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Reviewing CDs by Aaron Novik, Ted Quinlan, Eric St. Laurent and Mal Waldron

I get an avalanche of records for review, almost 400 of them last year alone. Some were great, a small handful were not worth listening to, but still someone took the trouble to send me physical product or downloads.

To repay the senders’ faith in me and to ensure that their efforts will not have been in vain, I’m going to attempt to say something about every 2020 release I receive, however briefly, starting with this batch released after the deadline for the NPR Poll in which I was honored to participate. Wish me luck.

Ernesto Cervini is my favorite drummer on the Toronto scene, a crisp, energetic presence who elevates every date he’s on. You could say he does the same thing for his scene through his side hustle as the tireless owner of Orange Grove Publicity.

Call it confirmation bias, but I think there’s a Canadian sound, one that reflects some of that great country’s virtues: beauty, spaciousness, tolerance and moderation. Cosmopolitanism is in there, too, so it’s no surprise that the city’s large Caribbean community informs Bliss Station by guitarist Eric St. Laurent. It’s a guitar trio with lilting rhythms from Michel DeQuevedo’s hand drums (there are no traps) and bassist Jordan O’Connor that sometimes veers toward the decorative, a lazy afternoon in a beachside bar. The leader plays pretty, too, in the amiable program of nine originals, but the strongest voice here might belong to Berlin trumpeter Sebastian Studnitzky whose whispery, papery tone adds a chill to the lukewarm Haitian ambience.


The cover of Ted Quinlan’s Absolutely Dreaming shows the Toronto skyline at dusk. It’s the kind of image jazz albums since the 1950s have used to signal sophisticated urbanity, which Quinlan delivers in the music. If you want to locate the absolute center of the mainstream in 2020, push the pin into “Absolutely Dreaming,” a program of nine Quinlan originals. They don’t deviate much from the mean, and so you get pretty melodies, head-solos-head structures, accomplished solos uninterested in pushing boundaries and collegial ensemble work from pianist Brian Dickinson (who turns in some sparkling Herbian solos) and the rhythm team of bassist Kieran Overs and drummer Ted Warren. It’s all very polished and understated in a way that feels quintessentially Canadian.

One of the most inescapable storylines of 2019 is the ever more porous border (if such a thing ever existed) between jazz and contemporary classical music. The musicians on Aaron Novik‘s No Signal work this borderland productively in this compact, three-part, 45-minute recording. It’s two pairs of instruments tuned a half-step apart: the leader’s A clarinet and Jeremiah Cymerman’s B-flat instrument pitted against—and sometimes with—the guitars of Ava Mendoza and Matt Hollenberg. Sometimes the music moves glacially, with tectonic plates of sound slowly grinding over one another and at others, a shower of top notes from the guitars rain down like July Fourth sparklers. These players find more interesting possibilities than you might have thought possible from their limited instrumentation.

At the end of its 50th anniversary year, ECM Records has gone back to the beginning, offering a reissue of the first record the label released, Mal Waldron’s Free At Last. A lot of the ECM DNA is already in place for this date recorded in November 1969: an affinity for piano trios that continues to this day, and certainly the vaunted sonics that have become the label’s signature, miraculously rendered in this reissue. Waldron’s flinty, sometimes obsessive piano style is worlds away from the rhapsodic Nordic mysticism that has come to characterize ECM, fairly or not. So, this is a special release, not less for what it delivers than what it promises. ECM has done reissues before, starting with the “rarum:” series, but I cannot recall one that includes unissued material, as this one does. There are four alternate takes here, nearly a half-hour of music—including the complete take of “Willow Weep for Me” that was edited to fit on the original LP. How much more is in the ECM vaults? As producer Manfred Eicher looks back on his long career, what might we have to look forward to?

Coming next: Duo dates by Toh-Kichi (Satoko Fujii/Tatsuya Yoshida) and Matthew Shipp/Ivo Perelman

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Reviewing La Tanya Hall and the Unison Trio at Bop Stop, 12-20-2019

There’s a moment in every great jazz set where everything falls together, magically, like a platonic ideal of a Tetris game, and the music becomes effortlessly self-generating. That moment came at the midpoint of “Pensativa,” during the first set by vocalist La Tanya Hall and the Unison Trio last night at Cleveland’s Bop Stop.

It’s not like you couldn’t hear it coming (and it wasn’t the high point of the show, but more about that in a moment). Pianist Andy Milne’s solo was sparkling and full of piquant harmonic asides, but when bassist John Hébert walked four and drummer Clarence Penn shifted from an airy but emphatic “Poinciana” beat into classic tipping rhythm, well, the band levitated.

You wouldn’t expect much less with musicians of that reputation and caliber. Hall might not be as well known, but she should be. With poised assurance, she delivered ten songs, nine of them from her excellent new CD, “Say Yes” and a ringer, a lovely, imaginative arrangement of the ancient Christmas carol “We Three Kings.”

There was one standard, “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye,” and it was delivered as an encore with hushed concentration. Most of the selections came from jazz, a pair of Monk tunes, “Pannonica” and a sassy “Well You Needn’t” that was enlivened by Penn’s NOLA second-line beat. Hall also seduced the audience with a playful “Jitterbug Waltz” where she and Milne, her husband, played will-they-or-won’t-they with the beat during an extended tag on the words “come on.” And that’s just what it was: a come-on, and a delightful one.

But among Waller, Monk, Clare Fischer, Benny Golson and other luminaries, composer’s pride of place went to Joni Mitchell, whose “The Fiddle and the Drum” received a cinematic reading of quietly devastating power. Milne, who presumably did the arrangement, opened by “bowing” a single piano string while Hébert added spooky arco shudders. Penn’s muffled snare tattoos sounded from the eerie quiet of a battlefield at night. Hall intoned Mitchell’s questioning lyrics with an earnestness touched by sadness and launched a phantasmagoric, PTSD flashback of a piano solo by Milne on the words “and so once again” that only returned to the harmony, like a wounded soldier to consciousness, on the final line.

This was music made by and for adults, unafraid of mastery and aware of its own integrity. It was everyone’s idea of what a jazz vocal performance should be, and it was so much more. Hall teaches at nearby Oberlin and should return just as soon as she and the trio can get some new material together. Rumor has it that the trio without Hall will return to support a spring release of a new record on Sunnyside. Like last evening’s show, it promises musicmaking on an Olympian level.

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