02 Grant StewartThe Lighting of the Lamps
Grant Stewart Quartet w/Bruce Harris
Cellar Music CM110521 (cellarlive.com)

Picture the city at dusk, a shroud of darkness blanketing the bustling life within, bringing a certain air of mystery and veiled passion. The collection of tunes on famed tenor saxophonist Grant Stewart’s newest release calls forth images just like that in the listener’s mind. The tenorist himself mentions that listening back on this session, he was “reminded not of daybreak but rather, dusk… as the city becomes a buzz of activity once more.” Stewart has gathered a group of top tier musicians to bring these pieces to life; Bruce Harris on the trumpet, David Wong on bass, Tardo Hammer on piano and Phil Stewart on drums. The songs are mostly original compositions, arranged by the likes of Elmo Hope and Thad Jones. For the jazz lover looking to add a little pizzazz to their collection, this is a record to get your hands on. 

For musicians, the nightlife is when things really start moving, when the magic truly starts happening. This album is filled with a sense of new beginnings, teetering on that border of exciting tension just waiting to spill over into passionate energy; just as the approach of dusk brings a “second awakening” to the city. Tunes like Little Spain and Mo Is On are spectacular examples of the quickness and vigour of city life whereas Ghost of a Chance is a representation of the other side of nightlife, the mellowness and suppressed desires.

03 Adam ShulmanJust the Contrafacts
Adam Shulman; Jeremy Pelt; Cory Weeds; Grant Stewart; Peter Washington; Billy Drummond
Cellar Music CM110321 (cellarlive.com)

The pandemic was a hard hit on the music industry, with the absence of live music and limited use of physical studio spaces. But it also ended up being a chance for several musicians to produce “COVID albums,” many of which are excellent examples of how music can be a voice and outlet during the toughest of times. Renowned pianist Adam Shulman’s newest release is an example of a stellar album born out of lockdown. A hark back to traditional jazz, with a certain whimsical and hopeful twist added, this collection is a surefire way to get your head bopping along on the darkest of days. All tunes are penned by Shulman himself; a backing band of fantastic musicians featuring Jeremy Pelt on trumpet, Billy Drummond on drums and Cory Weeds on alto saxophone, among others, allows these tunes to soar to new heights. 

What makes this album unique is the fact that these songs are all contrafacts as the title of the record suggests, meaning “new melodies [written over] the chord structure of standard tunes” or borrowed chord progressions. Shulman has masterfully added soaring and catchy new melodies overtop chord progressions taken from songs from the Great American Songbook, adding his own unique mark to them. These pieces are filled with a lightness and playfulness, an “[escape] to different times,” letting the listener be carried away from hardships as only the power of music can do.

04 Orbit Max JohnsonOrbit of Sound
Max Johnson Trio
Unbroken Sounds U01 (maxjohnsonmusic.com)

Equally proficient as composer and double bassist, New York’s Max Johnson has the invaluable help of Canadian tenor saxophonist/flutist Anna Webber and local drummer Michael Sarin to interpret five of his intricate but easygoing tunes. That’s easygoing not easy, for Johnson’s bass thumps or sul tasto strokes, Weber’s reed cries and gurgles and Sarin’s power pops and rim shots are anything but elementary.

Instead, the sometime slippery and often buoyant tunes evolve with defined and emphasized heads and narratives that usually involve double or triple counterpoint and brief solos. Johnson’s touch can be stentorian but on an extended piece like Over/Under his timbral digging involves high-pitched scraps to contrast with low-pitched body tube murmurs and mid-range blowing from Webber. After reed split-tone yelps stand out over other-directed percussion strokes, measured bass thumps relax the exposition back to the initial theme. Nearly continuous string drones provide an effective balance, scene-setting on The Professor, then joined to strident reed bites and drum ruffs. Webber’s reed-biting whorls and arabesques advance to irregular tongue stops and percussive smears, but the reassuring narrative, anchored by bass strokes, preserves the flow and holds the exposition to defined swing elaborations. 

