13 Mark DresserTines of Change
Mark Dresser
Pyroclastic Records PR 25 (store.pyroclasticrecords.com) 

Art isn’t static, and by virtue it cannot exist in a vacuum. Just as a previously unnoticed detail in a painting can irrevocably alter the beholder’s perspective of it, knowledge of the context music is made in can change the listening experience entirely. I happened to come across Mark Dresser’s Tines of Change relatively versed in his musical output, experientially familiar with the inner workings of an upright bass and having superficially researched the intricacies of the custom bass used on this album. I cannot speak to how a first listen without this context would diverge from my own experience, but the beauty of improvised music of this unbridled nature is that nobody’s perspective holds more value than another’s. 

The third track on this album is titled Harmonity, and even the context I had going into it couldn’t save me from its all-consuming grasp. One would be hard pressed to find a solo bass recording that sends as many unit structures of sound barrelling toward the listener at once as this one does. The individual specialized pickups beyond the instrument’s bridge coalesce into the startling fidelity of Dresser’s feathery touch underneath it, rendering attempts to pinpoint sources of vibration a futile exercise. The detailed tonal warmth engineer Alexandria Smith gets out of the beautiful vessel luthier Kent McLagan fashioned for a marksman seasoned as Dresser allows them to form an invisible trio, disguised as a single organism. Let this music move you.

12 Ingrid LaubrockIngrid Laubrock – The Last Quiet Place
Ingrid Laubrock; Mazz Swift; Tomeka Reid; Brandon Seabrook; Michael Formanek; Tom Rainey
Pyroclastic Records PR 24 (store.pyroclasticrecords.com) 

Space is the proverbial place on this new Ingrid Laubrock album; its fullness lies in its many pauses. Laubrock herself is in charge of the most overt sonic elements, such as shouldering the entire production and compositional loads, along with her reed work resonating strongly throughout the holistic auditory experience. She leads a six-piece band that consists of two-thirds stringed instruments, which allows for a unique textural and dynamic palette. The group makes the most of this range, and are selective in how they layer musical elements, which leads to an unpredictable aspect that complements the complexity of Laubrock’s melodic phrasings. 

The composition Afterglow wouldn’t have the same arresting air of mystery about it if the entire ensemble was ever playing at once; the decision to centre the piece around a string trio of Tomeka Reid, Mazz Swift and Michael Formanek lends it its structural intrigue. In this sense the music is never afraid to interrupt itself, because rather than the more traditional slow build from the swelling bowed passages, the guitar, saxophone and drums take turns interjecting. This creates an effect of dialogue or commentary, and this interactivity between interlocutors paints a setting of controlled disarray. Contrast can be equally engaging as uniformity, and it’s the ability to seamlessly phase between these two states that makes this such a refreshing group.

14 Michael BlakeDance Of The Mystic Bliss
Michael Blake’s Chroma Nova
P&M Records P&M-CD001 (pandmrecords.com) 

This is different story of Two Michaels, in a much happier context. All tracks here were composed and performed by Vancouverite-in-New York saxophonist/flutist Michael Blake to meld his distinctive Jazz lines with input from a three-person Brazilian percussion section. The tunes also feature a four-person string section, including fellow Canadian expat bassist Michael Bates.

Consciously avoiding exoticism for its own sake, despite the use of such ethnic instruments as cajón, pandeiro, zabumba drum and berimbau, the music is anchored by a fluid rhythmic emphasis including Bates’ steadying pumps. Sometimes the strings are harmonized with the inflated percussion crunches. At other times, guitarist Guilherme Monteiro projects buzzing rock-like flanges; violinist Skye Steele or cellist Chris Hoffman produces sweeping blues emphasis or Europeanized lyricism; and Blake pivots from double-tongued saxophone stops and slurs to horizontal flute peeps that are in turn, pointed, polished and powerful. 

Because of the repeated drum thumps and staccato string shake, tracks like Sagra suggest a South American hoedown. But segmented reed stops and scoops retain a sophisticated improvisational emphasis. Others, such as Little Demons mate mid-point arching guitar frails with penetrating saxophone split tones and staccato string section shakes for stop-time variations.

Conceived as an homage to his late mother, who was both a dancer and a gardener, Blake’s Dance of the Mystic Bliss appropriately presents musical textures that have elements of both sprouting and syncopation.

15 CWN TrioThirtyNine FiftyFive
Acheulian handaxe AHA 2202 (handaxe.org) 

Creatively exploring timbres extracted from instruments stretched to their expected limits during a playing time of almost 40 minutes (see title), the Köln-based C/W|N trio dynamically formulates a languid exposition with linear asides. Slovenian pianist Dušica Cajlan concentrates on pointillist keyboard strokes, intermittent silences and echoing throbs on tightly wound internal strings; Austrian Georg Wissel tongue-slaps and squeaks augmented and gurgling split tones from deep inside his alto saxophone’s body; and German Etienne Nillesen eschews a regularized pulse for pinpointed slaps, rubs and whirls from the top and sides of his single extended snare drum.

