Bill Gilliam
Melos Production MPBG-004

Bill Gilliam’s experience and his output since the mid-80s has spanned formal composition, jazz and jazz-oriented improvisation as well as electro-acoustic music and music-visual media. His new recording features the kind of music-making that one suspects is closest to his heart: it’s a very personal-sounding collection of solo piano improvisations.

Gilliam has aimed to bring his composer’s sense of form and continuity to the improvisational process so that each of the pieces in the recording has its own distinct character. Nevertheless, separate compositions often seem to flow into and resemble one another, but this only enhances the enjoyment of listening to this album start-to-finish. While, in earlier work, the jazz element in Gilliam’s compositions included a strongly pulse-based rhythmic aspect, this recording tends more toward an elastic, rubato approach that is closer to the post-Romantic European tradition than to jazz. Meanwhile, his harmonies blend 20th century classical and jazz sounds in a convincing, comfortable modal-chromatic style.

The music communicates the integrated joy of moment-to-moment composition and, especially, of piano playing: Gilliam’s love of his instrument both as performer and composer-improviser is this album’s major attraction. Respect and affection for the sound of the piano has also guided the technical side of the project, resulting in a warm, sonically accurate and dynamic recording.

02-Sophisticated-LadiesSophisticated Ladies
Peter Appleyard; Molly Johnson;
Emilie-Claire Barlow; Jill Barber;
Elizabeth Shepherd; Sophie Milman; Jackie Richardson; Diana Panton;
Carol McCartney; Barbra Lica
Linus 270151

The veteran American bass player Charlie Haden released Sophisticated Ladies, a collection of songs covered by contemporary, mostly American, female jazz singers, in early 2011. (See my January 2011 review) Now veteran Canadian vibraphonist Peter Appleyard has released a CD called Sophisticated Ladies that is a collection of songs covered by mostly Toronto-based female jazz singers.

Whether the mimicry was deliberate or not, comparison is difficult to avoid. Both discs feature solid musicianship from the singers (such as Jackie Richardson, Emilie-Claire Barlow and Jill Barber in this case) and players (Appleyard is joined by Reg Schwager, Neil Swainson, Terry Clarke and John Sherwood), but where the Canadian version pales a bit is in the song choices, which are predominantly well-worn standards. The arrangements are all straightforward, jazzy treatments with few musical curveballs, so it all adds up to a pleasant, swingy listen. This would make a fine addition to a CD collection for anyone wanting a sampler of current Canadian jazz singers.

03-BananasCDJane and the Magic Bananas
Sam Shanabi; Alexandre St-Onge;
Michel F. Côté
& Records &17

Exemplars of a distinctive Québécois aesthetic called Musique Actuelle, the oddly named Jane and the Magic Bananas is actually a trio of male performers who during nine bizarrely titled improvisations confirm the links between Heavy Metal and Musique Concrète.

With Michel F. Côté’s drums electronically amplified, plus Alexandre St-Onge extending his resonating double bass lines with self-controlled electronics and electric guitarist Sam Shanabi moving from arena-rock-styled flanged distortion to intricate and off-centre note clusters, the sonic result is as aleatoric as it is atmospheric. A tune like Passing the Gates of Shalmir-Keshtoum for instance, languidly contrasts electrically oscillated bass motion with drum clatters and ruffs; whereas staccato guitar runs plus heavy-gauge bass strings plucked and resonating for maximum physicality, meet nerve beats from the drummer on Gul Shah’s Hunchback Henchmen. Meanwhile among Côté’s seemingly random hits and rumbles on In Which Jack’s Cruise is Ended, Shanabi manages to weave dense chording and filigree licks in such a way as to sound as if several guitarists are present. Most characteristically, each player appears to take off in a different direction on Third Invasion of the Swingingsguord until cross-patterning drums, a slurred bass ostinato and distorted guitar licks combine for a sound eruption that makes Pierre Schaeffer’s pioneering Étude aux chemins de fer sound as hushed and primitive as liturgical plainsong, while avoiding the blank nihilism of Hard Rock. If Jane and the Magic Bananas can be faulted, it’s that the three players don’t extend the humour implicit in their name and song titles to leaven some of the dense chiaroscuro-coloured improvisations here.

