07 Itamar ErezMay Song
Itamar Erez Independent
Independent (itamarerez.bandcamp.com/album/may-song) 

Itamar Erez’s 2019 “pre-pandemic” CD, Mi Alegria (Spanish for “my joy”) was, indeed, a purely joyous, musical celebration. Now, with May Song, conceived and recorded amid the incessant COVID-19 lockdowns, and released in October 2022, we have Erez’s reflective response to those uncertain and unpredictable pandemic times (not that the virus is done with us, just yet). Erez characterizes the project as “emerging from darkness and doubt into lightness and joy.”

May Song is unique among Erez’s recordings, in that unlike his five previous releases, Erez, an Israeli-Canadian, world-class (and globetrotting) guitarist, pianist and composer based in Vancouver, is heard only at the piano. In addition to Erez’s focus on the keyboard, which has evolved over the last three to four years, a more improvisational approach to his music-making is also evident throughout May Song, and immediately apparent on the haunting, improvised intro of the first track, Chant. And thus begins this musical journey out of darkness.

Hourglass is pulsing and polyrhythmic, with a dynamic dialogue between piano and clarinet. Catch Me If You Can feels jaunty, expansive, optimistic, edging towards the light. You and Me, evocative and yearning, maintains a steady, forward-moving momentum with taught piano/bass/drum interplay. The deeply emotional title track is the penultimate stop, offering hopeful resolution.

Outstanding collaborators on this journey are clarinettist François Houle, bassist Jeff Gammon, Kevin Romain on drums and Chris Gestrin guesting on synths. Like Erez himself, May Song is inspired and original.

08 jacob WutzkeShow Yourself
Jacob Wutzke; Lucas Dubovic; Gentiane MG; Levi Dover; Caity Gyorgy
Independent (jacobwutzke.com) 

Show Yourself is an exciting new release from Montreal/Toronto-based drummer Jacob Wutzke. This is Wutzke’s first full-length album as a leader, and it encapsulates all the obligatory energy and excitement of a debut album in a mature and thoughtful package. 

In many ways this recording avoids the traps of being a “drummer album,” but when it does enter that realm its ample exciting musicianship will keep listeners of all persuasions entertained. Another potential snare that this album manages to circumvent is that of lengthiness. There are a mighty 11 tracks on Show Yourself, the longest being over seven minutes in duration, but the overall feeling I have after a complete listen-through is one of pleasant variety rather than longwindedness.  

Right from the starting track How do You Mean?, listeners are treated to music that is straight-ahead without hanging onto overly traditional aesthetics. This lovely contrast is reflected in Wutzke’s personnel choices for the album too, with core band members Lucas Dubovik, Gentiane MG and Levi Dover all finding common ground as a unit. Vocalist Caity Gyorgy makes an appearance on the album’s final track, a contemporary yet swinging version of the jazz standard My Shining Hour. Gyorgy also produced the album, which is a testament to the powerhouse musical and personal relationship she shares with Wutzke. 

To return to my previous “drummer comments,” this album sounds the way many drummers aspire to play: precise, yet organic. Surgical exactitude needs not sacrifice expressiveness, and Show Yourself is a perfect reminder of this. 

09 Liina AllemanoPipe Dream
Lina Allemano Four
Lumo Records LM 2023-14 (linaallemano.bandcamp.com) 

Lina Allemano’s quartet has had the same personnel since 2005 when her musical direction moved to freer climes, with Brodie West on alto saxophone. Since then, it’s served as a vehicle for Allemano’s development as both improviser and composer, revealing a gift for counterpoint and orchestration that makes creative use of bassist Andrew Downing and drummer Nick Fraser beyond typical rhythm section roles. The opening Banana Canon, the first of three independent compositions, is a minimalist theme, at once playful and slightly querulous, that immediately establishes the group’s distinctive personality. 

The rest of the CD is devoted to a suite called Plague Diaries, composed by Allemano in Toronto during the first months of the COVID-19 lockdown. Each of the four movements is introduced by a stark unaccompanied solo, emphasizing the sense of isolation. If studies with Axel Dörner have contributed to Allemano’s development as a keen explorer of the trumpet’s secret sonic resources, her Berlin residencies may have also offered a compositional resource for the suite. Part III: Hunger and Murder, starting with a gritty arco solo from Downing, suggests the grim, desiccated 1930s work of composer Hanns Eisler. Further, the concluding Doom and Doomer, propelled by Fraser’s willfully chaotic drum solo, develops a rapid, circulating pattern against which Allemano improvises brilliantly, her solo suggesting one trapped in a labyrinth. 

There’s a consistent, collective creativity here, at once urgent and coherent, that marks this as one of the year’s most significant jazz recordings.

10 Canadian Jazz CollectiveSeptology – The Black Forest Session
Canadian Jazz Collective
HGBS Blue Records HGBSBLUE20217 (canadianjazzcollective.com) 

Canada’s improvised music scene frequently occupies a limbo between the government supported arts scenes of Europe, and the large commercial entertainment markets of the United States. That phenomenon is one of several reasons why it’s exciting to see the Canadian Jazz Collective gather success representing our fair nation locally and abroad.

