01 Alfie ZappacostaSaved
Alfie Zappacosta
Alma Records ACD20512 (shopalmarecords.com)

Colourful, compelling, award-winning, platinum-selling Canadian artist Alfie Zappacosta is back with an energetic, vibrant collection of nine stylistically diverse original tracks in this, his 16th album. Zappacosta successfully takes on the positions of songwriter, singer, arranger and producer here to create a memorable mix of jazz, pop, rock and ballads.  He is joined by many of his longtime songwriting and musical collaborators including Gerry Mosby, Marco Luciani, Andrew Glover, Silvio Pupo and Louis Sedmak.

Zappacosta’s decades-long career, with all its personal and professional ups and downs, has provided him the tools to explore, compose and develop his musical style in his own way, and as he explains, now without record label direction. The entire release is a gratifying musical surprise. Unspoken is a colourful romantic ballad highlighted by Bob Tildesley’s muted trumpet echoing his rich vocal line. The upbeat title track showcases Zappacosta’s distinctive rich vocal range, precise pitch placement and clear articulation of the lyrics, with enthusiastic backing female vocals and techno-flavoured instrumentals. Had Enough opens with an intense banging drum solo followed by a danceable pop/jazzy tune driven by Zappacosta’s low-pitched vocals and bouncy instrumentals. Here in My Heart, flavoured by Romantic-style symphonic music and co-written with Pupo, is very emotional, highlighted by a singalong love chorus.

Zappacosta and his team’s charismatic, passionate performances are perfectly reco-rded, produced and “Saved.” It’s so much fun to listen to, brightening up these pandemic times with musical energy!  Simply said, this is music for everyone!!

02 Art of TimeAin’t Got Long
Art of Time Ensemble
Art of Time Recordings ART003 (artoftimeensemble.com) 

Ain’t Got Long features the Toronto-based Art of Time Ensemble led by Andrew Burashko and Jonathan Goldsmith, arranger and producer. Ten numbers by songwriters ranging from Irving Berlin to Radiohead are arranged with distinction by Goldsmith, featuring singers Madeline Peyroux, Gregory Hoskins, Jessica Mitchell and Sarah Slean. Among outstanding instrumentalists, Peter Lutek plays a variety of woodwinds throughout. Goldsmith’s inspired title track uses a solo vocal from one of Alan Lomax’s Prison Songs recordings, successively adding echoing, a beat, increasingly dissonant chords and more. A ripple effect results that expands in time and space and amplifies the prisoner’s cry. 

Especially creative Goldsmith arrangements include Love in Vain (Robert Johnson) where the achingly bluesy vocal by Peyroux is surrounded by Ravelian piano chords, Hendrix-like electric guitar from Rob Piltch, and eventually, dissonant high strings that capture the song’s despair. Another one I like is of Radiohead’s Exit Music (For A Film), sung effectively by Mitchell, who at one point descends unexpectedly into a very low register. The classically based arrangement for piano and strings includes scintillating Chopin-like arpeggios from pianist Burashko, plus familiar high-pitched chords from Der Rosenkavalier at the end. Other songs, with arrangements ranging from traditional to unconventional, include Calling All Angels (Jane Siberry) sung movingly by Hoskins, Sad Song (Lou Reed) with an original vocal interpretation by Slean, and a fine Someone to Watch Over Me (George and Ira Gershwin) by Peyroux.

Listen to 'Ain’t Got Long' Now in the Listening Room

03 Dan HillOn the Other Side of Here
Dan Hill
Sun+Sky Records (danhill.com)

Award-winning Canadian singer/musician/songwriter Dan Hill’s 16-song release, his first in 11 years, is an outstanding addition to his multi-decade catalogue. His first hit, Sometimes When We Touch (1977), is still a favourite of many generations of listeners. Hill does not disappoint here, with more moving songs featuring his trademark lyrics and melodies.

Title track On the Other side of Here is a classic Hill song with chordal piano (John Sheard) and guitar (Anthony Vanderburgh) accompaniments – and multiple harmonic key modulations. What About Black Lives?, released last November as a single/lyric video, is an intense song written in the wake of George Floyd’s killing in the United States. Hill is a child of a mixed-race couple, and expresses his outrage of this horrific event musically with shifting rhythms, dynamics and powerful melodic lyrics in his vocal/piano and Vandenburgh’s guitar performances. Ninety Years Old is heart wrenching, with words like “When you are 90 years old, you are still a little girl” sung above respectful guitar, piano and strings. Pop-flavoured, radio-friendly, faster Sometimes I Feel, composed by Hill and Vanessa Benfield, has Hill singing at the high end of his vocal range and playing rhythmic guitar accompaniment to Vanderburgh’s soundscape on Rhodes. All the other tracks are equally enchanting.

Hill’s songwriting and performance skills are still so very personal yet relatable to us after all these years. Combined with clear production and virtuosic performers, this is another inspiring Hill masterpiece!