01-Reg-SchwagerReg schwager is a consummate guitarist, as skilled an accompanist as he is a soloist and an imaginative improviser at bop tempos and ballads, continuing the special lineage of Toronto guitarists that includes Ed Bickert and Sonny Greenwich. On Duets (Rant 1142 www.rantrecords.com) Schwager plays with four distinguished bassists, each of whom he has worked with extensively: Don Thompson, Neil Swainson, Dave Young and Pat Collins. Each duet has some special quality: there’s the boppish Sir George with Swainson, dedicated to their former employer George Shearing; the cool Niterói Night Sky with Young’s propulsive use of glissandi; and the understated Latin rhythm that floats Collins’ own Judge’s Row. The sense of dialogue is always strong, but Schwager’s exotic The Alchemist’s Dream is a highpoint, a probing, expansive discussion between the guitarist and Don Thompson, frequent duo partners.

02-Chris-TarryElectric bassist Chris Tarry has put together one of the most imaginative releases of the past year, combining the music of his quintet with his short story writing. Rest of the Story (19/8 Records www.christarry.com) looks like a book, but by the fourth story in the collection — The Hole — it gives way to just that and the next 70 pages present a fringe of text around a CD (it was striking enough to win the Recording Packaging of the Year award at the 2012 JUNOs). Tarry’s narrative interests arise in his compositions as well: they’re filled with subtle harmonic ambiguities and rhythmic nuances, with strong melodies and intriguing internal shifts in genre, a ballad assuming a blues hue, a beat becoming explicitly Latinate. The band includes first-rank soloists in guitarist Pete McCann — he brings a shimmering lucidity to You Are the State — and forceful saxophonist Kelly Jefferson.

03-UwattibiThere are strong narrative elements as well in the Maria Farinha Band’s Uwattibi (Farpat 009 www.mariaffarinha.com), though one requires a command of Brazilian Portuguese to pick up the details. The title means “place of the canoe in Tupi-Guarani,” an allusion to a love story about a French colonizer and a native Brazilian woman. Farinha presents her songs with a light touch and they’re filled with neatly turned emotional resonances, whether poignancy or muted joy. The band is co-led by guitarist Roy Patterson, and it’s very good: Andrew Downing plays cello in addition to bass, adding a distinctive texture to Atina Marahao and a darker hue to the buoyant instrumental Sentient Baiao as it soars on Jean Pierre Zanella’s flute.

04-Francois-HouleThe Vancouver-based clarinettist François Houle has assembled a genuinely brilliant band that he calls 5 + 1 for Genera (Songlines SGL 1595-2 www.songlines.com). It’s an international cast with U.S. cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum, Swiss trombonist Samuel Blaser, expatriate Canadians Michael Bates on bass and Harris Eisenstadt on drums, with frequent appearances here by French pianist Benoît Delbecq, a long-time Houle associate (they released the duo CD Because She Hoped on Songlines last year). Houle’s compositions are more than just triggers for improvisation. The beautiful Guanara, anchored to a slow Latin beat, achieves an almost Gil Evans-like sonic richness from a limited palette; Essay #7, all tightly controlled angles, finally surrenders to a burst of liberating collective improvisation; Le Concombre de Chicoutimi II has the suspension and grace of Ravel. It’s a CD filled with clear, thoughtful, expressive work, and the settings — both the compositions and the band — raise Houle’s own improvisations to a new level.

05-Element-Choir-William-ParkerThe Element Choir, founded and led by Christine Duncan, is a large Toronto vocal group that practices “conduction,” collectively interpreting and improvising on hand signals that trigger different activities and sub-groups, control dynamics and synchronize dramatic events. The choir is a cross-section of Toronto’s improvised music community and their latest CD, with William Parker at Christ Church Deer Park (Barnyard BR0326 www.barnyardrecords.com), is a spectacular performance with the choir 70-strong and joined by several musicians: the trio of trumpeter Jim Lewis, bassist Andrew Downing and drummer Jean Martin; Eric Robertson — both a regular collaborator and organist at Christ Church Deer Park — and the New York bassist William Parker. The result — a 44-minute collective improvisation called Ventures in a Cloud Chamber — is remarkable, whether it’s the choir in the foreground with its startling massed pitches, rhythmic chanting, eerie dialogues or banshee wails, or the musicians soloing against the backdrop of all those voices. Hearing about it, it might sound like an experiment; hearing it, it’s a remarkable communal accomplishment.

