01 Eldon Rathburn ProjectThe Romance of Improvisation in Canada: The Genius of Eldon Rathburn
Petr Cancura; Kevin Turcotte; Marianne Trudel; Adrian Vedady; Jim Doxas
Justin Time JTR 8613-2 (justin-time.com/en/album/588)

The Romance of Improvisation in Canada – The Genius of Eldon Rathburn celebrates the music of the late, titular composer, who wrote more than 250 film scores, the majority of them during his long career as a staff composer for the National Film Board. This album – released through Justin Time, and helmed by Adrian Matte and Allyson Rogers, who co-produce and arrange all the album’s music – is a labour of love to the memory of Rathburn, whose music will be familiar to multiple generations of Canadians, even if his name is not. Playing Matte and Rogers’ arrangements is the top-notch ensemble of Petr Cancura, saxophone, Kevin Turcotte, trumpet, Marianne Trudel, piano, Adrian Vedady, bass, and Jim Doxas, drums.

Working for the NFB, many of Rathburn’s assignments involved composing music for educational shorts, including the endearingly titled Fish Spoilage Control; the theme gets an up-tempo swing treatment on this album, with a jagged melody set atop a tense pedal point. The Industrial Revolution Comes to Canada, at a mere 31 seconds, is a brief foreboding delight; likewise the three sections of the Ox Driver’s Blues suite. Fresh Fish Delish! Le Poisson se mange frais! is a bouncy, bluesy number, which, like so much of the album, balances humour and levity with the ensemble’s sophisticated improvisational prowess; Vedady, Turcotte, Cancura and Trudel all take concise solos. An excellent and unique album, appropriate for those interested in Rathburn, jazz, Canadiana or any combination thereof.

03 Ben dCunhaThis Is Autumn to Me
Ben D’Cunha
Independent (bendcunha.com)

On his debut recording, compelling pianist, vocalist and composer, Ben D’Cunha culled the selection of tunes here from 27 original songs captured in a single four-hour recording session this past summer. D’Cunha’s voice is rich and lustrous, and his jazz sensibility and phrasing are superb. As a pianist, he is in the pocket, connecting on a psychic level with the superb musicians also featured on this fine recording – Bob Brough on tenor saxophone, Jordan O’Connor on acoustic bass and Mike McClelland on drums.

The CD gets going with Earworm – an up-tempo, beboppish salute to the great vocalese progenitors, such as Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. D’Cunha bops and scats joyously throughout this delightful tune, punctuated by the trading of fours with Brough, O’Connor and McClelland. Of special note is the title track, a lilting bossa with a charming lyric and thoroughly gorgeous vocal. D’Cunha seems to channel the late, great, Kenny Rankin here with his pitch-pure and vibrato-controlled vocal sound. Also of note is Where Are You Now – a touching ballad of a past love, loss and reflection. The pristine canvas of piano, bass and drums is the perfect setting for this deeply moving piece.

The ten tasty tracks continue with Sweet Honey Bee (Won’t You Walk With Me) – a bluesy, funky tune featuring the soulful tones of Brough on tenor; and also the brilliantly lyricized, You Expletive You – a contemplative ballad about toxic love. O’Connor sets the sultry tone with the wonderful voice/bass duet that kicks off this boppish ballad, and Brough’s languid solo is masterful, as is O’Connor’s.

03 TrioliloquyTrioliloquy
A/B Trio
Chronojazz CR065 (chronographrecords.com/releases/trioliloquoy)

While the slyly clever play on words in the title may suggest drama and a certain angular structure to the music, nothing can really prepare you for the fierce energy that leaps out of the opening chords of the A/B Trio’s opening chart Lenny’s Beat. It’s an immensely exciting start to a recording that has you on the edge of your seat.

Primary colours abound in the textures that often rustle in the raw silk of Dan Davis’ saxophones that receive a mighty fillip from the brassy ones that special guest, trumpeter Kevin Turcotte, brings to the trio. All this while bassist Josh McHan and percussion colourist Thom Bennett keep the music on a tight rein, with rhythms and phrasing that are tight and alert.

It’s quite a shock to also see how fast the music can move from the tempestuous opening chart to the stately canter of the romantically inclined How Suite It Is, where the musicians take an elegiac view of the written material and work around it to produce something quite magical even in a walking rhythm.

