04_michel_f_coteà l’inattendu les dieux livrent passage

Mecha Fixes Clocks (Michel F. Côté)

& Records ET 09 (www.etrecords.net)

Atmospheric and ambient, but also audacious, Montreal percussionist/keyboardist and electronic manipulator Michel F. Côté uses a variety of sonic strategies to construct an exuberantly original nine-part sound world on “à l’inattendu les dieux livrent passage.” Accomplished in transforming directors’ and choreographers’ ideas into sound, as well as leading ad hoc bands such as this one, which generate a new meaning from his initials, the composer/arranger pushes and pulls the textures in a multi-stylistic fashion so that seemingly bland surfaces turn out to contain tough, multi-faceted cores.

Case in point is a track like ferveur fossile, where chunks and clicks from signal-processed timbres splutter and shrill while commenting upon Gordon Allen’s irregularly vibrated trumpet lines and the twangs from Bernard Falaise’ guitar. Arco string runs maintain the theme, although variants become looser, more strident and discordant as they come in contact with the buzzing electronics. Other pieces offer interludes of pseudo classicism via Pierre Yves-Martel’s viol de gambe or Jean Derome’s harmonized bass flute, only to have them sabotaged by Lori Freedman’s harsh bass clarinet slurs or abrasive wood scrapes from the percussionist. Overall it seems that sonic disruption is as much a part of Côté’s compositions as legato continuum.

This post-modern strategy is sardonically confirmed on au-delà de l’espace des petits oiseaux and more obviously on the concluding entre idéal et mental. On that track, string-laden samples, likely sourced by turntablist Martin Tétrault from Gone with the Wind composer Max Steiner LPs, are interrupted by plinking from live string players, motor-driven whines and clanks plus the percussionist’s cross pulses and opposite-sticking beats.

01_broadviewWhen Mike Murley enters the heroic tradition of tenor sax trios, you’d better listen. The star hornman has linked with two quality veterans in a new band playing bandsmen originals that makes its recording debut on Broadview Trio - Two Of Clubs (Addo Jazz Recordings AJR008 www.addorecords.com). Taped at Toronto clubs Chalkers and The Rex, the appropriately titled opening track Rich Murlted soon morphs into a thriller, with fleet and pungent bassist Rich Brown and smart, energizing drummer Ted Warren revelling in an open, loose structure that lets them stretch. All eight cuts have something to recommend them, Lullabye showing off the serious intense groove impact Brown generates, Open Spaces brewing nicely beneath Murley’s seamless phrasing cruise and International Idle a feast for Warren’s rapid-fire excursions around the kit. Murley’s caressing of Winter Flower is the saxman at his spellbinding best, the off-kilter Tango Ruby bounces giddily, On The Lemonade is an out-and-out swinger while Hibiscus rambles with purpose, illuminating trio members’ vast skills as they blend ingenuity and emotional depth.

02_carrier_inner_spireThe threesome led by inspirational Quebec alto saxist François Carrier indulges avant-garde motifs crammed with repetitive notes, long tense solos and a sound that’s wildly uneven yet most agreeable, at least to these ears. François Carrier/Alexey Lapin/Michel Lambert - Inner Spire (Leo Records CDLR601 www.leorecords.com), recorded in Moscow last December, has the boss wailing like Albert Ayler while regular drummer Lambert and thunderous Russian pianist Lapin pursue manic notions of their own, together creating freewheeling music that’s always teetering on the precipice. Lapin suggests Cecil Taylor or Matthew Shipp, the irrepressible Lambert only himself. Five “tunes” here, none hummable, but it’s always fascinating to hear how bold sonic explorations develop – it makes 20th century classical revolutionaries seem distinctly tame.

03_kirk_macdonaldKirk MacDonald, noted tenorman and now noted composer, has put together a top-drawer collection of musicians to play eight of his tunes on Kirk MacDonald Jazz Orchestra - Deep Shadows (Addo AJR009 www.adddorecords.com), with trombonist Terry Promane and trumpeter Joe Sullivan (who also conducts) sharing chart duty. The leader’s in the sax section, soloing at length in signature powerful manner on the opening New Piece and with considerable acumen and authority elsewhere. His compositions pack the passion in, though it’s not always obvious. The intro to Goodbye Glenn has elements of the lustrous Miller sound but the ballad is a delightful showcase for saxists P. J. Perry (alto) and Pat LaBarbera (tenor) and ever-present lush section work, while the thrusting Greenwich Time offers fine moments from guitarist Lorne Lofsky. Jazz waltz Calendula puts the chief back in the solo saddle to deliver a well-rounded gem, and it’s the turn of Sullivan, Promane and driving drummer Barry Romberg to achieve blowhard honours on the effective minor-chord Eleven. High standards throughout are maintained, right up to the showcase title tune closer.

