Mysterious Jazz from Myriad3

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VERA / DONNELLY: Pluie Lyonnaise. Ward Lock. Meme Art. CERVINI: Tamboa. DNA. Couch Tard. FORTIN: Diamond. Fortress. Total. STRAVINSKY: Piano-Rag-Music / Myriad3: Chris Donnelly, kbds; Dan Fortin, bs; Ernesto Cervini, dm/perc/cl/bs-cl/fl/a-sax/glockenspiel / Alma Records 13990

Here’s something very different from Canadian drummer-bandleader-promoter Ernesto Cervini, whose group Turboprop recently released an outstanding album to which I gave a rave review. Myriad3, which is a collective of these three musicians and not specifically Cervini’s group as leader, is more mellow without being sentimental or vapid, playing a sort of very understated jazz-rock with an emphasis on the former though with undertones of the latter. And the tunes played here are all rather different, Pluie Lyonnaise having a sort of soft-rock feel to it while Tamboa explores a sort of corrugated rhythm, understated but insistent, like a ground bass in classical composition.

Moreover, this unusual feeling is consistent throughout the album, regardless of the composer of each piece. It almost has (pardon the reference, it’s not meant to be demeaning) a “percolating” quality about it, like those coffee ads you used to see and hear on TV and radio. Very unusual.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that each of these three musicians are very talented pros with years of experience, or that they all have what jazz fans refer to as “big ears.” There are so many subtle little touches throughout the album, like Cervini’s complex backbeats on Ward Lock, that really have to be heard to be fully appreciated and understood. Mere words are deficient to convey all that is going on here. The music is primarily subtle, painted in pastels rather than primary colors, yet it glitters at times with its own inward sort of light.

My regular readers know me well enough to realize that I am normally an enemy of “soft jazz,” “lounge jazz” and anything that resembles it, thus you must take my word for it that Vera is a deceptively complex album that must be heard to be believed or understood. It speaks to the heart as well as the mind, which by itself differentiates this music from the usual soft-lounge pap that apparently sells to young jazz listeners. Yet such listeners will undoubtedly respond to this CD without knowing, intellectually, why. It’s that kind of music.

I was particularly interested to hear their arrangement of Stravinsky’s Piano-Rag-Music (1919), one of the seminal crossover pieces (after the early ones by Debussy and Satie), as noted in my online book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond. Myriad3 break up the original rhythm, redistribute it, and essentially re-writes the piece while remaining true to its spirit. This is extraordinary music-making by any standard. And there’s a certain sort of heartbeat pulse in Fortress that is extremely calming despite the complex rhythms being presented over it, whereas DNA starts with a slow, asymmetric, stuttering rhythm that entices as it baffles, taking on an almost Monk-like quality.

From start to finish, Vera is the kind of album that will both fascinate you and touch your calm center. It may be hard to describe, but it’s wonderful to listen to.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Exploring Roxanna Panufnik

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CELESTIAL BIRD / PANUFNIK: Unending Love. Celestial Bird. Salve Regina. O Hearken. St. Pancras Magnificat & Nunc Dimittis. Since We Parted. A Cradle Song. Deus et Caritas. St. Aidan’s Prayer. Child of Heaven / Ex Cathedra; Milapfest; Jeffrey Skidmore, cond / Signum Classics SIGCD543

I suppose that Roxanna Panufnik (b. 1968) has a strong following overseas, but in my own personal classical world she is an entirely new name to me. A British composer of Polish background, she studied at the Royal College of Music and has written opera, ballet, choral and chamber works in addition to music for television and movies.

But before you assume that because of her association with pop media that Panufnik writes overly accessible and/or shallow works, you need to hear this album. The opening track, Unending Love, is based not on her Polish heritage but on Indian culture. There are Indian instruments, harmonies and chanting going on in these works, yet still poured into a classical structure. The music is hypnotic but not simple or sentimental. By contrast the album’s title track, Celestial Bird, is based on a mystical poem by American Jessica Powers, who became a Carmelite nun in Wisconsin, and has a certain amount of Celtic influence—but not enough to overcome the superb structure that Panufnik has created here. The music floats on a sea of gentle counterpoint and overlapping motifs, wending its way along. The Salve Regina was written as a tribute to Dame Raphael, a Benedictine nun, and its saving grace (no pun intended) is that it is not overly sanctimonious or devotional in feeling, but again well constructed and interesting.

