10 Kurt Elling The QuestionsThe Questions
Kurt Elling
OKeh/Sony Masterworks 886446753768 (okeh-records.com)

The stark dramatic intro to the first track, Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, sets the tone for Kurt Elling’s latest album. A response to the widespread anxiety of the times we’re living in now, The Questions brings together a collection of songs that are sometimes cynical, sometimes hopeful and all thoughtful.

The jazzy and powerful singing we’ve come to expect from Elling is in abundance here. I should note that people fall into two camps when it comes to Elling – love him and hate him. I’m solidly in the love-him camp, but I can understand how some may not enjoy his vocal tone, which can be strident at times. His technical skills, big range and beautiful handling of ballads override any cringe-making bits for me though. His bandmates turn in equally powerful and emotive performances. Jeff “Tain” Watts is particularly strong on drums on A Secret in Three Views, a revamp of the Jaco Pastorius instrumental Three Views of a Secret that Elling has set lyrics to, with help from the 13th-century Persian poet, Rumi. This is just one of three songs on the album for which Elling has adapted existing poetry. The others are Endless Lawns – Carla Bley’s Lawns with lyrics from a poem by Sara Teasdale (with a gorgeous trumpet solo from Marquis Hill) and The Enchantress, a beautiful new song by pianist Joey Calderazzo with a bit of a bossa nova feel, and lyrics using lines from a Wallace Stevens poem. A lovely, swooping take on Skylark, with sensitive piano solo by Stu Mindeman, closes out the album with an appropriate sense of expectant longing.

11 CurranSchFrom The Alvin Curran Fakebook
Curran; Schiaffini; C. Neto; Armaroli
Dodicilune Dischi Ed 886 (dodicilune.it)

Turning the use of a “fakebook” on its head, instead of improvising on famous standards’ lead sheets, Rome-based American composer Alvin Curran and his Italian associates use 13 of his compositions as the basis for creativity. Known for his pioneering electroacoustic soundscapes for Musica Elettronica Viva, Curran, plus trombonist Giancarlo Schiaffini, multi-reedist Alipio C Neto, vibist/percussionist Sergio Armaroli, bassist Marcello Testa and drummer Nicola Stranieri, creates two CDs of music that sounds both aleatoric and arranged.

Although the brief final tracks on CD2 could be performed by a lounge combo, the disc’s crucial concepts occur when the first CD foregrounds the composer’s talents on computer (Max’d Out) and piano (Why Is This Night Different from All Other Nights). Electronic oscillations and circular-breathed saxophone sluices on Max’d Out contrast with plunger trombone vibrations and bell-shaking tones until climaxing as a balanced narrative. On the second tune, wolf-whistle-like reed lines and theatrical keyboard cadenzas are not only expanded, with soothing trombone burrs and delicate vibes’ resonation, but also dissembled, with granular synthesis that dissects pre-recorded voices into backwards-moving mumble and mysterious textures.

These machine-instrument explorations, plus other unique challenges, are resolved on the over-33-minute The Answer Is. With vibraphone pings maintaining the melody, computer crackles, tailgate trombone and gibberish vocal mutations move aside, as polyphonic cacophony or perfectly performed cool jazz are tried on for size then regularized into a tonally fluctuating finale. Technical mastery and dazzling sonic surprise are never faked on this session.

Listen to 'From The Alvin Curran Fakebook' Now in the Listening Room

12 MudderstenPlaymates
SOFA 565 (sofamusic.no) 

Despite the photo of a muscle man flexing on the CD cover, musical exercises by the Danish trio Muddersten are anything but broad and powerful. In fact, microtonal tubaist/electronic manipulator Martin Taxt, Håvard Volden, who plays guitar and tape loops, and Henrik Olsson, whose equipment includes objects, piezo and friction, wouldn’t reach the podium in an artistic weight-lifting contest. Instead the band’s programmed continuum, distant object lacerations and intermittent blares add up to featherweight strategies that subtly score, literally without fanfare.

With an electronic ostinato perpetually bonding sequences from below, air whooshes and metronomic friction occasionally minutely recede so that guitar flanges and twangs or brass bites and whistles can be heard. Watery, baleful and somewhat threatening, the tracks’ challenges are met and enlivened as near-static tones suddenly open up to reveal unique juddering counterpoint. Seemingly plodding, in spite of many short episodes of commotion, compared to noisier, flashier programs, Muddersten ultimately impresses by the realization that the trio’s bursts of musical quality are presented in such a way that they can be appropriately savoured. Plus no matter how many ring-modular-like gongs, menacing object scratches or distanced brass buzzes appear and vanish along the way; the tale of these Playmates never ceases long enough to disrupt a stable chronology that also highlights a strapping contest of timbral strength.

