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

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.

08 ERR GuitarERR Guitar
Elliott Sharp with Mary Halvorson and Marc Ribot
Intakt CD 281 (intaktrec.ch)

Composer, bandleader, multi-instrumentalist, Elliott Sharp is a musician hard to classify, with equal proficiency in blues-rock, improvisation and new music. Here he concentrates on his main instrument, the guitar, on a dozen solos, duos and a trio with fellow pickers Mary Halvorson and Marc Ribot. Oddly enough, Sharp and Ribot, who specialize in more agitated sounds, both turn almost folksy in duets on Wobbly, Sinistre and Oronym. Although their chess game-like moves are both subtle and spiky on Sinistre, it’s the last track which is most distinctive. Here, one guitarist’s legato finger-picking tries to surmount the other’s canine yapping-like plucked onslaughts, until relaxed string undulations are replaced by a multiplicity of crying buzzes. Blanketing drones dominate the three Halvorson duets, with the strokes on Shredding Light so thin they break into electronic flanges. Slurred fingering and guitar-neck taps enliven both parts of Sequola, although a blanket of buzzes can’t disguise intricate dual connections.

Sharp’s solo work, however, is the most representative. Nektone for instance swiftly unites Delta bottleneck picking and outer-space-like multiphonics without fissure. Meanwhile, Kernel Panic knits together so many passing chords that it’s almost opaque. Then suddenly, with no hint of overdubbing, there seem to be two guitar lines travelling in opposite directions – one with rumbling organ-like ostinato, the other snapping out arena-sized distortion. That he manages to tame these opposites into a reassuring ending that is true to narrative, logical and conclusive, is another tribute to Sharp’s multi-talents.

09 SquaremealA Square Meal
Atrito-Afeito 007 (atrito-afeito.com)

As the equivalent of topping gooey Québécois poutine with piquant Portuguese sausage, this square meal is hard-edged and free-form, combining the talents of Montrealers, pianist Karoline Leblanc and drummer Paul J. Ferreira Lopes with Lisbon residents, trumpeter Luís Vicente and Hugo Antunes. Throughout, the quartet members function as master chefs for whom cooking Iberian-Canadian fare is commonplace.

With A Square Meal’s flavoursome main courses, spiky extended feasts, and sonic appetizers and desserts of the same quality, the tracks are spiced with slick piano glissandi, sifted trumpet whinnies, rounded double-bass plops and drums hammered with the efficiency of a meat tenderizer. Although infused with extended techniques, these splintered and kinetic courses also have a base of rib-sticking home cooking, since melodic slices are present throughout. Leblanc, for instance, may appear to be cramming too many notes into a tremolo outpouring, but like a seasoned cook that output fits succulently. The quartet’s replication of agile line cooking is most apparent on the 23-minute Creature Comforts. Open-ended with welcoming piano chords and a languid shuffle beat from the drummer, the narrative is swiftly shaded and sharpened with aggressive, double-tongued brass rasps, paced by string crackles from the bassist and active drum smacks. Just when it appears that Vicente can’t slur any more dissonant tones from his instrument, Leblanc’s steady comping pushes the trumpeter to mid-range blowing and joins him to return to the near-romantic theme of the beginning. A Square Meal may be unusual fare, but it’s undoubtedly musically nourishing.

01 Woman sCD006Marketing considerations aside, how best can a musician mark an important milestone or significant creativity? With recorded music the result is usually multiple discs. In honor of French bassist Joëlle Léandre’s recent 60th birthday for instance, there’s A Woman’s Work … (NotTwo MW950-2 notwo.com), an eight-disc boxed set. Almost six hours of music, the 42 tracks were recorded between 2005 and 2016, comprising one solo disc and the rest intense interaction with such associates as trumpeter Jean-Luc Cappozzo, tenor saxophonist Evan Parker, violist Mat Maneri, guitarist Fred Frith, percussionist Zlatko Kaučič, pianists Agustí Fernández or Irène Schweizer and vocalists Lauren Newton or Maggie Nicols. With improvisers from six different countries working alongside, the bassist’s charm, humor, vigour and adaptability are highlighted.

