Advanced Jazz’s Fountain of Youth

One common shibboleth of mid-20th century creative music was that “jazz was a young man’s art.” Putting aside the sexism implicit in the statement, the idea denied jazz musicians the sort of late career acclaim that notated music masters like Pablo Casals and Vladimir Horowitz enjoyed. Times have more than changed. Expanded from the Baby Boomer cliché that “50 is the new 30” and its upwards affiliations, career longevity is now taken for granted in all serious music. These CDs recorded by improvised musicians in their 70s attest to that.

01 Ran Blake Ghost TonesTake American pianist Ran Blake for example, now 80 and usually found in a solo or duo context. But Ghost Tones (A side 0001, created when he was a mere 75, is a more ambitious project. The 17-track CD reconstitutes the compositions/arrangements of jazz theorist George Russell (1923-2009) written for combos or big bands. Blake plays solo acoustic or electric piano framed by interjections from horns, strings, electronics and even a second piano. Like a curator who situates artifacts in modern settings, Blake’s conceptions are both contemporary and faithful to the originals. The Ballad of Hix Blewitt for instance, receives a tripartite setting with Rachel Massey’s violin sounding impressionistic sweetness; Dave “Knife” Fabris’ steel guitar reverberating with country music melancholy; and both setting off Blake’s melody variations. A similar transformation affects You Are My Sunshine which begins and ends with steel-guitar twanging, but is defined by a middle section of dissonant improvisations between Fabris and Blake. Jack’s Blues, in contrast, features Ryan Dugre’s tough guitar chording atop a brass choir, as blues-tinted piano lines weave in and out of the narration like a taxi in heavy traffic, finally introducing blues sensibility in the penultimate moments. The futuristic Stratusphunk is a solo piano feature that invests the theme with call-and-response patterning. yet retains the tune’s linear status. Still, the paramount indication of Blake’s skill appears on the forbiddingly titled Vertical Form VI and the theatrical Lonely Place. On the first, a sense of underlying swing is brought forward with tympani rat tat tats, trombone blats and Blake trading riffs with electric pianist Eric Lane. Lonely Place’s emotional lonesomeness is expressed as Aaron Hartley’s plunger trombone echoes and Doug Pet’s free-flowing tenor saxophone lines are superseded by Blake’s precise and icy harmonies.

02 FreeFormAnother session honouring a departed improviser, but one who was around to participate in this, his final session, is Free Form Improvisation Ensemble 2013 (Improvising Beings ib 40 To be honest, while the hiccupping smears emanating from French-Moroccan tenor saxophonist Abdelhaï Bennani (1950-2015) are interesting as he meanders through these two CDs of linked abstract improvisations, (as is the low-key drumming of Chris Henderson), the focus lies elsewhere. Like famous actors who make cameo appearances in small films, Bennani’s timbral strategy is cushioned or enhanced due to the contributions of American expatriates, pianist Burton Greene, now 78, and Alan Silva, now 76, who plays orchestral synthesizer. Some of Silva’s electronic double-bass approximations give a few of the 13 live improvisations a percussive rhythm that they otherwise lack. Elsewhere the oscillating sheets of sound the synthesizer produces wash over the other players like a cyclone-induced rainstorm. Silva’s blurry processes cascade in such a way to encourage the saxophonist’s harsh interface. But more often than not, whether in tandem with Bennani or on his own, it’s Greene’s considered patterns which pierce Silva’s murky enveloping sounds like a nail through wood. Almost from the beginning, the pianist’s centipede-like reach sharpens the program as he moves along the keys and symbolically within the cracks between them. With oscillating ponderousness on one side and hesitant reed puffs and percussion clatter on the other, it’s Greene who emphasizes the rhythmic thrust at the end of CD1 to create a groove. On the second disc, as Greene varies his attack from impressionistic classicism to Thelonious Monk-like angularity, he brings out sympathetic low-pitched timbres from Silva which encourage the saxophonist’s whinnying cries, and adds some levity via a lively cadenced solo in the middle. By the concluding minutes, Silva’s mass of processing retreats to bring the saxophonist into the foreground. Reading too much into Bennani’s restrained buzzes and puffs may be like those critics who portend the demise of writers by analyzing their final prose, but Bennani’s leaky, brittle tone does appear to be that of a man playing his own threnody. Luckily, the older but more nimble Silva, and especially Greene, are on hand to add palliative empathy.

