Creating an entire program of integrated story and sound has long been a hallmark of western music. Just because the 20th and 21st centuries have given composers not only more instruments and modes to work with but also the possibility of adding aleatoric passages hasn`t lessened such projects’ appeal. Unlike the sometimes ill-conceived so-called jazz musicals of the past, today’s improvisers have the skills needed to link a coherent story line with creative sounds.

Waxman 01 IntergalacticScience fiction in its many forms fascinates many of these composers and the appeal of Intergalactic Beings (FPE Records FPE 02 is how composer/flutist Nicole Mitchell leads her ten-member ensemble in interpreting a theme that’s far from common. Mitchell’s nine-part suite uses vocal and instrumental emphasis to interpret the Xenogenesis trilogy of books by Octavia Butler (1947-2006), whose post-feminist Afro-futurism deals with racial and sexual ambiguity. Briefly Intergalactic Beings posits a post-apocalyptic world where the few remaining humans must mate with tentacle-grasping aliens with superior genes in order for humanity to survive. This obviously isn’t Hello Dolly or Chicago. Throughout the alternating lyrical soprano and guttural alto shadings of Mankwe Ndosi’s voice express the nuances of the tale, with tracks like “Cycle of Metamorphosis” including such phrases as “transformation to save the nation” to propel the storyline. As Ndosi’s verbal exposition moves through pseudo-orgasmic cries, renal murmurs and finally triumphant cosmic-like hallelujahs, the score is advanced by timbral dislocation. Chamber-like concentration, mostly from violin, cello and double bass, mates with tougher interjections from Jeff Parker’s flanging guitar twangs, crying triple-tongued melisma from David Boykin’s reeds, plus the composer’s tongue-fluttering, sometimes doubled by Renée Baker’s violin strokes. As concentrated multiphonics from the strings, horns and dual percussionists intersect in lumbering, gentling or staccato sequences intermingling sexuality is alluded to and resolved. The verbalized “hope is a memory” serves as a leitmotif for the adjoining Web of Hope/Fields of Possibility as marimba pops, trumpet bites and concentrated string sweeps presage the resolution. By the final The Inevitable, combative dissonance is put aside for a contrapuntal near-waltz from strings and vocalist. Fortissimo flute patterns backed by magisterial drum clunks and muted triplets from trumpeter David Young confirm the humanness remaining in the newly born third gender. A descriptive coda recaps the initial fragile human theme, with jagged note patterns toughening it to suggest the existence of a new identity – and corpus.

Waxman 02 WrackAmerican literature with fantastical implants is the theme of Awaits Silent Tristero’s Empire (Singlespeed Music SSM-014 by oboist/English horn player Kyle Bruckmann’s seven-piece avant chamber ensemble Wrack. The four-part composition suggests moods engendered by Thomas Pynchon’s best-known novels. Thematic, but not literal, the sometimes dour Pynchon would probably be surprised to hear how much buoyant humour Bruckmann has injected into his interpretations. “Gravity’s Rainbow” for instance moves from discordant vibrations pumped out by scrubbing strings and siren-like brass until a rim shot from drummer Tim Daisy pushes the theme into cabaret territory. From then on the piece bounces from broken triplet tones propelled by trumpeter Darren Johnston, a Burlington, Ontario native, backed by string hammering from bassist Anton Hatwich; to slurping tonguing from Bruckmann and bass clarinetist Jason Stein; through a folk-like stretch from violist Jen Clare Paulson, finally dissolving into barnyard-like cacophony with moos and caws mixed among instrumental tones. Retreating from tailgate slurs from trombonist Jeb Bishop, the final sequence suggests what would happen if a string duo was lost on the vast prairies. Wrack manages to add a contrapuntal tango beat from huffing horns and stolid double bass into “The Crying of Lot 49,” preceding Daisy’s scene-setting drumming with the same finesse exhibited in bass drum thumps, snare paradiddles and cymbal clanks. But it’s V, Pynchon’s best-known book which gets extensive treatment. Complex enough to zigzag through many themes and counter themes, the music reflects the book’s time-dislocated thesis. Highlights include, on the somber side, Bishop’s dark and dirty blues sequence that is accompanied by slap bass and two-beat drumming; and for a lively change of pace, Stein’s hyper-macho descending split tones that are eventually moderated by airy flutter tonguing from English horn and trumpet. In complete contrast is a midsection line that starts off Jazz Age processional yet ends up with freilicher-like joyousness propelled by parallel counterpoint from viola and oboe. The exaggerated swing that pops out here and there throughout the tracks, like raisins in cereal, is eventually regularized into a salutary conclusion.