The one flute track is dryly balladic and Sarin’s ruffs and rebounds add advanced percussiveness elsewhere. But all in all the harmonic balance expressed among writing, narratives and singular expression make this one orbit of sound in which a listener would want to circle.

05 Red ListRed List – music dedicated to the preservation of our endangered species
Brian Landrus; Various Artists
Palmetto Records PM2023 (brianlandrus.com)

With the release of his 11th recording as a leader, highly respected multi-reed player, arranger and composer, Brian Landrus, has not only created something of incredible musical beauty, but is simultaneously highlighting the looming global crisis of species extinction. There are 13 compositions here written by Landrus, representing 13 endangered species on the Red List that could be lost forever. Landrus is collaborating with the organization Save the Elephants and is joined here by half a dozen horns and a stellar rhythm section.

First up is Canopy of Trees – a percussive journey through the majesty of an ancient forest or jungle, made all the more mystical by Landrus’ complex solo and the superb arrangement. The title track reflects chaotic energies and also the brave push back against obliteration, while Geoffrey Keezer’s intriguing synth patches elicit ancient sensations… a connection with Mother Earth. The ensemble is in complete symmetry, punctuated by Landrus’ dynamic soloing. Giant Panda features a well-constructed baritone solo by Landrus, which effortlessly segues into Nocturnal Flight, which is defined by eloquent, elegant guitar work from Nir Felder and parenthesized by sumptuously arranged horns as well as a spellbinding piano solo from Keezer.

Save the Elephants is a standout, and with an irresistible reggae-ish motif, Felder’s rhythmic guitar, Keezer’s Hammond B3 and potent percussion and drumming from John Hadfield and Rudy Royston as well as well-placed vocals, one can almost envision the beautiful elephants strolling regally through the African Savanna. Of special beauty is Only Eight, which begins with a resonant and complex bass solo from the iconic Lonnie Plaxico and morphs into a spacious, etheric expression – a shared vision of a better, more caring world.

06 Yannick RieuQui Qu’en Grogne
Yannick Rieu Généération Quartet
Yari Productions YARICD2022 (dev.yariproductions.com)

Montreal-based multi-saxophonist and composer, Yannick Rieu, has long been recognized as a significant contender on the world jazz stage, evoking (but not derivative of) greats such as Lee Konitz with big helpings of Sonny Rollins’ lyricism. Rieu is joined here by his Génération Quartet, so named as the group is comprised of both emerging and established jazz artists: Gentiane Michaud-Gagnon on piano; Guy Boisvert on bass and Louis-Vincent Hamel on drums.  

The title track is an archaic, 15th-century French expression, meaning “I don’t care what people think about what I’m doing,” which certainly informs the ethos of creative freedom, open inter-generational communication and the fearlessness of Rieu’s eight original compositions, as well as the fine musicians performing them. This track is replete with a spunky call and response and a contrapuntal, elastic and satisfying melodic line – a tune in search of a cinema noir film (in French or English)!

Time is, Life Was is another outstanding track – a lovely ballad, featuring sumptuous chord changes and lighter-than-air motifs from Rieu and Michaud-Gagnon. When the full rhythm section enters, bassist Boisvert is front and centre with a pensive and melancholy solo, rife with emotional content.  

Le Philosophe is a gem – stylistically bi-locating between the very roots of improvisational jazz and the distant limits of musical possibilities – and Prétexte demonstrates a quirky bebopish sense of humour and delight. Another standout is the stark and beautiful Pharaon, calling to mind Bill Evans and an imaginary collaboration that he might have had with Steve Lacey. The closing track, Porta di cinese includes a stunner of a solo by Michaud-Gagnon and synergous ensemble work.

