11 Dennis KwokWindward Bound
Dennis Kwok Jazz Orchestra
Independent (denniskwok.ca)

Windward Bound is an elegant album of program music written for a 19-piece jazz orchestra. Thematically, it is based on multi-instrumentalist/composer Dennis Kwok’s teenage years spent sailing on Lake Ontario and its six movements (The CallingReady, Aye, Ready; A Flat Boat is a Fast Boat; The TempestElegy and Red, Right, Returning) chronicle different elements of journeys over water. Kwok was only 22 years old when he wrote the music and assembled the excellent group of players, and one can feel his excitement about combining two of his consuming interests in this project. 

The first two sections are quite evocative: The Calling begins with the musicians blowing through their wind instruments behind a beautiful oboe solo which conjures the idyllic stasis of the beach. Ready, Aye, Ready opens with a faster tempo and a repeated piano riff, then flute and bass enter and it builds into the full band which generates the excitement of setting out to sea (or lake) on an adventure.

The album notes state the group is comprised of “musicians under 35 from the southern Ontario region” and that the music is “dedicated to preserving the big band tradition while staying relevant to our generation.” This is a well-produced album with solid musicianship that fully realizes its engaging premise.

13 Laila BialiOut of Dust
Laila Biali
Chronograph Records CR-085 (lailabiali.com)

2019 JUNO Award-winner for Vocal Jazz Album of the Year, stunning singer-songwriter Laila Biali’s latest release is a truly interesting musical journey and, in her own words, a “deeply personal… album” that reflects the roller coaster the last few years have been for her. The record has a clearly positive tone, it’s almost as if you can feel the warm spring sun shining down on you throughout each track. Most of the songs have been composed by Biali herself, with drummer Ben Wittman and her son Joshua Biali-Wittman listed as co-composers on a couple of the tracks. The album includes several renowned musicians such as vocalist Lisa Fischer, drummer Larnell Lewis and bassist Rich Brown, making for a star-studded release overflowing with stellar talent. 

As a groovy starter to the record, Revival features a bass riff by Brown that goes straight to the soul of the listener, unique chord progressions and a catchy chorus that quickly have you singing along. Wendy’s Song is a touching tribute to a friend of Biali’s, Wendy Nelles and is a song that could be considered among the most positive and uplifting on the entire record. The album closes with Take the Day Off, the track co-composed by Biali’s son, and has a certain childlike element of wonder to it, amplified by the backing vocals and choice of instruments. A fitting piece to close out the musical journey, as it leaves you with a positive outlook to the world and a curiosity to explore and engage more with your surroundings and loved ones.

14 DuchessDuchess – Live at Jazz Standard
Duchess Trio (Amy Cervini; Hilary Gardner; Melissa Stylianou
Anzic Records ANZ-0066 (duchesstrio.com)

Quick! Think of the Boswell Sisters, the Andrews Sisters and the Barry Sisters, and what immediately comes to mind? Some jazzy, Swing Era singing, tight harmonies, impressive vocal gymnastics and a rollicking good time. Well, fast forward from the 1930s and 40s to 2020, and you’ve got Duchess, a trio of talented, New York-based, sisters-in-song, Amy Cervini, Hilary Gardner and Melissa Stylianou, deftly channelling the infectious (we are in pandemic times, after all) energy of those vintage, vocal groups, while adding their own modern and comedic spin to the mix, in their latest release, recorded live at one of New York City’s most beloved jazz joints, Jazz Standard.

Duchess has been singing and swinging together since 2013. And it appears there’s been a love affair going on between the trio and Jazz Standard for about as long (if not longer). Their first CD was released there in 2015, and according to the Duchess website, an eponymous cocktail was created especially for them by the venue’s master mixologist. That’s some serious respect!

Respect must also be given to the superb quartet performing with the trio: Michael Cabe, piano; Jesse Lewis, guitar; Matt Aronoff, bass; Jared Schonig, drums.

With this live album, you can “hear” the women smiling as they perform such nuggets as Heebie Jeebies, Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen and Everybody Loves My Baby before a very appreciative audience. Live at Jazz Standard is a fun and fabulous romp, sure to make you smile, too!

