Exceptional CDs You May
Not Know About

As mass media continues to promote music as another instantly consumed product, the likelihood of new sounds — or even older ones — being ignored because they don’t fit the style of the moment intensifies. This is especially true when it comes to improvised music. But with the holiday season looming, more committed listeners may be seeking gifts for those who appreciate challenge rather than comfort in their music. Here are some CDs from 2013 that fit the bill. They include ones by established players, younger stylists plus important reissues.

waxman 01 live at mayaAnyone who claims that experimental music lacks emotion must hear Evan Parker/Barry Guy/Paul Lytton Live at Maya Recordings Festival (NoBusiness NBCD 55 nobusinessrecords.com). A working trio since 1980, tenor saxophonist Parker, bassist Guy and drummer Lytton invigorate this live set with the combination of precision and passion reminiscent of the most accomplished string quartet performance. Even when he isn’t displaying his characteristic circular-breathed multiphonics, Parker is able to prod showpieces like “Obsidian” and “Gabbro” to slow-boiling intensity. Furthermore his instantly identifiable sound can be relaxed without sacrificing emotion. The bassist’s supple finger movements transcend timekeeping with guitar-like facility below the bridge and other extremities, while Lytton’s shuffles and timed rimshots oppose or connect with either or both of the others’ timbres for maximum satisfying cohesion.

waxman 02 plumeA decade younger than Parker, John Butcher has refined extended saxophone techniques further. Paired with drummer Tony Buck and either guitarist Burkhard Stangl or pianist Magda Mayas, Plume (Unsounds 35 Uunsounds.com) demonstrates that even when stripped of beat and melody unmatched vibrancy remains. Although guitar strums and drum resonance satisfactorily complement Butcher’s narratives which replicate bird chirps and pinched reed sucking, it’s “Vellum,” the piano/drum/sax interface, that’s the stunner. As Buck roughly strokes drum tops to equate cicada-like textures or subtle accents with bell-tree shakes, Mayas’ stopped piano keys and internal string plucks provide a sinewy challenge to Butcher’s klaxon-like tones. When the piano soundboard shakes and string vibrations intensify excitement, the saxophonist responds with amplified growls and snorts and the drummer with heartbeat-like thumps. Moving forward chromatically, the mood is intensified with an undercurrent of restrained power. Finally as Mayas’ rummaging in the piano’s innards gives way to pummelling strokes and Butcher’s tongue slaps are replaced by violent staccato trills, parallel release is achieved.

waxman 03 lingeThen same age as Butcher, French soprano saxophonist Michel Doneda has also refined and extended Parker’s tonal experiments. Linge (Umlaut Records umfrcd 07 umlautrecords.com) was recorded in an old barn in Eastern France to organically maximize the spatial properties during his duet with clarinetist Joris Rühl (b.1982). As they work their way through seven sequences, what’s produced are distinctive improvisations that are as frequently created from parallel blowing as intermingled timbres. Concentrated in the highest register of the sound spectrum an amazing multiplicity of tones is still heard. Manipulating air currents as much as reed and key properties, the two attain such a harmonic level that there are points where the sounds are identical to those of a boys’ choir. Other times masticating reed- and tongue-popping extrusions produce a cubist-like perspective. Staccato chirps, flatline blowing and gravelly motions are all present. Only on the penultimate track are individual traits identifiable as Doneda concentrates on split-tone buzzing and Rühl on lyrical and communicative textures. 

waxman 04 lori freedmanAnother reed experimenter is Montreal-based clarinetist Lori Freedman, whose seven improvisations on On No On (Mode Avant 16 moderecords.com) are with percussionist John Heward. Related to the cerebral texture and timbre experiments of Butcher/Buck or Parker/Lytton, there’s no chordal instrument present to smooth the interface. The chief pleasure of these tracks is noting the substance of Freedman’s reed flurries and the strategies Heward pulls from his kit to parry her thrusts. Using his palms as often as sticks, Heward’s whacks or rolls are singular replies to the reed solos which frequently extend like run-on sentences, adding violent or narrowed projections to make a point. Marimba-like reverberations are called into play on those rare occasions when Freedman’s output turns legato. Overall while technical prowess is the point, by the final “Improvisation 7,” the narrative turns from squeaks and shudders to an almost jaunty melodiousness.

