11 Dave LiebmanDave Liebman
Live at Smalls
Cellar Music CMSLF004 (cellarlive.com)

Dave Liebman, éminence grise of the saxophone, holds court on Live at Smalls, a dizzying freely improvised (sometimes modal excursion) quintet recording on which he leads a group of younger acolytes – including pianist Leo Genovese, bassist John Hébert, drummer Tyshawn Sorey and trumpeter Peter Evans. And while each performer is his own man, so to speak, they are all musically speaking doppelgangers of Liebman. Evans is always closest, shadowing the soprano- and tenor-playing saxophonist down twisting paths and labyrinthine harmonic alleys as the pianist, bassist and drummer clear rhythmic paths for the two horn men.

Liebman himself plays wonderfully well, his vibrato characteristically vocal in its speed and intensity. The veteran saxophonist inspires fiery virtuosity from his younger journeymen. Each musician gives of himself with enormous generosity, making Live at Smalls an epic musical voyage.  

By the second movement of this piston-driven set the musicians are firing on all cylinders. Liebman, long since having unbolted the proverbial guardrails, keeps the door open for the rest of the musicians to jump into the fray. The result is a free-flowing palimpsest, super-charged in almost every musical respect: texture, tempo relations and phrasing throughout the vortex-like three-part suite.

Furious fluid dynamics occur, one breathless variation to the next. The energy is unrelenting. An occasional low, crackling musical flame occurs when the overall volume drops to barely above a whisper before Liebman’s stuttering soprano in the final movement foreshadows the ensemble’s incandescent sprint to the finish.

12 Matt GreenwoodAtlas
Matt Greenwood
Independent (matt-greenwood.com)

Unencumbered listening seems to have gotten trickier in recent years, despite the myriad new methods available to access music. As an antidote to this phenomenon, I now make a point to absorb albums in their entirety at least once or twice before reading any liner notes or one sheets. 

With Atlas by Zimbabwe-born Toronto-based guitarist Matt Greenwood, all written material pertaining to it felt more like an affirmation than a barrage of new info. This is not because Greenwood wears his influences on his sleeve, or that any of his music falls short of unique, but more that it profoundly resonates with this writer’s musical tastes. Contemporary guitar in the 2020s can resemble anything from futuristic effects and textures to a neo-traditional renaissance of aesthetics from the 1950s and 60s. I can appreciate either of these extremes, which are far from mutually exclusive, but it is refreshing to hear a modern mélange of influences from across the board in Greenwood’s playing and writing.

Atlas’ opening and closing tracks Constellations and Commitment are tasteful vignettes that bookend the album, adding a sense of continuity when listening from start to finish. While the recording has the arching flow of a great concept album, each of its original tracks function on their own too. Dehyah and the album’s title track are cerebral yet heartfelt, and ballads like From Sunshine and Campfire Ghosts are unique enough to remain neighbours on the tracklist without sounding redundant. 

This album is an awesome offering of art for art’s sake, eschewing causes and homages in favour of focused, sophisticated, contemporary playing. Have a listen; I trust you will find Atlas as refreshing as I do.

13 Art Ensemble of ChicagoThe Sixth Decade from Paris to Paris
The Art Ensemble of Chicago
RogueArt ROG-0123 (roguart.com)

After almost a decade of evolution in their hometown, The Art Ensemble of Chicago arrived in Paris in 1969, their combination of free jazz and theatricality (their slogan – Great Black Music: Ancient to the Future) was greeted as the embodiment of the incendiary protests that had rocked the city in the previous year. The band was welcomed with frequent performances and multiple recording offers. Five decades later most of the original members – saxophonist Joseph Jarman, trumpeter Lester Bowie and bassist Malachi Favors – are deceased. Only multi-instrumentalist Roscoe Mitchell and percussionist Famoudou Don Moye remain. They’ve chosen to reinvigorate the band’s legacy by expanding it with a substantial number of young musicians and an even broader musical lexicon, entering their sixth decade with a 20-member ensemble for this 100-minute Paris concert from 2020. 

It’s alive with potent moments, including brilliant individual instrumental performances from Mitchell and Moye, trumpeter Hugh Ragin, flutist Nicole Mitchell, cellist Tomeka Reid and trombonist Simon Sieger. True to the band’s history, however, it continues to press the envelope – musically, lyrically and culturally. The ensemble includes chamber musicians who can execute Mitchell’s Webern-esque scores; a mixed improvising ensemble that suggests Tibetan ritual music; and three percussionists and three bassists who can launch a polyrhythmic maelstrom. There is also a self-explanatory track called Funky AECO. There are concert vocalists and the spoken word calls to consciousness of Moor Mother, activist-orator with such groups as Sons of Kemet and Irreversible Entanglements. 

Mitchell and Moye have made of their longstanding collaboration a gift to contemporaneity and the possibilities of the future. It’s as much about that promise as it is a platform for two celebrated senior warriors of music.

14 Trio DeromeSi tu partais
Trio Derome Guilbeault Tanguay
ambiences magnetiques AM 272 CD (actuellecd.com)

Saxophonist/flutist/vocalist Jean Derome, bassist Normand Guilbeault and drummer Pierre Tanguay have been playing together as a trio for over 20 years, embracing a broad repertoire and becoming an essential component of Canadian jazz in the process. Here they play 11 compositions, handily supplying dates to mark the range from 1917 (The Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s Tiger Rag) to 1963 (Eric Dolphy’s Iron Man). Throughout, the trio is polished and intense, engaging, yet fully engaged. 