15 Aubrey Johnson Album CoverUnraveled
Aubrey Johnson
Outside In Music OiM 2002 (aubreyjohnsonmusic.com)

Wisconsin-born, New York-based vocalist Aubrey Johnson makes her solo debut with Unraveled, a ten-song collection that is an equal testament to her formidable skills and artistry as a bandleader, composer, arranger, storyteller and world-class singer. Just ten years into her professional music career, Johnson has garnered multiple awards and has worked with an array of stellar musicians including Lyle Mays, Bobby McFerrin and Fred Hersch. It is her singular, captivating vision that is on display here though, in the company of her phenomenal working group: pianist Chris Ziemba, bassist Matt Aronoff, drummer Jeremy Noller, along with Michael Sachs on alto sax and bass clarinet. Violinist Tomoko Omura and accordionist Vitor Gonçalves also contribute beautifully to several songs.

The title track, an outstanding Johnson original with heartfelt, thought-provoking lyrics, is a bold statement about facing and overcoming depression. There is also a refreshing take on The Peacocks (lyrics by Norma Winstone), and the inclusion of Jobim’s Dindi is pure pleasure, with lovely accordion/voice unison passages. Egberto Gismonti’s Karate is a fitting upbeat closer, featuring stunning piano, vocal and accordion solos, along with playful ensemble interplay, all imbued with a positive energy and inherent lyricism. Special mention also goes to Omura for her magnificent piece, Voice Is Magic, and to Steve Rodby for his sparkling production work.

There is so much to recommend here. One could not ask for a better debut.

A well-known improviser once stated that “My roots are in my record collection” and most serious fans cite seminal discs that helped them define their commitment to favoured music. That’s why the reissuing of musical classics is so important, especially with improvised music so related to in-the-moment communication. Not only does listening to these innovative discs confirm the fond memories of those who heard them when first issued, but they also provide valuable insights for those hearing them for the first time.

01 Albert AyersFor instance, Albert Ayler Quartets 1964 Spirits to Ghosts Revisited (ezz-thetics 1101 hathut.com) and Sun Ra Arkestra’s Heliocentric Worlds 1 & 2 Revisited (ezz-thetics 1103 hathut.com) are newly remastered versions of discs that helped define the free jazz revolution of the mid-1960s. Moreover the sets are each made up of two LPs initially issued on ESP-Disk. Fifty-six years on, tenor saxophonist Ayler’s basic melodies swirled out in rasping, ragged blasts can still be upsetting when first heard. Especially with tunes that begin with sonic excess and climb upwards from there, the saxophonist seems to be repeatedly thrashing out similar elementary themes over and over. Yet these versions of some of Ayler’s best-known tunes are unique in that his foil in both cases is a trumpeter, the little-known Norman Howard on the first four tracks and Don Cherry, famous for his association with Ornette Coleman, on the rest. With Howard’s flighty obbligatos decisively contrasting with Ayler’s wide snarls, they pair perfectly. Sunny Murray’s drum smacks make Holy Holy and Witches and Devils the standout tracks, especially during those times when the saxophonist’s Ur-R&B screams are actually pitched higher than the trumpeter’s clarion growls. Always ready to default into favourite motifs, Ayler works in the melody from Ghosts, his best-known composition, during the first track, and following a thumping bass solo, even layers a mellow turn into his solo on the second. Still, the performances were conventional enough to include recapped heads at the end of each tune. Cherry, on the other hand, brings advanced harmonies to his six tunes, with his soaring brassiness contrasting Ayler’s rugged slurs on the first titled version of Ghosts. At the same time, while the trumpeter sticks to fluttering song-like variations, Ayler uses glossolalia and split tones to deconstruct the tune still further, aided by plucks deviations and col legno pops from bassist Gary Peacock. This contradiction is also obvious on Mothers, the closest to a ballad track in this set. While bowed bass backs Cherry adding operatic highs to his otherwise moderato solo, buzzing strings fill in the spaces alongside Ayler’s sardonic peeps and squeaky altissimo shakes when he takes over the lead. As well, the concluding Children may start off stately and neutral, but after Murray’s door-knocking smacks and echoing double bass thumps quicken the rhythm, both horn men create an explosion of brassy brays and skyrocketing saxophone slurs.

