The shortlist of Canadian-born musicians who’ve influenced the shape of jazz might well be headed by Kenny Wheeler, who at 82 continues to craft significant new work. The Long Waiting (CamJazz CAMJ 7848-2), recorded in 2011, is a spectacular big band outing. Wide interval leaps, airy highs and a piquant emotional subtlety still distinguish Wheeler’s flugelhorn lines, while his compositions somehow swing as his Hindemith-like brass voicings bring special depth and lustre. It’s an unusual combination of the mobile and the regal, and Diana Torto’s wordless vocal leads (the band even has a singer!) add another distinct dimension. The CD is a shared achievement, with Wheeler supported by a host of long-standing associates, among them pianist John Taylor, guitarist John Parricelli and saxophonists Ray Warleigh and Stan Sulzmann.

Mundo: The World of Jane Bunnett (EMI 5-09993-01621-2-9) is a 2-CD retrospective of her career, compiling tracks from CDs dating back to 1989. Whether Bunnett is playing flute or soprano saxophone, in a duo with a master pianist like Don Pullen or Paul Bley or with a large group of Cuban percussionists and vocalists, she’s an exciting musician, committed to reaching her limits and finding something new. Her Cuban adventures are highlighted here, but there are plenty of other moods and rhythms, including balladic depths (You Don’t Know What Love Is), playful flute chatter (Serenade to a Cuckoo), and soulful funk (New Orleans under Water). The interest never flags in the two and a half hour program, further tribute to Bunnett’s taste in sidemen and her sense of variety.

On Double Entendre (Soccer Mom Records SOCM005), Jeff McLeod mixes and matches musicians from Toronto and Rochester, N.Y. where he’s doing graduate work at the Eastman School. It’s an ambitious 2-CD debut that highlights his work at both the piano and organ, devoting a disc to each. The piano disc is more reflective, contemporary fare, emphasizing musical conversations on originals and diverse repertoire by Antonio Carlos Jobim, Tom Waits and Sun Ra. On organ, McLeod seems to reach back 50 years, his pulsing grooves animating tunes by Thelonious Monk, Chet Baker, Pete Rugolo, and the organist Larry Young, while tenor saxophonist Mike Murley and guitarist Ben Bishop almost dance through the burbling organ. McLeod’s own ballad Namekus is a highlight, a lush springboard for some brilliant Murley work.

Toronto-born drummer Harris Eisenstadthas been working in New York for over a decade, but he commemorates his origins in the name of his quintet, Canada Day, a brilliant aggregate of younger New York musicians that updates the forward-looking mid-60s Blue Note style of Eric Dolphy and Andrew Hill, compounded with their own distinctive voices and Eisenstadt’s continuing explorations of rhythmic structures. On Canada Day III (Songlines SGL 1596-2), the group includes trumpeter Nate Wooley, saxophonist Matt Bauder, vibraphonist Chris Dingman and bassist Garth Stevenson who create a glittering weave of elements around Eisenstadt’s works. Recorded at the end of a tour, the group manages to play the works with aplomb, confidently negotiating even the shifting patterns of Slow and Steady. Even in this company, trumpeter Wooley stands out, moving from a tender bop lyricism to electronic-sounding explorations.

Eisenstadt’s Canada Day Octet (482 Music 482-1080) adds three winds to the quintet, among them the veteran Ray Anderson whose explosive, vocalic trombone work is an apt addition. Most of the CD is devoted to a four-part suite, called The Ombudsman, built around the idea of negotiating between structured and unstructured elements and arguing for their co-existence. Eisenstadt’s gifts as a composer come to the fore here, constructing wholly satisfying music out of apparently opposite strategies. As with the quintet date, it’s enlivened at every turn by absolutely superior musicianship.

Composer and pianist Gordon Sheard first became interested in the music of Brazil’s Bahia area around 1990, eventually making several trips there for an ethno-musicological study. His desire to work with Bahia’s leading musicians was realized in 2009, and the results are heard on All Saints’ Bay (GSM002 Sheard’s pieces reflect the authentic rhythms of the region. Some works are actually composed over tracks by the drummer Gabriel Guedes dos Santos with a group of percussionists from the area, while according to the credits, all of Sheard’s piano and organ tracks were overdubbed in Toronto a year later. There’s an inevitable compromise in the method. Those percolating rhythm tracks may hum with life, but the ultimate production favours surface polish over interaction. Saxophonist John Johnson manages to break through though, contributing heated solos on both tenor and alto.

