06 jazz 01 tranquilityTranquility
Neil Swainson; Don Thompson
Cornerstone Records CRST CD 141 (cornerstonerecordsinc.com)

Recorded October 3 and 4, 2012 at Inception Sound Studios, Toronto, here is another gem from Cornerstone Records and producer Barry Elmes, with two musicians who blend beautifully together in that most intimate of musical settings, the duo. Neil Swainson has a very personal sound and melodic quality to his bass playing and listening to Don Thompson’s piano there is a rippling liquid quality that makes me think at times of a flowing stream.

The program begins with a unison statement of the Charlie Parker theme Quasimodo based on, if my hunch is correct, Embraceable You. The rest of the CD consists of compositions written by some of the finest musicians and composers, ranging from Henry Mancini’s Mr. Lucky to Time Remembered by Bill Evans via Never Let Me Go by Ray Evans and Jay Livingston and an original, Tranquil, by Swainson. 

There is also a waltz, something that I like to find on any album. There is something about 3/4 tempo which gives a natural swing to the music and this one, Everybody’s Song But My Own by Kenny Wheeler is no exception. This is music played at the highest level by two masters of their art.

There is a liner note contributed by the late Jim Hall and I shall borrow a phrase from what he wrote – “Lovely music played beautifully by two fantastic musicians…” ’Nuff said.

06 jazz 02 griffith hiltzThis Is What You Get…
Griffith Hiltz Trio
Independent (ghtrio.com)

In complete contrast to the Swainson/Thompson CD we have a much more extroverted offering from this group – excellent musicianship, obvious empathy and a wide range of influences with hints of Celtic, Norse and Eastern regions as well as a tip of the hat to R&B and Ornette Coleman, all of it with a strong melodic content.

Reed-player Johnny Griffith is a very accomplished musician and one of my favourite tracks is The Rainbow Connection which features him on bass clarinet. It is pensive and beautifully haunting including the guitar solo from Nathan Hiltz. Other highlights for me include the quirky Strawman and Steppin’ Out.

As a group all three have an obvious shared pleasure in their music and a cohesiveness in which they become greater than the sum of the parts. I feel somewhat remiss in singling out Hiltz and Griffith because drummer Sly Juhas is a major factor in the success of this group’s music and the feeling of unity.

If you are looking for a conventional jazz recording this isn’t it – but if you are willing to open your ears to something a little different and innovative I would recommend This Is What You Get… You might just like what you do get.

06 jazz 03 paul bleyPaul Bley (Complete Black Saint and Soul Note recordings)
Paul Bley
Black Saint; Soul Note BXS 1027

If one is asked to name the most popular or famous Canadian jazz performers, certain names trip readily to the tongue, likely Diana Krall and Oscar Peterson. If asked to name the most creative or influential, it’s almost as easy, likely the Montreal-born pianist Paul Bley or Toronto-born trumpeter Kenny Wheeler. Since his recording debut as a leader over 60 years ago with modernist giants Charles Mingus on bass and Art Blakey on drums, Bley has worked near the vanguard of jazz, crafting a distinctively minimalist yet freely lyrical solo style, leading a series of highly interactive bands from trios to quintets, developing new idioms with legendary figures like Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins and Jimmy Giuffre, and influencing pianists like Keith Jarrett and Brad Mehldau.

Much of Bley’s creative range and some of his key partnerships are apparent in this 10-CD set that collects his work for the Italian Soul Note label between 1983 and 1994. His special creativity as a soloist is apparent in Tango Palace, including his deft reimagining of tango and barrelhouse. His willingness to map out a new music with fresh partners is apparent in the duets of Sonor with Toronto percussionist George Cross McDonald or those of Not To Be a Star with saxophonist Keshavan Maslak. He seems just as happy, though, getting together with long term associates. The 1993 Conversation with a Goose was the last recorded meeting of the trio with clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre and bassist Steve Swallow that first played together in 1961 and whose understated style of closely interactive, free improvisation is still finding new adherents.

There are a couple of propulsive, harder-edged New York quartets with guitarists – Hot with John Scofield and Live at Sweet Basil with John Abercrombie – while Bley may reach furthest on Chaos, an aggressive program of free improvisation with Italian bassist Furio di Castri and English percussionist Tony Oxley. The best moments, though, seem to come with the longest standing associations, with musicians who share Bley’s profound sense of sound and duration: the luminous trio of Memoirs, with bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Paul Motian, and Mindset with bassist Gary Peacock, a sublime exchange of ideas that seems continuous with the studio’s resonance.