Waxman 03 JoinWith instant communication having moved from the stuff of sci-fi to everyday, Viennese flugelhornist Franz Koglmann’s satiric opera about marketing communications and big business is as topical as it is musically thrilling. With a libretto by Alfred Zellinger in English and German, Join! (ORF-CD 3177, features a 19-piece orchestra and eight major singing roles. Throughout, the score, a cunning pastiche of Broadway musical conventions, burlesque rock’n’roll and pseudo-classical tropes plus jazz, is used to comment upon the action. The gloomy inverse of How to Succeed in Business, Join! follows the corporate machinations of company managers who want to transform society with its new product – an implanted microchip which allows the recipient to be universally connected. Sound familiar? Throughout, obbligatos including jeering trumpet smears and violin plucks underline and mock the characters’ self-satisfied arrogance. Listen to the pseudo-bluesy piano interlude that accompanies the marketing director’s plaint “Ich bin perfect;” or a string-strong operatic underpinning of a soprano’s hymn to “corporate responsibility, fair trade” and “the end of privacy.” At mid-point, swelling orchestral motifs reach a crescendo as the company sings: “Communication is our product/everytime, everywhere/wireless directly/from brain to brain/future is our business/a better life our promise.” Following a demonstration of the product by the soprano singing in a sexy German-accented purr: “My profile is updated/my inbox frequented…I have the chip and you can have it too/so join with me the New Society,” a rousing celebration of so-called intelligent design echoes from the company. Underlining the globalization of this totalitarian technology-commerce mix, Koglmann’s soundtrack includes fake Tijuana Brass mariachi styling played by garish trumpet and wheezy English horn, backing the model and product manager; plus when the chorus urges adherence to “the new society” while harmonizing in the manner of 1950s pop groups, the hand-clapping accompaniment includes Jerry Lee Lewis-styled piano slides and some rockabilly double bass slaps. Finally, following clashes with social activists and an insider trading scandal, given greater impact by harsh guitar flanges and dissonant horn breaks, those pressing for robotic transformation are put in their place. But with a dreamy cha-cha encompassing the composer’s flugelhorn obbligato leading to a tender duet between the C.E.O.-baritone and the microchip-implanted soprano, has the idea been thwarted or just delayed?

Waxman 04 HeroesIgnoring literary and futuristic input, Italian composer Michael Lösch goes in the other direction with Heroes (Sweet Alps Productions Commissioned by an Italian jazz festival, pianist/organist Lösch wrote a seven-part suite commemorating the Tyrolean Rebellion of 1809. Using a pocket orchestra of eight, prominently featuring American trumpeter Steven Bernstein, the suite is joyously post-modern and more jokey than jingoist. Most of the titles use a variant of the first name of Andreas Hofer (1767-1810), who led the rebellion against the French and Bavarian occupation. Following a few victories he surrendered, fled, was captured and summarily executed. A Louis Riel-like figure, over the years Hofer has become revered as folk hero and patriot. With the program only reflected in the titles, Lösch’s pieces stand on their own, with many – especially the punning introduction “Ander Title” and the equivalent conclusion “Ander Water” – expressing a mixture of Italian folk dances, Austrian oom-pah and heroic pseudo-marches featuring organ accents that could come from 1960s private eye TV shows. At the same time because it’s a contemporary suite, sophisticated references to other situations are added via performance visuals (seen in the booklet) plus snatches of speeches, poems, gunfire and voices on a couple of tracks. Alto saxophonist Florian Bramböck’s sharp edges suggest the rebellion’s triumphant moments and baritone saxophonist Helga Plankensteiner’s deep lowing the more melancholy ones. No matter how cacophonous the style mixing and pacing becomes, pushed at its speediest by the ringing flanges and pulsating electronics from guitarist Enrico Merlin, forward motion is never lost. Beside the composer’s sympathetic piano comping or organ smears, Bernstein leaps like a mountain goat over the contrapuntal program using warm flutter tonguing or muted grace notes to herd stray sounds and keep things exciting.

Whether they’re celebrating the past or exploring the future, thematic compositions continue to be a part of jazz-identified music. Followers of the genre that mixes a story with well-played music would be advised to look beyond traditional sources to investigate unanticipated gems like the sessions here. 

