This Song Is New
Canadian jazz guitarist Lorne Lofsky delivers his first album in more than two decades with This Song is New. A master guitarist known for his pianistic voicings and virtuosic skill, Lofsky is considered one of Canada’s great musical treasures. Joining Lofsky is his tight-knit quartet made up of his longtime musical associates: Kirk MacDonald on tenor saxophone (with whom Lofsky has played extensively since the early 1980’s), bassist Kieran Overs, and drummer Barry Romberg. All these names are most likely new to those of us stateside, so we will indulge in some background before getting to the music.
Born, raised and based in Toronto, Lofsky’s career began when Oscar Peterson offered to produce his first record, It Could Happen To You (Pablo Records), in 1980. During the years that followed, Lofsky worked extensively in the Toronto area, and toured with the likes of renowned saxophonist Pat LaBarbera, and fellow guitarist Ed Bickert. Bickert and Lofsky’s fruitful collaboration ran from 1983 through 1991 and produced two widely acclaimed recordings including the well-known 1990 Concord release This Is New. In the mid-1990’s, Lofsky gained further recognition as a member of the Oscar Peterson Quartet. From 1994-1996, Lofsky toured with Peterson’s group at venues all over the world from Carnegie Hall to the Montreal Jazz Festival and appeared on three recordings.
Lofsky was Chet Baker’s “go to” Canadian guitarist – heavily featured on the legendary jazz trumpeter’s 2000 release Live at the Renaissance II. His other notable collaborations include performances with Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Brown, Benny Carter, Joey DeFrancesco, Dave Holland, Rosemary Clooney and Clark Terry, among others. While Lofsky has built a widely respected reputation as a world-class player, he has also become known as a prominent and sought-after educator. Currently, he teaches at York University and Humber College in Toronto, has an extensive private teaching practice, and he has guest lectured at a plethora of top-notch institutions such as St. FX University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia and McGill University in Montreal, among others.
While Lofsky is never far away from his guitar, composing is something more sporadic, which explains why it has been nearly 25 years since his last recorded work as a leader. “I’ve been concentrating on playing for most of my life,” says Lofsky. “But every once in a while, I kind of go on this little ‘mini binge’ and I feel inspired to write something.” Consequently, the album contains five new originals and such familiar fare as Miles Davis and Victor Feldman’s “Seven Steps to Heaven,” which opens the album and Benny Golson’s “Stable Mates,” which closes. The listener immediately senses the tight chemistry of this quarter and it’s not surprising that many of the tracks were cut in a single take. Originally meant to be a casual readthrough at Roberto Occhipinti’s Modica Music Studio in Toronto, Lofsky had no intention of releasing the recording commercially until he heard the exceptional results.
We are indebted to James Hale of DownBeat for the liner notes and insights into the tracks gleaned from his extensive interviews with Lofsky. First, it’s important to understand Lofsky’s approach to his instrument as he eschews outboard effects and pedals. “I try to play voicing so that tunes sound more orchestral. I know there are modern players who rely on signal processing, but I don’t even like reverb. I just plug my guitar into an amp, try to get a decent sound, and then, you know, sail away.”
With the opening of “Seven Steps” one senses that this might be a throwback album but instead we find a fresh arrangement of the oft-covered song recast in a different meter. We then get the first of the five originals, “The Time Being,” a brooding, contemplative piece featuring the lyrical MacDonald as the first lead voice with the leader and bassist Over next stepping in. Taking a cue from the late trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, a fellow Canadian icon Lofsky worked with, Lofsky uses wordplay in the titles of his compositions. So, while “Live from the Apollo” nods to the legendary Harlem concert hall, it also alludes to astronaut Neil Armstrong’s 1969 leap from the steps of the lunar landing module to the surface of the Moon, and to John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” with some alternate changes and an alternate melody. There are some lively exchanges as each member of the quartet expresses himself.
In his typically off-handed manner, Lofsky teases with the title track, resembling “The Song Is You” in name only. MacDonald’s tone is so pure in the high registers that it seems as if he is playing alto rather than tenor.
The puns continue with “An Alterior Motif,” named for the altered harmony that abounds in the piece. The performance has a beautiful tension between Romberg’s drumming, MacDonald’s languid opening solo, and the leader’s short, thoughtful interlude bridging into a more aggressive turn from the saxophonist. So, three in a row for these clever references culminates with the sprightly “Evans from Lennie,” which not only draws from pianists Bill Evans and Lennie Tristano but reaches out to recently departed saxophonist Lee Konitz as well. Lofsky comments, “I was just messing with “Pennies From Heaven,” and thinking of Tristano, Konitz, and Warne Marsh because they all wrote really great alternate lines to standard song forms. I studied with Konitz briefly in 1984, just to try to get more insight into melodic development when improvising. I learned that you have to know the melody of a song inside out, be able to juxtapose different parts of the melody, then re-phrase, embellish it, and elaborate on it.”
Finally, Lofsky downplays his bossa nova treatment of “Stable Mates,” although it sounds like a radical shift from the straight-up, post-bop takes of the song popularized by Miles Davis, Wes Montgomery, and composer Benny Golson himself. “I changed the chords. That’s nothing to write about by any means, but I liked the fact that, as a Bossa, it has a very different vibe. And it kind of summarizes the way I’ve been working at playing things in five or in seven and feeling like those time signatures are not something I have to work up to anymore. I just instantly start playing it that way.”
We’d be remiss to not include this quote from the leader, “It’s a jazz record. This is music that’s instinctive. It’s not a pop record, where the producer spends six months trying to get the right reverb on the snare drum, and the bassist records his parts separately. I’ve put the last 46 years of my life, on a daily basis, into this. And I’m not going to stop working on this, until I take my last breath.”
Well said, though this writer was unfamiliar with the Lofsky going in, the recording is surprisingly strong and so quietly understated, the kind that only veterans can usually achieve. This quartet is clearly improvising within the context of the compositions, but it comes across flawlessly as if they know very clearly where to take each step.
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