12 MEVCD0011Symphony No.106
Musica Elettronica Viva
Victo cd 129 (victo.qc.ca)

A milestone itself, Symphony No.106 captures one of the infrequent regroupings of Musica Elettronica Viva (MEV), almost 40 years after its three founders – Alvin Curran, Frederic Rzewski and Richard Teitelbaum – organized it in Rome. Recorded at last year’s Festival International du Musique Actuelle du Victoriaville in Quebec, the 62-minute piece is scarcely anyone’s idea of a twilight leave-taking. Pioneers of electronic interface and non-jazz-sourced improvisation, the three sophisticatedly adapt computer processing and patches plus multi-keyboard crackles and jiggles to their own ends. Like modernist printers who also use precision hand presses for certain projects, the single track’s narration at one point is given mournful fillip by blasts from the furthest reaches of Curran’s shofar, while connecting motifs are produced by processional melodies from Rzewski’s piano.

Moving at points from stately to squiggly to swift, processing allows this symphony to include sonorous amplifications and contrapuntal interruptions. These sequences sprinkle references to accordion-like slurs, percussion-power and aviary-twittering projectile-like explosions, as well as interpolated, but distant, pre-recorded male and female voices of different ages speaking a variety of languages. Like elders impressing children by knowing the latest dance steps, MEV adds some electronic funk-like samples before a climactic piano part that’s half-anthemic and half Born Free. While sampled timbres of Galician davening blend with processed drones, Rzewski recounts a story of how Cossacks unexpectedly attacked his grandfather in 1914, linking the act to the present time. Point made, waveform synthesis and a Broadway-like melody alongside thick piano chording relax into a distanced finale.

02 Reg Schwager SongbookSongbook
Reg Schwager
Jazz from Rant 1751 (jazzfromrant.com)

In his latest release, consummate Canadian jazz guitarist Reg Schwager acts brilliantly as producer, composer and arranger. The well-conceived and performed recording comprises all original compositions by Schwager, with collaborations from: his talented sister, jazz chanteuse Jeannette Lambert; luminous Brazilian vocalist Luanda Jones; and certainly one of Canada’s finest jazz singers, John Alcorn.  The superb cast of performers on the CD also includes William Sperendai on trumpet, Allison Au on alto saxophone and flute, Mike Murley on tenor saxophone, Brodie West on alto saxophone, Don Thompson and Amanda Tosoff on piano, Steve Wallace on bass, Michel Lambert and Fabio Ragnelli on drums and Manino Costa on percussion.

Schwager’s elegant, crisp style and harmonic sophistication are reminiscent (but not derivative of) guitar legends Jim Hall and Emily Remler, and this recording is certainly a portrait of an artist at the peak of his creativity and skill.

Every track here is a work of art, but of particular note are Kisses of Summer – a winning combination of Alcorn’s sensuous and evocative baritone, sumptuous compositional ideas, Schwager’s incomparable guitar work and jazz legend and multi-instrumentalist Thompson on piano. Co-written with Jones, O que tinha que dar features Schwager’s considerable Brazilian chops on full throttle, as vocalist Jones effortlessly draws the listener into her lovely web of bossa rhythms and sexy nuances. Au on alto and Tosoff on piano also shine. On the gorgeous ballad Splintered Dream, co-writer Jeannette Lambert channels the spirit of Peggy Lee with this romantic and melancholy song worthy of the silver screen.

03 Campbell Shirley HornLoving You – Celebrating Shirley Horn
Peter Campbell
Independent (petercampbellmusic.com)

Vocalist Peter Campbell’s introduction to the stylings of the great vocalist/pianist Shirley Horn was during his undergraduate days at McGill University. After hearing her 1992 recording Here’s to Life, he was greatly impressed and influenced by her musical expressiveness. In this celebration of Horn’s recordings, Campbell utilizes her influence as he performs 13 Horn songs with clarity, musicality and respect while simultaneously creating his own sound.

Campbell performs with clear diction, phrasing and vocal colour. He is accompanied by a stellar group of musicians – pianist Mark Kieswetter, guitarist Reg Schwager, bassist Ross MacIntyre and trumpeter Kevin Turcotte. In the opening track A Time for Love, Campbell’s effortless wide vocal range is supported by Kieswetter’s solid piano stylings and a colourful Turcotte trumpet solo. Bass and guitar provide tasteful solos and support to an emotional vocal performance of Sharing the Night With the Blues. Loving You is highlighted by subtle vocal colour changes in the longer held notes against a sparse piano accompaniment – it’s almost like two soloists having a musical chat over beverages! A straightforward ballad rendition of the Piaf classic If You Love Me is memorable for its simplicity and lyric storytelling.

No drums here in the mix, but the rhythmic sense is never lost with the band members’ sense of time. Inventive arrangements by Campbell and Kieswetter, and smart instrumental improvisations support Campbell’s moving renditions to make this a great musical gift to his musical hero Shirley Horn.

04 Rebecca HenneseyTwo Calls
Rebecca Hennessy’s FOG Brass Band
Independent RH002 (rebeccahennessy.com)

If the term “less is more” ever elicited a vivid example to go along with it, this disc Two Calls by Rebecca Hennessy’s FOG Brass Band would be it. Rarely do performers shine in all their radiant apparel, creating an unmatched nimbleness of sound, as Hennessy and her ensemble. This is no stripped-down interplay but a fulsome recreation of the evocative dialogue between a trumpeter and her band. The ebullient arpeggios and brilliantly gilded glissandi played by Hennessy mimic perfectly the melisma of a singer, only in this instance the trumpet or flugelhorn, in all its brazen or hushed spookiness, recalls the ghosts of masters as Hennessy shines forth.

