01 Brooklyn Rider Kinan AzmehStarlighter
Kinan Azmeh; Brooklyn Rider
In A Circle Records (kinanazmehbrooklynrider.bandcamp.com/album/starlighter-icr026)

Okay, this is the stuff. There’s this guy who writes music for strings and percussion and his own voice (a clarinet that sometimes passes for the best alto flute you’ve ever heard). His name is Kinan Azmeh and the string quartet is Brooklyn Rider (look ‘em up); plus there’s a percussionist Mathias Kunzli adding to the mayhem. 

I get carried away when clarinet tone colour doesn’t assault my ears with plangent “listen to me!” swipes left and right. Azmeh can certainly invoke that strident animal, the upper register, but he shows true restraint. Mostly his velvet colour floats across the strings’ texture like syrup on waffles, like gravy on poutine, like tahini on falafels. Who’s hungry? The quintet-plus-one fires up dance rhythms straight out of the very Near East. Alongside “exotic” modalism and dance figurations, Azmeh draws on contemporary rhythmic complexity and dissonance. His writing is lyric, kinetic and narrative too. The disc opens with the three movements of In the Element, written in 2017-2018; Run and Rain describe themselves, and Grounded (the third movement added a year after the first two were written), narrates feelings from his recent return visit to his home city of Damascus. His other work, Dabke on Martense Street for string quartet, describes an imagined round dance on the street where he lives in Brooklyn.   

Brooklyn Rider violinist Colin Jacobsen’s title track Starlighter was inspired by the magical transference of energy into matter known as photosynthesis. It takes more than one listen to get inside, but it’s worth the effort. The final track is a work adapted for the same quintet plus percussion by Ljova (aka Lev Zhurbin). Originally written for the Silk Road Ensemble, Everywhere is Falling Everywhere (a Rumi reference) makes an apt bookend to the disc. A different version of similar language, more latkes-and-applesauce than falafels-and-tahini, but delicious as well.

02 AlexCubaEl Swing Que Yo Tengo
Alex Cuba
Caracol Records (open.spotify.com/album/0IHxZjy8PyE5I5CBwF0JlW)

Ever since we first became aware of the music of the Juno and Grammy Award-winning Alex Cuba, we have always known that the elements of music – melody, harmony and, especially, rhythm – have throbbed and pulsated through his veins. And like the celebrated album Mendó that came just before this one, El Swing Que Yo Tengo, continues to buck every trend while remaining true to the glorious rhythms of the island from which he takes his name.

In the repertoire of the latter album Cuba pushes the proverbial envelope even further, including electronic elements in music that is steeped, as much in traditional Cuban dance forms as in funky and hip-hop-inspired rhythmic flavours. 

Cuba’s lustrous tenor swoops and soars fuelled by seductive romantic lyricism, often entwined with harmonies that he has overlaid on these delicious melodies. This is true even when – as on songs such as El Swing Que Yo Tengo and Son Para Tu Boca – more adventurous vocal elements and styles such as rap and other localized Caribbean song elements intervene. 

On this album Cuba plays all the instruments, including those powered by electronics, blending superbly with the percussion and he even treats us to an elegantly slapped-on bass. The apogee of the album, hands down, is Agüita de Coco, a song that is powered by Cuba’s eloquent voice together with the chocolate-and-chilli-coated vocals of the Rwandan music sensation, Butera Knowless.

03 Duplex MaelstromMaelstrom
ARC Music Productions EUCD2959 (duplexmusic.be)

Respected Belgian musicians, accordionist Didier Laloy and violinist Damien Chierici, worked together the first time in 2018 on a Nirvana music-based project. They continued working together forming Duplex, incorporating Laloy’s internationally renowned diatonic accordion explorations in traditional world/folk styles and Chierici’s violin in non-classical styles like pop and rock. The 2020 COVID outbreak/lockdown forced them to change their touring plans to recording imaginary world travels with music inspired by books, personal experiences and such. Invited drummer Olivier Cox and keyboardist Quentin Nguyen join them, with guest trumpeter Antoine Dawans on one track, in this debut Duplex release of Laloy/Chierici folk, rock, world, electro-pop, jazzy and cinematic compositions.

The duo “visit” global countries on the 14 tracks. The opening track Cast Off has fast short repeated ascending and descending intervals emulating boat sails in the wind. Magic House, in winter Saint Malo, features a violin-interval melody, diatonic accordion-chordal rhythms, a sudden slower section returning to upbeat loud electronics and banging drums. Off to London in Bakerloo Circle. Love the rumbling opening sound like a subway train entering the underground station. Trumpet melodies create a sense of London transit and street buskers. Great accordion in the fast Cuban dance, Cabestan’go. Enjoy New York City clubs in Vera, with louder more jazzy intense, full instrumentals. A detached beat opening, repeated diatonic accordion melody throughout with gradual instrumental and drums entries add to the wonder of the Rockies in Wapta Falls, especially emotional now during the BC wildfires.