03 TiconderogaAnother improviser whose broad-mindedness and experimentation are not affected by age is saxophonist Joe McPhee, 76, who is recording and playing as prolifically now as he has since he started recording in the late 1960s. Ticonderoga (Clean Feed 345 CD finds him sharing space with a near-contemporary drummer, Charles Downs, 72, as well as pianist Jamie Saft and bassist Joe Morris, who are two or three decades younger. In this classic formation, McPhee glides between tenor and soprano, extruding textures weighty and coarse as lumber, but adding cunning aviary-pitched trills from the smaller horn. Like the mortar that bonds bricks, Downs’ collection of clunks and raps builds a strong foundation able to support any embellished strategy. Similarly, tremolo pulses and bow-sourced sprawls allow Morris to accompany and solo. Though like a tugboat alongside the ocean liner which is McPhee, Saft never abandons the background role. At the same time he uses calming harp-like string plucks and stops as frequently as keyboard tropes. With balladic tones transformed via altissimo screams into dagger-sharp notes as he plots an original path, the saxophonist’s skill is most obvious on Leaves of Certain and A Backward King. Like a mathematician scrawling numerous formulae on a blackboard, McPhee treats the first as a testing ground for exotic multiphonics, stretching out an assembly line’s worth of reed textures to form variegated patterns. Finally, alongside Saft’s yearning glissandi he settles on dual tones created by shouting into his saxophone’s body tube as he masticates the reed. The result is a finale that satisfies with no letdown in excitement. Cheerful, buoyed by Saft’s guileless patterning, A Backward King initially highlights Saft exposing so many keyboard colours that he could be figuratively knitting a rainbow-dyed scarf. A subsequent processional piano statement presages McPhee’s shift from snarky stridency to gentle ballad variations, until the two swiftly reverse the process like a car backing up, and construct a new garment out of half-puckered sax blasts and half inside-piano plucks. Climatically though, Morris’ background patterning produces a pluck so dexterous and directional that it soothes the others into moderato attachment and then silence.

04 BornFreeMore than 40 years separate South African drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo, 75, and Italian pianist Livio Minafra, 33. But during Born Free (Incipit Records 203 the South African-Italian duo produces enthralling episodes of cinched improvisations and compositions. The CD attains its creative zenith on Flying Flamingos. Operating like two halves of a single entity, each man’s measured tones slip into place like the bolt in a lock. Exhorted verbally and by Moholo-Moholo’s jouncing minimal drum patterns, Minafra frames his narrative with rugged honky-tonk-like keyboard splashes, only to emphasize a sparkling easy swing in the tune’s centre. This responsive patterning is expressed throughout, as the two move through episodes of almost-Disney-cartoon-like tenderness on a tune such as Angel Nemali; to the repressed ferocity of Foxtrot, where acute drum pummelling and choppy, high-pitched key clattering up the piece’s Charlie Chaplin-like waddle to sprinter’s speed. Like a racing car that accelerates to 160 mph from zero, the two demonstrate similar control on the introductory and closing variations on Canto General, with the pianist’s glissandi at warp speed on the first, and the drummer’s literal collection of bells and whistles prominent on the second. This package also includes a DVD with filmed episodes from the performances plus commentary from both players.

05 WelcomeBackDuring his long career Moholo-Moholo has played in many duo situations including a memorable CD with Swiss pianist Irène Schweizer. Like the other innovators here, Schweizer, 74, divides her work between playing with younger musicians and her contemporaries. Welcome Back (Intakt 254 is titled that way since it’s the second duo CD the pianist and Dutch drummer Han Bennink, 73, have recorded. The first was in 1995. Acting their age, the two breeze through 14 tracks with élan, excitement and empathy. Schweizer’s gracious variations on ditties like Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland are mocked by bomb dropping and whistles from Bennink, but eventually overcome his disruption when she adds a touch of stride. Meanwhile jazz classic Eronel is wrapped up in fewer than two minutes, with the pianist’s pumping percussiveness swinging the contorted line. Like a reveller trying on several masks at a costume party, Schweizer’s original meld of (Thelonious) Monkish angularity, South African highlife and earlier jazz forms are showcased on Kit 4, Ntyilo, Ntyilo and Rag, with the first shapeshifting to staccato hardness abetted by the drummer’s clattering; the second theatrical and respectful, plus ending with the sonic equivalent of a multi-hued sunset; and the last narrative swelling to Willie “The Lion” Smith-style finger-busting swing. She and Bennink confirm their seasoned status on Free for All, gliding over different styles with feather-light key pressure and brush strokes that sound like sand rubbed on the snare, before intervallic leaps expose kinetic underpinnings. But the key track is Schweizer’s own Bleu Foncé. Like a detective series where the characters are known, but surprises appear in every episode, Schweizer’s variations on a traditional blues are true to the form, yet on top of Bennink’s condensed shuffle beat, she adds feints and emphasis to express her creative individuality.