Solo on CD 6 from 2005, Léandre’s improvisations are as mesmerizing as they are mystifying. Consisting of bow slaps resonating with woody ballast, her circular attack is solipsistic enough to confirm its singularity, but so alive with twists that she sometimes seems pleasantly taken aback by what’s produced. As she plucks or saws her strings, at points she could be two bull fiddlers working in counterpoint. The climax is reached on the final track when, like a marathoner getting an energy boost, she extends still further, working some romantic beauty into her arco splays, while at the same time mocking it with vocalizing ranging from guttural growls to bel-canto gurgles. As unlike as a chocolate chip sundae and a tofu pudding, the bassist’s two 2016 vocal duets are equally valid. Eight performances with the American Newton on CD3 are the most traditional. With silky voice, the singer hopscotches among scat, lullabies, octave jumps and keening cries, as Léandre’s mischievous side appears. Besides sharpened slices that create spiccato echoes, she verbalizes an ironic obbligato to Newton’s singing. Under her breath, Léandre bawls out unexpected noises that are sly without being disruptive. Léandre, the Swiss Schweizer and the Scot Nicols have been Les Diaboliques for more than 25 years, and their performance on CD1 is cohesive, since Léandre’s disruptive tendencies can’t dominate when the others are textural dissectors as well. The showdown is mostly Léandre-Nicols, with the bull fiddler mumbling and projecting mercurial string buzzes as a divergent sideshow to the vocalist. More stream of consciousness than self-involved, Nicols could be playing all parts in a radio play, encompassing crone cackling, infant cries, feline purrs and canine yelps. Sliding from brouhaha to babble, she opens up the performance enough for instrumental virtuosity to make her vocal gymnastics stand out. More concentrated levels of instrumental dexterity are the main thrusts of Léandre’s 2011 meeting with Maneri on CD2; her match-up with Frith in 2016 on CD5; her 2015 tête-à-tête with Cappozzo (CD4); and the meeting of minds with Kaučič from 2015 (CDs 7 and 8). Frith’s alt-rock background makes that duo the most distinctive, if not the most frustrating. Committed to knob twisting, Frith sashays among rock, country and outer-space-like tones. Léandre’s acoustically dynamic thrusts almost dare him to use his mechanized equipment to gain the upper hand, then volley back any pattern he emits. More simpatico, Maneri’s mastery of the viola means that both he and the bassist can challenge one other while emphasizing the woodiness of their instruments. The result coordinates improvisational freedom, pre-modern string shading, and 20th-century aleatory patterns. So relaxed that he almost limits his contributions to cymbals, Kaučič’s dances a pas de deux with the bassist, matching her mercurial stops and inventive guitar-like twangs with bell-like resonation plus supple metal slides. From that same date, when Fernández and Parker join the drummer and bassist, jazz-oriented intersections are glimpsed, palimpsest-like, along with free improvisation. The saxophonist builds up to a staccato narrative, which Léandre hurries along with tremolo buzzes and arco strokes. Fernández’s piano pressure is so dense that he could be playing boogie-woogie. Illuminatingly, Léandre’s most satisfied improvising is alongside Cappozzo. With jazz-like allusions, the warmth communicated by intertwining brass and string textures allows the two to switch forefront and backing roles from one to the other without breaches, making room for Arcadian and ambulatory motions. Outputting chromatic expositions in graceful arcs, Cappozzo’s self-possessed playing calms the bassist’s frenetic instrumental and verbal asides, creating a cumulative sound that is profound and polished.

02a TitanCD021Brazilian tenor saxophonist Ivo Perelman takes a different route. If Léandre has built a single dwelling, Perelman is more like a developer putting different styles of edifices in designated areas. With frenetic bites of Free Jazz extravagance, Perelman presents his rhapsodic interface with American pianist Matthew Shipp in seven volumes titled The Art of Perelman-Shipp (leorecords.com),Vol. 1 – Titan (CD LR 794); Vol. 2 – Tarvos (CD LR 795); Vol. 3 – Pandora (CD LR 796); Vol. 4 – Hyperion (CD LR 797); Vol. 5 – Rhea (CD LR 798); Vol. 6 – Saturn (CD LR 786) and Vol. 7– Dione (CD LR 799). Only Saturn is a duo, with the others featuring the two plus, on different discs, bassists William Parker or Michael Bisio, and drummers Andrew Cyrille, Bobby Kapp or Whit Dickey.

02b TarvosCD007To get a handle on the Perelman-Shipp discs recorded between August and November 2016, first consider Saturn. The result of more than 20 years of musical cross-fertilization, the untitled improvisations show the duo’s comfort level, with Perelman at times eschewing his usual altissimo ladder-climbing for a breathy tone and burlesquing avant-garde solemnity by shoehorning a quote from Heart and Soul into his solo on track one. While the reedist’s unique mixture of whining split tones, intense triple tonguing and theatricality at the climax stays intact, it’s framed by whimsical comping from Shipp, which calmly advances while showcasing skills like suddenly pedalling into the piano’s darker regions or maintaining a steadying pace, as Perelman wrings every extension from each reed outburst. Titan, which adds Parker to the duo and Hyperion, where Bisio completes the trio, feature similar communication, since Bisio is part of the pianist’s band, while Parker and Shipp are longtime collaborators. Parker creates a percussive undertow that expands the saxophonist’s expression, as he follows him through pitch variations and unexpected quickening and decelerating of the narratives. Vigour distinguishes the nearly 20-minute final track as Parker’s vibrant arco pumping surrounds the others’ explorations. 02c PandoraCD004At times Shipp creates a stream of high-frequency key-clipping in tandem with Perelman’s overt overblowing, while elsewhere the saxophonist and bassist bond, allowing each pattern suggested by one to be completed and improved on by the other. If Parker’s work is the stuff of high drama, then Bisio’s style is playful enough to be sitcom-ready. The bassist’s peppy interface is used in a connective fashion, though he also steps forward with tonal variations. His bowing on Part 8 adds to tremolo piano lines and high reed pitches to cement a moderate and mystical theme, while his pizzicato sluices on Part 9 push the action along so that the saxophonist’s squeals resemble cowboy yodels.