02 SunRaAyler drowned himself at 34 in 1970, after only eight years of recording, but Sun Ra, who claimed to have been born on the planet Saturn, passed from this planet in 1993 at probably 80 earth years. However, he recorded with various versions of his Arkestra from 1956 on, and with the band still functioning today innumerable discs are available. Heliocentric Worlds from 1965 is particularly noteworthy though, because these were the first LPs massively distributed and which firmly situated Ra in the centre of the improvisational avant-garde. Earlier and later recordings subsequently proved that these exploratory excursions were just one part of his burgeoning oeuvre though. Listening to the suite that takes up the first seven tracks, then and now easily refutes those who claimed the New Thing was no more than random, inchoate noise. Ra’s complex program is as adroitly orchestrated as any symphony with meticulous shading and balance among bass clarinet slurs, piccolo trills, multiple percussion bangs and split-tone showdowns between trumpet and piccolo and sliding alto saxophone and plunger trombone. Massed explosions from the five woodwind players are often followed by col legno emphasis from bassist Ronnie Boykins. When Ra finally asserts himself on Other Worlds, his witty alternation between roadhouse-style piano exuberance and electronic space sizzles underlines the composition’s duality. Jimhmi Johnson’s tympani resonations match the higher-pitched brass throughout, at the same time as five other musicians add clanking claves and small percussion fillips alongside Ra’s relaxed comping and Boykins’ ambulating line. If the penultimate Nebulae highlights free-form blowing from saxophonists, then the concluding Dancing in the Sun could be a Swing Era trope with vamping section work pushed ahead by John Gilmore’s tenor saxophone, Marshall Allen’s alto and a showy Cozy Cole-like drum solo from Johnson. This musical intricacy is confirmed on the subsequent tracks that were Heliocentric Worlds 2. With the Arkestra shrunk to an octet, arrangements emphasize ear worms such as Allen’s piccolo shrills, what sounds like electrified saxophone runs, and the constant leitmotif of Ra’s tuned bongos. Cosmic Chaos confirms its post-modernism as Boykins’ rhythmic swing contrasts with Allen’s multiphonic reed smears, and Robert Cummings’ bass clarinet puffs are as prominent as heraldic calls from trumpeter Walter Miller. Meanwhile Ra’s percussive output is as much Albert Ammons as Cecil Taylor. Finally, the supplementary percussion complete the composition, with gong resonation and bongo-thwacks. However The Sun Myth, a nearly 18-minute concerto defines Ra’s skills even more. Sonorous and contrapuntal, mournful bowed strings are heard at one point and clashing junkeroo-style percussion at another. After the bagpipe-like multiphonic tremolo created by the four reed players presages the finale, Ra’s piano solo with its echoes of Blue Rondo à la Turk confirms the band’s subtle swing groove.

03 ICPCDIf swing’s the thing, what about the New Acoustic Swing Duo’s sardonically titled eponymous session (Corbett vs Dempsey CD 0066 corbettvsdempsey.com)? With Willem Breuker playing five different woodwinds and Han Bennink a music store’s inventory of percussion instruments, it was the first issue on the ICP label and one of the sessions that confirmed that European improvisers had the same inspirational skills as their North American counterparts. Now New Acoustic Swing Duo is a two-CD set that includes not only the Amsterdam duo’s original 1967 LP, but six newly discovered 1968 live tracks from Essen. Later known for his leadership of the more precise large Kollektief, Breuker (1944-2010) was at his loosest here, squeezing, slurring, shrieking and snarling in free form from all his horns. Bennink, who would soon become a linchpin of the ICP Orchestra, was at his loud ferocious best as well. Constantly in motion, he mixes primordial yelps and cries as he crashes cymbals, beats hand drums, sets snares and toms reverberating, rings bells, smacks and rattles small idiophones and creates undulating tabla drones. The saxophonist puffs out nephritic gut spilling without a real blues line on Singing the Impalpable Blues, moves between squawks and sensitivity on Music for John Tchicai and fires so many broken tones at the percussionist on Mr. M. A. De R. in A. that Bennink’s stentorian responses would enliven an entire street parade. At 21 minutes plus however, the aptly named Gamut is the novella to earlier musical short stories. Working up from overblowing with wrenching vigour, the tenor saxophonist craftily settles on multiphonic slurs and glossolalia to push his ideas, as the drummer pounds along on anything that shakes, Despite snuffling bass clarinet asides at midpoint, Bennink’s relentless bangs and pops bring back altissimo smears, reed bites and sighing flutter tonguing to cement drum bombast and reed explorations into a multi-hued exposition. Interestingly enough, the extended Essen 3 finds Breuker augmenting his reed lines to penny-whistle-like airiness in double motif variation, with the antithesis low-pitched bass clarinet solemnity, while Bennink’s percussion discussion references jazz-swing. Furthermore the fife-and-drum band groove both reach on that track is given more expression on the final Essen 6. As the cacophony of duck-like quacks and air-raid siren shrills from the reedist and drum bangs and slaps give way to a more serene middle section, the concluding bouncy parade sounds find Breuker emphasizing the tongue-in-cheek melody burlesquing he would perfect with the Kollektief, while Bennink’s drum strategy sticks to the jazz affiliations emphasized by the ICP Orchestra.

