04_nixon_in-chinaJohn Adams - Nixon in China

Robert Orth; Maria Kanyova; Thomas Hammons; Marc Heller; Tracy Dahl; Chen-Ye Yuan; Opera Colorado Chorus; Colorado Symphony Orchestra; Marin Alsop

Naxos 8.669022-24

Watching modern operas become a part of the standard repertoire is like watching the children grow up. Some of the precocious ones (the ones by Philip Glass) sometimes become rather dull adults, others are still gawky teenagers (works by Corigliano), while others reach their full, stunning potential. The seminal work by Adams, Nixon in China, belongs to that last category.

Just over 25 years old, the opera has had numerous productions in North America and Europe, initially overshadowed by the premiere Peter Sellars production and sacrosanct casting of voices (Maddalena, Sylvan, and Craney). Its one and only recoding, an excellent rendition on Nonensuch Records with The Orchestra of St. Luke’s under Edo de Waart became the de-facto reference recording… But some 5 years ago, the tide started changing. When I saw in 2006 an early version of the current production, here recorded live in Denver, it was a fresh and fascinating experience. The excellent Naxos CD recording conveys this freshness and Alsop brilliantly reveals the lyrical, almost romantic side of Adams’ music. That lyricism, often buried under the trappings of minimalism, emerges victoriously.

Winnipegger Tracy Dahl is every director’s dream of Madame Mao, both vocally and visually, especially in her triumphant coloratura “I am the wife of Mao Tse-Tung”. Robert Orth brings us a strangely sympathetic, pre–“I am not a crook!”Nixon; just listen to his opening aria “News has a kind of mystery”. Overall, this is my first must-have recording of the new decade!

Robert Tomas


By Ken Waxman


Arguably more responsible than any other instrument over the past century for famous and infamous music, the electric guitar is a harsh taskmaster, especially for musicians creating innovative sounds. Luckily the six-string’s versatility can be adapted to a variety of sonic situations. Mixing original concepts with sympathetic musical partners make each of these discs notable.

01_ken_aldcroftToronto’s Ken Aldcroft takes an organic approach on Our Hospitality

(Trio Records TRP-010 www.kenaldcroft.ca), situating his axe within his top-flight Convergence Ensemble filled out by trumpeter Nicole Rampersaud, trombonist Scott Thomson, alto saxophonist Evan Shaw, bassist Wes Neal and drummer Joe Sorbara. Long-time colleagues, this relationship means that Aldcroft’s eight compositions are extended with instant arrangements and sympathetic improvisations throughout. Just a Hint and Dialoguing illuminate this. On the former, Sorbara’s paradiddles set up each soloist’s understated parallel lines while discursive guitar plucks maintain spectral separation. Eventually Rampersaud’s fluttering grace notes provide connective sinew as she ascends the scale. A group improv, Dialoguing matches the trumpeter’s flutter-tonguing with moderato and legato trills from Shaw. All the while Thomson’s trombone is slurring and shuffling on its own tangent, as is Aldcroft’s circular, finger-styled pacing. When the plectrumist introduces below-the-bridge hammering plus metallic crunches, it’s Neal’s bass line that steadies the narrative from below.


02_tony_wilsonTransforming much different source material is Vancouver’s Tony Wilson’s The People Look Like Flowers (Last Drip Audio DA 00482 www.dripaudio.com), whose centrepiece is an improvisational re-imagining of Benjamin Britten’s Lachrymae. The 11-movement suite is made new not only by mutating and mixing melodies with improvisations and other musical tropes, but by interpreting the chamber work composed for viola and piano with Wilson’s guitar, Peggy Lee’s cello, Paul Blaney’s bass, Dylan van der Schyff’s drums, Dave Say’s saxophones and Kevin Elaschuk’s trumpet. Proving the theme’s adaptability, the sextet takes it straight in sections, adds to its lyricism elsewhere, distorts it abrasively in other spots and alludes to folk songs at points. The last is most apparent on Movement #4 Variation as Wilson’s linear development is given added impetus by Lee’s sul tasto sweeps as well as wavering trumpet lines. Movement #2 on the other hand includes sul ponticello scratches from the strings, plus the drummer’s martial flams and rim shots that only occasionally let portions of the melody peek through. Elaschuk’s contrapuntal trumpet lines and Wilson’s slurred fingering help turn Movement #11 into a sectional swinger with the others riffing until the guitarist’s distorted licks give way to theme recapitulation.


