02_Kurt_ElliingThe Gate
Kurt Elling
Concord CJA-31230-02

Kurt Elling's singing is not for everyone. When a musician with the fertile imagination and daring that Elling possesses commits to an idea sometimes what comes out isn't so pretty. A crooner he is not. And not everyone will agree with all of his choices. But Elling has the skills and range to pull off incredible musical feats. He and the band can take a song – like Norwegian Wood on his latest album “The Gate” - and start it off on familiar Beatles’ ground and move it to a place that is way off the original path into fresh, interesting territory. But Elling isn't all cerebral, cold-blooded improvisation. He has a big ol’ mushy side too, and can rip your heart right out of your chest when he wants to, as he does on an ultra slowed-down version of Earth, Wind & Fire’s After the Love Is Gone. And on Herbie Hancock's Come Running To Me, when Elling gets up in his high register he produces some of the sweetest sounds that ever came out of a man. Of course a singer on a journey like this can’t do what he does without solid yet boundary-pushing musicians with him, most notably pianist and arranger Laurence Hobgood, guitarist John McLean, saxophonist Bob Mintzer and Grammy-winning alpha producer, Don Was.

James Brown
Independent NGP-002 (www.jamesbrown.ca)

He may not be “The Godfather of Soul” but this James Brown – “our” raised-in-Burlington-now-residing-in-Toronto James Brown – brings much soul, sophistication, style and serious skill to his latest CD. Currently teaching guitar and jazz improvisation at the Royal Conservatory in Toronto, Brown has produced a vibrant and inventive CD of nine original compositions. Joining him on this splendid album are some of Canada’s finest: Quinsin Nachoff on tenor and soprano saxophone (see Geoff Chapman’s excellent review of his latest offering in last month’s WholeNote online at www.thewholenote.com); the always great Don Thompson on piano; in-demand bassist Jim Vivian; and the widely respected Anthony Michelli on drums. A stellar local line-up!

Brown is known for his lyrical tone, fluid, melodic lines and elegant writing and he doesn’t disappoint here. As well, his classical training is evident and it is not surprising to learn that he is an associate composer of the Canadian Music Centre. The classical influence is most apparent in Fugue, where he weaves a beautiful exchange of fugal voices between the guitar and saxophone, joined in a third voice by the bass. The playing (as well as the writing) is languid and expressive.

Oddly, I found the title track, spelled Sevendays, to be the least interesting, although still enjoyable. It is expansive and breezy, reminiscent, at times, of early Metheny.

Perhaps Brown is at his most soulful in Central Eastern (part 1), an evocative, melancholic and lyrical preamble to Central Eastern (part 2), which, in contrast, is driving, exhilarating and had me at the edge of my seat. It really swings with its subtle, not so much central but more Middle Eastern, flavour. Thompson provides some gorgeous piano work and the drumming is especially tasteful.

There’s a reason Brown has the reputation he does as a versatile and talented composer and guitarist. Actually, he’s given us nine with “Sevendaze.


02_VektorThe Story of Vektor 1984-1990
VBT 002 batemanvictor@gmail.com

A swinging artifact from Toronto’s recent past, where a shotgun wedding between the technical sophistication of free jazz and the relentless rhythms of punk rock seemed inevitable, “The Story of Vektor” is very much a representative of its time.

Led by bassist and sometime vocalist Victor Bateman, Vektor operated in an area midway between the Shuffle Demons’ jive and Whitenoise’s dyspepsia. Sophisticated, high-class musicianship shares space with clearly defined beats and Bateman’s sardonically delivered lyrics. Besides Bateman, Vektor constants were tenor saxophonist Perry White, playing with more prickly and funky pacing than today, and trombonist Stephen Donald, who when not harmonizing with the saxophonist, exposes outstanding flutter tonguing on pieces such as Head in a Bottle.

Three changes each in the guitar and percussion chairs here reflect the band’s evolution and search for new sounds. Barry Romberg for instance, brings a jazz sensibility with his drumming; Graham Kirkland is more of a rocker; and Stych Wynston’s approach is somewhere in-between. It’s the same story with guitarists Mark McCarron, Kim Ratcliffe and Martin Rickert. The third is the most versatile, producing ringing string reverb on Life is a Crutch, then turning around to create hushed, atmospheric runs on Desolate Country.

