16 Mike JonesAre You Sure You Three Guys Know What You’re Doing?
Mike Jones; Penn Jillette; Jeff Hamilton
Capri Records (caprirecords.com)

This enjoyable recording features the prodigious talents of pianist/arranger/producer Mike Jones, the potent and thrilling drum work of Jeff Hamilton, and solid, musical bass playing from internationally known magician, Penn Jillette (of Penn and Teller). The tongue-in-cheek title of the CD is a reference to when The Three Stooges would show up as house painters, carpenters or God forbid, doctors! It was in 2002 that Jones was hired to be the opening act of Penn and Teller’s irreverent and entertaining magic show – a hot ticket in Las Vegas for more than 30 years – the only proviso being that Jillette (who had taken up the bass at the age of 48) would join Jones in a duo format for the opening set – which turned out to be six nights a week, for 21 years. After stopping by to see a show, it was actually Hamilton’s idea that the three record together.

Fresh, energetic takes on a number of beloved jazz standards are included here. On the zesty opener, Gershwin’s ‘S Wonderful, Jillette more than holds his own – digging in with authority while generating a big, fat, satisfying sound. Jones masterfully lays it down in the stylistic mode of the greats and Hamilton is simply one of the finest jazz drummers of his (and any other) time. A standout is a swinging take on the great Sonny Rollins’ Doxy. The trio grooves like a single-celled animal, and Jones’ solo is a thing of rare beauty. Other fine tracks include Jobim’s classic The Girl From Ipanema, which features an extended bass solo from Jillette where he carries the melodic line, and is also consistently expressive, in tune and in time. The stunning ballad, You’ve Changed, displays the trio’s skilled use of space as well as a formidable lyrical sensibility. 

These guys know what they’re doing; they should do it more often!

17 James Brandon LewisFor Mahalia, with Love
James Brandon Lewis; Red Lily Quintet
Tao Forms 13 (taoforms.bandcamp.com)

Tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis’s previous CD with his Red Lily Quintet, Jesup Wagon, dedicated to George Washinton Carver, resided at or near the top of 2022 jazz polls. This homage to gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, to whose work Lewis was introduced in childhood by his grandmother, is even stronger – at once impassioned, reverent and nuance-alert throughout its 71-minute-playing time. The homage may extend to saxophonist Albert Ayler’s similar recording from 1964, Swing Low, Sweet Spiritual, with Lewis frequently referencing Ayler’s distinctive tone and phrasing. 

Lewis is intensely expressive here, in part through his taut control, holding his lines in check until they explode. Trumpeter Kirk Knuffke is a brilliant foil, on theme statements, solos and counter melodies, while cellist Chris Hoffman, bassist William Parker and drummer Chad Taylor supply stellar support, from a certain formal but empathetic rigour to the haunting bowed strings that introduce Calvary. The quintet’s special closeness comes through in extended theme statements that are simultaneously loose, collective improvisations, melodic components passed among the instrumental voices, for example, Were You There and Precious Lord.    

The limited first edition CD comes with an additional CD, These Are Soulful Days, Lewis’ eight-part composition for his tenor saxophone and string quartet, performed with the Lutosławski Quartet

of Poland. It’s a lucid work imbued with the spirit of gospel music (Wade in the Water emerges at one point). Its spacious melodic clarity suggests the compositions of another American master, Virgil Thomson. 

Violas and viola players have been the butt of musicians’ jokes for centuries. A sample: What is the difference between a radio and a viola? A radio plays music. How do you know there’s a group of viola players at your door? None of them can find the key. Apparently this notoriety dates from the mid-18th century after violinist Francesco Geminiani was named conductor of a Naples orchestra. His timing was so erratic and so confused the players that he was demoted to the viola chair. Despite this reputation violas still remain a vital part of so-called classical music. For the past few years as well a growing number of improvising musicians have found that, tuned a fifth lower than the violin, the viola’s alto tone, thicker strings and heavier bow creates a more compatible sound for their creativity.

