01 Skye ConsortSkye Consort & Emma Björling
Emma Björling; Skye Consort
Leaf Music LM225 (leaf-music.ca)

How exactly does a Celtic-Quebeco-Franco-Anglo-Acado-Gallo-Baroquo band team up with a Swedish folk singer? The answer to this intriguing question, posed by the liner notes, begins in November 2017, when vocalist Emma Björling was invited to Montreal to take part in a project which also featured members of the Skye Consort. The musicians casually discussed another possible collaboration; however, when Björling’s return flight to Sweden was cancelled due to inclement weather, the plans for this collaboration really began to solidify. On the final night of her stay, it was decided: there would be a new project. Glasses were raised, and voilà, Skye Consort & Emma Björling was on its way.

Flash forward to 2019, the group is embarking on tour and releasing their first CD. There is truly something for everyone on this fine recording, a collection of Swedish, Norwegian, Irish, Scottish, English, French-Canadian and original songs. Herr Hillebrand, a fitting upbeat opener, showcases the talents of the entire group. Next, Björling delivers a powerful, riveting rendition of Om Berg Och Dalar, a traditional Norwegian love song which segues into a Swedish polska. Björling’s stunning original, En Ängel, features empathic support from Amanda Keesmaat (cello) and Seán Dagher (bouzouki). The fiddle tunes, played by Alex Kehler, are an absolute pleasure.

The songs are beautifully arranged, and Björling’s vocals are fully integrated into the ensemble, giving the music the feel of a true collaboration. One of the best folk recordings of 2019.

Listen to 'Skye Consort & Emma Björling' Now in the Listening Room

Gamelan of Java, Vol. 5: Cirebon Tradition in America
Gamelan Sinar Surya; Richard North
Lyrichord Discs LYRCH 7461 (lyrichord.com)

Gamelan Music of Cirebon, Indonesia
Gamelan Sinar Surya; Richard North
Sinar Surya Records G5503 (gamelansb.com)

Gamelan Music of Cirebon, Indonesia: Volume 3
Gamelan Sinar Surya; Richard North
Sinar Surya Records G5503 (gamelansb.com)

Richard North, the California-based gamelan musician and lecturer at UC Santa Barbara, has been studying, teaching and performing gamelan music and related arts since 1972. This passion has taken him from Sundanese villages in highland West Java to the coastal palaces of the Sultans of Cirebon on the island of Java. Recognized today as an authority on the musical traditions of the ancient kingdom of Cirebon, North has called it “an ancient spiritual centre [where] all of the arts radiate a wonderful vitality and energy.” His contributions to the preservation, transmission and development of Cirebonese gamelan music have not gone unappreciated – they have been rewarded by both Cirebon’s royal palace and the Indonesian government.

Back home in Santa Barbara, North has directed the community group Gamelan Sinar Surya since 2002. The group plays two complete gamelan orchestras. The prawa set (in a 5-tone tuning without semitones) plays gamelan repertoires of Cirebon, Sunda and Malaysia. The pelog set (in a 7-tone tuning with semitones) plays pelog gamelan musics of Cirebon, as well as Sundanese degung klasik music which typically uses instruments tuned to a 5-tone subset of pelog. The three CDs in this review are a record of Gamelan Sinar Surya’s dedication to the study and performance of a repertoire rarely heard outside its Cirebon homeland.

02a Gamelan of Java Cirebon Trad in America 2010 vol.1Released nine years ago, Gamelan of Java, Vol. 5: Cirebon Tradition in America was a 2010 landmark: the first commercial recording by an American group of examples of five traditional gamelan genres practised in Cirebon. It gave non-insiders a tantalizing taste of the aristocratic and ritual music of this rich 500-year-old musical culture. This is music on a more intimate scale than the larger and better-known gamelans of Southcentral Java and Bali.

My favourite track is Pacul Goang (Chipped Rice Hoe), characterized at first by the gentle musical ambiance I associate with gamelan Cirebon performance, which then turns fast, fiery and dense in texture. Its atmospheric hallmarks include the dynamic playing of the kendang and larger bedhug (drums), the characteristically sweet suling (bamboo flute) melodic riffs in the soft sections, and the upbeat alok vocalizations of the musicians imbuing life to the instrumentals in the animated fast section.

02b Gamelan Music of Cirebon vol.2.2015Gamelan Music of Cirebon, Indonesia (2015) is the second volume in the series. Gamelan Sinar Surya plays nine pieces on gamelan pelog and gamelan prawa. Standouts for me are the performances of the endangered ritual genres, the joyous gong renteng, magic-imbued denggung and ancient sacred gong sekati, genres happily experiencing a very recent revival.

03c Gamelan Music of Cirebon Vol.3 2019Gamelan Music of Cirebon, Indonesia: Volume 3 (2019) features not only five different Cirebon gong ensembles but also a solo appearance of the rare mellow-sounding Cirebonese gender (multi-octave metalophone).

The liner notes relate that “To tell a Cirebon musician that their playing is ‘leres,’ or correct, is faint praise. A true compliment is to say that their music is ‘urip’ – alive!” The special spirit and sound of the instrumental music of Cirebon is very much alive on these albums.

04 Tangos and moreTangos… and something more
Grupo Encuentros; Alicia Terzian
Navona Records nv6246 (navonarecords.com)

In 1979 , Argentinian composer/musicologist/conductor Alicia Terzian created the Grupo Encuentros whose international performances have brought Latin American and Argentine music to listeners around the world. Here, Terzian leads the ensemble in the evolving tango genre. She capably arranges familiar traditional tangos, such as the three Astor Piazzolla pieces, which maintain his rhythmic, melodic and upbeat tango feel. Roggero’s Mimi Pinzon builds from calm to intense while Demare’s 1940s tango Malena features a dramatic, interesting, closing fugue-like section.