Among the choicest encounters on this disc are Birds for Free and Why Are You So Sad Booker Little? The rest of the melodically exquisite songs are also beautifully crafted; a combination of ingenious writing and inspired improvisation on the part of Hennessy and her ensemble. The vitality and brilliance of each invention shines forth in the strongest and most appealing orchestral colours. The dynamic range and balance between the instruments is achieved by each artist never seeming to tread on the other’s turf. It’s almost as if soloing is done in a series of shy dance moves, as saxophone comes into the spotlight while piano is in the shadows; then switching roles as if by magic so that another instrumentalist is highlighted.

05 Audrey OchaAfterthought
Audrey Ochoa Trio
Chronograph Records CR 055 (chronographrecords.com)

As any dictionary search shows, “feeling” is a word with multiple meanings: a function or the power of perceiving by touch; any particular sensation of this kind; the general state of consciousness considered independently of particular sensations; thoughts affected by emotion… To say that trombonist Audrey Ochoa sets about creating feelings is to suggest, therefore, that somehow she does all of these. All the ingredients are there: tempo, dynamics and emotion, activated by the vibrations as her lips engage the air from her lungs singing, and her fingers extend the gliding tubing. This is the means by which Ochoa creates fine texture and timbre; her sense of spatial scale creates equal parts grace, rhythmic energy, and pure emotion in a kinetic response to combative, hair-trigger dynamic musical contrasts.

For proof of all of the above, look no further than the present recording, Afterthought, a mesmeric album full of swagger, swing and beckoning genius. Audrey Ochoa’s inventions are redolent of light-handed glissandos and mercurial arpeggios played with quintessential charm and wit. The disc consists of eight works of unsurpassed beauty. Each song is alive with personal magic and happily shared imaginative possibility. Ochoa’s compositions are graceful, fluent and affectionate. Titles such as Low Interest Rate and Doppelgangers are bursting with surprise. Underpinning this excellence is the work of bassist Mike Lent and drummer Sandro Dominelli, whose superb playing adds a feeling of considerable largeness to this fine recording.

06 Erik HovePolygon
Erik Hove Chamber Ensemble
Independent (erikhovemusic.com)

Montreal-based alto saxophonist and composer Erik Hove is a musician of startling persistence and ambition, as ready to challenge himself as his listeners. In 2014 he released Saturated Colour by his ten-member Chamber Ensemble, a well-rehearsed group playing complex compositions that merged the microtonal methodologies of spectral composition à la French composers Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail with a jazz rhythm section and improvised solos, an approach also pioneered by New York-based saxophonist/composer Steve Lehman.

Now, simply put, Hove has done it again, with just three personnel changes in the ensemble of four reeds (including flutes, clarinets, oboe and saxophone), trumpet, string trio, bass and drums. He has an increasingly assured and innovative command of his complex materials, happily mixing microtonal chords, machine-like arpeggios and complex rhythms. On Metal Clouds, Hove, flutist Anna Webber and violist Jean René solo with aplomb, matching their own quarter-tones with those of the accompanying chords. His gifts as an orchestrator come increasingly to the fore as the program continues, with Inversions developing eerily sustained mixes of strings and reeds.

Hove uses improvisation selectively and structurally: Inversions is already a well-developed piece before it welcomes a passage of collective improvisation, while Tetrahedron begins as a feature for Andy King’s jazz-fueled trumpet, eventually evolving into a composition for full ensemble. Hove’s finest moment as an improviser comes at the end as he solos on the brief Octagon, lifting its evanescent textures while adding further mystery.

07 Stir Tour de BrasStir
Yves Charuest; Agustí Fernández; Nicolas Caloia; Peter Valsamis
Tour de Bras TDB 9021cd (tourdebras.com)

The group involved in Stir begins as an unrecorded Montreal-based trio called Still that consists of alto saxophonist Yves Charuest, bassist Nicolas Caloia and drummer Peter Valsamis, then adds the titanic Spanish pianist Agustí Fernández. It’s a collective performance by a compound ensemble devoted to free jazz, but there’s also a sense of traditional roles, with Charuest and Fernández frequently in the foreground.

Charuest runs counter to expectations for free jazz saxophonists, his playing consistently lyrical, often understated, his brief, sometimes elliptical lines conveying intense passion and thought, but rarely cascades of notes or distorted timbres. His original models likely included Lee Konitz, but Charuest, who began his career in the 1980s and spent a creative stretch in Europe, long ago sublimated his influences into a distinctly personal style. Charuest’s meeting with Fernández can suggest some of the David-and-Goliath dialogue of Jimmy Lyons and Cecil Taylor, but the telepathic interaction practised by the two is remarkable, with even short, simultaneous phrases sounding like they might have arrived via manuscript paper.

The collective improvisations Stir presents here are titled (Un)fold I-VI, and range from brief episodes (the delicate I and the pensive VI) to extended forays. The group’s raw power and investigative reach explode on (Un)fold II, while III is a foray into sounds in which Caloia and Valsamis, always creative in support, come forward, sometimes mingling indistinguishably with the interior of Fernández’ piano. This is free jazz of the first order.

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