05 Bobs PianoBob’s Piano
Mike Allen; Miles Black; Bob Murphy
Almus Jazz ALM 16306 (mikeallenjazz.com)

Saxophonist Mike Allen’s Bob’s Piano is a remarkable tribute to one of Canada’s finest and most inventive jazz pianists. Bob Murphy, who passed away in 2015, forged a long career, primarily in his native Vancouver, and mentored a generation of musicians along the way. The origin of the recording is a series of duets that the pianist recorded in his home. Never intended for release, they were recovered after Murphy’s death and became the basis of this unique and intimate album.

Miles Black, another excellent Vancouver pianist, is heard with Allen on the record’s first six tracks. Playing on Murphy’s piano, he manages to reflect the spirit of its owner while maintaining his own distinct voice. Kenny Wheeler’s Nothing Changes sets the tone with the kind of intuitive interplay between Allen and Black that epitomizes this style of jazz. Allen’s burnished tone and understated approach mesh perfectly with Black’s melodicism, the two soloing as one at times. And You Become the Moonlight, a Murphy composition, features tenor and piano playing pleasantly twisting unison lines on the melody then seguing seamlessly from one solo to the next.

Murphy himself makes an appearance on the final four tracks, beginning with a fresh take on the classic Stella by Starlight. His singular touch on the instrument, expansive time feel and boundless imagination are immediately apparent as his improvised counterpoint lines develop on Allen’s loose and inspired interpretation of the melody. Bob’s Piano is a delight to listen to and an important glimpse into one of our country’s greatest and perhaps under-sung musical heroes.

06 Phantom HunterThe Phantom Hunter
Lee/Palmer/Bennett
HAVNRecords
(havnrecords.bandcamp.com)

Toronto’s high-priced real estate has meant tremendous growth for grass-roots, cash-strapped, experimental arts – ever further afield. Neighbouring Hamilton is becoming a hotbed for free improvisation, including recent events like the Something Else! Festival of Creative Music. Out of that activity has emerged this notable trio, comprised of veteran bassist David Lee, guitarist Chris Palmer, recently arrived from New Zealand, and saxophonist Connor Bennett.

The group’s distinct identity is apparent from the opening 12/3 pt. 1, as each member presents a distinct sonic identity. Bennett announces his presence with a stately and lyrical declaration on tenor saxophone; Palmer proposes a dissonant cluster on amplified guitar and Lee presents a powerful arco voice. As the three join loosely together, the music assumes an almost orchestral character, the result of each musician’s emphasis on richly traditional sonorities. That insistent sonic quality persists on the mysteriously beautiful West of Arkham, a kind of free ballad in which Bennett’s luminous soprano saxophone weaves through Palmer’s acoustic arpeggios and the resonant flow of Lee’s sonorous bass.

Alive to the charms of Celtic music and cool jazz ambiance, Lee/Palmer/Bennett also appreciates the liberty of full-blown free improvisation. Reed Breeding is particularly fascinating for its exploration of tonality less travelled, from its whistling bass harmonics and saxophone multiphonics to a brilliant passage of microtonal slide guitar. This is a subtly interactive chamber ensemble that spontaneously integrates novel tones and textures into fresh music.

07 Canada DayOn Parade in Parede
Harris Eisenstadt Canada Day Quartet
Clean Feed 413CD (cleanfeed-records.com)

Harris Eisenstadt is a Toronto-born drummer and composer who resides comfortably at the creative edges of jazz. His band Canada Day, usually a quintet, is a quartet for this occasion, a concert in the beachfront town of Parede, Portugal.

The band includes two Americans, trumpeter Nate Wooley and tenor saxophonist Matt Bauder, and the French-German bassist Pascal Niggenkemper. The musicians have age in common (they’re between 38 and 42) and something else: sheer brilliance. Among Eisenstadt’s numerous ensembles, Canada Day may be the most traditional and also the loosest: its sprung rhythms (suggesting African and Latin roots) and clipped themes recall the early music of Ornette Coleman, while the individual and collective voices of the band sound like they were just invented.

It’s easiest to point out moments of individual invention, like Wooley’s solo on We All Ate…Parts 2 & 5, but there’s also the moment on Sympathy Batters No Parsnips at which Bauder’s extended techniques reach peak fervour only to have Wooley enter with a spray of brassy sound, the trumpet as white-noise generator, multiplying the music’s already high density. While individual highlights are frequently brilliant, it’s the group’s collective invention and precision that’s most impressive, from the compound pulsation elaborated by Eisenstadt and Niggenkemper on We All Ate…Part 3 to the final instantaneous ensemble halt on Part 1.

One might debate this music’s category, but whatever it is, this is the state of the art.

08 Bill EvansOn a Monday Evening
The Bill Evans Trio
Fantasy FAN00095
(concordmusicgroup.com)

Previously unknown recordings of Bill Evans have been surfacing regularly of late, confirming the late pianist’s position as one of the most rapturously lyrical and harmonically creative figures in jazz history. This installment captures Evans in concert in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1976 with his regular trio of bassist Eddie Gomez, then in his ninth year in the group, and drummer Eliot Zigmund, who had joined the previous year. The chemistry with Gomez is particularly good: the bassist spent over a decade in the trio and was Evans’ most adventurous partner after Scott LaFaro, who had first defined the highly mobile role of the bass in the Evans trio, moving from harmonic fundamentals and propulsion to aggressive counter melody with sudden excursions to the upper register.

