08 Joel FrahmThe Bright Side
Joel Frahm; Dan Loomis; Ernesto Cervini
Anzic Records ANZ-0068 (joelfrahm.com)

I first heard the outstanding, saxophone virtuoso Joel Frahm over ten years ago at New York’s Jazz Standard (sadly, a now-shuttered COVID casualty), and have since made a point of catching him in Toronto over the years, when he’s often been featured in drummer Ernesto Cervini’s band, Turboprop. 

Frahm’s latest project and debut trio album, The Bright Side, brings him and Cervini together again, along with bassist Dan Loomis (also a Turboprop member). Fun fact: the trio arose out of a U of T jazz masterclass. These three masterful musicians are longtime musical friends and colleagues, and their empathetic, polished, “well-oiled machine-ness” is evident on each of the ten original tracks; seven are penned by Frahm, two by Loomis and one by Cervini.

Frahm offers three dedications on the album: the high energy Blow Poppa Joe is for Joe Henderson; Benny Golson is honoured in the cool and upbeat Thinking of Benny (where I’m sure I heard a nod to The Andy Griffith Show theme song); Omer’s World is a funky homage to the great Israeli jazz bassist Omer Avital. As for Frahm’s swinging and inventive title track, its inspiration was Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side.

Loomis’ Silk Road is a moody and sensual track, with Frahm on soprano sax. And The Beautiful Mystery by Cervini is a hauntingly pensive and evocative ballad, showcasing the emotion and heart these stellar musicians bring to the table.

Here’s hoping we’ll hear more from Frahm in the chordless trio format!

09 Anna WebberIdiom
Anna Webber
Pi Recordings PI89 (pirecordings.com/albums/idiom/)

Anna Webber extends her creative trajectory with this two-CD set, exploring a critical issue arising between her roles as improviser and composer: “While as an improviser I was interested in extended techniques and in the saxophone as a creator of ‘sound’ and not just ‘pitch,’ my compositional world was limited to the latter.” For her Idiom series, each composition is based on an “extended technique” from her improvisatory practice, whether circular breathing (for continuous sound), multiphonics (compound sounds) or audibly percussive fingering. 

Disc One presents her longstanding Simple Trio with pianist Matt Mitchell and percussionist John Hollenbeck. That apparent economy of means testifies to Webber’s imaginative powers, demonstrating an expanding palette, from the percussive repetition of a short flute motif in Idiom I to the concluding Idiom III, a demonstration of the daunting intensity and complexity a trio might achieve as her repeating multiphonic phrase is matched to corresponding piano and drum parts, the tension ultimately breaking into free improvisation.

Disc Two presents the 62-minute Idiom VI, its six movements and four interludes performed by a 12-member ensemble of strings, winds, percussion and synthesizer, alive with distinguished improvisers and conducted by Eric Wubbels. Creating moods from subtle lyricism to raw expressionism, and some unnameable compounds, Webber fuses unusual timbres in fresh, sometimes unidentifiable ways, including loose-lipped trombone explosions, tamboura-like drones and similarly unlikely massed police whistle blasts. Along with Webber’s own presence on flute and tenor saxophone, trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, violinist Erica Dicker and contra-alto clarinetist Yuma Uesaka make significant solo contributions to one of 2021’s most notable releases.

10 Jacqui NaylorThe Long Game
Jacqui Naylor
Ruby Star Records RSR-011 (jacquinaylor.com)

World-renowned native-Californian jazz vocalist Jacqui Naylor has an interesting approach to the aforementioned genre. She loves the classics but definitely brings a modern touch into her music and this interesting combination couldn’t be more apparent on her newest, not to mention 11th, studio album. Featuring music by rock and pop greats such as Coldplay, David Bowie and Peter Gabriel, Naylor has lent her own unique touch to each of these songs; effectively jazzifying them in a very pleasant and listenable way. Sprinkled amongst these covers are originals penned by the diva herself, a couple of which are co-written by talented pianist Art Khu. 

One piece that immediately stands out is Coldplay’s Fix You; Naylor’s smooth alto vocals in combination with a flowing piano melody and a subtle but poignant bass line make the song take on a slightly more melancholy and softer tone than the original version. Naylor’s own I’ll Be Loving You pops out; a Latin-flavoured tune that does a great job of not only showcasing another side of her musical taste but also gets the listener grooving along in their seat. A truly outstanding track is Bowie’s Space Oddity, where a mellow piano line and an almost counter melody played on upright bass overlaid by chords on the Fender Rhodes make for a unique flavour given to the classic song.

11 Trineice RobinsonAll or Nothing
Trineice Robinson
4RM 4RM-20210806 (trineicerobinson.com)

Trineice Robinson has established herself as an esteemed educator and author. Now with the release of her long-awaited debut she’s finally getting the chance to establish herself as a vocalist, telling her story and journey through music. One of Robinson’s missions as an educator has been to bring back to the forefront Black music traditions that have fallen to the background within the vocal music realm and this album does a fantastic job at not only showcasing Black jazz, soul and R&B artists who have been instrumental in advancing those genres but also shining a spotlight on current famed musicians, with a renowned lineup of all Black artists in her backing band. 