More than 20 years on, some of the Vektor crew have allied themselves with more experimental sounds; others make their living as conventional jazzers; some have vanished altogether. Still, despite a few overly familiar arrangements, this CD is particularly valuable as a reminder of a time when jazz-rock fusion was a recipe for trying unusual blends, not a marketing label.

01_mike_murleyDebut recordings by bands already popular generate advance excitement and acclaimed tenor saxophonist Mike Murley duly delivers with the Mike Murley Septet - Still Rollin’ (Cornerstone CRST CD 135 www.cornerstonerecordsinc.com). His writing is almost orchestral in scope, with strong, rich ensemble statements between catchy hooks from an impressive rhythm team (pianist David Braid, bass Jim Vivian, drummer Ted Warren) and fluent soloing. Murley, his majestic horn work ever accomplished, penned seven of nine tunes for an artfully arranged, vibrant freewheeling session giving trombonist Terry Promane, trumpeter Kevin Turcotte (splendid throughout) and saxist Tara Davidson plentiful opportunities for fruitful exploration. Material ranges from the blustery title piece to reflective pieces referencing the leader’s Maritime heritage such as Minas Mist via a witty rework of Coltrane’s Giant Steps, a lovingly languid Celtic theme, a meaty tribute to Murley idol Sonny Rollins and a three-part suite inspired by Alberta mountains.

02_arc_en_cielPaul Read, the pianist-composer best known for key jazz roles at U of T and Humber, has run a 17-piece orchestra with top-flight players since 2006. He wrote nine tunes for the disc debut of Paul Read Orchestra - Arc-En-Ciel (Addo AJR004 www.paulreadorchestra.com), an excellent feat of well-drilled innovation and communal flair, though over-favouring lush ballads - the fierce Andy Ballantyne alto on opening swinger Too Pretty For Words besting the mellow beauty conjured by pianist David Braid, saxist Tara Davidson and flugelhornist Jim Lewis on subsequent numbers. Album highlight is the lengthy title tune (meaning “rainbow”) that benefits from Trish Coulter’s voice within its thick textures, time games and fascinating narrative celebrating nature’s alluring phenomenon. Following are a leisurely vehicle for trumpeter Chase Sanborn and not-so-leisurely tenor Alex Dean, so it’s fitting they then combine for a real rumble on Oxymoron. The set closes with a two-part suite, an elegy showcasing Braid followed by a rousing dust-up with five soloists, Dean at his effervescent best.

03_mario_romanoMario Romano is a real estate mogul and nifty pianist who can more than hold his own with jazz peers. His first CD as leader is Mario Romano Quartet - Valentina (Alma ACS15102 www.almarecords.com), where he’s joined by veteran saxman Pat LaBarbera, bass Roberto Occhipinti and drummer Mark Kelso. It opens with LaBarbera driving Night In Tunisia hard and Romano matching his technique and ardour. Standards use his arrangements, sometimes too predictable, but he comps well and, overall, clearly belongs. On Autumn Leaves he’s elaborate then pungent while his percussive attack suits Nardis and On Green Dolphin Street. His colleagues are on top form, the bassist’s huge sound and Kelso’s sheer vigour embellishing the band’s superior credentials. Sound quality is terrific.

04_canadian_jazz_quartetFor its fourth album, the Canadian Jazz Quartet – which has played Fridays since 2006 at Quotes on King St. West – has chosen a different direction. The result is a real treat, for those enamoured of Brazilian music and for fans of a stylish group whose jazz evolves seamlessly around tradition. Brazilian Reflections (Cornerstone CRST CD136 www.cornerstonerecordsinc.com) is class all the way, with leader and guitarist Gary Benson adding four originals to the 13 songs, five by Jobim, two from Luiz Bonfa. Elegance is the watchword with Benson colleagues – vibraphonist Frank Wright, bass Duncan Hopkins and drummer Don Vickery - in superlative form employing lilting rhythms as guitar and vibes demonstrate luminous comfort with the melodies. Desafinado is here of course, but so are lesser-known gems.

05_cory_weedsBands powered by Hammond B3 organs can’t be cool – if they don’t stir couch potatoes from torpor, they’re a bust. With virtuoso Joey DeFrancesco in town, tenorman-club owner Cory Weeds couldn’t miss, resulting in The Many Deeds of Cory Weeds (Cellar Live CL011010 www.coryweeds.com), a live gig at Vancouver’s Cellar backed by local trumpeter Chris Davis and Byron Landham drumming, a swinging octet of tunes heavy with intense, grooving bass lines. Session leader Weeds sounds great, like a 1960s Blue Note tenor saxist, in fact like the composer of two tunes here, Hank Mobley, but with fatter tones. The pace is mostly fast or semi-fast, Davis efficient more than inspiring, but DeFrancesco blasts on in incomparable fashion with all the grit and ferocity you’d expect. There’s great riffs, fierce improv, spectacular percussion, passionate performance – it’ll keep you alert for 75 minutes.

