11 Tia BrazdaWhen I Get Low
Tia Brazda
Flatcar Records FCR022 (tiabrazda.com)

Going out on a limb it is not so risqué to proclaim that you won’t find another singer who vocalizes music – including this classic music – quite like Tia Brazda. While Brazda may owe much to both Billie Holiday and Amy Winehouse, she has a fully formed style that is wholly her own. Her wide-open articulation, characterized by the sultry, aspirated “ah” when she uses the first person pronoun “I” is as unique as it is beckoning, and it is something you are not likely to tire of as she glides through these nine songs on her fifth disc When I Get Low

Brazda traverses the mezzo-soprano tonal range with ease. But her intonation is uniquely smoky. Moreover, she has a singing style that is made for the pathos of songs such as Lullaby of Leaves, When I Get Low, I Get High and Smile. She can catch both pathos and agitation with tenderly softened tones, made for the graceful love repertoire on this disc (such as the spectacularly evocative I’ll Be Seeing You). 

The members of the ensemble that back Brazda prove themselves to be both subtle and idiomatic interpreters of these songs which they illuminate (as if) with dim gaslight on the darkened alleys off Broadway. Soloists Mike Freedman (guitar), Joel Visentin (piano), Alexis Baro (trumpet) and Drew Jurecka (violin, bandoneón) create an atmospheric setting for Brazda’s gorgeously sullen, long-limbed narratives and floating and spinning lines to unfold with bewitching beauty.

12 Melissa StylianouDream Dancing
Melissa Stylianou; Gene Bertoncini; Ike Sturm
Anzic Records ANZ-0080 (melissa-stylianou.bandcamp.com)

This writer purchased Melissa Stylianou’s 2006 release Sliding Down after hearing her perform in Toronto, which was my introduction to the vocalist’s tasteful singing and composing. It was also my introduction to guitarist Kim Ratcliffe whom I knew of but hadn’t heard, and a chance to hear Kevin Breit who I had just gotten to know. When offered the chance to review Dream Dancing, I delighted in the opportunity to revisit Stylianou’s music over 15 years later, accompanied by yet another great guitarist, Gene Bertoncini. 

Renowned New York bassist Ike Strum is the third bandmate on this recording, and does an exquisite job filling in spaces left by voice and guitar. In this chamber jazz setting devoid of drums, there is simultaneously a rhythmic responsibility to be aware of, as well as the freedom of knowing that each note and chord can be heard clearly. 

Bertoncini throws an occasional harmonic curveball Stylianou’s way, as any exciting and interactive guitarist will tend to do, but each of these interesting challenges are responded to in a sensitive yet sophisticated manner. The album’s penultimate and final numbers My One and Only Love and It Might As Well Be Spring both attest to this, with the NYC-based Canadian vocalist adjusting range and phrasing to fit best with her bandmates. Dream Dancing is a great vocal album yhat transcends the jazz vocal realm enough to be enjoyed by instrumentalists and listeners of all genres.

Listen to 'Dream Dancing' Now in the Listening Room

13 Jacob ChungEpistle
Jacob Chung; Christian Antonacci; Felix Fox-Pappas; Thomas Hainbuch; Petros Anagnostakos
Three Pines Records TPR-008 (jacobchung.bandcamp.com/album/epistle)

It is always exciting to hear a young musician sound fully formed, simultaneously recognizing the tradition that created this art form while innovating as well. Just because there is youthful energy present doesn’t mean the music has to become overly futuristic or avant-garde, and saxophonist Jacob Chung does a brilliant job of bringing new ideas to the table while respecting the old guard. 

Epistle stimulates the listener seconds after pressing play on a CD player or streaming platform. The recording quality and aesthetic brings to mind Verve, Blue Note and Impulse releases, but maintains a modern clarity that eludes many musicians/engineers’ attempts to achieve such a sound. 

Chung has surrounded himself with a group of likeminded and competent young musicians, the oldest being just 24. Trumpeter Christian Antonacci matches Chung’s phrasing, giving the group a unified sound as they traverse several intricate melodies. Some of these melodies come in the form of lines written over pre-existing chord changes, notably Triage with chords penned by Billy Strayhorn, and Bouncin’ at Bonafide which shares a progression with Charlie Parker’s classic Confirmation. These compositions are very tastefully executed by Chung and his band, and their borrowed chord progressions are in no way a cop-out. Epistle 1, 2, 3 and 4 are all unique offerings that provide us with contrasting characteristics, from gospel to swing and everything in between. 

If this is how Jacob Chung is sounding in his early 20s, the future of jazz in Canada and beyond looks bright. Check out Epistle and stay tuned for what’s next!

14 Nate WooleyNate Wooley – Ancient Songs of Burlap Heroes
Columbia Icefield
Pyroclastic Records PR 20 (natewooleypyroclastic.bandcamp.com/album/ancient-songs-of-burlap-heroes)

Composer/trumpeter Nate Wooley possesses focus and drive to match his creativity, embarking on projects that shift and reappear at intervals of years, expanding exponentially. Between 2007 and 2020, his Seven-Storey Mountain grew from a trio accompanied by electronic tapes to 14 musicians and a 21-member choir. Columbia Icefield, a stellar quartet launched in 2019 with guitarist Mary Halvorson, pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn and drummer Ryan Sawyer, is growing conceptually. Wooley sometimes quotes 19th-century American authors like Herman Melville, and this work invites terms like “epic” and “monumental.” The looming intensity, even dark energy, can suggest Moby Dick.  