Broomer 01 Peripheral VisionSeveral Toronto musicians have recently released projects that play creatively with genre expectations. Bassist Michael Herring and guitarist Don Scott formed Peripheral Vision in 2008 as a vehicle for their compositions and a contemporary fusion style that incorporates jazz elements with sometimes rock-derived rhythms and a full complement of guitar pedals. They’re joined on Sheer Tyranny of Will ( by tenor saxophonist Trevor Hogg and drummer Nick Fraser. The interest in composition is real and the concentration on the music’s total effect extends to the judicious use of studio resources: both Herring’s “Wiretap” and the title tune develop complex moods through contrasting segments and Scott’s overdubbed guitar parts. Peripheral Vision may be at its best, though, on simpler material: “Charleston Heston” has a tremendous buoyancy, with Scott and Hogg floating aloft on the rhythmic verve that Herring and Fraser can generate.

Broomer 02 holy heart of meSince emerging in the group Chelsea Bridge two decades ago, Nova Scotia-born singer Tena Palmer has not just welcomed new challenges and repertoire but sought them out, whether it’s an expedition into free improvisation, an evening of bossa nova or her own blends of jazz and Celtic music. Holy Heart of Me (TLP 002 is a collection of original songs recorded in Iceland with a band called T.I.N.T., or There Is No Them. It would be difficult to corral it into any single genre, whether some subset of folk, rock, pop or jazz, but it’s all imbued with an expressive intensity in which the sensuous and spiritual blur into one another. The frameworks, created largely by guitarist Hilmar Jensson and percussionist Matthias Hemstock, tend towards almost hypnotic, minimalist electronica, spare fields that set Palmer and her songs in stark relief. While Palmer and Jensson might easily carry it all, there are some wonderful guest appearances, among them New Brunswick cornetist Roland Bourgeois on “Golden Rod” and Icelander Omar Gudjonsson playing burbling sousaphone on the title track.

Broomer 03 Lina AllemanoNamed a “trumpeter of the future” by DownBeat magazine a few years ago, Lina Allemano has touched many of the usual bases, from playing with big bands like NOJO to a host of small bands. Her best vehicle has undoubtedly been her own quartet Four, releasing five CDs of increasingly distinguished and distinctive free-bop over the past decade. While that band continues – joyously so – Allemano is also taking other paths, exploring free improvisation in Europe and studying extended trumpet techniques like multiphonics and circular breathing. The fruits of those explorations are apparent in the first release by her new group Titanium Riot. On Kiss the Brain (Lumo Records LM 2014-6, Allemano is a central organizing intelligence set free in imaginative soundscapes created by the bleeps and whistles of Ryan Driver’s analogue synthesizer, Rob Clutton’s churning bass and Nick Fraser’s randomizing percussion. She emerges as a trumpeter of the future more clearly than ever before, a probing, thoughtful improviser who can create form with a few well-placed blasts. The music is as surreal as the names of the pieces, the muddy antique organ tones of “Nose-Coloured Glasses” as oddly compelling as the piece’s title.

Broomer 04 holy sevenMeanwhile in Montreal, bassist Nicolas Caloia is responsible for one of the great institutions of current Canadian jazz, the Ratchet Orchestra, a sprawling ensemble of up to 30 musicians that for more than two decades has been defining its own identity while paying tribute to the exotic space music of Sun Ra. It’s hard to imagine Caloia’s vehicle reduced to an all-star quartet, but that’s precisely the case with Tilting in which the bassist is joined by Jean Derome on baritone and alto saxophones and bass flute, pianist Guillaume Dostaler and drummer Isaiah Ceccarelli. When guests arrive – bass clarinetist Lori Freedman and alto saxophonist Yves Charuest – they too are members of Ratchet Orchestra. On Holy Seven (Barnyard Records BR0336, Tilting approaches jazz from an oblique angle, from its devotion to low frequency horns, insistent ascending patterns, moderate tempos and lumpy rhythms, all highlighted and exaggerated by Dostaler’s piano which seems to present every chord as equal part speculation and dare. The music is filled with rare emotion, whether it’s a haunted blues or a listing joy, testament to the band’s strong sense of communication and purpose as well as Derome’s singular power on baritone.

Broomer 05 Yves LeveilleThe Montreal mainstream is well represented by two very different pianist-composers’ new releases on the Effendi label. On Essences Des Bois (Effendi Records FND131, Yves Léveillé puts composition and orchestration solidly in the foreground, crafting strong melodies and moods for a septet that features a quartet of different winds, most of them high pitched. With Roberto Murray on soprano and alto saxophones, François Richard on flute and alto flute, Marjorie Tremblay on oboe and English horn and Simon Aldrich on clarinet and bass clarinet, Léveillé develops ensembles that are both light and distinctive. His work often has the character of chamber music (Les Six come to mind), enhancing its cool jazz dimension with more current modal harmonies. Each of the players is an accomplished soloist, evident here in individual features. While it’s often pleasant enough to drift toward the background, sudden inspired bursts keep a listener engaged.

