18 RedGreenBlueThe End and The Beginning
Astral Spirits AS190 (astralrgb.bandcamp.com)

The End and the Beginning defines the slow burn; establishing a drone and then, armed with nothing but patience, allowing it to grow organically into something truly profound. The whisper of synth wizard Paul Giallorenzo’s reassuringly consonant droning note both begins and ends the album. At first so subtle you almost need to squint to hear it, this initial monophonic drone in The Beginning signals the only viable musical direction to be skyward, and then in The End allows space for the rubble to clear. Charlie Kirchen comes in shortly after, creating a simple bass line that lends itself to the tranquil atmosphere while managing to add as much harmonic context to the drone as needed, not unlike what Charlie Haden provided to the music of Don Cherry. 

It is on this foundation that the music begins to gather wholly satisfying momentum. Citing Terry Riley as an influence, RedGreenBlue accomplishes something staggering, managing to evenly bridge the forms of minimalism and improvisation, revealing their marriage to warrant unceasing exploration. Percussionist Ryan Packard’s ability to impeccably imply pulse while stealthily adding aspects to the groove is key here, allowing for the sound to expand outward while also shifting imperceptibly. The end of The Beginning is an undeniable climax, but the stripped-down Giallorenzo solo passage during the next piece is every bit as evocative. In this kind of music, process is given equal emphasis as product, and RedGreenBlue embody that concept.

19 E3 Transmit SlowTransmit Slow
E3 by Alex Lakusta

Numerous points in Transmit Slow can place a listener in a unique state between dissociation and transfixion, peacefully swaying as blissful minutes evaporate. Drawing from numerous palates of ambient and electronic sound, the trio finds their signature from the outset. Alex Lakusta’s bass playing is the definition of substance over style, only playing the notes that lay a necessary harmonic foundation for the ensemble. Drummer Keagan Eskritt and keyboardist Josh Smiley play similarly devoid of superficiality. Transmit Slow is a masterclass in what a rhythm section can achieve artistically when solely focused on grooving as hard as possible. Just as additive are the production efforts of Robert Diack, who adds the perfect amount of polish to the low end; greatly benefiting the music’s textural clarity. Brad Eaton rounds out this cast of consummate professionals, guesting with extremely restrained trumpet playing that does nothing more than needed to further contextualize Lakusta’s arrangements. 

Due to the consistency of Lakusta’s refined bandleading style, the tracks blend together almost as if they were parts of a suite, arriving at nary a single passage in contrived fashion. Quite a bit of the overall cohesion is helped by Smiley’s patience when it comes to creating drones with his organ, allowing for a profoundly hypnotic throughline. This effect is particularly present on the track All Static/Frequency Lost, which seamlessly switches metre and pulse halfway through. That’s the thing about E3, they always stick the landing.

20 Billy MohlerAnatomy
Billy Mohler; Nate Wood; Chris Speed; Shane Endsley
Contagious Music CGM007 (billymohler.bandcamp.com/album/anatomy)

It is perhaps fitting that Anatomy – an album most defined by its clarity and attentiveness – is so profoundly anchored by brief, improvised passages. If the track list were to be split into three, the songs titled Abstract would open each side. As it pertains to the pristine arrangements surrounding these vignettes, these solos serve as a sobering reminder of how fruitless and unnecessary a task it can be to draw a hard line between creative processes. There is still that element of cleanliness and craftsmanship present, mainly due to the fidelity of Billy Mohler’s bass.

Through the hypnotic layering and reverb of Abstract 1, one can almost hear the exact point in which fingers make impact with string. But through his diatonic explorations within a fixed range and found resolutions of phrases in real time, it is not only pure spontaneous expression but an admittance that he isn’t one to have an entire arrangement suddenly appear in his head. By bringing the listener through a process, a greater appreciation is gained for the premeditation going into a track such as Equals. The song lives in a ping-pong match between septuple metre sections for long enough that its brief forays into standard time feel like subversive interludes. Mohler understands the power of a well-intentioned bridge, serving as a memorable detour from more prominent ideas while never being reduced to a mere conduit from point A to point B.