Vancouver pianist Tyson Naylor’s trio suggests the maxim “less is more,” making almost every phrase count on a debut that reflects the post-rock minimalism of the Bad Plus and EST. Kosmonauten (Songlines SGL 1594-2), is imbued with musicality and an instinctive lyricism, with the group managing to invoke the exuberant abstraction of the Amsterdam avant-garde and the rhythmic vitality of the South African townships, all on the opening track Paolo Conte. Naylor, bassist Russell Sholberg and drummer Skye Brooks develop cohesive, evolving textures, while guest clarinettist François Houle brings a gorgeous sound, at once woody and liquid, to See It Through. There’s a tendency on a debut to show everything one can do, but Naylor’s deliberate approach suggests he has plenty in reserve. 


02_daniela_nardiEspresso Manifesto –
The Songs of Paolo Conte
Daniela Nardi
Independent MIN004

Paolo Conte is an iconic Italian singer-songwriter whose work epitomizes a certain style and era in European pop culture. Daniela Nardi is a Toronto-based singer who, when searching for a way to pay musical homage to her Italian roots, landed on putting together a collection of Conte’s songs. Covering work by a singer with such a strong male presence as Conte — he’s a little like the Leonard Cohen of Italy — is a challenge for a female singer and Nardi rises to that challenge by finding the universal themes of longing and loss (and gelato!) in his songs. Also, Nardi travelled to Umbria to record the disc with a handful of Italian musicians, which lends an authentic feel. Espresso Manifesto opens with the most well-known of Conte’s tunes Via Con Me (Come Away with Me), a light-hearted plea about giving oneself over to adventure, then moves through a charming but sometimes dark exploration of life and love.

Like the drink manifested here, Nardi’s voice is deep and earthy and singing in Italian brings out her expressiveness. Lyrics and liner notes explaining the songs for the non-Italian speakers are not included with the CD but available on So you can read up on each song to understand what it’s all about or you can just let the album wash over you like a seductive Mediterranean wave.

01_suzie_arioliAll the Way
Susie Arioli
Spectra Musique SPECD7832

Susie Arioli and her partner guitarist Jordan Officer have put out another fine collection of songs true to their easy swinging style. Although All The Way opens sombrely with a soulful, slowed down My Funny Valentine it ramps up a bit from there with an ironic, sax-laden Here’s to the Losers and a nod to Ol’ Blue Eyes with the title track and then the subtle emotional roller-coaster continues with the melancholic Forgetful and There’s a Lull in My Life.

Arioli has an understated delivery that’s a refreshing change from the showboating singing we hear so much of. Yet she still convincingly conveys the sentiment of the song and leaves the listener able to focus on the lyrics rather than on how awesome her voice is, or whatever. With the majority of the songs from the 50s and 60s the record is imbued with a Mad Men-esque mood that makes All the Way the ideal soundtrack for the end of a day filled with two-martini meetings, a pack-and-a-half of smokes and bitter disappointment.

03_aldcroft_parkerOne Sunday
Ken Aldcroft; William Parker
Trio Records and Productions

The performances of prolific Toronto improviser/guitarist/composer Ken Aldcroft and New York City’s double bass great William Parker here leave me speechless. The two improvisers weave a sonic journey through rhythm, colour, melody and ideas that just gets better with each listening.

Both performers utilize their strong jazz roots to foray into spirited uncharted territories. Sweet Beverley, one of two 20 something minute offerings, is a doll of a piece. Its laid back nature sets the mood for a musical conversation on diverse topics. The phrasing is clear and subtle, allowing each intricate idea, whether long or short, to grasp one’s attention. There is a sound surprise around every corner. Also outstanding is the shorter track Zum Schneide, where Parker plays a trombonium [an instrument shaped like a baritone horn including its three valves, but with the bore and tube length dimensions of a tenor trombone]. The opening passage cleverly refers to a classical music fanfare, and then abruptly changes course to slides, runs and garage band noise. It is a fine example of where free improvised music is headed. Parker also performs on shakuhachi on this five track release.

For listeners unaccustomed to the more atonal sense of free improvisation, the music here might be a stretch to understand but worth the patience to experience. Aldcroft and Parker are brilliant masters of their art form — one may not be able to whistle along with the “tunes” but it is the collective sounds of their “in the moment” music creations that resonate so impeccably.

