Holiday-themed CDs usually have as much to do with the sentiments of good will and earthly peace underlying the season as do greeting cards. Yet without – except in one case – mentioning the season, the following improvised music sessions demonstrate the intuitive harmony which the season should reflect.

01_christmasChristmas Concert (Leo Records CD LR 520, notes the occasion of its recording in St. Petersburg – December 15 – rather than Christmas. The Russian trio, trumpeter Vyacheslav Guyvoronsky pianist/percussionist Andrey Kondakov and bassist Vlaminir Volkov mix Nordic sensibility, ferocious technique and intuitive understanding of notated and improvised sounds into a program that’s fierier than a Yuletide log. Unlikely to replace White Christmas as a standard, Christmas Waltz consists of rumbles from inside the piano, scraping bass timbres and showy triplets from Guyvoronsky when he’s not enunciating half-heard phrases. Although there are references to the waltz’s romanticism, any fear that this tone poem will turn to mood music are put to rest as Guyvoronsky whinnies, Volkov slaps his strings and Kondakov fans low-frequency cadences. Mixing balalaika-like plucks, Impressionistic piano expositions plus tremolo lines from the trumpeter throughout, the group’s tour-de-force is the descriptive Arabesque. Dynamic and decorative without being showy, it is built on trumpet grace notes, swelling keyboard arpeggios and the bassist’s feline lope. Rhythmic and kinetic, the piece accelerates to a crescendo of staccato, splayed and fortissimo textures.

02_arms_spreadAnother notable trio performance is that of Canadian pianist Marilyn Lerner with New Yorkers, bassist Ken Filiano and drummer Lou Grassi on Arms Spread Wide (No Business Records NBCD 5 It’s obvious that there would be no Christmas – or Christianity – without Judaism, and the most affecting performance here, Hommage à Coco Shulmann, honours a German-Jewish guitarist and Holocaust survivor. His statement that “once a man learns to swing, he can never march again” not only describes much of the fine music here, but underlies the pacific message of Christmas. Musically, Grassi’s clanking strokes and Filiano’s pumping bass complement the jaunty narrative, during which Lerner moves from andante swaying to high-frequency key tickling with an angled bass line. Mercurial in her playing, exhibiting uneven rhythmic pulses and moving in-and-out of tempo with cascading tone clusters and singular clipped notes, Lerner treats the title tune lyrically and dramatically. Following an initial hunt-and-peck keyboard exploration, she works up to super-fast vibrations and dense, tension-filled runs. With Grassi’s press rolls and tom-tom strokes plus Filiano’s spiccato string-slashing, she eventually downshifts to gentle patterning.

03_istanbulIn the West, December holiday sounds reflect the Christian and Jewish musical traditions, but further east Arabic and Islamic textures are exposed as well. One place that has long been the crossroads for many traditions, musical and otherwise, is Istanbul. Toronto guitarist Eric St-Laurent’s Dimensions d’Istanbul (Katzenmusik KM-01 ( is an unbeatable portrait of the Turkish metropolis. St-Laurent, who frequently plays local clubs, composed and arranged this sonic travelogue aided by two Turkish musicians: percussionist Bikem Küçük and Turgay Hikmet who plays both keyboards and bass clarinet. Utilizing the textural and melodic allusions available, St-Laurent links his rapid guitar licks plus electronic processing to the others’ instrumental prowess which include tones from the clarinet-like mizmar, the dumbek or goblet drum and the 12-string cümbüş which combines banjo, mandolin and bass tones. With clarity and chromatic motions the guitarist makes a place for himself in this multiphonic bazaar. If formal melodies are exposed they’re shaded with synthesizer runs; while hoedown-styled twangs face stop-time, contrapuntal pitch slides from the Turkish instruments. On Yeralti Camii for instance, slinky electronic pulses meet hand drumming, while whistling and fluttering reed trills intercut guitar lines. Spectral and sequenced the CD evokes Istanbul’s shifting individuality.