03_east_van_stringsAnother Vancouver guitarist, Gordon Grdina follows a similar route on The Breathing of Statues (Songlines SGL-SA 1572-2 www.songlines.com). Except all the compositions are his, and the East Van Strings which accompanies are violinist Jesse Zubot, violist Eyvind Kang and again cellist Peggy Lee. Combining Grdina’s fascination with Middle Eastern music – he also plays oud here – the second Viennese school and improvisation, the CD ensures that disparate influences converge without conflict. A detour into double-timed Arabic progressions is most apparent on the title track, when following a strummed drone from the oud, the other strings’ initial gypsy-like romantic colouration takes on the tonal characteristics of kamanchas or three-string spiked fiddles. This allegro stridency ceases though, when Lee’s adagio slides move the piece towards western lyricism. More attuned to atonality are Silence of Paintings and Origin. On the latter, after lively string curves illuminate the theme, Grdina counters with spidery runs and antiphonal slurred fingering. Pitch-sliding and flying spiccato from Kang lead the narrative towards stop-time until guitar strokes and romantic harmonies level the tempo. On the former, heavily rhythmic, vibrating cadenzas from Grdina sharply drive the theme chromatically as the strings’ layered pulsations scrape and scatter.


04_grdina_trioTauter three-part dialogue characterizes Gordon Grdina’s other session while confirming both the guitar’s versatility and his own. If Accident Will (Plunge Records PR00628 www.plungrecords.com), with his combo filled out by bassist Tommy Babin and drummer Kenton Loewen, furrows the classic fusion power trio groove. However the originality and finesse exhibited on his other CD also appear here, albeit in a brawnier fashion. Tracks such as Yellow Spot into the Sun illustrate this, as the drummer’s measured march time is decorated with drags and flams as well as thick double bass thumps. Thanks to Grdina’s chromatic sound sprays the disguised ballad still retains its form despite Loewen’s hard pummelling. Arabic influences and the oud aren’t neglected either. Cobble Hill/Renunciation brings out a double-strung ecstatic pitch from Grdina, elastic chording from Babin and beats that could arise from a dumbek or North African goblet-shaped drum.

The new Jazz Icons series from Naxos is its fourth incarnation with an eight-DVD boxed set full of surprises as well as shedding beneficial light on under-rated performers. As always, the sound on these 10-plus hours of music is superb.

01_anita_odayThere’s one vocalist – but would you expect Anita O’Day (2.119015) to follow earlier Icon releases of Ella, Sarah and Nina rather than, say, Billie or Carmen? However, this archaeological treat discovered at two Scandinavian concerts show off her vibrato-free, horn-like tones, crafty phrasing manipulation and breezy confidence to great effect. The Norwegian session, featuring a French piano trio is best, highlighting sophisticated interpretations of standards including a brilliant up-tempo Tea For Two, a scat-happy Four Brothers and a lovely Yesterday/Yesterdays medley.


02_woody_hermanThen there’s Woody Herman (2.119016), taped in London, with his jazziest big band, the 1964 Swinging Herd. It’s an explosive thrill, the clarinettist boss sticking to old school playing but encouraging troops to revel in blistering pace and exquisitely-detailed section work. It’s compelling throughout, with close-ups of exciting bandsmen like tenor Sal Nistico and trombonist Phil Wilson but fewer looks at the A-grade rhythm team – pianist Nat Pierce, responsible for most charts, bass Chuck Andrus and drummer Jake Hanna.


03_erroll_garnerWhy Erroll Garner (2.119021) remains shunted aside in the piano pantheon is a mystery. His two 1960s concerts presented here are as good as 1956’s Concert By The Sea, showcasing dazzling improv out of the stride tradition, whirling enthusiasm - with a smile permanently on display - and close support from bass Eddie Calhoun and drummer Kelly Martin. The self-taught keyboard wiz who couldn’t read music achieves superlative heights here with favourites such as Fly Me To The Moon and, of course, Misty.



05_jimmy_smith04_art_farmerArt Farmer’s hour of fame (2.119019) is a master-class on flugelhorn from 1964 that’s even better since bandmates are guitarist Jim Hall, bass Steve Swallow and drummer Pete Laroca. It’s a real keeper, as is the 90-minute Paris outing by Hammond B-3 organist Jimmy Smith (2.119018), a stunning display that underscores his position as organ jazz top dog.


06_art_blakeyDrummer Art Blakey’s 1965 Paris concert (2.119017) has a quintet billed as his New Jazzmen. Its stars are trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and pianist Jaki Byard on just four tracks that fill one hour. It’s Hubbard who’s the focus with his shiny tone, smooth delivery, restless imagination and ability to stir listeners while Byard offers outside playing to counter his straight ahead colleagues.