George Bernard Shaw once said that “youth is wasted on the young.” In the case of these improvisers though, when it comes to music at least, age is just a number.

01 Emilie Claire BarlowClear Day
Emilie-Claire Barlow; ECB Band; Metropole Orkest; Jules Buckley
eOne eCD-CD5841 (

Arguably, multiple-award-winning jazz vocalist, Emilie-Claire Barlow, is one of the finest singer/musicians that Canada has ever produced. Blessed with an impressive musical genome, Barlow has consistently challenged herself, all the while continuing to mature into the impressive and accomplished artist that she is today. With her 11th recording, Barlow has partnered her stunning voice and arranging skills with the world-renowned Metropole Orkest conducted by Jules Buckley.

Barlow and Steve Webster act as Producers here, and the eclectic programme is comprised of material from the unlikely musical bedfellows of Pat Metheny, Coldplay, Brad Mehldau, David Bowie, Joni Mitchell, Canadian pianist/composer Gord Sheard and more. Described by Barlow herself as a “personal journey over the last four years,” this recording is a portrait of the artist as a mature women poised at the full apex of her skill, talent, inspiration and power. Also included in this recording are arrangements featuring Barlow’s excellent band, with Reg Schwager on guitar, Jon Maharaj on bass, Chris Donnelly on piano, Larnell Lewis on drums and Kelly Jefferson on reeds.

The CD opens with the spacious and magical Amundsen by noted bassist/composer Shelly Berger, which segues seamlessly into a dynamic and fresh arrangement of the near title-song, Burton Lane’s On a Clear Day. Other impressive tracks include a tender, string-laden take on Coldplay’s Fix You and a sensual, jazz-infused version of Paul Simon’s Feelin’ Groovy (replete with a masterful guitar solo from Schwager). Of special note is Barlow’s arrangement of Joni Mitchell’s I Don’t Know Where I Stand, sung here with the soaring, crystalline purity of her magnificent vocal instrument.

02 Mellisa LaurenYour Mess
Melissa Lauren
Independent ML2015 (

Melissa Lauren is a prolific young songwriter and she has released her second album of (mostly) original songs in three years. Lauren collaborated on songwriting and production for Your Mess with Toronto bassist Mark Cashion. The album is about the chaos and heartbreak of life as we stumble our way through and despite such relatively serious themes the songs are mostly upbeat and playful.

The album opens with two songs – Room is Too Small and Walk Behind Me – that have an air of the 50s and 60s about them as Lauren adds a bit of gutsiness to her delicate, pretty voice. The title track is given a sort of New Orleans style with swampy effect courtesy of guitarist Eric St-Laurent and Sly Juhas on drums. The album is sparingly produced with guitar, bass and drums in various combinations being the main accompaniment, but guitarist Nathan Hiltz breaks out the uke and gets strummy for the bouncy Houses which is all about being content with your current situation and which suits Lauren's voice to a T. There is a sprinkling of covers on Your Mess and the band's gorgeous slowed-down take on the Police tune Every Little Thing He Does is Magic is a highlight.

03 SupersteinWhat Goes On
Andrea Superstein
Cellar Live CL073015 (

The young Montreal-born, Vancouver-based chanteuse faced a big challenge to improve on her stellar EP, Stars. With talent in spades, Andrea Superstein not only made great strides, but has slipped in a rather memorable sophomore album with What Goes On. Twice as long as Stars, this noirish album is replete with repertoire well-suited to her gorgeous, sultry and sensuous voice. If you want to know what exactly that means just listen to her take on Cole Porter’s I Love Paris. Not only do you get a sense of what it is to breathe in the melancholy and crowded loneliness of crepuscular Paris, but you will also get a wonderful sense of the dramatic tension that Superstein can bring to a song that has been done over and over again. And if you thought that no vocalist could ever bring anything new to a classic, think again.

Superstein sings in beautifully shaded dialogue with her accompanists, often slipping into blissfully exquisite murmurs and slanted whispers, singing seductively as she conveys a lover’s infatuation, a wounded partner and an ecstatic bride. Her vocal slurs punctuate clipped and long, loping lines. At her flippant best she can resemble a gazelle gone delightfully crazy as she catches the scent of rain. Her extroverted personality is wonderfully geared to maximize her storytelling ability as well the stylish declamation of poetry in song.