06-Ranee-LeePaying homage to late great artists is as perilous as it is inviting. Ranee Lee recorded Deep Song: A Tribute to Billie Holiday (Justin Time Just 250-2) in 1989 and it’s just been reissued. Lee is a fine singer with an interpretive depth and melodic subtlety that immediately distinguish her. Those gifts serve her well on such challenging Holiday classics as God Bless the Child and the harrowing Strange Fruit. She can also manage the Holiday playfulness on a light pop tune like Them There Eyes, but she’s less successful in the emotional netherworld of Don’t Explain. The accompaniment, too, is a mixed bag. Pianist Oliver Jones and bassist Milton Hinton play great jazz; saxophonist/flutist Richard Beaudet just sounds “jazzy.” Overall, it’s an affecting invocation of a singular figure, and Lee manages to assert her own vocal personality while creating it. 

One of jazz’s watershed musical creations, John Coltrane’s 1965 performance of Ascension marked his commitment to Free Jazz and has since served as a yardstick against which saxophone-centred large ensemble improvisations are measured. On September 7 at the River Run Centre’s main stage, one of the highpoints of this year’s Guelph Jazz Festival is a reimagining of Coltrane’s masterwork by the Bay area-based ROVA Saxophone Quartet and guests. Not only is the ensemble gutsily tackling the suite, but its arrangement takes Coltrane’s all-acoustic piece for five saxes, two trumpets and rhythm section and reconfigures it so that ROVA’s four saxes plus one trumpeter interact with two drummers, two violins, electric guitar and bass plus electronic processing.

01 ROVACDYou can get an idea of ROVA’s style of sonic daring-do on A Short History (Jazzwerkstatt JW 099 www.jazzwerkstatt.eu). Referencing all sorts of reed writing from R&B vamps to atonal serialism, the 35-year-old quartet made up of soprano and tenor saxophonist Bruce Ackley, alto and sopranino saxophonist Steve Adams, baritone and alto saxophonist Jon Raskin and tenor and sopranino saxophonist Larry Ochs show its versatility throughout. Especially germane and related to Ascension is a section on Part 2 of the Ochs-composed Certain Space sequence when he corkscrews an intense, stop-time solo into a strident collection of irregular polyphony and slap-tongue invention from the other saxes with the authority of Coltrane’s sax choir from 47 years earlier. That’s merely one highlight of this tour-de-force which outline’s the band’s other influences with tracks dedicated to improv pianist Cecil Taylor and notated composers Giacinto Scelsi and Morton Feldman. The Scelsi section dramatically contrasts bagpipe-like slurs from the soloists with impressionistic harmonies from the other reeds modulating through different modes and tones. Although other sequences in the Taylor section expose sinewy tessitura and staccato reed bites in call-and-response fashion, Part 3, for Feldman, is unsurprisingly moderato and leisurely, introduced and completed by air blown through the horns’ body tubes without key movement, yet lyrically balanced throughout as each saxophone’s timbre is clearly heard within the close harmonies.

02 BallroggCDThat same night, Ascension guitarist Nels Cline and others will join members of Norway’s Huntsville trio at St. George’s Church for its unique mixture of improvisation tempered with electronic impulses and influenced by folk and rock music textures. Huntsville’s Ivar Grydeland, who plays electric, acoustic and pedal steel guitars plus banjo and electronics with bassist Tonny Kluften and percussionist Ingar Zach in that band, shows off his zesty mix of spidery licks, resonating twangs and droning pulses with Ballrogg, another Norwegian combo on Cabin Music (Hubro CD 2515 www.hubromusic.com). With that trio filled out by alto saxophonist/clarinettist Klaus Holm, who adds electronics and field recordings to the mix, and bassist Roger Arntzen, the disc is a close cousin to what Huntsville creates, albeit with more overdubbing, and, with Grydeland frailing his banjo as often as he strums his guitar, more country-folksy. Probably the most descriptive track is Sliding Doors which manages to deftly balance clarinet glissandi, ringing banjo flanges and a powerful walking bass line. Before the result takes on too much of a rural interface however, the trio’s juddering interaction is meticulously intercut with previously prepared jagged guitar flanges and sluicing bass lines.

04 ShippCDNegotiating the tightrope between staccato and lyrical in his playing is the forte of pianist Matthew Shipp, whose duo with saxophonist Darius Jones is the other half of the double bill at Cooperators Hall. Elastic Aspects (Thirsty Ear TH 57202.2 www.thirstyear.com), with long-time associates bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Whit Dickey however, shows that Shipp’s improvising can be as mercurial in the standard jazz piano trio setting as well. With each of the 13 aspects of this suite stretching so that they adhere to one another, the effect is wholly organic, not unlike the recording of Ascension. With Dickey’s nuanced patterning and Bisio’s buzzing, often bowed, sometimes walking bass lines beside him, Shipp skilfully moves through the piano language. A track like Explosive Aspects balances on ringing, left-handed syncopation, while the subsequent Raw Materials evolves like a baroque invention with leaping, high-pitched notes carefully shaded as they jostle with pedal-point bass line until the theme finally breaks free into rubato pulsing. There are internal string plucks and harpsichord echoes in Shipp’s playing as well. With tremolo, lyrical and sometimes impressionistic patterning on show, the trio maintains the swinging centre of jazz while subtly or overtly charting new experiments and explorations.

