11 PJ PerryNo Hugs
PJ Perry; Bob Tildesley; Chris Andrew; Paul Johnston; Dave Laing
Cellar Music CM062022 (cellarlive.com)

While new waves and variants of COVID-19 give the pandemic a feeling of endlessness, one positive thing to come out of this prolonged period of chaos is an abundance of lockdown art. While the world was standing still, and even the most career-focused individuals were suddenly baking sourdough in their pajamas, many musicians opted to spend their extra free time practising and composing. This is what stalwart saxophonist PJ Perry was doing, and the eight pieces he composed with collaborator Neil Swainson now form his latest album No Hugs

Perry has a unique musical vocabulary that can function in a wide range of settings, from smooth to intense and cerebral to soulful. This is reflected in the entirety of No Hugs, which manages to sound current and old school at the same time. After repeated listening, I noticed that many of the tracks are comparable medium tempos, but in yet another display of balance there manages to be ample contrast and variety between songs. 

Too Soon Gone is a rousing opening track that sets a swinging post-bop tone for the rest of the album. March of the Covidians gives listeners a dramatically different groove and energy, before the album’s beautiful ballad title track. No Hugs features a short but sensitive piano intro from Chris Andrew, and beautiful improvised solos. The tempo picks up again on The Kestrel, and the remainder of the album concludes in such a manner that you’ll be ready for another listen.

12 Ostara ProjectThe Ostara Project
Amanda Tosoff; Jodi Proznick; Allison Au; Rachel Therrien; Joanna Majoko; Sanah Kadoura; Jocelyn Gould
Cellar Music CM021422 (cellarlive.com)

I listened to this album in its entirety several times before reading Lisa Buck’s eloquent liner notes, and I think I may make a habit of this order of events moving forward. Groups that are formed as “collectives” or “projects” can often struggle to program a cohesive set of music or an album’s worth of material, but not The Ostara Project. From the track titles to the songs themselves, and even the album’s design and artwork, there is an uplifting theme to the seven original tracks and one arrangement we are presented with. This is not an uncommon feeling among debut recordings, but it manages to feel more poignant when expressed during the turbulent times we are in globally. 

Delta Sky starts the album off with a catchy groove and excellent interactions between soloists and the rhythm section. Bassist Jodi Proznick and drummer Sanah Kadoura are the core of this rhythm section, with pianist Amanda Tosoff and guitarist Jocelyn Gould alternating harmonic duties throughout the recording. Delta Sky is saxophonist Allison Au’s only composition credit on the album, but she contributes beautifully phrased melodies and sophisticated motivic solos to the remaining tracks too. 

Another compositional highlight is the contrasting and conversational Lluviona by trumpeter Rachel Therrien. There are some moments of collective improvisation here, contrasting the groovy preceding numbers and subsequent ballad Tides are Turning. Joanna Majoko does a superb job bringing life to the lyrics heard on The Ostara Project and she penned a rhythmically intriguing arrangement of the standard Bye Bye Blackbird

There is plenty more to say about the musicianship brimming from this album, but I encourage you to listen for yourself.

13 Heather FergusonLush Life
Heather Ferguson; Miguelito Valdes; Barrie Sorensen; Tony Genge; Jan Stirling; Joey Smith
Independent (heatherferguson.ca)

I had the pleasure of meeting Heather Ferguson at Toronto’s El Mocambo in May 2022; we were both at Ori Dagan’s Click Right Here album launch. I remember thinking how rich and warm her speaking voice was, and wasn’t surprised when she told me that she, like Dagan, was a jazz vocalist.

Lush Life is the Victoria-based artist’s smashing debut album. And while it may be her first full-length CD, Ferguson has been honing her singing chops for years. This is not a beginner’s voice. This is the voice of an experienced student and lover of jazz who has been paying close attention over a lifetime to the best interpreters of the 20th century’s classics and standards. You can hear it in her beautiful phrasing and in her engaging, confident, generous, insightful and passionate performance. She is a consummate storyteller who keeps things interesting and inviting.

Ferguson treats us to ten tracks, with help from some of Victoria’s finest, including Miguelito Valdes on trumpet, Barrie Sorensen on saxophones, drummer Damian Graham, keyboardist Tony Genge and guitarist Joey Smith, whose stellar arrangements add another layer of excellence to the project.

From the expressive and lovely title track, the truly soulful Body & Soul and the sultry (and cheeky at the end) At Last, to a deeply evocative Cry Me A River and darn right gorgeous Round Midnight, Ferguson’s Lush Life is a celebration of a musically infused life well lived!

Listen to 'Lush Life' Now in the Listening Room

14 Cory SmytheCory Smythe – Smoke Gets In Your Eyes
Sofia Jernberg; Large Ensemble; Cory Smythe
Pyroclastic Records PR 23 (store.pyroclasticrecords.com)

Composer and pianist Cory Smythe has worked with several of contemporary music’s most creative figures, among them Anthony Braxton, Tyshawn Sorey and Nate Wooley, but it would be difficult to name a more inventive conceptualist, engaging historical musical and social forms to generate challenging contemporary dialogues, reinventing the jazz practice of creative variations on standard repertoire. His Circulate Susanna investigated Stephen Foster’s famous genocidal ditty (see the original lyric of 1848); Accelerate Every Voice, was a choral piece about rising water levels. Now Smoke Gets in Your Eyes approaches Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach‘s ancient pop tune to address a world on fire. Smythe’s probing, highly creative liner booklet is illustrated with images of the song’s celebrated performers, including Louis Armstrong, Judy Garland, Fred Astaire and Bryan Ferry. 