06 jazz 04 laycockcd003The Laycock Duos
Christian Asplund
Comprovise Records 20/304 christianasplund.me

High quality souvenirs of a unique Improviser Residencies program at Utah’s Brigham Young University, the five performances on this CD not only demonstrate the creativity of accomplished international players, but also the clever interaction of each with pianist/violist Christian Asplund. A native of Kingston, Ontario Asplund has taught at BYU since 2002.

Although there’s conceptual rapprochement between Asplund and instrumentalists such as clarinetist Bill Smith and trombonist Stuart Dempster whose expertise is more on the new music side of the continuum, the less stiff and more sympathetic pieces here involve full-time committed improvisers. Lengthier than any of the other tracks at nearly 20½ minutes, The Secret Substance finds Asplund using extended techniques to complete British tenor saxophonist John Butcher’s staccato-to-mellow output. Strummed piano keys meld with continuously breathed timbres at some points; as do sprawling, sul ponticello fiddle slices with reed tongue slaps at others. The end results produce dual resonations that widen the dynamic range as they meld.

Even more closely bonded are Asplund’s viola strategies alongside Montreal-based violinist Malcolm Goldstein’s long-honed and novel string skills. Astoundingly able to suggest the depth of intertwined communication at the same time as their horsehair-shredding string bounces produce jagged and nervy emphasized lines, the two eventually reach a harmonized dual climax.

With an appeal to listeners of any stripe who appreciate well-played, brainy improvisations, The Laycock Duos from Provo, Utah proves once again that unprecedented adventurous sounds can appear from unexpected locations.



The large jazz ensemble is a special passion, one that has long outlived the mass popularity and economic rewards enjoyed by the big bands of the swing era. It speaks of an individual composer’s need for a larger canvas for his vision, but it also speaks of community and the special pleasure of playing in a section, many musicians regularly participating in rehearsal bands without enjoying the soloist’s spotlight or significant financial rewards. The now-formalized contrast of a single improviser playing against a harmonized section recalls the essential tensions that arose when early jazz musicians were first integrated into more formal bands. While composers pursued a synthesis of jazz and even classical elements, linking the formal and the vernacular, some soloists discovered the special freedom of improvising against an excess of form.

broomer 01 downes in the currentMike Downes has repeatedly demonstrated the harmonic shading and surprising voicings he can draw from a trio or quintet, so there’s little surprise that he can do much more when he has greater resources. On In the Current (Addo AJR 019 addorecords.com), the bassist/composer leads an 11-piece band that can recall the orchestrations of other Canadian jazz composers like Phil Nimmons and Gordon Delamont. It’s a band constructed for voicings: the three woodwind players play a total of 13 different instruments while the four brass players deploy registers from trumpet to tuba with trombone and assorted horns (even a descant horn) in between. That spread of voices also suggests the Miles Davis Nonet and its alumni projects, like the Gerry Mulligan Concert Jazz Band and the Gil Evans Orchestra. While Evans (a Canadian composer who left in infancy) enjoyed the anagram Svengali, Downes pays special tribute, managing an anagram for Evan’s birth name, turning Ian Ernest Gilmore Green into Re-emerging Linear Tones, the middle movement of his title suite. Balancing Downes’ subtle abstraction, tenor saxophonist Kelly Jefferson brings a contrarian fire to his solo spots. Concert note: Mike Downes launches In the Current at Gallery 345 on February 8.

broomer 02 uoft 12Many of the same sources might be cited as inspirations for the University of Toronto 12TET, the student ensemble heard on Rebirth (uoftjazz.ca). Directed by Terry Promane, the band plays a repertoire that mixes works by very advanced students as well as well-known professionals like Promane and New York tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin, who provides the insistently swinging Claire. Perhaps the most striking work here is pianist Noam Lemish’s Rebirth, a work of continuous development that serves as the springboard for a chain of quietly impassioned solos that include trumpeter Tara Kannangara, alto saxophonist Matt Woroshyl, tenor saxophonist Landen Viera (the band’s stand-out soloist) and Lemish himself. Along the way there’s a stunning passage of cascading collective improvisation that’s as admirable for its restraint as for its sense of liberation.

broomer 03 jazz labMontreal’s collective Jazzlab Orchestra was founded in 2003 as a venue to explore the expanded orchestral colours available with just a few more horns. The group celebrated its tenth anniversary with pianist John Roney’s project World Colors (Effendi FND129 effendirecords.com), the commemoration of his own world travels. Roney makes the most of the resources available, from his comic invocation of Saskatchewan in The Range to the suggestions of mystery and majesty in Agadir, his invocation of the Middle East. While his compositions can be as simple and unaffected as the arpeggios of the opening Over Yonder, Roney brings great emotional resource to Anatevka, inspired by the persecution of Ashkenazy Jews. Throughout, the Jazzlab Orchestra mirrors and expands Roney’s visions, with powerful solos from trumpeter Eric Hove and saxophonist Samuel Blais among others.  

