08 Aliens WizardsAliens & Wizards
Spike Wilner Trio
Cellar Music CM120120 (cellarlive.com/collections/all)

Throughout this pandemic, Spike Wilner has championed live performances at Smalls Jazz Club and Mezzrow, the two NYC venues he has singlehandedly helmed. On his trio recording Aliens & Wizards, Wilner slides behind the piano and into the spotlight, showcasing his prodigious pianism with two empathetic bandmates: bassist Tyler Mitchell and drummer Anthony Pinciotti. This release also debuts a significant new partnership between Wilner – through his SmallsLIVE Foundation – and the Cellar Music Group, curated by the Vancouver-based impresario, saxophonist and dyed-in-the-wool jazz fan Cory Weeds. 

Aliens & Wizards comprises nine works featuring Wilner at his best, teasing out melodic and harmonic lines that are poignant, urbane and stylishly introspective. His six original works are resolutely head-driven, delivered with characteristic warmth and personality. Not for Wilner an empty display of pyrotechnics or sentimental indulgence: as we hear on Adagio and Aliens & Wizards, the music is sculpted with fluid architectural acuity. 

In the latter piece Wilner uses moody chord changes and melodic acceleration to build a monumental abstract structure, unveiling seemingly supernatural themes and characters, and connecting the rhapsodic opening with a grandiose conclusion. This is followed by the indigo blue Prayer for Peace, expertly crafted and eloquently performed by the trio. The program ends in the wonderful rhythmic rush and tumble of Trick Baby. This album highlights Wilner’s captivating pianism against the rumbling backdrop of Mitchell’s bass and the percussive colours of Pinciotti’s drums.

09 Saskatchewan All StarsSaskatchewan Suite
Saskatchewan All Star Big Band
Chronograph Records CR-094 (chronographrecords.com/artists/saskatchewan-all-star-big-band)

The darkly passionate sound of creation gives rise to long-limbed rhythmic excitement that builds, one melodic and one harmonic variation at a time into this homage to Saskatchewan. Fred Stride’s exquisitely visual, ever-swinging eight-part narrative – the Saskatchewan Suite – is one of the best long works to be put down on record in a long time. Significantly, almost all the band members are homegrown Saskatchewanians. 

The symphonic music is powerfully and lovingly delivered by musicians who bring a deeply interiorized reading of Stride’s homage to a Canadian prairie province in a composition that is astutely and idiomatically driven by improvisation. The atmospheric opening movement describes seemingly endless vistas and melts into a series of big-boned movements that depict the fascinating character and history of Saskatchewan. What could have been dry music because of the density of its subject is lifted off the page with the passionate advocacy of this Saskatchewan All Star Big Band, which – in soli and ensemble passagework – brings uncommon tonal refinement to this epic piece. 

Beautifully executed contrapuntal writing weaves in and out of free-flowing sections. Especially noteworthy is Thank You, Mr. Douglas, a tribute to the iconic premier of the province, Tommy Douglas, father of Canada’s universal healthcare system. Tempi, ensemble and balance – all seem effortlessly and intuitively right as this group of some of the most celebrated Canadian musicians parley with extraordinary eloquence and power building up to the suite’s dénouement, so appropriately entitled Saskatchejazz.

11 Jessica AckerleyMorning/mourning
Jessica Ackerley
Cacophonous Revival Recordings CRR-009 (jessicaackerleyguitar.tumblr.com)

Though it’s no exchange that one might choose, the COVID-19 lockdown has often replaced the social and convivial elements of music with the depth of solitary reflection. A series of remarkable solo performances has been the result, and Alberta-born, Honolulu-based guitarist Jessica Ackerley’s contribution, recorded during self-isolation in a friend’s New York apartment in the final days of 2020 and the first of 2021, is among them.. 

Her music straddles free jazz and free improvisation, and there’s a special power afoot here – part expressive determination, part introspection – that the intimate recording captures: the textures of fingers, strings and guitar in close proximity. Ackerley’s roots in jazz guitar run deep, evident in the precision and imagination of her plectrum technique. It’s especially noteworthy in a set inspired in part by the deaths of her teachers Vic Juris and Bobby Cairns.

That accelerated picking would mean nothing if it weren’t intimately connected with Ackerley’s quality of thought. As Inner Automation develops, she seems to be dial-twirling in space: contrasting and discontinuous figures leap from the fingerboard, colliding, then exploding into auditory fireworks. Much Gratitude to You, for You takes the same approach to more traditional techniques with its rapidly muted gestures and occasional hanging chords suddenly broken up with the emotional drama of rasgueado strums, derived from flamenco. The concluding Morning, another contrast, matches folk reverie with strangely dissonant, glassy harmonics. 

Ackerley makes music of significant depth. It’s music that insists on being heard.

13 LAbimeL’ABÎME
L’abîme
Multiple Chord Music (labime.ca)

From French, L’abîme translates to “the abyss.” That fact, combined with the equal parts striking and confounding cover art (courtesy of the design savvy of Rosie Landes), appears to scream “concept album.” I can neither confirm nor deny whether that is the intent of the artist, but the music possesses the same cinematic stage-play pomp of Carla Bley’s early 1970s music. Much like Bley, the members of L’abîme find themselves all over the place, in the best way possible. Whether it’s the progressive faultlessness of the title track, the nocturnal balladry of L’étang au crépuscule, the improvisational masterclass of Perdu dans les bois, or all of the above over the course of the show-stopping Le Culte suite, L’abîme manages to fearlessly explore avenues while never allowing these risks to compromise its sound. 

