01a Marianne Trudel 1À Pas de Loup – Quiet sounds for a loud world
Marianne Trudel
Marianne Trudel Productions TRUD 2023-2 (mariannetrudel.com)

Dédé Java Espiritu
Marianne Trudel; John Hollenbeck
Marianne Trudel Productions TRUD 2023-1 (mariannetrudel.com)

Time Poem – La joie de l’éphémère
Marianne Trudel; Remi-Jean Leblanc; John Hollenbeck
Marianne Trudel Productions TRUD 2021-1 (mariannetrudel.com)

Marianne Trudel ascended the pinnacle of music 20 years ago, with formidable technique and breathtaking, innovative expression. Today, still atop that do-not-touch-me pinnacle, there’s an erudite quality to her pianistic approach, the lived-in character of her improvisations and phrase-making that is engaging, the fire and brimstone of youth now complemented by the well-honed values of experience. So, it is only natural to celebrate – yet again – with a set of three recordings: solo, a duo with drummer John Hollenbeck and a trio with Hollenbeck and contrabassist Remi-Jean Leblanc.

Some discerning listeners may be tempted to hint at the fact that Trudel’s later music with small ensembles may be more adventurous given the interaction between musicians that affords improvised conversations and the possibilities of considerable development of ideas. The very act of playing solo on À pas de loup – Quiet sounds for a loud world is a pensive act of musicianship best enjoyed in similar quietude. That way, what is composed and improvised, often on keyboard instruments – including the gently wheezing harmonium – and percussion (instruments, individually played and/or overdubbed) offers a taste of Trudel’s sense of adventure to the solitary recesses of her brave creativity. It is in the very act of being in quiet conversation with herself, inside her own head, buzzing with ideas so to speak, that we find considerably venturesome music. Melodic beauty quickly ascends vertically with masterful harmonic development and passionate embellishments. When Trudel adds percussion – as on Chrysalide, for instance – her supple facility for ideation and articulacy reaches its much-vaunted apogee.

01b Marianne Trudel 2Music embellished by the wondrous percussion colouration of John Hollenbeck is experienced truly memorably on Dédé Java Espiritu. Trudel has said that when she first played with Hollenbeck, she knew from “the first few notes” that they played together that there would be a musical reprise. Now comes this album featuring not simply breathtaking and daring adventure, but all of it featured in beautifully crafted arrangements of beguiling variety and sensuousness. Trudel’s love for – and mastery of – her instrument shines brightly. She and Hollenbeck seductively manipulate melody, harmony and rhythm in phrases that fly off the page on Coquillages. Meanwhile Trudel appears to bend notes while she and Hollenbeck masterfully sculpt the long inventions of Tension and Happiness. Clearly in the spacious arrangements and improvisations there’s not a semiquaver that has not been fastidiously considered.

01c Marianne Trudel 3To complete the trilogy of recordings released to mark two decades in music, Trudel returns to the studio (and the soundstage} with Hollenbeck. This time it’s a trio on Time Poem - Le joie de l’éphémère and the duo is complemented by the elegant rumble of the contrabass played by the masterful Québécois veteran Leblanc. There is unlikely to be a more reliable guarantee of high-quality contemporary trio music than when these names appear on the cover. Trudel’s musicians are fully attuned to the vision and artistry of their fearless leader, whose pianism bristles with meaningful virtuosity. Hollenbeck delivers his melodious rolling thunder of drums and hiss of cymbals while Leblanc beguiles with the spacious growl of his bass. Check out everything here.

You cannot have one of these three recordings without the other two, so, my best advice would be to indulge freely for untold moments of musical pleasure.

02a Margaret Maria Bill GilliamUncountable Spheres
Margaret Maria; Bill Gilliam
Independent (marbyllia-bg.bandcamp.com/album/uncountable-spheres)

Goddess of Edges
Margaret Maria
Independent (margaretmariamusic.com)

New collaborators, cellist Margaret Maria and pianist Bill Gilliam have formed their duo Marbyllia and released the album Uncountable Spheres, a sonic free-exploration between friends. These two well-travelled artists have collided from different worlds: Gilliam, a London-born, multi-award-winning Toronto composer, pianist and poet, is well known for his prepared piano and sonically stretched compositions and collaborations. Cellist Margaret Maria, a U of T graduate who went on to study at the Curtis Institute of Music, is becoming known as an improvisor, composer and producer after shedding her previous life as a classical cellist with the Vancouver Symphony and the National Arts Centre Orchestras, though she has been improvising, teaching and collaborating for many years. Their new experimental piano and cello duo album is described as “a journey from our earth’s core gravitational forces and our troposphere where we live impacted by climate change, and further up into our distressed stratosphere.” The resulting landscape is often spacey, explosive, dark and stormy, but each track reaches through the different levels of the atmosphere and eventually breaches the surface. The two improvisors push the limits of each other: Gilliam’s extensive range of sounds from his piano and Maria’s extended cello technique and unusual sound makers. The track Stratosphere in Distress is a solid representation of this dynamic team.

Listen to 'Uncountable Spheres' Now in the Listening Room

02b Margaret MariaAs a double-release feature, Margaret Maria’s solo album Goddess of Edges is her 15th studio album and highlights her editing craft and production skills, as well as reminding us of her decades of experience as an orchestral cellist. Here Maria shows off her extensive cello chops, as well as her love of rich string compositions with layers of rhythm, harmony and texture. Each track is layer upon layer of cello of every range, resulting in a full symphony of sounds of every description; from the full and rich C-string to the highest false harmonics, powerfully rhythmic chords and squeals and screams. A solid, strong disc chock-full of exciting and layered works, the compositions are driving and emotional pieces; many could be contemporary dance soundtracks. With themes of death, angels and shame, this album is edgier and more expressive than her previous offerings. Driving fragility far away; this is an exposé of Maria’s conflicting representations of who we are on the inside while our exterior belies our vulnerability.

