09 Alexandra Park LPcoverAlexandra Park
Brodie West
Pleasence Records PRO12 (pleasencerecords.com)

Alto saxophonist Brodie West is a significant presence in the Toronto free jazz and improvised music communities, whether leading his own groups, like Eucalyptus, or contributing to Drumheller and the Lena Allemano Four. He has also established an international reputation, working with drummer Han Bennink, the band The Ex and the great Ethiopian saxophonist Getatchew Mekurya. Alexandra Park, named for the Toronto park where West used to practise, is a solo saxophone LP, a brief but challenging expedition into West’s sonic world.

The LP begins with a brief tape of West literally playing in the park, his quiet tones accompanied by children’s voices and recurring sounds, perhaps someone shooting hoops. This soon gives way to close recording in a studio: brief runs and muffled asides alternate with long tones, some beginning as multiphonic split tones, others gradually developing emphatic overtones. West produces gentle, flute-like timbres, sometimes merging them with suddenly articulated, hard-edged saxophone notes and whistling harmonics.

Some may hear this recording as an exploration in technique, but West’s intent seems to be very different. Though numerous techniques are present, this is absolutely human music, recorded so closely that West’s breath is an integral part of his saxophone sound; at times he’s literally mixing his own simultaneous mouth sounds with the horn. Silence too, is a significant presence, with the tape left running in the pauses between episodes. West reaches his highest level of expression on Side II, pressing from sustained shakuhachi-like cries to higher pitches that first turn to trills, then to multiphonics. It’s as impassioned as music gets.

10 Sensation of ToneSensations of Tone
Ellery Eskelin; Christian Weber; Michael Griener
Intakt Records CD 276/2017 (intaktrec.ch)

2017 marks the centenary of jazz recording, commemorating the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s Dixieland Jass Band One-Step and Livery Stable Blues released on March 7, 1917. Few recordings are likely to bridge that century as imaginatively as Sensations of Tone. New York-based tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin first worked with bassist Christian Weber and drummer Michael Griener playing improvised music on a tour of their native Switzerland. During their time together the three discovered a mutual love of early jazz. Five years later, they’ve amalgamated those interests, creating a CD that alternates free improvisations with contemporary interpretations of classic tunes.

Ellery Eskelin is a brilliant inside-outside player, as adept at negotiating chord changes as he is in a free exchange of musical ideas. He’s the master of a continuously inflected, speech-like line, reminiscent of Sonny Rollins in his prime, and in Weber and Griener he has ideal partners, whether they’re supporting, challenging or peppering each other with new data. Together the three maintain open space and real momentum in a group dialogue. Leads shift comfortably in the free improvisations, whether it’s Eskelin muttering a multiphonic complaint, Weber delineating a spontaneous melody or Griener essaying the sonic recesses of his kit.

That conversational principle is just as alive when they mine the decade between 1922 (China Boy) and 1932 (Moten Swing), with Jelly Roll Morton’s Shreveport Stomp (1924) and Fats Waller’s Ain’t Misbehavin’ (1929) in between. With a playful sense of period detail, the trio imbues the songs with spontaneous wit and warmth that recall their original spirit.

11 DogLegDilemmaNot This Time
Dog Leg Dilemma
Independent (doglegdilemma.com)

Like the apocryphal teenager who asked “Paul McCartney was in another group before Wings?” members of Toronto-based Dog Leg Dilemma (DLD) sound as if they figure jazz was invented in the 1970s, with touchstones fusion, John Zorn and Frank Zappa’s instrumentals. Still, DLD’s core of alto saxophonist Anthony Argatoff, guitarist Nick Lavkulik, drummer Noah Sherman and Peter Bull who plays basses, ancillary instruments and composed all tunes, are a change from bands mired in the 1960s. Starting the CD with This Must Be Why I Came Home with an ersatz emcee’s comments leading into a jazz-rock polka also shows a sense of self-deprecating fun.

DLD creates foot-tapping sounds featuring drum smacks and tough guitar chops approaching punk-rock stamina. But an outstanding group must transcend its influences. With no tone flattened or torqued, sentiment is obvious, but passion is missing. On a track like Part One – Are You Sure about This Argatoff squeezes out plumy notes harmonized with Lavkulik’s framing strums, but the effect is like hearing an overwrought crooner. However Equestrian Playtime gallops along with a Latin-tinged guitar solo and violinist Natalie Wong overdubbed into a string section. Although its allegiances are as noticeable as if tattooed on the musicians, the flexibility obvious in Roll with the Hunches makes it more notable. Melding licks from Zappa’s Peaches en Regalia, a Good King Wenceslas quote, a rumbling bass line, violin sweeps and reed honks, it demonstrates how DLD could up its game. DLD has a leg up on creating original statements, but more originality and discipline are needed. Not This Time perhaps, but maybe the next.