06_buckalooseCloser to home the combo co-led by Montreal B3 ace Vanessa Rodrigues and Toronto tenor Chris Gale has a new name and a new record. Meet Buckaloose - The 270 Sessions (Le Lab Records LLCD-002 www.tinyurl.com/buckaloose) It’s not quite Joey D powerhouse but it compensates with subtlety aplenty from keys and horn plus smart, confident guitar courtesy of Mike Rud. The music’s warmly soulful, drummer Davide DiRenzo propulsive on drums on seven tracks contributed by band members, but amounting to less than 50 minutes’ pleasure. Energy levels are high, Rodrigues is more than clever, the versatile Gale varies his aggression with hefty baritone sax, there’s drama in every phrase.

Solo performances are the true test of a musician’s mettle. If he or she can keep listeners’ interest throughout an exploration of an instrument’s limits, these skills can be utilized in any situation. Unaccompanied string recitals are as ancient as music itself, but only in the later part of the 20th Century did it become common for other instrumentalists to express their ideas singularly. Improvised music accelerated this process with significant solo saxophone recitals by the likes of Evan Parker and Anthony Braxton. Today seemingly every saxophonist records in a solitary fashion at least once. With these discs we note some of the better recent performances.

01_JD_ParranVeteran J D Parran has mastered most members of the woodwind family since the 1970s. On Window Spirits (Mutable 17539-2 www.mutablemusic.com), the American improviser plays unaccompanied alto flute, wooden flute, alto clarinet, clarinet and bass saxophone impeccably, with the last two particular standouts. Spearmanon and C80, for example, both enlarge the bass beast’s customary timbres upwards and downwards so that it sounds comfortable and cleanly melodic, expressing altissimo reed cries as earth-shaking blasts. On the former, constant flattement and an intense vibrato together smear tones all over the sound surface with the pulsating lines as balletic as they are elephantine. On the latter, as his clear-toned melodic extensions vibrate and rattle distinctively, Parran uses circular breathing to play entire chromatic runs in subterranean burps. Elsewhere, Emotions, a clarinet showpiece, expresses a gamut of moods with parallel lines vibrating in counterpoint with one another, congruent but varied in pitch, tone or rhythm. Balladic at times, the spherical lines become polyphonic, creating multiple sonic colours which eventually blend with the initial narrative as the exposition loops back to the beginning.

02_Ab_BaarsAnother reedist with extensive experience leading his own trio and as part of the ICP Orchestra is Ab Baars of the Netherlands. Time to Do My Lions (Wig 17 www.stichingwig.com) finds the Amsterdam-based improviser playing clarinet, tenor saxophone and shakuhachi (Oriental bamboo flute). Like Parran, he has a distinctive solo voice on each instrument, yet is easily able to transfer the techniques from one to another. Case in point is Watazumi Doso, named for a legendary shakuhachi player but played on tenor saxophone. Not only does he invest the sax with non-Western rhythmic pitch and a narrow nasal sound, but his abrasive split tones sound like what would be produced by a blend of Energy Music and Gagaku court music. At the same time Baars is versatile enough to invest The Rhythm is in the Sound, with a collection of abrasive multiphonics, dissonant plus inchoate squeaks, peeps and cries that are atonality incarnate. His clarinet lines are equally descriptive. Crisp reed bites and quivering, liquid runs blend on the title tune in such an unaffected manner that the piece advances linearly, despite the quivering altissimo screams punctuating the final section. A similar strategy appears on Rittratto dal mare a Anzio, where the finale of languid and breathy tones logically follows from the reed partials exposed as fortissimo squeaks and extended, quivering glissandi. Elsewhere shakuhachi lines are appropriately delicate and legato.

