13 lunar album frontAyelet Rose Gottlieb – 13 Lunar Meditations: Summoning the Witches
Ayelet Rose Gottlieb; Jay Clayton; Choeur Luna; DB Boyko
Orchard of Pomegranites (ayelet.bandcamp.com/yum)

Jerusalem-born, Montreal-based composer and vocalist Ayelet Rose Gottlieb’s latest release is a landmark, female-centric project with breathtaking scope. Gottlieb approached over 20 women and girls from around the world, and asked them to contribute their poetry, with a loose theme of the moon as a female symbol. Co-producers Gottlieb and DB Boyko have also included an improvisational choir and the talents of acclaimed free-jazz vocalist/educator Jay Clayton. With poetic and musical contributions from nine different countries, this compelling project is an acoustic exploration focusing on the moon and our relationship to it. Gottlieb has said, “The moon speaks to the universal and to the intimate female presence.”

Boyko also serves as conductor here, and the double LP was expertly recorded by Padraig Buttner-Schnirer. The impressive musicians include Eylem Basaldi on Turkish violin, Aram Bajakian on guitar, Stéphane Diamantakiou on acoustic bass and Ivan Bamford on drums. The improvisational Choeur Luna is comprised of a number of guest voices in combination with the Joker Choir, Elements Choir and Choeur Maha. Of the 13 works, first up is Lotte and the Moon, with poetry by New Zealand’s Anna Smaill, in which Gottlieb and Clayton negotiate their entwined voices around quirky, soulful, exotic motifs and mesmerizing percussion work. A true highlight is Venus and the Moon, with poetry by Australia’s Bes Davies. A lilting melody, Gottlieb’s delightful vocal, a stirring bass solo by Diamantakiou and some sweet spoken words make this track highly memorable. 

Patience, with poetry by Turkey’s Sems-i Tebrizi, evokes visceral images of jinn moving through skeleton-like trees, while spirits and desires form out of mist and moonglow. Moon Over Gaza/Almost Summer/I Come From There, with poetry by Israelis and Palestinians, is a groovy, bop-ish, irresistible, three-movement piece, in which Clayton shines. The song cycle is punctuated by tasty guitar licks from Bajakian that eventually metastasize into a primal scream for mutual human respect and oneness.

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02 A Muffled SnoreA Muffled Snore
Friendly Rich; David Sait; {An} EeL
Independent (friendlyrich.bandcamp.com/album/a-muffled-snore)

Three Ontario artists collaborate in this exciting COVID isolation-time project of 12 attention-grabbing, twisted, out of this world contemporary tracks.

This is strange, dreamy, dramatic and intriguing music. Friendly Rich speaks and sings ten tracks composed by musician David Sait to dadaist lyrics/texts by {An} EeL. Creepy opening track, The Dainty Dandies, features Rich’s resonant spoken text, Sait’s 12-string guzheng and closing sound effects, opening the sonic door to the subsequent tracks which also include piano, guitar and percussion. Grumpy vocals and tempo-setting, single-tone strings drive Dig. Eerie Higgily Piggily Rig answers my question of what COVID-19 sounds like with low-pitched words, taps and echo effects. Loud, disturbing Lick Your Eyeballs has such angry spoken words as “I wanna taste the dirt” reinforced by Sait’s held sonic sounds and effects. Dramatic closing track Take Time reinforces the previous tracks’ sounds with more clear spoken words, string vibrations, electronic sounds and tonal touches until the so memorable closing line “Will always love you.”

{An} EeL performs lyrics by Friendly Rich, set to music by Friendly Rich and Cheldon Paterson, on two tracks. Love the extremely avantgarde You Smelt It, We Dealt It with its delicious crunchy potato-chips-munching sound effects, low vocals and string twangs, heavy metal touches and short “flavourful” sung melodies.

As Sait wrote: “We all recorded alone in separate locations and corresponded online.” Their combined creative musical, performance and technological expertise make this a unique must listen!

03 Eliana CuevasEl Curruchá
Eliana Cuevas featuring Aquiles Báez
Alma Records (almarecords.com)

With her sixth release, luminous Toronto vocalist and composer, Eliana Cuevas, has crafted a celebration of Venezuelan music and culture – replete with fresh, creative, acoustic arrangements of much-loved Venezuelan popular songs. This song collection (from primarily the past 30 to 50 years) reflects traditional Venezuelan music as Cuevas experienced it on the radio, and in singing and playing with her family and friends growing up. A solitary voice and solo instrument duo is a bold choice – but a powerful one, and is a manifestation of the type of recording, instrumentation and content that Cuevas had envisioned. In an inspired pairing, Cuevas is joined by iconic, internationally respected Venezuelan guitarist, composer and national hero, Aquiles Báez.  

The title track has special meaning for Cuevas, in that her late father frequently grabbed his cuatro and launched into this tune at family gatherings. Written in 1928 by Juan Bautista Plaza, this folk song was written in the joropo tradition, and is presented here at a quicksilver pace with Cuevas and Báez flying through space-time. Cuevas’ breathtaking vocal skill takes the listener on a roller-coaster ride of emotions and intensity. Flor de Mayo is heartbreakingly beautiful and Caramba easily conveys its message of melancholy passion. Among the 13 delights here (well-produced by Jeremy Ledbetter), Báez has contributed one original tune, the delightful San Rafael (one of the most exciting tracks on the recording), and Cuevas contributed a fresh, more elemental version of her previously recorded composition, En un Pedacito de tu Corazón.

