07 Trevor DunnSéances
Trevor Dunn’s Trio-Convulsant avec Folie à Quatre
Pyroclastic Records (store.pyroclasticrecords.com)

Trevor Dunn has an eclectic profile, ranging from playing electric bass in the experimental rock band Mr. Bungle to composing and recording a set of chamber music pieces, Nocturnes, in 2019. He first formed Trio-Convulsant in the mid-1990s, then reformed it briefly in 2004 with then unknown, now celebrated, guitarist Mary Halvorson and drummer Ches Smith, both present for this 2022 reunion. Folie à Quatre fleshes out Dunn’s complex compositions and adds additional improvising heft, with violinist Carla Kihlstedt, clarinetist Oscar Noriega, cellist Mariel Roberts and flutist Anna Webber.

The compositions are challenging in both their subject matter and musical complexity. Dunn draws inspiration from a bizarre and banned 18th-century French religious cult called Les Convulsionnaires de Saint-Médard, matching the chaos of their sado-erotic hysterical practices with compound time signatures (15/4, 9/4) and overlays of different tempos and keys. In the CD’s opening moments, Webber’s piping, elusive flute is joined by abstracted strings; others gradually enter and then Dunn and Smith suddenly introduce a pounding rhythmic pattern, shifting from Debussy to Megadeth in a minute. The later Eschatology, in contrast, is a subtle string-weave of Halvorson, Kihlstedt and Roberts in which disparate rhythms and tonalities achieve a continuous flow.

What makes it successful is Dunn’s intense musicality. His sudden contrasts arise organically from his subject matter, and his musicians, masters of both execution and improvisation, celebrate the challenge and the interaction.

Émigré Canadian pianist Kris Davis’ Pyroclastic label is developing a remarkable record for releasing music that’s both conceptually imaginative and brilliantly realized. This one is no exception.

08 Wiiliam ParkerUniversal Tonality
William Parker
Centering Records CENT 1030 (williamparker.bandcamp.com)

Bassist and composer William Parker has long been a major figure in New York City, leading ensembles from small to large and making free jazz an activist instrument of community. Universal Tonality, heard here in a 2002 performance from New York’s Roulette, is a major composition: its six movements run to 110 minutes and merge orchestra, soloists and song. Singer Leena Conquest, a frequent collaborator, brings warmth and immediacy to Parker’s words and melodies, reminiscent of the rich contribution of Abbey Lincoln to Max Roach’s music or June Tyson’s to Sun Ra’s, while a 16-member band articulates the shifting sonic materials and developing layers of Parker’s conception, often merging composed and improvised elements in seamless ways in a graphic score. 

Parker has an expansive vision of a global sound palette that can be glimpsed in just the instruments involved. Here he includes strings (komungo, koto, dilruba, donso’ngoni), percussion (balafon) and winds (shakuhachi and chiramía) from multiple Asian, African and South American sources as well as violins, various brass and reeds and percussion. It’s also a band of distinct instrumental voices, including trombonists Grachan Moncur III and Steve Swell, violinists Billy Bang and Jason Kao Hwang, saxophonists Rob Brown and Daniel Carter, and guitarist Joe Morris, all fitting their individual strengths into Parker’s larger schematic patterns and poetry.

Universal Tonality is constructed on a grand scale, but there’s nothing particularly daunting about it; its constantly shifting and evolving textures, voices and moods are generally fresh, inviting and accessible.  

09 Gentiane MgWalls Made of Glass
Gentiane MG
Three Pines Records TPR-009 (gentianemg.com)

Gentiane Michaud-Gagnon (known as Gentiane MG) is a pianist and composer who has released her third album, Walls Made of Glass, with Levi Dover on bass and Louis-Vincent Hamel on drums. Walls Made of Glass is also this group›s third album together and their intimate communication adds subtlety and nuance to every track. 

MG’s influences are classical composers such as Debussy and Chopin and jazz masters like Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea. The Moon, the Sun, the Truth opens with a minor repeating pattern on piano which moves into a more strident chordal section supported by drums and bass. In this, and other compositions, MG moves between written and improvised sections and it is sometimes difficult to separate the two. This strategy gives her jazz pieces a more classical structure where freer sections alternate with repeated themes. Flowers Laugh Without Uttering a Sound has a swirling solo piano intro, then the bass and drums enter to nail down a solid backbeat, the solo piano repeats, then the jazz beat and angular piano chords give way to a more traditional piano solo. Eventually the piece builds into an intense drum solo before the swirling chords come back to fade into the distance. 

Walls Made of Glass is highly original music and deserves our thoughtful listening.

10 Chet DoxasRich in Symbols II – The Group of Seven, Tom Thomson & Emily Carr
Chet Doxas
Justin Time JTR8636-2 (justin-time.com)

Chet Doxas is a composer and saxophone player born in Montreal and currently living in Brooklyn. His 2017 album called Rich in Symbols  was dedicated to New York’s Lower East Side art movement of the 1980s. With this current album, Rich in Symbols II, Doxas has composed musical interpretations of seven Canadian paintings from the Group of Seven, Tom Thomson and Emily Carr. Doxas spent a great deal of time with each painting and took music manuscript paper and a notepad to record his thoughts. Rich in Symbols II has elements of jazz and improvised music supported with environmental “field recordings,” Joe Grass’ pedal steel guitar and banjo, Jacob Sacks’ piano and mellotron. Each piece sounds like a sonic journey reminiscent of Pictures at an Exhibition (we also hear footsteps and other environmental sounds throughout). Doxas’ melodies are both whimsical and beautiful and lead to sparse, frenetic improvisations. For example The Jack Pine begins with a faint tinkling piano, some minimalist guitar and a saxophone which sounds like it is being played through a staticky radio that is down the hall in another room. The piece becomes quite gorgeous when we hear the full sax sound after the three-minute mark. 