Listeners wishing to hear the tango evolution will applaud the new works. Finnish composer Tiensuu’s Tango lunar (1989) travels to the new music outer space, as tango lines sound against more electroacoustic washes, soundscapes, squeaks, use of spoken world and mezzo a cappella closing. Terzian’s Argentino Hasta La Muerte has the opening bandoneon and mezzo swells, rubatos and accented notes so tight that it is hard to tell what the lead line is. Her Un Argentino de Vuelta is played with intensity and subtleties, including bandoneon vibrato and fast runs, flute interlude, clarinet repeated-note rhythms, quasi jazzy/Romantic-style piano solo and faster tango section. In his duet, Llamado de Tambores, composer/bandoneonist Daniel Binelli, with the mezzo vocalist Marta Blanco, tells a tango story with effects and emotional flourishes.

All seven performers are great tango interpreters able to change with the tango’s decades-long developments. Wish there were English translations for the words. There is a bit of something for every tango taste to enjoy and explore.

01 Jane BunnettOn Firm Ground/Tierra Firme
Jane Bunnett and Maqueque
Linn Records 270404 (linusentertainment.com)

Jane Bunnett and the all-female collective Maqueque, return for their eagerly anticipated third release. In the less than two years since their previous recording, Oddara (see my December 2016 WholeNote review), the group has been touring internationally, with visits to Colombia, Brazil, Panama and Cuba, as well as to American jazz festivals, plus the Lincoln Center. And it shows.

Their third recording – a testament to hard work, virtuosity and great chemistry – showcases 12 new compositions including three by award-winning soprano saxophonist/flutist Bunnett, plus contributions by each band member. The upbeat opener, La Linea, features an imaginative arrangement with flute doubling saxophone, amidst powerful contrapuntal vocal lines and choruses. The rhythm section is outstanding, fuelled by percussionist Mary Paz and drummer Yissy Garcia. The aptly titled Momentum, by co-producer Larry Cramer, takes off at a breakneck pace with piccolo doubling the flute melody over the percussion section. Bunnett then launches into a magnificent flute solo which leads the group into a unison vocal line and chorus to take the piece to its exciting conclusion. Sky High showcases a soaring flute and vocal melody, and a McCoy Tyner-influenced piano solo by Danae Olano.

Special mention goes to Tailín Marrero for her stunning composition, Musica en el Alma, a sonic celebration of the exhilaration and joy of playing together. There is much to admire and inspire on this recording. For Maqueque, it seems that the sky is certainly not the limit!

Listen to 'On Firm Ground/Tierra Firme' Now in the Listening Room

02 Monkey HouseFriday
Monkey House
Alma Records ACD72692 (almarecords.com)

Monkey House has been together for 25 years and has just released its fifth album, Friday. The band is made up of some of the busiest and best players in Toronto – Mark Kelso on drums, Pat Kilbride on bass and Justin Abedin on guitar – but it is L.A.-based keyboardist and songwriter, Don Breithaupt, who’s driving the bus.

Breithaupt is known for his adulation of Steely Dan, and while it shows in his songwriting on Friday, this isn’t a tribute album and the band has a sound all its own. And, like Steely Dan, the musical style is hard to categorize – perhaps sophisticated pop tinged with jazz and R&B? I don’t know. What I do know is that this is an exceptional album from beginning to end, with superb songwriting and performances, and impeccable production by Peter Cardinali with engineering by John “Beetle” Bailey.

Highlighting standout tracks when all 12 tracks are so strong is a challenge, but The Jazz Life – featuring Manhattan Transfer on backing vocals and a killer bass solo by Kilbride – is one. The love song that Breithaupt wrote for his wife, Because You, is another, especially since it is surprisingly unsentimental with its driving rhythm and complex harmonies. Another surprise is that the most ballad-y song on the album is the cover of Walter Becker’s Book of Liars. Becker – who died while Monkey House was making this record, hence the inclusion of this song on the album – certainly wasn’t known for ballads and this mid-tempo tune isn’t sappy in the least. But it is both beautiful and poignant in typical sardonic Steely Dan style. Shotgun has pop hit written all over it and you can check out the fun video, produced by Academy Award-winner J. Miles Dale, on YouTube.

Listen to 'Friday' Now in the Listening Room

03 Aviva ChernickLa Serena
Aviva Chernick
Independent AVGC003 (avivachernick.com)

A deep bond with another can lead to unexpected journeys in one’s life. Such was the case for singer Aviva Chernick, who began extensive studies of the Balkan Judeo-Spanish repertoire after meeting Flory Jagoda, known as the keeper of the Balkan Ladino tradition. La Serena is, in a way, an homage to Flory, Aviva’s beloved mentor and teacher, but also an intimate story of the longing for one’s homeland and tradition that is slowly disappearing.

Ten songs, some traditional Sephardic folk melodies and some Jagoda originals, are all arranged by Chernick and her main musical collaborators on this album, guitarist Joel Schwartz and bassist Justin Gray, in a way that brings forward the intimacy and immediacy of each tune. Mostly sung in Ladino (with some additional text in English), the lyrics are captivating and touching. Chernick’s vocals are pure in expression and unencumbered of any particular tradition or style.

The album opens with A Ti, Espanya, a simple and bright original tune by Jagoda, which conveys the love for homeland that is no more. Min Hameitzar, written by Chernick and Gray, has a mystical energy and wonderfully galloping percussion elements. La Serena, the central piece on the album, is a stunning heartfelt tune that seduces with its pure vocal expression. Esta Montanya de Enfrente features longing guitar lines emphasizing the beauty of both the melody and poetic lyrics.

A wonderful collection of meaningful tunes that will leave your heart longing for more.

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