04_ig_hennemanCut a Caper
Ig Henneman Sextet
Wig 19

Negotiating the boundary between noted and improvised music, Europe and Canada, is the all-star sextet of Dutch violist Ig Henneman which can be heard in concert at the Music Gallery June 24. The ten limpid pieces by Henneman which make up this disc are interpreted by a drum-less ensemble whose particularized arrangements and advanced technical requirements suggest contemporary new music. But when Berlin-based trumpeter Axel Dörner gargles altissimo air through his horn or when the violist lets loose with airborne spiccato snatches, the formalism is left aside. As well, there may be canon-like voicing on Moot, but Charles Mingus-like echoes appear on Toe and Heel, while the title tune adds marching band hops to other sound tropes.

Part of this CD’s textural freedom must be ascribed to the alternately metronomic hammering or sly soundboard stretches from Toronto pianist Marilyn Lerner. Upping the CanCon quota is Montreal clarinet and bass clarinettist Lori Freedman, although pinpointing which bracing chalumeau snorts or altissimo split tone squeals arise from her horns rather than the clarinet of Amsterdam’s Ab Baars, who also exposes liquid tenor saxophone runs and narrowed shakuhachi puffs, is nearly impossible. Fellow Netherlander Wilbert De Joode holds the disparate sections together with steel-fingered string slaps that at points expand the polyphony with braced sul tasto or col legno slides.

Beside Cut a Caper, where Lerner’s percussive echoes could as easily fit a performance of Morton Feldman as Mingus, another stand-out track is Narration. With a post-modern novel’s nonlinear form, this narration meanders among sections that highlight glottal echoes from the trumpeter, knife-sharp plucks from the violist, horns harmonized until their tones splinter into tongue slaps or intense trilling plus the bassist’s assured pedal-point ostinato.

01_lara_solnickiWith A Meadow in December ( Toronto singer Lara Solnicki has crafted an unusually compelling debut, avoiding all of the usual pitfalls. Solnicki isn’t an aggressive improviser — there’s no scatting here and she doesn’t take great liberties with melodies. What she does do is focus on lyric, sound and rhythmic insinuation, investing 11 jewels from the Great American Songbook with her own personality. Her classical training is immediately evident and she has a poet’s ear for nuance. She’s fine at up-tempos, but it’s the ballads that are most memorable, as Solnicki tackles challenging fare like Lazy Afternoon, creating a dream-like state with subtle shifts in pitch, all aided by the haze of Michael Davidson’s vibraphone and Ted Quinlan’s guitar. The concluding Softly as in a Morning Sunrise is almost as good — it may be the first time I ever noticed the lyrics. Solnicki is aided throughout by a stellar cast, including Pat LaBarbera, a tenor saxophonist of great lyricism.

02_joel_millerMontreal-based saxophonist Joel Miller doesn’t over-record. After a flurry of CDs early in his career, Swim (Origin 82613) is just his second recording as leader since 2004’s superb Mandala. It’s well worth the wait, for Miller is an outstanding tenor player, gracing the modern mainstream with a light touch, fleetly evanescent lines, and a shimmering, metallic sound that can hint at Stan Getz, John Coltrane or Charles Lloyd. That playing is strongly foregrounded here, with Miller backed by the sturdy rhythm team of bassist Fraser Hollins and drummer Greg Ritchie. Geoffrey Keezer, though, provides far more than solid support. He’s an explosive, virtuoso pianist — his solos sometimes burst into two-handed inventions — who matches Miller’s playful precision at very fast tempos, as on the brief Step into My Office.

03_trio_deromeAnother Montreal reed player, Jean Derome is best known for more experimental projects, but his explorations of jazz traditions are imbued with both passion and joy. Trio Derome Guilbeault Tanguay with bassist Normand Guilbeault and drummer Pierre Tanguay is a stripped-down machine for maximum propulsion. On Danse a l’Anvers (Ambience Magnétiques AM 205 CD) they mix Derome originals with a series of tunes by iconic jazz figures — among them Duke Ellington and Roland Kirk. Derome is fluently brilliant everywhere here, whether he’s playing funky baritone saxophone on his own Half-way House, flying brilliantly on flute and alto respectively on Eric Dolphy’s demanding 17 West and Straight Up and Down, or singing enthusiastically on Billy Strayhorn’s I’m Checkin’ Out, Goom-Bye. Veterans of this minimalist format, Guilbeault and Tanguay are forceful, inventive presences, creating waves of energy as well as distinguished solos.

