13 Sound of the Mountainamplified clarinet & trumpet, guitars, nimb
Sound of the Mountain with Tetuzi Akiyama and Toshimaru Nakamura
Mystery & Wonder MW008 (mwrecs.com)

Sound of the Mountain is the duo of clarinetist Elizabeth Millar and trumpeter Craig Pedersen, significant younger figures in the Montreal musique actuelle community. Their work includes orchestral roles, free jazz and free improvisation. This CD, titled by its instrumentation, comes from a 2017 Tokyo encounter with guitarist Tetuzi Akiyama and Toshimaru Nakamura, who plays “nimb” or no-input mixing board, plugging its output into its input and creating an array of controlled feedback sounds.

There are two improvisations here, identified by the numbers 1 (clocking in at 18:39) and 2 (16:51) and that instrument list. The music proceeds with its own developing form, a collection of shifting sounds, sometimes spacious, like an isolated guitar passage, some gently picked reflective notes, some longitudinally scraped strings, these matched with a few electronic burbles. At other times there’s a crumbling wall of sound: diverse feedback, a delicate clicking of clarinet keys, some lip-smacking kissing sounds from the trumpet.

Such literal description gives nothing of the actual experience of the music, which possesses an inner logic, sometimes jangling, sometimes a reverie in an industrial park. It’s a communion of sounds, linked in an experiential continuum rather than through fixed harmonies and rhythms. Ten minutes into 2, there’s a passage that sounds like a very wise child is gently plucking at a guitar for the first time, a trumpet plays muffled lines and there’s a hive of electronic sound. It’s a moment of perfect multi-dimensional calm.

14 PCPTriointernal/external/focused/broad
PCP Trio
Mystery & Wonder MW 004 (mwrecs.com)

Specializing in the outer limits of tones and timbres, Montreal’s PCP Trio works through one short and one extended improvisation on this brief – less than 25 minutes – CD, where the distinctions among pure sounds are exalted without a need for melody, harmony or rhythm. Writ large on Extended Listening Blues, the parameters set up include laconic watery burbles from Craig Pedersen’s amplified trumpet, off-handed slaps from drummer Eric Craven and a cornucopia of licks from guitarist Alex Pelchat that sputter, twang and clang among high-volume distortions.

Except for the occasional percussion thump or cymbal crash, the guitarist and trumpeter dominate the action with broken octave lines and dual counterpoint that initially evolves in a parallel fashion without intersection. By the mid-point however, the trumpeter’s dissected whistles and hums and the guitarist’s harsh string rubbing and metallic clangs reach a droning concordance, culminating in a finale of vibrating strings and measured brass breaths.

Not easy listening in any way, internal/external/focused/broad shouldn’t be frightening either. In their own ways free music and heavy metal practitioners have set up challenges to familiar and comfortable music. Stripping sounds to primeval levels is what the PCP Trio also does here, and the adventurous should want to check it to see how these experiments are proceeding.

15 Coltrane Blue WorldBlue World
John Coltrane
Impulse B0030157-02 (vervelabelgroup.com)

John Coltrane is among jazz history’s most influential musicians, and any unheard work demands attention, witness last year’s reception for Both Directions at Once, a lost session from 1963. Blue World isn’t quite so startling: it’s a June 1964 soundtrack session for Montreal filmmaker Gilles Groulx’s Le chat dans le sac, a film that’s been available online. However, the one complete take and three fragments on the soundtrack total less than 11 minutes, so there’s plenty of unheard material on this 37-minute CD of the studio session.

Groulx’s request list favoured Coltrane’s work from 1957 to 1960: all but one composition originated then, most prior to Coltrane assembling the “classic quartet” heard here, with pianist McCoy Tyner, drummer Elvin Jones and bassist Jimmy Garrison. It’s an opportunity to hear some of Coltrane’s earlier material performed by his most celebrated band, at its peak, in Rudy Van Gelder’s legendary studio.

What’s here may be relatively brief, but it’s very special: there are two takes of Coltrane’s luminous Naima. A couple of tracks run past six minutes, but they’re half the length of earlier versions. The title work, a blues recast from Coltrane’s 1962 arrangement of Harold Arlen’s Out of this World, has comparable power with added tension from Coltrane’s evolving tone and focus. There’s also a driving version of Traneing In, a piece dating from his earlier harmonic investigations. Often a relentless explorer, Coltrane was also a masterful editor: here he’s emphasizing that side of his extraordinary craft.