04_self_madeAlso unique are the sounds literally Self Made by Indian-born, Montreal resident Ganesh Anandan and Wuppertal, Germany’s Hans Reichel (Ambiances Magnétiques AM 192 Playing instruments of their own design – Anandan’s shruti stick or 12-string electric zither, plus marimba-like metallophone; and Reichel’s daxophone or bowed friction source – their dialogue is by turns mechanical, otherworldly, animalistic and satisfying. Vocal as well as visceral, the daxophone produces werewolf yowls and bel-canto vibrations with equal facility. Anandan matches these nasal outpourings with metallophone resonations that could come from tuned church bells or suspended kulingtang gongs. His facility with the shruti means that skittering rebounds are available to bond with Reichel’s dissonant shrieks for distinctive polyphony. Although recorded in March, the concordance Anandan and Reic

01_bill_mcbirneyTwo-by-fours are a bedrock element of Canadian vocabulary and clearly have resonance with the country’s top flutist Bill McBirnie, whose terrific new album surpasses his recent acoustic hits “Nature Boy” and “Paco Paco”. On the indie release Mercy (EF02 the Bill McBirnie Duo/Quartet offers a dozen-track, dazzling display of technique, dynamic range and stunning musicality. In the duo setting it’s pianist Robi Botos, joined in the quartet by rhythm stalwarts with the right stuff, bass Pat Collins and drummer John Sumner, in genre forays - bossa, ballads, bop and more. This is not neo-jazz comfort food but a feast of elegantly executed ideas with a live concert vibe. Highlights abound - the emotion dredged from Willow Weep For Me, the florid flute-piano onslaught on Airegin, the wit on Monk’s rare Stuffy Turkey, and a brilliant reimagining of Moment’s Notice. Add quick-witted interplay, adventurous flow, bluster and sophistication and this disc’s a keeper. Only the elegiac title piece seems misplaced.



02_dave_youngBass guru Dave Young, he of the flying fingers and big thick notes, pushes all the right wake-up buttons on his indie album Mean What You Say (MFA 17267 with his classy quartet forging steely forward momentum for the 11-cut mix of standards, jazz classics and a trio of tunes by the boss. His solos are never just an afterthought – they’re formidable, imaginative yet always to the point with a huge woody sound and impeccable timing. The band emulates him, with pianist Robi Botos, his drummer brother Frank and in-demand trumpeter Kevin Turcotte chomping at the bit. The pianist never misses the chance to roar, notably on Will You Still Be Mine which also features a stunning arco bass contribution. Young’s melodic statement on his Sandhu is grand, his robust strength and loping lines an inspiration especially to Turcotte with his exuberant swoops and sculpted notes. Seven Minds swings powerfully with intense chords and tense vitality that shows the group at its best, all urgent eloquence.

03_barry_rombergRandom Access loves wallowing in collective improv but under the leadership of drummer Barry Romberg and his trademark dexterity, their rambunctious rough-housing is disciplined, often attractive, and very accessible. On Was, Shall, Why, Because (Romhog 118 his cast of thousands - actually 15 of Hogtown’s leading lights - demonstrate ideas with substance, power and frequent fleeting logic that amounts to a stimulating fusion of pioneering jazz forms. Intro is a chase starring Romberg and slick electric bassist Rich Brown, but the following items (Urban Landscape, I Was A Celestial Body) are vehicles for power ensembles and fierce solos from the likes of Kelly Jefferson, Brian O’Kane and Peter Lutek. This huffing and puffing is merely a warm-up for Romberg’s epic seven-movement, 40 minutes-plus Suite For The Wolfman, a totally improvised creation by the Random Access core – violinist Hugh Marsh, saxman Kirk MacDonald, guitarist Geoff Young, trumpeter Kevin Turcotte, Brown and Romberg. It has delicate playing, work that’s sly and sprightly and a consistently invigorating spontaneity.

04_tim_posgateGuitarist Tim Posgate indulges new fancies with Banjo Hockey (Black Hen BHMCD0065, playing banjo and enjoying tuba, for the latter recruiting nimble maestro Howard Johnson. Add the exploratory tastes of trumpeter Lina Allemano and reedman Quinsin Nachoff and the result is a foursome’s worth of bright, light and lively jazz that’s unusual and surprisingly subtle in its working of the leader’s 11 originals. There’s free jazz expressiveness, writing complex but clear, playful genre-bending and spirited soloing that includes Johnson doubling on baritone sax. The funky guitar, clarinet and tuba joust on Moosamin Eh! is splendid, as enticing as the other tunes that underline Posgate’s restlessly ambitious imagination which seeks to marry contemporary immediacy to jazz tradition.