21 Chet BakerLive in Paris (Radio France Recordings 1983-1984)
Chet Baker Trio
Elemental Music 5990442 (elemental-music.com)

In 1952, near his career’s beginnings, Chet Baker became an instant star playing cool jazz with the Gerry Mulligan quartet. It was the opposite of everything that then characterized modern jazz: glacially slow, meticulously arranged, almost improvisation-free. Thirty years later, just a few years before his death, Baker was still playing a kind of cool jazz, but it was frequently fast, with extended improvisation.

Available as three LPs or two CDs, Live in Paris presents two concert recordings, each featuring Baker’s preferred instrumentation, a chamber jazz trio of trumpet, piano and acoustic bass. The first concert, from L’Esplanade De La Défense, focuses on the Great American Songbook. It’s the ballads that stand out, with stellar instrumental performances of Easy Living and Stella by Starlight, the rhapsodic accompaniment by pianist Michel Graillier (his fluid harmonic invention resembles Bill Evans’) and bassist Dominique Lamerle feeding Baker’s lyrical gift. Episodes of Baker’s scat singing, while mimicking the fluid detail of his trumpet playing, detract from two up-tempo performances. 

The much longer club session from Le Petit Opportun is much more consistent, with Baker foregoing singing and popular songs to concentrate on East Coast hard bop anthems – e.g., Hank Mobley’s Funk in Deep Freeze, Horace Silver’s Strollin’, Richard Carpenter’s Walkin’ – pieces that take on new character with the chamber jazz dynamics and the more forceful bass playing of Riccardo Del Fra, further propelling Baker and Graillier. A 19-minute (the improvisations really are extended) treatment of Brazilian composer Rique Pantoja’s Arbor Way is another highlight.

They were supposed to have vanished when singers replaced big bands and become anachronisms once rock music combos became the de facto performance configuration. Yet large ensembles never went away. The challenge of blending multiple instrumental colours still fascinates composers and players of both notated and improvised music. Producing the proper balance between those two motifs, while taking advantage of every timbre produced by a large group of musicians is what characterizes the following CDs.

01 TrondheimUsing the 14-member Trondheim Jazz Orchestra, Norwegian bassist Ole Morton Vågan created Plastic Wave (Odin Records ODINLP 9578 odinrecords.bandcamp.com), a 2CD meditation on modern challenges and promises. Although the brief recitations by a poet are lost on non-Norwegian speakers, the compositions stand on their own. Taking advantage of the soprano tessitura of vocalist Sofia Jernberg, Vågan’s arrangements often blend her wordless lyricism with brassy fissures or placid reed tones. But groove is never sacrificed for gentleness. Throughout motifs, which suggest Charles Mingus at his bluesiest and Henry Mancini at his jazziest, are driven by Ståle Storløkken’s Hammond organ pumps, Kjetil Møster’s and Espen Reinertsen’s tenor saxophone vamps and Vågan’s own double bass stops. Tracks such as Critical Mass Distraction are notable for their unified polyphony, as the piece advances due to contributions from trumpeter Eivind Lønning’s shakes and triplets and violinist Ola Kvernberg’s barbed glissandi. Meanwhile, drummers Gard Nilssen and Håkon Johansen’s pops and rebounds emphasize the tune’s spikiness, confirmed by a coda of heightened brassiness. Extended or briefer tracks accentuate the unforced swing that underlies the program. Two of the more notable are Pickaboogaloo and the title track; moving along with double bass thumps and drum backbeats the former maintaining a funk tempo projected by contrapuntal reed and brass riffs. Soon though, a wailing plunger interlude from trombonist Øyvind Brække, paced by double time organ smears introduces a stop-time variant that matches portamento brass flutters and honks from the group’s four-person reed section, sliding from that dissonate interlude to a coordinated finale. Plastic Wave confirms tone construction. Gradually building up from unified voice, brass and reed expressions, Oscar Grønberg’s piano tinkles precede an arrangement that alternates intermittent drum beats, brass tongue sucking and puffs from Eirik Hegdal’s baritone saxophone with the layered harmonies of the introduction. 