O Hearken had an odd origin. In 2015, Panufnik offered her services to write a short piece for a raffle ticket winner at the annual Westminster Abbey Choir School’s summer celebration. She had promised to write a fanfare but the winner asked for a piece to be sung by the choir, so here it is. It’s short, quite pretty and, again, not sentimental. The St. Pancras Magnificat & Nunc Dimittus, written on commission for the London Festival of Contemporary Music, is a very contrapuntal piece in tonal harmony, albeit with interesting twists and turns. I rather liked the “Nunc dimittus,” with its slightly Eastern sound, a bit more than the “Magnificat.”

Since We Parted, written to commemorate the centenary of World War I, is admittedly a romantic piece, yet again with interesting harmonic twists (and rising chromatics), as well as interesting writing for the solo trumpet and cello. A Cradle Song, set to a poem by William Blake, is Panufnik’s “cradle song,” and here, too the romantic qualities are offset by her unusual sense of harmony. Deus et Caritas was written on commission from a man in tribute to his late parents. By contrast, St. Aidan’s Prayer is a more conventional piece, but the treble soloist is Panufnik’s son, Ben Macklow-Smith. With the finale, however (Child of Heaven), we hear Panufnik return to Indian harmonies with great effect.

A very interesting album, then, particularly for lovers of modern choral music, although Unending Love is the standout gem in this collection.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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The Pedroia String Quartet Plays Quadrants

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QUADRANTS, Vol. 2 / OSTERFIELD: Khamsin. BRIDGES: This Fragmented Old Man. De SENA: String Quartet No. 1. DEUTSCH: Departure. K. PRICE: Hymnody. LAMB: Lamentations / Navona NV6184

As I’ve mentioned in other reviews, the biggest problem with the Parma-Navona labels is that their releases only have very minimal liner notes, and available only online. Apparently they think that their customers all live in the cloud, when in fact at least half of all serious music listeners, like me, prefer physical CDs.

Anyway, much of the music presented here is in the apparently cookie-cutter modern style of jagged, sharp-edged lines meant to startle and excite listeners who grew up on rock music, but this is only an overview of the surface of the music. Paul Osterfield’s Khamsin turns out to be a well-written work with excellent development of its jagged theme, and the quartet plays it very well, digging into its alternating edgy and lyrical moments to tie the structure together. The hard-driving rhythm gradually slows down to a crawl as the volume decreases as well—not to a whisper, because Osterfield scores this later section very high for the violins, in an almost “whistle” register, which helps to maintain a certain edgy quality, but it is clearly an interesting, well-written piece. Following this slow section, a busy, edgy fugue is set up.

David T. Bridges’ This Fragmented Old Man is a pizzicato piece written in mostly bitonal harmonies. It, too, has an interesting structure, moving its component parts around to form interesting musical shapes, and at less than five minutes long it does not overstay its welcome.

By contrast, I found the String Quartet No. 1 of Ferdinando De Sena to be pointlessly atonal, meaning that the music was simply ugly and was neither emotionally affecting nor intellectually compelling, but he, too, understands musical structure, though his music is over-written and goes on a bit too long (and, by the third movement, one tires of the aggressively and pointlessly bitonal nature of the music).

I did, however, very much enjoy L. Peter Deutsch’s Departure, an exceptionally fine piece that vacillates between tonality and “leaning” harmonies. It has a good form and holds one’s interest from start to finish. And, it actually goes somewhere!

Katherine Price’s Hymnody, I hate to say, sounds like archetypal “women’s music”: melodic, tonal and full of sentiment. Not my cup of tea.

Marvin Lamb’s Lamentations, the last piece, starts in a manner that almost sounds like Hymnody but quickly morphs into something quite emotional without relying on pathos or bathos. Lamb, like Osterfield, exploits the high end of the violins’ ranges, but here fuses lyricism with an intense feeling of loss and suffering. But alas, the second half hammers its lamentations on you like a sledgehammer. Take a Valium and chill, Marvin.

An interesting album, then, despite my caveats.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Keith Oxman Teams Up With Dave Liebman

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GLIMPSES / OXMAN: Shai. Lenny. Trane’s Pal. Louminus. ELLINGTON-MILLS: In a Sentimental Mood. WALTON: Afreaka. RENÉ: I Sold My Heart to the Junkman. LIEBMAN: Glimpses / Keith Oxman, t-sax; Dave Liebman, s-sax/t-sax; Jeff Jenkins, pno; Ken Walker, bs; Todd Reid, dm / Capri Records 74152

Here’s a good, old-fashioned bop album by tenor saxists Keith Oxman and Dave Liebman, the latter a veteran musician who played with Miles Davis and Elvin Jones. On Ellington’s In a Sentimental Mood, Liebman plays alone with pianist Jeff Jenkins, and later on, Liebman sits out I Lost My Heart to the Junkman. Otherwise, Liebman’s tenor and soprano sax comes out of the left speaker while Oxman’s is panned to the right.