04_roland_hunterRecently emerging on the vigorous Latin jazz scene in Toronto’s West-end, Roland Hunter is a guitarist of taste and rhythmic acumen. On Toronteros ( he immediately invokes the great Jim Hall, with whom he’s studied, showing something of the same warm sound, harmonic insight and melodic reserve. It’s a spare style that dances readily over Latin rhythms. You catch the effect especially in the truncated phrases and use of harmonics on the title track, while Hunter’s melodic invention shines on Wayne Shorter’s Infant Eyes. Pianist Ali Berkok is a consistent complement, soloing as well with aplomb, while bassist Paco Luviano, drummer Mario Allende and conguero Jalidan Ruiz create a dense polyrhythmic foundation. While it’s often a relief to hear a CD that settles for the old 40-minute LP length, Toronteros presses the virtue of brevity, coming in at a shade under 30 minutes.

05_snow_umbrellasGuitarist Avi Granite, originally from Toronto, has been resident in New York since 2009, becoming a significant member of the intensely creative current Brooklyn scene. His group Avi Granite’s Verse is heard to fine effect on Snow Umbrellas (Pet Mantis Records PMR008), with Granite’s compositions ranging from song-like effusion to knotty kernels of possibility. The group — trumpeter Ralph Alessi, bassist Jerry Devore and drummer Owen Howard — has a distinct personality, a transparency in which bass and drums are as prominent in the mix as guitar and trumpet, and there’s a sense of group dialogue around rhythm, a constant weave of ricocheting short phrases. It’s a genuinely contemporary sound, moving from pensive introspection to moments of wonder, whether it’s Granite’s glassy, sparkling lines bubbling up through the mix or Alessi’s sudden spears of sonic colour.

06_craig_pedersenOttawa trumpeter Craig Pedersen openly acknowledges the inspirations for his quartet, mentioning John Zorn, the AACM, Ornette Coleman and Duke Ellington. Listening to Days Like Today (www.craig­, I’d opt for the original Coleman group, Pedersen’s band of trumpet, alto saxophone, bass and drums favouring expressive intensity and strong rhythms. The parallel is clearest on pieces like Little Bird, which sways to a Tex-Mex rhythm, but there’s more to Pedersen than just influences. The Baron (an allusion to Charles Mingus?) has a muted trumpet sound that harkens all the way back to the 1920s, while Points from Centre is a blast of overblown trumpet and drum thrashing that dramatically pushes the envelope. They’re all part of Pedersen’s methodological spectrum. The group empathy and first-rate performances by saxophonist Linsey Wellman, bassist Joel Kerr and drummer Mike Essoudry testify to the quality of the Ottawa free-jazz community.

Solo playing has always been the make-or-break yardstick for pianists of any genre. That’s solo playing not playing solo, an important distinction which differentiates between exhibiting showy breaks and having an overall musical plan for the mini-orchestra that is at his or her fingertips. The solo challenge is more pronounced for improvisers since even if they’re interpreting compositions, originality is the paramount concern. These challenges don’t prevent pianists from trying their hands at solo sessions. But it’s instructive to note that the memorable ones, such as the piano dates here by an American, a Canadian, a Catalan and a Russian, use different strategies to attain matchless quality.

01_agusti_fernandezAgustí Fernández’s El laberint de la memòria (Mbari Musica MBARI 04 www.mbari­ is the closest to what many expect from a solo recital. That’s because the Barcelona-based pianist, best-known for his improvisational work with experimenters such as bassist Barry Guy, based the 14 ruminations which make up this program on 20th century Spanish so-called classical music. The originality results because Fernández doesn’t play any of that music but instead offers interpretations birthed from careful, repeated listening to many of those compositions. Fernández’s magisterial elucidations include such chamber music staples as subtle dynamic shifts and exposing waterfalls of carefully positioned notes, but he isn’t limited to flourishes. A kinetic piece such as Catedral for instance may have metronomic theme elaboration, but his touch is such that soundboard echoes continue to ring long after syncopated octaves flash and flow. More moderated tunes such as Tonada which melodically echo both Hatikvah and Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child use both strains to never slip into bathos while sustaining a delicate interface. Balanced precisely, L’esmoldor not only proffers a baroque-like series of gentle key strokes, but contrasts them with kalimba-like string strokes. Also for every bouncing theme exposition or instance of breezy swing, Fernández brings a tougher stance to other tracks — or as contrast on the same ones. For instance his measured, mandolin-like strums on unwound treble strings during Pluja Sorda are coupled with repeated key slaps, with the narrative becoming more staccato as sympathetic rattles and rumbles move past the strings and soundboard and begin reflecting the timbres from key-frame wood.

