01 Diana PantonA Cheerful Little Earful
Diana Panton; Reg Schwager; Don Thompson
Independent (dianapanton.com)

In 2015, vocalist Diana Panton released I Believe in Little Things, with Don Thompson, Reg Schwager and Coenraad Bloemendal. The album has a lot going for it: intelligent arrangements, strong performances, and classic songs from sources such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Pinocchio and The Muppet Movie. While Panton had released a number of records previously, I Believe in Little Things was her first children’s album.

Panton’s project continues with A Cheerful Little Earful, a new album of jazz for kids, which was released in October 2019. Schwager and Thompson are back, as are succinct arrangements of songs from television, film and music theatre. Panton has a gift for singing with simple phrasing and with an unaffected delivery that places emphasis on the melody at hand; this stripped-down style works perfectly in the small-ensemble setting with Schwager and Thompson, and also focuses the listener’s attention on the songs’ lyrics.

Like I Believe In Little Things, A Cheerful Little Earful is being marketed as a “jazz album for kids.” It might, however, be more accurate to say that it is an album for adults looking back with fondness at the music of their own youth (and their parents’ youth, for that matter; Happy Talk, the album’s first track, is from South Pacific). But whether Panton’s listeners are swept up in a rush of nostalgia or experiencing these songs for the first time, it’s safe to say that they’ll enjoy this well-crafted record.

Listen to 'A Cheerful Little Earful' Now in the Listening Room

02 Nick Fraser ZoningZoning
Nick Fraser; Kris Davis; Tony Malaby; Ingrid Laubrock; Lina Allemano
Astral Spirits (astralspiritsrecords.com)

At times, Nick Fraser has been Toronto’s busiest jazz drummer, but he’s increasingly involved in developing his own music and some key international partnerships. Among his projects is this trio with New York-based saxophonist Tony Malaby and pianist Kris Davis. For the trio’s second outing (Too Many Continents appeared in 2015), they’ve enlisted guests: New York saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and Toronto trumpeter Lina Allemano appear on the three Fraser compositions included here.

It’s a hard-edged band with a disciplined intensity that shows in each taut track, with or without guests, a give and take between form and freedom that often moves toward form. The incendiary opening dialogue between Malaby and Laubrock (he has the warmer jazz tone; she’s responsible for the weirder hollow harmonics and deliberate bleats) is eventually drawn into form. Throughout the program, tight-knit figures are frequently employed to develop structural tensions that will ultimately explode before reassembling themselves.

Fraser’s Sketch 46, a dance between restraint and expression, begins with the most incidental wisps of sound: the lightest piano flurries, a muffled cymbal, air through a trumpet, saxophone plosives. These events, increasingly pointillistic, gradually increase in length and intensity, volume remaining low, relations among parts sketchy. Eventually the band activity expands to an increasingly dense collective. Drawn into Fraser’s fierce knitting drum figures, the horns emerge for brief solo episodes, until a long-toned melody, almost choral, emerges.

It’s just one crucial piece in this demanding set of brilliantly realized works.

03 Mark KelsoThe Chronicles of Fezziwig
Mark Kelso Jazz Project
Maisamark Music MKJE003 (groovydrums.com)

Could this musical yarn of Fezziwig, whose chronicles the Mark Kelso Jazz Project so expertly spin, hark back to a character from the novel A Christmas Carol created by Charles Dickens? If the time and circumstance of Dickens’ story and our time were to inhabit similar capsules, then the jovial, foppish man with a large Welsh wig might just as well be evoked by this breathtakingly effervescent music for our rather dark times, to sweep away the turmoil of our century into a Green Revolution, just as the character in Dickens’ story did at the cusp of the Industrial Revolution.

Opening the fold-over package to get to The Chronicles of Fezziwig we read the words: “Inspire creativity.” This is the kind of spark that Kelso’s drumming inevitably provides whenever he becomes the rhythmic and catalytic pivot in any ensemble. Here too, the electrifying drummer plays that role in this sextet. In Fezziwig’s character, Kelso’s songs can be quirky (Elliptical), elegiac (A Message from Idris), mesmerizing (Pinwheel) and more. Each song evolves into a gripping narrative evoked by a riveting melody laced with glorious harmony. The rippling jazz grooves that ensue gently build into boppish saxophone and piano runs, launched, of course, by Kelso’s broodingly percussive funky and tumbling rhythms.

The ensemble includes heavyweight musicians: saxophonist Pat LaBarbera, guitarist Ted Quinlan, pianists Gordon Sheard and Brian Dickinson, and bassist Mike Downes, all of whom interpret Kelso’s vivid works idiomatically.

04 Surefire SweatSurefire Sweat
Surefire Sweat
Independent (surefiresweat.com)

This debut album is a breath of funky, fresh air by JUNO-nominated musician Larry Graves’ project, Surefire Sweat. All eight tracks on the record are originals written by Graves and are “an emotive journey, offering real-time reflections… on the human condition.” The mostly instrumental nature of the album truly allows the rhythmic complexity of each piece to be brought to the forefront, which the first-time bandleader himself has mentioned is an incredibly important factor throughout. Featured is a lineup of talented musicians such as Elena Kapeleris on tenor sax and vocals, Paul Metcalfe on baritone sax and Paul MacDougall on guitar and vocals.

Threshold is a fiery, rhythmically hot start to the record and manages to pull the listener right into the catchy groove. Throughout the album, it is easy to hear the fusion of funk, jazz and world music not only through the instrumental riffs, but even through the rhythms themselves. The distinct flavour of percussion and drums tells an extremely expressive story all on its own. Sunshine Interference has an especially addicting bass groove that just gets your head bopping along and Number Nine takes the listener on a journey through completely dance-worthy rhythms inspired by Nigerian drummer Tony Allen. Ending the record is Scoffle Strut, a sultry, positively scintillating tune. For those looking for a pick-me-up for the longer fall and winter days ahead, this album is a perfect candidate to get you out of your daily rut.

Listen to 'Surefire Sweat' Now in the Listening Room

05 Trevor GiancolaSonnet 18
Trevor Giancola
TQM Recording TQM-1315 (tqmrecordingco.com)

Guitarist Trevor Giancola’s sophomore album, Sonnet 18, is one of the season’s most anticipated modern straight-ahead jazz releases. A follow-up to 2016’s Fundamental, which saw Giancola in trio format with bassist Neil Swainson and drummer Adam Arruda, Sonnet 18 is one of the first offerings of the new TQM Recording Company, helmed by Ron Skinner. Recorded live-off-the-floor at Toronto’s Union Sound in February 2019, this new album is notable for its rich, warm sound, for Giancola’s intelligent compositions, and for its personnel list: joining Giancola are Arruda, bassist Rick Rosato and saxophonist Seamus Blake. (For those unfamiliar: though Arruda, Rosato and Blake are Canadian, all three are based in the US, and are well-established names on the international scene.)

Sonnet 18 has many highlights, including Retrospect, a bouncy, medium swinger that features a stop-time melody played tightly by Giancola and Blake. It’s All Good, Man, a trio track, is a beautiful, reflective journey, with relatively simple melodies sitting atop lush harmony. A + B sees Arruda in fine form, crisply tracing the contours of the 5/4 song’s structure; Stream, the album’s final track, patiently builds in intensity to one of Blake’s most exciting solos. Throughout Sonnet 18, Giancola is the tie that binds the music together, playing with clarity, intelligence and enviable tone, from the album’s most sensitive moments to its most aggressive. A commendable second album, and a strong beginning for TQM.

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