waxman 05 mitchell fictionThis sort of intense improvising also involves the piano, as Philadelphia’s Matt Mitchell proves with Fiction (Pi Recordings PI 50 pirecordings.com). Mitchell’s approach is linear as well as forceful, and with the help of Ches Smith, who plays drums, percussion and vibraphone, the 15 tracks showcase a rapprochement between cerebral improvisation and the power of rock-influenced beats. Coming across like a super-powered mixture of Earl Hines and Cecil Taylor, Mitchell’s slashing lines show that he has a thorough grounding in contemporary jazz pianism, yet can slither note clusters into the furthest nooks of the keyboard if need be. On a track like “Dadaist Flu” he appears to output separate lines with either hand; while others, like “Veins” paste abstraction onto the song form. The extended “Action Field” is a microcosm of his work, shaped like an intermezzo yet with the same intensity in pacing as the rest of the CD. If Mitchell’s playing is sometimes overwhelming and pressured, he’ll likely soon learn to moderate his gifts. He was born in 1975.

waxman 06 kidd jordanStill, age makes little difference in creating exceptional music. No better proof is A Night in November Live in New Orleans (Valid Records VR-1015 validrecords.com), featuring Chicago drummer Hamid Drake, 20 years Mitchell’s senior, and Big Easy saxophonist Kidd Jordan (b.1935). Indefatigable in his solos and with the energy of players one-third his age, the saxophonist is familiar enough with the tradition to deconstruct it at will, as he demonstrates on “Wade in the Water.” At the same time, as someone who has been probing music’s limits since the 1960s Jordan can whip any timbres into a cohesive whole with equal emphasis on brain and heart. Take the tracks from “Tenor and Drums.” As Drake matches his narrative with cymbal clanks and drum bumps, Jordan outputs two theme variations, one moderato and flowing, the other quirky and altissimo. Rather than upsetting a consistent narrative, he then constructs a new exposition from shrill tones.

waxman 07 paul bleyFree-form improvisation can be understated and subtle as well as loud. The pianist who initially melded song form and abstraction was Montreal-born Paul Bley as the classic 1965 Closer (ESP-Disk ESP 1021 espdisk.com) demonstrates.  Newly remastered, the reissue displays with more clarity the pianist’s cleverly shaped and precisely accented tones, Barry Altschul’s nuanced drum accompaniment and the barely there strokes from Steve Swallow’s bass. One marvel is how the pieces are succinctly defined whether from the burrowing keyboard runs and rat-tat-tat drums that advance “Batterie” or from each instrument’s perfect balance on “Ida Lupino.” A factoid: In addition to “Ida Lupino” Bley’s then-wife Carla Bley wrote six of the remaining nine tracks; his next wife, Annette Peacock, wrote the album’s final track, “Cartoon.”  

waxman 08 brotherhood breathMore than tripling the number of players and recorded in 1977, another reissue, Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath Procession: Live at Toulouse (Ogun OGCD 40 ogunrecords@googlemail.com) celebrates an 11-piece band that excitedly added world music currents to advanced jazz. That because the group was split between self-exiled South Africans and experimenting British improvisers. Expanded with three new tracks, this CD includes Evan Parker among the saxes, but the impassioned ballad playing and booming rugged vibrations he and alto saxophonists Mike Osborne and Dudu Pukwana play are in a different sonic zone. Swaying with Africanized rhythms tracks like “You Ain’t Gonna Know Me”… and “Kwhalo” are a delight. Plus the craftiness of the arrangements is such that sounds are both lilting and grounded in technical mastery. Adding just the bare minimum of notes to direct the band like a Cape Town Count Basie, McGregor, plus bassists Johnny Dyanni and Harry Miller plus drummer Louis Moholo – South Africans all – effortlessly induce the beat. But at the same time stimulating horn vamps pull back enough so that notable chases between trumpet triplets and slippery reed extensions are clearly heard.