04_koptorDrummer Kevin Brow graduated from U of T’s jazz program but now is based in Copenhagen. Koptor - Fire Sink (Fresh Sound New Talent FSNT 384 www.kevinbrow.com) is his band Koptor’s second album and it’s really good. The forceful, imaginative Brow composed 10 originals for a session featuring three Danish players – avant-garde saxist Lotte Anker, pianist Jacob Anderskov and bass Jeppe Skovbakke. The music’s all stop-time rhythms, unpredictable sequiturs and cool sonic provocation, like some ECM recordings, and nods relentlessly to Euro classical structures. Brow maintains exceptional grooves, often exciting though never overstating his case while his companions offer up jazz ranging from lavishly melodious to suggestively raw. The rousing Intellectual Sex, the fascinating soloing of sax and piano and crafty underpinning by drums and bass on the title cut and the weird eruptions on Penny Crushing are just three examples of creative minds in high gear.

05_convergenceYoung bands are stirring interest in Hogtown. One has twenty-somethings making their debut recording on Brent Mah/Alex Goodman - Convergence (www.alexgoodman.ca), a most promising album demonstrating maturity, flexibility and a cohesion so acute that on occasion it almost throttles freshness. Accomplished guitarist Goodman penned four tunes, saxist Mah three and the 68-minute session is fleshed out with a jazz standard and contributions from Radiohead and Pink Floyd. Booming bassist Dan Fortin and drummer Karl Schwonick make a solid rhythm team. The opening Momentum is sort of chamber-bop in 5/4, a measure of the writing challenges met and the other material is never dull, though while I appreciate Mah’s range and agility I don’t care much for his restrained and thin alto/soprano tones. Other entertaining tracks are Persistence Of Memory and Missed Opportunity.

06_ken_madonaldThe next shows bassist Ken McDonald making big strides with his second album as leader Ken McDonald Quartet - Pay What You Can (www.kenmcdonaldjazz.com) that features saxist Paul Metcalfe, guitarist Demetri Petslakis and drummer Lowell Whitty. He’s composed six thoughtful originals that are performed with energy and confident flair, for starters Detroit which especially shows off his strings agility and bright-toned Metcalfe’s rich vein of ideas. Beyond it are smart and subtle creations that let bandsmen expand their horizons and conjure up novel, sometimes striking, jazz – it’s a pity there’s just 39 minutes of it.

Besides gaining a reputation for its demographically diverse and eminently liveable neighbourhoods, when it came to improvised music starting in the early 1970s Toronto was actually a world-class city in more than civic boosterism. That’s because on the initiative of photographer/musician Bill Smith, Sackville records was issuing LPs by some of the most significant avant-garde players from New York, Chicago and St. Louis. Recorded for the most part in local studios, these discs – and affiliated concerts – documented these emerging stylists and designated Toronto as part of the international free jazz firmament. Now Chicago’s Delmark label is distributing CD reissues of the original Sackville records.

01_Julius Hemphill CDProbably the most significant session was the label’s one two-disc package, saxophonist and flautist Julius Hemphill’s Roi Boyé & the Gotham Minstrels (Sackville SKCD2-3014/15 www.delmark.com). It’s a solo session that’s a pioneering example of using multi-tracking to create a compelling audio drama. Best known as a founder of the World Saxophone Quartet (WSQ), Hemphill (1938-1995) was interested in programmatic story telling not reed bravado. One observation is that the often-delicate timbres of the reedist’s overdubbed flutes were showcased at a time when the cliché of advanced jazz imagined every player a discordant eardrum-assaulter. Even when playing astringent alto saxophone, as on the second track, Hemphill is so in control of his material that he doesn’t lapse into glottal punctuation. Instead he replicates a New York subway journey through an overdubbed choir of yelping saxophones. Exactly one year later, Hemphill and his WSQ colleague Oliver Lake recorded the duo disc, Buster Bee (Sackville SKCD2-3016 www.delmark.com) in Toronto. As notable as their teamwork was, it lacks the revolutionary force of the solo set. On “Roi Boyé” for instance, Hemphill devotes the final track to a narrative about a black artist’s life in a materialistic society, punctuating his story-telling with harsh squeals, discordant whorls and split tones. Another track replicates a butterfly’s attraction through stacked and harmonized reed tones that meander linearly; while a third is practically a capriccio, with the theme bouncing along, propelled by carefully stacked, overdubbed horn vamps, while reed-biting and pressurized vibratos from the alto saxophone come in-and-out of aural focus for contrast, ending with a distinctive contralto textural upturn. Hemphill doesn’t neglect jazz’s bedrock, the blues, either. One extended piece positions a soulful alto saxophone riff, basso lip-bubbling from the flute and a heavily breathed soprano saxophone line that could come from a country blues harmonica, while discordant pitches slide contrapuntally among them. Eventually the track reflects both the guttural despair and altissimo promise of the music.

