Jon Irabagon

Hot Cup 102 (www.joniribagon.com)

This is a thrilling album. It made the hairs stand up on my neck, with accompanying shivers. Despite listening to jazz as a regular pastime, this reaction is not common. Saxophonist Jon Irabagon, who won the 2008 Thelonious Monk competition and is clearly inspired by recordings of Sonny Rollins trios (remember Way Out West? ), leads a powerful threesome through what’s basically a 78-minute solo whose 11 “tune” titles merely indicate different approaches taken by his tenor horn to the standard 16-bar form. It starts with a roar and charges relentlessly from there, backed by furious drum assaults courtesy of Barry Altschul and muscular bass from Peter Brendler. It’s a swaggering, avant-garde outing that doesn’t rely on honks and squeals but could recall full bore Dexter Gordon or Johnny Griffin. This unflagging, exuberant long form improv is all high energy, suggesting origins in hard bop, swing and the blues. Irabagon, who plays differently and delightfully outside this studio context, isn’t breaking new ground save in solo magnitude, but he has certainly created an astonishing tour de force that underscores the spontaneity that’s at the heart of jazz. It’s exhausting to hear but it’s also exhilarating. Experiencing it deserves an accompanying T-shirt!

02_keith_roweAdditional Notes

Martin Küchen; Keith Rowe; Seymour Wright

Another Timbre at29 (www.anothertimbre.com)

About the furthest sonic distance that can be imagined from a standard guitar and two saxophones CD, this noteworthy session is mostly concerned with the matchless musical magnificence that can result from the juxtaposition of unique and unexpected timbres.

British guitarist Keith Rowe, who appears at the Music Gallery on November 30 in the company of two different, string-playing sound explorers, has for years been investigating the possibilities of the electric table-top guitar prepared with add-ons and gizmos. What he does here with dual alto saxophonists Martin Küchen and Seymour Wright is subvert the expected sound of his instrument – and theirs. Radiating outwards an inchoate collection of broken chords, ratcheting strings and grinding friction, he alternately supplements or showcases the saxophonists’ tongue-stopped squeaks and shrills. Snatches of static-laden music or verbal phrases he serendipitously locates on an affiliated short-wave radio help convert this one improvisation into a constantly surprising, layered narrative, replete with concentrated drones and pulsed timbral flutters.

A climax of sorts occurs after three-quarters of the journey, when a sudden burst of sampled pop-rock guitar excess is swiftly burlesqued by Rowe’s string scraping and intermittent, reverberating distortions. This is followed by watery multiphonic runs from one reed player and a steady, unaccented line from the other. Ring modulator-like clangs eventually prod tightened saxophone breaths to expand into mouthpiece oscillations and a final, cumulative dissolving drone. Despite the title, there is no need for additional musical notes.

03_60_improvisasionsVarious Artists

Association of Improvising Musicians of Toronto AP-04 (www.aimtoronto.org)

David Sait (b.1972), the Brampton/Toronto experimental guzheng (zheng) improvising musician and the curator of this album, has “sewn together back-to-back… sixty innovative, forward thinking musicians from all over the World.” Each of them has provided a sixty second performance identified by their own unique musical voice.

While one expects a conceptual and aesthetic musical framework around such a curating job, this unique CD has in addition a fascinating numerological frame. The organisational principal of the number sixty is evident on several levels: sixty musicians performing for sixty seconds each, carefully compiled and arranged into ten tracks comprised of ten suites of six musicians.

Moreover the resulting journey is not a simple smorgasbord of individually recorded solo improvisations. It is rather a reaffirmation of David Sait’s long-term project: to forge links between performers of experimental and traditional global musical languages. The inclusion of performers from North and South America, Europe and Japan implies a kind of emerging global community of improvising musicians. For Sait’s future projects, I would like to propose the inclusion of musical voices from the rest of the world.

The mind-boggling variety of instrumentation included on this CD already serves to blur traditional and experimental musical genres. Solos on church organ, “rubber glove bagpipes,” cello, gong, piano, signal processor, oud, Theremin, tar and “field recordings” are among dozens of different instruments. Leading Toronto free improvising musicians Michael Snow, John Oswald and Joe Sorbara present characteristic virtuoso gestures, but there are too many musical highlights and quirky moments to mention in a single review.