01 Taraf SyrianaTaraf Syriana
Omar Abou Afach; Naeem Shanwar; Noémy Bruan; Sergiu Popa
Lula World Records LWR029 (lulaworldrecords.ca/taraf-syriana)

Montreal-based quartet Taraf Syriana was founded in 2020. Its international virtuoso musicians who had moved earlier to Montreal are Romani/Moldavian Sergiu Popa (accordion), Syrian-based Omar Abou Afach (viola) and Naeem Shanwar (qanun), and Swiss Noémy Braun (cello). In this self-titled debut ten track release, the quartet interprets, arranges and performs Syrian and Romani folk music, with other folk traditions from the region like Balkan and Kurdish, showcasing their dedication to this music. 

Opening track Me Dukhap Tuke features Popa and Braun with guest instrumentalists Nazih Borish (oud) and Mohammed Raky (darbouka) accompanying famed Romani guest vocalist/guitarist Dan Armeanca in his happy, exuberant song featuring soaring vocals above florid accordion lines and attention-grabbing vocal shots during instrumental solos. Armeanca also sings his Romani lyrics Come dance to my song above these supportive tight instrumentalists in the upbeat Sare Roma. Raky joins the quartet in the traditional Kurdish folk song Kevoke (The Dove), an accessible rendition with melodic musical accordion alternating with other instrumental solos. A surprise is Abdul-Karim’s Tango by Mohammed Abdul-Karlm, a “tango” in which its composition and Taraf Syriana’s instrumentation change the traditional tango sound colour while maintaining some familiar stylistic qualities. Guest vocalist Ayham Abou Amar and all instrumentalists perform the Syrian folk song Al Maya in an almost pop-sounding rendition. Taraf Syriana play their meditative, reflective composition Dialogue intimes. Each slow carefully placed musical note to closing fade shows a different side of the ensemble.

This Taraf Syriana release is perfect, uplifting music.

02 Denielle BasselsLittle Bit a ‘ Love
Denielle Bassels
Independent  (deniellebassels.com)

Vibrant and fresh are two descriptors that are worn easily by delightful and innovative vocalist, tunesmith and arranger, Denielle Bassels. With the release of her second studio project, Bassels shines and establishes herself as one of the most intriguing jazz/pop singer/songwriters on the current scene. Harkening to the swing era, and yet firmly contemporary, Bassels is joined here by talented musicians throughout, including her core band, bassist Russ Boswell, violin/viola player Drew Jurecka, vibraphonist/guitarist Thom McKay (who, along with Bassels, serves as co-producer here) and noted percussionist Chendy Leon, as well as guests.

The majority of tunes here were both composed and arranged by Bassels, and the uplifting opener (and title track) incorporates irresistible swing motifs with Bassels’ smoky, sultry, sonorous voice, accented by sweet background vocals. Another treat is Tangled Thread, the complex rhythmic and melodic vocal line reminiscent of the sassy Boswell sisters, replete with a fine acoustic guitar solo from Tak Arikushi. Another stunner is Lazy Gazing – a perfect marriage of melody, lyrics and arrangement. The bluesy Gone is a heart-rending and soulful romantic idyll rendered with intensity and heart, and the inclusion of McKay’s vibes on the Cinema Noir-ish Big Bad Wolf is genius.

The closer, I Wanna Be Like You, is consummately performed by Bassels, and with the clever addition of Jacob Gorzhaltsan’s stirring clarinet work, the listener is magically transported to a lower east-side speak easy where they are regaled by a talented, luminous chanteuse!

03 Al QahwaWeyn Allah
Al Qahwa
Independent (alqahwa.bandcamp.com/album/weyn-allah)

Depending on who you talk to, the word multiculturalism is either meaningless, or a politically correct supercharged word, especially in a post-pandemic world where everyone becomes easily overheated about everything. If the media is to be believed even Canada has not been spared the blushes of intolerance, and there seems no reason to doubt this. 

However, Canadian artists like the one-world-one-voiced Al Qahwa have always fought back against any form of divisiveness in the exquisite poetry of their music, sometimes with subtly crafted lyrics and at other times with more overt sounding words. The album Weyn Allah feels slightly different, not only because the title asks (and translates to) Where is God? But more than that there appears to be a more elemental, haunting cry that emanates from this music. The song of the same name hits the proverbial right spot in every way: poignant lyrics, elegant music and perfect execution.  

Elsewhere, on Dunya Farewell chromatic notes sigh, but the harmonic cushioning rarely falls where you anticipate. Vocalist Maryam Tollar embodies this elegance in the plaintive evocations of her vocals sung with Jono Grant’s excellent performance on nylon-string guitar.  

The lonesome wail of Ernie Tollar’s reeds and winds is breathtaking. Meanwhile, the delicately knitted single notes from Demetri Petsalakis’ oud, framed with the deep rumble of Waleed Abdulhamid’s bass and the resonant thunder of Naghmeh Faramand’s daff all make for a truly affecting experience.

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