07_coleman_hawkinsTenor maestro Coleman Hawkins is not in great form at Belgian and British concerts totalling 140 minutes (2.119020), mostly preferring to coast through dreamy ballads rather than letting fly with rumbling roars despite strong company including Sweets Edison, who sounds best of all, Sir Charles Thompson and Jo Jones. Not until Stoned does the maestro awaken.


A bonus DVD with tunes by Garner, Smith and Hawkins comes with the set.


Holiday-themed CDs usually have as much to do with the sentiments of good will and earthly peace underlying the season as do greeting cards. Yet without – except in one case – mentioning the season, the following improvised music sessions demonstrate the intuitive harmony which the season should reflect.

01_christmasChristmas Concert (Leo Records CD LR 520 www.leorecords.com), notes the occasion of its recording in St. Petersburg – December 15 – rather than Christmas. The Russian trio, trumpeter Vyacheslav Guyvoronsky pianist/percussionist Andrey Kondakov and bassist Vlaminir Volkov mix Nordic sensibility, ferocious technique and intuitive understanding of notated and improvised sounds into a program that’s fierier than a Yuletide log. Unlikely to replace White Christmas as a standard, Christmas Waltz consists of rumbles from inside the piano, scraping bass timbres and showy triplets from Guyvoronsky when he’s not enunciating half-heard phrases. Although there are references to the waltz’s romanticism, any fear that this tone poem will turn to mood music are put to rest as Guyvoronsky whinnies, Volkov slaps his strings and Kondakov fans low-frequency cadences. Mixing balalaika-like plucks, Impressionistic piano expositions plus tremolo lines from the trumpeter throughout, the group’s tour-de-force is the descriptive Arabesque. Dynamic and decorative without being showy, it is built on trumpet grace notes, swelling keyboard arpeggios and the bassist’s feline lope. Rhythmic and kinetic, the piece accelerates to a crescendo of staccato, splayed and fortissimo textures.

02_arms_spreadAnother notable trio performance is that of Canadian pianist Marilyn Lerner with New Yorkers, bassist Ken Filiano and drummer Lou Grassi on Arms Spread Wide (No Business Records NBCD 5 www.nobusinessrecords.com). It’s obvious that there would be no Christmas – or Christianity – without Judaism, and the most affecting performance here, Hommage à Coco Shulmann, honours a German-Jewish guitarist and Holocaust survivor. His statement that “once a man learns to swing, he can never march again” not only describes much of the fine music here, but underlies the pacific message of Christmas. Musically, Grassi’s clanking strokes and Filiano’s pumping bass complement the jaunty narrative, during which Lerner moves from andante swaying to high-frequency key tickling with an angled bass line. Mercurial in her playing, exhibiting uneven rhythmic pulses and moving in-and-out of tempo with cascading tone clusters and singular clipped notes, Lerner treats the title tune lyrically and dramatically. Following an initial hunt-and-peck keyboard exploration, she works up to super-fast vibrations and dense, tension-filled runs. With Grassi’s press rolls and tom-tom strokes plus Filiano’s spiccato string-slashing, she eventually downshifts to gentle patterning.

03_istanbulIn the West, December holiday sounds reflect the Christian and Jewish musical traditions, but further east Arabic and Islamic textures are exposed as well. One place that has long been the crossroads for many traditions, musical and otherwise, is Istanbul. Toronto guitarist Eric St-Laurent’s Dimensions d’Istanbul (Katzenmusik KM-01 (www.ericst-laurent.com) is an unbeatable portrait of the Turkish metropolis. St-Laurent, who frequently plays local clubs, composed and arranged this sonic travelogue aided by two Turkish musicians: percussionist Bikem Küçük and Turgay Hikmet who plays both keyboards and bass clarinet. Utilizing the textural and melodic allusions available, St-Laurent links his rapid guitar licks plus electronic processing to the others’ instrumental prowess which include tones from the clarinet-like mizmar, the dumbek or goblet drum and the 12-string cümbüş which combines banjo, mandolin and bass tones. With clarity and chromatic motions the guitarist makes a place for himself in this multiphonic bazaar. If formal melodies are exposed they’re shaded with synthesizer runs; while hoedown-styled twangs face stop-time, contrapuntal pitch slides from the Turkish instruments. On Yeralti Camii for instance, slinky electronic pulses meet hand drumming, while whistling and fluttering reed trills intercut guitar lines. Spectral and sequenced the CD evokes Istanbul’s shifting individuality.

