Reed sections have been part of jazz’s performing vernacular since its earliest days. But only with the freedom that arose with modern improvised music in the 1960s were the woodwinds able to stand on their own. In the right hands, with the right ideas, a group consisting only of saxophones and/or clarinets can produce satisfying sounds that don’t need the intervention of a rhythm section or even brass for additional colours. All of the fine discs here demonstrate that.

waxman 01 roundgoalChicago tenor saxophonist and bass clarinetist Keefe Jackson extends this concept on A Round Goal (Delmark DE 5009, with his Likely So ensemble consisting of seven reed players. Including two of his Windy City associates – Dave Rempis and Mars Williams – three Swiss stylists – Thomas K.J. Mejer, Peter A. Schmid and Marc Stucki – plus Polish clarinetist Waclaw Zimpel – the septet members play two or three horns each, providing all the necessary contrast and colours for Jackson’s 11-part suite. After leading the others in unison ostinato lines on Round Goal for instance, alto saxophonist Williams sparks the improvisation with jagged, bracing squeaks that inflate to dog-whistle-like glossolalia, without ignoring swing. Similarly while tenor saxophonist Stucki brings prototypical free jazz cries to Was Ist Kultur, the others’ shifting modes ensure the compositional thread isn’t lost. In contrast, tracks like Neither Spin nor Weave and the descriptively titled Pastorale confirm that experimentation doesn’t have to be abrasive. The former, including contributions from five clarinetists, uses mellow architecture to construct a round of calming timbres. Pastorale, meanwhile, is a showcase for Zimpel. His bass clarinet adds a formal sheen to the proceedings, with tongue fluttering gradually giving way to unforced motions. Later, Mejer’s contrabass saxophone is freed from its role providing pedal point textures with the other low-pitched reeds featured on My Time is My Own. Buzzing out notes that could come from a cello played sul ponticello, his smears and snorts are eventually knit into a tapestry of harmonized timbre with the other horns. By the CD’s end it’s obvious that harsh textures can arise from any reed register to build excitement, as can soothing harmonies. Overall, the key point is that individual showiness never takes the place of balanced interaction.

waxman 02 doubletrioMore restrained in execution, but with similar inspirations so that the program never flags, is Itinéraire Bis (Between the Lines BTLCHR 71231 Blending two clarinet trios into the Double Trio de Clarinettes, the players use standard, alto, E-flat, bass and contrabass clarinets to highlight the woodwind’s unique properties. Although the Berlin-based Clarinet Trio of Jürgen Kupke, Gebhard Ullmann and Michael Thiecke may be more oriented towards jazz and improvised music and the Paris-based Trio de Clarinettes, which includes Armand Angster, Sylvain Kassap and Jean-Marc Foltz, has more of a new music bent, no fissure exists here. Parameters are established as early as track one, Almost Twenty-Eight, with the reedists spending as much time vocalizing exuberant harmonies as playing. But while such ebullience is present throughout the disc, so is the sophistication that melds atmospheric textures, expressing individual instruments’ rugged or shrill qualities as the pieces advance. Ullmann’s Desert… Bleue… East for instance is a centred performance that includes an unfolding hint of menace, even as vibrating low tones and seagull-like cries are harmonized into a smooth flow. Meantime Kassap takes a more cerebral and musicological approach. His compositions, Bizarre, FAK! and Charles Town, But Yesterday… which follow one another, set up a distinctive continuum. Initially an essay in low pitches, he sabotages the first track’s relaxation with chattering, slightly bizarre interjections ending with a kazoo-like cry; the next sequence deconstructs the line into shaking timbres only to have it snap back into shape following comfortable harmonies from the other players, standard clarinet in the lead; and concludes with a thorough re-examination of the theme. Rhino-like pedal points from the lower-pitched reeds balance the flighty aviary cries from the other woodwinds, with the result beautifully balanced polyphony that succinctly express the theme then stops instantly.