06 jazz 01 road tripRoad*Trip
Mike McGinnis+9           
RKM Music RKM 014 (rkmmusic.com)

Composer of scores that reflected his twin careers as an academic and notated music composer plus a part-time improvising clarinetist – most notably with his Mills College friend Dave Brubeck – Seattle-based William O. (Bill) Smith (b.1926) gets his just due with this perceptive CD. Organized by young clarinetist Mike McGinnis (b.1973) for his own nine-piece ensemble, the band not only turns in an authoritative version of Smith’s seminal three-movement Concerto for Clarinet and Combo, from 1956, but couples it with McGinnis’ own recently composed Road*Trip for Clarinet & Nine Players

For a start the ensemble’s reading of the concerto proves that unlike some other jazz-and-classical- mixing Third Streamers, Smith certainly was able to swing. As the stimulating theme modulates through big band harmonic flourishes plus carefully stacked orchestral motifs that take advantage of French horn and trombone sonorities, it references the big band arrangements of the likes of Gerry Mulligan as much as Darius Milhaud, with whom Smith and Brubeck studied. Particularly affecting is the conclusion of the second movement when the others play underlying basso timbres as McGinnis’ spiky lines move upwards. Crucially, score fidelity doesn’t stop the program from being a fingersnapper. By its conclusion admiration is as much for the clarinetist negotiating difficult cadenzas a cappella as for the punchy writing.

By definition more modern, Road*Trip’s performance is a bit murkier and more mellow. At the same time McGinnis’ clean solo execution – sometimes staccato and unaccompanied – plus the rubato interpretation of the initial theme by the entire group sensibly reflects Smith’s pioneering work. Here hornist Justin Mullens’ reflective bleats, trumpeter Jeff Hermanson’s plunger timbres and pianist Jacob Sacks’ supportive comping join with drummer Vinnie Sperazza’s measured beats to concentrate accelerating pressure onto the unrolling narrative. With the band’s ululating tonal shifts framing the clarinetist’s flutter-tongued gymnastics, the sense of achievement that follows the suite’s resolution into an advanced swing structure also makes it one road trip worth taking.


05 jazz 01 reflections u of tReflections
Mike Murley; University of Toronto Jazz Orchestra; Gordon Foote
U of T Jazz

Recorded April 8 and 9, 2013 at Revolution Recording Studios, Toronto.

Everybody forgets about the arranger. For example jazz enthusiasts know about the Thelonious Monk big band concert in 1963, but how many know or care that arrangements for much of that great music were by Hal Overton. Or that the landmark recording by Basie of “April In Paris” was arranged by Wild Bill Davis?

The reason for this preamble is that on listening to this album I realized just how essential the arrangements are; so hats off to Mike Murley, Terry Promane, Jef Deegan and John MacLeod who lay down the rich layers of sound which add so much to the original compositions of Mike Murley. If you listen carefully to the final track, “Can’t You See,” you might just recognize the chord changes of “It’s You Or No One.” Murley is the featured soloist displaying his usual formidable talent along with members of the U of T Jazz Orchestra. I am constantly amazed at the technical proficiency of so many of today’s young musicians, talents that are amply demonstrated on this recording, with seven members of the orchestra sharing solo honours with Murley.

The CD will be available through Indie Pool, Amazon and will have distribution on iTunes.

05 jazz 03 don naduriakLive at Musideum
Don Naduriak and Xavierjazz

Don Naduriak piano, Bill McBirnie flute, Russ Little trombone, Duncan Hopkins bass, Joaquin Hidalgo drums. All compositions and arrangements by Don Naduriak.

Don Naduriak has been active in establishing Latin music in Canada with his bands Salsa Con Clave and his current group Xavierjazz. This CD was recorded before an audience at the Musideum. For those of you who are not familiar with the venue, created by composer Donald Quan, it is quite unlike any other in that it is also a retail store situated in downtown Toronto at Richmond and Spadina and stocked with rare and unusual instruments. As a venue it is unique and as a store it is certainly worth visiting even if there is no performance scheduled.

Now to the CD. If you like your music Latin, this is for you. The two horn players handle the ensemble passages fluently and those of you who are familiar with the playing of Russ Little and Bill McBirnie know that the solo department is in good hands. That said, one of the most enjoyable tracks for me, “Big Joe Beam” — nice pun — is a feature for Don Naduriak. This is music performed by gifted artists who are very much at home in the genre and is well worth a listen.

05 jazz 02 michele meleDream
Michele Mele
Independent GKM 1001

In her second inspired collaboration with producer Greg Kavanagh, luminous vocalist and contemporary jazz composer Michele Mele has once again created a recording of original music that is as accessible, captivating and refreshing as a perfect spring day. Mele’s life is her musical canvas, and she allows her clever lyrics and delightfully contagious melodic lines to give us a glimpse into her most intimate feelings — and those relatable, human emotions are consistently rendered with purity, honesty and high musicality.