16 Holober Hiding Out CoverHiding Out
Mike Holober’s Gotham Jazz Orchestra
Zoho Music ZM 201906 (zohomusic.com)

With the release of his new double-CD project, well-respected and in-demand New York City-based jazz pianist, composer and band leader, Mike Holober has done the near impossible – assembled an A-list group (The Gotham City Orchestra) to perform 11 fresh, original, large ensemble jazz compositions in a way that displays each musician’s gifts within the framework of ego-less, challenging arrangements. Holober is at a point in his musical maturity and creativity that this contemporary take on the traditional big band jazz format is all about the music itself.

Esteemed members of the GTO include many of Holober’s longtime collaborators, all of whom have paid their metaphorical New York dues many times over… such as reed players Billy Drewes, Jon Gordon, Dave Pietro, Steve Kenyon and Adam Kolker; trumpeters Tony Kadleck and Marvin Stamm and guitarist Jay Azzolina. The two-CD collection (arranged in two Suites, entitled Flow and Hiding Out) is comprised of Holober’s original compositions as well as a compelling rendition of Jobim’s Caminhos Cruzados.

The first suite kicks off with Jumble, featuring some face-melting solo work from guitarist Jesse Lewis, and then segues into the ambitious four-movement work, Flow, which includes the evocative Tear of the Clouds, Opalescence, Interlude and the high-energy, bop-infused Harlem, featuring the always swinging Drewes on alto.

The second disc contains the five-movement, Hiding Out, beginning with Prelude, featuring a woodwind intro followed by the thrilling entrance of brass, followed by Compelled, Four Haiku and Interlude… ending with the skillfully crafted, dynamic, full-band opus It Was Just the Wind. This brilliant project closes with an inspired take on Jobim’s classic, which was made even more stunning by the work of iconic trumpeter/flugelhornist, Stamm.

Listen to 'Hiding Out' Now in the Listening Room

17 Elliott SharpPlastový Hrad
Elliott Sharp
Infrequent Seams IS 20 (infrequntseams.com)

Aural essays in bass clarinet adaptation Plastový Hrad’s three tracks composed by American Elliott Sharp challenge the player(s) in varied fashions. Commissioned by the Brno Contemporary Orchestra to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Czech Republic, the opaque moody title track has Lukasz Daniel chiselling a place for the horn’s distinctive harmonies among the polyphonic narrative propelled by the ensemble. Lyrical yet rhythmic, in contrast, Gareth Davis’ bass clarinet on Turning Test is the sole foil to the Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart, whose six singers harmonize and hocket as they move through this contemporary art song. Based on a graphic score, rather than through-composed like the others, Oumuamua features extended and unexpected sonic techniques expressed by Sharp’s own bass clarinet and programmed electronics.

Propelled full force, the episodic structure of Plastový Hrad allows for several dramatic moments as when bass clarinet trills flutter upwards to maintain the narrative among gathering motifs propelled by kettle-drum smashes and flaring horn-section harmonies. Eventually the caustic horizontal theme is maintained with speedy coloratura emphasis from Daniel. On Oumuamua, intonation that can sound like two separate clarinets is broken into shards or reconstructed, then amplified with signal-processed pumps before ending with straight-ahead twisting trills. As for Turing Test, lower case continuum from the clarinetist finally blends with the layered voices for a lyrical finale. Overall both the country and reed exploration are properly honoured musically here.

18 MaskedMasked
Kathryn Ladano
Independent (kathrynladano.com)

I have it on good authority from the most celebrated virtuosos of the bass clarinet that it is a challenging instrument to play and certainly diabolically difficult to master. In ensemble, the ink-dark character of its sound is featured prominently in the wall of lower register instruments, used almost percussively by its virtuosos to often create the effect of deep, staccato repetitions, played beneath the melody to conjure a feeling of slowly fluctuating cycles. Those who approach the instrument are extremely brave. The great bass clarinetist Eric Dolphy certainly was. Together with Gunter Hampel, Don Byron, James Carter and Paul Austerlitz he led a tiny tribe of others that now includes Kathryn Ladano.

Masked is the second solo album for bass clarinet by Ladano. Its title comes from her PhD thesis, The Improvising Musician’s Mask: Using Musical Instruments to Build Self-Confidence and Social Skills in Collective Free Improvisation. Like Austerlitz, an academic and performer whose work probes the relationship between Vodou, improvised music and altered states of being, Ladano also pays close attention to extra-musical aspects of improvisation as she translates elements of her thesis in the music of Masked.

Things socio-psychological, philosophical and spiritual apart, Ladano’s music gives wing to emotion. The plaintive bleats, nasal drones and breath-like human smears combine in yammering snorts, phrases and long, loping lines whose long and winding improvisations don’t always have beginnings and ends but often make you gasp in abject wonderment.