Evans certainly lives up to his reputation for limpid beauty here. There’s the reverie of Time Remembered, the pensive Minha (All Mine) and the trance-like elaboration of Leonard Bernstein’s Some Other Time; however, there’s also energized music as well, like the exploratory T.T.T. (Twelve Tone Tune) and All of You, with room left for extended bass and drum solos that bring the trio’s individual strengths to the fore.

While this lacks the surprise of the recent Some Other Time: The Lost Session from the Black Forest (Resonance), an unknown studio recording from 1968 with drummer Jack DeJohnette, On a Monday Evening is a fine addition to a still-expanding body of work.

09 RovaNo Favorites!: For Lawrence “Butch” Morris
Rova: Orkestrova
New World NW80782-2 (newworldrecords.org)

Dedicated to Lawrence “Butch” Morris (1947-2013), who structured improvisations without compromising individual freedom, Rova swells to orchestral size to adapt the concept. Adding acoustic string players, an electric rhythm section and, on one selection, a conductor, to Rova’s four saxophones is like adding bright colours to a room decorated in shades of white. Yet so attuned to the concept is everyone’s playing that the now euphonious sounds remain hard-edged not ornamented. Interlacing sequences from other compositions that are sutured and separated by hand signals and graphic scores, the 11-piece ensemble makes the formations sound harmonically and rhythmically whole, with space for interjections ranging from buzzing string spiccato and guitar flanges to sharp reed keening and drum resonation, often wrapped in group polyphony.

Following shorter tunes like sprints before a marathon, the most spectacular instance is the lengthy Contours of the Glass Head. Opening with Rite of Spring-like juddering counterpoint with electric instruments’ droning continuum, the exposition features theme-shredding via reed tongue slaps, altissimo cries and sibilate razzing even as it’s stabilized by moderated string and drum ostinato. The ensuing narrative makes room for double bass low plucks and upper register violin strokes plus a disorderly rock-like sequence of guitar flanges, backbeat drumming and screeching saxophone trills that are half-R&B and half-Free Jazz. Finally intermittent saxophone bites allow an underlying ruggedness to peek through the gauze. The CD is a fine instance of Orkestrova’s art and a fitting salute to a departed innovator.

10 Joy of BeingThe Joy of Being
François Carrier; Rafal Mazur; Michel Lambert
No Business Records NBCD 97 (nobusinssrecordfs.com)

Continuation of the unique Polish-Canadian partnership between Montrealers alto saxophonist François Carrier and drummer Michel Lambert, plus Krakow’s acoustic bass guitarist Rafal Mazur, this session finds the parts meshing like Polish perogies and Québécois beer: unusual but nourishing.

Mazur is ambidextrous in that his work utilizes both guitar-like intonation and double bass-like resonation. His fluid strokes create a walking-bass-like foundation on tracks such as True Nature allowing the others freedom to improvise; while his solo forays such as Omnipresent Beauty, vibrate sophisticated tonal asides which frequently refocus the narratives. As adept at squeezing rhythmic inferences from his drums and cymbals with the attention of a doctor performing microsurgery, Lambert’s motion subtly reinforces the program so that most beats are implied. Although tracks such as True Nature exultantly stretch Carrier’s solos almost to the edge of infinity so that that every variation, extension and partial, is exposed, these choppy asides don’t negate the saxophonist’s other side. His wide vibrations and thoughtful timbre elaborations on Blissfulness and Mystery of Creation, for example, are as artful as Paul Desmond’s ballad style.

With the hushed and hardy parts of the trio’s work constantly available, the title tune is the most distinctive showpiece. Producing yelping split tones from a Chinese oboe, Carrier strains to outline Mazur’s crackling runs and Lambert’s undulating slaps. With Carrier back on alto by the finale, The Joy of Being becomes yet another instance of the trio’s complete communication.

11 UofT 12tetTrillium Falls
University of Toronto 12TET
U of T Jazz (uoftjazz.ca)

It appears that the University of Toronto is, happily, going to be known for more than medicine and other sciences. For now, let fine arts take centre stage as we are treated to an album of exhilarating songs (and some soaring, yet elegiac balladry) – Trillium Falls. Here we have director Terry Promane, low-brass specialist, writer and arranger, as producer of this fine eight-song set. Trillium Falls plays to the strengths of a select group of Promane’s students from the bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate programs from which the light of young stars will no longer remain hidden within the stark, academic environs of Walter Hall.

Truth be told, several members of the band have stepped into Toronto’s jazz spotlight before and those who haven’t yet done so surely will. This finely crafted unit is more valuable than a proverbial well-oiled machine, although the refined machination of the band is one of its main attractions. It’s hard to imagine this ensemble without Emily Denison’s trumpet and flugelhorn, or Modibo Keita’s trombone or both the Argatoffs’ saxophones. And on evidence of her luminous, wordless vocals Jacqueline Teh is sure to journey to the stars. There is, of course, much more for the 12tet to be proud of, such as the riveting Song for Lia written by pianist Noam Lemish, Terry Promane’s atmospheric title track and, of course, performances by other members of this wonderful ensemble, not named here for want of space.

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