13 John ScofieldJohn Scofield
John Scofield
ECM 2727 (ecmrecords.com/shop)

Stalwart New York-based guitarist John Scofield has gone in an even more bold direction than usual with his latest release on ECM. The band? Scofield at the electric guitar, accompanied by a looper pedal and the many decades of playing experience that make his music so unique and excellent. The looper makes this album less of a traditional solo-guitar experience than you may be familiar with from Joe Pass or Ted Greene, but it’s not a gimmick to make Scofield’s life easier. Instead, he treats the pedal like a bandmate he is intimately familiar with. There are also plenty of moments where Scofield shows off his ample harmonic sensibilities, which can be overshadowed in ensemble settings by his fiery single-note, line playing.

As a brief technical note that I hope can be appreciated by jazz guitar experts and casual fans alike, I heard Scofield interviewed several years back about things he still wanted to improve upon with his playing. Then in his 60s, he gave a very tangible response about hoping to add wider intervals and more angular sounds to his music. It was beautiful to hear someone talk about how much there still is to learn, even after decades in the industry. What brought this to mind now, is that I hear concrete evidence of the 70-year-old guitar master playing these very intervallic ideas on this solo guitar offering. 

While Scofield continues to find meaning through playing music, we can all find a little just from listening to this poignant opus.

14 PoeticPoetic
Jonathan Barber & Vision Ahead
Independent (jonathanbarber.bandcamp.com/album/poetic)

Connecticut-native, famed drummer Jonathan Barber has released a scintillating third album with Vision Ahead, a group of musicians he’s been pushing the limits with for over a decade. Barber has worked on refining his sound on this record, honing in on a unique modern sound with just enough of the classic mixed in to intrigue both older and newer fans of the genre. Featured are all original compositions, not only by the drummer himself but also by guitarist Andrew Renfroe, alto-saxophonist Godwin Louis and keyboardist Taber Gable. A journey through a beautiful musical landscape, this album is sure to catch the attention of many a listener from the first note. 

Barber mentions that “the album showcases… the striking cohesiveness of a band who have performed by each other’s side…” and that is certainly very apparent throughout the record. Within each piece, each musician’s talents are very much showcased, but there’s a blending of sounds and instruments, of vibes, that only comes from having a true understanding of your fellow musicians. What lends a truly specific and interesting dimension to the pieces is how they are very much driven by rhythmic grooves but not in an overpowering way, it all comes together for a captivating whole. 

From beginning to end, this album pushes the boundaries of the genre in the best ways possible, leaving the listener waiting for the next musical statement from this extraordinary musician and group.

15 What does it mean to be freeWhat Does It Mean To Be Free
Anthony Fung; David Binney; Luca Mendoza; Luca Alemanno
Independent (anthonyfungmusic.com)

Drummer/composer Anthony Fung was born in Richmond Hill and raised in Canada, but has studied and lived in the United States for several years. He earned a Bachelor of Music degree from Berklee and a master’s from the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance. What Does it Mean to be Free? is his third album and was recorded in L.A. where he currently lives. 

This an exciting album with eight original compositions and a great arrangement of Wayne Shorter’s Sighteeing, all played with an intense yet grooving style by some stellar musicians. In addition to the core quartet (Fung on drums; David Binney, alto sax; Luca Mendoza, piano; Luca Alemanno, bass) several tracks have special guest performers. On the title track, Andrew Renfroe brings some blistering guitar work including a high intensity exchange with Binney on sax. Defiance features Braxton Cook on a tender yet intense alto sax melody throughout and Alemanno with a pretty bass solo. Let Us Not Forget to be Kind has Roni Eytan providing some beautiful Toots Thielmans-influenced harmonica. 

Throughout the album Mendoza’s piano is spectacular, providing tasteful accompaniment and solos on the slower tunes and effortlessly complex bop lines on the up-tempo numbers. Fung’s drums are propulsive and complex while still providing a solid backing to the proceedings. What Does it Mean to be Free? At least part of the answer has to be: free to make great music. 

