01 LeahyGood Water
North 28 Music Inc. N28MR0001LP (leahymusic.ca)

It would be redundant to attempt to summarize the incredible musical contribution that has been made to Canada, and to the world, by this award-winning, exceptionally talented Celtic-Canadian family. On this latest Leahy release, every track is a rare emerald. Although perhaps not totally in the traditional bag, it’s still a trans-world-folk family affair – featuring Denise on vocals; Erin on piano, fiddle and vocals; Frank on drums; Julie Frances on vocals, piano, keyboards and acoustic guitar; Maria on acoustic guitar, mandolin and vocals; and Siobheann and Xavier on accordion. Produced by the iconic David Bottrill, Leahy manages to blur all of the lines, and in so doing, manifests a techno-organic masterpiece.

The title track has a sumptuous, angelic vocal intro followed by a contiguous, poetic vocal line of almost unbearable beauty – an uplifting feeling of an ancient one-ness… a statement that moves beyond the Irish diaspora. No doubt, the ancient Leahy DNA is rife with incredible instrumental technique, as well as the rare gift of being able to transmute and share emotion.  

Other brilliant tracks include Friend, which invokes the heartbeat of Mother Earth herself, blissfully intermingled with an ecstatic wall of sound and rich, layered “blood harmony” and also Star of the Sea, which is a radiant highlight of fiddling, odd measures and a ballistic arco attack that channels the Tuatha de Danann themselves. Of special significance is My Old Man – a lush, sonorous, melodic reverie, filled with ethnic memory and longing. This gorgeous track is a tribute to the Leahy patriarch from two generations prior – singing out from the passing of time – blessing his descendants as they live their authentic musical traditions, creating fearlessly into the future.

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02 Curtis AndrewsSpeaking Hands
Curtis Andrews
Independent (curtisandrews.ca)

Among the first reviews I wrote for The WholeNote was The Offering of Curtis Andrews (December 2009). I’ve been … bopping around the apartment to this joie de vivre-filled CD by Curtis Andrews, Newfoundland’s globe-trotting percussionist and composer,” I enthused. “The music [draws] from Andrews’ studies in South Asian, West African and North American music … [merging] all those influences in an energy-rich field, couched in mainstream jazz forms and improv-rich solos...”

Relocated to Canada’s West Coast, Andrews has continued his musical journeys inspired by those same global elements. And he’s joined on his sparkling new album, Speaking Hands, by 20 talented musical colleagues from across Canada, USA and Africa. Manifesting a mature musical voice, this sophomore release features nine Andrews’ compositions and one by Carnatic percussion master Trichy Sankaran, their tricky metric landscapes negotiated with aplomb by the Vancouver-based ensemble, The Offering of Curtis Andrews. Though recorded last year, Speaking Hands reflects two decades of travel, study and collaboration with master musicians on three continents. 

Andrews’ compositions intertwine “rhythms and polyphonies of vodu-derived traditional music of West Africa, the micro and macrocosmic play of time and pitch found in Carnatic traditions of South India,” and jazz harmony and improvisation. It’s the novel intersection of all these seemingly disparate elements into a cohesive and high-spirited musical statement that marks the album as something special. 

The album title? Andrews explains it was inspired by the practice of the Carnatic recited rhythmic language known as solkattu. “It is the voice that gives rise to rhythm before the instrument does… the hands ‘speak’ what the voice (mind) creates.” This album certainly speaks to me.

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03 Roots of StringsRoots of Strings – The oud at the crossroad of Arabic, flamenco and Indian music
Nazih Borish
Analekta AN 2 9173 (analekta.com/en)

Syrian-born Nazih Borish is a respected oudist and composer. While establishing and running his Syrian oud school, this already-renowned artist began to expand and embrace a wide variety of musics, including Arabic, flamenco, blues and jazz. In 2016, Borish arrived in Canada, where he seamlessly continued his international work as a composer and performer. On this energized program of original compositions, Borish has collaborated with two equally accomplished and gifted artists: bassist Roberto Occhipinti and acclaimed world-music percussionist (darbuka, req, ketim and dahola) Joseph Khoury.  

Every well-produced track underscores the one-ness of mankind. From the most elemental bass notes of Mother Earth’s heart to the intensity of shared human emotional experience – this recording is a journey of profound meaning. The opening track, Nazihawand (Nahawand taksim), is a resonant, mystical composition… with sonic elements that are steeped in human experience – sounds from a timeless place, in a place-less time – eventually segueing into a wider, more languid sequence, punctuated in an inspired way by Occhipinti and Khoury.

The title track is heady with exotic spices, exploring the deep and ancient relationship between the indigenous music of Spain, Iberia, Portugal, the sub-Continent and the Arabian peninsula, followed by Ataba (Bayat taksim) – deeply moving, with rich, lustrous tones; the facile skill of Borish is breathtaking. I can hear this universal music echoing off the walls of the Blue Mosque, the Taj Mahal or Carnegie Hall! Ali Baba Dance is a stunner – and Damasrose (Rast samai) is a sensual, Masala-flavoured trip, displaying complex string technique by Borish, all the while expressing the subtleties of several different instruments of antiquity – even hints of the Japanese koto.