The poetic waltz Leda’s Song later in in the repertoire keeps things deliriously romantic and balletic at the same time; this before the heat is turned up once again with the raw and gutsy Bluesaholic and the tantalizing interplay of Secondary Opinion that closes this edifying music. Capture that in a recording that gives space to sound and you have a winner.

04 Uncertainly PrincipleLive at The Rex
The Uncertainty Principle
Independent (andrewboniwell.com)

With the release of pianist and composer Andrew Boniwell’s second CD with his stellar ensemble, The Uncertainty Principle, he has once again established himself as one of the most creative, non-Euclidian, improvisational jazz musicians on the scene today. For this live recording (expertly engineered by Neil MacIntosh at Toronto’s Rex Hotel and Jazz and Blues Bar), he has once again coalesced the considerable talents of Richard Underhill on alto saxophone, Kevin Turcotte on trumpet, Artie Roth on bass and Mike McClelland on drums. Boniwell serves as producer here, and has written all but one of the compositions. He is also fluent in what is possibly the only universal language – mathematics – and although the sophisticated quantum concepts that are integral to his music may not be readily understood, the exciting and unpredictable aspects of it certainly communicate the plasticity of space/time, as well as the thrilling idea of participating in a perfect, unexpected and unplanned moment of creation.

Boniwell’s opening salvo, Getting Higgy With It, Part #1 is a dream-like piano and percussion exploration which segues into the evocative Sleeping Giant, which features superb work from Underhill and McClelland. Another standout is Probability Wave #1 / HUP Poem, in which a superb bass solo and profound trumpet work lead the ensemble into a free flight of beauty and majesty punctuated by a stirring, hip, thought-provoking spoken word sequence by Boniwell. Winding up the CD are two exceptional tracks, Suite 60, where Underhill’s alto and Turcotte’s muted trumpet cling together like particles attracting, and Monk’s Well, You Needn’t, re-imagined with Latin underpinnings. Both are triumphs, as is the entire recording.

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06 Mike FieldTrue Stories
Mike Field
Independent MFJCD 1801 (mikefieldjazz.com)

Following three previous award-winning CDs, trumpeter/composer/vocalist Mike Field presents a heady blend of his actual diverse, peripatetic road experiences expertly merged with compelling bits of pure fantasy. Field serves as composer here, as well as co-producer/co-arranger with noted guitarist Dominic Mancuso. In order to bring his eclectic concept into reality, Field has assembled a cast of fine musicians, including Mark Camilleri on piano/organ, Russ Boswell and George Koller on bass, Davide Direnzo on drums, Rosendo “Chendy” León on percussion, Mancuso and Tony Zorzi on guitar and Jerry Caringi on accordion.

The project kicks off with Mechanic, a hard-rocking anthem, replete with burning horns, face-melting guitar and impassioned vocals by Field that tell the story of a lonely, travelling space mechanic. Following immediately is another standout, The Hotel by the Mansion, which features a klezmer-like arrangement about a very peculiar circus act, starring a woman with fire in her hair (the kind of act that you can only do once!) Field soars on Tu vuo’ fa’ l’americano – a lusty reworking of Carosone and Salerno’s Neapolitan classic, most recently heard in the film, The Talented Mr. Ripley, replete with a bombastic accordion solo from Caringi.

Also of note are Magnolia, a swinging, jazz-like tune that features not only a fine vocal by Field, but also a dynamic trumpet solo, and the lyrical closer, Autumn Lovesong, which is a tender reflection on love, life, family, the turning of the seasons and the inevitable passage of time. Field sings deeply and emotionally, in symbiosis with gorgeous piano work by Camilleri.

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07 No CodesNo Codes
Benjamin Deschamps
Independent (benjamindeschamps.com)

Put these four gentlemen together in the warmth of an acoustically perfect room and you instantly have a heavyweight quartet bursting forth from bar one, then continuing to carve out a niche for itself. No Codes suggests allegiance to no single style within the realm of jazz but there is certainly a reference to the rippling boppish groove that soon unfolds into music with tantalizing angular melodies couched in complex tempi and abruptly changing rhythms.