Broomer 06 Vincent GagnonWorking in a more conventional quintet format on Tome 3: Errances (Effendi Records FND132), Vincent Gagnon brings great energy, drive and spontaneity to his work, whether exploring extended ballads or dense up-tempos, often with a Middle Eastern tinge. He has a powerful rhythm section in bassist Guillaume Bouchard and drummer Michel Lambert and a fine saxophonist in the smooth-toned Alain Boies, but it’s really tenor saxophonist Michel Côté who draws the most attention other than the pianist. Côté has a distinctive sound, a rough gauze-like quality that’s especially effective on Gagnon ballads like “Ce qu’il reste de la nuit” and “Parfois l’aube.” Gagnon uses repeated phrases in his solos, building tension and a cumulative energy that presses this music forward. It’s particularly effective on “Baltique Karma. ”

05 Jazz 04 Roseanna VitroClarity – Music of Clare Fischer
Roseanna Vitro
Random Acts Records RAR1016CD (

With the passing of gifted Los Angeles-based composer/arranger/keyboardist Clare Fischer, not only did El Lay lose one of its top creative innovators, but the international music community also lost an artist who, since his 1962 LP Bossa Nova Jazz Samba with the late Bud Shank, had consecrated himself to the genres of Afro-Carribbean, Brazilian and a wide variety of Centro/Sul American Musics – notably represented in his 1981 GRAMMY-winning Clare Fischer and Salsa Picante Present 2 + 2.

With the release of her latest recording, NYC jazz vocalist/educator/composer/arranger Roseanna Vitro (along with producer Paul Wickliffe) has not only framed a gorgeous tribute to the work of Fischer, but has successfully expanded the jazz canon by deftly mining the exquisite, harmonically complex music that is Clare Fischer’s legacy. The CD includes six of Fischer’s never previously sung compositions (some with new original lyrics), and is also the first and only vocal book developed by a solo singer of his music.

Accompanying Vitro on this remarkable journey are her longtime collaborators, including pianist/arranger Mark Soskin as well as Weather Report percussionist Mino Cinelu. Standout tracks include a fresh, percussive, scat-filled take on “Morning” and also “Life’s Journey,” which features a complex, rhythmic arrangement and dynamic work by violinist Sara Caswell and pianist Soskin. One track stands alone in its perfection – the deeply moving ballad “Sleep My Child,” a flawless musical diamond around which Vitro wraps her rich, luxurious contralto.

Vitro is not only a consumate jazz vocalist, but through the auspices of this important artistic project, she has also emerged as a true conservateur and curator of jazz.


05 Jazz 05 Glen HallOverheard Conversations
Glen Hall; Bernie Koenig
Slam Productions CD 552 (

A reflective and comfortable musical conversation between reeds and percussion, the dozen brief duets by Toronto saxophonist/flutist Glen Hall and drummer/vibraphonist Bernie Koenig from London, Ontario have all the hallmarks of overheard dialogue. Some interjections are predictably of paramount interest to those involved; others, which stretch the capacities of the instruments and musicians, are as insightful as discussions from more formally organized sessions. Seemingly recorded in real time, luckily the discourse intensifies as it evolves.

While Hall gradually defines his parameters with tenor and soprano saxophone slurs and smears via John Coltrane’s influence, Koenig’s drum pulses are a bit more rigid, not really coming into strong focus until – and perhaps because of – “Time for a Stiff Drink.” Mixing martial-like ruffs with supple rolls, he meets Hall’s mellow elaborations head on and effectively. From then on sound snatches capture a wide-ranging conversation. Snaky bass flute timbres countered by off-centre plops suggest Arabic music on Trust Me, while rugged reed split tones attain screaming heights on “Things Are Looking Up” though the drummer’s carefully paced beats keep the theme chromatic. Additionally the whap of sticks on Mylar and wood during “Look at Her!” insinuate two percussionists at work as Hall’s altissimo snarls create a fanciful verbalization of overbearing Buddy Rich strokes backing “Caravan” played by Albert Ayler.

Like old friends winding down their conversation before they part, the reedist and percussionist save their excursions into chamber jazz for the last few duets. With Koenig’s sparkling vibraphone strokes attaining sonorous swing, the unique multi-colours Hall sources from his flute on tunes such as “I Understand Why You Are So Melancholy” reflect the skills of these sophisticated communicators who can comfortably express emotions instrumentally.