Kirk MacDonald, Derrick Gardner and Virginia MacDonald are the lead voices of this formidable septet, with guitarist Lorne Lofsky contributing to both the melodic and harmonic sides of the ensemble. In the liner notes to Septology, The Black Forest Session, Lofsky mentions a 40-year history with several members of the group, namely bassist Neil Swainson and pianist Brian Dickinson, who round out the rhythm section alongside Austrian drummer Bernd Reiter. 

Septology’s eight original tracks are penned by Gardner, Lofsky and MacDonald respectively, and feature a beautiful blend of individualism and group interplay. Dig That! is a hard swinging opening track that prepares the listener for what’s to come: a steadfast commitment to the roots of this music, approached in a manner that eschews any notion of traditionalism or conservatism. 

The Time Being is a contemplative piece penned by Lofsky. This writer knows the guitarist’s other two offerings Waltz You Needn’t and Highway 9 from his 1992 self-titled album, and they’re cleverly reworked here for septet. Kirk MacDonald contributes two originals to the recording that fit the collective’s aesthetic beautifully, notably his arrangement of Shadows that keeps the rhythm section on their toes under contrapuntal horn lines. 

Alongside exploring this album at home, I have encountered it several times on local Toronto radio. Septology is receiving ample well-deserved attention, and with a second European tour approaching, this is definitely not the last you’ll be hearing of the Canadian Jazz Collective!

11 Le Boeuf BrothersHush
Le Boeuf Brothers
Soundspore Records (leboeufbrothers.com) 

Pascal and Remy Le Boeuf are identical twin brothers who have worked individually and together to produce innovative music which is mainly composed, but also includes many spaces for improvisation. HUSH is a quieter and more intimate work than many of their previous albums and uses a quintet with Remy on alto saxophone, Pascal on piano, Dayna Stephens on tenor saxophone, Linda May Han Oh on upright bass and Christian Euman on drums. This is a true collaboration as 12 tracks are written by Pascal and eight are by Remy. 

Most works are shorter and are specific to the brothers’ interests. For example, Wedding Planning was composed by Pascal to display their excitement over both brothers’ marriage celebrations. Oblique Two-Step by Remy begins with a simple piano melody with bass and drums that evolves into a dialogue between the two saxophones. The liner notes describe Soot as “a chorale ... searching for something that has been burned away” and Pascal’s gorgeous alto sax makes it one of the most beautiful songs on the album. HUSH is a quiet and graceful work full of variety and nuance.

Listen to 'Hush' Now in the Listening Room

13 Mark DresserTines of Change
Mark Dresser
Pyroclastic Records PR 25 (store.pyroclasticrecords.com) 

Art isn’t static, and by virtue it cannot exist in a vacuum. Just as a previously unnoticed detail in a painting can irrevocably alter the beholder’s perspective of it, knowledge of the context music is made in can change the listening experience entirely. I happened to come across Mark Dresser’s Tines of Change relatively versed in his musical output, experientially familiar with the inner workings of an upright bass and having superficially researched the intricacies of the custom bass used on this album. I cannot speak to how a first listen without this context would diverge from my own experience, but the beauty of improvised music of this unbridled nature is that nobody’s perspective holds more value than another’s. 

The third track on this album is titled Harmonity, and even the context I had going into it couldn’t save me from its all-consuming grasp. One would be hard pressed to find a solo bass recording that sends as many unit structures of sound barrelling toward the listener at once as this one does. The individual specialized pickups beyond the instrument’s bridge coalesce into the startling fidelity of Dresser’s feathery touch underneath it, rendering attempts to pinpoint sources of vibration a futile exercise. The detailed tonal warmth engineer Alexandria Smith gets out of the beautiful vessel luthier Kent McLagan fashioned for a marksman seasoned as Dresser allows them to form an invisible trio, disguised as a single organism. Let this music move you.

12 Ingrid LaubrockIngrid Laubrock – The Last Quiet Place
Ingrid Laubrock; Mazz Swift; Tomeka Reid; Brandon Seabrook; Michael Formanek; Tom Rainey
Pyroclastic Records PR 24 (store.pyroclasticrecords.com) 

Space is the proverbial place on this new Ingrid Laubrock album; its fullness lies in its many pauses. Laubrock herself is in charge of the most overt sonic elements, such as shouldering the entire production and compositional loads, along with her reed work resonating strongly throughout the holistic auditory experience. She leads a six-piece band that consists of two-thirds stringed instruments, which allows for a unique textural and dynamic palette. The group makes the most of this range, and are selective in how they layer musical elements, which leads to an unpredictable aspect that complements the complexity of Laubrock’s melodic phrasings. 

The composition Afterglow wouldn’t have the same arresting air of mystery about it if the entire ensemble was ever playing at once; the decision to centre the piece around a string trio of Tomeka Reid, Mazz Swift and Michael Formanek lends it its structural intrigue. In this sense the music is never afraid to interrupt itself, because rather than the more traditional slow build from the swelling bowed passages, the guitar, saxophone and drums take turns interjecting. This creates an effect of dialogue or commentary, and this interactivity between interlocutors paints a setting of controlled disarray. Contrast can be equally engaging as uniformity, and it’s the ability to seamlessly phase between these two states that makes this such a refreshing group.

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