Listening to this CD is a satisfying international armchair sonic expedition. There seems to be something for almost every musical taste here – and if you encounter something too sonically trenchant, you can relax knowing that in less then sixty seconds you will be entering yet another new personal sound world to explore.

01_matt_newtonEach year in Toronto and environs a handful of homegrown stars hold sway – and happily for fans there’s more than a handful of up-and-comers trying hard to dislodge them. One such talented wannabe is pianist Matt Newton, who displays his wares on Push (Firetown Music 905 www.mattnewton.ca) in a quartet setting on eight tunes. He’s a cooler version of keyboard ace Jacky Terrasson (whose newest album is also titled “Push”) as he takes the risky debut route highlighting his own material, but the Ottawa-born grad of the U of T jazz program is in good company with slick tenor Petr Cancura, bass Mark McIntyre and always-busy drummer Ethan Ardelli. The leader allows plenty of space for colleagues, especially his hornman’s clean, confident lines and the tuneful bassist supporting his neat single-note runs, disciplined explorations and carefully crafted notions with inventive ideas of their own. The title song is a knotty piece with subtle rhythms that gives a sense of the emerging group persona, Ardelli kicks off Where To? with style, the impressionistic soundscape that is Blue (the colour) is a delight while elsewhere music flows and ebbs appealingly (note Tides Of The Mainland).


Expatriate Andrew Rathbun is a skilled factor in the contemporary New York scene, but still loves his homeland – and shows it. In the past he’s used Margaret Atwood poetry as his muse, and now it’s Glenn Gould who in the 1960s made a CBC documentary titled The Idea of North. That’s led to The Idea Of North (Steeplechase SCCD 31695  www.andrewrathbun.com), an eight-track portrait of Canada that updates Oscar Peterson’s Canadiana Suite. It includes Rathbun’s versions of Wayne Shorter’s whispering Teru and a work by Gluck, but the rest is original sophisticated images, highlighting his great, always probing sax sound, five smart comrades including excellent trumpeter Taylor Haskins and precise pianist Frank Carlberg, plus stellar use of counterpoint. Rathbun has a unique way of putting elements together that work well on tunes like Arctic, December and Harsh by employing supple approaches that are vigorous but not overstated and fascinating, well-executed ideas. Rockies is just one seriously catchy piece on a recording well worth seeking out.


It’s the tenth anniversary of tough-minded improvisers Barry Romberg’s Random Access whose streamlined line-up is in fine fettle on The Gods Must Be Smiling (Romhog Records 119 www.barryromberg.com). This time out drummer Romberg leads regulars Rich Brown (bass) and Geoff Young (guitar) but has added power keysman Robi Botos to crank up the usual tension. It works; the mood established quickly with the rockish, spooky romp 1st Things First that keeps building while mixing in whimsical exchanges and Botos examining his inner Joe Zawinul. Yet these free pieces always somehow stay in the groove, fuelled as ever by bucolic drumming with unexpected accents. A Christmas Song is raucous with intricate rhythm rather than seasonably sappy and while the title track is penned for Romberg’s young son its extreme romanticism changes before halfway to extreme craziness punctuated by squealing guest saxes. Lowell’s Bowel is a three-parter, the first with Young’s questing dominating, the second with tenorman Kirk MacDonald seeking a personal whirling grail and the third with hard-driving sax pursued hotly by rumbling electric bass. The closing Epilogue is a Botos solo taped live at Humber with drums bookending.