Just as definitions of various forms of music have changed over the decades, so has the interpretation of what exactly constitutes a large jazz or improvised music orchestra. Sure, there are still plenty of bands that stick to the popular Ellington-Basie mode with a fixed number of players and tunes. But that’s no longer the norm. As music becomes more open and global, orchestral and so-called exotic instruments beef up the sections; a pre-determined number of players in each section is ignored; and the use of electric instruments and electronics has soared. Equally outstanding in execution, here are some instances of how uniquely constituted large ensembles operate.

01 LargeUnitIn this context, the Scandinavian Large Unit is the most traditional. The group on Fluku (PNL Records PML 038 paalnilssen-love.com) includes three reed players, three brasses and a rhythm section. The reed players double or triple among saxophones and clarinets; the brass section is a trumpeter, a trombonist and a tubaist; rhythm is divided among an electric guitar, two acoustic/electric bassists, and two percussionists, including leader/composer Paal Nilssen-Love; plus there are electronics from Tommi Keränen. Using the ensemble’s elements to maximum effect, the band creates passages that rebound from presenting everyone in full flight to individuals, such as Thomas Johannson’s clean trumpet leads or the gnarly this-side-of-metal shronk from guitarist Ketil Gutvik. Extended tracks such as Playgo and Fluku emphasize divergent aspects of the band. A Latin-inflected swinger, Playgo highlights contrapuntal reed-brass textures, and then divides into duets: almost human vocalized smears from trombonist Mats Äleklint matched with slap percussion; heraldic trumpeting with rippling sax riffs; and finally, crying alto saxophone vibrations challenging vigorous ruffs from drummers Nilssen-Love and Andreas Wildhagen. Keeping the theme consistent is one of the Unit’s three alto saxophone players; a Bolero-styled counterline intersects, and synthesized wave form crackles finally subsume the narrative. Almost 27 minutes long, the title tune develops in several seemingly incompatible directions, initially suspended between Gutvik’s rough twangs and Keränen’s twisted drones. Interjections from other instruments make the performance murkier, until a distinct theme appears one-third of the way through and stays audible until the end. As Per Åke Holmlander’s tuba burbles open and shut, petal-like, to add or subtract low-pitch ballast to the creation, dollops of swing infuse the narrative via patterning vamps from baritone and tenor saxophones plus near-funk drumming. Concentrated riffs are finally pushed into a crescendo of polyphonic solidness pierced by harmonized brass flutters moving up the scale and latterly pulled aside to allow for a slurred showcase from the guitarist, accompanied by subtle drum beats that eventually harmonize with the theme that has been there all along.

02 LeTombeau PoulencWith the same number of players but different instrumentation, Le Tombeau de Poulenc (Yolk Records J2069 yolkrecords.com) provides a contrasting view of ensemble orchestration. Invoking the Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra by French composer Francis Poulenc, the group’s three composers – pianist Jean-Christophe Cholet, saxophonist Alban Darche and Mathias Rüegg – created 12 themes which slyly interpolate swing into formalist concepts, ending with a tight, rhythmic program, making this group sound twice the size of Large Unit. Tracks reflect each composer’s perceptions. For instance, the exposition of the supple and multi-hued 2nd Convergence by Cholet, who shares piano duties with Nathalie Darche, is a keyboard continuum that melds with munificent string harmonies as backdrop to laughing saxophone vibrations and graceful trumpet tones, with the parallel counterpoint climaxing as it’s pushed by bass string rubs and prodded by drum pulses. Meanwhile, the chromatic gusts propelled by Pascal Vandenbulke’s flute on Cholet’s 3rd Convergence are as formal as a chamber piece, until cabaret-style keyboard clipping and a low-key alto saxophone solo alter the moderato theme to animate pastel-like orchestral colours. Rüegg is most interested in instrumental layering. On Dans les Idées de Poulenc, a matching three-dimensional sonic picture is created though speedy keyboard bravura plus ascending saxophone counterpoint. Layering the tones of trumpet, trombone and tuba on Dans le Sens de Poulenc (with Matthias Quilbault’s tuba as prominent as the others), proves that such instruments can swing without expected call-and-response patterns. Closest to mainstream jazz, the blues inflections which enliven the choppy piano lines of the Darche-composed Le Tombeau de Poulenc 1 find violinist Marie-Violaine Cadoret’s contributions sliding from precise romanticism to silent-movie-like melodrama to double-stopping dissonance. Clanking claves and Latinized piano-fills on the concluding Le Tombeau de Poulenc 4 (another Darche piece) extend the polyphony enough so that subsequent showcases for saxophones and brass can trade orchestral strictness for musical freedom. This CD banishes the spectre of a jazz-classical pastiche and confirms the group’s and the composers’ ability to create rousing sounds that don’t stray that far from European precision.