05_yannick_rieuQuebec saxist Yannick Rieu has been a force for decades, and the live Montreal show Spectrum (Justin Time JTR 8546-2 illuminates his sinewy soprano playing and composing skills in a program that draws on rock’s energy, funky fusion and structures so loose you’d think it’s every musician for himself. The package is a CD with eight Rieu tunes and eight musicians plus a five-song DVD taped in Beijing last year with guitarist Jocelyn Yellier, bassist Remi-Jean Leblanc and drummer Philippe Melanson. Odd meters and anthemic passages meld with lightweight atmospheric accompaniment. Cutting edge it’s not, despite effortless cunning interplay, but the writing is boldly original with classical accents and spacey, wintry stylings. The DVD has bigger impact – and the audience is much more enthusiastic.


06_terry_clarkeVeteran drummer Terry Clarke has been recorded on more than 400 albums but his first as leader has just arrived. The title, It’s About Time ( BMG 7028, has a few droll meanings but you have to wonder why it’s taken almost 10 years for these excellent 78 minutes of throbbing music to emerge from the vaults. Four of the seven long, live tracks are from the Montreal Jazz Festival, three from the Ontario Science Centre. The Montreal tunes, which include bristling exchanges on Feel Free and a lilting calypso inspired by guitarist Jim Hall, feature Joe Lovano on tenor and later alto Greg Osby on two tracks each. Hogtown tenor duties are handled by Phil Dwyer in bruising mode, especially on Passion Dance and his own Flanders Road. Ever-present is Don Thompson, lively on bass or piano, while Clarke, who ratchets up intensity with quick turns of phrase and impish flights, is at his versatile best throughout as a relaxed, intricate time signature combatant, subtle accompanist and inquisitive, invigorating soloist.



Diana Panton Trio + 1

Independent DP009CD1 (

On “Pink” Diana Panton is staying the course she plotted with her first two well-received albums. She’s working once again with a small group – although when one of the band members is genius multi-instrumentalist Don Thompson you get a lot of bang for your musician buck. Reg Schwager is also back, accompanying with his customary artful and sensitive playing. A new addition, and a completely fitting one given Panton’s languid style, is trumpet and flugelhorn player, Guido Basso. His fills and solos add rich warmth to the mix, like honey drizzled over an English muffin, filling in all the nooks and crannies.

Panton has carefully chosen a collection of well-crafted songs that she can mine for lyrical gold. She is foremost a story teller - not a flashy or emotionally overwrought singer - Panton simply and deftly presents the songs so the listener can take them in without being distracted by vocal pyrotechnics. With her soft, sweet voice and sincere delivery you can really believe it when she sings “This is my first affair” on Please Be Kind and on Wouldn’t It Be Loverly when she pines for “a room somewhere, far away from the cold night air” you just want to run right out and find her one!

If you’re a fan of Panton’s, or if you’re looking for an album of thoughtful, accessible songs, beautifully sung and played, “Pink” would be a wonderful addition to your collection.


02_blipsBlips and Ifs

Gino Robair; Birgit Ulher

Ratascan Records BRD 062 (

Percussion doesn’t have to involve bombast, beats or even a full drum set. That’s the idea of Californian Gino Robair who played with Toronto improvisers at Somewhere There the last week of November.

Robair, a Free Music veteran who uses drums as resonators for bowed, scraped and rubbed objects and amplifies his instrument using circuit-bending electronics, demonstrates the resulting sonic freedom on the onomatopoeically titled “Blips and Ifs”. Partnered by German trumpeter Birgit Ulher, whose understated brass timbres are processed through radio speakers, the two express the cited sounds and many others in seven improvisations.

The resulting duo recital is equal parts pressured air, droning pulses, unexpected pauses and circuitous wave forms. Throughout the two expose unique timbres which see-saw during contrapuntal improvisations. Ulher combines mouthpiece kisses, static air wafting and, tongue thumps with suggestions that she’s masticating each tone individually. Robair’s contribution includes blurry machine oscillations, intermittent rumbles, slide whistle-like peeps and percussive timbres that could arise from dominos clacking against one another, sticky door hinges yawning, or unyielding metal being rubbed by blunt objects.