Dream has been expertly produced and arranged by Kavanagh, and Mele has surrounded herself with a stellar cast that includes trumpet/flugelhorn icon Guido Basso, piano genius Robbi Botos and first-call saxophonist John Johnson. Although Mele never panders to us with over-trodden standards or gratuitous scat singing, she is a serious jazz composer, lyricist and vocalist who simply prefers to colour outside the lines a wee bit — not unlike Bob Dorough, Dave Frishberg, Blossom Dearie or Mose Allison.

Standout tracks include the title song, which lures the listener directly into Mele’s beautiful “dream” — lulled along by the sinewy, rich saxophone of Johnson, Botos’ crystalline piano work and Mele’s sensual and swinging signature vocal sound. The great Guido Basso also lends his own special magic to the CD, particularly on the track “The More” — sung in English, Spanish and French by the multilingual Mele. Also of note are the touching compositions, “Intimacy,” which is breathtakingly beautiful and features a heartrending lyric, and also the witty “Anti-Magiana,” which utilizes intricate Latin rhythms expertly played by brothers Lew and John Mele on bass and drums, as well as richly layered vocal nuances.

05 jazz 05 small choicesSmall Choices
AUT Records 006

Why not improvise on so-called classical music themes is a question increasingly answered in the positive by adventurous players of every genre. Thus the Italian trio involved in Small Choices dedicates more than half this CD to such prestidigitation.

These are serious improvisations, not a jazzy overlay of notated music however. Which means that when bassist Giacomo Papetti, pianist Emanuele Maniscalco and Gabriele Rubino on piccolo, soprano and bass clarinets deal with themes by Sibelius or Ligeti they bring the same freedom to experiment with them as they would with tunes by Ellington or Monk.

“Fine del Tempo,” for instance, inspired by Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps, adds a rhythmic undertow, and before recapping the head, stretches the theme with unbroken trills from Rubino, Papetti’s slap bass plus Maniscalco’s repeated note clusters. On the other hand, Escape from Ainola, taken from Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony, maintains panoramic echoes with resonating chords from the keyboard and a buzzing bass line. Here Rubino creates the bonding ostinato as the others interject sub-motifs or decorate the brooding theme.

Solid definitions and identifications are proven unfeasible on some of the other tracks however. With sweeping piano glissandi, double bass thumps and a melody propelled by delicate soprano clarinet sweeps, “Nascondere” appears to be another contrafact of classical notated music. Instead it’s a completely original composition by Papetti.

Two of the three players here earned advanced conservatory degrees in both notated and improvised music. Although Maniscalco, in contrast, is an autodidact — like Schoenberg and Elgar — this sort of jazz-classical crossover will likely become much more common in the future. “Small Choices” shows the way.

05 jazz 06b terell stafford05 jazz 06a russell maloneTriple Play
Russell Malone
MaxJazz MXJ607

This Side of Strayhorn
Terell Stafford
MaxJazz MXJ408

Here are two releases on the MAXJAZZ label which was founded in 1998 and is now releasing its albums via the MAXJAZZ website and with international distribution by Naxos.

Russell Malone’s Triple Play (Russell Malone guitar, David Wong bass, Montez Coleman drums) features four nicely melodic originals by Malone and seven by others ranging from “Butch And Butch” by Oliver Nelson to the seldom heard “The Kind Of Girl She Is” by Alan and Marilyn Bergman and Dave Grusin. There is also a beautifully sensitive solo performance of the Alex North composition “Unchained Melody.” This is a very satisfying CD and a welcome addition to any jazz collection.

Terrell Stafford’s This Side of Strayhorn features Stafford on trumpet and flugelhorn, Tim Warfield, on soprano and tenor saxophone, Bruce Barth piano, Peter Washington bass and Dana Hall drums. An album dedicated to the compositions of Mr. Strayhorn is off to a good start and this one follows through with some formidable playing by Stafford and his fellow musicians. One of the tracks is “Lana Turner” which, in case you’re wondering, was later re-titled “Charpoy.” The CD is a rich cross-section of Strayhorn’s amazing output, running the gamut from “Lush Life” to “Smada” via “Day Dream.” The excellent arrangements are by Bruce Barth who also adds some first rate solos. But it is the melodic warm sound of Stafford, ably accompanied by Tim Warfield that stays with me.

If these releases are typical of the MAXJAZZ catalogue I can only say that I look forward to hearing more.

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