Despite the regular spouting from doomsayers, there’s still a tsunami of jazz discs being released, especially south of the border. Here’s an American six-pack that appealed to me in 2011.

01_Rudresh_MahanthappaPride of place goes to Rudresh Mahanthappa, who on Sandhi (ACT 9513-2) plays alto sax (and laptop) and is joined by guitar, drums and a percussionist on South Indian drums as well as Toronto’s Rich Brown on electric bass. Intriguing melodies and rhythms are explored in depth with bright tones and ever-swirling grooves.

02_Delfeayo_MarsalisThe trombone-playing member of jazz’s first family is Delfeayo Marsalis. With a star-studded big band he offers Sweet Thunder (Troubadour Jazz Records TJR092110) in which he deftly and delicately reinterprets the music composed in the 1950s by Duke Ellington for Stratford’s Shakespeare festival.

03_Wadada_Leo_SmithTrumpeter Wadada Leo Smith heads the double-CD Heart’s Reflections (Cuneiform Records Rune 330/331) where a massed and mostly electric ensemble (two more on laptops) create unruly, exciting and funky music way beyond Sun Ra that also lets the leader show his spiritual side - and displays the influence of Miles Davis.

04_Ambose_AkinmusineNew trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire is a Monk Institute Competition winner who on When The Heart Emerges Glistening (Blue Note 509990 70619 2 9) leads a top-flight quintet featuring pianist Gerald Clayton in an inspired, adventurous and fresh probe into the future of 21th century jazz.

05_Miguel_ZenonAlto sax ace Miguel Zenón, a recipient of a $500,000 MacArthur “genius” grant, takes a large group on Alma Adentro: The Puerto Rican Songbook (Marsalis Music MARS 0016) through the melodic history of the Caribbean islands via ten well-known songs – a delightful fusion of jazz and Latin traditions.

06_Mostly_Other_PeopleDespite its ludicrous nomenclature Mostly Other People Do The Killing is a provocative quartet that presents original ideas and a passion for loud, furious assaults on the senses on Forty Fort (Hot Cup 091). It offers quirky trumpet, menacing sax, thunderous bass and splashy drums more extreme than The Bad Plus. They’re also big on wit.

01_DubocTraditionally, holiday time gets people thinking about CD box sets as gifts. But merely offering multi-disc best-of collections hardly shows originality. Instead the most valuable multiple CD sets are collected because, like the talented players featured here, the musicians literally had more ideas than could be expressed on even two discs. Take Paris-based bassist Benjamin Duboc for example. Probably the busiest and most inventive player of his instrument in French improvised music circles, Primare Cantus (AYLCD 098-099-100, a three-CD-set, highlights a different facet of his work on each side. A treat for double-bass fanatics, the solo work on Disc 1 demonstrates that by also using his voice and extended techniques the spatial program not only expresses the fascinating bass timbres but does so in a way that the resulting sounds seem electronically processed although thoroughly acoustic. Meanwhile Discs 2 and 3 are equally excellent showing how his mature style adapts to input from radically different ensembles. Accommodating his jagged bowing and hearty string smacks to the vibrations from saxophonists Sylvain Guérineau and Jean-Luc Petit plus cunning percussion asides from Didier Lasserre, results in concentrated sounds that are as accommodating as they are opaque. The fifth untitled track for instance, perfectly matches low-pitched bass arpeggios with the timbres of cymbal tops being gonged and gauged, while track nine climaxes with majestic glissandi from both reedists mated with Duboc’s speedy string scrubbing that completes the initial challenge between the bassist’s strums and subterranean snorts from Petit’s baritone plus fortissimo bites from Guérineau’s tenor. Pascal Battus’ guitar pick-up and the subtle introduction of field recordings give Disc 3 more of an electronic cast. Overall, with Sophie Agnel concentrating on fishing out unexpected note clusters from her piano’s internal string set and Christian Pruvost mostly propelling pure air from his trumpet, the thesis is timbre expansion not swing. For instance, the bassist’s concentrated ostinato underpinning Battus’ bottleneck flanges, the trumpeter’s strained grace notes and Agnel’s mallet popping on the strings creates mercurial dynamism. Additionally, suggestions of billiard balls being racked or magnetic tape reels reversing provide unexpected tinctures in a sound field otherwise consisting of agitated bass licks, quivering piano strings and squealing brass. Overall, an aviary explosion from Pruvost, shaped by Agnel’s metronomic pitter-patter and Duboc’s pedal point is as exciting as anything recorded by Roy Eldridge with Oscar Peterson and Ray Brown.