02_Geo Lewis  CDAnother pace-setting session took place a year earlier, with George LewisThe Solo Trombone Record (Sackville SKCD2-3012 www.delmark.com), the first session under his own name by the musician now as famous for his computer-directed music as for his brass mastery. Audacious to the nth degree, the disc’s Tonebursts is another example of overdubbing. But while Hemphill was 39, with years of gigging behind him when “Roi Boyé” was recorded, Lewis was all of 24. In spite of his youth, the 20-minute track is another tour-de-force with the trombonist evidentially able to stylistically replicate key attributes of older brassmen, calling upon the color of Tricky Sam Nanton, the sophistication of Lawrence Brown and the speed of J. J. Johnson at will and blending them as needed. Here expressive lines are sometimes replaced by a sudden staccato brays, or mid-improv, a trombone choir harmonizes, with its parts segmented among bass trombone pedal-point, alto trombone open-horn linearity, and the highest textures strained though a cup mute. There are even times during which you could swear a supple saxophone is soloing accompanied by phantom guitar strokes. Besides expressive glissandi, timbres are sourced from deep within the trombone body; capillary lines are lobbed from one ‘bone to another; or rubato tones share space with polyharmonies and polytones. Eventually techniques such as oscillated mouthpiece kisses are replaced with resonating runs that maintain an almost conventional jazz-styled line while at the same time making room for growling ostinatos and altissimo cries. Lewis also provides a solo interpretation of Lush Life, but more impressive are other tracks such as Untitled Dream Sequence. Taken at the same tempo as that Billy Strayhorn classic, the Dream Sequence’s note-slurping, double-tongued accents and speedy glisses from every part of the horn demonstrate that exciting improvisation doesn’t have to be fortissimo, super-fast or discordant.

03_Roscoe Mitchell CDLewis was also more than just present a year previously when saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell’s Quartet on Sackville (SKCD2-3009 www.delmark.com) was recorded live at Toronto’s long defunct A Space gallery. The momentous session not only captures a then-rare example of the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s saxophonist performing without the other band members, but puts him in an all-star context. Other quartet members are pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, probably the most respected Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians founder, and Detroit guitarist Spencer Barefield. Mitchell and Lewis expose sonorous counterpoint on one duo track and the trombonist alone turns Mitchell’s Olobo into another brass tour-de-force, blending a near ballad exposition with guttural sniggers, near-silent breaths and a coda of overblowing. Group dynamics are memorable as well. Sonic tension is almost visible on Tnoona. With the theme built up from the saxophonist’s tongue flutters and split tones, guitar vibration, Lewis’ sliding plunger work and Abrams’ focussed note clusters, it finally dissolves without release. Aleatory as suggested by its title, Mitchell’s Cards is the CD’s most fully-realized composition. Chromatic forward motion is due to the pianist’s expressive low-frequency runs, but the linear form is punctuated by Barefield’s oscillating amp reverb. Meanwhile Mitchell’s reeds bark with clown-horn-like blasts and dilating split tones, as the trombonist contributes plunger grace notes and discursive pedal point. A coda of stentorian guitar strums completes the improvisation.