12 Live in TexasLive in Texas
Sandy Ewen; Damon Smith; Weasel Walter
Balance Point Acoustics BPALTD-808 (balancepointacoustics.bandcamp.com)

Set up like a rock power trio, this 73-minute extravaganza features a guitar, bass and drums lineup, but offers more than rhythmic formulae. Not that there isn’t musical strength expressed. Houston-based Sandy Ewen, who plays guitar and objects on the CD, grew up in Oshawa and seems able to transfer some of the noisy industrialization from that city’s auto plants into powerful crackles and flanges. Like an up-to-date assembly line however, despite emphatic knob-twisting and string-snapping each tune moves resolutely forward.

As attuned to the dual demands of rock and jazz as any General Motors technician who moves between the car and truck lines would be up-to-date in his field, Ewen’s associates lock into the groove as handily as a car body is bolted to a chassis. Percussionist Weasel Walter and Damon Smith, who plays double bass and seven-string electric upright, don’t stint when it comes to place-marking, suturing the beat as carefully as if rolling a vehicle off the factory floor. At the same time, tracks like NMASS 3 and Avant Garden 1 find the drummer downplaying rather than pounding the beat so as not to obliterate the others’ solos. As for Smith, his string command is such that during NMASS 1, the buzzy bass line advances with the thrust of a souped-up hot rod to eventually handle as smoothly as a sports car. Smith also bows so delicately that he could be playing in a chamber recital. Just as you can’t tell how a car operates by examining its trim and paint job, Ewen/Smith/Walter take guitar-bass-drum sounds to places you wouldn’t imagine.

Slovenia – of All Places – Continues Its Long Jazz Tradition

Perhaps now unfairly best known as the birthplace of Donald Trump’s most recent wife, Slovenia, the northern-most country of the former Yugoslavia, abutting Austria, Italy and Hungary, is a stable member of the European Union. Plus this tiny country, whose population of slightly more than two million is less than that of the city of Toronto, has long had an affiliation with the arts, especially improvised music. In fact, one of Slovenia’s jazz festival’s is 55 years old this year, making Canadian efforts seem like Johnny-come-latelies. Although better known in Europe than North America, several Slovenian players are also making their presence felt internationally.

01 Il SognoVeteran percussionist Zlatko Kaučič has, in his 40-year career, worked with everyone from Evan Parker to Paul Bley, playing in aggregations ranging from duos to big bands. He provides the underpinning for a live program on Il Sogno Di Una Cosa (Caligola 2213 caligola.it), in the company of Spanish saxophonist Javier Girotto and two Italians, pianist Bruno Cesselli and flutist Massimo De Mattia. With Italy so close, such cross-border collaborations are the norm rather than unique and, like Italian pasta complemented by Slovenian wine, the drummer’s accents help the others create a palatable repast. With all tunes composed by the quartet members, the horn players’ Mediterranean sensibility gives many melodies a sunny lightness. The dance-like sensibility is especially noticeable on Il sogno di una cosa, where Cesselli’s staccato chording and the drummer’s patterned rolls elasticize the peppy theme at the same time as Girotto’s soprano saxophone’s split tones break it at points. Tremolo piano lines create an extension midway between nursery rhyme and natural swing which De Mattia ornaments with pneumatic peeps. Kaučič enlivens De Mattia’s bass-register flute variations on Truth and Death, with its echoes of Ornette Coleman’s Lonely Woman, by regularizing the beat via mallets and kettle drum suggestions. Meanwhile the concluding Reflettiva, a Kaučič composition, cements and echoes moods expressed throughout the concert, aided by balanced puffs from the flutist and saxophonist. In contrast jagged flute calisthenics and a snorting ostinato from Girotto on Cerca cibo finds each player striving to bond musical atoms into a single tune that miraculously ends up swinging. Julijske barve, the drummer’s other composition, is also the most expansive, mixing hard keyboard stresses from Cesselli, percussion smacks and pops, a parallel flute exposition that coats the theme like a boot spray, and most spectacularly the saxophonist’s solo which moves from disruptive triple tonguing at the top to doubling back onto exposition, expressing reflective harmonies by the end.