The band is tight and plays extremely well, although I personally found some of pianist Jenkins’ solos flashy but not particularly interesting. Oxman and Liebman complement each other in a similar, but cooler, way that Zoot Sims and Al Cohn did many moons ago. I particularly liked Liebman’s soprano sax playing, slightly breathy and warm rather than the cold brilliance one normally hears from the instrument. It almost sounds like an alto flute: quite beautiful, and as an improviser I found him superb, one of those rare players who improvises on the melody and not just always on the chords.

The two saxists are both superb on Trane’s Pal, a tune that harks back to John Coltrane’s early incarnation as a bop saxist. Oxman doesn’t really try to emulate Trane yet his solo is excellent, beautifully constructed. Cedar Walton’s Afreaka is clearly one of the most complex and modern pieces on the CD, and both Oxman and Liebman respond with some impassioned playing. We return to standard bop with Oxman’s Louminous, although here Liebman really goes outside the changes in a Coltrane-like way. And I was really impressed by Liebman’s superbly-constructed solo on I Sold My Heart to the Junkman.

We end with Liebman’s original, Glimpses, a hard bop piece with plenty of excitement. An excellent romp for those who like small combos of hot soloists!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Mark Masters Plays With Jazz Masters

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OUR MÉTIER / MASTERS: Borne Towards the Stars. 51 West 51st Street. Lift. Ingvild’s Dance. A Précis of Dialogue. Dispositions of the Heart. Obituary. Luminescence. In Our Time. Our Métier / Mark Masters Ensemble: Scott Englebright, Les Lovitt, tpt; Ryan Dragon, Les Benedict, Dave Woodley, tb; Jerry Pinter, t-sax/s-sax; Kirsten Edkins, a-sax; Bob Carr, bar-sax/bs-cl; Stephanie O’Keefe, Fr-hn; Anna Mjöll, voc; Ed Czach, pno; Craig Fundyga, vib. Sextet: Tim Hagans, tpt; Gary Foster, Oliver Lake, a-sax; Mark Turner, t-sax; Putter Smith, bs; Andrew Cyrille, dm / Capri Records 74150

Jazz composer-arranger Mark Masters, a graduate of Riverside City College and California State University, is also president of the board of directors at the American Jazz Institute in Los Angeles. He was, apparently, a trumpeter or trombonist (unspecified on Wikipedia or in the liner notes) who gave up active playing to become a composer-arranger back in the 1980s. In this very ambitious project, he has combined the soft textures of his own 12-piece ensemble (if one includes vocalist Anna Mjöll) with a hand-picked sextet that includes the well-known saxists Gary Foster and Oliver Lake (formerly of the World Saxophone Quartet).

The result is, as the publicity sheet describes it, “free-bop.” Yet the music has far more structure than the usual avant-garde you hear nowadays, and Masters admits that he wrote these compositions specifically for the musicians involved here. My lone caveat is that Mjöll is one of these breathy no-voice singers that modern-day left coast musicians seem to think are jazzy, so when I hear her in the ensemble I just tune her out. (Earth to Left Coast: it doesn’t matter if they swing or not, they’re just lounge singers with a beat, not jazz singers. Even Jackie Cain sang with a better tone than this when she blended her voice with the Charlie Ventura Orchestra. Thank you.) Otherwise, the compositions and arrangements are superb.

In a certain sense, Masters’ ensemble sound is like many of the cool jazz ensembles of the 1950s and ‘60s led by Allyn Ferguson (a sadly forgotten name nowadays), Clare Fischer or even Stan Kenton. It has a rich, mellow blend, achieved by having the trumpets play in their middle register much of the time and blending a French horn in with the trombones. The texture isn’t wholly original, but it is refreshing and enjoyable to hear, and Masters scores the, beautifully, using unusual chord positions to achieve his timbral blends.