broomer 04 mike fieldWhile his group rarely reaches beyond a quintet, Mike Field is another musician who colours his mainstream modern approach with touches from other music. On Rush Mode (MFJCD 1301 mikefieldjazz.com), the Toronto-based trumpeter leads a quintet that’s set squarely in the hard-bop mode, but with a lyrical emphasis that comes consistently to the fore. Field shares the front-line with tenor saxophonist Paul Metcalfe, and there’s clearly a special musical kinship, whether it’s in the punchy, unison theme statements (à la the Jazz Messengers) or the ease with which they complement one another’s lines, Metcalfe’s soulful bluster a foil to Field’s coiling, clarion cool (heard to best effect on the aptly titled Intersection). They receive resilient support from pianist Teri Parker, bassist Carlie Howell and drummer Dave Chan. There are also effective guest spots from the veteran pianist Mark Eisenman, whose hard bop credentials are evident in Red Eye Blues, and acoustic guitarist Kevin Laliberte, who bring a certain sense of flamenco drama to the title track. Sophia Perlman graces The Last of the Summer Days with a vocal that suggests a spotlight through smoke and fog.

broomer 05 macdonald symmetryThe veteran Toronto saxophonist Kirk MacDonald leads a quintet without any special trimmings on Symmetry (Addo AJR018 addorecords.com), exploring sometimes dense chordal extensions and scalar overlays (his solo on Mackrel’s Groove aspires to Coltrane-level convolution) on a series of his compositions that otherwise move effortlessly on tranquil modal harmonies and a rhythm section that seems to dance and float at once, anchored by the resonant tone and optimum note selection of bassist Neil Swainson, the gently propulsive drumming of Dennis Mackrel and the limpid, airy chording of pianist Brian Dickinson. Adding special dimension to the music is Tom Harrell, whose trumpet and flugelhorn playing is consistently inspired and inspiring, nowhere more so than on the silky ballad Eleven.   


As the strictures of advanced contemporary music continue to loosen, more improvisers are taking advantage of the freedom to experiment. A parallel outgrowth is the number of players of almost any instrument willing to nakedly expose their skills in all solo sessions. Commonplace doesn’t mean accomplished however. Still the best dates, such as the CDs cited here, offer original perspectives on the sounds of an individual instrument.

waxman 01 lauzierMontreal’s Philippe Lauzier used three studios to record the 12 tracks which make up Transparence (Schraum 18 schraum.de), as well as coming up with different strategies for different instruments. Heard on bass and half-bass [sic] clarinet, alto and soprano saxophones plus motorized bells, he uses amplification, feedback and multitracking to express his unique ideas. Geyser for instance reimagines the bass clarinet as hollow tube and percussion, swallowing and expelling pure air as he depresses the keys. Au-dessus on the other hand magnifies the soprano saxophone’s usually ethereal qualities into overlapping vibrations, with the next commencing before the previous one has died away. In contrast, alto saxophone feedback on L’object trouvé literally does as defined, managing to direct the echoes back into the horn’s body tube while making each finger motion and breath transparent. The audacity of Lauzier’s skill is most clearly delineated on En-dessous. Here the multitracking of four bass clarinets creates more variety among the timbres he exhales, but the intertwined and affiliated trills produced relate without question to the multiphonics he invented for a single horn.

waxman 02 dragonnatWith only three valves instead of many keys, the trumpet is more difficult to put into a solo setting. But Natsuki Tamura does so memorably on Dragon Nat (Libra Records 101-032 librarecords.com). During the course of eight instant compositions he manages to probe the farthest reaches of the trumpet’s range while subtly maintaining a pleasing, near-lyrical continuum. Occasionally sounding as if he’s turning the instrument inside out for maximum metallic vibrations, he also employs half-valve effects and mouthpiece osculations. Rubato and agitated, his glissandi are often further segmented as they move from growling frog-like ribbits to hummingbird crying flimsiness. Most characteristic of the tracks is the appropriately named Dialogue where he vocalizes Daffy Duck-like nonsense syllables and infant cries and shakes bells for auxiliary colours. Before a sodden, open-horn ending that relates to the track’s folksy head, he sneaks in a reference to Monk’s Dream. Elsewhere In Berlin, In September demonstrates Tamura’s perfect control as the narrative becomes successively louder, softer, faster and slower without losing its thematic thread. Within, its delicate story telling references abound, not only to muted mid-1950s Miles Davis-like timbres but to the Burt Bacharach melody for A House Is Not a Home.

