schweizer’s percussive pianism with a hint of Stride, has mutated into contradictory but equally aleatoric inventions. Now Carl, in the company of Carlos Zingaro’s spiccato violin buzzes, Jin Hi Kim’s throbbing komungo strings, and Reichel’s thumping daxophone rhythms layer the interlude with distinctive colours from his new instruments of choice – light-toned clarinet and pumping accordion glissandi. Without lessening his commitment to improvised sounds the former leather-lunged saxman, now operates in a more placid area, as his quivering intonation toughens the other strings’ tremolo jetes while the daxophone’s strident whines provide comic relief.

04_UndDemarcation of a unique style – which suggested a different path than all-out Free Jazz characterized by discs such as Baden-Baden ’75 CD 01 (FMP CD 137), with five previously unissued performances by the 16-piece GUO providing plenty of space for genre-defining reed-splintering solos from Parker and Brötzmann; the soaring triplets of trumpeter Manfred Schoof; plus high-energy piano dynamics from GUO leader Alexander von Schlippenbach – was germinated by another of this collection’s reissued CDs. In 1977, trombonist Malfatti’s and guitarist Stephan Wittwer’s UND? ... plus CD 06 (FMP CD 142) conclusively proved that interactive pointillism and polyphony as reductionist chamber improv was another option. Sometimes this strategy involves Wittwer’s kinetic rasgueado seemingly filling all the sonic space, before Malfatti’s puffs, mouthpiece osculation or leaking discordant tones move to the forefront. Despite this, connections are always linear with tracks like Cotpotok (still valid) exhibiting a broken octave coda of koto-like picks from the guitarist plus lower-case slurs and growls from the brass man.

05_Die_Like_DogUnderlining the sparks he still generates and his importance to FMP, as player, designer and talent scout – the book’s first and final images are of Brötzmann in quartet formation and in frantic performance with Taylor. Similarly besides his GUO affiliation, two other CDs demonstrate the saxophonist’s prowess. Close Up/Die Like A Dog 1994 CD 08 (FMP CD 144), is a hitherto unreleased concert date with one of his most powerful formations: Japanese trumpeter and electronics manipulator Toshinori Kondo, Americans William Parker on bass and Hamid Drake on drums and tablas, plus Brötzmann playing saxophones, tarogato and clarinets; and Wolke in Hosen/Brötzmann Solo 1976 CD 05 (FMP CD 141), the reedist’s first solo disc. On it he shows the breadth of his skills, from surprisingly mellow, yet atonally-tinged alto saxophone vibrations on Two Birds is a Feather to the elongated and contrasting contralto and altissimo obbligatos on Piece for Two Clarinets; to how he uses tuba-like blasts and slurs plus heavy flutter tonguing to turn Humpty Dumpty, a showcase for his bass sax, into a jaunty march. Characteristically Close Up demonstrates not only high-quality Free Music, but also other musical currents welcomed by FMP. On the 46-minute Close Up/Man, Kondo’s flutter tongued runs and plunger tones are further fragmented by electronic wave forms, while Drake’s rhythmic tabla pulses suggest World Music. Meantime Brötzmann progressively masticates and splinters dissident ostinatos from tenor saxophone or bass clarinet, using the nephritic friction for call-and-response with the trumpeter’s rubato strategies, and sometimes stopping for speedy spiccato friction from Parker, all backed by the percussionist’s ruffs and pops.

Brötzmann is still going strong 16 years later, as are many improvisers recorded by FMP from its beginning. Nonetheless, as Stretto CD 12 (FMP CD 148) demonstrates, new music still comes from the label. Spiced with aviary field recordings, the eight tracks blend the timbres from cellist Honsinger’s sardonic verbal humour, col legno smacks or enhanced legato quivers with Rupp’s chromatic frails plus spidery finger picking. With new generations to record, perhaps FMP can last for another 40 years.

02_Kurt_ElliingThe Gate
Kurt Elling
Concord CJA-31230-02

Kurt Elling's singing is not for everyone. When a musician with the fertile imagination and daring that Elling possesses commits to an idea sometimes what comes out isn't so pretty. A crooner he is not. And not everyone will agree with all of his choices. But Elling has the skills and range to pull off incredible musical feats. He and the band can take a song – like Norwegian Wood on his latest album “The Gate” - and start it off on familiar Beatles’ ground and move it to a place that is way off the original path into fresh, interesting territory. But Elling isn't all cerebral, cold-blooded improvisation. He has a big ol’ mushy side too, and can rip your heart right out of your chest when he wants to, as he does on an ultra slowed-down version of Earth, Wind & Fire’s After the Love Is Gone. And on Herbie Hancock's Come Running To Me, when Elling gets up in his high register he produces some of the sweetest sounds that ever came out of a man. Of course a singer on a journey like this can’t do what he does without solid yet boundary-pushing musicians with him, most notably pianist and arranger Laurence Hobgood, guitarist John McLean, saxophonist Bob Mintzer and Grammy-winning alpha producer, Don Was.