02_Yellow_BellSo are the three CDs of improvisations from the well-matched Swedish duo of veteran Roland Keijser playing a variety of conventional and folkloric reeds in conjunction with Raymond Strid’s sensitive percussion output. Recorded live in a Stockholm club Yellow Bell (Umlaut UMADA 2 offers a variety of moods and stratagems. Although Keijser – on piano – and the percussionist conclude with a stately reading of Monk’s Mood that’s all tremolo key clipping and drum rim smacks, most of the 32 tunes are far from the jazz canon. Spegelsång for example finds Keijser on stuttering saxophone and Strid’s thumping martial beat deconstructing a folk tune as its initial tone rows are played upside down in its second half. On Sohini the reedist’s tootles are from trussed metal whistles and Strid’s drags and flams could come from a djembe intonation, while Keijser uses a supple South Indian venu flute to play a variant of the Swedish Varför frågar du/Varför svarar du backed by snare shuffles and cymbal rattles. The most impressive display of this cross-cultural improv is evident on the title tune plus Kvällskvarpa/Dansa med moss. On the former, Keijser’s Sonny Rollins-like obbligatos transmogrify an ancient fiddle tune into near-jazz, while the latter is kept linear by Strid’s paradiddles and ruffs as mid-range clarinet glissandi diffuse from snake-charmer-like trills to splintered runs.

03_StanglSomeone who’s cognizant of Duboc’s plus Keijser’s and Strid’s influences plus many other notated and improvised tropes is Viennese guitarist Burkhard Stangl. Obviously no sufferer from false modesty, Hommage à moi (Loewenhertz loew 020 presents 25 tracks of his oeuvre from 1993 to 2009 performed by groups ranging from duos to extended ensembles. Included are electro-acoustic compositions; notated and improvised music; an extended orchestral salute to English lutenist Robert Dowland; plus more contemporary influences and associates. The most affecting pieces are those created for quasi-improvised ensembles spurred by soloists such as British saxophonist John Butcher or Austrian trombonist Radu Malfatti. Konzert für Posaune und 22 Instrumente which seems to take its inspiration from Malfatti’s, microtonal vocabulary, contrasts flat-line, pressurized brass tones with an ensemble’s accelerating and vibrating polyphony. Highlights include slurred guitar fingering and the trombone’s incremental and widely spaced tongue slaps, squeaks and hollow-air vibrations. Quixotically, Concert for Saxophone and Quiet Players, featuring Butcher and a stripped-down ensemble is actually louder than the trombone concerto. Extended reed whorls encompassing tongue flutters are contrasted with contributions from the “quiet players” which include static crackles, dial-twisting quirks and field-recorded bird sounds plus flute flutters and intermittent percussion beats. Post-modern harmonization of 17th century vocalization and 21st century instrumentation, My Dowland puts countertenor Jakob Huppmann’s ethereal voice in the midst of romantic string progressions plus sampled aviary chirps which become increasingly agitated although Huppmann and the string section remain languid and moderato.