02 Labour SuiteA younger percussionist following  Kaučič’s breadth of expression is Marko Lasič. His groove, refined with cymbal slaps, maracas-like shakes and positioned clatters defines the bottom of the eight-part The Labour Suite (giovannimaier.it). Composed by and directed by Italian bassist Giovanni Maier, who often works with Kaučič, he and the other members of the Kača, Sraka in Lev Quintet – cornetist Gabriele Cancelli, bass clarinetist Mimo Cogliandro and flutist Paolo Pascolo – display sophisticated jazz smarts while confirming the advantage of equitable cross-border creation. Built up from the bassist’s droning ostinato and drummer’s pops and smacks, the narrative soon surges into a pumping stop-time theme that allows each of the musician-workers to demonstrate his contribution to the means of production. Transforming assembly-line precision into faultless swing which makes the group sound larger than it is, Cancelli’s clear grace notes and Cogliandro’s elastic triple tonguing create a contrapuntal proletarian challenge to Pascolo’s upper management-like penthouse twitters. With Maier’s walking bass sometimes doubling the horn players’ exposition, the suite reaches its climax on The Labour Suite part #5 and The Labour Suite part #6 as the musicians join for a cohesively layered improvisation, with flute peeps on top, plunger excavations from the cornet in the middle and ratcheting vibrations from the bass clarinet on the bottom. Coupling and splintering into duos and trios with amoeba-like intensity, the matches between various instruments are finally curtailed and the prevailing theme reasserted by Maier’s slurred fingering with Lasič’s rebounding strokes seconding him. Like a play’s cast taking their bows, each soloist then illustrates his sonic talents as a coda, with each speciality backed by drum double thumping.

03 Dre HocevarDre Hocevar, another Slovenian percussionist, takes group music in another direction. Established in New York, his Transcendental Within the Sphere of Indivisible Remainder (Clean Feed CF 393 CD cleanfeed-records.com), played by a mixed European-North American nonet is a composition that mixes jazz elements via the saxophones of Bryan Qu and Mette Rasmussen and Aaron Larson Tevis’ trumpet, notated music suggestions via pianist Jeremy Corren, cellist Lester St. Louis and bassist Henry Fraser, plus upfront judder and drones sourced from Zack Clarke’s synthesizer and Sam Pluta’s live electronics and signal processing. During its 48 minutes the polyphonic piece could be an offspring of John Coltrane’s Ascension and Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Electronic Studies. Although blurry electronic gurgles dominate the initial sequence, the processing gradually makes room for hunt-and-peck pianism and Tevis’ grace notes and reed squeals. From that point, like parallel props needed to shore up a house, the composition shows disparate faces at different times. At one junction the rubbing staccato strings and ghostly vibrations from the horns put the track firmly in free jazz territory; shortly afterwards watery growls and oscillated grumbles celebrate the rise of electronic pulses. Throughout, Hocevar uses his cymbal resonation as a sort of J. Arthur Rank-like place marker, keeping the multiphonic interaction from becoming so opaque that all players can be heard. With each musician given space, the composition is never overloaded enough to slide into any one genre. Eventually the thickened brew reaches its simmering climax and in the final sequence downshifts tacitly so that reed whines, computer gulps and a string ostinato have the same weight and bond. The composer’s single cymbal clap, like a period at the end of a sentence, confirms the conclusion.

04 WindsDespite appearances, all Slovenian improvisers aren’t drummers. Another player with an international profile is guitarist Samo Salamon, whose most recent CD is a chamber-styled duo with Italian pianist Stefano Battaglia. Although titled windS (Klopotec Records IZK CD 03 samosalamon.com), the effect is distinctively percussive not airy, with Battaglia’s stopped vibraphone-like key strokes creating a juddering continuum on top of which Salamon and Battaglia intersect with variants that range from romantic to rugged. This is especially notable on Hammer where the excitement level rises as the pianist’s pummelling pops, following an emotional single-string solo from the guitarist. This same sort of wispy invention is present on Girl with a Nicotine Kiss as Battaglia’s elaborations are melded with vocalized single notes from Salamon. Moving through echoing chords from both string sets, the CD attains its climax with the concluding Sleepy Burja. Here, wavering whistles from both instruments suggest the sort of wind rustling that the set celebrates.