Interestingly, Masters spots his soloists very carefully within the ensemble. In fact, the structure of the compositions and arrangements that command your attention; the solos, fine as they are, are icing on the cake, not the cake itself. Some of Lake’s solos sounded wrong in context to me; they’d have been fine within the WSQ, but not here, where he disrupts the harmonic balance. Otherwise, all is well. Order and form are the dominant features, and in this specific context Gary Foster works more congruently. Ingvild’s Dance is a cute jazz waltz, while A Précis of Dialogue is the most abstract piece on the album—and here, Lake fits in much better. We return to form and structure in the ethereal Dispositions of the Heart, and a bebop feel again in Obituary. We then move into an ethereal space with the odd melodic line and close harmonies of Luminescence, again marred by breathy-girl’s vocal. This one sounded like some of the spacier Sauter-Finegan scores of the ‘50s, though the rhythm coalesces in the second half.

In Our Time returns us to spaciness, here with an even more irregular beat and modern accents while the finale, which is the album’s title track, combines an outside-jazz sort of jazz waltz with 4/4. It is clearly one of the album’s highlights, and no vocal (thank goodness).

All in all, an impressive outing for Masters as a jazz writer.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Ethan Ardelli Discovers “The Island of Form”

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THE ISLAND OF FORM / ARDELLI: Agua. Les Calanques. The Serpentine Path. 5:55 a.m. Dunraven. Thanks for Something. Shangri-La Pearl / Luis Deniz, a-sax; Chris Donnelly, pno; Devon Henderson, bs; Ethan Ardelli, dm / Toronto Arts Council, no number

It has suddenly struck me how many jazz combos nowadays, particularly the ones I like most, seem to be led by Drummers: Matt Wilson, Ernesto Cervini, Devin Gray and, here, Ethan Ardelli. This is a far cry from the past, when usually the only drummer-leaders were really famous names like Max Roach, Art Blakey, Elvin Jones and Buddy Rich. When a former sideman-drummer eventually led a group, as Joe Morello did, it didn’t gain much traction and didn’t make recordings. Just a thought.

In the publicity sheet, Ardelli is noted for being “a cultural omnivore,” seeking out inspiration from a wide musical spectrum, “from foreign and art films to classical composition and music from around the world – in particular the music of Cuba.” Yet his Cuban influence is clearly filtered through his strong grounding in formal composition, which is all to the better. Ardelli’s music has form and structure; it says something; and it goes wherever his muse, and the muses of his talented bandmates, lead him.

In this, his debut CD, Ardelli gives us a fine mixture of influences, to which I might suggest also includes the music of Charles Mingus, another eclectic composer who constantly combined classical form with jazz orchestration. There are moments when alto saxist Luis Deniz goes out on limbs that he can’t quite climb back onto the tree from, so he just stops, but at least he has the good sense to do that. Pianist Donnelly seems to be a somewhat cool player with a good sense of structure, which counterbalances Deniz, while Ardelli—like the drummer-leaders mentioned in the first paragraph—pushes the rhythmic envelope with complex rhythms and patterns that underscore his quartet’s playing. It’s a good mixture.

Ardelli also has a fine ear for programming, contrasting somewhat uptempo pieces like the opening Agua with the slow, suspenseful Les Calanques, to good effect. In the latter, Donnelly’s gentle piano opens the proceedings, following which Deniz plays a lyrical, gentle theme above him while bassist Henderson fills in and Ardelli plays cymbal washes in the background. But the piece continues to accelerate in tempo, become louder and busier, bringing us to an ecstatic close.

Accretion starts out with Henderson playing alone, after which the leader falls in behind him and they again pursue a slow 4. Donnelly’s piano includes some enticing Monk-like chords, and indeed the ensuing melody also has a Thelonious sound about it. And once again, there is a gradual increase in tempo and intensity, built up largely through Deniz’ excellent solo. The Monk influence continues in the theme’s development as well. This is interesting music!

The Serpentine Path has a gentle, almost Bill Evans-like sound about it, except that its shifting rhythms and more chromatic harmonies are rather different from most (but not all) Evans pieces. Donnelly’s rich, deep-in-the-keys chords dominate a full chorus before Deniz comes in with a fine, sparse alto solo. When Donnelly returns, his playing is also sparse. This is the kind of “soft jazz” I enjoy: music with structure and feeling, not the drippy lounge stuff that seems to be dominating the landscape of late.