04_Altschul CDOther 1970s group sessions involve a rare excursion into focused European improvisations on All Kinds of Time (Sackville SKCD2-3010 www.delmark.com), by a duo of German pianist/vibist Karl Berger and British bassist Dave Holland, who now follows a more mainstream course; plus pianist Anthony Davis, best-known for operas such as X and Amistad, expressing himself with a suite and shorter composition backed by violin, cello and percussion. But it is Brahma (Sackville SKCD2-3023 www.delmark.com) from 1980 which best demonstrates the musical future which was partially ushered in by these earlier discs. Led by veteran drummer Barry Altschul, the unusually constituted trio introduced two players now in the prime of their career: trombonist Ray Anderson and bassist Mark Helias. Improvising jazz is never static, and unlike uncompromising abstraction that characterizes earlier discs in this set, swinging elements are now mixed with the risk-taking solos. These rhythmic components still go far beyond the conventional. Altschul’s solo on the 17-minute title track may hit a groove, but his bulls-eye beat is amplified with timbre scrambles using mallets and sticks, ratamacues and drags on toms and snares, plus numerous interjections that bring in cymbal shaking, bell-tree resonation, waterphone scrapes, cow bell thwacks and shrills from slide whistles. The finale involves shaking a thunder sheet for fortissimo oscillations; the mid-section is based on a martial beat from the percussionist and wide-angled stops and thumps from Helias. Overall, this drum finesse is synchronized with elephant-like grunts from Anderson’s sousaphone when the brassman isn’t altering themes with flutter-tonguing, freak note whinnying and gutbucket slurs. Capable of smooth balladry on Altschul’s mid-tempo Irina, Anderson also whistles and slurs his way through his own Spanish-tinged Con Alma de Noche backed by woodblock bops and opposite sticking from the drummer. And he enlivens the bassist’s Lism with triplet-extended brassiness, allowing Helias to hand pump and sluice his way up-and-down the strings with guitar-like expressiveness as the stop-time tune evolves.

Advanced improvisations featuring out-of-towners, not to mention the burgeoning local free music community, continue to be recorded in the GTA. These historically important and musically impressive albums show how one series of discs successfully captured musical changes.


Alex Pangman

Justin Time JTR 8569-2 (www.justin-time.com)

Toronto teems with jazz vocalists, but few, if any, are as faithful to the genre’s early years as “Canada’s Sweetheart of Swing” Alex Pangman. Reminiscent of Connee Boswell, Mildred Bailey and the youthful recordings of Fitzgerald and O’Day, smooth-voiced Pangman has carved out her niche by charming listeners the old-fashioned way. Beginning with a jubilant take on the seldom-sung I Found a New Baby, this, her fifth recording, is devoted to songs made popular in 1933.

In her ongoing quest to uncover hidden American songbook gems, some of the album’s best cuts include a cheerful homage to Connee Boswell (Hummin’ to Myself), a timeless Jack Teagarden specialty (A Hundred Years from Today) and a pair of Bing Crosby rarities (Thanks and I Surrender Dear, the latter a poignant duet with Ron Sexsmith). It is Pangman’s immaculate diction, delivered ever so earnestly, that makes her an ideal candidate to rescue these titles from obscurity. That said, lyrics aside, the success of this recording owes plenty to Alex’s seven-piece band, The Alleycats. Pianist Peter Hill swings mightily as always, as does Drew Jurecka, who skilfully doubles on violin and alto saxophone; both Hill and Jurecka contribute clever arrangements. Also sensational throughout are clarinettist Ross Wooldridge and trumpeter Kevin Clark. As Ella Fitzgerald would say, “this band will swing you to good health!” On that note, this is Pangman’s first recording since undergoing a double-lung transplant in 2008. A triumph!

02_Parker_Sorbara CDAt Somewhere There

Evan Parker; Wes Neal; Joe Sorbara

Barnyard Records BR0321 (www.barnyardrecords.com)

Without a hint of condescension, veteran British tenor saxophonist Evan Parker allies his skills with the talents of Torontonians bassist Wes Neal and drummer Joe Sorbara in this first-class essay in free improvisation. During the single track, recorded live at local performance space Somewhere There, rhythms, pitches and tones are mixed, matched, mulched and multiplied with a timbral blend that makes it seems as if the trio members have collaborated for years.

Balancing methodical plucks and brawny strums with a hint of sul tasto extensions, Neal marshals his strings to create an unremitting chromatic pulse. For his part, Sorbara pops, plucks, strikes and bounces rhythms on the sides and tops of his drums to tint and roughen the narrative. Delicate bell pings, rattling chains and, more frequently, the harsh application of a drum stick along a cymbal, mark transitions.

