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.

01 Ginzburg GeographyJewlia Eisenberg – The Ginzburg Geography
Charming Hostess
Tzadik (tzadik.com)

Acknowledging that labels and classifications of music are inelegant and confusing at the best of times, I cannot, for the life of me, begin to properly describe or compartmentalize this curious, extremely musical and compelling album: The Ginzburg Geography by Charming Hostess, a trio comprised of Jewlia Eisenberg, Cynthia Taylor and Marika Hughes. Not only is this programmatic recording interesting in its theme – exploring the lives and work of Natalia and Leone Ginzburg, Jewish anti-fascist political activists who played central roles in the Italian resistance movement – but the narrative of how this recording came to be, following the untimely death of singer and principal performer Eisenberg in 2021 at age 49, is equal parts tragic and captivating. 

Both storylines coalesce here on this fine 2022 Tzadik release that is both historical in its mining of a fascinating story of activism (combining research, creative reportage and original content creation) and historic in that it represents the final creative project of Eisenberg, a longtime respected contributor to the creative music scenes of New York and San Francisco’s Bay area. Further, as Eisenberg’s passing occurred prior to the album’s completion, it took the efforts of longtime collaborator Hughes to complete this recording consistent with Eisenberg’s original vision. 

This would be, I imagine, a difficult process not only personally, but providing a sort of musicological challenge where information on composer and creative intentions were gleaned from notes and past performances before being willed to fruition on the recording here. Classifications be damned, there is much to learn from and to like with this provocative and thoughtful new release. 

02 Ryan OliverRyan Oliver With Strings
Ryan Oliver; Bernie Senensky; Neil Swainson; Terry Clarke
Cellar Music CM102021 (cellarlive.com)

Juno-nominated, Victoria-based saxophonist, Ryan Oliver, has collaborated with a fantastic group of musicians on his latest release, making for a captivating musical voyage that any listener will want to join. The album features a group of famed musicians, with Bernie Senensky on piano, Terry Clarke on drums and rounded out by Neil Swainson on bass. What makes this album a truly unique endeavour is the string accompaniment that is present throughout each track, adding a wonderfully melodious and classy flavour to the record. Most songs were written by Oliver himself and arranged by Mark Crawford.
A soaring and sonorous string melody along with Oliver’s mellow saxophone solo lead into the first piece, The Ballad of Buffalo Bill. A slightly mysterious yet positively groovy song, this will get any listener’s toe tapping and body moving. Tango for Astor, one of the pieces not penned by Oliver, features a rhythmic, fittingly tango-esque groove from Clarke and a beautiful, pizzicato bass line played by Swainson. Eddie is an up-tempo tune with a scintillating riff in the strings underpinning a masterful saxophone line and piano solo showcasing Senensky’s talent perfectly. To close out the album, Walk Up on the Road has a bluesy and gospel flavour to it, perhaps a fitting melancholic yet positive end to this record. For anyone looking to add touch of “James Bond-esque” class and style to their night in, this is the album for you.

03 Sam KirmayerIn This Moment
Sam Kirmayer
Cellar Music CM030422 (cellarlive.com)

Sam Kirmayer, a Montreal-based jazz guitarist who has gained a lot of notoriety playing with famed musicians nationally, has been and remains one of the most in-demand sidemen within the genre. Already quite a feat on its own for someone under 35, Kirmayer can add his third and latest release to that quickly growing list of accomplishments. The prolific musician’s newest record features a track list of all new, original pieces that showcase not only his talent as a guitarist but also as a great composer. With renowned musicians such as Sean Fyfe on piano, Alec Walkington on bass and Andre White on drums, Kirmayer’s already stellar compositions reach new heights aided by this fantastic backing band. 

If there’s a common theme or element that could be pinpointed throughout the record, it would be the guitarist’s clean and precise style of playing that is just a pleasure to the ears. The Turnout features a driving bass line that keeps the song moving along at a pleasing pace, grounded by a constantly moving drum groove. Sleight of Hand takes us to a more down-tempo setting in which we hear a mellow piano riff underpinning melodious trombone and tenor saxophone solos, bringing to light Muhammad Abdul Al-Khabyyr and Al McLean’s talents on their respective instruments. Soliloquy completes the terrific album with a meandering pizzicato bass line and soaring saxophone melody, leaving the listener awaiting what this young talent will release next.

04 James BrownSong Within the Story
James Brown; Clark Johnston; Anthony Michelli; Mike Murley
NGP Records (jamesbrown.ca)

Based out of Oakville, renowned jazz guitarist James Brown has returned from a 13-year hiatus to release a much-awaited new album. And what an album it is; chock full of original tracks penned by Brown himself, and two covers of well-known Canadian folk-rock songs that he’s put a unique spin on. Helping breathe life into the pieces is an all-star lineup of musicians, featuring Clark Johnston on bass, Anthony Michelli on drums and Mike Murley on tenor saxophone. A pleasurable and relaxing musical journey, this album will appeal to jazz lovers, both old and new, looking for a modern jazz staple to add to their collection.
Igor starts off the record with a nod to classical composer Stravinsky, one of Brown’s influences in his classical guitar pursuits. Within the guitar melody are hints of phrases akin to what you’d hear in a Stravinsky piece; Brown once again masterfully mixes the musical realms of classical and jazz into one pleasant whole as he is known to do. Mbira Kids has its own unique flavour, with sections of the bass line and the rhythmic setup of the piece evoking elements of African music, “specifically those of Zimbabwe’s Shona people.” But perhaps most captivating is a beautiful and melodious cover of Joni Mitchell’s A Case of You, closing out the album on a hopeful yet slightly melancholy note, leaving the listener to peacefully contemplate a truly satisfying and fantastic album.

Listen to 'Song Within the Story' Now in the Listening Room

05 go solog(o) sol(o)
Bernard Falaise
Ambiances Magnétiques AM 267 CD (actuellecd.com)

Using no overdubs but minimal looping and timbral effects, the seven selections on Montrealer Bernard Falaise’s solo guitar tour de force are completely improvised, while pivoting to other instrument-reflecting sounds for greater variety. The attraction of G(o) sol(o) is how Falaise – part of local bands such as Quartetski – uses all parts of his instrument to suggest wider textures while creating miniature sonic tales.

Prime instance of this is the extended 320003, where string shakes and slurred fingering means the staccato introduction on flattened strings is succeeded by bell-pealing shakes, double bass-like low-pitched resonations and organ-like tremolo pulses. These sway the exposition forward into a single line to a buzzing conclusion. Slogan, the slightly longer first track, sets the scene, as bobbing fuzztones and high-voltage shakes rumble along before splitting into pressurized sound loops on the bottom and single-string stings on the top. Both tones are audible as they intersect and slide into one another for a percussive climax.

With pointed stops and starts, Falaise uses varied motifs to define the tunes, including string rubs that drone across the sound field for warmer expositions, or pointillist below-the-bridge scratches for tougher interface. Galop does just that as well, with knob-twisting and effects-pedal-pressure launching tones every which way until all subside into a connective drone.

Sol – G in English – is the fifth note of the C Major scale. Yet G(o) sol(o) cannily treats all of the scale’s notes in a unique fashion.

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