Probably the most misunderstood instrument in popular music, the double bass is hard to hear when any ensemble is playing full throttle. Yet the history of jazz, at least, would be markedly different if not for the rhythmic impetus propelled by sophisticated bassists. Not only that, but starting with iconoclasts like Charles Mingus and Oscar Pettiford in the 1950s, double bassists’ talents directing groups and as composers have kept pace with their burgeoning skill in playing both arco and pizzicato. This situation has only expanded over the years and these CDs offer some fine examples. Bassists may not be the designated leaders of all of them, but each highlights the bull fiddlers’ talents as accompanists, soloists, arrangers and composers.

01 FormanekMichael Formanek, who recently retired from teaching bass and jazz/improvised music at the conservatory level, combines those playing and composing attributes/ And Even Better (Intakt CD 335 intaktrec.ch) demonstrates this with the all-American Very Practical Trio, featuring longtime foil Tim Berne on alto saxophone and younger guitarist Mary Halvorson. Combining lilt and literalness, Formanek’s nine compositions are melodic, but work in enough space for the tang Berne brings with triple tonguing and slides into high-pitched peeps, along with Halvorson’s precise chording, that includes string distortion and Hawaiian-guitar-like shakes. With the exception of brief insertions, the composer’s solo skills stay in the background. Instead he fluidly propels the tunes with rhythmic pumps and stops. Still Here, for instance, finds the saxophonist’s slinky trills and the guitarist’s flowing surf-music-like wriggles adhering to the sparkling narrative advanced by bass string finesse, so that by the end modulating echoes from all are harmonized. The brief Bomb the Cactus and the introductory Suckerpunch may have similar country-folk, finger styling from Halvorson, yet Berne’s response with slurred altissismo variations, plus Formanek’s barely there thumps, convert both sequences into echoing essays in refined counterpoint. The Shifter demonstrates that the bassist can write a fast bebop theme with the instruments in triple counterpoint, as Berne’s stop-time snarls add emotion. Yet the trio’s reading of the concluding Jade Visions is even more telling. Written by Scott LaFaro, who helped liberate bass playing in the early 1960s, Formanek’s earthy polyrhythms pull the theme away from a near-lullaby and serve as a fitting salute to one master bassist from another.

02 Barry GuyThe UK’s Barry Guy has done even more to redefine the role of double bassist/composer/bandleader over the years with his large and small ensembles. As part of a trio on Illuminated Silence (Fundacja Sluchaj FSR01/2019 sluchaj.org), with Japanese pianist Izumi Kimura and American drummer Gerry Hemingway, he contributes three compositions, adds his muscular accents to the free-form improvisations and even recites a relevant verse at the beginning of one selection. Kimura, who sometimes purrs vocally as she plays, generates delicate, winnowing melodies, as her composition The Willow Tree Cannot Be Broken by the Snow demonstrates. But Guy’s spiccato string rappelling and Hemingway’s cymbal shatters add rhythmic heft to that piece. More emblematic of Guy’s skill are his tunes. Blue Horizon moves from an atmospheric introduction with lowing string patterns and keyboard runs to intersection among high-frequency key clinks, drum thumps and sluicing bass motion. Ancients is even better as crescendo build-up during the performance separates an exposition of keyboard sweeping lower-case moroseness with a fluid theme elaboration by Kimura that concludes at a slower pace. Finding It, the Guy composition which concludes this live concert, comes from his comic side, as the bassist’s resonating smacks and pumps are interrupted and amplified by Kimura’s Monkish asides that build up to a cascading climax, downshift to bass string-plucked pulses and finally let the pianist alternate between meandering theme variations and near frenetic key shading. In spite of their experience, both veteran players still give Kimura space to display her technique and voicing which is flawless at any pitch or tempo. That she keeps her cool in such fast company and is confident enough to assay Guy’s compositions and hardcore improvisations make this CD a celebration of her talents as much as the bassist’s.