01 Live at ArmouryOne player who has abandoned the violin and turned completely to viola is American Mat Maneri. On Live at the Armoury (Clean Feed CF 619 CD cleanfeed-records.com) he demonstrates his skill in a trio with German drummer Christian Lillinger and Vancouver’s Gordon Grdina playing guitar and oud. It’s timbres from the latter instrument which help define Maneri’s approach. Especially on the concluding Communion, the nagging sweeps and deliberate oscillations from the viola suggest the choked and arched patterns of an Indian violin, which align alongside Grdina’s staccato strumming which suggest isolated sitar echoes as much as those expected from a Middle Eastern instrument. The true indication of this fiddle’s versatility within this trio arrangement comes during Conjure, the almost 30-minute introductory improvisation. What the three conjure up is almost a history of cross-cultural currents. Grdina’s guitar motifs run from the sophisticated strums and plucks of Europeanized sounds to the extended twangs of simple folk music to the sophisticated slurred fingering and unexpected flanges and multi-string emphasis of exploratory jazz. Responsive and restrained, the usually overenthusiastic drumming of Lillinger is kept on a slow boil. Splashing cymbal colour and bass drum accents are proffered in place of a ceaseless beat to keep the track horizontal and harmonious. As for Maneri, besides asserting himself with bent notes, clenched stops and caustic glissandi, he sometimes pivots to formalism adding decorative frills to complement the guitarist’s playing, especially when Grdina slows down to magnify a melodic interlude. As well as relaxed motifs injected into the flowing narrative by both string players, they confirm comprehensive use of extended techniques and tandem connections during those interludes when they almost transform stop-start variations into tremolo drones that could come from a pipe organ.

02 KolnStacking up viola textures as part of a trio committed to even more cutting-edge forms is what French-Japanese violist Frantz Loriot does on Köln (CD Editions 013 jasonkahn.net) with a single 32½-minute improvisation with Swiss percussionist Christian Wolfarth and the electronics of Zürich-based American Jason Kahn. Treating the viola as another sound source, Loriot’s sul ponticello strokes and concentrated glissandi add rugged tension alongside Kahn’s whooshing drones and Wolfarth’s muted clunks and patterning. As the improvisation evolves, the viola meets imprecise drum beats and electronic squalls with angled frog taps against the strings and single pizzicato strokes until all three musicians’ timbres progress in tandem. Kahn’s programming also takes in radio-sourced voices and music which is countered when the violist creates a metallic run that is almost vocal. Expanding past percussion rumbles and tremolo voltage buzzing from the others, Loriot eventually twangs and plucks a near-melodic line that, with variations, is combined with drum rattles and electronic hisses with a climax that becomes more distant, then vanishes.

03 Perch Hen BrockA different sort of viola interaction is featured on Elegiacal (Wig 33 stichtingwig.com). As Perch Hen Brock & Rain, Dutch violist Ig Henneman plays not only with her regular partner reedist Ab Baars from Amsterdam, but also with German saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and American drummer Tom Rainey. Despite playing the only chordal instrument, Henneman mostly affiliates her sul ponticello pressure and spiccato strokes as part of the reed continuum. That often leaves Rainey’s pumps, ruffs and patterning as the main vehicle for narratives. Because of this, evolution is initially low energy with reed squeaks and slurps, string judders and drum beats undulated sporadically rather than harmonized. However the thin articulation begins to intersect by the mid-point Kites, as timbres left hanging in the air begin to coagulate due to the fiddler’s clenched string pressure plus dynamic forward motion created by the interconnection of Baars’ clarinet trills and Laubrock’s tenor saxophone slurs. By the time sounds on the concluding tracks are heard, the conundrum has been resolved. Still powerful, Rainey’s pops and ruffs are subtle enough to preserve a linear focus, while swelling string curves and pointed stops carve out a counter theme to the one projected by treble flutters from Baars’ clarinet or shakuhachi and energetic low breaths from the saxophonist. Henneman’s string sawing challenges Rainey’s tolling beats on the penultimate Walking Art, with renal sax honks and Baars’ aviary clarinet squeezes serving as the continuum. Stretching the narrative still further on the concluding title track, the other instruments concentrate their timbres as a backdrop to Rainey’s power paradiddles. Jagged reed bites and thin viola strokes finally express individual definition as they join forceful percussion strokes to lessen the tension and return to initial cooperation.