Perhaps it’s the current economics of the business, but jazz duo discs seem to be on the increase. One interesting find is a collaboration between Canadian flugelhorn player Mike Herriott and American guitarist Sean Harkness, a session democratically divided with half the 10 originals recorded in Toronto, half in the Big Apple. The result is Flights: Volume One (www.mikeherriott.com) which is said to be the first of many more joint ventures. That’s good news, because Toronto-based Herriott’s horn and Harkness’s strings work on a very intimate basis, with elegant sounds abounding in an overall easygoing vibe – not an easy listening vibe, but one that commands attention be paid to the polished accomplishments of the performers. Four of the original tunes benefit from Toronto mainstays Jim Vivian (bass) and Kevin Coady (drums) joining in, while trombonist Mark Miller adds sonorities to Leap Year. There’s much sleek unison playing, almost always followed by soloing that’s very impressive technically with attention carefully paid to varying melodic line in an ongoing, alert dialogue of musical opinion. Just two instruments does tend to limit possibilities however, and thus the emphasis logically leans more to restraint than abandon while sometimes what’s mellow is overdone. Yet H2 (their designation) does produce excellent chamber jazz.

Derided in the past as effete or derivative, chamber-style improvising has fascinated musicians since at least the 1920s, both on the jazz (Benny Goodman, Red Norvo) and classical (George Gershwin, Ferde Grofé) sides. However, as this group of CDs demonstrates, with contemporary musicians conversant with both strains of sound, the transitional awkwardness of the past has been replaced by inspired flexibility.

01_to_the_moonTake for instance, Jean-Marc Foltz’s To The Moon (Ayler Records AYLCD-112 www.ayler.com). Although at first it seems as if the ten sparkling miniatures performed by the French clarinettist and his American sidemen pianist Bill Carrothers and cellist Matt Turner, are high-gloss examples of composed music, careful investigation reveals just the opposite. All of these instant compositions were improvised by the trio in one studio session. Inspiration came partially from the tale that inspired Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire plus the wintery moonlight of the studio setting. The result is atmospheric and elegiac in equal doses. Often showcased are the chalumeau textures of Foltz’s bass clarinet which soar and buzz as they contrapuntally meet up with doleful cello slides and strummed metronomic passages from the piano. As improvisers, the three expose a subversive post-modernity as well. Crosses, for instance begins with Carrothers recital-styled harmonies melding with vibrated slides from Turner. Yet while the broken octave-style theme is played by an unperturbed pianist, Foltz constantly interrupts with twittering atonal chirps from the highest regions of his clarinet. The pianist’s reflective thumps which shake his instrument’s inner metal, wood and strings perform a similar function on Knitting Needles. Elsewhere the cello’s quivering vibrations and low frequency organic patterning from the piano are often only there to sooth Foltz’s more intense flutter tonguing.


Comfortably probing this third stream is Vox Arcana, a similarly constituted trio with Tim Daisy’s percussion and marimba, clarinettist James Falzone and Fred Lonberg-Holm’s cello and electronics on Aerial Age (Allos Documents 004 www.allosmusica.org). Daisy’s eight compositions equally reference minimalism, the so-called New York school as well as the improvisation which permeates the music of the trio’s home town Chicago. Throughout, the instrumental tones often hocket and undulate in triple or double counterpoint. Perfectly illustrating this cohesion is Falling. After the tutti exposition splinters into episodes of reed-biting intensity, driven by the drummer’s pumps and rebounds, Lonberg-Holm lets loose. Doubled sul ponticello runs are extended almost infinitely without breaking the glissandi, and only gradually superseded by single-note reed twitters. Reverberating kettle-drum-like pops set up a final variant of plucked cello and melodic mid-range clarinet whistles. Another example of this skill occurs on Chi Harp Call in E. While no one could mistake Falzone’s coloratura trills or Daisy’s popping marimba rolls for the harmonica-led blues the tune salutes, the cellist’s scraping his strings into an agitated polyphonic mass easily equals timbres produced by blues guitarists. Still, the roiling marimba strokes and liquid clarinet asides link the melody to the ongoing European sound tradition.


Strings and percussion – with the leader’s cello and vibraphone played by Matt Moran – are also featured on the Daniel Levin Quartet’s Bacalhau (Clean Freed CF 195 CD www.cleanfeed-records.com). But Peter Bitenc’s bass is added and the horn is Nate Wooley’s trumpet. Paradoxically a full-time bassist makes this the most “jazzy” of these sessions. It also means that on a piece such as Bronx #3, when agitato bass lines combine with the trumpet’s sputtering triplets, the subsequent contrapuntal framing gives Levin a staccato forum to practically duet with himself. More impressive still is the epic Soul Retrieval, which evolves in several distinct sections. Initially a mid-tempo mix of brassy trumpet and mournful cello, a mid-section expansion of sul tasto bass work and downward string slides moves the trumpeter towards an interlude of tongue-stopping intensity. Chiming vibraphone pulses then collide with intense, discordant bowing from both string players, only to have the theme re-developed with broken-octave concordance by the end.


