01 Fisher GennaroTactile Stories
Colin Fisher; Mike Gennaro
Cacophonous Revival Recordings CRR-015 (cacophonousrevivalrecordings.bandcamp.com)

Following their first release, Sine Qua Non, guitarist and saxophonist Colin Fisher and drummer Mike Gennaro – two of Canada’s most visible improvising experimental musicians – have recorded their second album, Tactile Stories, an exhilarating four-track collection of free-improvised pieces. Fisher and Gennaro play off of one another with impressive musicality and effusive bravura. Their combined sound is lavish but never swanky and the delivery of ideas is as brilliant as it is ravenous – the two musicians truly connected in their improvisatory impetuses. 

The first track, Ex Nihilo is a powerful example of why Fisher and Gennaro have become some of the most in demand improvising experimental musicians in Canada. The music is virtuosity set free in the wild while making room for more contemplative interludes. Dynamic and driving explorations continue in the tracks Ekstasis and Epinoia while the track Esse offers a more sensitive atmosphere. 

Fisher’s guitar playing is a stunning combination of swells, prickly quirks and dramatic runs. Gennaro draws from an endless cache of stylistic realms that makes for a propulsive energy. Tactile Stories is exactly that – a collection of sonic narratives revealing why these two musicians are at the fore of free-improvised music.

02 Grant StewartThe Lighting of the Lamps
Grant Stewart Quartet w/Bruce Harris
Cellar Music CM110521 (cellarlive.com)

Picture the city at dusk, a shroud of darkness blanketing the bustling life within, bringing a certain air of mystery and veiled passion. The collection of tunes on famed tenor saxophonist Grant Stewart’s newest release calls forth images just like that in the listener’s mind. The tenorist himself mentions that listening back on this session, he was “reminded not of daybreak but rather, dusk… as the city becomes a buzz of activity once more.” Stewart has gathered a group of top tier musicians to bring these pieces to life; Bruce Harris on the trumpet, David Wong on bass, Tardo Hammer on piano and Phil Stewart on drums. The songs are mostly original compositions, arranged by the likes of Elmo Hope and Thad Jones. For the jazz lover looking to add a little pizzazz to their collection, this is a record to get your hands on. 

For musicians, the nightlife is when things really start moving, when the magic truly starts happening. This album is filled with a sense of new beginnings, teetering on that border of exciting tension just waiting to spill over into passionate energy; just as the approach of dusk brings a “second awakening” to the city. Tunes like Little Spain and Mo Is On are spectacular examples of the quickness and vigour of city life whereas Ghost of a Chance is a representation of the other side of nightlife, the mellowness and suppressed desires.

03 Adam ShulmanJust the Contrafacts
Adam Shulman; Jeremy Pelt; Cory Weeds; Grant Stewart; Peter Washington; Billy Drummond
Cellar Music CM110321 (cellarlive.com)

The pandemic was a hard hit on the music industry, with the absence of live music and limited use of physical studio spaces. But it also ended up being a chance for several musicians to produce “COVID albums,” many of which are excellent examples of how music can be a voice and outlet during the toughest of times. Renowned pianist Adam Shulman’s newest release is an example of a stellar album born out of lockdown. A hark back to traditional jazz, with a certain whimsical and hopeful twist added, this collection is a surefire way to get your head bopping along on the darkest of days. All tunes are penned by Shulman himself; a backing band of fantastic musicians featuring Jeremy Pelt on trumpet, Billy Drummond on drums and Cory Weeds on alto saxophone, among others, allows these tunes to soar to new heights. 

What makes this album unique is the fact that these songs are all contrafacts as the title of the record suggests, meaning “new melodies [written over] the chord structure of standard tunes” or borrowed chord progressions. Shulman has masterfully added soaring and catchy new melodies overtop chord progressions taken from songs from the Great American Songbook, adding his own unique mark to them. These pieces are filled with a lightness and playfulness, an “[escape] to different times,” letting the listener be carried away from hardships as only the power of music can do.

04 Orbit Max JohnsonOrbit of Sound
Max Johnson Trio
Unbroken Sounds U01 (maxjohnsonmusic.com)

Equally proficient as composer and double bassist, New York’s Max Johnson has the invaluable help of Canadian tenor saxophonist/flutist Anna Webber and local drummer Michael Sarin to interpret five of his intricate but easygoing tunes. That’s easygoing not easy, for Johnson’s bass thumps or sul tasto strokes, Weber’s reed cries and gurgles and Sarin’s power pops and rim shots are anything but elementary.

Instead, the sometime slippery and often buoyant tunes evolve with defined and emphasized heads and narratives that usually involve double or triple counterpoint and brief solos. Johnson’s touch can be stentorian but on an extended piece like Over/Under his timbral digging involves high-pitched scraps to contrast with low-pitched body tube murmurs and mid-range blowing from Webber. After reed split-tone yelps stand out over other-directed percussion strokes, measured bass thumps relax the exposition back to the initial theme. Nearly continuous string drones provide an effective balance, scene-setting on The Professor, then joined to strident reed bites and drum ruffs. Webber’s reed-biting whorls and arabesques advance to irregular tongue stops and percussive smears, but the reassuring narrative, anchored by bass strokes, preserves the flow and holds the exposition to defined swing elaborations. 

The one flute track is dryly balladic and Sarin’s ruffs and rebounds add advanced percussiveness elsewhere. But all in all the harmonic balance expressed among writing, narratives and singular expression make this one orbit of sound in which a listener would want to circle.

05 Red ListRed List – music dedicated to the preservation of our endangered species
Brian Landrus; Various Artists
Palmetto Records PM2023 (brianlandrus.com)

With the release of his 11th recording as a leader, highly respected multi-reed player, arranger and composer, Brian Landrus, has not only created something of incredible musical beauty, but is simultaneously highlighting the looming global crisis of species extinction. There are 13 compositions here written by Landrus, representing 13 endangered species on the Red List that could be lost forever. Landrus is collaborating with the organization Save the Elephants and is joined here by half a dozen horns and a stellar rhythm section.

First up is Canopy of Trees – a percussive journey through the majesty of an ancient forest or jungle, made all the more mystical by Landrus’ complex solo and the superb arrangement. The title track reflects chaotic energies and also the brave push back against obliteration, while Geoffrey Keezer’s intriguing synth patches elicit ancient sensations… a connection with Mother Earth. The ensemble is in complete symmetry, punctuated by Landrus’ dynamic soloing. Giant Panda features a well-constructed baritone solo by Landrus, which effortlessly segues into Nocturnal Flight, which is defined by eloquent, elegant guitar work from Nir Felder and parenthesized by sumptuously arranged horns as well as a spellbinding piano solo from Keezer.

Save the Elephants is a standout, and with an irresistible reggae-ish motif, Felder’s rhythmic guitar, Keezer’s Hammond B3 and potent percussion and drumming from John Hadfield and Rudy Royston as well as well-placed vocals, one can almost envision the beautiful elephants strolling regally through the African Savanna. Of special beauty is Only Eight, which begins with a resonant and complex bass solo from the iconic Lonnie Plaxico and morphs into a spacious, etheric expression – a shared vision of a better, more caring world.

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