Other triumphs include Acidito, where Cuevas’ sumptuous, warm, pitch-perfect voice and stunning, sibilant Spanish connects with Báez’s sonorous and dynamic guitar work on every level. The musical, interpretive and artistic skill of Cuevas and Báez on this recording surpasses any written descriptives, and welcomes us “con un abrazo grande” to lavish in the full spectrum of the diverse musics of Venezuela.

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04 Sue SmithTonight We Sail
Sue Smith and The Potion Kings
Independent SS002 (suesmith.ca)

Singer and songwriter Sue Smith is an accomplished and multi-faceted artist based in Guelph, Ontario. Together with remarkable instrumentalists The Potion Kings, a collaboration of contrasts develops on Tonight We Sail, where her attractive, reserved vocal presentation receives fluent and sometimes even aggressive backing. For example, in the introspective If I Am Sleeping, masterful electric guitar work builds up the song through an increasingly fiery night world to daylight and renewal. Nine of the 11 songs are original. Musically they source familiar genres of blues, rock and pop, but here they are also adorned in striking clothes and evoke unusual time frames. Patient, spare lyrics are given plenty of time in their musical settings to reverberate in the listener’s mind.

On the opening track, Night Skies, images of nature gradually accumulate toward the refrain – “Night skies, come closer” – which binds the song together and reinforces its hypnotic feel. The images are archetypal and we can, without difficulty, place our own experiences around them. One of my favourite songs is You Come Calling, an affecting, spiritual track with searching lyrics given an extra edge by indistinct fuzz-tone support. The last two songs, Beloved, Scorned and Church of Beauty also seem oriented to a spiritual journey. It took a while, but I find the disc grows on me and look forward to more from Sue Smith and The Potion Kings: Jeff Bird, Kevin Breit, Randall Coryell and Howie Southwood. Highly recommended.

05 Emily SteinwallWelcome to the Garden
Emily Steinwall
Independent (emilysteinwall.bandcamp.com/album/welcome-to-the-garden)

There is much depth to this album, yet the second time I listened to it I nearly missed it. This is not because the content is forgettable, nor is it the result of a vignette-type album that lacks the stamina to round out an 80-minute CD length, rather it’s a testament to the curation of the recording’s seven intriguing, yet smooth, tracks. I am thinking more of the production and programming when I say smooth, as the tracks presented contain far more depth than the type of music we tend to associate with smoothness. That being said, the instance in which I “nearly missed” this album was a result of being preoccupied with some household tasks. To fit this much artistry into a release that can also be enjoyed in a casual background context speaks volumes about the mastermind behind it: Emily Steinwall. 

I have known Steinwall’s saxophone playing and brief forays into singing for close to a decade now, so it is exciting to hear her original compositions and ample vocal chops shine on this debut release. Excellent programming results in two of my favourite songs being the title track and the closer, Courage My Love, which fades into a lovely half-minute soundscape of birdsongs. Exactly what we need to hear in the middle of a dark pandemic winter, but I would recommend listening any time!

06 Al QahwaAfrican Routes
Al Qahwa Ensemble
Independent AlQahwa02 (alqahwa.ca)

Talented world music group, Al Qahwa Ensemble, has just released their third exceptional recording. The diverse musicians are all based in Toronto: Maryem Toller on vocals and riqq (Arabic tambourine) and qanun (Arabic table harp); Ernie Toller on wind instruments; Greek/Canadian Demetri Petsalakis on oud (Arabic fretless lute) and Iranian/Canadian Nagmeh Farahmand on Middle-Eastern percussion. The group’s esteemed special guests include Waleed Abdulhamid, Fethi Nadjem and Roula Said.

The program begins with Marrakesh – which was inspired by the all-female ensemble, B’Net Marrakesh. Having seen them perform, Maryem utilized their unique chant “Hey Hey Hey Hey” in this piece, which instigates an incendiary energy through call and response, hypnotic rhythms and dynamic, mesmerizing vocals. Also thrilling is The Rain/Il Matar – a musical telling of the story of a sudden, brief storm across the land, driven mercilessly by the relentless 12/8 of the dumbek as well as interlacing, dynamic vocals and funkadelic bass lines, moving in unison.

Another delight is Bahia Out – a traditional Egyptian folk song about a woman with beautiful dark eyes who kills a man with those same eyes while riding a camel – a sensual, provocative trip, where one could easily imagine the air filled with exotic spices. Precise and thrilling vocals propel this caravan through the oasis!

Peace/Issalam has a euphoric intro, which segues into the deep groove of Mother Earth herself. Cairo/Al Qahira is the dynamic closer – composed by Petsalakis with lyrics by Cairo-born Maryem, this delightful tune includes the hilarious insertion of a little excerpt from an old Egyptian movie, Khally Balak Min ZouZou. The ensemble explodes into a wild pentatonic jam with the sheer joy of the music. The track ends with a primal percussion segment that could restore us all to the very dawn of time itself.

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