Not all this chamber improv comes from jazzers however, as bass clarinettist Kathryn Ladano demonstrates with Open (www.kathrynladano.com). Classically trained and co-founder of the Kitchener-Waterloo Improvisers Collective, Ladano mixes solo and group pieces; notated music with improv. Her swelling glissandi, harsh flutter tonguing and aleatoric trills give her work a definite identity. While an episode of broken chord variants that matches her breathy echoes with ringing vibraphone tones is particularly noteworthy, elsewhere her repetitive trills, which confirm impressive reed control, are needed to modulate feverish interface from some of the other players. Overall, multiphonic inventions on composed material may be her strongest attribute.

Singly and together, the CDs confirm that persuasive improvisation can result without being fortissimo or frantic.


Kellylee Evans

Plus Loin Music PL4528


Recognized for writing and delivering songs of exquisite beauty and depth, Kellylee Evans is a perfect example of musical honesty in its purest form. Several years back, the sweet-voiced Ottawa-based singer-songwriter was summoned to France to record an album for the Plus Loin label. “They said I could do whatever I wanted as long as it was standards”, Evans recalls. She decided to dedicate the recording to Nina Simone, selecting a dozen songs famously cut by The High Priestess of Soul. Talk about a challenging undertaking! Simone – who began playing Bach as a toddler – was a legendary pianist, vocalist, composer and civil rights advocate, one of the 20th century’s most important (and arguably, underrated) musical geniuses; in her 70 years on earth she forged an unmistakable style fused with classical, jazz, pop, rock, folk and her own originals. The impressive results demonstrate Evans’ impeccable taste.


It was a wise decision not to include keys on the recording, as Simone was incomparable as a pianist. Instead, Evans is joined by shining Chicagoan Marvin Sewell on guitars and two of France’s finest sidemen, François Moutin on bass and André Ceccarelli on drums. What makes this recording shine is how freshly these songs are re-imagined. Whereas Simone’s gritty voice was dramatically fuelled by anguish, Evans’ interpretation of the same material scintillates with a pure, soulful optimism. Here’s hoping this outstanding effort earns new fans for both Kellylee Evans and Nina Simone.

02_emily_clare_barlowThe Beat Goes On

Emilie-Claire Barlow

Independent EMG445


With “The Beat Goes On” Toronto-based jazz singer Emilie-Claire Barlow has done what a few wise singers are doing these days, namely looking to more recent eras and songwriters for fresh material rather than the overdone American Songbook. This time out, Barlow has focused her considerable talents and jazz sensibilities on the 60s. The opening track sets the tone for the album as Kelly Jefferson provides nuanced sax fills on a swingy 6/8 version of Bacharach's Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head. Barlow has written all the arrangements herself and the stripped down instrumentation that predominates fits her light, pretty voice like a Pucci print dress. We feel transported to a Yorkville coffeehouse as just bass and congas (Ross MacIntyre and Davide Direnzo) accompany These Boots Were Made for Walkin'. Very groovy. Iconic sounds of the 60s bubble up in the woodwinds on Soul Bossa Nova as it's mashed up with the classic Sonny & Cher title track.


An exploration of the 60s wouldn't be complete without a journey to that hotbed of musical innovation, Rio de Janiero, and the cover of O Barquinho (My Little Boat) featuring Reg Schwager’s nylon string guitar skills perfectly evokes a carefree Brazilian day. Barlow’s specialty is bossa nova (do yourself a favour and find her version of O Pato on YouTube) so when she surprisingly imposes that style on Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright it actually works.


“The Beat Goes On” will be released on October 12. Barlow is performing live to air on JazzFM91 October 21 at 7:00 PM and at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre May 14, 2011.

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