Listen to 'Le tombeau de Poulenc' Now in the Listening Room

03 EnsembleSupermusiqueLarger than the former group and more obvious in its use of strings, percussion and electronics is Montreal’s Ensemble SuperMusique (Ambiances Magnétiques AM 239 CD actuellecd.com). The tracks on Les porteuses d’Ȏ are also less homogeneous than on other discs. Although these single compositions by ensemble founders, percussionist Danielle Palardy Roger and saxophonist Joane Hétu (plus one from Vancouver’s Lisa Cay Miller) utilize a mixture of notation and improvisation, the results are undeniably divergent. Ostensibly about Canadian drinking water rights, Miller’s Water Carrier is multi-sectional, with strident tutti interludes. Otherwise, the narrative depends on contrasts between upbeat concert band-like melodies from the horns and Guido Del Fabbro’s delicately formal violin elaboration, with the churning rural landscape characterized by Bernard Falaise’s clanking guitar effects, plus primitivist slashes from Alexandre St-Onge’s electric bass and electronics. Additional strength is given to the track’s political message by repeated scrapes on bare acoustic strings plus Ida Toninato’s gusty baritone saxophone. Describing a journey among the planets, Roger’s En arrivant par le nuage de Oort uses electronic crackles and pops to underscore the extraterrestrial journey. With echoing percussive swats from her kit and that of Isaiah Ceccarelli, rugged reed smears and sprung sul ponticello pressure from Del Fabbro, violist Jean René and cellist Rémy Bélanger de Beauport, plus some snarls and growls from trombonist Scott Thomson, the composition reflects the energy and turbulence of the heliocentric world. And like the predicted end of the universe, the tremolo piece doesn’t climax, it just ends. Based on mumbled vocalese, Hétu’s Préoccupant, c’est préoccupant is more problematic since her gargles, whoops and whines are often incomprehensible. Melodramatic and dissonant string section swipes, guitar flanges, buzzing wave forms and unfocused drum beats contribute to the verbal commotion, rather than framing or defining it.

04 Glasgow Improvisers OrchVoices in plural or solo (Maggie Nichols) are also featured on the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra’s The Word For It Now (FMR CD 458-0817 fmr-records.com). Although its selections are text based, the improvisational skill of Nichols and four backing voices mean that phrases are so swaddled in gurgles, gargles and growls that only the occasional word slips through. Designed to highlight the gamelan-like reverberating clanks from specially fired ceramic sculptures, A Bit in the Air also reduces the 30 instrumentalists (including eight string players and four guitarists) to interpolate with yelping tenor saxophone trills or bolstered triple-tongued trombone slurs, as Nichols’ agile soprano sashays around the sculptures’ crystalline timbres. With the vocalist(s) as capable at actualizing pseudo choking as lyrical warbles, the result is distinct energetic music that yokes metallic scrapes and distinct cries into a unique commentary. The two variations on A Peculiar Slumber are designed to showcase spatial and word-based response to the concert location, but with Nichols’ quirky scatting reigned in, there’s more pure instrumental space available. Highpoints include a duo between Marilyn Crispell’s studied piano pressure and emotional slurs from one of the trombonists; a swirling near-bop exposition from alto saxophonist Raymond MacDonald and one of the tenor saxophonists; and an undulating line from one of three double bassists that provides scope for Nichols’ mercurial syllable swallowing. In contrast, A Peculiar Slumber’s climax jams enough electronic-stressed clicks, reed slurs and brass flutter tones into the orchestral frame, so that the track reaches a crescendo of massed exuberance before subsiding. 

05 TheDorfExuberance also engulfs Lux (Umland Records 53 umlandrecords.de) with the 27-member, Essen-based The Dorf orchestra pumping out nearly opaque sound pieces. Their squirming timbres are directed as much by rhythm – including Theremin, synthesizer, three electronic players, two drummers and three guitarists – as by the comparable reed, brass and string tones. Infused with coagulated sequences that blend Wagnerian and metal densities, the characteristic tracks are Jour and Mill. The first augments seemingly without breathing space, through hardened guitar torque and drum beats like the thump of hobnailed boots, until a noisy climax gives way to the aural equivalent of afterimages. More attuned to orchestral colours from the acoustic instruments which tint the grisaille-like narrative, Mill mixes the crackles and smacks of programming and percussion, with whinnies and bellows from brass and reeds. As a commanding backbeat directs the narrative in a linear manner, trumpet grace notes and tongue splutters from the reeds provide the humanity and calm to the otherwise over-the-top creation. Finally, with all 25 players joined in a crescendo of muddied ecstasy, the ending explodes and is quickly cut off. With other tune variations on these themes, The Dorf demonstrates that rawness can be expressed and then tempered into a draining but dramatic program. So it is with all the ensembles here, whose similarities relate only to group size and the performance’s musical sophistication. 