Wooley’s poetic invocation describes the “burlap hero” as “one who marches – consciously or not – back to the sea in hopes of making no splash, who understands and embraces the imperfection of being, and in that way, stretches the definition of sainthood to fit.” The CD booklet includes aAron [sic] Munson’s grimly evocative photos of an Inuit village in Nunavut, one depicting a frozen whale carcass. 

As a trumpeter, Wooley extends the lyric, expressive tradition of Miles Davis and Wadada Leo Smith, adding extended techniques, eerie electronics and over-dubbing. Brief impressionistic inter-tracks suggest submerged struggles, while the three long movements are developed instrumental dialogues, with guest appearances on one track each by violist Mat Maneri and electric bassist Trevor Dunn. The concluding Returning to Drown Myself, Finally, based on the Swedish song, Nu är midsommar natt, is awash with sea sounds before Wooley’s unaccompanied trumpet comes to the fore, then surrenders to the guitarists’ burbling liquid microtones.

15 Sorey MesmerismMesmerism
Tyshawn Sorey Trio
Pi Recordings (tyshawn-sorey.bandcamp.com)

Tyshawn Sorey has a strong profile as both drummer and composer, creating extended works on several fronts, exploring both improvisation and composition, including concert pieces dedicated to key influences (For Roscoe Mitchell and For George Lewis), probing hypnotic works (Pillars, a three-CD magnum opus exploring low frequency improvisation), and assorted collaborations with pianists Vijay Iyer and Marilyn Crispell. Here Sorey takes a different turn, recording a series of favourite jazz tunes, several of them standards, in an ad hoc trio with pianist Aaron Diehl and bassist Matt Brewer, a “project with only an hour or two of rehearsal, … with a group of musicians who never performed on stage together.” 

That’s both harsh reality and ideal in jazz, a test of the spontaneous creativity that defines the art, and this trio performs magnificently, working through a program that combines traditional standards – Detour Ahead, here a 14-minute voyage into harmonic extension, and Autumn Leaves, a spare masterpiece – to works by master pianist-composers, like Horace Silver and Duke Ellington. It’s a trio that can achieve mystery and clarity simultaneously, with Silver’s Enchantment moving from hanging resonant chords to soulful modal blues and Paul Motian’s From Time to Time effectively suspending time amidst the piano’s sustain and Sorey’s cloud-like cymbals. Muhal Richard Abrams’ Two Over One and Duke Ellington’s REM Blues, have a muscular vigour and avoid verbosity, reflecting Diehl, Brewer and Sorey’s creativity and precision.    

Mesmerism may be a commonplace project, but the results are often majestic.

16 Florian HoefnerDesert Bloom
Florian Hoefner Trio
Alma Records ACD52022 (florian-hoefner.com/music-shop)

Pianist/composer Florian Hoefner states that the concept behind his latest album Desert Bloom is the behaviour in certain arid locations where a huge rainstorm will occur every few years: the dormant seeds of the wildflowers “suddenly germinate” and “the colours explode.” That image resonates throughout the evocative and tasteful works comprising Desert Bloom. The opener, Between the Lines, is beautifully hypnotic with a repeating piano line that is joined by a contrapuntal bass and when the drums enter it switches effortlessly to a funky groove. The title song begins with a bowed bass, elegant cymbal strikes and sporadic piano chords, works into a nice bass solo until a very funky ostinato theme emerges. 

Hoefner’s compositions are subtle, nuanced and always moving; the album is a jazz delight because of the interplay amongst all three musicians. Andrew Downing’s bass work is precise and funky, Nick Fraser’s drumming is a masterclass in keeping the groove going while sprinkling in surprising and enlightening percussive elements; and Hoefner’s piano can be understated, driving, impressionistic or whatever else is required.

17 Jocelyn GouldGolden Hour
Jocelyn Gould
Independent JGDC0422 (jocelyngould.com)

Nothing can beat an album intro like this one. Beautiful rubato guitar melodies weave together overtop lush piano chords, punctuated by patient pauses. As the lead voice leans into the last note, the rest of the band hangs onto it, giving the impression of a soft exhale. The spell is eventually broken by catharsis via drum pickup, which manages to feel like a definitive statement without being overly forceful, as if to say “welcome.” This is not to overanalyze 30 seconds of music, because one could loosely apply the previous description to the entirety of Golden Hour. It flows perfectly, is extremely dynamic, and has the calming effect of a slow, deep breath. Everything fits snugly in place. 

With her sophomore effort, Jocelyn Gould proves herself to yet again be a masterful curator, bandleader and improviser, refining so much of what made 2020’s Elegant Traveler so mesmerizing. From that preceding album, the energy itself is largely dialed back, to inject the overall tone with the quietude of observing a sunset. This atmosphere is aided by Gould’s approach to song, both through interpretation and composition. Her original music feels every bit as polished and timeless as the jazz standards she chooses to tackle. Serendipity evokes the meaning of its title with grace, with pleasant surprises to be found throughout its form, culminating in an outro that sums up everything the music’s  about: pure, unbridled unity.

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