James Brown
Independent NGP-002 (www.jamesbrown.ca)

He may not be “The Godfather of Soul” but this James Brown – “our” raised-in-Burlington-now-residing-in-Toronto James Brown – brings much soul, sophistication, style and serious skill to his latest CD. Currently teaching guitar and jazz improvisation at the Royal Conservatory in Toronto, Brown has produced a vibrant and inventive CD of nine original compositions. Joining him on this splendid album are some of Canada’s finest: Quinsin Nachoff on tenor and soprano saxophone (see Geoff Chapman’s excellent review of his latest offering in last month’s WholeNote online at www.thewholenote.com); the always great Don Thompson on piano; in-demand bassist Jim Vivian; and the widely respected Anthony Michelli on drums. A stellar local line-up!

Brown is known for his lyrical tone, fluid, melodic lines and elegant writing and he doesn’t disappoint here. As well, his classical training is evident and it is not surprising to learn that he is an associate composer of the Canadian Music Centre. The classical influence is most apparent in Fugue, where he weaves a beautiful exchange of fugal voices between the guitar and saxophone, joined in a third voice by the bass. The playing (as well as the writing) is languid and expressive.

Oddly, I found the title track, spelled Sevendays, to be the least interesting, although still enjoyable. It is expansive and breezy, reminiscent, at times, of early Metheny.

Perhaps Brown is at his most soulful in Central Eastern (part 1), an evocative, melancholic and lyrical preamble to Central Eastern (part 2), which, in contrast, is driving, exhilarating and had me at the edge of my seat. It really swings with its subtle, not so much central but more Middle Eastern, flavour. Thompson provides some gorgeous piano work and the drumming is especially tasteful.

There’s a reason Brown has the reputation he does as a versatile and talented composer and guitarist. Actually, he’s given us nine with “Sevendaze.


02_VektorThe Story of Vektor 1984-1990
VBT 002 batemanvictor@gmail.com

A swinging artifact from Toronto’s recent past, where a shotgun wedding between the technical sophistication of free jazz and the relentless rhythms of punk rock seemed inevitable, “The Story of Vektor” is very much a representative of its time.

Led by bassist and sometime vocalist Victor Bateman, Vektor operated in an area midway between the Shuffle Demons’ jive and Whitenoise’s dyspepsia. Sophisticated, high-class musicianship shares space with clearly defined beats and Bateman’s sardonically delivered lyrics. Besides Bateman, Vektor constants were tenor saxophonist Perry White, playing with more prickly and funky pacing than today, and trombonist Stephen Donald, who when not harmonizing with the saxophonist, exposes outstanding flutter tonguing on pieces such as Head in a Bottle.

Three changes each in the guitar and percussion chairs here reflect the band’s evolution and search for new sounds. Barry Romberg for instance, brings a jazz sensibility with his drumming; Graham Kirkland is more of a rocker; and Stych Wynston’s approach is somewhere in-between. It’s the same story with guitarists Mark McCarron, Kim Ratcliffe and Martin Rickert. The third is the most versatile, producing ringing string reverb on Life is a Crutch, then turning around to create hushed, atmospheric runs on Desolate Country.

More than 20 years on, some of the Vektor crew have allied themselves with more experimental sounds; others make their living as conventional jazzers; some have vanished altogether. Still, despite a few overly familiar arrangements, this CD is particularly valuable as a reminder of a time when jazz-rock fusion was a recipe for trying unusual blends, not a marketing label.

01_mike_murleyDebut recordings by bands already popular generate advance excitement and acclaimed tenor saxophonist Mike Murley duly delivers with the Mike Murley Septet - Still Rollin’ (Cornerstone CRST CD 135 www.cornerstonerecordsinc.com). His writing is almost orchestral in scope, with strong, rich ensemble statements between catchy hooks from an impressive rhythm team (pianist David Braid, bass Jim Vivian, drummer Ted Warren) and fluent soloing. Murley, his majestic horn work ever accomplished, penned seven of nine tunes for an artfully arranged, vibrant freewheeling session giving trombonist Terry Promane, trumpeter Kevin Turcotte (splendid throughout) and saxist Tara Davidson plentiful opportunities for fruitful exploration. Material ranges from the blustery title piece to reflective pieces referencing the leader’s Maritime heritage such as Minas Mist via a witty rework of Coltrane’s Giant Steps, a lovingly languid Celtic theme, a meaty tribute to Murley idol Sonny Rollins and a three-part suite inspired by Alberta mountains.