04 Lambert ondesLes Ondes Célestes
Gabriel Lambert
Jazz from Rant
1549 (

The label Jazz from Rant is very much a family affair, projects by composer/drummer Michel Lambert, his partner Jeannette Lambert and her brother Reg Schwager. With this CD, guitarist Gabriel Lambert, Michel's nephew, joins what may be the first family of Canadian jazz.

Lambert is a fleet-fingered guitarist, and his thoughtful improvisations are clearly articulated with a bright, glassy sound. What makes the CD remarkable, however, is that it hardly sounds like a debut at all. His compositions mingle influences from both classical and jazz sources – serialism, modes and free improvisation – but the music always feels organized, testament to both the coherence of his vision and the developed empathy of the band.

The first half of the CD consists of four individual pieces. Le mystérieux ordre des choses has bassist Adrian Vedady and drummer Michel Lambert developing a drone before Gabriel Lambert enters playing a serial melody, creating the kind of tonal tension that sustains much of the work here. Approximation #2 demonstrates Gabriel Lambert and pianist Andres Vial's gift for developed scalar improvisation in a Coltrane vein, while Approximation #3 employs a Messiaen mode to develop a heightened calm.

The second half is devoted to the four-part suite, Les Ondes Célestes, in which the influences of Schoenberg and Messiaen are further integrated, until the work concludes with Les ondes, the conventional instruments of a jazz quartet creating a dreamlike state of bowed strings and shimmering cymbals and piano. It's a fitting transformation to conclude an imaginative recording.

05 Way NorthKings County
Way North
Independent (

Way North explores roots-based music in a highly contemporary framework. The quartet is a collective comprised of Toronto-based musicians, trumpeter Rebecca Hennessy and bassist Michael Herring along with Brooklynites Petr Cancura on saxophone and clarinet and Richie Barshay on the drums. The music is instantly inviting and infectious with a capacity for taking the listener to unexpected places. The often contrapuntal nature of both the writing and the improvising brings an earlier era of jazz to mind, specifically New Orleans, albeit a NOLA for the millennium. Rarely does a solo go on for too long without being joined by another voice or voices. At times the group improvisations can sound as if they were composed, meshing seamlessly with the written parts.

Each of the group’s members has contributed compositions to the recording, resulting in a coherent and satisfying flow of tunes. Cancura’s Where the Willows Grow evolves from a slow march to a bass solo that becomes a duet with trumpet before being joined by the rest of the group. Treefology is a Michael Herring composition that combines counterpoint with unison melodies over a second- line groove. Trumpet and saxophone continue the theme, soloing together with remarkable unity of intent. Hennessy’s Kings County Sheriff is a five-beat figure with a tango-like feel. Her poignant flamenco-ish solo is met by Cancura’s sax solo which ranges effortlessly from an intense growl to modern chromaticism. The tune, like the rest of the album, revels in the spirit of lively conversation.

06 Ken McDonaldSitting, Waiting, Wasting Time
Ken McDonald Quartet
Independent (

Bassist and composer Ken McDonald’s latest outing, Sitting, Waiting, Wasting Time, exemplifies the highly informed yet searching nature of much of the music being heard from a new generation of jazz musicians. Schooled in the tradition, they bring a host of their own influences to this ever-evolving music. McDonald’s quartet is a lean affair that takes full advantage of its pared-down instrumentation to create a group sound that is instantly relatable and identifiable. The seven self-penned compositions offer original twists on some classic jazz themes such as the blues and up-tempo swing while venturing into calypso, Brazilian and Middle Eastern flavours.

Drummer Lowell Whitty and bassist McDonald form a highly adaptable and conversational rhythm section. The front line of saxophonist Paul Metcalfe and guitarist/oud player Demetri Petsalakis are well matched in their aggressive funkiness and bring both humour and risk-taking to the proceedings. Apocalypso, the opening tune, features an island groove and establishes the band’s sound in the angularity of the writing and the sense of space in the ensemble. Metcalf’s tenor solo has a playful quality that is in sync with Whitty’s interactive drumming. Petsalakis, with his slightly overdriven guitar sound and fluid style, expresses himself in ways that are equally melodic and edgy. Moon features a haunting melody played by oud and soprano saxophone. The dynamic arrangement and unusual instrumentation take this recording into world music territory in a way that seems totally consistent with its openness of vision.

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