Guitarist Reg Schwager has worked with some of the most famous performers in jazz, including Diana Krall, George Shearing and Peter Appleyard. In addition to being a distinguished sideman, though, he’s also genuinely adventurous. Schwager has just released two contrasting CDs that testify to the range and quality of his work.

01a-Schwager-Arctic-passageHis duet with pianist David Restivo, Arctic Passage (Rant 1346), presents two musicians gifted in the myriad permutations of melody and harmony, etching work of glittering lyricism. Most of the compositions are Schwager’s own, themes worthy of further exploration, but there are also distinctive accounts of Poor Butterfly and Alexander’s Ragtime Band, each enlivened by thoughtful chordal extensions that are bound to surprise. The dialogue is inevitably reminiscent of the perfect duos recorded by Bill Evans and Jim Hall in the 1960s.

01b-Schwager-trioSchwager and drummer Michel Lambert, one of Quebec’s finest free improvisers, make Schwager’s outer limits more apparent on Trio Improvisations (Rant 1245). It’s a special trio, with three different musicians occupying the third spot. The recordings come from sessions during a six-month period between 2001 and 2002 and include the powerful Coltrane-influenced Toronto saxophonist Michael Stuart, Amsterdam’s anarchic and brilliant pianist Misha Mengelberg (an early influence on the Dutch-born Schwager) and trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, perhaps Canada’s greatest contribution to international jazz. The music is all free improvisation, though in this case that means harmonic and rhythmic structures arise and dissolve with frequency and ease. What makes the set most remarkable is that it’s anything but pastiche. While many CDs from different sessions sound like patchwork quilts, this one sounds like a suite, with a consistent approach that expands outward from Schwager and Lambert and embraces their various guests.

02-Kye-MarshallCellist Kye Marshall has a broad musical background ranging from extensive studies in jazz composition and positions as principal cellist with Toronto’s New Chamber Orchestra and assistant principal cellist with the National Ballet Orchestra. She’s worked extensively both in jazz and improvised music, and she brings all of those skills and inclinations to her Jazz Quartet’s Pencil Blues (Zephyr/Westwind Productions It’s lively, infectious work and Marshall has thoughtfully constructed a string band around her still rather unusual jazz cello, with Don Thompson on bass, Andrew Scott on guitar and Ethan Ardelli on drums. When the group expands for textural reasons, she adds violist Kent Teeple and percussionist Mark Duggan to the ensembles. The feeling’s not unlike the Hot Club of France, and the clear star is Thompson, whose bass playing should be declared a national treasure.

03-Steve-KovenPianist Steve Koven is a crisp modern stylist, an ebullient musician who can move handily from infectious Latin jazz to probing ballads and complex three-way dialogues with the members of his long-standing trio. In fact that’s what has given Koven’s work its greatest dimension, something celebrated on SK3 20 (Bungalow Records SK 009 3), commemorating the 20th anniversary of the group with bassist Rob Clutton and drummer Anthony Michelli. It would be remarkable enough if Koven had held together a band that long with anybody, but he’s done so with two of the most creative musicians that the Toronto scene could provide, evident in the playful funk groove of Lolaland. The CD also comes with a bonus DVD of the group in performance.

04-Curtis-NowosadCurtis Nowosad is a 24-year-old drummer who recently graduated from the University of Manitoba’s Jazz Studies Program. Clearly Nowosad enjoys many kinds of music, and there’s plenty of pop repertoire to go with the hard bop on his debut, The Skeptic & the Cynic (Know-a-sad Music KSM-001, with songs made famous by Michael Jackson, Bob Marley, Pink Floyd, Joni Mitchell and 2Pac Shakur. Nowosad’s band is made up largely of University of Manitoba faculty, with trumpeter Derrick Gardner, saxophonist Jimmy Greene, bassist Steve Kirby and Will Bonness on keyboards (covering piano, Fender Rhodes and Hammond B3) lending tremendous lustre to the proceedings. Clearly Nowosad has been an outstanding student, sounding right at home in this band of veterans, who for their part seem to be enjoying playing signature hard bop on tunes as unlikely as The Way You Make Me Feel and Three Little Birds.

