Friday, October 28, 2011

Let Us Praise Strays

I know there are people—jazz fans—out there who turn and run when they hear that a band is going to be paying tribute to a long-dead artist whose work has been re-interpreted by dozens of other artists. Those who stayed away from saxophonist Jean Derome's homage to Billy Strayhorn last night—and Quebec City's Largo club was far from full—just don't know Derome, drummer Pierre Tanguay, bassist Normand Guilbeault and pianist François Bourassa. Joined by singer Karen Young on most of material, the band was anything but predictable. Not only did compositions like "Lush Life," "UMMG" and "A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing" not sound like interpretations by contemporaries like Joe Henderson, the  players always maintained their individuality—particularly Derome and Tanguay, two of the most original improvisers I've encountered.

I haven't heard Young sing in person in about 25 years, and it was a treat to be reminded what a fine vocalist she is. Last night, she went deep inside the songs, mining the frustration, loneliness and occasional humour in Strayhorn's lyrics.

Just as Derome and Tanguay, in their Évidence trio, can find interesting ways to express Thelonious Monk's music, this project refracted light in new ways through Strayhorn's music, making you forget previous versions you might have heard. No small feat.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Exploring In Quebec

I'm spending five days at one of my favourite jazz festivals, in Quebec City, and as usual it is opening my ears to artists I don't get a chance to hear elsewhere. Anyone who has explored the jazz scene beyond the main stage shows at the Montreal International Jazz Festival knows the wealth of artists who live and work in the province of Quebec, and this festival showcases many of them.

Last night, I enjoyed the quartet led by bassist Guillaume Bouchard, which features the estimable Michel Côté on tenor sax, and then a free-blowing trio that was dominated by trumpeter Aron Doyle. Originally from British Columbia, Doyle went through McGill University's music program and has been a mainstay in several mainstream-minded bands in Montreal. This is the first time I've heard him play at length, and he is impressive. My DownBeat colleague John Murph heard some Terence Blanchard in his playing, but Doyle also put me in mind of Dave Douglas in his ability to expand melodies without inhibition.

More fun to come; tonight's main show features an all-star Quebec band led by the great Jean Derome, playing the music of Billy Strayhorn.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Top 10 Speculation

Mid-October brings the definitive change of season where I live (even though last weekend—Thanksgiving in Canada—felt like mid-summer) and a reminder that it's time to begin final consideration of the year's Top 10 list of CDs.

Normally, this time would find me with an abundance of choices, but perhaps I've been harsher in winnowing out things as I've marked new arrivals for further consideration. (A word or two about my process: Like many critics I know, I keep a running list of CDs or downloads. When something catches my ear, I'll note it as a contender; my own version of nominating a recording for jury selection. A jury of one.)

At any rate, a quick check this morning informs me that I have 'nominated' eight recordings so far. This would seem to make things quite easy, except that this week brought a bounty of new things (a new Taylor Ho Bynum Sextet recording, for example) for consideration. Lots to listen to, and a tough fight for those remaining two spots; or, in fact, potential to knock some of those already nominated out of the running.

Are there any shoo-ins at this point? Well, it will be tough to deny Sonny Rollins's second Road Shows CD a spot, what with that Ornette Coleman duet and all, and the Marcus Strickland double-CD is very, very strong. There are at least a couple of others that made powerful impressions during the first handful of listens, and I would be surprised if the passage of four or five months will change my opinion, but you never know. In all, there are probably about five recordings that are safe, given that the first requests for locking in a Top 10 will start arriving any day now.

Is there a clear front-runner? Not yet, and I like that. After all, there has to be some suspense; even if it's self-imposed.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Jerry's Kids

I always look forward to the opportunity to hear my friend, drummer Jerry Granelli, play live. Not only is he one of the most creative percussionists of the past 50 years, but he radiates a sense of playfulness about music that is infectious.

Last night, Jerry brought his new trio to Ottawa as part of a national tour in support of his CD Let Go. As he described it, this is a trio he has been not dying to put together. "I've known Danny (Oore) and Simon (Fisk) since they were kids, and just hoping I lived long enough to get to play with them."

As usual, Jerry has a great ear for talent. After leaving Halifax, Fisk was a mainstay for awhile in Vancouver, and then moved to Calgary, and the two have made music together as part of the bassist's own trio. Oore studied with the gifted teacher Don Palmer at Dalhousie University, and has grown into an extraordinary reed player. I last heard him when he was still a student, and his development has been exceptional. Based on what I heard last night, I'd rank him with just about any young saxophonist in improvised music.

The best part of last night's show, however, was the way the trio embodied the album's title. Jerry noted a couple of times that what was being played onstage bore little resemblance to what they did in the studio, and that's just fine with him. He encourages freedom, and both Fisk and Oore take full advantage. In that respect, Jerry always reminds me of something his friend, fellow drummer Joey Baron—he of the eternal goofy smile while playing—once told me. "We take this music very seriously, but we have fun doing it."

At one point, Oore, playing soprano, deconstructed a solo into a line of staccato honks and bleeps. Smiling from behind his drums, Jerry commented, "Let's see you get out of this." Oore responded by deftly navigating the blind alley, and the band was off on another adventure.

Serious fun, for sure.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

David Murray's Little Big Bands

Looking back on them, the seven or eight years I spent hosting and producing programs at Canada's oldest campus radio station coincided with one of my favourite periods in music outside of the 1960s. My pop music shows began with the rise of punk and ended with the flowering of some enduring U.S. songwriters. My jazz program, Rabble Without A Cause—co-hosted and memorably named by my friend Don Lahey—was spiced with the rousing music created by artists like Henry Threadgill (Air), Arthur Blythe, Ronald Shannon Jackson, Lester Bowie and Ornette Coleman's Prime Time. Among our favourite, and most frequently featured, musicians was the prolific David Murray.

Murray became legendary for releasing several albums a year, and for the diversity of his bands, but I was always partial to his octet projects, in particular the albums Ming, Home and Murray's Steps. I don't particularly like brassy big bands, and the octet setting—especially when dark-toned instruments like bass clarinet are in the mix—offers a lot of interesting possibilities. Murray seemed a natural for it; using the format to convey both emotion and power. For these recordings he recruited some of the most exciting players on the burgeoning New York City loft scene, including Threadgill, pianist Anthony Davis, drummer Steve McCall, trombonists George Lewis and Craig Harris, and trumpeters Olu Dara and Butch Morris.

Anyone wanting to make the case that the '80s is a treasure trove of great acoustic jazz—and there are many who do—just has to reach for these recordings, and now that's easier to do, thanks to a new box set of all five octet CDs.