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Alex Jacquemin, First & Last Light

Modern jazz guitarist Alex Jacquemin’s latest memoirs First & Last Light is double concept album that captures specific moments of creation. The first album, colour-coded blue is called Charms and was created in 2010 with the help of a loop station accompanied by percussionist Mario Monaco and cellist Yoed Nir. The second album, colour-coded brown is called Zanchin and are live, spontaneous compositions created again with a loop station accompanied with just Yoed Nir back in 2008.

Let’s work our way backwards.

Zanchin was first conceived when Jacquemin moved to New York City where he could only play small gigs – hence delving into loop station technology – his musical partnership with Yoed Nir flourished during this period and the duo create beautifully together. The loop station here isn’t used as a gimmick and works because of the spontaneous nature of the recording, you can feel the artists reacting to one another and it helps that Jacquemin has no limitations to his guitar style. Every track on Zanchin is a dedication; opener “A Suzanne” is for his mother and revolves around a heart-breaking melody line, “A Bridgette” is for a friend who committed suicide and is a breath-taking buildup of guitar and cello loops while German philosopher, “A Peter Sloterdijk” is epitomized in Afro-beat.

Charms is the perfect companion disc to the moodier styling of Zanchin and features bright and groovier tunes taking “A Peter Sloterdijk” one step further by creating an entire album of African beats with percussionist Monaco. In addition, these melodic arrangements allow Jacquemin to show off a bit more as otherworldly opener “The Charm” proves. Follow-up track, “Snakes” features some scary quick finger-picking that builds on some eerie electronic sounds created by the guitar while my favourite track “Children” creates an atmosphere of joy with a few simple chords and effective playing.

First & Last Light is a classic mosaic of multi-cultural modern jazz that challenges contemporary jazz to extend beyond what is considered popular. Definite listen for guitar enthusiasts or those looking for a challenging but gratifying listen – prepared to be awed. (Independent)

Rating: 5/5 Stars

Alex Jacquemin – Official Site

New Foundation, Goin’ Places

For contemporary jazz enthusiasts, the name Curtis Hammon may ring a bell; that would be because he is an alumnus of internationally beloved smooth jazz group Pieces of a Dream.

His partner on this new project is none other than Pieces bassist Bennie Sims who joined that band in 1992. From their press kit: “From the first note it was kismet….Both musicians recognized that there was something special happening that deserved expanded avenues of exploration”.

Three years later, New Foundation is the end result of that exploration and Goin’ Places is a fine contemporary jazz release with an aggressive funk persuasion (“Chocolate”, “It Just Don’t Stop” and “Max Anna Split”) and soulful, romantic jams (“Patricia” and “Sincere”).

My major complaint about Goin’ Places is how ordinary it feels, don’t get me wrong these guys still know to create deep emotions with catchy melodies but overall New Foundation really doesn’t offer up anything new to the contemporary jazz scene. (Cornerboy Jazz/Boom Camp Records)

Rating: 2.5/5 Stars

New Foundation – Official Site

Flying Fox and The Hunter/Gatherers, Hans My Lion

Winnipeg’s Flying Fox and The Hunter/Gatherers have been developing their special brand of chaos over two solid EPs and with their first full-length, Hans My Lion, they have matured into an impressive sextet that has found a balance between gypsy hard-bop and indie-pop.

Honestly, that description is just an attempt to pigeon-hole Flying Foxes’ sound. Along with the band’s impressive musical back round (all six members are classically trained) they have a knack for creating popular rock operas. Besides their yearly interpretation of Jesus Christ Superstar the band fired-up Winnipeg’s imagination with their original concept The Wild Things (inspired by Maurice Sendek’s Where the Wild Things Are) receiving “Best of Fest” at the 2010 Fringe Festival.

Point being? They bring all these experiences into Hans My Lion for a knock-out performance that tells a mythological tale of a lion born of a human womb. Throughout the album there are two trilogies that touch on the passing of time “Hans My Lion I-III” and “Spring”, “Winter” and “Autumn”. All capture the band’s passion for mixing idiosyncratic rhythms and charismatic narratives.

My personal favourites include “Hammer” which sounds like if Captain Beefheart was seduced by horns instead of the blues. Lead vocalist, Jesse Krause delivers some of his best lines in this song with a contemptuous roar, “We wouldn’t call it music, but it’s charming all the same, it is seductive in its cacophony”. Indeed sir!

Lead off single “Vanity” is hung on bassist Lindsey Collins’ dramatic lines as Paul Schmidt and Stephen Kay’s horns, Krause’s fiddle work and Darren Grunau’s twinkling keys turn this pop song into a modern classical piece. My only complaint (and it won’t matter to new listeners of the band) is the inclusion of “Nurse” and “Loneliness” – Both songs have appeared on past EPs – and I feel like they don’t really fit in with the concept of the album.

Flying Fox and The Hunter/Gatherers have obviously poured all their soul and creativity into a record that gets more and more involved with every listen and they have done the impossible –  captured the magic of their live performances. (Independent)

Rating: 5/5 Stars

Flying Fox and The Hunter/Gatherers – Official Site

Five Alarm Funk, Anything Is Possible

Vancouver’s 11-piece monstrosity, Five Alarm Funk take the Anything Is Possible mantra to heart on their third studio release by blending together the funky styling of James Brown, the ska textures of Uz Jsme Doma with the weird-as-funk arrangements of Frank Zappa and turn it all into their own brand of hysterical jazz cabaret. This little stew is making Five Alarm Funk one of Canada’s most sought after party bands.

