01 Canadian HitsCanadian Hits: Unplugged
Saint John String Quartet
Leaf Music LM227 (leaf-music.ca)

Here is another innovative recording by the New Brunswick-based St. John String Quartet, one that recasts well-known Canadian songs in adept string arrangements by Rebecca Pellett. These songs are familiar to us with vocals plus the reverberant long-decaying tones of guitars, bass, pedaled piano and added studio production. So it is an arranger’s challenge to create satisfying textures with only four bowed instruments! Lots of pizzicato is one way to sustain the background, as in the arrangement of Francis by Béatrice Martin (Coeur de pirate). Evoking the simple group vocal sound of Stan Rogers’ Northwest Passage is another way. Percussive effects on the string instruments add equivalent interest and authenticity to Knocking at the Door (Arkells) and the heavy slog of Spring to Come (Digging Roots). The latter’s humour is topped by a tastefully tongue-in cheek Miss Chatelaine (k.d. lang) in tango rhythm with amusing string slides, all dissolving into fairy dust at the end…

But the true elixir of this disc’s arranging by under-billed Pellett is in the eloquence of River (Joni Mitchell) and the Celtic sound of If You Could Read My Mind (Gordon Lightfoot). And leader/violinist David Adams, violinist Danielle Sametz, violist Christopher Buckley and cellist Sonja Adams certainly surpass the mere “unplugged hits” world here! A sound world bathed in long non-vibrato tones, harmonics and emotionally text-conscious melody-playing, here seems to be an ideal realized by players and arranger alike.

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02 Koziol BrennanI’ll Be Seeing You
Andrea Koziol; Bill Brennan
Independent AK-BB-01 (andreaandbill.com)

I’ll Be Seeing You, a sharp selection from the jazz songbook, features Toronto vocalist Andrea Koziol and Newfoundland pianist Bill Brennan. They cover 13 of some of the best-known standards – sprinkled with their own songs – with nimble interpretative panache and sure musical taste. Toronto A-lister-musicians Andrew Downing on bass and cello and guitarist Joel Schwartz provide a firm foundation, plus a sympathetic harmonic and melodic framework.  

Koziol’s interpretations are assured and tone perfect. I was stuck by her attentiveness to the lyrical meaning of the intro verse in older songs like Fly Me to the Moon. In Stevie Wonder’s strutting funky Tell Me Something Good she purrs, growls and ghosts her tone in several amazing ways. Is she perhaps channeling her inner Chaka Khan?

Koziol and Brennan generously share the musical spotlight, reminding us that their friendship reaches back several decades. That generosity of spirit extends to Schwartz. He gets a lovely sustained-tone lyrical electric guitar solo in Randy Newman’s moody, thoughtful ballad I Think It’s Going to Rain Today.

Brennan’s piano work avoids cliché while nailing the feel of ballad, gospel, funk or up-tempo swing. He weaves unhurried, protracted extensions to songs like Tea for Two, moving far afield from harmonic home base, and provides exciting melodic and harmonic twists to Annie Ross’ vocalese classic Twisted.

I’ll Be Seeing You launched with concerts in Ontario and Newfoundland this summer. Judging from the glow emanating from this album I look forward to hearing Koziol and Brennan live in the near future.

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03 In a LandscapeIn a Landscape
California Guitar Trio; Montreal Guitar Trio
Independent (mg3.ca)

Among small chamber groups, the combination of two, three or even four guitars is not all that uncommon. So what about six guitars? Surely a guitar sextet is a little out of the ordinary, yet that’s what we have here on this disc, titled In a Landscape, featuring the combined forces of the California and Montreal Guitar Trios. While both ensembles have long-established reputations in their own right, the decision to perform together as a single group evolved from a chance meeting at an Oregon music conference ten years ago and since then, they haven’t looked back.

Just as the combination of six guitars may be a little unusual, so is the music they present on this recording. Indeed, the musicians have always shared a determination to “push the boundaries” with respect to repertoire, and this philosophy is evident in the all-too-brief 40-minute program.

Opening with the rhythmic New Horizons by MGT member Glenn Lévesque, it’s clear that these musicians enjoy playing together – what a warm and satisfying sound they produce! Flashy virtuosity for its own sake is decidedly absent – instead what we hear is sensitive and well-crafted interplay among the performers. Furthermore, the eclectic program is a remarkable study in contrasts. Arrangements of Radiohead’s Weird Fishes and David Bowie’s Space Oddity with vocals by ensemble members are juxtaposed with the moody and mysterious title track by John Cage (as arranged by Sébastien Dufour) while the mercurial Magneto – composed by Dufour – is an infectious essay in Latino brilliance.

For such a comparatively short program, In a Landscape covers a lot of ground, and does so with solid musicianship – mixed with some good-natured humour – throughout. This CD is an attractive landscape indeed, one that leaves the listener wanting more.