Jonathan Turgeon has mastered his craft. His compositions are unlike anything I’ve ever heard prior to stumbling across his work. They are dumbfoundingly complex mosaics of various miniscule rhythms and lines, interlacing with each other before ultimately giving way to the next contrasting section. It has often been said that the great writers know how to write for their band, and Turgeon ensures that every part, be it Alex Dodier’s flute or Hugo Blouin’s contrabass (considering he’s a pianist, Turgeon is a tremendous writer for bass), is maximized. From front to back a mind-bending musical experience, L’abîme’s eponymous debut will leave an impression.

14 Code QuartetGenealogy
CODE Quartet
Justin Time JTR 8622-2 (justin-time.com) 

CODE is a Montreal-based outfit consisting of Adrian Vedady on bass, Christine Jensen on saxophone, Lex French on trumpet and Jim Doxas on drums. The similarity between this exact instrumentation and that of Ornette Coleman’s classic quartet is indeed intentional. In the late 1950s, Coleman and Sonny Rollins both found themselves drawn to the idea of playing with a chordless ensemble, feeling creatively boxed in by the harmony being stated outright. This is what makes the title of Genealogy so fitting; it suggests a following of this musical lineage. 

Coleman’s influence is inescapable for the entire duration of the album. On all tracks but the French-penned opener Tipsy (which has a pretty standard chord progression), the revolutionary “time, no changes” format is used as a medium for the band’s various modes of expression. Multiple heads can be described only as Coleman-esque, particularly the title track, but the band balances tribute and evolution quite well. Besides the band’s technically sound production (the entire quartet was responsible) and Doxas’ additional studio wizardry on the mix, there is also an aspect of this modernization that lies in the playing itself. The first “free” track on the album is Vedady’s Watching It All Slip Away, taking what would otherwise be a typical Latin groove until French goes off during his solo, and the take on O Sacred Head, Now Wounded beautifully combines reverence with freedom. Ultimately, Vedady is Charlie Haden, providing the foundation, adhesive and roadmap.

Listen to 'Genealogy' Now in the Listening Room

15 Brass KnuckleBrass Knuckle Sandwich
Marilyn Lerner; Nicole Rampersaud
Ambiances Magnétiques AM 258 CD (actuellecd.com)

Polished and powerful as the first part of its name and as layered as the second, Toronto’s Brass Knuckle Sandwich has produced a crunchy but powerful snack of seven in-the-moment improvisations. The duo of pianist Marilyn Lerner and trumpeter Nicole Rampersaud, longtime members of the city’s experimental music community, inventively displays every flavourful scintilla of sound from the furthest reaches of their instruments. Lerner clips, pumps and slides over the keys in groups or separately and strums, plucks and buzzes the piano’s internal strings. Making use of tongue stopping, tone crackling and half-valve effects, Rampersaud’s brass extensions include vocalized blowing, spittle-encrusted squeaks, strangled cries and plunger farts.

Expressing timbres ranging from the dulcet to the dissonant, the two produce a track like Evermore, which from its carefully shaped keyboard introduction to mid-range capillary slurs, conveys winnowing motion. Then they abruptly turn around during the following nat.pit.that to contrast the trumpet’s uppermost screech mode with dynamic piano pacing in the most fragmented mode before joining infant-like howls and resonating key clanks into a balanced ambulatory theme. Kinetics may edge out caution on most of the disc, but in spite of numerous advanced motifs, narratives are always fluid. The disc culminates in the almost 15-minute Rizoo, where broken-octave creativity, including hand-muted brass cries and staccato peeps from Rampersaud and bottom-board percussiveness and stopped key thumps from Lerner, predominate until the track and the CD’s finale settles into a connective mode.

17 TransformationGlenn Close; Ted Nash – Transformation
Glenn Close; Ted Nash; Wayne Brady; Amy Irving; Matthew Stevenson; Eli Nash; Wynton Marsalis; Jazz at Lincoln Center
Tiger Turn Productions (tednash.com)

This ambitious, multi-disciplinary recording project was co-imagined, produced, arranged, composed and conducted by Grammy winner and gifted multi-reed instrumentalist, Ted Nash. All of the accompanying spoken word segments were curated by Emmy- and Tony-winning actress Glenn Close, and performed by Close and a group of truly exceptional artists, including Wayne Brady, Amy Irving, Matthew Stevenson and Eli Nash. The skilled musical cast includes noted members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO), including the iconic Wynton Marsalis on trumpet.

Transformations begins with Creation, Part I. One can feel the contrapuntal influence of Gil Evans in this full-throttle, intricate, challenging music, as the ensemble slides through the primordial ooze. Creation, Part ll features the JLCO as they swing, wail and bop with exquisite precision. A sturdy and solid trombone solo punctuates the air, followed by a well-placed baritone comment or two. Dear Dad/Letter is the transcript of an incredibly moving letter to Nash from his transgender son, accompanied by masterful work on soprano sax by Nash. Other memorable movements include One Among Many, constructed around Judith Clarke’s journey of liberation, as interpreted by the incredible Irving.

The justifiable rage and hurt, and subsequent illumination in Brady’s A Piece by the Angriest Black Man in America (or, How I learned to Forgive Myself for Being the Angriest Black Man in America) is an awakening in itself, as is Reaching the Tropopause – which features a face-melting rhythm and sax sections in concert with the dynamic Wynton Marsalis on trumpet. Ted Nash, Glenn Close, the gifted actors and the nothing-short-of-exquisite musicians of JLCO cement this recording as an artistic triumph.

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