02 Ensemble IcosAnother double bassist, Benjamin Duboc of Paris, composed and directed an even more ambitious project. Entitled Volumes II – Fiction Musicale et Chorégraphique – Création pour Grand Orchestre et Corps Actants (Dark Tree DT 15 darktree-records.com), Duboc’s  Ensemble Icosikaihenagone (EI) runs through a single (nearly) 45-minute arrangement that brings to life this fictitious idea. Added to the 22 instrumentalists, who also vocalize, are the voices of three actors. With the text oscillating between imagery and sardonic comments, with voices often overlapping, it’s best to concentrate on the music. Beginning with near-silence, it’s not until after the first four minutes that a harmonized chord from seemingly every ensemble member moves in a linear fashion but without losing the exposition’s near-opaqueness. Although reed squeaks and string strokes are sometimes detached from the sonic murk, it isn’t until repeated kettle-drum-like throbs from percussionists Thierry Waziniak and Amélie Grould introduces a dramatic upsurge from reed players Jean-Luc Petit and Sylvain Kassap, soon followed by Émilie Aridon-Kociołek’s reflective keyboard interlude, fully define the musical program. Brassy triplets from trumpeters Jean-Luc Cappozzo and Franz Hautzinger join with the seven string players for a crescendo of undifferentiated timbres amplified with expressions from two female and one male voice. These fragments emphasize the composition’s two contrapuntal currents: dissonant footfall-like tongue slaps from the reeds and romantic glissandi from violinists Mathias Naon and Patricia Bosshard. Confirming his manipulations of low pitches Duboc’s next section matches Dorian Marcel’s and Sébastien Beliah’s percussive double bass motifs to Diemo Schwarz’s electronic samples which interject mariachi-like brass, Latin dance, waltz music snatches and hooting voices. The sampled voices and electronic wave forms continue in the following sequence as they’re toughened with Christiane Bopp’s and Alexis Persigan’s portamento trombone slurs, anvil-hard percussion smashes, percussion slaps and wordless bel-canto vocalizing. Reaching another polyphonic crescendo, the voices, electronic buzzes and trumpet triplets fade to silence. Now suspended in time, ones wonder how Volumes I and Volumes III sound.

03 LeUnInterest in large-scale improvisation appears to fascinate French musicians, since six months before the EI disc was recorded, the 24-member Le Un troupe made its album. Coincidentally organized by David Chiesa, another double bass player, Le Havre (UnRec R 21 unensemble.bandcamp.com/album/le-havre) finds the orchestra, with a similar blend of reeds, brass, strings, percussion and electronics working its way through five group compositions over 65 minutes. The performances can be low key and slow moving or aggressive and rapid. But whether a tune’s horizontal progress is spurred by, for instance, Claire Bergerault’s accordion shakes or pianist Sophie Agnel’s key clips, overblowing and circular breathing from the four reed players, or staccato stops from the eight plucked or bowed strings, group affiliations and counterpoint always supersede singular instrumental spots. Vocalized yells, electronic drones, reed yelps and brass triplets have their place but are balanced and layered. Chiesa’s preference for low pitches means that a track such as Unité Nodale 8.2 reaches a climax at mid-point as double bass pumps preface a defining sequence where every one of the instruments’ tones, pops, cries, thumps and squeaks in unison, with bell tree shakes as a respite. Unité Nodale 11.2 and Unité Nodale 3.1, the introductory and concluding salvos, express this strategy at greatest length. On the first, affiliations from tremolo accordion brush up against thick double bass stops, mooing reeds and trumpeter Christian Pruvost’s half-valve expressions, reaching a crescendo of miasmatic blending. This mixture bypasses stuttering rips from the trumpeter and trombonist Patrick Charbonnier plus col legno string sweeps to reach a contrapuntal climax of intermittent piano clips and thumping ruffs from percussionists Camille Emaille and Benoit Kilian. That’s until spiccato string shakes, brass scoops and vocalized bel canto sighs sail across the lower pitches for a finale. These alternations from complete freedom to integration are confirmed with Unité Nodale 3.1 although here the reverberating metallic pressure and vibrating sibilation from Pascal Battus’ rotating surfaces and Jérôme Noetinger and Lionel Marchetti’s electronics are more prominent. Among the concentrated timbres of drones, pops, slaps and shakes dualism is set up between pairs such as Nina Garcia’s guitar strums and saxophonist Michel Doneda’s wailing split tones, or as multiple circular breathing abuts swift string glissandi. Ascending to a mesh of electroacoustic output, the cumulative tone ascends in pitch and loudness until it shakes away.