Meanwhile Parker, who has been involved in similar ad-hoc improvising since the mid-1960s, varies his output from intense flutter tonguing to glottal punctuation; and from flattement smears to cadenzas of bird-like twittering. Yet even as his inventive free-flowing timbres inflate, constrict or propel the performance in unexpected directions, he never loses its linear thread. A master of cooperation not dominance, even his intervals of nearly superhuman circular breathing are not challenges but an invitation to further group counterpoint. By the finale his occasional pan-tonal bent notes and nephritic explosions have become merely one element in this group’s sonic picture, separate but equal to the bassist’s double stopping or the drummer’s ruffs and rolls.

01_dave_youngA key participant in the Koerner Hall Aspects Of Oscar concert series was bass ace Dave Young, who’s now recorded an 11-track studio version that swings with both simplicity and strength. Dave Young Quintet - Aspects Of Oscar (Modica Music MM0111 www.daveyoung.ca) features on six Peterson tunes and five standards A-list jazzers Robi Botos (piano), Kevin Turcotte (trumpet), Reg Schwager (guitar) and Terry Clarke (drums), all in top form. The opening OP classic Wheatland showcases authoritative bass propulsion and relentlessly appealing playing by bandsmen before Broadway standards time. Then it’s OP’s best ballad (When Summer Comes) given poignant treatment, as were Chaplin’s Smile and Bernstein’s Somewhere. The legend’s bouncy tune Cake Walk energizes Clarke, Just Friends roars, but perhaps the best jazz comes with OP’s rare excursion into the classical world, his Bach Suite (recorded with Young, Joe Pass and Martin Drew in 1986). Here are the utterly winning Andante and Fugue movements plus Bach’s Blues.

02_nancy_watsonNancy Walker has played enough piano to know how to keep listeners interested however hard she pushes the boundaries of familiarity. Her 11 original compositions on Nancy Walker - New Hieroglyphics (Indie NW 2011-01 www.nancywalkerjazz.com) are often fiercely inventive, while some amazingly seem ripe for dancing. The opening Mehndi pulses with life, drummer Ethan Ardelli permanently on fire, bass Kieran Overs a big-toned mainstay and guitarist Ted Quinlan always ready to wail or deliver strong counterpoint to the pianist’s delightful ideas, always confidently expressed - later he brings new levels of intensity to Federico. The title piece (and others) exploit elements of musical theory but you don’t need to drown in semantics to enjoy the off-kilter keyboard fancies plus a vigorous pulse. Imprint has bravura guitar and expansive imagination, Companion Moon has many memorable moments while with Take You There it’s back to the dance floor. A fine album well worth seeking.

03_mikko_hildenThe Walker-Overs team is also in action on Mikko Hilden Group - Nova Scotia (Addo AJR007 www.addorecords.com), the first recording by the Swedish-born, Hogtown-based guitarist, one of many trying to find an individual voice amid the tsunami of string practitioners. He just about succeeds, however, with ringing tones cleanly struck, a passion for lyrical melody and uncommon improv. Hilden penned the six originals – lasting just a miserly 38 minutes – which exercise a quartet rounded out by drummer Will Foster. Willowbrook has a bold core with good piano comping, Secret Sun’s forceful, unusual theme is compelling with Walker’s counter-theme rebellions, while Rocket Fuel catches fire when Hilden’s tough lines assault snaky piano phrases. The title tune has profound moments with expert idea development, generating a powerful sense of collective achievement. June 14 2008 mournfully commemorates the drowning death of E.S.T. leader Esbjorg Svensson.

04_reg_schwagerAnother stylish CD that boasts original content and elegant execution while examining different approaches is Reg Schwager Trio - Chromology (Rant Records 1039 www.regschwager.com). Schwager composed eight of the 11 songs and works comfortably with bass Jon Maharaj and drummer Michel Lambert. The album engages the listener for 53 minutes.

05_peter_humSelf-taught Ottawa pianist Peter Hum is likely more known in the jazz community for his prodigious blogging but clearly has wordless talent too, as attested by his debut release Peter Hum Quintet - A Boy’s Journey (PJH001 www.peterhum.com). Leading three other Ottawa-born bandsmen - tenor saxman Kenji Omae, alto and soprano Nathan Cepelinski and bass Alec Walkington – plus drummer Ted Warren, the boss cruises through ten neat, original tunes secure in his players’ long-established musical camaraderie. However, more than once the apparent comfort level seems complacent, with tempos sedate and drive and urgency at a premium. Horns get plenty of room, with rugged tenor and alto slither easy to differentiate, and this aids interesting tracks like Take The High Road, Big Lou and Sojourner’s Truth, Hum showing electric piano skill on the last two. Best jazz comes with the energized Unagi and the cleverly structured closer Three Wishes with its snarling saxes.