05-Calling-DexterAnother musician employing distinguished talent is saxophonist Cameron Wallis. Calling Dexter ( features pianist André White, bassist Alec Walkington and drummer Dave Laing, who have functioned as the André White Trio for the past 25 years. Wallis is a skilful traditionalist, smoothly negotiating chord changes and swinging with aplomb. If anything, he’s a little too respectful, from the title dedication to Dexter Gordon to liner note invocations of Don Byas and “my two favourite Sonnys.” One of them is definitely Stitt, but Rollins seems too aggressively modern even in his 1950 form to qualify as the other. Wallis demonstrates more flexibility than identity by playing soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and even C melody saxophone, making it hard for a listener to get a sense of a distinctive voice.  

Of all the instruments that needed the advances of free music in the 20th century to show off its true character, it has been the double bass which benefitted most from this situation. Relegated to decorative, scene setting or mere rhythmic functions in conventional classical and jazz performances, it was only when bassists were able to express themselves without restraint that their role grew. By the 21st century in fact, solo bass recitals became as commonplace as those by other instrumentalists. The reason, as these CDs demonstrate, is the arrival of performers who can extract a multiplicity of novel tones, timbres and textures from four tautly wound strings.

01LeandreWolsTake Paris-based Joëlle Léandre for instance. Early in her career she played pieces composed specifically for her by the likes of John Cage and Giacinto Scelsi; now she’s fully committed to free expression. Wols circus: 12 compositions pour contrebasse d’après 12 gravures de Wols (Galerie Hus HUS 112 is particularly fascinating. Using only a bow, the strings, her instrument’s body and her own vocal inflections, Léandre interprets musically engravings by Surrealist artist Otto Wols (1913–1951). Created from 1942–1945, when the Berlin-born Wols was interned as an “enemy foreigner” in France, where he lived from 1932 until his death, the images are as abstract as they are affecting. Making no attempt to literally replicate the drawings in music, Léandre’s sound interpretations move from stentorian to muted, with indistinct, spiccato scrubs as common as Jew’s harp-like twangs. Especially noteworthy is the build-up and release reflected on the successive Topographie, Drei Vingnetten auf einem Blatt and Keiner Fleck. With each sequence three minutes, first abrasive then mellow string sawing fades into occasional arco slides and sul tasto pops with the air vibrated by the bow audible as well. The climax occurs as unison basso string strokes and Léandre’s vocal growls give way to a contrapuntal duet between sharp instrumental lines. Throughout, the bull fiddler provides personalized a view of Wols’ sketches with additional string inventions ranging from squeeze-toy peeps to tremolo bass slaps. Nonetheless the defining performance occurs with Dunkle Stadt, when with intensifying torque she moves from miniscule below-the-bridge plucks to staccato string chirps contrapuntally layered with vocalized faux lyric soprano accents. 

02-JCJonesUnlike Léandre, whose 12 acoustic selections were recorded at one live concert, French-Israeli bassist JC JonesCitations: Solo Bass (Kadima Collective KCR 36 is made up of 17 untitled compositions and improvisations from 2008 to 2012 using acoustic bass or electro-acoustic bass with live electronics. To be honest the computer processes aren’t that prominent; but are mostly used to provide a constant pizzicato undercurrent, while Jones’ arco buzzes add multiphonic sweeps or balladic decorations to the selections. More individual are the improvisations, which sometimes had been created to accompany dancers. On the 11th track for instance, rosin seems to be sliding off the bass strings as Jones slaps them agitato and tremolo so that soundboard thumps resonate throughout the instrument’s body. Buzzing spiccato action with banjo-like plucks from below the bridge succeed spanked string rhythms on the 15th track; while on the fifth Jones manages to sound as if he’s manipulating two basses at once without overdubbing. Here he plucks and shakes the strings in the instrument’s top range while ruggedly double- and triple-stopping from the bottom, resulting in snaps, knocks and pops ricocheting back onto one another. Moreover a track such as 17 sums up all the preceding strategies as Jones manages to isolate three separate theme variations. Not only are stentorian thumps and undulating bow motions heard, but so too is a third tremolo impulse harmonized alongside the first two.