Concert Note: Glen Hall’s Rub out the Word: A William S. Burroughs Centennial Event is at The Music Gallery November 7.

06 Jazz 01 Coltrane - Offering Temple 001Offering: Live at Temple University
John Coltrane
Impulse! B0019632-02

No musician in jazz has created the stylistic transformations of John Coltrane, moving in little more than a decade through the harmony-rooted “sheets of sound” of the late 1950s and the modal period typified by his hit My Favorite Things in the early 1960s, ultimately to embrace and extend the most intense form of free jazz, “energy music,” in the two years prior to his death in 1967. This 2CD set presents a relatively well-recorded concert in Philadelphia just eight months before his death.

Coltrane’s last band was characterized by the rapid fluttering scales of pianist Alice Coltrane, the dense percussive fields generated by drummer Rashied Ali and, exceeding Coltrane himself in turbulent fury, saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, generating mad wails and honks that somehow erupted into polyphony. On this occasion, the band was augmented by a complement of four hand drummers and two young saxophonists sitting in.

The repertoire was already classic Coltrane – Naima, Crescent, My Favorite Things – but the treatment rarely is. This is jazz eschatology, religious and revolutionary, a vision of heaven and hell in which sounds may writhe in ecstasy or torment. Coltrane’s own sound is transformed by a tight vibrato and when he has taken his horn to its expressive limit he turns to chanting, pounding his chest for vibrato, in a performance that is as much rite as concert. This music has divided jazz audiences for half a century and still demands to be heard.

06 Jazz 02 Elizabeth ShepherdSignal
Elizabeth Shepherd
Linus 270197 (

Elizabeth Shepherd continues on her unique musical path with her latest album Signal. Straddling genres such as jazz, lounge and soul (think Björk meets James Blake meets Stevie Wonder) the talented keyboardist, songwriter and singer combines funky rhythms, moody modes and thoughtful, obscure lyrics to create her sound. Co-produced by Shepherd and John Maclean, the liberal use of effects, samples and unusual instruments enrich the soundscape and elucidate the messages of the songs, such as on Another Day which starts with a news clip about a race riot before launching into a chanty groove. Words from folk-blues legend Ledbelly open B.T. Cotton and the use of steel pan drums keeps us on our sonic toes. What’s Happening is surely one of the prettiest songs ever written about political ugliness.

Many accomplished players who are regulars with Shepherd’s band fill out the tracks including Colin Kingsmore on drums and Ross McIntyre on bass. Guests include guitarist and Herbie Hancock band-member, Lionel Loueke, and the velvety voiced Alex Samaras. Shepherd favours minor keys and edgy harmonic relationships and by about the seventh track I found myself craving some nice cheery major chords. But if you’re in the frame of mind for a heady, complex listen, Signal will do the job well. Shepherd is touring in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico this fall.

Concert Note: Shepherd performs with Kingsmore, Kevin Turcotte, Thom Gill and Scott Kemp at the Music Gallery on November 15.

06 Jazz 03 Bollani - Joy in Spite 001Joy in Spite of Everything
Stefano Bollani
ECM 2360

Stefano Bollani belongs to a bel canto school of Italian jazz musicians, like the superb trumpeter Enrico Rava, with whom he has worked extensively, and fellow pianist Enrico Pieranunzi, who has brought a heightened timbral grace to the harmonic style of Bill Evans. Further, the German ECM label has long recorded pianos with rare sonic allure. That combination may assure surface beauty, but there’s more here than that. Bollani is joined by his usual partners, bassist Jesper Bodilsen and drummer Morten Lund, along with two American masters of nuance and tone, tenor saxophonist Mark Turner and guitarist Bill Frisell, the five exploring formats that range from duo to full quintet.

The title may tell all: the music is usually joyous (conspicuous from the opening calypso Easy Healing) but it’s an insistent joy, earned in the rich depths and contradictions of experience. The group has a collective ability to deal lightly with complexity, evident in No Pope No Party with its distinct and playful mix of 50s cool jazz and contemporary angularity. It’s apparent as well in Bollani’s trio feature, Alobar e Kudra, as he ranges from the limpid to the crisp.

It’s ultimately the sense of dialogue and shared vision, though, which gives this music its depth, apparent on Las Hortensias, Bodilsen’s bass line rising to entwine with saxophone and piano, and on Ismene, where guitar, piano and drums create liquid pools of light.

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