04_Howard_RileyMoving from orchestrations to a more singular but just as wide-ranging project is British pianist Howard Riley’s The Complete Short Stories 1998-2010 (NoBusiness NBCD 21-26 Extended essays in the art of solo piano, these six CDs present 74 tracks which range in length from slightly more than one and a half minutes to almost seven and a half plus five novella-sized meditations from 2010. Someone whose interests include contemporary notated music as well as every variety of jazz, Riley’s showcases are consistent as well as brief. One of the most affecting tracks is For Jaki on CD 2, a bouncy ditty with Tin Pan Alley suggestions that honours the late American pianist Jaki Byard. Similarly the title tune is kinetic as well as dramatic, equally emphasizing high-pitched tremolo lines as well as a grounded narrative. Concision on the other hand, vibrates on the percussive harmonics which can be plucked from and strummed on the piano’s internal strings, while the steady lengthening lines of Another Time show harmonic references to Lennie Tristanto-like cool jazz. Riley’s discursive stop-time frequently recalls Thelonious Monk as on the tellingly titled Roots and elsewhere. Nonetheless, the extravagant dynamics he exhibits on The Opener are mirrored by his stentorian patterns on many other tunes, where Earl Hines-like walking bass notes and Cecil Taylor-like percussive runs vie for supremacy.

Adventurous listeners on anyone’s gift list would appreciate any of these sets.

Enhanced freedom in music over the past 60 years has involved more than the addition of new instrumental techniques and compositional strategies. Recasting of gender roles has also taken place. No longer are women instrumentalists expected to play traditionally delicate female instruments such as violins or flutes; or those where they sit demurely such as the piano, harp or cello. This change is most obvious in improvised music, where the number of women who stand up to play has multiplied exponentially. Many have chosen to become brass players, adapting their skills to apparatuses which demand power and stamina.

01_rampersaudTake Toronto trumpeter Nicole Rampersaud for instance. The high-quality improvising she exhibits on Halcyon Science 130410 (Barnyard Records BR0323 in the company of saxophonist Evan Shaw, drummer Jean Martin, bassist Wes Neal and percussionist Tomasz Krakowiak doesn’t distinguish in any way between her talents and those of her colleagues. During seven group compositions, the quintet vaults back-and-forth from high-energy anthems to more cerebral explorations with equal skill. Take me To Your Leader is an example of the latter, as clattering friction from Krakowiak’s noise-makers evolves in stacked counterpoint alongside Shaw’s irregularly squeezed vibrations plus the mouthpiece suckles and tremolo emphasis of Rampersaud. Her rubato slurs and valve squeaks intersect perfectly with the baritone saxophonist’s tongued percussiveness as Martin’s ratamacues, pops and drags presage harmonizing vamps and a final quivering dissolve. Meantime the title tune and Dirigible move with a chromatic gait. The former resembles an Eric Dolphy line, with repeated climaxes interrupted by mid-range honks from Shaw and stuttering pitches from the trumpeter. Dirigible stacks timbres so that space between Rampersaud’s staccato and heraldic tone and Shaw’s juddering tempos are obvious. Still a near-bugle call on the trumpeter’s part in the final sequence signals a slowdown to barely there flutter tonguing on her part, accompanied by the reedist’s smooth obbligato, until together they dovetail into muted tones framed by drumstick-rubbing friction from the two percussionists.

02_rent_romusAtonal textures are even tougher and more staccato on Bay area saxophonist Rent Romus’ Lords of Outland quintet’s Edge of Dark (Edgetone EDT 4112 But trumpeter CJ Borosque only really makes an impression on that instrument when she blends her tongued triplets and tremolo flutters with the reed work from Romus and Vinny Golia on pieces such as Night Nova and Over the Rift. Otherwise the emphasis is on Golia’s peeping piccolo intersecting with double tonguing from Romus, plus electric bassist Ray Shaeffer’s powerful plucks and pops on the former tune or Romus’ irregular split tones plus percussionist Philip Everett’s rolls, drags and smacks on the latter. That’s because Borosque performs another role here, patching in blurry whistles and wavering flanges from manipulated electronics, most noticeably on Over the Rift and Edge of Dark. Contrapuntal when needed and interactive at other junctures, these jittery and wiggling oscillations outline sequences like Golia’s low-pitched reed slurps, or high energy soprano saxophone lines from Romus, providing the unifying accompaniment that Borosque’s brass obbligatos do elsewhere. Overall, the CD’s texture is as dense and exultant as the fantasy writings which inspired it.