03-AStOngeIf Jones’ electronic interface is limited, Montreal-based Alexandre St-Onge and Norwegian-in-Austin Ingebrigt Håker Flaten draw more textures to their finger tips by utilizing amplified electric basses on their solos sessions. A member of bands such as Klaxon Gueule, as well as studying for his PhD in art, St-Onge describes himself as a sound performer and the six selections on Ailleurs (&records ET18 are studded as much with signal-processed drones and splutters as reflective string modulations. Layering the sequences with loops that replicate sounds ranging from ring-modulator whooshes to bell ringing and distorted flanges, the basic double bass-like rhythmic qualities of the instrument are muted. Only on the fifth track does the tremolo, dial-twisting exposition pull back enough for a semi-acoustic interlude. Here juddering bass-string plucks can be heard contrapuntally advancing the narrative, which is still decorated with additional droning lines and wiggling voltage-affiliated cries. The achievement of Ailleurs is that by mutating its intonation and freeing the bass from its limitations as a purely rhythmic instrument a new interface appears. The reverberating result is of an expansive formula that evocatively builds on expected bull fiddle timbres the way a realistic photograph could be the basis for a surrealistic art

04-BirdsIHFAs abstract in execution as St-Onge and as familiar with as many electronic extensions, on the six tracks which make up Birds – Solo Electric (Tektite Records, Ingebrigt Håker Flaten at least follows the convention of titling his tracks. Known for his membership in bands such as The Thing and Atomic, he’s able to play the electric bass in such a way to suggest multiple instruments. The most breathtaking instance of this occurs on Chicago. Pulsating the top string of his highly amplified bass with spiccato pressure, Flaten produces timbres that could as easily have come from a bagpipe chanter or a piccolo trumpet. At the same time modulated feedback decorates the exposition, while a legato theme is heard from the top guitar-like strings. Eventually this broken-octave display fades into measured stops. Mercurial and rubato, many of the other tones in his improvisations sound as if they are extended by an e-bow. Take a track like Lucia. Here string slaps alternate with flanges that could come from backward running tapes, until a vigourous melody surmounts those sounds. Whistles, whooshes, crackles and other amplified flutters predominate throughout, but when Flaten strikes or scrapes the strings with firecracker-like resonation, he confirms the true instrumental origin of the performances.

With the creativity on display on any one of these CDs so obvious, hearing the bass used merely for decorative or rhythmic functions in the future will likely be disappointing for many.

05 The White SpotThe White Spot
Way Out Northwest
Relative Pitch
RPR 1006 (

Perhaps it should be called a North American Free Improv Agreement or NAFIA. Every time experimental British saxophonist John Butcher plays in the northwestern part of this continent his trio is made up of two Vancouver-based players: bassist Torsten Müller and drummer Dylan van der Schyff. Listening to the nine pitch-perfect improvisations on this disc demonstrates why this configuration has been maintained since 2007.

The veteran bassist, who is perfectly capable of atonal string-stretching and scrubbed pulsations, is careful to maintain a connective pumping throughout. Liberated by that stance, the drummer has the freedom to make strategic moves involving everything from cymbal snaps and woodblock clipping, the better to complement Butcher’s narratives.

Probably the easiest entry point to the poised intensity from this balanced trio is Earlianum. With Müller’s accompaniment low-pitched and rhythmic, Butcher’s tenor sax exposition is so well-modulated it could be from Coleman Hawkins, until he opens up the piece with shaking vibrations and quivering multiphonics, which are shadowed by the drummer’s clicks and clatters. As the saxophonist’s part evolves to reed bites plus staccato split tones, van der Schyff introduces muscular ruffs and the bassist’s part is transformed from stentorian tremolo strokes to razor’s edge slices and stops.

This interaction is emphasized throughout the disc. No matter how many triple-stopping bass runs, drumstick-on-cymbals shrills or strident reed-shattering banshee wails are heard, skilful equilibrium allows the tunes to impress as they flow chromatically. Comparison of NAFIA with NAFTA makes it clear that cooperation involving disparate musicians easily trumps any tripartite agreement dreamed up by politicians


01 Matt DuskMy Funny Valentine –
The Chet Baker Songbook
Matt Dusk
Eone Music

Toronto-based singer Matt Dusk has just released My Funny Valentine: The Chet Baker Songbook. Given the title, one might think the album would bear some resemblance to the late singer and trumpet player’s work. While many of the songs on the disc were signatures for Baker, he was not a songwriter and these are standards that have been covered by many, many performers over the years. Additionally, Dusk — a self-described crooner — has a very different singing style than Baker, who had a quiet and vulnerable approach to song delivery. To their credit, neither Dusk nor guest trumpeters Arturo Sandoval and Guido Basso attempt to imitate Baker’s sound. All are fine musicians in their own right and take their own approach.