04 Ventus MachinaRoots
Ventus Machina
Leaf Music LM239 (leaf-music.ca)

Ventus Machina is a classical wind quintet based in New Brunswick which makes “excursions” into other genres. Roots is an inventive album containing arrangements of folk songs, fiddle tunes, Celtic music and a few iconic Canadian singer-songwriter staples. The majority of arrangements are by James Kalyn who plays clarinet and saxophone in the group. The album begins with Our Roots Medley which has five movements including an arrangement of some of Bach’s Goldberg Variations (The Goldberg “Variegations”), a Swedish folk song (Koppången) and Gordon Lightfoot’s The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Kalyn’s arrangements are complex and use the full acoustic and technical resources of the quintet to present a unique perspective on these diverse selections. The Goldberg Variegations” are quite contrapuntal, while Edmund Fitzgerald uses a majestic French horn to announce the theme amongst the other swirling instruments. 

Bird on the Wire has Kalyn playing bass clarinet, tenor saxophone, singing and using slap tongue techniques for rhythmic purposes. On Joni Mitchell’s The Circle Game the quintet is augmented by the Atlantic String Machine and a small children’s choir. For the three fiddle tunes, Traveller’s BreakdownDoin’ Repairs and Calm Before the Storm, they are joined by the composer Ray Legere, playing fiddle and mandolin, with Christian Goguen on guitar; the music gets lively. 

The underlying delight present throughout Roots is having familiar music reinvented in an unusual and intriguing context. This is Ventus Machina’s second album and I look forward to more musical adventures with them in the future.

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05 In DIn D
Brooklyn Raga Massive
Independent (brooklynragamassive.org)

Terry Riley’s iconic minimalist composition In C (1964) is scored for an indeterminate number and kind of instrument or voice. A drone-like pulse on the note C synchronizing the ensemble guides its performance, while superimposed repeated phrases give the work a phasing effect. (Riley had been deeply influenced by his studies with Hindustani classical vocalist Pandit Pran Nath.)

Hailed as “Leaders of the Raga Renaissance” (The New Yorker), Brooklyn Raga Massive was founded in 2015 by sitar player and composer Neel Murgai. Given the diversity of instruments and musical backgrounds of the group, BRM chose Terry Riley’s adaptable In C to record in 2017. Then at Riley’s suggestion in 2020, BRM members took inspiration from In C’s form and composed a new work. It is interpreted by 25 musicians on the album In D, each of the three sections set to a different Hindustani raga (Indian classical melodic mode). Within that framework improvisational instrumental and vocal solos are balanced by effectively composed tutti passages and drum features. 

Musicians and instruments from numerous traditions playing together can prove a challenge; this album manages to avoid many of the pitfalls. Adding to the cultural diversity here, while there’s certainly an emphasis on the classical Indian soundworld, other traditions unexpectedly and delightfully come to the fore before receding back into the sonic prevalent texture. 

In recognition of the pandemic context the recording was made in, the three ragas were selected to “match the pandemic situation we now face. We plunged from our normal happy lives into darkness and [now] finally… we have hope.” The joyful communal sprit of In D gives me hope too.

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07 Intersystems#IV; Unfinished World
Waveshaper Media WSM-04CD (waveshapermedia.com)

Over 50 years since their last release, Intersystems return like a spectral transmission from the original psychedelic era. In the late 1960s, the Toronto multi-disciplinary art collective dedicated themselves to replicating hallucinogenic experiences. Architect Dik Zander, light sculptor Michael Hayden, poet Blake Parker and electronic musician John Mills-Cockell (known for his work with the bands Syrinx, Kensington Market and decades of soundtrack composition) constructed immersive installations aiming to overload each of the five senses. 

Intersystems’ trilogy of late 60s albums (Number One, Peachy and Free Psychedelic Poster Inside) have become canonized experimental classics, reissued as a lavish box set by Italian label Alga Marghen in 2015. The archival efforts of compiling this collection – alongside accompanying reissues of Syrinx and Mills-Cockell’s solo work – lit a spark of inspiration as Intersystems’ surviving members reunited for a new studio project. With the new album #IV, and its accompanying CD-only EP Unfinished World, they expand their legacy as luminaries of the Canadian avant-garde.

In a series of sessions at Hamilton’s famed Grant Avenue Studio, Hayden and Mills-Cockell conducted an electronic séance. Though Parker sadly passed away in 2007, they rendered the words of his poems with computerized vocalizations, drawing listeners into an uncanny valley. At times, these spookily lifelike voices take a cue from Parker’s deadpan delivery on Intersystems’ original albums. Elsewhere, their warped robotic gurgles sound like a sinister Max Headroom clone.

Mills-Cockell runs wild across a playground of vintage Moogs and Mellotrons, conjuring a vast expanse of effects. The sparse ambience of Revelation of the Birds casts an otherworldly glow over Parker’s surrealist poetry about avian conversation topics. In the two parts of Sonny Abilene, the narrator’s agitated delivery of nightmarish imagery combined with looping minor-key melodies is reminiscent of minimal wave outsider John Bender. 

The album concludes on an ominous note of acceptance with The End of the World, as swirling arpeggios drift across 12 minutes of dystopian poetry. In Parker’s vision of the apocalypse, human skins peel off like snakes, while bodies ascend into heaven on electric light. As Mills-Cockell once said, “If it wasn’t disturbing and profoundly weird, it wouldn’t be Intersystems.”

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