04 DeriveAttuned to a semi-traditional setting is the viola playing of Portuguese Ernesto Rodrigues with the Dérive quintet on its self-titled CD (Creative Sources CS 772 CD creativesourcesrec.com). Also featuring the cellist Guilherme Rodrigues, bassist João Madeira, flutist/bass clarinetist Bruno Parrinha and percussionist Monsieur Trinité, the nine-part Dérive suite evolves on the cusp of contemporary chamber music and free form improv. At various junctures, especially on Dérive VI and Dérive VII, there are melodic intervals which stack moving viola swipes against chalumeau bass clarinet buzzes and feathery flute trills swaddled in layered string rubs that undulate up and down the scale. But while the unfolding suite stays linear, its dynamic is defined by contrapuntal evolution, where shaking and swelling string parts vibrate collectively, sometimes interrupted by cymbal claps or maracas-like shakes from Trinité. Further consistency results from Madeira’s low pitched plucks. While this formula is constantly present as a continuum, other techniques are present elsewhere. For instance, the extended fourth sequence is introduced with a powerful arco twang that precedes the other strings’ entry and stretches the exposition so that all three soon create squeaking but harmonized timbres. For added variety throughout, the cello, bass and viola sometimes divide into separate duos to contrast high and low pitches. Elsewhere group string glissandi serve as a backdrop for the violist to initially shake out a theme statement, latterly use spiccato strokes and sawing squalls to torque all the players to produce theme variations, and finally use double strokes to outline a reconstituted sequel to the initial statement. In the end this statement is preserved among metal-banging percussion, energetic double bass rubs, multiple string stops and jittery flute whistles or deadened reed blowing to mark a sense of connection.

05 Regis HubyA more conventional – but no less invigorating – use of the viola and other strings takes place on French violinist Régis Huby Large Ensemble – The Ellipse (Abalone ABU 34 regishuby.bandcamp.com) with longtime collaborator violist Guillaume Roy. Both part of the 15-member Large Ensemble, Huby has cannily arranged his three-movement suite so that almost all of the four reeds, seven strings, two percussionists, pianist and trombonist are featured. A notable throwdown between the violist and violinist occurs as the introduction to The Ellipse Mvt III. But as slick, stretched and spiccato buzzes from the higher-pitched strings join with cellist Marion Martineau’s ostinato, dissonance turns to tonality to affiliate with the swing motifs which appear at intervals during this more-than-one-hour suite. Backed by bell-shaking, idiophone smashes and electronic vibrations from percussionist Michele Rabbia, first Olivier Benoit’s accelerating guitar riffs then Catherine Delaunay’s clarinet trills animate the exposition. Following a pause, all the musicians participate in a connective crescendo that lists southwards with no loss of power or colour. Similar section/solos interaction often come forward during the preceding sections. Although there are several tutti crescendos and unison string section sequences, these harmonic crescendos are muted for individual or small group expression. Among the standouts are trombonist Matthias Mahler’s contrapuntal smears, Baroque-like flute interjections from Joce Mienniel and sequences where guitar licks are cushioned by the strings or the viola and violin stretch a pressured line over accelerating horn vamps. Besides using marimba strokes to set up passages, Illya Amar’s vibraphone clanks constantly join percussive comping from Bruno Angelini’s keyboard to accent certain sequences while preserving linear flow.

As demonstrated here, despite its less than stellar reputation, the viola remains a valued music-making partner, At least it’s true in the jazz and improvised music community – and that’s no joke.

01 Kris DavisLive at the Village Vanguard
Kris Davis Diatom Ribbons
Pyroclastic Records PR 28/29 (krisdavis.net)

Émigré Canadian pianist/composer Kris Davis here commemorates a landmark appearance at New York’s Village Vanguard with this two-CD set by a quintet form of her group Diatom Ribbons, ranging through a program that includes both compositions by celebrated jazz composers and several of her own works that sometimes incorporate the voices of a few singular influences. Essentially heterodox, broad-based and witty, the music is anchored by drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and bassist Trevor Dunn, while Val Jeanty contributes turntables and electronics and Julian Lage, perhaps the leading jazz guitarist of the day, matches the blistering virtuosity and manic playfulness that Davis brings to piano, prepared piano and arturia microfreak synthesizer.  

The occasion is clearly one to celebrate and the performance is carnivalesque in mood and variety. The opening Alice in the Congo, composed by Ronald Shannon Jackson, has roots in both funk and free jazz, and Jeanty’s contribution adds hip-hop before Davis solos with wild keyboard splashes and runs. Other pieces from the contemporary repertoire include Geri Allen’s The Dancer and two distinct versions of Wayne Shorter’s Dolores.  

The bulk of the set consists of Davis’ own compositions, some acknowledging more influences, Nine Hats referencing works by Eric Dolphy and Conlon Nancarrow and the comically lumpy VW overlaying an archival radio interview with Sun Ra. Composers’ voices are even more prominent in the three-part, 34-minute Bird Suite. The Bird Call Blues segment references both bird song and Charlie Parker with the voices of Olivier Messiaen and Paul Bley, while Karlheinz Stockhausen discusses “intuitive music” on Parasitic Hunter

Somehow Davis manages to merge all of these diverse elements into a coherent and original whole – at once pulsing, comic and touching – that’s a brilliant representation of the range, freedom, energy and inclusivity that jazz can achieve.