So if it’s not really about Chet Baker then what is it? Dusk and team (co-producers Terry Sawchuk and Shelly Berger) set out to “recreate a nostalgic musical experience” by producing a substantial album with a musical narrative intended to take the listener on a journey. In that they have succeeded utterly. The beautiful artwork and photographs — mostly of Dusk in various suits and settings — evoke years gone by. And the music, complete with horns and sweeping orchestral arrangements, has style and heft. Baker was a poster boy for the spare, laid back West Coast/cool jazz sound and his most popular music was performed with just a quartet. So, certainly enjoy Dusk’s album on its own merits, but listen to the original for a sense of what Baker was all about.

02 FluiDensityFluiDensity
Brian Groder; Tonino Miano
Latham Records/Impressus Records

Here is a recording of free improvisation that channels the players’ multiple sources to combine American jazz and European art music. Related to the tradition of “free jazz” founded by Cecil Taylor at the end of the 1950s, this way of making music requires prodigious rhythmic assurance and close attention to moment-to-moment events. Recording it is the exacting art of the single take: no editing, no overdubs, nowhere to hide.

The players are engaged in a kind of collective creation that balances the strong individualism of each against the duo’s ability to meld their ideas. In this, Groder and Miano happily avoid standard improvisational techniques of simple imitation or “default” roles such as soloist and accompanist.

Miano’s virtuosity is all over the piano. He is most often the “dense” to Groder’s “fluid” in this equation. He never lacks for textural and gestural ideas that contribute a sense of designed space to the improvisations, his harmonies ranging from modal to atonal.

Groder’s sound is the more deeply “jazz,” especially in the way a jazz wind player accesses quasi-vocal lyricism. His phrasing, articulation, pitch modulations and Miles Davis-like staccato identify him as the American in this European-American pairing. The lonely, elegiac solo trumpet is an iconic 20th century American sound that here avoids cliché by virtue of its sincerity.

03 RecallRecall
Gilbert Isbin; Scott Walton

Very little contemporary music has been written for the lute. While the guitar has been featured prominently throughout the 20th century, the lute can often feel like it belongs to another era entirely. Gilbert Isbin seeks to remedy this with his latest disc. Recorded in October of 2011, Recall features Isbin on lute and Scott Walton on bass.

The disc contains a series of short compositions and improvisations. Although much of the material is thematically linked, each piece begins to feel like its own short story. Interplay is emphasized here with both performers skilfully manoeuvring between composed sections and more freely improvised passages. This is evident on the track Pensive, with Isbin laying down a harmonic foundation for Walton’s extended bowing techniques. The result is akin to a short piece by Morton Feldman. Timbre is important throughout the set and delicate unison passages can often give way to more turbulent textures. Flutter is a good example of this, with the duo settling into a groove before evolving naturally into a section of free improvisation. This configuration allows for a great deal of space in the music that each performer seems comfortable exploring. Overall, this is a very engaging set from two creative musicians.

04 Alex PangmanHave a Little Fun
Alex Pangman; Bucky Pizzarelli
Justin Time JTR 8578-2

It’s difficult not to greet a new Alex Pangman record with a smile and sense of gratitude. The Toronto-based singer has suffered for years with cystic fibrosis and a few years ago, her health had deteriorated to the point where she didn’t have the strength to stand up to sing. Then she received an organ donation and underwent a successful double lung transplant. For anyone, that is a major gift, but for a singer, it’s nothing short of a miracle to be able to perform again.

Pangman has been going strong ever since and her latest CD Have a Little Fun is aptly named. Continuing in the style she has for years — covering music from the 20s, 30s and 40s — this CD has the added bonus of the éminence grise Bucky Pizzarelli. The American guitarist has played with many legendary musicians including Les Paul, Stéphane Grapelli and Benny Goodman, and his calm, collected rhythm playing is a steady presence throughout the record. Although the songs are mostly medium and up tempo and have a veneer of fun, the lyrics run the gamut of the human condition describing loss, yearning and regret along with happiness and good times. Along with standards like Stardust and I’m Confessin’ are a few of Pangman’s own compositions and one, It Felt So Good To Be So Bad, is a standout. And, really, who among us can’t relate to that sentiment?

Back to top