03_Jason_RobinsonSan Diego’s Jason Robinson introduces different textures to his timbral examination of alto and tenor saxophones plus alto flute on Cerberus Rising (Accretions ALP51 www.accretions.com). The 16 solo improvisations are frequently modified with effects and samples from musical software. Staying spontaneous, there are no edits or overdubs as Robinson alters his reed lines in real time. For instance the title track is quickly mutated from what could be the demarcated expression of a lone tenor saxophone to a variant of a saxophone choir, with the other overdubbed horns vibrating echo-chamber-like effects over which the first saxophone improvises. The reverberating reeds blurrily expose thematic variants sped up to cartoon music velocity, until legato sax timbres reappear and complete the narrative. Alternately, as on Serpentine Gaze, the saxophone’s wide vibrato is processed to such an extent that the higher-pitched results sound as if Ebb Tide is being played on a wind synthesizer. A genuine watery overlay is present on Rising Tide for Humanity as field recordings of thunderstorms and lapping waves share space with computer-processed buzzes, and then give way to staccato saxophone tones that reverberate on top of fan-belt-like clangs from the software. Syrynx at the Edge of Nightfall on the other hand frames a lyrical flute line with whistling, echoing and wobbly wave forms. These computer pulsations stretch time by not only bubbling underneath, but also by commenting discordantly on the initial exposition.

04_Linsey_WellmanThe preceding elaborate reed reconfigurations make Ottawa-based alto saxophonist Linsey Wellman’s Ephemera (www.linseywellman.com) seem almost quaint in its adherence to the initial unaccompanied saxophone strategies of the likes of Braxton and Parker. Unadorned except for his saxophone, Wellman uses repeated and carefully divided lines to vibrate split tones which are somehow both polyphonic and tonic. Using circular breathing he produces equivalent note clusters and glissandi that unroll as if his saxophone is a perpetual motion machine yet subtly vary in pitch, shading and emphasis. Systematically playing at a level of unabashed intensity, thematic variations aren’t neglected no matter how rough and staccato his performance. Moreover melodic inferences are never far from the surface, as on Track 9, where slurred textures and reed pressure quirkily hint at an atonal variant of Harlem Nocturne. As spectacularly, fortissimo and staccato cries, reed percussion and shaded multiphonics on Track 3, seem to be produced by sheer mouth, lip and breath control. Wellman’s unvarnished, understated, perhaps by definition, Canadian, extended techniques suggest that his saxophone skills could eventually reach Baars or Parran level. His CD certainly confirms that plenty of sounds remain to be exposed in solo saxophone sets.

01_sophisticated_ladiesSophisticated Ladies

Charlie Haden Quartet West

EmArcy 2750816 (www.emarcy.com)

Grammy Award-winning bassist Charlie Haden and his singer/wife Ruth Cameron have married two of their loves on “Sophisticated Ladies” - classic songs by American composers and contemporary female jazz singers. These aren't so much the hard-core jazzers of today as they are the beautiful balladeers such as Melody Gardot, Cassandra Wilson and Diana Krall. Neither are these tired standards; Haden and Cameron have chosen some lesser-known but gorgeous songs with lyrics a girl can really wrap her voice around. An interesting addition to the roster is operatic soprano Renée Fleming. Her big, rich voice and ability to deliver a lyric, along with Alan Broadbent's lush yet restrained string arrangement and sax master Ernie Watts' plaintive tenor lines, turn A Love Like This into an ode to the beginning of a love affair that works itself all the way down into your chest cavity and won't get out.

Another standout on the disc is Ill Wind which Norah Jones' warm, throaty delivery imbues with just the right amount of fatalism to let us know things are going to get bad, but nothing we can't handle. Interspersed with the vocal tunes are instrumentals by the flawless Quartet West, Haden's band since 1986. To counterbalance the down-tempos of the ladies, the men give us some boppy stuff like Wahoo where they can stretch out a little but not as far out as they would have in the days when Haden played with Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane. The disc as a whole has an appealing 60s noir feel just right for a cool yet contemplative evening or as backdrop to a “Mad Men” style cocktail party with hipster friends.

01_fo_moOutstanding saxophonist and composer Quinsin Nachoff spends more time in New York than in his native Canada, releasing cutting-edge albums underlining the key niche he now occupies in contemporary jazz. His latest Quinsin Nachoff FoMo (Musictron, www.quinsin.com), with FoMo standing for ‘forward motion’, is just that, delivering almost 80 minutes comprising eight of his compositions that are splendid examples of imagination, wit and daring yet show keen understanding of jazz traditions. Big Apple trumpeter Russ Johnson is the bright foil to Nachoff’s tenor, while fellow Canucks (sinewy keysman Adrean Farrugia on Fender Rhodes and drummer Mark Kelso) alternately massage and bruise rhythms. The sound echoes provocative Ornette Coleman foursomes but with marginally softer surfaces and an inclination to sneak in pop-rock tags – and it thrills - the Rhodes surprisingly effective. On Devil’s Advocate the leader energetically tests new ideas alongside vigorous trumpet, Odyssic says soaring space flight over undulating beat, while the title track surges, its snaky lines urgently counterpointed. Mellow creations such as Three Trees and the surreal Astral Echo Poem allow dramatic contrast before the folksy rumble of African Skies concludes a session superbly shaping new musical scenery.