waxman 03 mcpheeWhile solo sessions have multiplied over the past few years, one person who was experimenting with the singular form as long ago as 1976 is multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee. Sonic Elements (Clean Feed CF278 CD cleanfeed-records.com) is his most recent set in that genre. Demonstrating the breadth of his skill, he divides this 41-minute live set in half, improvising on pocket trumpet in honour of Don Cherry at the beginning, and concluding with a salute to Ornette Coleman on alto saxophone. That said McPhee doesn’t replicate any Coleman or Cherry licks during the performance. Instead he creates a distinctive sound picture of each individual. With Wind-Water McPhee’s Cherry snapshot is built up from plain air pops, watery growls and spiralling grace notes. When the output swerves into tonality a mellow melody appears only to be deconstructed with staccato guffaws, sharp whistles and vocal murmurs. An extended final sequence is balanced with vocal cries and whispers that help illuminate the dedicatee’s heartfelt struggle for peace. Meanwhile, if anything Earth/Fire-Old Eyes proves that Coleman’s purported wild experimentation is based on the bedrock of jazz: blues and work songs. Using maximum emotionalism and minimal notes here, the saxophonist’s initial tongue slaps and altissimo cries give way to a sequence which includes foot-stomping percussiveness and a theme that could practically be a pre-Emancipation song of celebration. As the countrified line is hardened, tremolo echoes, reminiscent of primitive bagpipe or concertina airs confirm this connection. The climax occurs as sharp, staccato interjections and the composition’s sweet, yearning textures become one and the same.

waxman 04 sommerAnother solo suite of tributes is Dedications (Intakt CD 224 intaktrec.ch), where Günter Baby Sommer uses a collection of drums and percussion instruments to honour his influences and contemporaries. With humour, sensitivity, cleverness and spoken passages mostly in English, Sommer displays the skills that enabled him to build an international reputation while living in pre-unification East Germany. He also pulls off the feat of emulating aspects of the other drummers’ styles while staying true to his own. For instance the wood block clip clops and bass drum wallops which characterized the playing of Baby Dodds, from whom he received his nickname, is filtered through modern sensibility on Von Baby zu Baby, as he bends notes alongside a linear motion. Honouring Han Bennink during Harmonisches Gerassel für Han, he adds offbeat rhythms, tuned bell ringing, Eastern-styled beats and a touch of vocalizing without ever losing the basic jazz rhythm. Saluting Art Blakey on Art Goes Art, Sommer tootles an ocarina and a shawm to underline the linkage between Blakey’s proletarian Pittsburgh roots and the East German working class. In between showcasing characteristic Blakey-like press rolls and vamps, Sommer’s lilting humour shines through, especially when he produces a march beat that’s as much Albert Ayler as agit-prop. Selfportrait is a culmination of all this. Weaving a polyrhythmic spell, almost without pause, he exposes African wooden slit drum tones, sophisticated modern jazz on the snares plus laughs, whoops and some German explanation as he confirms his own inclusion in this percussion pantheon.

waxman 05 violinoPicking up a different thread, Italian Emanuele Parrini confirms the solo violin’s viability in his nine-part Viaggio al Centro del Violino (Rudi Records RRJ1015 rudirecords,com), although he cheats afterwards, adding four short melodic duets with violist Paolo Botti. Parrini’s suite is organically organized, flowing from exposition to conclusion and maintaining a continuum while showcasing a case full of extended techniques. After establishing the parameters of the romantically tinged theme with sweeping echoes and dynamic stops, Parrini deliberately sets out to sabotage them on Abstract No. 1, alternating mandolin-like picking with sympathetic four-string emphasis that takes on pastoral qualities by the following track. His improvising contains too many jagged bent notes to be truly folkloric however, and midway through with the bow pressuring four strings simultaneously, the pastoral melancholy of Requiem for L.J. gives way to the rapid dynamism of Black Violin with its spiccato skips, and climaxes with Blues P. No more a standard blues than Parrini is Stephane Grappelli, his dexterity suggests a blues feeling, but with a particularly Italian cast. Scratching his way from the fiddle’s scroll to its tip, the resulting multiphonics are emotional, rhythmic and satisfyingly conclusive.