Circular and contrapuntal, the CD reaches its climax with the lengthy Rings Another Rust. Mesmerizing, the Ulher-Robair face-off depends on the ramping tension engendered accelerating in short bursts and then subsiding. Since almost no instrumental timbre is instantly identifiable by its expected properties, the pleasure of this exercise in abstract improvisation lies in itemizing how frequently and how surprisingly new and unexpected connective textures are exposed.

Ken Waxman

01_ori_daganS'cat got my tongue

Ori Dagan

Scatcat Records ODCD01 (

Toronto-based singer, Ori Dagan has released his debut CD, “Scat Got My Tongue, and he is one of the few new singers I’ve heard lately who has a true grasp of what it is to be a jazz singer. Dagan hasn’t simply chosen a bunch of standards, hired some jazz musicians for back up and called it a jazz album. He has immersed himself in the genre, learned his craft and re-imagined these songs in his own way. Not that this is a serious, studious album - far from it. There’s lots of playful interaction, especially with the cream-of-the-crop female singers he’s enlisted for duets. Heather Bambrick gets all Louis Armstrong on Swing’s the Thing, Julie Michels is at her earthy best on Old Mother Hubbard and he and Sophia Perlman have great fun trading wicked fast scat solos in S’Qua Badu Bop, an original composition. Dagan can also croon out a beautiful ballad as in Dinde, a gorgeous, but lesser-known Jobim tune and ‘Round Midnight, with Bernie Senensky’s masterful accompaniment on piano. Dagan’s penchant for scooping can at times veer a little too far into Las Vegas lounge singer territory for my liking, but when he takes a controlled approach and cleanly attacks the notes as he does on Here’s That Rainy Day, his abundant talent shines through.

01 ernesto_cerviniLittle Black Bird

Ernesto Cervini Quartet

Orange Grove Records OG-1104


Another step forward in the career of Ernesto Cervini, “Little Black Bird” again demonstrates the high level of musicality possessed by this excellent drummer who incidentally is also no slouch on piano and clarinet. In other words, a very musical drummer.

The material on the album is original, creative and played with authority by four musicians who prove that the whole can definitely be greater than the sum of the parts. If you are into the more contemporary sounds of jazz, this is right up your alley.

In a nicely varied selection, for me one of the highlights is Nonna Rosa, a haunting ballad played with a sensitivity and restraint that show a high level of maturity. Indeed, Joel Frahm’s playing throughout the album is impeccable, which is not to take away from the telling contribution made by Adrean Farrugia on piano and bassist Jim Majaraj.

The title tune, Little Black Bird takes off into more esoteric territory as do Cerebrau and Seven Claps, while Coconut Bill shows that this group can really swing when it wants to.

Concert Note: The Ernesto Cervini Quartet will be touring to promote the new CD and you can catch them at The Rex on December 5 and 6.

02_manhattan transferThe Chick Corea Songbook

Manhattan Transfer

4Q FQT-CD-1819 (

One of the hallmarks of a great musician is the desire to continually seek out new musical challenges. The temptation to please your fans and record company by sticking to the tried and true is ever present, so The Manhattan Transfer’s willingness to stretch themselves by tackling “The Chick Corea Songbook” is highly laudable. Not only are these songs incredibly difficult to sing, but many are revered by jazz fans, so any reinvention risks being viewed as musical blasphemy. But if any vocal group is up to the challenge it’s the eight-time Grammy award-winning Manhattan Transfer. Arranger Yousuf Gandhi has done marvellous things with these songs; interweaving multiple melodies, drawing on a variety of cultures for fresh sounds and alternating between a small army of musicians and synthesizers on some songs, and just stripped back voice and piano on others. Spain has been broken into two parts and while the Prelude is a bit strained, when it moves into the medium groove of the main song and is given a funky bhangra treatment, it feels completely right. Free Samba is a mini carnival with its clever evocation of a Brazilian rainforest and an electrifying solo by Corea himself, and Another Roadside Attraction is a complex marvel that could be a case study for aspiring vocal arrangers. This isn’t a readily accessible record, but for fans of the Transfer and Corea it is an adventure well worth taking.

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