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.

03 3rio3Rio
Alexandre Côté; Gary Schwartz; Jim Doxas

If at first it seems odd to listen to a disc that has neither the benefit of a contrabass nor a tuba to hold up the bottom end of the musical scale, but relies upon the bass drum to do that, all raised eyebrows are soon lowered when this threesome gets to Monk’s Dream. It is then that Jim Doxas comes into his own not only as a drummer who is doing the rhythmist’s job all on his own, but is actually playing the role of a percussion colourist and the third melodist of the band.

Ensembles that are as free-flowing as 3Rio often tend to be reminiscent of the many unpredictable musical journeys that Jimmy Giuffre’s duo and trio might take. However Doxas, Alexandre Côté and Gary Schwartz make everything from written counterpoint (You Stepped Out of a Dream) to classic improvisation (Monk’s Dream), and free form – or formless – improvisation (Bridge 1-6) sound shockingly unexpected and fresher than music from other improvising groups.

Warm, sliding chords (Bridge 3) reveal an elegant structural sense on the part of guitarist Schwartz, even without text. This is easily carried over by Schwartz into his poetic waltz-time The Cove, an obliquely tonal homage to the instrument he plays so well. Côté responds beautifully on the tenor saxophone. Côté plays with brilliant focus and timbral variety always staying just long enough to charm and dazzle the senses helping weave the magical threads into an enigmatic musical fabric.

04 C I JensonInfinitude
Ingrid and Christine Jensen with Ben Monder
Whirlwind Recordings WR4694 (ingridjensen.com)

Originally from Vancouver Island, sisters Ingrid and Christine Jensen have both established careers in jazz, Ingrid as a trumpeter in New York, Christine as a composer and alto saxophonist in Montreal. Their individual styles share a compelling sense of spaciousness and a keen alertness to voicings and sound, qualities that link them, as annotator James Hale notes, to a Canadian tradition embodied in forebears like Paul Bley and Kenny Wheeler.

While both may be best known for orchestral projects, Infinitude presents them in a quintet with guitarist Ben Monder, bassist Fraser Hollins and drummer Jon Wikan. Despite that sparse instrumentation, the music often does feel orchestral, a tribute to the sisters’ rich sonorities and thoughtful harmonies as well as Monder’s resourceful mastery of electric guitar timbres.

A feeling of infinite space is apparent from Monder’s Echolalia, a rolling piece that sets its repeating theme on the carpet of sound provided by Hollins’ resonant bass. That sense of space colours the music in other ways as well; Ingrid’s Duo Space is a duet with Monder, her burnished trumpet sound supported by waves of atmospheric guitar sound.

Another sense of space is apparent, too. If Christine’s reputation as composer and orchestrator has long surpassed her instrumental achievements, the openness of this group highlights a new fluency on saxophone. It comes through especially on her Octofolk: she reveals a fresh assertiveness and a shifting mercurial creativity in both line and sound.

05 Picasso ZoneThe Picasso Zone
Modus Factor
Browntasauras Records NCC-1701H (chrislesso.com/modus-factor)

Don’t expect things to be dull and dreary when Brownman Ali is around – either on stage, or in the studio. Ever. Take Chris Lesso's Modus Factor 2016 release The Picasso Zone, where Brownman is invited to join bassist Ian De Souza and drummer/bandleader Lesso in the molten mix that is cooking in this bubbling cauldron of an album. It might not be that odd to think of this music in the Cubist terms that it references.

The sharply angular rhythms and harmonic objects that are analysed, broken up and reassembled in a brand new multi-dimensional form of music closely resemble the Cubist line. The introspective nature of Now & Zen, for instance, might be considered – without putting too fine a point on its melody – a strikingly “blue period” piece.

There have been times when Brownman has been spoken of in less than flattering terms as being in the time-warp that held Miles Davis’ fancy during his electronic period. But Brownman is no clone of anyone. His singular “voice” is just that; a trumpet that is played to mimic the sounds of the human voice as it revels in astonishing whoops, excited stutters and solfège, with its loud resonance and frequent blurring of syllables. It’s quite ingenious technically, but what’s more, carefully melting the sonority of the human voice into that of the trumpet, Brownman is able to emote freely, often leaping joyously from the ecstatic head-games of the Monkish Rounded Corners to a more contemplative Metatonia.

Much as it might seem that the trumpeter is the dominant voice on The Picasso Zone, both De Souza and Lesso also assert themselves with virtuoso performances. Both men combine cohesively, playing with more expressive depth and luxuriating in the burnished, golden tone of Brownman’s trumpet with roaring bass and a broad palette of percussion colours.

Editor's note: this review has been updated since it appeared in print to correct the impression that Modus Factor is a Brownman-initiated project. Chris Lesso is the group's driving force as noted above.

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