Rich in Symbols II is an intriguing and highly original album with many subtle colours throughout. 

Listen to 'Rich in Symbols II – The Group of Seven, Tom Thomson & Emily Carr' Now in the Listening Room

11 Cha RanCha-Ran
Robert Lee
Independent (robertleebass.com)

Even before reading the notes, it is clear that Robert Lee is a storyteller. Every composition has a clear arc to it. The energy rises and falls, paced with patience and purpose as if choreographed. Structurally, the music possesses an enthralling contour that twists and detours, evoking major plot points. Metric modulation is consistently used in this sense, as a means of strongly distinguishing sections and establishing new scenery. Additionally, adding further intrigue, there are indelible moments of great specificity to be found in every track. One such example is the sudden clapping break in the middle of Peaks and Spires of the Summer Clouds, bridging the first two verses with a moment of ingenuity while simultaneously introducing a new layer to the rhythmic feel of the arrangement. Elsewhere you have the tranquil epilogue of Seun-Sul, where seemingly any other bandleader in existence would have opted for a fadeout ending after the blazing guitar climax. 

Lee’s writing process on this album pulls from the narrative styles of folktales and Studio Ghibli films, managing to do so without feeling derivative for a single second. Along with form, dialogue also plays a central role in the music. Lee’s bass tone is perpetually tuned into Tetyana Haraschuk’s ride cymbal, creating a textural foundation that simmers and makes for natural transitions between pieces. The fullness of Carolina Alabau’s voice as a constant factor creates space for subtextual counterpoint in the rhythm section.

12 Sheila SoaresJourney to the Present
Sheila Soares
Independent (sheilasoaresmusic.com)

On this fittingly titled album, Sheila Soares reaches back, drawing from her influences to create an exhilarating blend of nostalgic and contemporary jazz. The album’s vision is immediately evident from the opening line, “we will drive in no direction/but away from what we know,” foreshadowing the stylistic explorations that ensue. The title track itself is a microcosm of this concept, for while it’s not anything that overtly challenges the conventions of improvised music, it balances this familiarity with ethereal production and Soares’ interpretive vocals. Her usage of longer phrases lends great weight to her lyrics, particularly as they reflect the album’s overarching theme of remaining grounded in the moment. 

Also adding to this picture is the brightness and urgency of Alison Young’s saxophone tone, the immediacy of which demands the listener’s attention from the downbeat. From this track, the album’s promise of resolute directionlessness is fulfilled. The tributes take numerous forms, from country-folk balladry, to rhythm and blues jam sessions and earnest reharmonized Rush covers, but the concept manages to remain constant throughout. The lyrical qualities of the music aren’t confined to the lyrics themselves – the ensemble plays with a wistful reflectiveness that provides a perfect soundtrack to Soares’ expressive verse. 

It is a testament to the attention and care put into this work that Rush’s Limelight doesn’t feel thematically jarring despite not being penned by Soares. It mirrors this album’s central quest: the search for meaning within the tangible.

14 Six ish PlateausSix-ish Plateaus
Elastic Recordings ER 004 (alexfournier.bandcamp.com/six-ish-plateaus-elastic-recordings)

Committed to expanding sound boundaries, but only as far as they avoid atonality, Toronto bassist Alex Fournier expands his Triio to six to interpret his compositions. He ensures that individual improvisations fit his strategy, but without curtailing creative improvisation.

Besides Fournier’s fluid pulse, tunes are anchored by drummer Stefan Hegerat’s careful crunches; guitarist Tom Fleming’s strokes ranging from finger-style echoes to percussive hammering; while vibraphonist Michael Davidson sprinkles lyrical colour around the themes. Saxophonist Bea Labikova and clarinetist Naomi McCarroll Butler frequently harmonize, but also contribute overblowing honks, shrill screams and intense split tones.

Balance is key. So if Fleming’s string shakes introduce unneeded harsh speediness, lyrical vibraphone shading swiftly moves the exposition back on track. Similarly, a cornucopia of altissimo cries and airy multiphonics from the reeds are sometimes meshed with distinct bass thumps. At the top of Tragic Leisure, for example, wistful woodwind  harmonies are intensified with melodic string glissandi. As tough bass strokes quicken the pace, percussion smacks and guitar reverb quickly join in, only to have buoyant clarinet trills float the narrative back to reflect its Arcadian introduction.

Fournier’s concluding Saltlick City expresses its astringency with raspy saxophone bites and jagged arco swipes. But the contrapuntal buzzing timbres are combined with warm clarinet expressions that precede a crescendo of group vibrations that confirm the equitable direction of the piece and of the album itself.  

In his tenth year as bandleader Fournier has undoubtedly attained a desired plateau.

Listen to 'Six-ish Plateaus' Now in the Listening Room

Back to top