5:55 a.m. opens with a drum solo by the leader, quite busy in places, but eventually becomes a fairly lyrical piece in a medium-slow tempo. Once again, the tempo slowly increases as the music becomes more complex. By contrast, Thanks for Something is a fairly busy piece, again with some Monk influence (but less than in Accretion), while the finale, Shangri-La Pearl, again takes us into subtler realms, but again accelerates and becomes more emotional, using exotic chords. The only thing I didn’t like was the fade-out ending.

Otherwise, this is a tremendously interesting first CD from an immensely talented group.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Dirigo Rataplan’s New Album

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GRAY: Congruently. Rollin’ thru town. Trends of trending. Texicate. The Wire. Quantum Cryptology. What we learn from cities. The Feeling of Healing (for Steve Grover). Intrepid Travelers. Micro Dosage / Dirigo Rataplan: Dave Ballou, tpt; Ellery Eskelin, t-sax; Michael Formanek, bs; Devin Gray, dm / Rataplan Records RR001

Despite the odd name of the group, Dirigo Rataplan plays somewhat straightahead, bop-influenced jazz with irregular meters thrown in for flavor, but they’re a really good group: tight, creative and with well-scored arrangements that make them sound like more than just four musicians. All of the compositions on this eponymous CD were written by the group’s leader, drummer Devin Gray.

The opener, Congruently, displays the band at its best, with trumpeter Ballou and saxist Eskelin playing lines that run opposite each other for a while, then in unison, then in harmony, then back again. And the melodic line just keeps changing and shifting. In the second number, Rollin’ Thru Town, the band really deconstructs the beat after the opening lick, slowing the tempo down and playing four different rhythms, one for each instrument, that somehow dovetail and make sense. Harmonically, the band leans towards tonality but occasionally plays outside notes, not so much that they lose the listener in a knot of noise but enough to keep the mind engaged. One interesting aspect of this performance is the work of bassist Michael Formanek, who now follows Ballou’s rhythm, now Eskelin’s, before falling into a more conventional 4/4 to coalesce the band at about the 3:15 mark, which lasts to the end of the track.

Trends of Trending has a sort of irregular bossa-nova beat, only more jazzified, with the two lead horns playing the odd melodic line in harmony, sometimes in outside jazz counterpoint à la Ornette Coleman, pulling both rhythm and harmony apart in interesting ways. This one almost sounds like a jazz band on acid. Staccato hiccups from the two horns interject themselves during Formanek’s solo.

Texicate begins as the most obscure and deconstructed tune on the CD, with Gray playing soft but complex patterns on drums while Eskelin’s tenor sax ruminates in the foreground. Eventually, Ballou comes in to add commentary here and there. The two horns then engage in a sort of staccato, contrapuntal dialogue with the bass joining them underneath. Oddly, they all somehow coalesce towards the end! By contrast, The Wire, though also exploring irregular meter, begins almost straightforward by comparison, becoming more complex as it goes along. Eskelin has a nice outside solo and Ballou almost sounds like Don Cherry in his solo excursion.

Quantum Cryptology is a slow, mesmerizing sort of piece with a slightly menacing undertone. Eskelin and Formanek play the opening chorus together, and later on Ballou plays an a cappella cadenza using descending chromatics to fill the gap between sections, then doubling the tempo while Gray plays brushes and snare drum underneath.  Eventually, a three-way conversation is set up between trumpet, sax and bass, now playing arco.

What we learn from cities has two different tempi, a slow one for the two horns and a faster one for the rhythm section, which don’t exactly match up perfectly, making for some metric dissonance (so to speak). The horns eventually fall in line with the quicker tempo, things get louder and more hectic, and the city learning becomes a sea of noise. A slow, disconnected mood also imbues The Feeling of Healing along with some edge-of-the-strings bass playing and somewhat cacophonic (but soft) licks by the trumpet and tenor sax. The music continues to deconstruct itself, moving into a passage played by what sounds like a large gong with sandpaper rubbed against the drum head and soft plucked bass, with the tenor and trumpet playing soft, whining figures around it. It isn’t so much the sound of healing, to me, as the sound of illness. Surprisingly, the musicians sort of come together at about the six0minute mark, near the end of the composition…evidently, the healing process.

A slow, dirge-like feeling is also evident in Intrepid Travelers, which again moves from disconnected phrases to a coalescing melody with development. Micro Dosage begins with odd, scattered figures strewn about the soundscape by trumpet and sax over rhythmically displaced bass and drums, which eventually become a rather menacing but still out-there group lick which ends the album.

An utterly fascinating excursion by this very talented band.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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