04 Healing OrchUnlike the massive ensembles put together by EI and Le Un, another French band, the Healing Orchestra (HO) presents its music as Free Jazz for the People! (LFDS 011 lefondeurdeson.com) with only 14 musicians. Despite the insurgent title, the two CDs combine free-form swinging with precise touch of emotional free jazz. Led by vibist/pianist Paul Wacrenier, who composed all the music, the strategic arrangements take advantage of every member’s talent. Pouvoir du Dedans which introduces the three-part title suite, features slurping and squeezed clarion variations from Kassap who has a less prominent role with Le Un. Overall his staccato tongue-slapping floats over lumbering group work then introduces a section characterized by throbbing bass lines from Victor Aubert and Blaise Chevalier and climaxes with a dual between violinist Sarah Colomb’s stretched spiccato and flutist Fanny Ménégoz’s peeping whistles. This dualism is used to striking effect on other tracks, especially when soloists pop out of concentrated orchestral motifs before integrating themselves back into the evolving themes. Confluences and L’Estaca suite’s final tracks illustrate this. The flutist’s traverse colouration; projected triplets from trumpeter Xavier Bornens; snorting and searing altissimo and vibrated split tones from saxophonists Arnaud Sacase (alto), Jean-François Petitjean (tenor) and Jon Vicuna (baritone); plus Wacrenier’s staccato vibes chiming and linear piano comping heard briefly but crucially. Personalizing the packed group improvisations, the narrative is loosened enough so that the shift to a happy dance rhythm makes the finale more freylekhs than free jazz. This same balance between freneticism and facility is expressed on Blooming In Tough Days, the extended finale of the Fraternity Suite. After exploring motifs encompassing folkloric harmonies by the three arco string players, gong-like resonations from the vibes and a touch of drone from concentrated timbres led by low-pitched piano notes, baritone sax honks and plucked bass thumps, the group settles into a groove. With portamento brass scoops, mellow violin glissandi and drummer Benoist Raffin’s press rolls, the suite and session exit with joyous vamps that are spirited, streetwise and sophisticated all at once.

05 HardRubberThere are similar concepts from Vancouver’s Hard Rubber Orchestra (HRO) on Iguana (Hard Rubber DL hardrubber.com).The urbane arrangements by leader/trumpeter John Korsrud and others make it sound as if they’re being played by a larger group whereas the HRO is usually an octet. Always ready to emphasize the hard in the group’s name, the tracks often suggest how a metal band would sound playing all acoustic instruments. Instances of this are the extended Source Code, composed and featuring guitarist Harry Stafylakis and Korsrud’s Force Majeure. Built up from buzzy guitar and electric bass riffs and backbeat drumming from Eliot Doyle, the often agitated program still finds room for Mark Ferris’ Baroque-tinged mid-point violin sweeps before a polyphonic climax-crescendo with every instrument, especially the three hocketing and harmonized horns projecting at once. Based around a responsive and repeated chunky pattern by drummers Trent Otter and Kai Basanta, this background power pushes juddering and ascending chords from saxophonists Tom Keenlyside and Jon Bentley plus thickened brass portamento from Jim Hopson’s three low-pitched horns. Metal doesn’t replace melody however, since Korsrud’s From the Earth is a veritable piano concerto for Marianne Trudel. As her piano line evolves with Romantic overtones including waterfalls of notes and individual plinking, Mike Herriott adds to the Arcadian mood with overdubbed harmonized French horn, trombone, bass trombone and flugelhorn textures. Other tracks showcase everything from Vivian Houle’s alternating banshee-like or warbling vocalizing floating over electrified violin sweeps and paced by Ron Samworth’s guitar drones, to the stop-time title track that matches a Latin tinge with driving plunger brass and Samworth’s string slaps. Overall it appears the HRO has every part of the sound spectrum covered.