The work comes in two distinct parts. The first four pieces, originally developed with the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra, are performed by a stellar 11-member ensemble (saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and cellist Tomeka Reid are prominent), playing four pieces. Liquiform 1 comes as close as might be possible to creating liquid sound, while Combustion 1 has trumpeter Peter Evans invoking fire with blistering, incendiary flurries. Combustion 2 has singer Sofia Jernberg reducing the original song to snippets. The second and longer part consists of Smythe’s seven solo explorations of the song, playing a piano with computer augmentation altering pitch and timbre. The original song is often wholly fragmented, appearing in glimpses through Smythe’s abstract, shifting improvisations as if etched in smoked glass.  

15 Funk Poems for BiirdFunk Poems for “Bird”
Timuçin Şahin’s Flow State
Panoramic Recordings pan27 (newfocusrecordings.com/catalogue/timucin-sahins-flow-state-funk-poems-for-bird)

Timuçin Şahin is a Turkish guitarist currently teaching at New York University; his Funk Poems for Bird is a series of pieces dedicated to the musical spirit of Charlie Parker. This in itself is not unusual, but in 2022, forays into jazz history can grow increasingly exploratory. This is one of them. Şahin’s Flow State, meanwhile, is an ideal complement. Bassist Reggie Washington and drummer Sean Rickman are a masterful rhythm section adept at numerous jazz sub-genres. Here they provide coolly abstracted versions of funk grooves, while pianist Cory Smythe adds his own edgy vision.

Şahin pushes Parker’s thematic material further than most, both backwards into its modernist classical associations (Schoenberg and Varèse) and forward into the work of Parker’s most brilliant successor, John Coltrane. Şahin’s vision is built into his instrument and his approach. Here he plays a double-neck guitar, one a conventional fretted six-string, the other a fretless seven-string, the latter facilitating sudden shifts into quarter tones. Further, Şahin rarely plays anything resembling a conventional line, instead favouring swarms of notes, polyvocal lines that coil and slither amongst themselves, whether swimming amidst Washington and Rickman’s cool backbeats or matching Smythe’s explosive playing, here in a voice somewhere between Bud Powell and Cecil Taylor. 

The time-travelling Bird Watchers has it all, from its roots in Parker’s Ornithology to Şahin’s back-and-forth movement between fretted and fretless necks to Smythe’s technologically altered piano pitch, knit together with a slightly wobbly funk beat.

Listen to 'Funk Poems for 'Bird'' Now in the Listening Room

16 Tyshawn SoreyThe Off-Off Broadway Guide to Synergism
Tyshawn Sorey Trio +1 with Greg Osby
Pi Recordings P196 (pirecordings.com)

On his preceding recording, Mesmerism, drummer/ composer Tyshawn Sorey turned from his more esoteric composing practice to stress jazz performance traditions, a conventional instrumental grouping exploring a standard, but expandable, repertoire. Here that notion has grown from a single studio session and a piano trio to nearly four hours with brilliant saxophonist Greg Osby joining Sorey, pianist Andrew Diehl (the star of Mesmerism) and bassist Russell Hall, recorded over three nights at New York’s Jazz Gallery. 

It’s a mode that’s rarely heard on record (where composer royalties are an issue), though it’s the lifeblood of the jazz club, a concentrated dialogue around a common repertoire, though here broader than usual. Its thematic bases include American Songbook titles (Cole Porter’s Night and Day, Van Heusen and Burke’s It Could Happen to You) to earlier jazz forms (Fats Waller’s Jitterbug Waltz, Billy Strayhorn’s Chelsea Bridge) to bop and free jazz (Thelonious Monk’s Ask Me Now to Andrew Hill’s Ashes and Ornette Coleman’s Mob Job), several heard in different forms from different nights.   

The performances brim with life. Osby is central here, whether broadly lyrical or pressing toward expressionist intensity, generating continuous lines that accommodate themselves to the varied material but have a life of their own. This celebrates the core jazz experience, a small group exploring the melodic and harmonic possibilities, the expressive resonances and collective meanings of a song at length (20 minutes in the case of Three Little Words). It’s a contemporary embodiment of a great tradition.

17 Satoko FujiiHyaku, One Hundred Dreams
Satoko Fujii
Libra Records 209-071 (librarecords.com)

Hyaku, One Hundred Dreams is pianist/composer Satoko Fujii’s 100th CD as leader and a fitting celebration of her remarkable career, launched in 1996 with duets with Paul Bley. Among images of her first 99 works, South Wind, the fourth, leaps out, its title track figuring significantly for me during 20 years of teaching jazz history. Based on an Okinawan mode, it combines dramatic energy and pacific beauty, embodying what jazz has increasingly become, an inclusivist art alive to local dialects and the possibility of global values. 

The contrasts, too, are dramatic, reflecting how much has changed. South Wind’s big band was conventional, with sections of trumpets, trombones, reeds and rhythm instruments, with Fujii the sole woman among 15 musicians; Hyaku is a nonet with individual emphases on both instruments and musicians, its ensemble almost evenly split between women and men. Further, Hyaku’s five-part suite blurs composed and improvised components. 

From its beginning, Hyaku introduces essential qualities in Fujii’s music, the subtly organic shape of her initial piano figures, the landscape-like incidental percussion, the dream-like flow state and an undercurrent of welling energy. Each movement will extend a continuum with what has gone before, theme statements, improvised solos and ensemble passages achieving rare homogeneity. Each member of a brilliant ensemble will appear in the foreground, from trumpeters Wadada Leo Smith and Natsuki Tamura through bassoonist Sara Schoenbeck, tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, electronic musician Ikue Mori and bassist Brandon Lopez to drummers Tom Rainey and Chris Corsano.

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