Listen to 'Goddess of Edges' Now in the Listening Room

If you missed the double-release featuring both performers at Annette Studios on December 2, you can find the recorded stream on YouTube. It’s well worth the visit, to hear of Margaret Maria’s compositional process, her release from classical orchestral playing and readings of inspirational poetry.

03 Egoyan PaulyHopeful Monster
Eve Egoyan; Mauricio Pauly
No Hay Discos NHD 004 (nohaydiscos.bandcamp.com)

Some five years in the making, the ten tracks which constitute Hopeful Monster reflect the experimental musical partnership of adventurous Toronto pianist Eve Egoyan and Vancouver-based composer/improvising musician, Mauricio Pauly.

Egoyan performs on acoustic and augmented (in many ways) piano, voice and other acoustic instruments such as the judiciously used kanun and Armenian duduk. The latter adds acoustic and cultural specificity to this often geographically though not aesthetically unmooring album. In most respects, this music lies in the experimental mainstream in the lineage of Tenney, Cage, Varese, et al.

Pauly, also a maker of hybrid electronic instruments, contributed a roomful of electronic gear such as computers, live samplers, live processing, dekeyed Chromaharp, and “drum bundle,” but also the inscrutably named instruments: O-Coast follower, FAWslicer and MtkAsmC25. Don’t let the profusion of odd gear throw you however. Being created through exploratory improvisation based on fearless artistic attitude and close listening by both musicians, this music attains a kind of biological fluidity.

“There’s a dark edge to [Pauly’s] sound-world that’s kind of like stone,” observed Egoyan in an interview, “… a real earthiness to his electronics, something very organic about his sounds. I [too] have a connection to an organic instrument and … to organic samples, but then I can go digital with them and make it very supernatural.”

Hopeful Monster explores a boundaried acoustic ecology through ranks of electronically mediated filters. The resulting collaboration reveals an audacious, supranatural sonic world stranger and at times more wonderous than the one outside this album.

04 Sick BossBusinessless
Sick Boss
Drip Audio DA12188 (sickboss.bandcamp.com)

I’ve made no secret that I’m a huge fan of the Vancouver improv scene, and this album from Sick Boss will become one of my favourites for this year. With leadership and compositions from guitarist Cole Schmidt, this album leaps beyond the band’s first album released in 2017, the self-titled Sick Boss.

Right out of the gate in Businessless, their subsequent release, we are blasted into outer space with a more aggressive direction and further explorations of explosive guitar and effects. What’s not to love here! The second track When the Buzzards Leave the Bone sounds exactly as titled; it’s a fantastical craziness featuring a long exposé of improvisation between the brilliant cellist Peggy Lee and the equally brilliant Jesse Zubot on violin, expressing just how well these two players know each other. The relentlessness of Useless Genius sits heavy on the solid rhythmic creativity of another phenomenal artist, drummer Dan Gaucher, who drives much of the edge of the album, along with Schmidt’s gorgeous wildness on the guitar. Both of the longer tracks on the album, Doctor Dawn and the melodic CJ Blues, express the most cohesive display of how tightly this band channels their collective creative energy. All this craziness is glued together by bass and synth player James Meger and blown apart by the stratospheric melodies of JP Carter’s trumpet. 

A condensed album at under 40 minutes, every track of Businessless is outstanding, but Useless Genius, featuring the holy hell of violin that is Jesse Zubot, is killer. 

05 Don Thompson Rob PiltchBells… Then and Now
Don Thompson; Rob Piltch
Modica Music (modicamusic.bandcamp.com/album/bells-now-and-then)

Having grown up in Toronto and being interested in jazz music from a young age, the opportunities to hear Don Thompson on bass, piano and, less frequently, vibraphone were plentiful indeed. In fact, he was such a near-constant presence on this city’s live music scene that for me, the playing, compositions, and more generally, the sound of Thompson’s various projects and performances were the very essence of Toronto jazz from that time. As such, when I listened to Bells… Now and Then, a re-release of Thompson and guitarist Rob Piltch’s great 1982 recording Bells, bookended here with two terrific and newly recorded additional tracks, I was instantly transported to a familiar and welcome place of musical memory.

Originally released on Umbrella Records, Bells, paired Thompson with then-24-year-old guitarist, Rob Piltch. The result is an intimate duo performance that demonstrates the ways in which Thompson was so good when working with guitarists, while situating Piltch in a long line of accomplished guitar players who worked as creative foils for Thompson (Sonny Greenwich, Ed Bickert, Lenny Breau, John Abercrombie, Jim Hall, Emily Remler, Reg Schwager). Whether it is the Sonny Rollins-esque vibe of Mike Malone’s Caribe, or the immediately recognizable vibe that the initial chord change inculcates at the beginning of Thompson’s truly beautiful composition September, listeners who are old enough to remember Toronto’s aforementioned jazz history will be served a happy auditory reminder of days gone by, while new listeners now have the exciting prospect of wonderful music to explore. Thanks to Roberto Occhipinti and Modica Music for both re-releasing this fine recording, and for adding two new tracks of Thompson and Piltch’s important contributions to the Canadian jazz discography and canon.

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