03_ulherElectronic impulses in microtonal settings characterize the improvisations advanced by Hamburg-based trumpeter Birgit Ulher in a duo with Argentina-born reedist Lucio Capece on Choices (Another Timbre at41 Reducing her horn’s output to muted shakes, buzzes and vibrations amplified by a radio set up, Ulher proves that cunning can be substituted for stamina to produce notable improvisations. With the timbres of Capece’s bass clarinet or soprano saxophone filtered by preparations as air is harshly forced through the body tube, Ulher’s capillary pressures and metallic reverberations produce sympathetic polyphony. Chance is the most extended example, with both sound sources juddering and undulating as they combine for both chalumeau growls and strident squeals. With sonic suggestions of a hamster running on a wheel or of wisps of wind wafting upwards, the results are collective not individual. Although distinct strategies such as Ulher's use of a metal plate as a mute to create maximum vibrations, or Capece’s reed bites and tongue stopping elongating tones without resorting to electronics appear, fascination results from tracing the evolution of this disassociated and dissonant sound picture not the ending. Yet the bubbling, shaking, straining and squeaking eventually produce tones that are satisfyingly cumulative and cooperative.

04_gail_brandThere’s no hint of electronics in Instinct & The Body, British trombonist Gail Brand’s duo with drummer Mark Sanders (Regardless Records R01 Plus her inventive attack is powerful enough to banish any thoughts of delicacy. Utilizing sudden brays and nephritic dips into the horn’s lowest tubing, she’s as comfortable with staccato line extensions as bulky plunger swoops. Meantime Sanders uses brushes-on-snares pressure, ruffs and rim shots to advance his part. Under Orders finds Brand slithering from one pitch to another and from loopy tailgate burlesque to rapid-fire slide stops without missing a breath. Sanders backbeats and rumbles are just as relaxed. Then on Tread Softly… as the drummer slaps and clatters, Brand trades high-pitched whinnies for emphasized pedal-point, blowing chromatically until attaining a variant of serene romanticism.

Women brass players may stand up to improvise. On the evidence of the work here, many also should do so to acknowledge applause.

01_alex_goodmanIt’s difficult to be stirred nowadays by much new jazz from young musicians, especially if led by a guitarist, but Alex Goodman has done that with his third album as leader. The Alex Goodman Quintet - Bridges ( benefits considerably from his compositional ability – he contributes eight attractive cuts, three intros and arranged tunes by Chopin and Bartók. It’s no surprise that classical music’s virtues figure prominently here, underscored by the degree of group intimacy, cohesion and elegant execution – take a bow Nick Morgan (woodwinds), Darcy Myronuk (piano), Dan Fortin (bass) and Maxwell Roach (drums). Their subtle chemistry points to a collective understanding mindful of the iconic Modern Jazz Quartet. The plethora of enterprising, shape-changing structures has real appeal, as does the evident attention to detail – the only bust is a Chopin nocturne that inhibits invention (the Bartók dance fares better.) The complexities are never excessive, the cerebral soloing is superb and Tristano Bach has to be the coolest bebop ever.

02_john_tankCanadian tenor saxophonist John Tank has exiled himself for decades in New York, but on occasion sneaks back to tour. One recent visit spawned the excellent John Tank Group - Jazz Live From The Registry (OlivOr 20112, a weighty 75 minute session at the Kitchener venue that illuminates the talents he displayed while a Toronto staple in the early 1970s. Backed by contemporary staples in Bernie Senensky (piano), Jim Vivian (bass) and Ted Warren (drums), his bold technique and big, warm sound expressing consistently creative ideas is very appealing, though aggressive notions are never out of control. Think Sonny Rollins, as well you might during the long, boiling opener Johtanson. Senensky as always is a perfect and often-exhilarating foil throughout the seven long tunes, four by Tank and two by him. The joint jumps with Tank’s bruising What Is That Thing With The Swing and hard-nosed New Irk, New Work. This band crackles from start to finish.