02 BalladextrousBalladextrous
Sienna Dahlen; Bill Coon
Cellar Music CMR060322 (cellarlive.com)

Guitarists and vocalists share a unique bond when coexisting as a duo, and the exposure present without a rhythm section contrasts ominous vulnerability with ample space to thrive. Vocalist Sienna Dahlen and guitarist Bill Coon double down on this sparseness with Balladextrous, and make the most of this intimate, dreamy format. 

My favourite duo albums throughout history tend to playfully eschew traditional roles of melodic interpretation and harmonic accompaniment, and Balladextrous walks this line brilliantly. Coon’s chordal work and melodic content never leave listeners unsure of song forms or harmony, but he wisely avoids bludgeoning anyone with the kinds of dense accompaniment weaker guitarists may hide behind in this context. 

Dahlen has a playful sense of rhythm and phrasing that is both confident and interactive. This is a treat to hear applied to jazz standards, as it breathes new life into classic repertoire. Consciously or intuitively, the duo treats upbeat numbers like Happy Talk and I’m In The Mood for Love with a playful vibe, while sticking more to the bare-bones structures of pieces like Too Late Now and I Get Along Without You Very Well. Contrasting choices like these may not be predetermined, which is yet another testament to the intuition these two musicians possess.  

Give Balladexterous a listen through quality headphones with your eyes closed, then try it again tomorrow while ironing or meal-prepping. This album promises to elevate in all contexts!  

03 Let it ShineLet It Shine! Let It Shine!
Dee Daniels; Denzal Sinclaire
Cellar Music CM111621 (cellarlive.com)

Singers Denzal Sinclaire and Dee Daniels take us to church with their new offering, Let It Shine! Let It Shine! Produced by the renowned jazz bass player, John Clayton, and recorded over several days while the band and crew were living together in a house outside Calgary, the love that went into this project is palpable. With gospel being the predominant style, the Hammond B3 by organ master Bobby Floyd is a centrepiece of the album, but all the players have their moments, such as Herlin Riley’s tambourine flair on some of the spirituals and Nick Tateishi’s groovy guitar work on God, Be in My Head.

Sinclaire’s signature warmth and gently swinging style is a nice contrast to Daniels’ powerful vocals, yet they blend beautifully on their duets. I confess I wasn’t very familiar with Daniels’ work before listening to this album and what a force she is. Her intensity is perfect on the blues-tinged If He Changed My Name while her emotional range is showcased on Sometimes It Snows in April. Sinclaire does a wonderful lilting reimagining of Row, Row, Row Your Boat and a simply gorgeous take of Blessings Upon Blessings. But where the group really seems to hit its groove is on the traditional spirituals like This Little Light of Mine and Every Time I Feel the Spirit. When they let loose and the choir kicks in, I defy even the staunchest non-believers to sit still and not sing along.

04 Schwager OliverSenza Resa
The Schwager/Oliver Quintet
Cellar Music CMR030123 (cellarlive.com)

Much can be said about both guitarist Reg Schwager and saxophonist and flutist Ryan Oliver. Suffice it to say that both musicians have paid their dues in and around Canada and elsewhere with demanding bandleaders. In many respects their wide experience and well-documented discographies make them ideally suited to this ambitious project called Sensa Reza

On sterling repertoire Schwager and Oliver can be heard firing on all cylinders throughout the kinetic-energy-filled music on this album. The ensemble also features the liquid harmonics of pianist Nick Peck, and sizzle and rolling thunder with bassist Rene Worst and drummer Ernesto Cervini. Together, these musicians meld melodies, harmonies and rhythms into songs with a preternatural roar from one chart to the next, giving no quarter and taking no prisoners. 

No wonder that producer Luigi Porretta titled this album Senza Reza, Italian for “no surrender.” This powder-keg music explodes out of the gate with the incendiary Another Happening. There is no letup as the quintet negotiates the fast and oblique-angled rhythmic changes of Rushbrooke. This magnificently frenetic pace continues throughout, changing to elegiac only for Tender Love. The musicians on Senza Reza present an edge-of-the-seat experience from end to end, brilliant in both long-limbed soli and in ensemble.

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