04 Baroque Jazz TrioOn the other hand Baroque Jazz Trio + Orientasie/Largo (SouffleContinu Records FFLCD057 soufflecontinurecords.com) from 1970, is a session that could only have been created at that time. That’s because the eight selections take on influences from so-called classical and world music, rock and ethnic sounds. Furthermore the members of the Paris-based trio are cellist Jean-Charles Capon, who often plucks his instrument to create guitar-like fills and drummer Philippe Combelle, who spends much of his time on tablas. Since then both have stuck pretty close to the mainstream jazz and instrumental pop music worlds. However the third member is harpsichordist Georges Alexandre, the alias of pianist Georges Rabol, who besides being a notated music recitalist, also composes for ballet, theatre, film, radio and TV. While as with most artifacts of the psychedelic era there are some groovy soundtrack-like suggestions, when Capon’s pseudo lead-guitar stabs, Combelle’s back beat and harpsichord clashes sway together, the references are more towards Led Zeppelin and The Doors and avant-rock freakouts than anything else. Adding tabla interludes and connecting keyboard harmonies, this leaning is most obvious on Delhi Daily and Latin Baroque. However the real demonstrations of the combo’s versatility are Cesar Go Back Home and Largo. The former, a pseudo-blues prodded by cello thumps and harpsichord strums, interpolates a funk beat compete with shuffle rhythms from the drummer. Less slow and dignified than vibrating and swinging Largo is one of the few experiments of this kind that achieves a so-called classical/free-form/rhythmic meld, especially when cello shakes and rolling percussion link up with swift keyboard continuo. 

05 ZenithAlong with these sets there’s another category that involves sessions recorded years ago, but not issued until now. Prominent among them is Zenith (NoBusiness Records NBCD 124 nobusinessrecords.com), a 1977 date featuring a quintet led by multi-instrumentalist Sam Rivers that made no other discs in this configuration. Intense from beginning to end, the one-track, over 53-minute session gives Rivers ample space to display his seesawing style on tenor and soprano saxophones, flute and piano. The uncommon backing band consists of Joe Daley’s tuba lines which often function as a Greek chorus to Rivers’ inventions; the subtle and supple string strategies of bassist Dave Holland; and the boiling tumult provided by not one, but two drummers: Barry Altschul and Charlie Persip. With the bassist’s sympathetic strums framing him, Rivers’ tenor saxophone moves through split tones and glossolalia during the piece’s introductory ebb and flow. Yet, as Daley’s plunger whinnies stunningly contrast with Rivers’ staccato snarls and doits, the sliding narrative picks up additional power from Holland’s walking pumps and hand-clapping drum beats that owe as much to bebop as free jazz. Intricate chording from the bassist with a banjo-like twang, help slow down the pace, which moves to another sequence propelled by Rivers’ low pitched flute modulations, stretching out his passionate storytelling until layered contributions from all five lead to a climax of unmatched intensity. Following heightened applause, Rivers resumes the performance hammering and tinkling tremolo pushes from the piano, followed by supple tongue-stretching slides from Daley, as drum fills and double bass swipes replicate a pseudo-Latin beat. Finally, high-pitched soprano saxophone vibrations, doubled by klaxon-like snarls from the brass player, signal the approaching finale, which despite a detour into a drum dialogue, ends with bass thumps and flutter tongued reed variations that relate back to the initial theme. 