17 Rhodri DaviesFor Simon H. Fell
Rhodri Davies
Amgen 04 (rhodridavies.com)

A studied requiem for UK bassist/composer Simon H. Fell (1959-2020), Welsh harpist Rhodri Davies uses transformative prestidigitation on this eponymous disc to exhibit the assemblage of timbres, pitches and rhythms he can induce from the acoustic pedal harp. Davies and Fell were members of the imposing string trio IST for 25 years – cellist Mark Wastell was the third participant – and although most of this salute evolves at moderato and lento tempos, it’s no lachrymose dirge. Instead, the performance includes interludes of bubbling drama, heartfelt emotion and coiled percussiveness.

Interspaced with pauses and reverberations, Davies’ almost hour-long creation forges unique harp timbres, which alternately resemble vibraphone reverberations, tombak-like drum strokes, keyboard-like vibrations and woody rubs against unyielding material. All are used for emphasis and sequence shifts. Expected thick glissandi, multi-string drones and singular staccato echoes figure in as well, so that by midpoint multiple strokes are layered into an almost opaque squirming mass. Its subsequent division into single-string high and low twangs and plinks that move forward and ricochet back into the concentrated narrative, suggest not only IST’s multiple string tropes, but the sort of unique compositions Fell wrote, arranged and played.

Properly saluting a fellow string player and improviser, this session also confirms Davies’ innovative ability to come up with near-orchestral, multi-string motifs sourced with compelling skill from the attributes of only a single stand-alone harp.

18 Blue JournalBlue Journal
Ester Wiesnerova
Independent (esterwiesnerova.com)

The eloquent vocalist Ester Wiesnerová bids you to sink into her very private world with this elaborately packaged Blue Journal: 11 songs, and an illustrated, 120-page book. Here Wiesnerová invites us to enter what appears to be a musical portal. Listening to the opening bars of her very first song – Sinking Deep – you will find it hard to resist relocating yourself into her world. Her voice is like a warm, inviting, whispered breath as the poetic alluring lyrics are released into air. 

Wiesnerová is accompanied by musicians completely attuned to her vision and artistry. Sam Knight’s questing horn soars above tumbling cascades of Charles Overton’s radiant harp. Kan Yanabe’s percussion colourations glued together with the gentle rumble of Michal Šelep’s bass also invite us with impassioned conviction into Wiesnerová’s private world. 

Wiesnerová beckons you between the sheets (so to speak) of the Blue Journal. She lures you into this music of unsentimental intelligence, with her clear, beguiling tone. At the heart of her artistic conception is Nightingales and Maple Trees, a song that lies at the heart of Wiesnerová’s secret soundscape deep inside her Blue Journal

Throughout this repertoire, warmth and affection abound, befitting the delicately amorous subjects of the songs. For her part the inimitable Wiesnerová breathes her way into this extraordinary music with imagination and infectious musicality.

19 JusticeJustice – The Vocal Works of Oliver Lake
Sonic Liberation Front and the Sonic Liberation Singers
Hugh Two HT038 (sonicliberationfront.com)

Decades ago I was a young saxophone player attending university in Edmonton and saw a poster for an Oliver Lake solo concert. It had only a picture of him standing alone holding an alto saxophone. Intriguing. In that concert Lake chanted, shook beads and other percussion, hummed and spoke a few words between long soliloquies on his horn. The evening was a meditation that moved from one mood and thought to another and it was entrancing. Since then, Oliver Lake has performed and composed with an incredibly diverse range of musicians including the World Saxophone Quartet, and released over 40 albums as leader and more as a sideman. 

The Sonic Liberation Front invited Lake to write for their unique instrumentation of violin, tenor sax, acoustic bass and drums with a vocal quartet. Lake wrote eight pieces which include two poems. This album has a great energy, which moves freely amongst all the players. What is funky and has an uplifting and syncopated melody played together by saxophone, violin and vocalists. It then moves into a scrappy but swinging sax solo by Elliot Levin while Veronica Jurkiewicz’s phased violin solo reminds me a bit of Jean-Luc Ponty. Dedicated’s beautiful flute line, combined with the smooth vocals, sounds like a strange and misplaced Burt Bacharach composition. I love it! 

Ain’t Nothin’ Real BUT Love is one of the two pieces based on Lake›s poetry and has only some delightful a cappella background vocals accompanying the emphatic statements about how love «moves independently of our fears and desires.» Justice manages to be loose, edgy, groovy and heartfelt all at the same time.