03_bill_kingNeed a lift from still-mourning-summer gloom? The versatile pianist and jazz entrepreneur relives his personal jazz and blues roots on The Bill King Trio - Five Aces (7Arts 0021 on a bustling dozen tracks (eight strong originals by him) that feature skilled sidemen in electric bassist Collin Barrett and everywhere-man drummer Mark Kelso. This jazz journey gathers R&B, soul, swing, gospel and boogie under its entertaining wing, with King also exercising considerable chops on B3 organ and offering specific nods to James Brown and Eddie Floyd along the way, plus a rollicking treatment of Otis Redding’s I Can’t Turn You Loose opening the account. There’s oodles of short, sharp phrasing, spot-on emphases and rhythmic drive alongside slow and sure, churchified entries such as Come Walk With Thee and I’ll Chase That Rainbow. My favourites: the definitive B3 workout on Stax ‘em High and the muscular King City Stomp.

04_jim_heinemanJim Heineman’s Dream Band Rh Positive - Live @ Lorraine’s(Tima Town Productions has the rarely-recorded Toronto veteran Heineman directing a lively, often cheerfully raucous set at an Ossington Avenue venue. It’s very welcome. He plays tenor saxophone, flute and saxello, composed the 12 wide-ranging tracks, many with a Latin flavour, and sings a bit, with fine jazzers in support – pianist Stacie McGregor, bass Brandi Disterheft and drummer/vibist Mark Hundevad. Also on hand are (son) Sam Heineman and frequent guests who back the leader’s tough, grainy-toned and always swinging horn, heard to great effect on alluring tunes like Stingy and the bluesy Some Things Never Change. McGregor and Disterheft are in excellent form throughout. Best on disc: Them Shape Shifting Reptilians.

05_peripheral_visionLong-time collaborators bassist Michael Herring and guitarist Don Scott are important members of the contemporary jazz picture and they flourish within their able quartet. It’s to be enjoyed on Peripheral Vision Spectacle: LIVE (Step3 – 004, taped at Vancouver’s Cellar Club. Joined by tenor saxist Trevor Hogg and avant-jazz veteran Nick Fraser, their eight-tune set is infinitely better than the unit’s self-titled debut, always sophisticated and accessible despite liberties taken with conventional forms and ideas. That’s helped by the compositional quality (five Herrings, three Scotts), the confident soloing by all, notably the ever-improving Hogg, and the way individuals mesh before emerging from often-dense ensembles. The inspired Butter Side Down, the agile Living The Dream and the seductive harmonies of Abide are particularly memorable.

06_delbeqc_houleAlso worth noting: Benoit Delbecq/Francois Houle - Because She Hoped (Songlines SGL1592-2) is a joyous, esoteric improvised music workout by long-time colleagues and veteran avant-jazzists, pianist Delbecq and clarinettist Houle, that swoops and soars and reflects in astonishing sonic ways. 07_lester_mcleanLester McLean - LM 4321 (LME002 showcases the many talents of saxist/vocalist/songwriter McLean on 15 mostly upbeat pieces, a dozen of them his smart creations. The soulful, groovy atmosphere is aided by solid companions in his ace brother Mark on drums, guitarist Michael Occhipinti and bassist Louis Simao. 08_turtleboyTurtleboy - Smart Matters (Songlines SGL 1590-2 is a threesome adept at re-imagining the sound of a sax trio, with Jonathan Lindhorst (tenor), Ryan Butler (guitars) and Adam Miller (drums). Good melodies, integrated playing, pop and free jazz sensibilities abound.

04_han_benninkLet's Go
Han Bennink; Brodie West + Terrie Ex
Terp Improv Series IS 16

Unfazed by the decades of musical history represented by his Dutch associates – Han Bennink, probably his country’s most recorded jazz drummer, and guitarist Terrie Ex, who has been a punk-rocker since its first spit – Toronto alto saxophonist Brodie West leaps into the fray in this session with youthful inspiration and the skills resulting from constant improvising. The result reflects the title: the three create at a high, interactive level from the get-go until they finally exhaust all sonic possibilities.