07 Sheila JordanLive at the Mezzrow
Sheila Jordan w/Alan Broadbent; Harvie
Cellar Music CMSLF002 (cellarlive.com)

The new release from jazz chanteuse extrordinaire, Sheila Jordan, was recorded “LIVE” at New York City’s Mezzrow on October 25, 2021. The recording is not only a major triumph for the esteemed vocal jazz icon, whose career spans over 70 years, but also marks the first release of the SmallsLIVE Living Masters Series under the umbrella of Vancouver and NYC-based saxophonist/producer Cory Weeds’ Cellar Music Group. Smalls and Mezzrow owner/pianist Spike Wilner and Weeds serve as executive producers here, and Jordan’s musical partners include the brilliant Australian/American pianist/composer, Alan Broadbent as well as her longtime collaborator, NYC’s Harvie S on bass.

Jordan includes unique be-bop-centric versions of beloved standards from the likes of Ray Noble, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart and Hoagy Carmichael, as well as more contemporary tunes from Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Shirley Horn. The common threads of this diverse material are the gorgeous and challenging melodic lines, which Jordan has imbued with her own spontaneous and honest improvisations. 

Top tracks include Abbey Lincoln’s Bird Alone – a moving ballad that Jordan saturates with meaning and gravitas and Noble’s The Touch of Your Lips, which captures the humour of the delightful Jordan, and includes the rarely performed “verse” which effortlessly segues into a gently swinging soufflé of boppish scatting. The Bird & Confirmation (Horn/Parker) is an inspired medley, and a true highlight. The passion with which it is performed is part and parcel of Jordan’s unique perspective of establishing a lyrical line that later morphs into an exploration of time, tones and ‘tudes. Of special note is Vernon Duke’s immortal Autumn in New York featuring an exquisite arco solo from Harvie, Broadbent’s meaningful touch and the inimitable Jordan crooning a love song to the exciting, confusing, endlessly creative city that remains the epicentre of jazz. A triumph!

08 Luis DenizEl Tinajon
Luis Deniz; Rafaelo Zaldivar; Roberto Occhipinti; Amhed Mitchel; Jorge Luis Papiosco; Adis Rodriguez Galindo
Modica Music (modicamusic.com)

Since his arrival from Cuba, saxophonist and composer Luis Deniz has placed his distinctive mark on both the Canadian and international jazz scenes. His warm, distinctive and technically skilled sound on alto and soprano saxophones is celebrated here with the release of his new recording – which embraces his emotional journey from a young Cuban émigré to a highly respected jazz stalwart. Deniz’s gifted compadres here include pianist/keyboardist Rafael Zaldivar, bassist Roberto Occhipinti, drummer and vocalist Ahmed Mitchel, vocalist Adis Galindo and percussionist Jose Luis (“Papiosco”) Torres. All nine evocative and powerful compositions on this superb collection were composed by Deniz and deftly produced by noted pianist Teri Parker.  

The title refers to a type of clay pot, brought to Cuba by the Spanish, which eventually became the trademark of the province of Camaguey – Deniz’s culturally rich and soulful place of origin. The opening salvo, Reflexiones is rife with languid, riveting tones from Deniz’s horn that drive the ancient rhythmic modalities with inspired and emotional improvisational sequences channelling the very pulse of Mother Earth herself. This seamlessly segues into La Ceiba de Mayuya, a swinging contemporary jazz exploration featuring a dynamic acoustic bass solo by Occhipinti. 

Of particular note is Rumba para Camaguey/Equality – a sumptuous, lyrical duet performed by Deniz and Zaldivar. Bolero is almost unbearably beautiful, plummeting the depths of sensuality and Gesture adapts the mood by generating pure joy, enhanced by the unison piano/vocal line, masterful piano work and Deniz’s dazzling compositional style. Also of special note is the thoroughly lovely Dutch Flower, dedicated to Deniz’s talented wife. The rousing closer, Conga para Florida is nothing short of magnificent with dynamic soprano work, an indigenous percussive melange and delicious vocals.

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