Almost from the time when so-called classical music was first recorded, inventive musicians have figured out ways to alter the scores in some way for novelty, commerce or homage. The most sincere of these trends began in the 1950s as creative musicians began interpolating improvisations into what had been treated as immutable musical doctrines since High Culture codification began in the late 19th century. This sonic refashioning continues, with the discs here demonstrating different approaches to the revisions.

01 MarekOutlier of the group is the octet led by Polish woodwind player Marek Pospieszalski on Polish Composers of the 20th Century (Clean Feed CF 585 CD cleanfeed-records.com). Rather than recasting any of the classical canon’s greatest hits by great composers on this two-CD set, Pospieszalski, two other horn players, three string players, a pianist and a percussionist plus the use of tape and a soundboard, produce variations on a dozen themes by contemporary Polish composers. Titled with the composers’ last names, most of which are little known outside their home country, the tunes are given additional resonance as jazz, noise and electronic tropes are worked into the performances. Staying true to the music’s genesis though, references are always made to the initial theme. Each track is, above all, an orchestral work, since there are few solos, and no protracted ones, with each performance arranged as primarily group work. What that means, for instance, is that while a piece like Stachowski may be broken up with effects pedal rock-like flanges from guitarist Szymon Mika and metallic percussion from drummer Qba Janicki, the track’s essence is a horizontal flow that becomes more concentrated as it evolves. Similarly, Kotoński may be briefly segmented by Tomasz Dąbrowski’s mewling trumpet breaths, Piotr Chęcki’s pinched vibrations and Pospieszalski’s flat-line clarinet buzz, but the equivalent of a military-style march projected by the drummer and bassist Max Mucha also suffuse the track. True to Poland’s Slavic folk heritage as well, tracks such as Szalonek and Rudziński include some joyous, terpsichorean moments. The first bounces along with drum clanks and hard percussion pummels while climbing to an explosion of vamping-horn multiphonics and harmonies. Meanwhile, the second uses horn slurs, Mucha’s clipping-nerve beats and pianist Grzegorz Tarwid’s jumpy keyboard pressure to replicate Eastern European free-style enthusiasm. Overall though, the paramount impression left by the 12 performances is how both discipline and dexterity have united into an ingenious salute to contemporary Polish composers, which also stands on its own as a musical statement.

02 OttoThe same concept applies to Danses (Microcidi 027 circum-disc.com) by the French Otto duo of electric guitarist Ivann Cruz and drummer Frédéric L’Homme. Transforming 13 Bach compositions for lute and cello, the two invest the suite with a modern sensibility without overdoing things. So while some of the gigue interpretations would seem more appropriate to pogoing than courtly dancing, the basic lyrical form is maintained. Gigue, Suite n°2 BWV 997 encapsulates what the two do in miniature. Beginning with rugged rat-tat-tats from the drummer and a low-pitched bass-string thump that moves towards Memphis funk, the familiar lyrical melody soon replaces the track inception so that the piece sways back and forth between both sonic strands to the expected ending. Later transformations are signalled on Prélude, Suite n°2 BWV 997, the first track, as L’Homme’s two-beat cowbell ringing pulse would be more common in a Dixieland club than a Baroque-era church and Cruz’s fleet pinpointed swinging references confirm the impression. Throughout the guitarist’s stylings encompass not only jazz but country picking (Allemande, Suite n°1 BWV 996) and even flirt with punk rock (Allemande, Suite pour violoncelle n°2 BWV 1008), as rugged percussion asides or straight-on drum pressure adds to the fluid expressiveness. The duo though, is also canny enough not to override the melodic core of Bach’s work. So, while a tune like Prélude & Allemande, Suite pour violoncelle n°3 BWV 1009 allows the drummer to expose his inner Neil Peart with busy, connective ruffs and bottom clanks and the guitarist to seed the track with a shower of high-power buzzes and flanges, the collective slides and echoes may be more aggressive but no more discordant than the original. Letting themselves go, Chaconne, Partita n°2 BWV 1004 is extended to 13-plus minutes, with the interpretation as intensified as it is concentrated. Throughout, lighter string frails, subdued percussion crackles, reverb challenge for supremacy, molasses-thick string chording and borne-down drum bangs and ruffs, it’s this tension which defines the challenge met and satisfies by giving way to folksy reverberations by the end.