Alto saxophonist Benjamin Deschamps, playing his heart out, shows that he can hold his own with his veteran colleague tenor saxophonist Frank Lozano. Bassist Sébastien Pellerin and drummer Louis-Vincent Hamel frame the broodingly percussive rhythm section but every now and then they come forth from playing in the pocket to ring in the changes in mood, structure and tempo. All of this makes for a highly interesting program, from the blistering bop runs of Rules of Compression that lift the lid on this pressure-cooker atmosphere around the band to the loose and funky swagger of Cool Cats and the tart, party-time thrills and spills of Double Meaning and My Steps.

There is a considerable degree of balance and integration of melody, harmony and rhythm from this piano-less quartet. This is touching and toe-tapping music in equal measure. Again, composition and improvisation, exploration, individuality and tradition are all impressively maintained throughout, which makes No Codes a disc to absolutely die for.

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08 Allison AuWander Wonder
Allison Au Quartet
Independent AA-18 (allisonau.com)

The Allison Au Quartet has been together since 2009 and their first album, The Sky Was Pale Blue, Then Grey (2013) was nominated for a JUNO. The second album, Forest Grove, won a JUNO in 2016 for Best Jazz Album of the Year: Group. Wander Wonder is their third release and is a thoughtful and subtle work with each musician contributing their technique and inspiration to Au’s complex and layered compositions. For example, the group’s casual precision is demonstrated during the drum solo which ends Force Majeure: Fabio Ragnelli plays with abandon while Todd Pentney (piano) and Jon Maharaj (bass) lay down an understated and contrasting, repeating chordal vamp. Throughout the album, Au’s alto saxophone is light but intense and reminds me a little of Paul Desmond but leaner; it fits well with her writing where solos are interspersed with ensemble sections and melodic fragments.

Highlights include Looking Up which begins with Ragnelli’s subtle drum intro. Then Au plays a beautiful looping melody over clever rhythmic punctuation, an ostinato bass pattern interrupts before the melody returns and leads into an elegant piano solo. Red Herring begins with a syncopated minor melody over funky and jagged beats. As the piece progresses, Pentney’s Prophet Rev2 adds an ominous texture for some additional tension. The piece winds its way down a number of genre alleys (as its title suggests) and is ultimately satisfying and not at all misleading. Wander Wonder is an exquisite album that balances introspection with some terrific solos.

09 AutoschediasmAutoschediasm
Karoline Leblanc; Ernesto Rodrigues; Nicolas Caloia
Atrito-Afeito 010 (atrito-afeito.com)

Autoschediasm (the term indicates something improvised, offhand or casual) presents a three-segment collective improvisation created by Montreal-based pianist Karoline Leblanc and bassist Nicolas Caloia and Portuguese violist Ernesto Rodrigues. All are accomplished improvisers, but each brings different threads: Leblanc’s background stresses the classical avant-garde; Caloia’s career emphasizes free jazz; Rodrigues, who leads several distinct improvising orchestras in Lisbon, has championed free improvisation for over 30 years, appearing on scores of CDs.

While the title suggests something casual, the music sounds appropriate to its Conservatoire de Musique de Montréal setting, the trio bringing a high modernist discipline and precision to the work. The opening movement flows with an energy that is dense and light. Sparked initially by LeBlanc’s imaginative keyboard flights, in its later stages it settles into a churning rhythmic pattern that ignites Rodrigues’ radical virtuosity, resulting in a flurry of microtonal lines that sometimes create their own counterpart. Offhand? Casual? The only thing that distinguishes it from composed music is the challenge of writing it down.

The second movement takes a contrasting approach, developing little sounds, arising discreetly, sometimes pointillist, at times muffled, at others percussive, a gently humming underbrush alive with detail. The final segment moves from delicate sonic events to a turbulent, vibrant world that recalls the opening, a formal motion that exaggerates a pattern evident since the early classical era. It’s an act of “autoschediasm” rich in taut attention to nuance and form.

10 Pressing CloudsPressing Clouds Passing Crowds
Kim Myhr; Quatuor Bozzini; Caroline Bergvall; Ingar Zach
Hubro HUBRO CD 2612 (hubromusic.com)

Initially commissioned and performed at FIMAV in Victoriaville, Quebec, Pressing Clouds Passing Crowds is a musical rumination on immutable nature and human disruption, composed by Kim Myhr, the Norwegian guitarist whose strums underscore the narrative that ululates through this six-track suite.