Whether well distributed or formerly a secret shared only by the cognoscenti, each of these free jazz classics deserve the wider appreciation they can now receive. 

01a Rob Clutton TrioCounsel of Primaries
Rob Clutton Trio
SnailBongBong Records
(robclutton.bandcamp.com)

False Ghosts, Minor Fears
See Through 4
All-Set! Editions (all-set.org)

These two Toronto bands have much in common. Each is led by a bassist/composer, Pete Johnston in the case of See Through 4, and they share some key musicians. Rob Clutton’s eponymous trio includes saxophonist Karen Ng and drummer Nick Fraser; so too does the See Through 4, with pianist Marilyn Lerner making it a quartet.  

For many jazz musicians, composition can be a perfunctory task, but Rob Clutton takes it seriously and his groups, like the long-running Cluttertones, are designed for it. His new trio plays jazz as if it were sculpture. Lines are clearly etched, content reduced to bare meaning and intent, with a special structural and emotional clarity. Clutton can reduce a line to a spare series of deeply felt, highly resonant tones, while the group that he has assembled couldn’t be more attuned to his work. It’s immediately evident in the opening Strata, brought into sharp focus by Fraser’s insistent cymbals and Ng’s Morse Code-like monotone. Counsel of Primaries veers toward Caribbean dance, with Ng investing even the briefest phrases with a wealth of emotion. Sterling suggests a kind of dissonant prayer, Clutton’s bowed harmonics coming to the fore amidst Ng’s long tones and Fraser’s gently scraped cymbals. Cloak is less austere, but it too, carries with it a sense of reverie, an engagement with resonance as an active participant, feeding back into the music.

01b See Through4Given their shared personnel, it’s striking just how different the two groups are, their identities intimately connected both to the leaders’ compositional styles and their partners’ insights. Clutton’s minimalism gives way to Pete Johnston’s further extension of Lennie Tristano’s already abstracted linear vision. In a playful manner all his own, though, Johnston’s pieces can provide a series of loose frames for a series of solos. Another Word for Science has pianist Marilyn Lerner begin an unaccompanied solo with a series of witty keyboard asides, with Johnston and Fraser entering tentatively until the three have created a tangle of kinetic lines; Ng uses the free dialogue to explore a distinctive zone of her own, a compound mood that can mingle celebration and lamentation in a single phrase, while Fraser solos over the band’s final extended version of the theme. Battling in Extra Ends employs a stiff punctuation of bass and drums in unison to frame a flowing, balladic Lerner improvisation. The Sidewalks Are Watching begins with an up-tempo boppish theme, but advances through a series of rhythmic displacements that have individual band members occupying distinct temporal dimensions.   

Given how much the two bands have in common, Clutton, Johnston and their gifted associates create two very different worlds.

02 SupermusiqueVoir dans le vent… 
Symon Henry; Ensemble SuperMusique
Ambiances Magnétiques AM251CD (actuellecd.com)

Symon Henry is a visual artist, poet and composer of graphic scores. His Voir dans le vent qui hurle les étoiles rire, et rire (l’un•e sans l’autre) is a hand-drawn 168-page score. The sample drawings in the CD booklet suggest minimalist landscapes as much as the heavens. There are light and heavy lines, some are gently arcing horizontals, others shoot off at sharp angles. In this live recording, the visuals were projected on screen and each of Ensemble SuperMusique’s ten musicians followed the score on individual iPads, with the work’s arranger, Danielle Palardy Roger, conducting.

The work is an immediate surprise, opening with a hive of overlapping, eerie glissandi from instruments that take a while to distinguish, strings and vernacular flutes with touches of a ratcheting bird call. As the 50-minute piece proceeds through its six movements, each develops its own density and sonic language, though frequently employing the shifting glissandi as linear representations. Rencontres adds some gritty scraping noises, and Guillaume Dostaler’s exploratory piano to the mix, while the extended Les nues continuously adds new and shifting textures.

Voir dans le vent… highlights the improvisatory invention and detailed listening of Ensemble SuperMusique, a group founded in 1998. Henry’s work emphasizes a special sectional creativity and interaction from the various woodwinds of Joane Hétu, Jean Derome and Lori Freedman and the strings of Guido Del Fabbro, violin, Rémy Bélanger de Beauport, cello, and Pierre-Yves Martel, viola de gamba and zither.

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