Introducing the band on opener “Infernal Monologue” is a choir of creepy kids before some sugar-starved fiend screams, “ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE!”. From here on, the band delivers on this promise and highlights include the Middle Eastern rock-charged “Titan”, the 80’s themed strut “Demons Be Gone” and the operatic, percussive Afro-beat “Soft Six”. Still, at the end of the day – Five Alarm is about the F-U-N-K and tracks like “Zenith Escalator”, “Payday” and “Face Riot” will have you popping on the dance floor.

This reviewer isn’t at all familiar with the band’s early work, but after listening to this record, I’m eagerly anticipating (and hoping) that The Winnipeg Jazz Festival is going pick these guys up for the 2011 roster. Canada needs great entertainers like this not only to keep jazzy-funk alive but also to remind listeners that sometimes you just got to let your body loose. (Independent)

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Five Alarm Funk – MySpace

Donna Greenberg, Mav’rik

Toronto-based jazz singer/songwriter Donna Greenberg’s second release, Mav’rik exudes hopeless romantic. Whether it is a cry for forbidden lust, eternal love or someone just having their heart stomped on, she freely expresses it with the kind of music associated with a 20th Century credits roll. I don’t mean that as a back-handed compliment either. Greenberg and arranger Jordan Klapman have really thought about what songs fit with what style of music and they cover quite a diverse range here.

The elegant tango “The Language Of Love” begins our exploration of the Jazz songbook and features some classy solos courtesy of her flawless backing band which consists of Tom Skublics (flute), Tony Quarrington (acoustic guitar) and Jon Seiger (trumpet). This is followed up with the cheeky “You’re My Summer Peach” an edited duet with the legendary Louis Armstrong. Other knockouts include, the smokin’ salsa “La Nina de Rosa”, the soft blues “I Just Wanna Cry” and the Bossa Nova inspired “My Tearless Grief”.

Unfortunately, there are a few sore spots that I can’t overlook; The somber Celtic ballad “Nature’s Glory” falls flat as third track in while the bluesy gospel “Praise Be” and the corny country ditty “Old Country Road” are a stretch for Greenberg’s range as a singer. Thankfully, she gets back to her jazz roots and the rest of the album is just as enjoyable as the first half and ends with the beautiful lullaby “Berceuse”.

Besides the mid-album lull, Mav’rik is an exploration of jazz that crosses genres, four different languages and made up of completely original material from a very talented and fresh artist. (Independent)

Rating: 3/5 Stars

Donna Greenberg – Official Site

Fay Claassen, Sing!

Dutch jazz diva, Fay Claassen and conductor/arranger Micheal Abene make a dramatic statement on Claassen’s sixth LP, by taking on the massive 100-member WDR Big Band & The Rundfunk Orchester; This explosion of personnel resembles Miles Davis’ tenor with Gil Evans (1957-63) with just as many sonic twists and turns.

You would think that singing in front of such a huge assemble would be daunting, but Claassen’s confidence and natural charisma make for a pitch perfect attack; Allowing her to be-bop and swing with the rest of the orchestra or propel her phenomenal voice over the brass. Sing! is also a tribute to some of the industries most iconic female vocalists and Claassen’s hand-picked repertoire suggests her love for all genres. From Betty Carter to Joni Mitchell and even Bjork, Claassen makes these songs her own.

On Carter’s classic “Tight”, Claassen speeds up the tempo and adds a little kick to the track with huge brass hits that showcase Claassen’s impeccable phrasing and timing. Key solos include Frank Chastenier’s smooth piano ride and John Horlen’s fired up alto-sax swagger. “A Felicidade” is a multi-lingual samba track that features Claassen singing in fluent Portuguese as the band patiently follows her phrasing, stalling and speeding up on a moments notice. Beautiful stuff.

Instant favourites include Bjork’s “Cover Me”; here Abene’s haunting arrangement is definitely inspired by the golden age of cinema, as he manages to create a story out of atmospheric nuances and dark, anxiety ridden build-ups. Furthermore, let’s not kid ourselves, Mitchell’s “Be Cool” was made for a brass band and Abene wisely keeps the early 80’s vibe and injects a little energetic hard-bop.

Sing! is a challenging listen for novice listeners of jazz, but, with Claassen’s wonderful voice and Abene’s exciting arrangements these contagious songs will, without a doubt, take over your headphones and imagination. (Challenge Records)

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Fay Claassen – Official Site

Gail Pettis, Here In The Moment

For someone who ran a successful orthodontics business for nearly two decades, Seattle-based jazz singer Gail Pettis sure can swing. Only on her second release, Pettis bebops her way though a wide range of emotions and skilled melodic paraphrasing that some jazz singers have taken decades to realize. Even though, Here In The Moment is a collection of jazz standards it is Pettis’ unique interpretations that make it such a wonder to hear.

Under the guidance of Seattle’s creative giants; Pettis’ opens with one of two Cole Porter tunes; “In The Still Of The Night” bounces and sways as Darin Clendenin’s (piano) and Clipper Anderson’s (bass) solos breeze into Pettis’ playful vocals. The second Porter track, “Night And Day” is pulled into twilight as a mysterious shadow is brought on by pianist Randy Halberstadt, in the background the band plays on as if they have had one too many drinks – but it’s these moments that sweep you into the groove. Other choice cuts include the tender piano-vocal duet, “I Thought Of You” which brings to mind lone taxi rides home, while the gossip chatter of “How Did He Look?” will surely bring a smile to the ladies.

Winding down with the extra groovy, “Snap Your Fingers” (a smooth duet with bassist Anderson), it’s clear that Pettis’ knows how to craft a jazz record for the masses. Here In The Moment is a timeless collection that has SOUL running though it’s very veins, simply one of this year’s best jazz records. (OA2 Records)

Rating: 4.5/5 Stars

Gail Pettis – Official Site

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