02_jazz_labThe diverse talents of elite Montreal jazzers is on show on Jazzlab - Octo Portraits (Effendi FND107 www.effendirecords.com), the octet’s fourth such outing featuring strong charts and stirring soloing. Power saxist Frank Lozano seems to lead with his assertive, technically accomplished work, but everyone deserves mention, each contributing a tune and solos – take bow. Saxmen Remi Bolduc and Alexandre Côté, trumpeter Aron Doyle, trombonist Richard Gagnon, pianist John Roney, bass Alain Bédard and drummer Isaiah Ceccarelli. Tracing The Chain is Lozano’s chance to wave the avant-garde flag before it retires to medium-pace thrust moderated by Doyle’s sunny tones, Bolduc’s Mrs BB has an intriguing narrative, Côté’s Phil’s Spirit is a bravura blast with sturdy trombone and tough tenor and the intense Roney revels in outside play on Trois Recits de Voyage.

03_playgroundDrummer Mark McLean could call Toronto home but seems permanently on tour performing with a multitude of music’s elites. His self-produced indie CD Mark McLean - Playground (www.markmclean.com) pictures an über-assured, relaxed jazzer who’s unquestionably the boss of a Hogtown band featuring guitarist-for-all-tastes Kevin Breit while also drawing on the considerable abilities of busy saxman Kelly Jefferson, bassists Marc Rogers or Pat Kilbride plus pianists Robi Botos or David Braid. Always controlled, all the way from cerebral to fierce, McLean makes jazz extremely appealing, his nine (of 10) compositions catchy and very much of our time, some obviously referencing his appearances with singers. Breit is a versatile force throughout, always in the middle of ominous rocking grooves and ruminative forays as McLean conjures rhythmic intricacies for every occasion with authority and flawless time feel. Lots to like here.

04_alex_deanToronto veteran Alex Dean has a deserved reputation as an exciting player on tenor who was most familiar romping through the changes with blistering phrasing, heated blasts and pinpoint timing. It’s been a very long time since he’s recorded as leader, and Alex Dean Quintet - At This Point (Cornerstone CD 134 www.cornerstonerecordsinc.com) comes up somewhat short on the fiery front. I miss his glorious over-the-top solos. Dean penned the attractive septet of tunes here, which benefit on three of them from immaculate, elegant work by guitarist Lorne Lofsky. There’s also predictably solid support from pianist Brian Dickinson, bass Kieran Overs and drummer Ted Warren. Mostly you hear warm, reflective tenor, the hard edges whittled away, the playing crafty as a fountain of ideas is explored – on the title track he bustles from mellow to meaty after offering charged-up swing, then shows more of his old self on Mr.B.C. and too-short vintage mayhem with Warren on Pat and Pat.

05_mr_marbleszMr. Marblesz is a quintet led by guitarist Tom Juhas with his brother Sly drumming, smart organist Daffyd Hughes, saxist Chris Gale and bass Tyler Emond. The self-titled debut release Mr. Marblesz (www.mrmarblesz.ca) shows jazz approaching à la burlesque, busy but uneven, rhythmically heady, with mercurial runs, unanticipated hairpin turns, a healthy appetite for innovation with unusual, inviting textures, yucky vocal background and an overall sound both retro and fresh. In other words, a bit odd – but not uninteresting.

06_spirit_dancePianist-composer David Braid is a huge talent, his resourcefulness front and centre on David Braid, Canadian Brass - Spirit Dance (Opening Day ODR 7383 www.davidbraid.com). Eight of his originals plus a clever theme-and-variations manufactured from the standard Yesterdays make enjoyable crossover fodder for the Brass, who’ve been around since 1970 and are six-strong here. The music embraces far places and many moods, from the serene Interior Castles to the seemingly simple, delightful Temple Heaven Walk to the contrapuntal trumpet-fortified Prelude for Two Voices to the spiritual, two-part Resolute Bay. Great stuff.

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