04_self_madeAlso unique are the sounds literally Self Made by Indian-born, Montreal resident Ganesh Anandan and Wuppertal, Germany’s Hans Reichel (Ambiances Magnétiques AM 192 www.actuellcd.com). Playing instruments of their own design – Anandan’s shruti stick or 12-string electric zither, plus marimba-like metallophone; and Reichel’s daxophone or bowed friction source – their dialogue is by turns mechanical, otherworldly, animalistic and satisfying. Vocal as well as visceral, the daxophone produces werewolf yowls and bel-canto vibrations with equal facility. Anandan matches these nasal outpourings with metallophone resonations that could come from tuned church bells or suspended kulingtang gongs. His facility with the shruti means that skittering rebounds are available to bond with Reichel’s dissonant shrieks for distinctive polyphony. Although recorded in March, the concordance Anandan and Reic

01_bill_mcbirneyTwo-by-fours are a bedrock element of Canadian vocabulary and clearly have resonance with the country’s top flutist Bill McBirnie, whose terrific new album surpasses his recent acoustic hits “Nature Boy” and “Paco Paco”. On the indie release Mercy (EF02 www.cdbaby.com) the Bill McBirnie Duo/Quartet offers a dozen-track, dazzling display of technique, dynamic range and stunning musicality. In the duo setting it’s pianist Robi Botos, joined in the quartet by rhythm stalwarts with the right stuff, bass Pat Collins and drummer John Sumner, in genre forays - bossa, ballads, bop and more. This is not neo-jazz comfort food but a feast of elegantly executed ideas with a live concert vibe. Highlights abound - the emotion dredged from Willow Weep For Me, the florid flute-piano onslaught on Airegin, the wit on Monk’s rare Stuffy Turkey, and a brilliant reimagining of Moment’s Notice. Add quick-witted interplay, adventurous flow, bluster and sophistication and this disc’s a keeper. Only the elegiac title piece seems misplaced.



02_dave_youngBass guru Dave Young, he of the flying fingers and big thick notes, pushes all the right wake-up buttons on his indie album Mean What You Say (MFA 17267 www.daveyoung.ca) with his classy quartet forging steely forward momentum for the 11-cut mix of standards, jazz classics and a trio of tunes by the boss. His solos are never just an afterthought – they’re formidable, imaginative yet always to the point with a huge woody sound and impeccable timing. The band emulates him, with pianist Robi Botos, his drummer brother Frank and in-demand trumpeter Kevin Turcotte chomping at the bit. The pianist never misses the chance to roar, notably on Will You Still Be Mine which also features a stunning arco bass contribution. Young’s melodic statement on his Sandhu is grand, his robust strength and loping lines an inspiration especially to Turcotte with his exuberant swoops and sculpted notes. Seven Minds swings powerfully with intense chords and tense vitality that shows the group at its best, all urgent eloquence.

03_barry_rombergRandom Access loves wallowing in collective improv but under the leadership of drummer Barry Romberg and his trademark dexterity, their rambunctious rough-housing is disciplined, often attractive, and very accessible. On Was, Shall, Why, Because (Romhog 118 www.barryromberg.com) his cast of thousands - actually 15 of Hogtown’s leading lights - demonstrate ideas with substance, power and frequent fleeting logic that amounts to a stimulating fusion of pioneering jazz forms. Intro is a chase starring Romberg and slick electric bassist Rich Brown, but the following items (Urban Landscape, I Was A Celestial Body) are vehicles for power ensembles and fierce solos from the likes of Kelly Jefferson, Brian O’Kane and Peter Lutek. This huffing and puffing is merely a warm-up for Romberg’s epic seven-movement, 40 minutes-plus Suite For The Wolfman, a totally improvised creation by the Random Access core – violinist Hugh Marsh, saxman Kirk MacDonald, guitarist Geoff Young, trumpeter Kevin Turcotte, Brown and Romberg. It has delicate playing, work that’s sly and sprightly and a consistently invigorating spontaneity.

04_tim_posgateGuitarist Tim Posgate indulges new fancies with Banjo Hockey (Black Hen BHMCD0065 www.guildwoodrecords.com), playing banjo and enjoying tuba, for the latter recruiting nimble maestro Howard Johnson. Add the exploratory tastes of trumpeter Lina Allemano and reedman Quinsin Nachoff and the result is a foursome’s worth of bright, light and lively jazz that’s unusual and surprisingly subtle in its working of the leader’s 11 originals. There’s free jazz expressiveness, writing complex but clear, playful genre-bending and spirited soloing that includes Johnson doubling on baritone sax. The funky guitar, clarinet and tuba joust on Moosamin Eh! is splendid, as enticing as the other tunes that underline Posgate’s restlessly ambitious imagination which seeks to marry contemporary immediacy to jazz tradition.