Viaggio al Centro del Violino translates as Journey to the Center of the Violin in English. The phrase aptly describes how Parrini has exposed the singular musicality of his instrument. Each of these discs does the same in a similar fashion.

broomer 01 drumhellerDrumheller is a Toronto-based quintet, but it turns out visionary, genre-bending music with wit and skill worthy of Amsterdam origins. That openness to play and variety is evident throughout Sometimes Machine (Barnyard Records BR0333 barnyardrecords.com), including guitarist Eric Chenaux’s opening “Alabama UK,” suspended between Latin and New Orleans rhythms; the Ellingtonian richness achieved in drummer Nick Fraser’s “Sketch #8”; and alto saxophonist Brodie West’s “Untitlement,“ which begins with a melody that might have fallen out of the history of minstrelsy. The musicians bring a creative joy and spontaneity to each other’s tunes, constantly finding new dimensions in the dialogue. Chenaux’s weirdly arrhythmic solo on bassist Rob Clutton’s “Parc Lineaire” suggests folklore from another world, while trombonist Doug Tielli combines a bending, quavering line with circular breathing on Fraser’s otherwise sprightly “Sketch #16” in a similarly original way.

broomer 02 lerner live in madridMontreal-born, Toronto-resident pianist Marilyn Lerner has a long-established reputation in jazz, improvised music and klezmer, and a growing international profile that includes a co-operative trio with New York-based bassist Ken Filiano and drummer Lou Grassi. Their latest release is Live in Madrid (Cadence Jazz Records CJR 1247 cadencejazzrecords.com). It’s entirely improvised, with the drive of great free jazz, as alive with light and shadow as Lerner’s jacket photo of Madrid, with its mysterious depths, narrow, curving streets and bristling antennae. The concert brims with passion and energy: the dense counterpoint of “Intentions Woven”; the rich shifting textures of the 34-minute “Elegia por A.J.C.;” from its opening chords strummed on the piano strings to the final unaccompanied keyboard tremolos; and the spare luminous tones that open “Ode to Orujo.” Each musician is wholly engaged in this complex, ongoing dialogue, whether it’s Filiano’s pulsing bass lines and upper register arco explorations or Grassi’s thunderous polyrhythms and sometimes playful sound effects.

broomer 03 mike downesWhile Lerner and company work happily without predetermined materials, it’s composition that distinguishes another piano trio led by bassist/composer Mike Downes. On Ripple Effect (Addo Records AJR017 addorecords.com), Downes presents subtle, compelling pieces that develop concentrated, evocative moods through slightly evasive melodies and moody harmonies, and his partners here, pianist Robi Botos and drummer Ethan Ardelli, seem inspired to bring every nuance to life. The sole standard included, “I Hear a Rhapsody,” gains a contrasting ostinato that seems to enhance the performance’s free-flowing swing, while Downes’ emotionally direct, profoundly lyrical bass work comes to the fore on “So Maki Sum Se Rodila,” a traditional Macedonian song, and on “Campfire Waltz,” an unaccompanied solo. Guitarist Ted Quinlan’s guest appearance on the title track is a highlight, while the trio achieves a welling luminosity on “Two Sides of a Coin.”

broomer 04 christine jensenComposer and saxophonist Christine Jensen presents her works in a far larger forum: her Jazz Orchestra sometimes stretches to over 20 players on Habitat (Justin Time JTR-8583-2 justin-time.com), taking in many of Montreal’s finest musicians. These are ambitious works, in theme and duration as well as scale: “Tumbledown,” inspired by the 2010 Port-au-Prince earthquake, takes its reflective tone from happier early visits, while the extended “Nishiyuu” commemorates the 1500-kilometre trek of six Cree youths to protest living conditions for First Nations people. Whether it’s the movement of history, the earth, wind, traffic or a Peruvian rhythm that inspires her, there’s grandeur and nobility in Jensen’s writing, enhanced here by the lustre of up to a dozen brass and outstanding soloists in trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, trombonist Jean-Nicolas Trottier and saxophonists Joel Miller, Chet Doxas and Samuel Blais.

broomer 05 bill mcbirnieThe flute and the Hammond B-3 organ entered jazz around the same time, back in the 1950s, but they entered from different directions — the flute from West coast cool and Latin music, the organ from soul and funk. The instruments are heard together throughout flute player Bill McBirnie’s Find Your Place (Extreme Flute EF06 extremeflute.com), with Bernie Senensky at the Hammond keyboard and drummer Anthony Michelli completing the trio. While most jazz flute players have been doubling saxophonists, McBirnie is a rarity, a musician whose dedication to the flute has shaped his musical voice. It’s apparent throughout the CD, with McBirnie demonstrating the fluent lines, subtle rhythmic inflections and timbral shifts that you’re more apt to hear on a saxophone. The repertoire mixes hard bop, bossa nova, Latin rhythms and gospel, even going as far afield as the early jazz classic “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You” and the Beatles’ “Oh! Darling.” It’s all delivered with infectious swing and a cheerful effervescence. 

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