On the first track, Ornette Coleman’s The Disguise, Derome manages to be at least as buoyantly joyous as Coleman himself might have been, while Guilbeault and Tanguay provide ideal support, balancing intensity and lilt. Love Me or Leave Me, a standard, is fused with Lennie Tristano’s variant, the boppish Leave Me. On Sy Oliver’s ‘Taint What You Do, Derome’s vocal, rich in comic inflection, frames a virtuosic duet of bass and drums. While Derome is not a great singer in any conventional sense, there’s a special combination of musicality and wit at work here that illuminates the performance of Duke Ellington’s Mood Indigo, achieving a consummate elegance in the contrast between the rough-hewn vocal and the refined invention of the instrumentalists. 

An anthology of recordings from Jelly Roll Morton to Anthony Braxton can serve as an excellent introduction to jazz, but this might serve as well: Trio Derome Guilbeault Tanguay fully share the abundant joy that they take in adding their own spontaneous dimensions to this far-flung repertoire.

15 Matthew ShippThe New Syntax
Matthew Shipp; Mark Helias
RogueArt ROG-0124 (roguart.com)

Pianist Matthew Shipp and bassist Mark Helias are distinguished veterans of the New York City free jazz community, and this program of improvised duets is the embodiment of both their craft and their commitment. The very match of their instruments might suggest a contrast between the florid and fundamental, but that couldn’t be further from the reality. A few years ago, Shipp published an essay on “Black Mystery School Pianists” linking Thelonious Monk with a handful of other, mostly African-American musicians such as Randy Weston, Cecil Taylor and Andrew Hill, pointing to their rhythmic complexity and layering of harmonic systems. Shipp himself might be considered a member: here his rhythmic insistence and chorded density often conjoin with Helias to create music that’s both forceful and precise. At other times, the surgical precision of Shipp’s runs can suggest Bud Powell.  

Even gentler passages are often arrived at through passages of combined rhythmic force, witness Psychic Ladder or Acoustic Electric, in which taut figures give way to a spare lyricism. Conversely, Bridge to Loka moves from random dialogue to rhythmic unison. The effect can resemble shifting weather patterns, sunshine breaking through storm clouds and vice versa. The most lyrical moments, like The Mystic Garden, arise when Shipp’s melodic probes combine with Helias’s arco passages in a cello register, while The New Syntax has the two matching one another’s patterns so closely that they might be reading a score. It’s music that’s as consistently rewarding as it is demanding.

16 Sun Ras JourneySun Ra’s Journey featuring Marshall Allen
Tyler Mitchell Octet
Cellar Music CMSLF001 (cellarlive.com)

Sun Ra (born Herman Poole Blount) was a jazz composer, keyboard player and bandleader who was active from the 1950s to the 1980s. He was known for his claims of being an alien and many mystical allusions about space and time which could also be viewed as commentary on world politics and race. 

Sun Ra’s music included the history of jazz (ragtime, swing, fusion etc.) and many avant-garde elements. I was lucky enough to see him live in Toronto in the 80s and can confirm that each performance was an event. He combined melodic jazz tunes with great ensemble playing and solos that often went outside the traditional jazz sound; he also introduced synthesizers to provide some “other worldly” sonics. 

Both Tyler Mitchell and Marshall Allen played with Sun Ra for many years and Sun Ra’s Journey is a homage to their bandleader and his music. Care Free is a very swinging opener which showcases some excellent trumpet work from Giveton Gelin. Free Ballad begins with electronic sounds and works into a gorgeous alto sax solo from Allen that swoops between tonal and experimental. Sun Ra’s Journey is a delightful album that celebrates Sun Ra’s legacy by proving it is still alive and inspiring.  

17 UnwalledUnwalled
François Carrier; Alexander von Schlippenbach; John Edwards; Michel Lambert
Fundacja Sluchaj FSR 22/2022 (francoiscarrier.bandcamp.com)

What an incredible ensemble. Altoist François Carrier is a tornado of concepts, ideas and interjections that refuses to cease, providing galvanizing directionality to the music. Drummer Michel Lambert provides textural structures and contrapuntal formations that expand skyward while building laterally. Living legend pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach is a maestro and a master, who injects the music with adrenaline shots into every orifice, while weaving improvisational narratives one can almost tangibly see. Bassist John Edwards cannot help constantly being at the right place, at the right time, armed with thunderbolts of his own. 

What makes Unwalled flourish as a descriptor of this music, is that everybody seems to consider themselves a percussionist. Halfway through the title track, Edwards challenges the listener to guess whether he or Lambert are hitting things, with an incredible display of tuneful string-slapping that multiplies in density. Later on, Schlippenbach seems to predict Lambert’s lines before they’re played, while simultaneously opening and closing the door for Carrier to provide a rebuttal. The never-ending means Carrier finds to manipulate note duration is probably the most infectiously danceable aspect of this album. Who’s making the warbly glitch-in-the-matrix sounds on Open End feels as relevant as how they’re being made. The functional roles society assigns to specific instruments may be insurmountable parameters for most, but this marvellous group refuses to acknowledge their existence.

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