03 BegerHemCDThere are no guitars in sight the next afternoon at a double bill at River Run Centre’s Cooperators Hall, although Miya Masaoka’s multi-string koto may make up for that as she plays with bassist Reggie Workman and percussionist Gerry Hemingway. A long-time festival visitor, Hemingway’s recent CD There’s Nothing Better to Do (OutNow Records ONR 007 www.outnowrecordings.com) with tenor and soprano saxophonist Albert Beger demonstrates the drummer’s skill in the sort of duo format that Coltrane excelled in during his latter career. The near-naked improvising of this first-time meeting between American drummer and Israeli saxophonist demonstrates the universality of expression. Using his hands as often as sticks and brushes, Hemingway is as likely to come up with a tom-tom rhythm, produce a ratcheting scratch on his kit’s sides or tap a small bell as he is to let loose with full-force ruffs and drags. Beger responds to these understated rhythms in kind, with hoarse-throated vibrations, ragged tongue fluttering or surprisingly aligned trills, which are as often chromatic as cascading. Using both his horns throughout, the saxophonist’s moderate tones can be graceful and emotional as Hemingway’s beats gracefully scurry around them. However elsewhere ragged, altissimo reed bites stridently operate in tandem with the drummer’s blunt flams and tough backbeat. With bravura timing the two show how easily they can move from cacophonous vibrations to an arrhythmic but bluesy output on Missing You or on the title track, speedily layering freak reed notes and circular slurs plus clashing cymbals and incisive shuffle beats into a parallel exposition that is as moving as it is staccato.

Overall 2012 promises to be a banner year for the Guelph Jazz Festival (September 5 to 9). And that’s not even mentioning the dusk-to-dawn Nuit Blanche late Saturday encompassing more unexpected sounds. Full details can be found at www.guelphjazzfestival.com.


Gloryland (Tales from the Old South)
Bill King

Versatile veteran pianist/composer Bill King’s latest CD is a deeply personal, musical recollection of his boyhood experiences growing up in the American Deep South and is certainly one of the most interesting projects of the year. Comprised of 12 beautifully recorded original solo piano compositions, all of the material is evocative and dripping with magnolias, sugarcane and southern gothica. King is a thrilling and deeply sensitive pianist, and he freely draws from elements of jazz, blues, boogie-woogie, sacred hymns and ragtime motifs.

Beneath the leafy, bucolic images of the Old South lurks a dark subtext of racism, religious intolerance, poverty, injustice and ignorance. Eviscerated economically by the Civil War and later by the Great Depression, the perplexing dichotomies of the Southland are fully explored and captured in this profound sonic photo album.

Particularly moving are the slow rag-infused The Devil Has 666 Fingers and the heartbreakingly lovely Faces in a Field of Trouble, which is tinged with the influence of King’s former teacher and mentor, Dr. Oscar Peterson. King steams down the Mississippi with The Gambler and The Riverboat and the soulful title track invokes a gentler side of fundamentalist Christianity. Also exquisite are the mournful The Hangman and the eerie One Blue Sheet Hanging in the Wind.

The piano itself is an equal collaborator here, and then as now, it assumes the role of cultural focal point – so important to the dreams and creativity of the small, rural, communities labouring out their lives below the Mason-Dixon Line.

Adding another voice to an established improvising ensemble is more precarious than it seems. With a group having worked out strategies allowing for individual expression within a larger context— and without notated cues— the visitor(s) must be original without unbalancing the interface. Luckily the sessions here demonstrate successful applications.