03 Gabriela FriedliA similar situation exists on Areas (Leo Records CD LR 828 leorecords.com). Although the leader is Swiss pianist Gabriela Friedli, half the compositions are those of her countryman, bassist Daniel Studer; Dieter Ulrich is the drummer. The main contrast in creative architecture between the bassist and pianist is how her reactively straightforward playing is nudged to more expressive freedom by Studer’s constant string pressure. A track like the Studer-composed Largo, which opens the disc, featuring dark contrapuntal bass-string scrubbing and lighter keyboard chording, seamlessly slides into Friedli’s Fil de Ramosa, whose dramatic impetus comes from plucks and stops on the piano’s inner strings in such a way that both bass and piano share the same pitch and emphasis as the tune evolves. With such compositional accord displayed throughout, elation comes in noting how the trio moulds turbulent dissonance into unexpected narrative sequences while maintaining flowing concordance. Studer’s Mildew Lisa, for example, uses sul tasto string thumps to push the theme forward as the pianist’s high-energy percussive notes, strengthened by Ulrich’s cowbell peals and drum ruffs, climaxes with high-frequency comping that is simultaneously imaginative and straight ahead. More complex, Masse, another Studer theme, introduces spurts of atonality as the bassist’s arco thrusts are echoed by dynamic patterning and asides from the pianist. The theme becomes more splintered as the speed intensifies. Sudden cymbal clatter adds to a finale of gradual tension release. Although there’s only one brief drum solo, Ulrich’s strangled bugle (!) cries on Um Su animate the program in a distinctive manner, as inner string cascades from Friedli and buzzing bass string sweeps, almost shatter the exposition before adroit keyboard flexibility calms the finale. Perfectly capable of composing a prototypical contemporary jazz piece with a walking bass line, a shuffling drum beat and a bouncing and sinewy exposition, as on Miedra, the pianist’s most exciting work, and that of the trio, confirms Friedli’s response to the challenge of Studer’s playing and writing.

04 MilesA younger bassist moving front and centre with his playing and writing is Canadian-in-Berlin Miles Perkin, who, on The Point in Question (Clean Feed CF 529 CD cleanfeedrecords.com), has put together an international quartet to improvise on his compositions. Consisting of British trumpeter Tom Arthurs, French pianist Benoît Delbecq and American drummer Jim Black, inclusive symmetry is maintained by contrasting dappled fluidity from the trumpeter with the chiming bulk of keyboard and drum strategies. As well as slick background prods, Perkin mostly confines himself to relaxed, vibrating scene-setting, as on the title tune. Leaving the best for last, however, the first three minutes of the concluding Blue Cloud are given over to an unaccompanied display of unhurried, often sul tasto double-bass pacing before the piece opens up into a semi-march. Arthurs’ lyricism is then harmonized with rhythmic percussion and piano key clipping before gradually upping the tempo to end with solidly measured arco sweeps. A leisurely pace is maintained throughout but never at the expense of subtle swing. The title tune also serves as a showcase for Arthurs, whose burbling flutters and smears move upwards to brassy shakes and slides. Before the conclusion is realized with additional capillary fillip, more spanked piano tones are added to the sequence. Additionally, when bass and drums lay back on Sea Drop, this ambulatory track is enlivened by a middle section of pointed trumpet smears and snarls, doubled by forceful and frequent bass string pops.

05 TorbjornAnother bassist of similar age and experience as Perkin is Swede Torbjörn Zetterberg. However, Live (Corbett vs. Dempsey CvsD CD 058 corbettvsdempsey.com), is a rawer and more raucous affair than the Canadian’s carefully modulated creations. Recorded live in a Stockholm club, members of his Great Question sextet expand on six of Zetterberg’s compositions. Another EU affair, the band includes Portuguese trumpeter Susana Santos Silva and Italian baritone saxophonist/clarinetist/flutist Alberto Pinton plus Scandinavians, tenor saxophonist/flutist Jonas Kullhammar, trombonist Mats Äleklint and drummer Jon Fält. With an effervescent stylist like Äleklint in the band there are times when it’s best to get out of the way. This is proven on 1+1=1, The Oracle in Finnåker and the extended Song from the End of the World, which also demonstrate the bassist’s compositional versatility. A hard bop stomper driven by the composer’s slap bass runs, the first piece is quickly broken up with slurs and stutters from the other horns as Äleklint moves from plunger growls to gutbucket blats, whinnying cries and staccato smears until Fält’s measured bangs end the program. Midway between jolly oomph-pah-pah and parade-ground music, The Oracle in Finnåker features the trombonist working up and down the scale with tailgate slides plus disruptive assault-rifle-like blasts. Torquing the tension with an extended series of pats and smacks from the drummer, drooling clarinet squeezes and trumpet peeps keep the narrative moving until a final release. Although supple guitar-like fingering characterizes Zetterberg’s work elsewhere, in contrast on Song from the End of the World, his chiming pulse sets up a crepuscule-tinged muted trumpet solo and a series of puffs and whistles from one flutist which confirm the theme’s exotica. Reflecting the introduction, the bassist brings the tune to a close with double-and-triple stops and low-pitch string swabs.

Varied as they may be, each of these discs – and the bassists directing them – show how 21st-century bassists are moving music forward.

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