Although the potential for musical discombobulation seems maximized, individual tone exploration evolves as realized tonal investigation, not grandstanding. Each improviser is able to sense others’ procedures with near clairvoyance. That means no matter how many instances of keyboard comping, radical percussion cranks or strained reed overblowing are heard they never have a singular function. Instead, an equivalent intermittent and understated continuum is simultaneously generated by the others. Taken together each technical instrumental prod is eventually interlaced into a slow moving transformative sequence that also underlines quiet but robust ensemble work. While exposing unexpected variants of each instrument’s range C/W|N eventually creates a program of profound horizontal association.

16 Sara CaswellThe Way to You (violin jazz)
Sara Caswell
Anzic Records ANZ-0085-02 (saracaswell.com) 

Grammy-nominated violinist/composer Sara Caswell has had a fruitful performing career, but it took close to 17 years for her third solo album to emerge. The Way to You is a collection of original compositions, thoughtful arrangements and magnificent collaborations. Caswell has joined forces with her longtime musical collaborators – Jesse Lewis (guitar), Ike Sturm (bass), Jared Schonig (drums) and Chris Dingman (vibraphone) – creating a musical synergy that can only come from familiarity and deep connection. The album has a tranquil atmosphere and compositions are mostly within the realm of ballads, which puts light on the polished ensemble performance. Caswell is undoubtedly a queen of ballads. Her improvisations are poised, stylish and unhurried, her tone light, fluid, resonant. On this album she plays both violin and hardanger d’amore (5-string Norwegian fiddle), creating an array of beautiful colours.

Caswell is at her most powerful when improvising on the vocal lines – her ability to convey the emotions behind the lyrics is remarkable. This is most obvious in On My Way to You, an arrangement of Michel Legrand’s 1988 ballad. O Que Tinha De Ser, the quartet’s version of Antonio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes’ composition, is dark and sultry and the longing hardanger’s melodies go straight to the heart. Caswell’s original collaborative compositions Warren’s Way, Last Call and Spinning, inspired by the things of life – nature, love and bicycles – are great additions to the classics.

17 Delfeayo MarsalisUptown on Mardi Gras Day
Delfeayo Marsalis Uptown Jazz Orchestra
Troubadour Jazz Records TJR02062023 (dmarsalis.com) 

The latest release by renowned American jazz trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis (grandson of Ellis Sr. and brother to Wynton, Branford and Jason) is a fun, tootin’ good time that will get every listener’s toes tapping and shoulders shaking. Born and raised in New Orleans, it’s no surprise that Marsalis has gone all out on this latest musical venture, focusing on the festivities and feelings gleaned from Mardi Gras Day. Featuring the all-star Uptown Jazz Orchestra providing fabulous backup on each tune, this makes for perfect accompaniment to the fresh spring days that are now upon us. The album features both iconic jazz classics with a renewed honky tonky flavour and new originals penned by Marsalis himself. 

The spirited nature of this record is positively contagious, filling the soul with joy and happiness right from the first track. Of special note is Carnival Time, starting off the album with a rhythmic “get up and go” feeling, featuring fantastic percussive work by Herlin Riley, Marvin “Smitty” Smith and Alexey Marti. What really makes this album is the remarkable brass talent that adds just that extra little touch to each piece. Punchy, tight horn riffs layered over soaring flute and sax solos along with an unmistakably funky bass line are what forms this musical journey into a perfect whole, rounding out the New Orleans sound yet also bringing in a bit of a new flavour and spark. For those jazz aficionados looking for an extra spring in their step, this record is a perfect addition to the collection.  

Listen to 'Uptown on Mardi Gras Day' Now in the Listening Room

18 Jacques Schwarz BartThe Harlem Suite
Jacques Schwarz-Bart
Ropeadope Records rad-699 (ropeadope.com) 

This album – The Harlem Suite – may suggest that Jacques Schwarz-Bart, and that fire-breathing dragon of his saxophone may have rolled up his Guadeloupean zouk and Gwo-ka music (at least for now). But a few bars into the opening chart Sun Salutation, you realize that you can never take the spellbinding rhythms of Guadeloupe out of the iconic Guadeloupean. Indeed, the melody, laced with the pulsating zouk-chiré rhythms, comes forth from Schwarz-Bart’s saxophone like tongues of fire. His music virtually “sings” as it grooves to jazz, the very echo and heartbeat of Harlem.

To anyone unfamiliar with the work of Schwarz-Bart, do not let the francophone name fool you. Behind it is an Antillean with an African soul, a Guadeloupean with spirits dancing in the flesh. This makes for a very potent mix in his music. His tribute to the jazz masters and the musical heritage of Harlem constantly inveigles; often elegiac – such as in the mystical impression of Herbie Hancock’s Butterfly, voiced by the wraith-like Malika Tirolien, while the moon seems to cast a carnival spirit on John Coltrane’s Equinox

Shadows and light dapple From Goré to Harlem. Everyone has a role to play everywhere, as Schwarz-Bart leads a proverbially fired-up beguine vidé carnival band. Each piece of music swings pendulously. The questing Dreaming of Freedom, voiced by Stephanie McKay, soars into its celestial dénouement.

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