Accompanied by Norwegian percussionist Ingar Zach and framed by the harmonies of Montreal string ensemble Quatuor Bozzini (QB), the music shares space with the idiosyncratic recitation by French-Norwegian poet Caroline Bergvall. Her distinctive phrasing helps set up a rhythmically charged program where her vocal narrative adds as much to individual sequences as the QB’s intermittently buzzing glissandi, the percussionist’s hand pops and vibrations, plus the guitarist’s string strokes and spanks on 12-string acoustic, which constantly move the theme forward. Moving efficiently through word images that range among simple instances of nature appreciation, chimerical retelling of dreamlike surprises, and astute allusions to political events involving refugees and dangerous water crossings, Bergvall sets up hypnotic sequences whose resolution depends as much on the feints and fancies of instrumental virtuosity as the players’ strategies depend on her verbal concoctions.

With its echoes of folksay, impressionism, stark improvisation and poetics, Pressing Clouds Passing Crowds is a distinctive creation which can be experienced more than once – which is precisely what can be done by listening to this CD.

11 LingerLinger
Benoît Delbecq; Jorrit Dijkstra; John Hollenbeck
Driff Records CD 1801 (driffrecords.com)

Reshaping improvisational parameters, Dutch alto saxophonist Jorrit Dijkstra and French pianist Benoît Delbecq add flexible oscillations to the ten performances here by also improvising on, respectively, Lyricon and preparations for synthesizer, aided by the flexible percussion patterning of Montreal-based John Hollenbeck.

With instrumental additions that can process tones as they’re created, the Europeans’ secondary voices multiply interactions past standard trio voicings to suggest enhanced melodic lyricism and rhythmic vigour, often simultaneously. On Stir for instance, reed smears and outer-space-like oral currents vie for supremacy challenged by wave-form squibs and measured keyboard chording. Unfazed by timbre multiplicity, the drummer not only keeps a backbeat going, most powerfully on Push, but also bluntly asserts his agenda with individualistic rolls and ruffs plus cymbal splashes there and throughout the CD.

Dijkstra and Delbecq don’t just depend on texture supplements as they aptly demonstrate on Dwell, where irregular saxophone trills and split tones confront a flowing keyboard narrative plus inner piano string stops; or on Stalk, where modulated piano clusters create an impressionistic theme that complements inchoate Lyricon echoes as well as cursive beats plus drum-rim rubbing from Hollenbeck.

Contrapuntal yet communicative, the textural sound-melding throughout the disc suggests that Dijkstra and Delbecq, who first met at the Banff Jazz Workshop in 1990, should collaborate more often. As it is, the two, plus Hollenback’s fluid and inventive patterning, have created a session over which one can beneficially linger.

12 Eric DolphyEric Dolphy – Musical Prophet
Eric Dolphy
Resonance Records HCD-2035 (resonancerecords.org)

When Eric Dolphy died in a diabetic coma in 1964 at 36, he represented a special loss to jazz: a master of three distinct woodwinds (alto saxophone, bass clarinet and flute) whose exalted technical acumen and creative intensity contributed immeasurably to great recordings by John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus, George Russell and Oliver Nelson, among many others.

Musical Prophet is a 3CD set that expands the 1963 sessions that produced the LPs Conversations and Iron Man. Ranging from unaccompanied saxophone solos (Love Me is an expressionist masterpiece heard here in three versions) to a tentet, from jazz standards like Fats Waller’s Jitterbug Waltz (on flute) to Dolphy’s own dense, swarming Burning Spear, it’s the finest portrait of the breadth of Dolphy’s genius available. There are no finer examples of the “third stream” impulse than Dolphy’s duets with bassist Richard Davis, abstract weavings that press Ellington’s Come Sunday and the standard Alone Together into classics of improvised chamber music. On Music Matador, his bass clarinet roars with celebratory abandon.

Dolphy’s breadth is as apparent in his range of collaborators, from bassoonist Garvin Bushell, who recorded with Mamie Smith in 1922, to 18-year-old trumpeter Woody Shaw, here making his recording debut. Along with the expansive and illuminating alternate takes, the set includes a remarkable bonus, A Personal Statement, with an extended musical dialogue that includes pianist Bob James (yes, that Bob James) and countertenor David Schwartz.