03 CordamMoving from the music of a composer who died in 1750 to one who was around until 1937, are compositions partly based on Maurice Ravel themes played by Montreal’s Cordâme sextet on Ravel Inspirations (Malasarts mam 048 cordame.bandcamp.com/album/ravel-inspirations). Mature in his own writing, leader/bassist Jean Félix Mailloux alternates tracks directly influenced by the French composer and those wholly his own. The group’s treatment of Boléro demonstrates how these transformations evolve. With the familiar theme first stated by harpist Éveline Grégoire-Rousseau, it’s taken up by violinist Marie Neige Lavigne and then harmonized with supple modulations from pianist Guillaume Martineau. As harp glissandi and Sheila Hannigan’s cello sweeps embellish the exposition, Mailloux’s bass and Mark Nelson’s percussion create a rhythmic bottom. When Martineau pulses a bluesy interlude within the theme, massed and discordant string plunks add to its fragmentation, but by the end it’s reconstituted with sympathetic harp strums. Group harmonies keep the narrative linear during other glimpses into the Impressionist’s canon such as Pavane pour une infante défunte at the same time as stop-time string strokes and piano-created note swells build up excitement. That done, piled on textures from harp, cello and violin calm the performance so that it finally relaxes during the concluding integrated sequence. Other tracks may sound a bit too formal until they’re suffused by the warmth of tincture additions in Mailloux’s arrangements. Meanwhile Cordâme originals are characterized by more overt modernism in the arrangement and performances. Horizontal bow sweeps and clock-like drum ticking give way to violin triple stopping and continuous harp patterns on La bardane; while tough and heavier sound coordination among band members sutures the rubato sections of Océanos, which, besides staccato string stings, feature a rugged drum solo and a near-foot-tapping groove. Drum rumbles and pops also characterize what may be the preeminent composition Kenny Wheeler, named for another Canadian musical innovator. By cannily contrasting undulating motifs from the strings which attain smoothness without sweetness and rhythm section power, Mailloux realizes the same sort of half-Impressionist, half-intense composition, that is not unlike Wheeler’s memorable work.

04 MusicaComing from the so-called other side of the musical world is France’s Ensemble 0 whose Musica Nuvolosa: Pauline Oliveros/György Ligeti (Sub Rosa SR 528 ensemble0.com) provides an intriguing object lesson in the present day state of the improvised/notated divide. The eight-member ensemble consisting of two woodwind players, three string players, two percussionists and a pianist specialize in contemporary repertoire, usually by living composers. Unfortunately this isn’t the case here, but the adaptations of Horse Sings From Cloud (1975) by Oliveros (1932-2016) and the 11-part Musica Ricercata (1951-53) by Ligeti (1923-2006) are equally instructive. Oliveros, who had a long association with improvisers such as Joe McPhee and Joëlle Léandre, composed a 20-minute piece that, while minimalist, is less than doctrinaire and has enough chance elements to alter each performance. Encompassing an underlying string drone, the repetitive theme adds more instrumental colour and timbral extensions as it evolves, but stays true to gradual dynamics. Besides sweeping tremolo chords, Júlia Gállego Ronda’s flute overlay and Melaine Dalibert’s insistent piano clinks help characterize the evolution. A different matter, Musica Ricercata draws on Ligeti’s Austro-Hungarian background as well as more modern currents. Moving through sections of melancholy and light-heartedness it never stays long enough in either mode to define an overriding emotion. Still, while the downcast sections are slower moving and include taut bell-tolling inferences, they never become tearful. Meanwhile the speedier pieces not only resemble Magyar music, but are often foot-tapping enough to pass unnoticed in a swing band. There are even points where the piano strays close to boogie-woogie chording, the flute stops aim for rhythmic bites and violinist Tomoko Katsura could be playing at a hoedown. Furthermore with percussionists Aurélien Hadyniak and Stéphane Garin creating textures from vibraphone, glockenspiel, piccolo snare drum, small triangle, gong, marimba, xylophone, tubular bells and tam-tam, the rhythmic underpinning sometimes sounds like the beat-affiliated orchestrations and arrangements that Ferde Grofé and his imitators made for large early so-called jazz orchestras like Paul Whiteman’s.

Improvised and notated music appear to be drawing closer during every decade. These albums demonstrate some of the results of this situation.

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