waxman 03 canardThe difference may result from geography or personality, but in sharp contrast to the concentration on solemn experimentation which characterize the Double Trio and Keefe Jackson CDs, Montreal clarinetist Robert Marcel Lepage's Canard Branchu (Ambiances Magnétiques AM 216 CD in the main promotes unselfconscious merriment. With his reputation for creating soundtracks, Lepage sets his compositions here in a fanciful swamp populated by the insects, birds and amphibians. Moreover while many tracks on the other CDs appear to be evolving improvisations, Lepage’s are self-contained songs. Nonetheless while the sounds may be decorous and controlled, they’re not formal and mix good fun alongside technically clever improvisations. The band make-up is different as well. The core is Jean-Sébastien Leblanc and Pierre Emmanuel Poizat on clarinets, Guillaume Bourque, bass clarinet, André Moisan on basset-horn plus bassist Fraser Hollins and drummer Pierre Tanguay, with Nicolas Borycki adding electric organ on three tracks. Bass clarinetist Lori Freedman joins the band on one track and plays another unaccompanied; while the composer plays solo and duets with Moisan on two different cuts. With steady rhythm section work, the others are freed for supple, contrapuntal work, resembling the score for a kids’ show on one hand and Duke Ellington’s arrangements for clarinet trio on the other. Characteristic is Le Pelleteur de nuages, whose church-like harmonies courtesy of Borycki underlie a theme that touches on Can’t Help Falling in Love plus Creole Love Call. Bourque shines on Maringouins en escadron as tremolo horn parts sound as if they come from an accordion; whereas Fondation: qui sommes-nous? is a pseudo-tango that contrasts the basset-horn’s serene chalumeau with slick drum patterns. Chalumeau is also in use on Mi-figue, mi-bémol, Lepage’s solo feature, that improvises succinctly on the melody line, whereas on her own feature, Freedman’s variants on Le Grand Héron et la demoiselle use hectoring cries, irregular vibrations, split tones and spetrofluctuation to deconstruct the theme into individual atoms, then reconstruct in pointillist fashion.

waxman sosThese bands’ instrumentation wouldn’t have been possible without the pioneering efforts of players who demonstrated how flexible multi-reed ensembles could be. One of the first, S.O.S.,namedafter the members’ initials, involved three of the United Kingdom’s top jazzmen: Mike Osborne, who played alto saxophone and percussion; Alan Skidmore, on soprano and tenor saxophones and drums; plus John Surman who divided his skills among soprano and baritone saxophones, bass clarinet, synthesizer and keyboards. Looking for the Next One (Cuneiform RUNE 360/361 is a two-CD set of previously un-issued material recorded in 1974 and 1975. Like Lepage, the trio often expands the concept by using synthesized loops or drum beats as continuum, but emphasis throughout is still on saxophone blends or solos. Especially moving are the jerky squeaks and cornucopia of smears, slurs and sighs output by Osborne (1941-2007), defining the substantive jazz qualities of the band, especially on cuts such as Suite and the title track. The latter at first pairs quivering, Sun Ra-like wave forms with faux baroque piano until the narrative breaks out into firebrand solos from the alto saxophonist and tenor man, with Skidmore’s incendiary blowing contrasting with Osborne’s lonely cries. A more sophisticated effort, unlike some of the other tracks, whose rhythms sound as if they migrated from a contemporary Africanized-jazz fusion date, the more-than-25-minute Suite cunningly develops its narrative from among electric piano comping plus varied pitch variations from all three horns. A tapestry of tones, smears, flattement and irregular vibrations show off each reedist to his best advantage, while maintaining forward motion. S.O.S. isn’t all about technique though. A traditional air arranged by Surman, The Mountain Road mixes a flat-out Irish reel with buzzing jazz inflections, propelling two sorts of staccato dance rhythms. That experiment worked so well that the reel appears again during the extended Trio Trio, sharing space with Ellington echoes and reed-theme deconstruction, atop bubbling synthesizer loops.

In trio or larger formations, each of these CDs confirms the long-term viability of woodwind groups creating exhilarating sounds.

Many musicians act as their own agents, produce and distribute their own recordings and promote their own concerts, but a few take on far greater roles, developing performance spaces and record labels, helping create vital scenes. Three such figures are Vancouver’s Cory Weeds, Toronto’s Ken Aldcroft and Rimouski’s Éric Normand.

broomer 01a weeds lets goTenor Saxophonist Cory Weeds is an all-purpose advocate for mainstream modern jazz, running Cory Weeds’ Cellar Jazz Club and the very active Cellar Live label. Canada/U.S. musical exchanges figure in three recent releases. Let’s Go! (CL 013013 documents Weeds’ visit to New York’s Smoke Jazz Club with his regular associates, pianist Tilden Webb, bassist Ken Lister and drummer Jesse Cahill, and adds New York trombonist Steve Davis. Recorded at the end of a 19-performance tour, the experience shows. The music is a pure distillation of hard-bop, featuring tight-knit, spirited playing throughout, highlighted by the muscular lyricism of the tenor/trombone combination. A highlight is a reflective rendering of the late trombonist/pianist Ross Taggart’s ballad Thinking of You.