13 Keith JarrettLa Fenice
Keith Jarrett
ECM ECM2601-02 (ecmrecords.com/catalogue/1532415893/la-fenice-keith-jarrett)

A new release from the Keith Jarrett concert archive is always a welcome occasion. Such is the case with La Fenice, the ECM label’s latest offering from the virtuoso pianist, which comes to us as a two-disc set featuring an improvised solo concert recorded at Gran Teatro La Fenice, Venice, in 2006. By this time, Jarrett had adopted a concert format during which he would improvise a series of relatively short pieces, as opposed to the long uninterrupted sets that he favoured on earlier iconic recordings such as La Scala and Bremen/Lausanne.

Interestingly though, Jarrett begins La Fenice by breaking these self-imposed format limits, as he launches into a mostly atonal musical exploration which clocks in at over 17 minutes, until its final unexpected resolution in F-sharp Major. In Part 3, the pianist visits one of his more familiar trademark styles wherein his left hand lays down an ostinato pattern while the right hand improvises fluid gospel/blues lines. Rhythmic clarity, direction and superb melodic development are present throughout, as Jarrett pulls off one amazing pianistic feat after another with apparent ease. The music then segues into an achingly beautiful ballad, possibly one of the most breathtaking improvised pieces he has ever recorded.

On disc two, the pianist breaks up more complex harmonic territory with a bittersweet Gilbert and Sullivan tune (The Sun Whose Rays), before proceeding on to a straight-out blues romp. We are also treated to several encores, including My Wild Irish Rose, Stella by Starlight and a stunning Jarrett original, Blossom. On Stella, the pianist is clearly enjoying himself as he weaves complex bop lines over a left hand walking bass, while also tapping his foot on beats two and four: a one-man band!

All told, La Fenice is a deserving addition to Jarrett’s long and distinguished recording legacy.

(I) Les vents orfèvres;
(II) Les entrailles de la montagne
Jean-François Bélanger
Les Productions de l’homme Renard (jfbelanger.com)

01a Belanger 1Jean-François Bélanger is a specialist in period and contemporary string instruments. Between 2015 and 2018 he completed an enduring diptych dedicated principally to the Swedish folk instrument the nyckelharpa. However, unlike Olov Johansson of the Swedish group Väsen and renowned exponent of the three-rowed nyckelharpa, the music created by the Montréalais Bélanger seems to fuse a myriad of musical idioms, drawing from Swedish and Celtic ones, on his single-rowed instrument.

The first of Bélanger’s diptych of recordings is Les vents orfèvres, a piercing journey into the interior landscape of the artist’s mind, “dedicated to matters of the spirit,” as Bélanger explains. There is an astonishing variety of music here, from the spine-tingling and airy Ouverture tirée à quatre épingles and Le pensoir with their eloquent silences punctuated only by the sound of the keys as they are depressed, to serve as frets to change the pitch of the string, to the knockabout Suite norvégienne with its highly theatrical and dance-like gestures that closes out this disc.

Throughout we hear music-making of great vividness and immediacy; the songs seem to traverse not just time, but also a musical topography infinitely more vast than the relative insularity of the instrument. It bears mention too that Bélanger also plays numerous other stringed and percussion instruments and is accompanied by 12 other virtuoso musicians who play a staggering range of instruments from the Jew’s harp and the Brazilian caxixi to the Indian bansuri and the viola da gamba.

01b Belanger 2The second part of his celebrated diptych Les entrailles de la montagne is infinitely more adventurous. The music unfolds and with it the metaphor of the mountain takes shape. As the disc progresses the music seems to pour out of the instruments in a proverbial volcanic mix that melds opulent orchestral arrangements with a percussive folksy theatre that seems to crisscross the earth’s music. But to describe it as such gives the impression of overcooking when in fact the whole project is a masterpiece of subtlety.

Somehow Bélanger’s nyckelharpa appears to give way more frequently to other instruments from his pandora’s box that even includes the sitar and tampuri-swarmandal. Here too, Bélanger is accompanied by 15 musicians plus a string quartet, each deeply attuned to his vision. The surprises, when they come, are effective but discreet: a gamelan-like riff played as pizzicato harmonics and a delicate curlicue of a bass line that sounds like a Gaelic lament and, as in La brouseaille – Chemin de traverse, a close-knit passage that develops from a single phrase. Small wonder that Bélanger received the Instrumental Solo Artist of the Year prize at the 2018 Canadian Folk Music Awards for Les entrailles de la montagne.