06_chris_donellyA while ago I raved (in an unpublished review) about pianist Chris Donnelly’s debut disc Solo declaring it as good an entry in the crowded keyboard stakes as any recently experienced, with technical prowess, mesmerizing touch and effortlessly imaginative approach evident. The Canada Council commissioned him to compose music based on the work of Dutch graphic artist M.C. Escher. The result is Chris Donnelly - Metamorphosis (Alma ACD32212 www.chrisdonnellymusic.com). More words from my earlier piece apply here too – “swashbuckling verve”, “truly accomplished” “crammed with subtlety”, “significant musical event.” There are ten movements, with the music working as a concert with minimal interruption. Of most note are the particularly dazzling You enter the fountain, the invigorating In the chimera of notes, the percussive You hear the voice and the bustling Saying you are the azure. I have two problems, however. It sounds too much like a classical recital à la Glenn Gould – and the cover art is absurd.

*The Dixie Demons CD Fossil Fuel won the 2011 Canadian Collectors Congress album-of-the-year award. The band narrowly beat out Jeff Healey’s Last Call and the Vic Dickenson–Jim Galloway Quintet’s Live In Toronto albums, says Congress spokesman Gene Miller. The Toronto-area Demons are co-leaders Dan Douglas (trombone) and Ross Wooldridge (clarinet) plus Steve Crowe (trumpet), Phil Disera (banjo), Chris Lamont (drums) and Doug Burrell (tuba). The 13th annual award was presented at the annual meeting of the Congress, which specializes in classic and traditional jazz, on April 30 in Toronto.

More than 60 years after the big band era, improvising musicians still organize large ensembles to take advantage of its wider scope and range of colors. Such is the versatility of the arrangements possible with large bands as these sessions demonstrate, that each sounds completely unique while maintaining the same excellence.

01_InstabileOver nearly 71 minutes on Totally Gone (Rai Trade RTP J0021 www.italianinstabileorchestra.com), the all-star aggregation of 17 of the country’s most accomplished players who make up the Italian Instabile Orchestra (IIO) demonstrate the combination of technical skills and rambunctious good spirits that has kept the band going since 1990. Unsurprisingly the climatic track, Ciao Baby, I’m Totally Gone/It Had to be You, is a case-in-point instance of the band’s expansive talents. Switching between timbral dissonance from squeaky spiccato strings and snoring brass slurs on one hand with sibilant, staccato section work that could have migrated from Fletcher Henderson’s band, the IIO’s texture is simultaneously mainstream and avant-garde. This is made clearest when a sequence of pure air forced from Sebi Tramontana’s trombone turns to plunger polyrhythm as he’s backed by harmonized reeds and strings, and ends with him vocalizing the second half of the title backed by Fabrizio Puglisi’s key-clipping piano and Gianluigi Trovesi’s undulating clarinet obbligato. This sense of fun is also expressed on No Visa, a jazzy hoedown which leaves room for sul ponticello fiddling from violinist Emanuele Parrini, funky tenor saxophone vamping from Daniele Cavallanti, a brassy mid-range fanfare and the entire band vocally riffing in unison. This doesn’t mean that compositional seriousness isn’t displayed alongside the theatricism. The multi-tempo Gargantella, for instance is as much a nocturne as a capriccio. Here closely-voiced and massed horns and strings move adagio beneath strained brass notes and a snorting, altissimo showcase for baritone saxophonist Carlo Actis Dato until the tone poem is completed by polished, string movements given shape by the clattering cymbals and wood block pops of percussionists Vincenzo Mazzone and Tiziano Tononi.

