01 Cory WeedsDreamsville
Cory Weeds & The Jeff Hamilton Trio
Cellar Live CL072216 (cellarlive.com)

Dreamsville, the latest recording from Vancouverite Cory Weeds, pairs the soulful saxophonist with drummer Jeff Hamilton’s trio for a set of fine jazz loosely framed around the work of the late American film composer, Henry Mancini. While Weeds and company (pianist Tamir Hendelman, bassist Christoph Luty and Hamilton) are all unique soloists and ensemble players with individualized approaches to the music, the overarching shared quartet values of infectious swing, purity of instrumental tone and good taste rudder this recording to a satisfying place that should find it included on many year-end “best of” lists. This, the second pairing of Weeds and the Hamilton trio, again demonstrates that there is much creativity to be mined from this classic jazz horn/rhythm section format, when master musicians coalesce to collectively elevate the music to a higher plane than can be achieved by one individual. Jazz is a social and participatory music and Weeds – as his impressive discography exhibits – is skilled at seeking outside musicians who share this attitude, choosing or writing music that encourages creative collaboration and setting up a relaxed environment for musical joy to flourish. Accordingly, Dreamsville bounces along with an effervescent pulse that showcases all parties in a most swinging and flattering light. This is a set of happy music (case in point: How Do You Like Them Apples?) and yet another accomplishment for Weeds, who as saxophonist, booking agent, label owner, composer and concert promoter, continues to be a going concern on the Canadian jazz scene.

02 Mike DownesRoot Structure
Mike Downes
Addo AJR035 (mikedownes.com)

Talented bassist and composer Mike Downes has just released one of the most intriguing and innovative small group jazz recordings of the year. In addition to writing all of the well-conceived material here (with the exception of his unique arrangement of Chopin’s Prelude and Variations), Mike also performs masterfully, as do the rest of the impressive musicians on Root Structure, including Ted Quinlan on guitars, Robi Botos on piano/keyboards and Larnell Lewis on drums. The ten tracks were co-produced by Downes and Steve Bellamy and beautifully engineered by the latter.

The aptly titled opener, Momentum, is an auditory treat. Downes’ deep, warm, round, substantial bass tones define the spine of this intricate tune, as each artist stretches out in exciting solo sections. Next up is Heart of the Matter, a beautiful ballad featuring the luscious guitar work of Quinlan. This is a sophisticated, verdant, romantic composition and the listener can almost imagine Downes’ tip of the hat to geniuses Michel Legrand and Tom Jobim. Also of note is Moving Mountains – a throbbing, relentless bass line and an eruption of intense sonic colours from Quinlan as he accelerates into a major face-melter.

A true standout is the soulful title track. The late jazz bassist Red Mitchell used to say that “bass players are attracted to their instruments because they perpetually want to get to the bottom of things… the truth.” On this thrilling track (and others), Downes is indeed at the very bottom of things – dealing with human truths and primal forces, as well as the earliest forms of human expression, which are defined by emotion and percussion (negotiated with brilliance, acuity and flair by Lewis).

03 Florien HoefnerColdwater Stories
Florian Hoefner
Origin Records 82740 (originarts.com)

The songs of Coldwater Stories by pianist Florian Hoefner seem to run one into the other, and despite the sometimes pronounced silences which form part of the music, the sound is continuous. This is just like the icy waters of the Atlantic Sea off the coast of Newfoundland, “tumbling in harness,” as Dylan Thomas once said singing from the Welsh coast. Wearing his profoundly lyrical skin comfortably, Hoefner’s own poetry can also be chameleonic as he invents new harmonies and chords that are tantamount to reinventing tonality itself, as in Iceberg 1 and Iceberg 2.

There, as elsewhere on his Coldwater Stories, the pianist begins to explore a compositional/improvisational process that avoids conventional thematic development, instead moving its material through constantly-shifting harmonic backgrounds – impression seeming to matter more than direction. A great example of this celebrated vagueness is heard in the sophistication of The Way of Water. Meanwhile, Sunrise Bay is sublimely evocative music and is at times played at such perfect pianissimo that it comes closest to being hammerless piano.

But Hoefner never completely renounces traditional tonality and form, even as he cultivates an utterly contemporary pianistic persona. His songs – for they are such works – The Great Auk and Green Gardens are shimmering and seductive and come from the moment of reconciliation. Hoefner is in his element here, revelling in the opulence of new songs of the sea, performed on the piano in all of its orchestral sonorities.

04 Janis StepransAjivtal
Janis Steprans Quintet
Effendi Records FND145
(effendirecords.com)

The album title, Ajivtal, is Latvija (Latvia) spelled backwards and is inspired not only by the music of Janis Steprans’ ancestors who came from there but also by Sonny Rollins’ Airegin, which is Nigeria spelled backwards. Steprans’ own sense of melodic sense, though, is more rooted in the lyrical leaping of Charlie Parker. You won’t find any of the 1.2 million Latvian texts or any of the 30,000 melodies that still survive in the Baltic state’s traditional music. However, in the high and lonesome melodic, almost mystical hum of Steprans’ soprano and alto saxophones, the low throaty rasp of his tenor and even the voluptuous, woody bleat of his clarinet there are indeed faint echoes of the lyrical dainas, the drone vocal styles, and even a hint of Baltic psaltery.