A comparison of the sparse HRO personnel with the many players involved elsewhere shows how modern large ensemble writing and playing can take many forms if creativity is in the right hands.

01 Lou PomaniLou Pomanti & Friends
Lou Pomanti & Friends
Vesuvius Music VMI - 009 (loupomanti.com)

Consummate pianist/arranger/composer/producer Lou Pomanti has often been recognized for his impressive list of professional collaborations, but here Pomanti speaks in his own creative voice by presenting a project rife with original compositions and inspired pairings with artists with whom Pomanti has previously co-created. The jazz, R&B and pop luminaries here include vocalist Emilie-Claire Barlow, iconic trumpeter Randy Brecker, soulful vocalist and lead singer of Blood, Sweat and Tears David Clayton-Thomas, contemporary crooner Matt Dusk, masterful singer/songwriter Marc Jordan, the funkadelic Oakland Stroke blue-eyed soul singer John Finley, gifted vocalists Dione Taylor, Irene Torres, June Garber and Robyn Black, drummer Larnell Lewis and guitarist/synth wizard Sam Pomanti. The material here is a virtual potpourri of eclecticism and perfectly curated tracks – effortlessly pairing the right artists with the right tunes, brilliantly arranged and performed by the A-List musicians in the stirring charts created by Pomanti. 

First up is a largo, come-hither take on Lennon/McCartney’s Come Together featuring the magnificent Jordan and emerging vocalist Black, set in an inspired arrangement that oozes sophistication. A true standout is the swinging and soulful rendition of Mose Allison’s Your Mind is On Vacation featuring the made-in-heaven vocal match of Findley and Clayton-Thomas, followed by the irresistible Laura Nyro hit, Stoned Soul Picnic, reimagined by Pomanti, replete with an in-the-pocket tempo and featuring the breathtaking Barlow as well as a groovy face-melter from Brecker. 

Pomanti’s “ten piece touring funk juggernaut, Oakland Stroke” is represented here with a bluesy and thrilling version of Me and Mrs. Jones, graced by the incredible pipes of George St. Kitts. Of special, luminous beauty is the haunting Windmills of Your Mind perfectly rendered by the incomparable Garber – who doesn’t just sing the lyrics, but imbues them with deep emotional content and flawless interpretation. Of special note is Pomanti’s composition, What Remains – a loving tribute to his adored wife of more than 20 years – made all the more moving by featuring the still-besotted Pomanti on vocals.

02 Laura AngladeVenez donc chez moi
Laura Anglade; Sam Kirmayer
Justin Time (justin-time.com)

Francophone jazz lovers rejoice. Laura Anglade and Sam Kirmayer have released an album of 11 songs, entirely in French. The French-American singer, now based in Toronto, and the Montreal-based guitarist collaborated on this collection of classic songs from the not-too-distant past made famous by artists such as Barbara and Charles Aznavour. Unadorned by other instruments (except for accordion on two tracks) or fancy production tricks, Venez Donc Chez Moi (So Come to My House) is simply two exceptional musicians presenting beautiful songs. Some swing gently, but ballads dominate and Anglade’s gorgeous voice and Kirmayer’s solid and sensitive guitar accompaniment handily navigate all paces and styles. 

Both Kirmayer and Anglade get in some brief, melodic improvisations – not easily done in such a stripped-down environment – otherwise the songs are delivered in a straightforward, true-to-the-original manner. The most familiar songs (to this Anglophone) are Michel Legrand’s La Chanson de Maxence (You Must Believe in Spring) and La Valse des lilas (Once Upon a Summertime), which evoke sweet melancholy. But really the whole album is like a lovely time-out from today’s harsh reality. Pull up a café chair and let yourself be swept away.

Anglade and Kirmayer have many live performances coming up, separately, in Canada, the U.S. and Paris. Check samkirmayer.com and lauraanglade.com for dates.

Listen to 'Venez donc chez moi' Now in the Listening Room

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