02_Pierre_LabbeWith rock-influenced electric piano and guitar prominent, Pierre Labbé’s 12-piece big band takes a different approach on Tremblement de fer (Ambiances Magnétiques AM 202 CD www.actuellecd.com), performing a seven-part suite the saxophonist composed for a Montreal festival. A POMO sound essay, the composition is animated by contrapuntal clashes between sections which include four bowed strings, two brass, two reeds, plus guitar, piano, bass and percussion. Although linked, each track can be appreciated on its own. Despite its Arabic title, Le 2e Souk is actually a showcase for Jean Derome’s improvisations on successively, alto saxophone, flute and bass clarinet. Throughout his staccato peeps, sibilant slurs and flutter tonguing are matched by tremolo slides, sawing and scratches from the violinists, violist and cellist. Lavra, on the other hand masses Balkan-sounding string discord with irregular pulses from guitarist Bernard Falaise and drummer Pierre Tanguay as soprano saxophonist André Leroux carries the melody. Resolution comes when trombonist Jean-Nicolas Trottier abandons plunger tones to slurp his way up the scale, accompanied by the strings and pianist Guillaume Dostaler’s steady comping. Tanguay, whose hand taps are suitably exotic when playing darbuka, contributes muscular ruffs throughout. His steadying backbeat is particularly necessary on the final La Fille et la grenouille. Sounding like what would happen if a street-corner Sally Ann band wandered into a country music session, the tune mixes up the bugling from the brass players, rooster crows and spits from the reeds, a bow-legged rhythm with cow-bell pings from Tanguay, and Falaise contrasting his best pseudo-steel-guitar C&W twangs with the somewhat schmaltzy tutti horn lines.

03_Pierre Favre CDTaking a different tack is percussionist Pierre Favre’s Le Voyage (Intakt CD 186 www.intaktrec.ch), which mutates standard big-band harmonies with unique sound blocks in the drummer’s compositions. Utilizing a saxophone choir of soprano, alto, tenor and baritone to create concentrated organ-like chord pulsations, Favre’s intermezzos parcel the solos out among guitarist Phillipp Schaufelberger, trombonist Samuel Blaser and clarinettist Claudio Putin. With the rhythmic thrust doubled by string bass and bass guitar, the results evoke baroque ballads as certainly as big band swing. An example of the latter is Wrong Name where Putin’s florid twitters trill chromatically, while around him harmonized reeds throb in unison, prodded from adagio to andante tempo by cross-patterning cracks and pops from the drummer. Les Vilains on the other hand could be modernized Renaissance court music, with the reeds playing formalized close harmonies as if they were a string quartet, with cascading and irregular timbres doled out from Schaufelberger’s harsh, slurred fingering. Favre’s sound architecture is most obvious on Akimbo where reed shading becomes sonically three-dimensional as the drummer’s clips emphasize the symmetry between the guitarist’s string snaps plus Blaser’s plunger grace notes.

03_Fred_HoPractically standing the big band tradition and its head, American gigantism is emphasized on Fred Ho and the Green Monster Big Band’s Year of the Tiger (Innova 789 www.innova.mu) since the Chinese-American composer bursts with so many sociological and musical tropes that a 21 musicians are needed to express them. A Marxist populist Ho packs within 70 minutes, a five-part suite honouring African-American big bands; a trio of Michael Jackson songs; the Johnny Quest TV show theme song; a couple of Jimi Hendrix hits; plus excerpts from his chamber opera featuring the band plus an adult and a children’s choirs. These extracts are notable for how he blends formalist bel canto singing with instrumental looseness from an improvising ensemble, whereas Ho’s arrangement of the Hendrix melodies play up their jazz-rock linkage as tremolo trombone slurs and roistering sax vamps parallel the double-tracked vocals. More seriously, adding an anti-capitalist recitation from poet Magdalena Gomez to Jackson’s Bad and Thriller, already evocatively sung by Leena Conquest, defines the werewolf and zombie sound effects within the context of mindless consumerism, mocked by guffawing brass and a slurping tenor sax solo. The CD’s heart is contained in the six selections of Take the Zen Train, which manages to reference both Pete Seeger and Duke Ellington. Using instrumental pulsations and layering, with bellowing brass reverb and tension-and-release variants plus the vibrancy of frequent tempo changes, Ho composes tonal portraits for his soloists. Outstanding are cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum’s whispering and peeping ballad feature; the stop-time slurs and gutbucket expansions from bass trombonist David Harris; plus an interlude which matches alto saxophonist Jim Hobbs’ reed masticating alongside the composer’s snorting baritone sax runs. Seeger’s left-wing orientation is apparent in some of the tune titles including Quarantine for the Aggressor. Whether used for program music or for timbral amplification, big bands remain a preferred form of expression for players and composers.

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