05_yannick_rieuQuebec saxist Yannick Rieu has been a force for decades, and the live Montreal show Spectrum (Justin Time JTR 8546-2 www.justin-time.com) illuminates his sinewy soprano playing and composing skills in a program that draws on rock’s energy, funky fusion and structures so loose you’d think it’s every musician for himself. The package is a CD with eight Rieu tunes and eight musicians plus a five-song DVD taped in Beijing last year with guitarist Jocelyn Yellier, bassist Remi-Jean Leblanc and drummer Philippe Melanson. Odd meters and anthemic passages meld with lightweight atmospheric accompaniment. Cutting edge it’s not, despite effortless cunning interplay, but the writing is boldly original with classical accents and spacey, wintry stylings. The DVD has bigger impact – and the audience is much more enthusiastic.


06_terry_clarkeVeteran drummer Terry Clarke has been recorded on more than 400 albums but his first as leader has just arrived. The title, It’s About Time (BlueMusicGroup.com BMG 7028 www.bluemusicgroup.com), has a few droll meanings but you have to wonder why it’s taken almost 10 years for these excellent 78 minutes of throbbing music to emerge from the vaults. Four of the seven long, live tracks are from the Montreal Jazz Festival, three from the Ontario Science Centre. The Montreal tunes, which include bristling exchanges on Feel Free and a lilting calypso inspired by guitarist Jim Hall, feature Joe Lovano on tenor and later alto Greg Osby on two tracks each. Hogtown tenor duties are handled by Phil Dwyer in bruising mode, especially on Passion Dance and his own Flanders Road. Ever-present is Don Thompson, lively on bass or piano, while Clarke, who ratchets up intensity with quick turns of phrase and impish flights, is at his versatile best throughout as a relaxed, intricate time signature combatant, subtle accompanist and inquisitive, invigorating soloist.



Diana Panton Trio + 1

Independent DP009CD1 (www.dianapanton.com)

On “Pink” Diana Panton is staying the course she plotted with her first two well-received albums. She’s working once again with a small group – although when one of the band members is genius multi-instrumentalist Don Thompson you get a lot of bang for your musician buck. Reg Schwager is also back, accompanying with his customary artful and sensitive playing. A new addition, and a completely fitting one given Panton’s languid style, is trumpet and flugelhorn player, Guido Basso. His fills and solos add rich warmth to the mix, like honey drizzled over an English muffin, filling in all the nooks and crannies.

Panton has carefully chosen a collection of well-crafted songs that she can mine for lyrical gold. She is foremost a story teller - not a flashy or emotionally overwrought singer - Panton simply and deftly presents the songs so the listener can take them in without being distracted by vocal pyrotechnics. With her soft, sweet voice and sincere delivery you can really believe it when she sings “This is my first affair” on Please Be Kind and on Wouldn’t It Be Loverly when she pines for “a room somewhere, far away from the cold night air” you just want to run right out and find her one!

If you’re a fan of Panton’s, or if you’re looking for an album of thoughtful, accessible songs, beautifully sung and played, “Pink” would be a wonderful addition to your collection.


02_blipsBlips and Ifs

Gino Robair; Birgit Ulher

Ratascan Records BRD 062 (www.ratascan.com)

Percussion doesn’t have to involve bombast, beats or even a full drum set. That’s the idea of Californian Gino Robair who played with Toronto improvisers at Somewhere There the last week of November.

Robair, a Free Music veteran who uses drums as resonators for bowed, scraped and rubbed objects and amplifies his instrument using circuit-bending electronics, demonstrates the resulting sonic freedom on the onomatopoeically titled “Blips and Ifs”. Partnered by German trumpeter Birgit Ulher, whose understated brass timbres are processed through radio speakers, the two express the cited sounds and many others in seven improvisations.

The resulting duo recital is equal parts pressured air, droning pulses, unexpected pauses and circuitous wave forms. Throughout the two expose unique timbres which see-saw during contrapuntal improvisations. Ulher combines mouthpiece kisses, static air wafting and, tongue thumps with suggestions that she’s masticating each tone individually. Robair’s contribution includes blurry machine oscillations, intermittent rumbles, slide whistle-like peeps and percussive timbres that could arise from dominos clacking against one another, sticky door hinges yawning, or unyielding metal being rubbed by blunt objects.

Circular and contrapuntal, the CD reaches its climax with the lengthy Rings Another Rust. Mesmerizing, the Ulher-Robair face-off depends on the ramping tension engendered accelerating in short bursts and then subsiding. Since almost no instrumental timbre is instantly identifiable by its expected properties, the pleasure of this exercise in abstract improvisation lies in itemizing how frequently and how surprisingly new and unexpected connective textures are exposed.

Ken Waxman

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