The textural and rhythmic tightness of Steprans’ writing and the intensity of his playing give the performance of this repertoire a compressed timbre, which, despite digital technology, makes it sound like something fulsome and almost analogue. Compositionally as well as in terms of performance – especially in group dynamics – there is a knitted pattern that emerges as the music unfolds its undulating melodies in the saxophone-guitar-piano contrapuntal progressions. Flowing rhythms inform the exquisite Ajivtal and Chambre No.5. Meanwhile, the pulsing bass throughout and the climbing reed and wind lines bloom in Suite de Thèmes Lettons, and in Un Autre Original there is a glorious headlong celebration of instrumental virtuosity.

05 Simon MillerdLessons and Fairytales
Simon Millerd
Songlines SGL 1622-2 (songlines.com)

Canada has produced some particularly lyrical trumpeters, most notably the late Kenny Wheeler and the distinguished BC native, Ingrid Jensen. Simon Millerd is a young Montrealer whose pensive lines and subtle expressiveness seem particularly indebted to Wheeler at this point in his career, as well as to the Norwegian trumpeter Arve Henriksen, another musician whose work is filled with a clear, Northern light.

Millerd’s primary support here comes from a German group, the Pablo Held Trio, a group he first played with in 2011 and which includes pianist Held, bassist Robert Landfermann and drummer Jonas Burgwinkel. It’s a spare and lucid group, effectively setting off Millerd’s quietly intense horn. Millerd plays regularly in the band Nomad, consisting of McGill University jazz program graduates, and other members appear here in effective guest spots, the most notable contributions coming from tenor saxophonist Mike Bjella, whose engaging force is an effective counterfoil to Millerd’s approach.

Millerd acted as his own producer and he may have tried to do too much, from adding thickening synthesizer on one track to working his way through nine tunes in 44 minutes. He also employs the (mostly) wordless vocals of Emma Frank on five tracks, a device just too derivative of Wheeler’s distinguished work with Norma Winstone. Millerd’s best moment is the concluding Tale of Jonas and the Dragon, a sprightly seven-minute outing for just Millerd and the trio, with fine upwardly spiralling trumpet lines.

06 Aruan OrtizCub(an)ism
Aruán Ortiz
Intakt Records CD 290/2017 (intaktrec.ch)

Aruán Ortiz is a mid-40s pianist who plays contemporary improvised music – alright, jazz – in traditions that are at once folkloric and modernist, rooted in an Afro-Haitian, Cuban tradition that has then mingled with several significant cultural transformations: his acknowledgements include Toussaint Louverture, who 200 years ago led the first successful slave uprising in the Western hemisphere (jazz buffs might fact-check the birth name of trumpeter Donald Byrd); cubist painters Picasso and Braque; the Cuban musicologist and novelist of genius, Alejo Carpentier; pianist-composers Cage, Nancarrow and Cowell; and free jazz icons like Roscoe Mitchell and Andrew Cyrille.

That’s a lot to say, let alone carry, but Ortiz does it with determined grace, welling passion and taut execution. He plays ten original compositions here, many informed by polyrhythms and counterpoint, complex patterns that move insistently to new ground. The longest work, Cuban Cubism, is a suite of contrasting parts; Monochrome (Yubá) matches contrasting keyboard patterns, one part prepared, the other customary; the brief Dominant Force is a charging polyrhythmic pattern that links jazz piano from Fats Waller to Andrew Hill in a singular gesture.

Cuban jazz piano often emphasizes the island’s historical and cultural links to 19th-century European Romanticism, opting for a decorative, even glib style. Ortiz is different, matching the primal energies of Chano Pozo and the radical fictions of Charpentier with the revolutionary visions afoot in 20th-century European and American cultures. In the process, he creates heady, invigorating music.

07 MalcommodesLes Malcommodes invitent …
Les Malcommodes
Effendi Records FND147
(effendirecords.com)

In 2010, Montreal pianist/composer Félix Stüssi created the jazz trio Les Malcommodes, comprising himself, bassist Daniel Lessard and drummer Pierre Tanguay. When Stüssi turned 50 he decided to start a new project and added other players to the mix – Sonia Johnson, Ray Anderson, Jean Derome, André Leroux and Jacques Kuba Séguin. Though they had not really played together before, Stüssi admired these musicians. The resulting 2016 music recorded here is exciting, happy, tight-ensemble playing which, though mainly based in tonal jazz sounds, also leaps into other musical styles with ease and musicality.

Stüssi sets the musical stage with his piano stylings in the opening track Fore-Bley, a tribute to the late, great Canadian jazz pianist Paul Bley. The following Bley On! features short unaccompanied solos by each musician interspersed with full band sections. This is followed by more sonic explorations in duets and band sections. Especially noteworthy is Derome’s brilliant flute playing against Tanguay’s witty drums, and Johnson’s rich vocal tone in Debout Au Bout du Bout-Du-Banc. Great Lessard bass solo in the opening of I Can See Your Rainbow. Way too much listening fun in the two-minute Jungle Chat where the musicians hang up their jazz hats briefly to squawk and tweet like jungle beasts until they break into the more toe-tapping melodies and grooves of Anderson’s Monkey Talk.

Recording quality is great. Jam-packed with jazzy musical sounds, this is smart music performed by even smarter musicians.

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