Invited to Rimouski, Quebec to give a workshop, British saxophonist Evan Parker also participated in Vivaces (Tour de Bras TDB9006 CD www.tourdebras.com), recorded with the 12-piece Grand Groupe Régional d’Improvisation Libéréeor Le GGRIL. Made up of players from different musical backgrounds living in the Lower Saint-Lawrence region, GGRIL is distinctive in that the group includes two electric guitarists, an electric bassist plus two accordionists, but only three horn players. Using these circumstances to best advantage, these tracks, alternately directed by Parker and GGRIL violinist Raphaël Arsensault, employ the accordionists’ tremolo pulsing and sweeping electronic oscillations to thicken the bottom. With upturned slices from the strings and barnyard cries from the squeeze boxes, two clarinets and the tuba, it’s often Parker’s restrained undertone that gives a linear shape to the improvisation. The best example of this is Marcottagethat manages to include contributions from nearly every GGRILer. As Parker pushes forward with staccato split tones he’s backed by sympathetic grace notes from fellow guest, trombonist Scott Thomson, and skittering, slurring accordion lines. Triangle pings signal a timbral shift and presage a ferocious solo from the saxophonist. Band members’ responses range from rebounding percussion ratamacues, crackling electronic runs from the guitars and bass plus one accordionist sounding a faux balladic line as the other pumps powerfully. Finally the mass cacophony downshifts to a satisfying connective rumble.

The London Improvisers Orchestra (LIO) deals with similar situations during a recital on Lio Leo Leon (psi 11.04 www.emanemdisc.com/psi.html) where group improvisations are supplemented by two specific concertos. Conducted by guitarist Dave Tucker, Concerto for Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith & Orchestra features veteran American trumpeter Smith, who has been involved in similar situations since the mid-1960s. The other, Concerto for soft-loud key-box No.2, is conducted by pianist Steve Beresford and designed for pianist Leon Michener, who is comfortable with both improvised and notated music. Mostly concerned with textural melding and displacement, the 38-piece LIO makes maximum use of counterpoint. Some tracks depend on harmonies among stringed instruments; others mate kettle drum smacks with light flute puffs; most climax as passing tones coalesce into linear narratives.

03 royalimprovsorkMore cacophonous then the LIO with a mere 21 members, Amsterdam’s Royal Improvisers Orchestra (RIO) actually find a more cohesive direction on His Composition, the track on Live at the Bimhuis (Riot Impro 01 www.royalimprovisersorchestra.com) featuring veteran Dutch drummer Han Bennink. Encompassing as many of The Netherlands’ top improvisers as the LIO does the United Kingdom’s, the RIO is commandingly inventive throughout. Still, the resulting Klangfarbenmelodie often sounds as if every player wants to be heard – no matter what. Thus an extended throaty tenor saxophone solo evolves beside burping bassoon lines plus low-pitched flute blowing. Electronics crackle in-and-out of the sequences as the RIO’s two guitarists produce distorted licks. The contrast between thematic material and free-form interjections is made sonically murkier when two female vocalists yowl inhumanly or scat-sing rhythmically. Using distinctive brush work which has powered many an ensemble over the past 50 years, Bennink introduces a variation of easy-going swing on his track, while leaving plenty of space for avant touches, including descending slides from the four string players; galloping tremolo from the pianist and some impressive flutter-tonguing from saxophonists John Dikeman and Yedo Gibson. At the same time Bennink’s contributions indicate performance shifts and lead the band to a crescendo that also serves as a satisfying finale.

04 etofujiiThe situation on ETO (Libra Records 215-029 www.librarecords.com) is a little different, since it’s pianist Satoko Fujii and her husband, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura who are the outsiders with her Orchestra New York. Fujii, who also leads Japanese bands, frequently assembles this 15-strong collection of some of Manhattan’s first-call musicians to play her compositions. Here, the pianist has written a suite in honour of Tamura’s 60th birthday, with soloists celebrating 12 animals in the zodiac. Along the line of Duke Ellington’s musical cameos such as Concerto for Cootie, and Self Portrait (of the Bean), her arrangements for these anthropomorphic showcases depend on subtle harmonization of the orchestra’s alternately swinging and sympathetic backing to frame the soloists. Among the stand-outs are Ox, where Joey Sellers’ loose-limbed, mid-range trombone floats on orchestral pulsations; drummer Aaron Alexander’s percussive drum backbeat alongside Oscar Noriega’s liquid alto saxophone licks on Ram; and subsequent trumpet solos from Frank London and Herb Robertson on Monkey and Rooster respectively which in the first instance mate hand-muted plunger work with an infectious staccato theme played by Fujii; and on the other use reed riffs to highlight Robertson’s mixture of half-valve effects and pure blowing. Not to be outdone, on Snake the birthday boy follows a more experimental strategy, with double-tongued growls and subterranean guffaws. But his solo is still aligned with the bouncy contrapuntal melody.

            Tamura’s and Fujii’s subtly connecting additions to an existing band plan demonstrate how novel conceptions can fit in with those from an existing improvising ensemble. Parker, Bennink, Smith and Michener do the same on the other fine CDs. 

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