02_kris_davisAnother sophisticated piano explorer is Calgary-born Kris Davis, whose musical studies in Toronto led to a New York career working with the likes of saxophonist Tony Malaby. On Aeriol Piano (Clean Feed CF 233 CD she delves into the instrument which can simultaneously express the qualities of a harp and percussion. She can do so at near-warp speed as she demonstrates on Good Citizen where high-frequency glissandi skip and slither across the keyboard until dynamic tremolos give way to hesitant plinks that could be recasting Chopsticks. She also plays at moderate tempos as on A Different Kind of Sleep, where tones unroll with taffy pull-like slowness as lower-pitched harmonies sympathetically ring. Mallet-teased strings dominate the exposition of Saturn Returns, working up to a broken-octave confrontation among internal string pops, wooden exterior slaps and stopped keyboard pulses. Her technique isn’t all reductionist though as she demonstrates on the first track which backs away from repeated flourishes and affiliated note exaggerations to reveal a balladic recasting of All the Things You Are.

03_denman_maroneyFernández’s and Davis’ under-the-hood, speaking-length explorations are taken to a logical extreme on Double Zero (Porter Records PRCD-4063 Inspired equally by the music of Conlon Nancarrow, Ornette Coleman, Henry Cowell and Thelonious Monk, New York state resident Denman Maroney uses temporal harmony on what he calls a “hyperpiano” to produce a keyboard program in several tempos at once. The instrument’s strings are plucked, slapped and bowed after being prepared with copper bars, steel cylinders, Tibetan prayer bowls and rubber blocks. From the first literal discord heard on this nine-part suite, the crackling friction exposed insinuates harpsichord and Celtic harp quivers, as well as kalimba and guzheng reverberations plus suggestions of a metal saw. Still his subtle keyboard phrasing on tracks such as Double Zero Part II confirms that it’s a piano which is the major sound source. This program reaches its climax on Double Zero Part VI where Maroney`s arpeggio-rich continuum that’s almost impressionistic in its exposition unfolds alongside low-pitched, tremolo blows on the prepared strings abrasive enough to sound partials and extensions as well as root tones, involving the back frame, bottom board and capotes bar as much as the speaking length. Finally a series of sweeping glissandi are backed by cymbal-like reverberations for the finale. Elsewhere his staccato touch implies a duet between a portable keyboard and an all-metal double bass, although there are still enough cascades and pitch-sliding polytones audible that the pianistic balance is never subsumed by friction-laden clips or excited string patterns.

04_simon_nabatovA disparate but even more demanding approach to solo playing is displayed brilliantly on Spinning Songs of Herbie Nichols (Leo Records CD LR 632 Unaccompanied and only using the instrument’s accepted range and properties, Simon Nabatov creates original takes on eight compositions by under-appreciated American pianist/composer Herbie Nichols (1919-1963). Although the scholarly, sporadically-recorded Nichols was Bronx born of Trinidadian parents and never lived anywhere but New York, Nabatov’s position as an outsider allows him to bring more than technical skills to a rethink of Nichols’ tunes. Russian-born and educated, Nabatov lived in New York for a decade and now resides in Köln. Closer to the European tradition than the composer, who admired Prokofiev, Nabatov’s approach often slows down the originals, introducing his own harmonic language to the late composer’s running chords and subtle swing. Hear this on a stately elaboration of The Third World. Persuasively elaborating Nichols’ polyphony with hard syncopation and popping stops, the pianist’s take is both chromatic and creative. Similarly his jocular version of Terpsichore contains enough showy glissandi to advance the juddering melody in different tempos, while the sprinkling of staccato pumps overlaid with harsh passing chords creates a recurring syncopation that builds excitement like the repeated coda on Count Basie’s April in Paris. The most profound example of the ingenuity implicit in Nichols’ writing and Nabatov’s playing occurs with Blue Chopsticks. Pushing the composer’s kinetic variant of the amateur pianist’s hoary chestnut even further out, Nabatov never loses the groove. Yet with staccato extrusions and discursive glissandi he’s able to simultaneously reflect the original line, Nichols’ rearrangement and his own variation on the theme.

Judging by these CDs, and how different each sounds, there appears to be as many original methods to treat solo piano playing as there are piano keys and strings.

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