Robinson’s soulful and powerful vocals take us on a journey through multi-genre staples such as Footprints by Wayne Shorter, What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye and You Know Who (I Mean You) by Thelonious Monk, while adding a unique flavour to each piece, making them her own. Interspersed within these tributes are original compositions, of note being the gospel-inspired piece Let It Shine, in which her own daughters lend their voices, creating a humble and heartwarming whole. Robinson skilfully crosses genres throughout the album, creating a delicious jambalaya reflecting what she states about finding her own place within the musical realm, “when you understand how ingredients are used in a dish, you can create whatever dish you want.” All in all, a strong and promising debut album.

12 Nate WooleyNate Wooley – Mutual Aid Music
Nate Wooley; Joshua Modney; Ingrid Laubrock; Mariel Roberts; Matt Moran; Russell Greenberg; Sylvie Courvoisier; Cory Smythe
Pleasure of the Text Records POTTR1309 (pleasureofthetext.com)

Trumpeter, composer, conceptualist, Nate Wooley is a major figure in current free jazz and improvised music, consistently focused on issues of meaning. This latest work is an outgrowth of Battle Pieces, a quartet project begun in 2014 in which one member acts as improvising soloist while the other members choose from Wooley’s supplied materials to develop the work. Mutual Aid Music extends this method for surmounting the usual alternatives of composition/improvisation, doubling the quartet with four more musicians chosen from the New York contemporary music community. 

The eight musicians play eight “concertos”: in each, one musician has a primary score; one improvises throughout, based on the other seven’s input; others freely adapt secondary materials that have been individually assigned. Surmounting Wooley’s complex methodology is a singular purpose: “It asks the musicians… to ask themselves, in each moment, how that gift will affect the community (ensemble) of which they are currently a member.” Wooley the conceptualist has effectively made each musician responsible for a work’s outcome in how they choose to make each transaction collectively meaningful.   

Clearly the work depends on its community of stellar musicians – saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, pianists Sylvie Courvoisier and Cory Smythe, percussionists Matt Moran and Russell Greenberg, violinist Joshua Modney and cellist Mariel Roberts – but the results are always remarkable, sometimes astonishing, everyone engaged in making the richest, most expressive, organized and communicative music possible. Beyond category in its structure and immediacy, this feels as much like a success for listeners as the composer and ensemble.

13 Roy HargroveIn Harmony
Roy Hargrove; Mulgrew Miller
Resonance Records HCD-2060 (resonancerecords.org)

In Harmony is a gorgeous time capsule displaying two performers at the top of their game and providing a sublime reading of jazz standards in two intimate live sessions. This album is made even more poignant by the deaths of both musicians at relatively young ages: Mulgrew Miller was 57 when he died of a stroke in 2013 and Roy Hargrove was only 49 when he passed away in 2018. Fortunately for jazz history and for us, these two concerts (Kaufman Music Center, New York, January 15, 2006 and Lafayette College, Easton PA, November 9, 2007) were recorded by Hargrove’s manager, Larry Clothier. The recordings have now been released by Resonance Records in a limited edition LP format and as a two-CD set. The package includes a thick booklet containing an essay on the musicians and these two concerts, several colour photos and interviews and statements by several prominent jazz musicians.

Hargrove can be bright and crisp with a Miles Davis feel, but also soulful and he plays bop and post-bop lines which makes him the complete jazz trumpet player. Miller has a more subtle style which has many influences (including Oscar Peterson who inspired him to learn jazz). He can play a solid yet sophisticated accompaniment, perform an elegant solo with complex lines that seem effortless, and add some angular blues licks on Monk’s Tune. These two concerts are even more impressive because although Hargrove and Miller had played together in the past, this was their first (and second) time performing as a duet and the concerts were put together very quickly (but of course, that’s the jazz thing to do). They sound sophisticated and completely at ease with each other, exchanging ideas, joking around in tunes like Fungii Mama, and generally paying an inspired homage to the tradition.

14 Paul PacanowskiPrayerful Thoughts (covid time improvisations)
Paul Pacanowski
Independent (paulpacanowski.com)

Polish born Toronto-based multi-instrumentalist jazz/classical performer/composer Paul Pacanowski is inspirational in his 57-minute solo “covid-time improvisations.” Home recording has become more popular for musicians during COVID. As he writes on the CD cover, he would play improvs in his basement studio late at night to lift his COVID-time spirits until it “dawned” on him to record his work at home. He plays all the instruments in eight tracks/sections, each introduced by a short musical wave-like undulation, all joined together as one long work.

Pacanowski’s piano expertise drives the improvisations. Calming, repetitive 1. undulation leads to reflective jazz-flavoured slow 2. piano with long phrases, shifting tonalities, conversational high and low pitch runs and detached notes. From calm to faster intense moments, a shift to major tonality closer to the end creates a happier hopeful feel of COVID ending. Two other piano-only tracks are included.

Pacanowski takes a memorable musical leap to improvise with himself playing on other instruments. In 8. flute/piano, he breathes life into dramatic high, held-flute notes, detached sections and energetic, almost new-music sounds, as his piano mimics and supports in modern jazz at its very best. More jazz with a brief atonal section in alto saxophone and piano stylings in 14. alto sax/piano. He plays clarinet, keys and piano harp elsewhere. 

Pacanowski’s well-thought-out “home-made” jazzy compositions and improvisations make for a great release to listen to, both upfront and as background music.

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