01 Eye MusicMontreux 1988
Eye Music
Independent (markduggan1.bandcamp.com/album/montreux-1988)

Toronto-based band Eye Music’s superb 2023 debut album is an actual throwback: it was recorded live in 1988 at the Montreux Jazz Festival, Switzerland. To my ears this 35-year-old novel take on folk-inflected jazz still sounds compellingly fresh today. 

Eye Music featured the late, great violinist Oliver Schroer, guitarist Don Ross, percussionist Mark Duggan and bassist David Woodhead, all gifted musicians at the brink of substantial careers. Their inspired music on Montreux 1988 is a snapshot of a made-in-Southern Ontario musical moment.

Booked on the strength of their Portastudio cassette demo, they were reportedly the only Canadian act to play Montreux that year. Impressive enough to land a spot sight-unseen at a major European festival, why haven’t we heard of Eye Music? Part of the answer is that the group was active only between 1987 and 1989.

We finally get a chance to hear what the excitement was about on this album, their Montreux concert artfully distilled into seven tracks digitalized from aging original analogue tapes. 

Five titles were composed by Ross – his use of alternate guitar tunings and unique “fingerstyle” was an essential part of the group’s sound – plus one each by Duggan and Schroer. Each tune has its own character and charm, the album filled with spiky rhythms, lush harmonies and a lighthearted feel, further enlivened by imaginative virtuoso solos. The cherry on top is the sensitive ensemble musicianship of all four members.

More good news: Eye Music is reforming with a new violinist and planning live performances for the 2023 summer festival season.

02 Kirk LightseyKirk Lightsey – Mark Whitfield; Santi Debriano; Victor Lewis
Live at Smalls Jazz Club
Cellar Music CLSMF003 (cellarlive.com)

Legendary pianist, Detroit-native Kirk Lightsey, has been gracing the ears of listeners around the world for nearly 70 years. The same energy that the stellar musician started out with has carried on within this latest release, a special live recording at New York City’s Smalls Jazz Club that highlights the fantastic work of this jazz great. As a little aside, the Smalls LIVE Mastering Series is a great set of recordings, showcasing the best of jazz musicians that are still with us. Joining Lightsey is a stellar backing band featuring renowned musicians such as Mark Whitfield on guitar, Santi Debriano on bass and Victor Lewis on drums. The album is chock-full of great renditions of classic tunes, such as In Your Own Sweet Way by Dave Brubeck and Lament by J.J. Johnson. Scintillating talent is present on this record; it’s an all-encompassing musical journey that draws the listener right in.  

The musicianship and thought put into detail throughout these pieces and renditions is just marvellous. A perfect example of this is Freedom Jazz Dance, featuring rhythmically tight piano riffs, a moving bass line that underpins soaring solos and keeps the energy constantly brewing and an intricate guitar melody that just pulls you in and captivates you with those tiny nuances. In these tunes, magical feeling develops where the music completely envelops you and everything else disappears. For new and seasoned jazz lovers alike, this is one record to check out.

03 Rachel TherrienMi Hogar
Rachel Therrien Latin Jazz Project
Outside In Music OiM2307 (outsideinmusic.com)

Wanting a mini-vacation from these dark and dreary winter days, imagining sunny beaches and a sparkling blue sea? Montreal native, star flugelhornist, trumpeter and bandleader Rachel Therrien’s newest album is for you. Sultry rhythms and mellow melodies instantly transport the listener to a far-away world where the sun shines and the balmy breeze blows. Therrien has gathered top musicians who have been involved with the Latin jazz world over the years, including Michel Medrano Brindis on drums, Miguel de Armas on piano, Roberto Riveron on bass… the list goes on. The record features fresh takes on classic tunes by greats such as Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane and Francisco Tarrega with a few of Therrien’s own compositions thrown into the mix. 

The impressive bandleader has always been inspired by the world of Latin jazz, which led to the eventual recording and release of this album. Therrien describes her travels to Cuba: “The experience changed my life and is probably the reason why I am still a musician today. I always felt good playing Latin-influenced music, it is where I feel I can express myself the most musically.” A couple of pieces that stand out are Moment’s Notice, a rhythmically charged, spicy little ditty that instantly raises the spirits of the listener and Mojo, featuring a fiery piano solo and funky bass line underpinning a soaring horn solo that gets you moving and grooving. A truly worthy addition to any jazz connoisseur’s collection. 

04 Yorgos DimitriadisBeing Five
Relative Pitch RPR  1181 (relativepitchrecords.com)

Collectively creating an essay in forceful improvisation, the Being Five quintet is as international as its five-part program is intense. Percussionist Yorgos Dimitriadis is Greek; bassist Christopher Williams and accordionist Andrea Parkins, American; clarinetist Lori Freedman is Canadian; and trumpeter Axel Dörner, German. Adding understated but effective electronic trappings throughout, the quintet members achieve a notable balance between the spontaneous and the synthesized. Additionally, intervallic pauses distinguish the astute alternations between luminous solos and the shaded, sometimes menacing, group wave-form expositions.

As the session evolves, Dimitriadis stays in the background with an occasional drum slap or cymbal plink, affirming slippery clarinet peeps, or pressurized bass string slices that can be distinguished in the midst of intermittent crackling voltage that is also strengthened by tremolo accordion pulses. Other times, as on Amusik Bis, Freedman’s pedal point clarinet and Dörner’s portamento squeezes outline a variant of tandem lyricism. But it’s the concluding Freeze that most precisely defines the program. With only the occasional clarion reed bite cutting through the machine-generated buzz and hiss at first, continuous voltage drones become louder, more concentrated, strident and synthesized, so that by the penultimate sequenced sound concatenation seems almost impenetrable. That is until chalumeau clarinet purrs and inflating accordion pumps reassert the session’s acoustic side before a collective finale. 

An exemplary interpretation of electro/acoustic improvising, Being Five also demonstrates that musicians’ geographic origins mean little when creating a vivid group project.

05 Phillips KurtagFace à Face
Barre Phillips; György Kurtág Jr.
ECM New Series ECM 2736 (ecmrecords.com)

More of a realized experiment than a full-fledged program, the dozen brief tracks here mark veteran American bassist Barre Phillips’ first accommodation with the electronics produced by Hungarian keyboardist György Kurtág Jr. Using three stand-alone synthesizers and digital percussion, Kurtág burbles, drones and vibrates ever-evolving oscillations with textures ranging from the daunting to the delicate.

All the while the bassist, whose improvisational experience goes back to the early 1960s, crafts parallel constructs that involve every part of his instrument during tracks that are timed from 90 seconds to nearly four and a half minutes. Phillips uses techniques such as col legno string bounces or pressurized sul ponticello bow slices to cut through the often-confined density from the machine-generated programming. Occasionally, as on Sharpen Your Eyes and Ruptured Air, more melodic suggestions are introduced with woody slaps from the bass meeting recorder-like peeps from the synthesizer on the former, and low-pitched string twangs evolving alongside high-pitched synthesized wriggles on the album describing the second title. 

Overall, since Phillips can also finesse textures among other motifs encompassing measured violin-like runs and banjo-like clangs, the expanding programmed pressure never becomes oppressive. Genuinely fascinating, at points the disc also clarifies how acoustic and electronic timbres can unfold face à face with each prominent in its own space.

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