02d HyperionCD022Cyrille on Dione and Kapp on Tarvos possess contrasting drum philosophies. Cyrille brings a staccato drive to his accompaniment, where unruffled, positioned beats unite the others’ emotional excesses into a logical narrative. This is obvious on Part 6 when beside jerky piano runs, intermittent percussion clip-clops push reed squeaks from altissimo to moderato. On Part 8, the drummer’s motivating shuffle is such that what begins as a keyboard gallop turns to straight-ahead swing, with even the saxophonist’s tone balladic. Hard-toned and sharp where Cyrille is restrained, Kapp is upfront with his crackling strategies as early as Tarvos’ first track. By the final tune, his textural prodding, encompassing bass drum chopping and cymbal reverb, creates a situation swinging enough to make Shipp’s keyboard-blurring cross tones and Perelman’s peeps and dribbling smears bond animatedly.

02e RheaCD020Culmination of this musical equivalent of Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet, where situations change shadings depending on the book, are Pandora and Rhea. Dickey makes a quartet with Perelman, Shipp and Parker on the first disc and with Perelman-Shipp-Bisio on the second. The Parker-Dickey team helps maintain the tumultuous level of action that is Perelman-Shipp’s specialty. This framing on tunes like Track 6 means that Perelman’s consistent altissimo exploration and narrowing yelps fit perfectly. He even shoves a lick from Cherokee into his descending slurs. Freed from the rhythmic function, Shipp has space to indulge in impressionistic reprises, as on Track 3 where the reedist’s exposition spends more time in lower-case description than showy tongue smears. Rhea’s tracks intersect even more notably. 02f SaturnCD006At over 16 minutes in length, the first track could be a suite in itself. Backed by double bass thumps and the pianist’s tempo-defining runs, Perelman’s introduction is thematic and descriptive. He recaps the head with elevated power in the final sequence atop an assembly line of drum accents.

02g DioneCD005Projects like these are reminiscent of the fact that whether you buy chocolates by the box or individually you can only savour one at a time. For maximum appreciation, this parsimony in consumption should be applied to both the boxed set and the CD series. 

01 Quinsin NachoffQuinsin Nachoff’s Ethereal Trio
Quinsin Nachoff; Mark Helias; Dan Weiss
Whirlwind Recordings WR4706 (quinsin.com)

Toronto-born New York resident Quinsin Nachoff has created several projects in which interests in jazz and formal composition overlap, from the harmonic complexity of his Flux to the strings of his Horizons Ensemble. The Ethereal Trio, a more improvisation-oriented group that matches Nachoff’s tenor saxophone with the very distinguished bass work of the veteran Mark Helias (who will perform a solo set at the Guelph Jazz Festival on September 17 at noon) and the propulsive, creative drumming of Dan Weiss, arose from a project with the Penderecki String Quartet that combined the quartet with a jazz trio, encouraging Nachoff to pursue this bare-bones format further.

Without a chordal instrument, the trio’s emphasis is rhythmic and melodic with a keen sense of structural interactivity between Nachoff’s compositions and the group’s relatively free improvisations. While Nachoff’s patterns tend more to the serial than the triadic, there’s a certain kinship to the great early trios of saxophonist Sonny Rollins, with an acute rhythmic awareness among the three partners as they shift accents and bounce phrases off one another’s lines. It’s strongest on the hard-edged Subliminal Circularity, but it arises as well in the layered rhythms of Push-Pull Topology. Nachoff’s fondness for traditional string textures is supported here by Helias’ fine arco work, especially on the lyrical Gravitas.

The trio is loose without being casual, at once taut and free, and the consistent quality of detailed interplay and invention brings Nachoff’s forceful, inventive tenor playing to the fore. It may be his most satisfying recording to date.

03 Alex GoodmanSecond Act
Alex Goodman
Lyte Records LR040 (lyterecords.com)

It seems that for much of Second Act, Alex Goodman maintains a sort of spectral presence as a guitarist, shadowing the pianist Eden Ladin or saxophonist and EWI player Matt Marantz with liquid single-note lines, creating contrapuntal tête-à-têtes with them. But in each song Goodman does emerge briefly to punch the clock with short, stabbing solos that might end – as with Marantz’s saxophone in Heightened – in a kind of knotted entanglement with the melody before all but disappearing into the shadows of the music again. This, of course, puts the focus back on the compositional ability of Goodman and how his sinuous music sounds when played in an ensemble setting.

It’s also refreshing when a disc turns up that hearkens back to unfettered swing the way Second Act does. In a sense it feels like listening to big band music without the large ensemble. This quintet is also augmented by the incredible vocalists Felicity Williams and Alex Samaras. Together the ensemble sounds big even as it loses flutes and strings. This keeps the superbly economical melodies swinging and staying in shape through the spare, yet enhanced aural palettes of guitar, piano, saxophone and voice. The breathless fluttering of guitar on The First Break, tumbling cascades of piano in Losing Cool and burbling warmth of the saxophone on Acrobat all make for high art and high entertainment. And when the two meet – as they do in Second Act – memorability is assured.

Back to top