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04 Gordon SheardA New Day
Gordon Sheard and Sinal Aberto
Independent GSM003 (gordonsheard.ca)

As a self-described “Brazilian music freak,” it’s no surprise that Toronto jazz musician, educator and ethnomusicologist, Gord Sheard, has a group dedicated to playing Brazilian style music, Sinal Aberto. The name translates as “open signal” or “green light” and is a play on a Chico Buarque album called Sinal Fechado (closed signal/red light) made during an oppressive political time in Brazil (of which they’ve had many). So artistic freedom is the overarching sensibility for Sinal Aberto, and it shows in this beautiful collection of songs. 

With a level of musicianship you’d expect from the top players in the country – Mark Kelso on drums and George Koller on bass, Sheard on piano – the band deftly blends jazz and Brazilian sounds (plus a few R&B and Afro-Caribbean elements) for a sound all their own. A New Day is mostly original songs written by Sheard with lyrics by Rio de Janeiro-native Luanda Jones, who features prominently on the album as the singer, too. 

The album opens on a hopeful note with Samba de Primavera which, fittingly, speaks of being free and open to new experiences. (All of the songs are sung in Portuguese and many of them are helpfully translated to English in the CD booklet.) I love the energy and Jones’ virtuosic vocal gymnastics on Forrocatu, which combines Northern Brazilian forro and maracatu rhythms at top speed and is somewhat reminiscent, to these ears anyway, of the great composer, Hermeto Pascoal. The beautiful and poetic title song, Mais um Dia, is another standout track. Bossa nova fans won’t be disappointed as the band has imaginatively covered a couple of classics, including a soul-tinged version of my favourite, Dindi. The album is available from CD Baby: store.cdbaby.com/cd/gordonsheardsinalaberto.

05 Spinning in the WheelSpinning in the Wheel
Projeto Arcomusical
National Sawdust Tracks NS-028 (nationalsawdust.org)

Projeto Arcomusical is “a world music sextet reimagining the Afro-Brazilian berimbau through unique and powerful chamber music.” Spinning in the Wheel is the second album by this Decalb, Illinois-based sextet co-founded by American composers, percussionists and berimbau-ists Gregory Beyer and Alexis C. Lamb.

A member of the musical bow family found around the world, the Brazilian berimbau is an essential accompaniment of capoeira, the Afro-Brazilian martial art combining elements of dance, acrobatics and instrumental and vocal music. At first glance a simple instrument, the berimbau has at least six distinct parts. It includes a wooden bow and steel string, a beater to strike the string with, a small stone or coin pressed against the string to change the pitch, a gourd-like shell secured to the berimbau amplifying/modulating the string in conjunction with the player’s body, and a small rattle held in the stick hand. Using all these sound modifiers the berimbau is capable of a large range of expression, especially when several musicians are involved. Arcomusical’s six berimbaus allow the production of an extended number of tones making possible extended-range melodies, harmonies and spatial effects. In only a few years it has toured widely and commissioned over 30 new scores.

Chief among them is Roda (2016) by American composer Elliot Cole. An engaging and impressive four-movement, 20-minute work, it’s the most substantial musical statement on Spinning in the Wheel.

I was initially drawn to the novelty of Arcomusical’s instrumentation, but after just a few minutes of listening to Spinning in the Wheel I found its music clearly conceived and passionately performed.

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01 Amanda MartinezLibre
Amanda Martinez
Sola Records (amandamartinez.ca)

Singer-songwriter Amanda Martinez delves deeper into her background with the release of Libre. The daughter of a Mexican father and South African mother, Martinez has been exploring her Latin roots for years now, so it’s the African side that’s new here. Produced by her longtime collaborator, guitarist Kevin Laliberté, Martinez has enlisted a handful of singers and songwriters – such as Canadian jazz singer Kellylee Evans and Cuban-born Pablosky Rosales – for the ten original songs on Libre. Kevin Laliberté's distinctive guitar playing and Donné Roberts’ beautiful warm vocals blend perfectly with Martinez’s light pretty voice. Bassist (and Martinez’s husband) Drew Birston and percussionist Rosendo “Chendy” Leon round out the core band. Standout tracks include Begin and En La Distancia.

The album has a predominantly Latin sound to it (Mexican and a little flamenco here and there) and I found the African touches to be quite subtle. This is partly due to the fact that most of the lyrics are in Spanish. For those of us who don’t understand that language, translations are available on Martinez’s website. The poetic lyrics’ main themes are love and longing in its many forms – for a land, a lover or a child. Or you could not worry about what the lyrics say and just let the music wash over you and carry you away. The album has a sweet, old-fashioned feel to it that gives us a welcome escape to gentler times and idyllic places.

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