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02 Alicia HansenBefore You
Alicia Hansen
Independent (aliciahansen.com)

Alicia Hansen does not write party music. What the Vancouver-based singer and piano player does write are artistic, original and harmonically complex songs. Her propensity for minor keys and stark lyrics make her latest album, Before You, feel a little dark at times, but her beautiful voice and vulnerability more than make up for it.

Hansen’s third studio release comprises 11 tracks all written by her and produced by JUNO Award-winner, Jesse Zubot, who also plays violin on the album. Zubot and cellist Peggy Lee’s string work add to the haunting quality of many of the tunes, such as Who I Am or the opener Disintegrating Heart which explores themes of love and relationships, as many of the songs do. Other themes are emotional growth, self-acceptance and the rejection of standards set by others. In Fame and Glory Hansen writes, “So I hope that you’re not waiting for me, to turn into something that I’ll never be.” And that sums this record up well. Hansen’s work is worth exploring for anyone tired of formulaic pop offerings and keen for fresh, interesting, yet accessible songs.

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03 Barbara LicaYou’re Fine
Barbra Lica
Justin Time JUST 260-2 (justin-time.com/en/profilArtist/404)

Barbra Lica is on a songwriting and album-releasing tear. Her fifth CD in six years has just come out and it’s populated by all original songs, almost all written or co-written by Lica. For this album, she travelled to the mecca of American music, Nashville, where she collaborated on songwriting, enlisted players and recorded tracks, all under the tasteful oversight of Toronto bassist and producer Marc Rogers. So while this album is a bit of a departure from Lica’s previous jazzy records, it’s still true to her signature, sunny style. Even when she’s singing about heartbreak and longing, such as in Everybody Else, you need to listen closely to know it, since the songs are so consistently upbeat.

Besides Lica’s pretty, lithe voice, guitars are the stars of You’re Fine courtesy of Tom Fleming and Nashville session players Paul Franklin and Wanda Vick Burchfield, whether it’s the acoustic on the opening track Before I Do, which sets the tone for the album with its lovely simplicity, or the pedal steel, dobro and mandolin that enrich a number of the tracks. Heck, a banjo even makes an appearance on one song (Jolie Oiseau)! Joel Visentin’s keyboard work deserves mention as it subtly supports throughout the album then shines on the closing track, When I’m Gone, a lovely lilting number featuring piano and the instrument that’s most dear to this reviewer’s heart, accordion. Aaahh.

04 Ivana PopovicBushes and Bombshelters
Ivana Popovic
Long Play CD 034 (ivanapopovic.com)

While it’s generally not my practice to mix reviews with politics, in this current political climate of hateful, anti-immigration rhetoric being hurled by xenophobic politicians (from both sides of our southern border and beyond), it delights me to review violinist and composer Ivana Popovic’s lovely debut album, Bushes and Bombshelters, which paints a poignant, musical portrait of a successful immigration story – her journey from Serbia to a creatively rich life in Canada.

An accomplished classical musician, Popovic’s compositional influences run the gamut from Bach and Shostakovich to Gypsy and Eastern European folk music. The ten original tracks on Bushes and Bombshelters cover the themes of longing and belonging, nostalgia, connection, homeland and new beginnings, and are crafted with the passion of someone who has experienced them all, intimately. Accompanying Popovic on her musical journey are pianists Saman Shahi and Perry Maher, double bassist Jesse Dietschi, trombonist Don Laws, percussionist Max Senitt, violist Nikray Kowsar, cellist Stuart Mutch and flutist Jamie Thompson. Popovic sings on three tracks; John MacLean lends vocals on one.

With the spirited clippity-clop of the voyage, the mood shifts from sombre to celebratory, brilliantly depicted by Popovic on electric 5-string violin with outstanding contributions from Laws and Senitt; this titular first track sets the tone for the entire album. From the evocative violin and piano duo, Sketches From Serbia, to the plaintive, prayer-like Blue for solo violin, and Memory’s exquisite interplay of flute, violin and cello, Popovic’s Bushes and Bombshelters is a journey worth taking.

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