Known locally for his gigs with trumpeter Lina Allemano, West has played with the two Dutchmen in different configurations. But here his febrile reed variations, that range from trilling obbligatos to eviscerating honks, spiced with split-second quotes from pop and jazz tunes, invigorate Bennink and Ex, pushing them to take more chances.

Ex, a frenetic if rudimentary guitarist, stays away from simple rhythms to use slurred fingering, amp distortion and scraping frails to augment his responses to the saxophonist’s flattement, penny-whistle-like shrills and reed bites. Bennink, who has worked with major jazz players since the early 1960s, is as unpredictable in his beat-making as always. But there are times here where his crunches and slams move into violent, near-Hard Rock territory to relate to Ex’s chunky strums and shakes, while at the same time using rattles, nerve beats and rim clicks to join West in deconstructing the material. For his part, West’s techniques, including deliberately schmaltzy vibratos, circular breathing and dagger-sharp reed bites, help keep everyone off balance, but allow him to improvise at his inventive best.

Shirley Crabbe

New York City jazz vocalist Shirley Crabbe’s initial CD offering is a tasty collection of tunes associated with Broadway and elsewhere. The well-produced and conceived recording features saxophone legend Houston Person as well as Shirley’s pitch-perfect vocal instrument and a quintessential New York City rhythm section of Jon Burr on bass, Alvester Garnett on drums and Jim West and Donald Vega on piano.

Ms. Crabbe fortuitously returned to singing following major surgery on her vocal cords and has rendered each carefully chosen track with emotion, skill, theatrical flair and a complete reverence for the melody (something to be kept in mind by emerging jazz singers). A protégée of the late, great Etta Jones, Ms. Crabbe shows us a depth of meaning that can only be realized through life experience and devotion to your art. The moving title track from the hit musical The Wiz is a standout, as is Not While I’m Around, Sondheim’s harmonically complex ballad from Sweeny Todd, featuring an inspired trumpet solo from Brandon Lee. Oscar Brown Jr.’s Strongman is another highlight, replete with an elegant and bluesy solo from special guest (and long-time Etta Jones collaborator) Houston Person. On Leonard Bernstein’s Lucky to Be Me – another gem - Crabbe channels the incomparable Irene Kral and on Herb Ellis’ rarely performed Detour Ahead, the whole company swings sumptuously with a lilting, uptempo horn-infused arrangement from Matt Haviland.

A brilliant debut, this recording should be required listening for any jazz vocalist.

02_dream_makerDream Maker, Heartbreaker - Sam Broverman sings Johnny Mercer
Sam Broverman
Independent BR002

It’s clear from the first cut of his debut album – and the well researched, informative liner notes – that Sam Broverman adores, respects and loves singing Johnny Mercer. Making “Dream Maker, Heartbreaker” was a dream come true for Broverman and how nice for us that he realized his dream with 13 terrific tracks, backed by 18 of Toronto’s finest, including Chris Gale on tenor sax, pianists Peter Hill and Mark Kieswetter, cellist Roman Borys, Reg Schwager, guitar, Kevin Turcotte, trumpet and those wonderful Whiteleys – Chris on harmonica and trumpet and Ken, multi-tasking as always, this time on at least four instruments and playing producer.

Knowing he would inevitably invoke those titans of style and interpretation – Sinatra, Bennett, Tormé – I’ve got to hand it to this actuarial mathematics professor by day/jazz singer by night for his bravery, dedication and careful attention in taking on some of Mercer’s most beloved and recognizable songs. Impressively, Broverman has put his own stamp on them. His Laura is lovely and evocative; he swings like the best of them in Day In, Day Out; broods with depth and intelligence in I Wonder What Became of Me. And I was moved by Moon River. Broverman sings it with just the right amount of sweetness, yearning and poignancy, managing to keep this nugget fresh and unhackneyed. (Oh, and the title of the CD? That’s right – third line, first verse.)

Bravo – and Mazel Tov – to Sam Broverman, a fellow Winnipegger-living-in-Toronto. Ya done “The Peg” proud!

Concert note: Sam Broverman will perform material from “Dream Maker, Heartbreaker” at the Green Door Cabaret on December 3.

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