02_arc_en_cielPaul Read, the pianist-composer best known for key jazz roles at U of T and Humber, has run a 17-piece orchestra with top-flight players since 2006. He wrote nine tunes for the disc debut of Paul Read Orchestra - Arc-En-Ciel (Addo AJR004 www.paulreadorchestra.com), an excellent feat of well-drilled innovation and communal flair, though over-favouring lush ballads - the fierce Andy Ballantyne alto on opening swinger Too Pretty For Words besting the mellow beauty conjured by pianist David Braid, saxist Tara Davidson and flugelhornist Jim Lewis on subsequent numbers. Album highlight is the lengthy title tune (meaning “rainbow”) that benefits from Trish Coulter’s voice within its thick textures, time games and fascinating narrative celebrating nature’s alluring phenomenon. Following are a leisurely vehicle for trumpeter Chase Sanborn and not-so-leisurely tenor Alex Dean, so it’s fitting they then combine for a real rumble on Oxymoron. The set closes with a two-part suite, an elegy showcasing Braid followed by a rousing dust-up with five soloists, Dean at his effervescent best.

03_mario_romanoMario Romano is a real estate mogul and nifty pianist who can more than hold his own with jazz peers. His first CD as leader is Mario Romano Quartet - Valentina (Alma ACS15102 www.almarecords.com), where he’s joined by veteran saxman Pat LaBarbera, bass Roberto Occhipinti and drummer Mark Kelso. It opens with LaBarbera driving Night In Tunisia hard and Romano matching his technique and ardour. Standards use his arrangements, sometimes too predictable, but he comps well and, overall, clearly belongs. On Autumn Leaves he’s elaborate then pungent while his percussive attack suits Nardis and On Green Dolphin Street. His colleagues are on top form, the bassist’s huge sound and Kelso’s sheer vigour embellishing the band’s superior credentials. Sound quality is terrific.

04_canadian_jazz_quartetFor its fourth album, the Canadian Jazz Quartet – which has played Fridays since 2006 at Quotes on King St. West – has chosen a different direction. The result is a real treat, for those enamoured of Brazilian music and for fans of a stylish group whose jazz evolves seamlessly around tradition. Brazilian Reflections (Cornerstone CRST CD136 www.cornerstonerecordsinc.com) is class all the way, with leader and guitarist Gary Benson adding four originals to the 13 songs, five by Jobim, two from Luiz Bonfa. Elegance is the watchword with Benson colleagues – vibraphonist Frank Wright, bass Duncan Hopkins and drummer Don Vickery - in superlative form employing lilting rhythms as guitar and vibes demonstrate luminous comfort with the melodies. Desafinado is here of course, but so are lesser-known gems.

05_cory_weedsBands powered by Hammond B3 organs can’t be cool – if they don’t stir couch potatoes from torpor, they’re a bust. With virtuoso Joey DeFrancesco in town, tenorman-club owner Cory Weeds couldn’t miss, resulting in The Many Deeds of Cory Weeds (Cellar Live CL011010 www.coryweeds.com), a live gig at Vancouver’s Cellar backed by local trumpeter Chris Davis and Byron Landham drumming, a swinging octet of tunes heavy with intense, grooving bass lines. Session leader Weeds sounds great, like a 1960s Blue Note tenor saxist, in fact like the composer of two tunes here, Hank Mobley, but with fatter tones. The pace is mostly fast or semi-fast, Davis efficient more than inspiring, but DeFrancesco blasts on in incomparable fashion with all the grit and ferocity you’d expect. There’s great riffs, fierce improv, spectacular percussion, passionate performance – it’ll keep you alert for 75 minutes.

06_buckalooseCloser to home the combo co-led by Montreal B3 ace Vanessa Rodrigues and Toronto tenor Chris Gale has a new name and a new record. Meet Buckaloose - The 270 Sessions (Le Lab Records LLCD-002 www.tinyurl.com/buckaloose) It’s not quite Joey D powerhouse but it compensates with subtlety aplenty from keys and horn plus smart, confident guitar courtesy of Mike Rud. The music’s warmly soulful, drummer Davide DiRenzo propulsive on drums on seven tracks contributed by band members, but amounting to less than 50 minutes’ pleasure. Energy levels are high, Rodrigues is more than clever, the versatile Gale varies his aggression with hefty baritone sax, there’s drama in every phrase.

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