01 Chris PlattSky Glow
Chris Platt Trio
Independent (chrisplattmusic.ca)

Released internationally in March 2018, guitarist Chris Platt’s debut album is a tight, well-crafted collection of seven original compositions, performed in guitar trio format. Joining Platt are bassist Phill Albert and drummer Robin Claxton, both of whom, like Platt, are graduates of the University of Toronto’s Jazz Studies program. Both Albert and Claxton provide intelligent, engaging support throughout, with compelling solo moments of their own.

Sky Glow has firm roots in the guitar trio tradition. The album is anchored by Platt’s ligneous archtop tone, and for good reason: his sound is warm and expressive, and synthesizes some of the most pleasant qualities of electric and acoustic guitar playing. The guitar is strongly present in both channels, and is generally foregrounded, allowing the finer details of articulation to be heard throughout the album. While this might become overwhelming with a different player, Platt is sensitive enough that the choice works well. The overall effect, as on the straight-eighths, bossa-tinged title track, is that the deep texture of the guitar provides the backdrop against which the action of the music takes place, even during moments of double-time single-note soloing.

Beyond the title track, notable selections include the contemplative, 3/4 I Like The Sad Ones, the raucous Platter and the beautiful When You’re Not Here, a solo piece whose pairing of harmonic sophistication and hollow-body warmth succinctly distills Sky Glow’s charming ethos.

Listen to 'Sky Glow' Now in the Listening Room

02 Sometime AgoSometime Ago
Jim Vivian; John Abercrombie; Ian Froman; Mike Murley

Cornerstone Records (cornerstonerecords.com)

John Abercrombie, who passed away at 72 in 2017, was one of the finest jazz guitarists of his generation. He possessed a consummate lyricism and harmonic subtlety that could stand comparison with the guitarists who initially influenced him, like Jim Hall, while his thumb picking, derived from Wes Montgomery, added a warm, personal sound. This session, led by bassist Jim Vivian, was recorded in Toronto in 2016 following a series of performances at Jazz Bistro. Five of the tracks are trio performances with drummer Ian Froman; three tracks add tenor saxophonist Mike Murley.

It’s eminently listenable music, low-key modern jazz that possesses depths and details that reward close attention. Abercrombie, Vivian and Froman weave complex webs of subtly inflected lines, often on jazz standards. The set opens with Everything I Love, a relatively obscure Cole Porter song favoured by jazz musicians – including Bill Evans, whose interactive trio conception informs this group, with Vivian and Froman busy in a positive way. Dave Brubeck’s In Your Own Sweet Way gets a similar, slightly abstracted treatment, while Miles Davis’ Nardis builds from its spare and slightly exotic melody to inspired scalar improvisation.

Vivian comes to the fore on some imaginative repertoire choices, like Petty Harbour Bait Skiff, a song commemorating a nautical disaster from his native Newfoundland, and the Argentinian Sergio Mihanovich’s limpidly beautiful title track. Mike Murley fits in perfectly on the dancing four-way improvisation of Abercrombie’s Another Ralph’s and Vivian’s tuneful Stellaluria.

03 Avi GraniteOrbit
Avi Granite 6
Pet Mantis Records PM102 (petmantisrecords.com)

Avi Granite 6
is a small combo comprising guitarist Granite, together with an extraordinary assemblage of reeds, trumpet, trombone, bass and drums. But Peter Lutek, Jim Lewis, Tom Richards, Neal Davis and Ted Warren are hardly an average backing band for the guitarist. The sextet comes together to offer a gorgeous evocation of Granite’s music on Orbit, which is full of enigmatic depths, expectations, anger, hope, doubt and affirmation amid what seems like a moody atmosphere encountered through a shattered mirror by moonlight.

Despite all of the extreme emotion, Granite’s music as heard on Like a Magazine can be meditative, with long, glistening runs on the guitar and saxophone. The guitarist can also be quite rambunctious, plucking and rattling the strings on the broadly grinning Knocking on the Door, or downright mysterious as on Over and Out/Ancestral Walkie Talkie, with his leaping, parabolic lines punctuated with jabbing octaves.

The music of Orbit has, by its composer’s admission, been incubating for a decade, some of which was spent in a great personal crisis. Coming through has meant everything to Granite and this is reflected not only in the CD’s quieter, more contemplative moments, but also in the jagged, bittersweet works such as Undo Process and When the View Became the Way. Together, these 11 pieces represent the work of a thoughtful composer with exceptional resourcefulness and imagination.

Back to top