broomer 01b peter bernsteinThe recording venue switches to Weeds’ own club for American guitarist Peter Bernstein with the Tilden Webb Trio (CL 042613). Along with bassist Jodi Proznick, Webb and Cahill are once again models of support: Webb a worthy foil to Bernstein, turning out long lines that coil and twist, alive with melodic surprise, and Cahill providing animating drive and prodding rhythmic detail. With a distinctive singing tone, rare sustain and inspired virtuosity, Bernstein finds new dimensions in standards and jazz classics, from a heart-felt Darn that Dream to elegiac renderings of John Coltrane’s Wise One and John Lewis’ Django.

broomer 01c weeds sweet shadowThe cross-border emphasis continues with tenor saxophonist Pete MillsSweet Shadow (CL 070813). Originally from Toronto (his CD includes a photo of Charlie Parker’s autograph, collected at the 1953 Massey Hall concert by his father, Ernie), Mills, who teaches at Denison University in Ohio, is a wildly inventive player with a light, airy sound and solid fundamentals. Sam Rivers and Joe Henderson likely number among his inspirations, while his themes include Roland Kirk’s Serenade to a Cuckoo and Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend. Aided by a first-rate New York band that includes guitarist Pete McCann and drummer Matt Wilson, Mills also plays two freely improvised duets with Wilson.

Since migrating from Vancouver more than a decade ago, guitarist Ken Aldcroft has become an essential figure in the Toronto improvised music scene, producing performance series and acting as one of the founders of AIMToronto, an association of improvisers. Documenting his own work on his Trio Records since 1997, Aldcroft has just released two contrasting sessions.

broomer 02a saskatoonAldcroft’s Convergence Ensemble is his principal group, a long-standing quintet that has been a laboratory for his developing compositional approach. Saskatoon (TRP-017 was recorded at the Bassment in 2007, so it’s clearly an old performance with enduring significance. Alto saxophonist Evan Shaw, trombonist Scott Thomson, bassist Wes Neal and drummer Joe Sorbara share Aldcroft’s commitment to the group, and it’s apparent in every instant of this music, a consistent collective creation on Aldcroft’s themes. Our Hospitality cleverly integrates free jazz, swing and instrumental click languages.

broomer 02b hat   beard reflections coverFor sheer playfulness, there’s Aldcroft’s duo with drummer Dave Clark, Hat and Beard: The Music of Thelonious Monk. Their second all-Monk program, Reflections (TRP-018), extends Monk’s own assertive rhythms, clashing phrases and unlikely chord changes. The approach, with Clark’s explosive, weirdly precise cacophony and Aldcroft’s acid-toned minimalism, may owe as much to the members of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band as to Monk himself. It’s all a delight, but Pannonica and Monk’s Dream are stand-outs.

broomer 03a le-ggril---combines---2While Weeds and Aldcroft work in major population centres, bassist Éric Normand, through sheer creativity, commitment and energy, has somehow made Rimouski, Quebec a hotbed for free improvisation, producing concerts, drawing in international guests and releasing music in a welter of media on his Tour de Bras label.

The acronym GGRIL may identify the large ensemble Grand Groupe Régional d’Improvisation Libérée, but it also suggests “guerrilla,” emblematic of Normand’s adaptive and spontaneous rebellion. GGRIL has released one of the year’s most beautiful records, Combines a red-vinyl LP in a clear plastic sleeve, (TDB 990001LP There’s a delightful sense of community get-together in the music, whether it’s using chance methodologies or two conductors simultaneously leading a collective improvisation, and it extends to the unlikely combination of instrumentalists: multiple percussionists, bassists, and guitarists with an accordionist among the featured voices.

broomer 03b rcfffe coverAt the opposite pole of media, there’s the insubstantial Rrrrrrrrrroyal Canadian Free Form Folk Experience ( by the trio ofNormand, Halifax-based guitarist Arthur Bull, and Toronto percussionist Bob Vespaziani, also known as the Surruralisms. Available as a paid download or free streaming audio, the work consists of a single half-hour improvisation called Batoche’s Battle, a brilliant realization of Normand’s aesthetic, melding folk materials and instruments with the most radically concentrated, minimalist, electroacoustic improvisation. It’s an invitation to sample one of Canada’s most creative musical visions.

broomer 03c pink saliva imageNormand has also released the latest music by the Montreal-based trio Pink Saliva, with trumpeter Ellwood Epps, bassist Alexandre St-Onge and drummer Michel F. Côté also exploring electronics. Available as a download or a micro-edition CD, Il parait que... (TDBW0003) is a tangled forest of vital distorted sound, Epps’ amplified trumpet sounding like a raw nervein the undergrowth.

06 jazz 01 tranquilityTranquility
Neil Swainson; Don Thompson
Cornerstone Records CRST CD 141 (

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 (

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

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, 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 ( 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, 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, 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, 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.   

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