04 The WesterliesThis Land
Theo Bleckmann & the Westerlies
Westerlies Records (thewesterliesmusic.bandcamp.com/album/this-land) 

The Westerlies are an inventive brass quartet based in New York (though the members are childhood friends from Seattle) and their music is a mixture of jazz, roots and chamber music (imagine Stephen Foster and Aaron Copland meeting Miles Davis at a church social). This Land is their fourth release and is a collaboration with German singer and composer Theo Bleckmann. The album is a meditation on their shared country of America and includes spirituals, Bertolt Brecht, four Woody Guthrie songs, a stark and arresting version of Joni Mitchell’s The Fiddle and the Drum and several originals. Mitchell’s anti-war song is followed by Land, which is trombonist and composer Andy Clausen’s somber setting of Agha Shahid Ali’s poem about immigration, the past and present and America and India. This is followed by a wistful, yet rousing, instrumental version of Guthrie’s Two Good Men (check this performance out on YouTube). Then we have Bleckmann’s Another Holiday which begins with the lyrics “It’s barbecue and pie, the kids will run around, and I’ll sit on the side... .” With its minimalist brass accompaniment and ambiguous lyrics the song manages to be both optimistic and sinister at the same time.  

This Land is a thoughtful and engrossing collection of 15 works which play off one another to create a fascinating concept album about a turbulent America. The heavy dose of Guthrie proves that the past is always with us in the present. The performances are excellent and the combination of voice and brass is highly original. The Westerlies continue to innovate and push far beyond what we might expect from the description “brass quartet.”

Listen to 'This Land' Now in the Listening Room

05 Joy HarjoI Pray for My Enemies
Joy Harjo; Various Artists
Sunyata Records JH001 (joyharjo.com)

A curious mixture of spoken word, cutting-edge poetry, funky grooves and a propelling artistic drive, I Pray For My Enemies is one of those albums that cuts straight to the heart and sends a powerful message to the world. There is no hiding from the grittiness of the real world here and no pretense. Joy Harjo, the first Native American U.S. poet laureate and the author of several books of poetry as well as six previous albums, is a force de jour, an artist with strong convictions and a compassionate heart.

Harjo lined up a powerhouse of musicians for this album: Peter Buck (R.E.M) on electric guitar, Mike McCready (Pearl Jam) and Rich Robinson (Black Crowes) pumping out fantastic electric guitar solos, and Krist Novoselic (Nirvana) on acoustic guitar. Barrett Martin is nothing short of amazing in his various roles as a drummer, upright bassist, keyboardist and co-producer. A touch of lyricism and dreaminess provided by Iraqi oud master Rahim Alhaj and trumpeter Dave Carter is cleverly mixed in between and the earthy, rocking solos on sax and flute by Harjo herself add an edge to the rhythmical drive underneath. 

I Pray For My Enemies comprises 16 tracks covering the whole of human existence in today’s world. From empowering Calling the Spirit Back and Running, to the introspective Remember and the clever Rabbit Invents the Saxophone, this album feels borne out of this moment in time, with vulnerability of truth and the stance of a warrior. You will come back to it again and again.

06 Roxana AmedOntology
Roxana Amed
Sony Music Latin 19439860962 (roxana-amed.com) 

With her seventh release, producer and iconic Argentine folk/rock/jazz vocalist and composer Roxana Amed has manifested a musical project that plumbs the very depths of her identity as a creative artist – as an Argentinian and also as a Floridian, living in the politically bisected United States. The CD title, Ontology, refers to a branch of philosophy that studies deep concepts such as existence, becoming and being, and how entities/energies of different groupings manage to co-exist. Recorded amidst the COVID-19 pandemic at the world-famous Hit Factory in Miami, Amed has conducted her own esoteric exploration, incorporating primarily her own compositions and framing her pieces with an exquisite quintet, variously featuring Martin Bejerano on piano; Mark Small on sax; Tim Jago/Aaron Lebos on guitar; Edward Perez/Lowell Ringel on acoustic bass; Carlo De Rosa on electric and acoustic bass; and Rodolfo Zuniga/Ludwig Alfonso on drums.

First up is Tumbleweed – an inspired piece, conjuring up motifs of the cinematic American ancient West. Amed’s silky, dusky, powerful instrument crawls through the remote desert scenario and creates beauty in the seemingly unending, isolate topography of the Western states, while the ensemble dips, swings and sways with acuity and intention.

A stellar standout is Chacarera para la Mano Izquierda – this sumptuous, sexy, enhanced rural tango features a spine-tingling solo from Bejerano and thoroughly lovely and agile scatting from Amed. Additionally, the title track is so rich and compelling that it’s of little importance what language this gifted communicator is using. Danza de la Moza Donosa is a lightening quick, solid, bebop-ish jazz composition featuring Amed’s supple and potent chops. Without question, this is one of the most original and well performed jazz-related vocal CDs of this year!

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