05 CETOf course, Slovenia isn’t the only part of the former Yugoslavia with innovative musicians. For the past several years Serbian violist Szilárd Mezei has had his compositions played by different-sized local ensembles, whose nucleus is the Septet featured on CET (Odradek Records ODR CD 506 odradek-records.com). A member of Serbia’s Hungarian minority, his seven compositions here are infectious, hummable and rhythmically sophisticated, with room for cerebral solos, yet with themes that allow the entire band to function as one. A composition like the diagram-titled second track for instance moves from Magyar intonation to a Middle Eastern melody, working through Máté Pozsár’s piano vibrations to Branislav Aksin’s trombone tones, climaxing in tutti cross-fertilization with echoes of the earlier themes. Modern influences aren’t far from the surface either. For example, the chirpy almost whistleable melody that characterizes the title track encompassing bellicose counterpoint between strings and horns could be a theme from a cop show that becomes a hit song on its own. Mezei’s fiddle taps, contrasting with the trombonist’s pushes and growling bass clarinet from Bogdan Rankovič, bring the same sort of private eye-like toughness to Hep 10. The violist also manages to replicate the equivalent of an elephant fitting into a kids’ wading pool by shrinking symphonic traditions into this unit. Tracks such as None Step and Elm convey clear usage of 19th-century traditions from so-called classical music. But nothing is that simple since Elm adds double bass strokes, tremolo piano fills and swinging percussion rattles that surge beneath a keening altissimo showcase for Rankovič’s alto saxophone. Subtitled Hommage à Mal Waldron, None Step incongruously incorporates obvious romantic-era references with arco echoes from Ervin Malina’s double bass while advancing the tune in tonal variations. Finally a combination of Pozár’s rugged comping and Mezei’s brittle strokes resurrect the initial theme with hints of Waldron’s boppish toughness.

Over the past few decades many parts of the former Yugoslavia have suffered from military incursions and political instability. While the first groups mentioned here substantiate the notion that Slovenia’s stability helps promote stimulating musical sounds, paradoxically Mezei’s work does the same for more rambunctious Serbia.

01 Heather BambrickYou’ll Never Know
Heather Bambrick
Independent HBCD003

Toronto-based singer and radio personality Heather Bambrick, has released her first solo recording in a decade. Certainly during that time you could have heard her in many live performances, on other recordings and even voicing animated characters, if you were paying attention. But it’s good to hear a fresh recording from Bambrick since she’s one of the finest jazz singers in this country and her projects are a guaranteed musical treat. Her impeccable technique and heartfelt delivery are on display from the outset with a swing treatment of I Only Have Eyes for You. This track sets the tone for the rest of the album which is mostly mid- to down-tempo covers of songs from the past few decades.

Piano accompanist extraordinaire Mark Kieswetter has arranged most of the songs and he outdoes himself – along with drummer Davide DiRenzo and Bambrick – on the reimagining of Lovers in a Dangerous Time. I didn’t think any version of the Bruce Cockburn song could rival the Barenaked Ladies’ 2006 cover, but this does, artfully enabled by John Johnson on soprano sax and Ross MacIntyre’s perfectly minimalist bass playing.

Bambrick’s Newfoundland roots usually make an appearance on her albums in the form of a traditional song and Petty Harbour Bait Skiff does the job here. But the poignant Far from the Home I Love also beautifully tells the tale.

02 Will JarvisWill Jarvis – Con Gracias
Will Jarvis; Hilario Duran; Bill McBirnie; Kevin Turcotte et al.
Independent WTM-001

This impressive debut recording from bassist/composer Will Jarvis is a collection of ten original tunes, firmly steeped in the Afro-Cuban tradition. Jarvis, who also acts as producer and arranger here, has been focused on Latin musics since the early 90s, and the muy picante CD features an impressive line-up, including pianist Hilario Duran, flutist Bill McBirnie, trumpeter Kevin Turcotte, percussionists Luis Orbegoso, Rosendo Chendy León Arocha and Daniel Stone, as well as jazz mainstays Don Thompson on vibes, Bruce Cassidy on flugelhorn, Michael Stuart on tenor sax and Trevor Dick and Drew Jurecka on violins.

First up is the lively Vientos de Cambio (Winds of Change). Written as a zesty guaguancó, the percussion work propels this tune along, as does the solid solo and ensemble work from McBirnie and Duran, as well as a tasty bass solo by Jarvis. Also, the gorgeous Cha-Cha-Cha, Como Metheny, honours the creative spirit of the celebrated guitarist, and Don Thompson’s contrapuntal vibraphone lines further imply a very Metheny-esque flavour while Kevin Turcotte’s flugelhorn solo is, simply, perfection.

Outstanding is the title track Con Gracias (With Thanks). This bolero beautifully represents contemporary Cuba and the massive impact on jazz that has been graciously given to the world by a prestigious parade of talented and brave Cuban musicians. Michael Stuart’s heartrending tenor solo conveys this heady emotional cocktail of joy and longing.

This fine CD aptly closes with the intense, contemporary cooker, Nuevo Afro, which lovingly embraces everything that is so intoxicating about Afro-Cuban musical forms. Superbly conceived and performed, this is a thoroughly satisfying, accessible and authentic journey into our most ancient and visceral musical origins.

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