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.

Listen to 'La Serena' Now in the Listening Room

04 Heather DaleSphere
Heather Dale
Amphis Music AM7440 (heatherdale.com)

Canadian author, playwright, poet, vocalist, composer and multi-instrumentalist, Heather Dale, is currently poised on the cusp of her 20th recording release, aptly titled Sphere. This uber-creative, multi-disciplined, golden-voiced renaissance woman has fashioned (along with co-producer/arranger/multi-instrumentalist Ben Deschamps), 11 challenging compositions, all of which reflect a mesmerizing mashup of world music motifs, ambient electronica and folk music as well as a healthy dose of contemporary Celtic folk balladering.

Dale deftly performs all vocals here, and also plays hammered dulcimer, piano, tin whistles, synths and Hammond B3. She is joined on her sonic, global journey by Deschamps on bass, electric guitar, cittern, bouzouki, mandolin, synth and viola, and co-producer/engineer Dave MacKinnon on tape loops, drums and guitar; Jim Casson on drums; Ben Grossman on hurdy-gurdy/percussion; Meghan Cheng and Amanda Penner on violin and Alex McMaster and Betsy Tinney on cello.

First up is Bacchanalia – mystical, exotic, sensual, rife with elements of Eastern music and invoking visions of ancient instruments raised in celebration of a hedonistic Roman god… a palpable, pagan scene… and yet, somehow magically transformed through poetry into a modern cautionary tale. Dale’s sonorous vocal instrument is a pitch-perfect, honey-soaked, shape-shifting tool – alternately warm and steely – ideal for telling her irresistible lyrical stories. Triumphant Return is a potent anthem, where the triumphant one is not the one returning, but the one who was abandoned. Another gem is Flower Child – perhaps autobiographical – a wonderful pizzicato arrangement which transports the listener into the middle of a seemingly insoluble familial estrangement. Something that many of us can relate to.

Listen to 'Sphere' Now in the Listening Room

05 Blue Moon MarqueeBare Knuckles & Brawn
Blue Moon Marquee
Independent (bluemoonmarquee.com)

With the release of their third recording, noted Pacific Coast duo Blue Moon Marquee has served up a sumptuous buffet of 11 original songs – all infused with elements of Depression-era jazz, swing, 1950s proto-rock and “Roma Blues.” The music is also informed by philosophical aspects of Indigenous culture, including Native Canadian legends. Consistent with their nostalgic bent, the project was recorded using vintage RCA mics, resulting in a warm, luscious analogue sound. The duo (featuring A.W. Cardinal on vocals/guitar and Jasmine Colette “Badlands Jass” on vocals/bass/drums) are joined on this fine recording by noted West Coast musicians, Darcy Phillips on keyboards, Jerry Cook on reeds, Jimmy “Hollywood” Badger on drums, Jack Garton on trumpet and Paul Pigat on guitar.

The sassy opener, Big Black Mamba is funky and soulful, with sinuous parallel baritone and bass lines establishing a fine bedrock for this swamp-circuit-style blues. The evocative vocal by Cardinal is reminiscent of a young, energetic Tom Waits. Also of note is the irresistible, Fever Flickering Flame – a bit of pure romance, dripping with nostalgia, longing and swing! Hard Times Hit Parade is also a standout, featuring a sultry vocal by Colette, beautifully accented by Garton on muted trumpet. Its heady sepia-toned imagery perfectly captures the loss, futility and desperation of the Great Depression.

Lost and Wild is the closing salvo, boasting a stunningly relaxed vocal by Cardinal, which brings to mind the lyrical sophistication and interpretive skill of Leonard Cohen. This highly musical recording is not only a delight for the ear, but it’s deep, subterranean content will continue to resonate with the listener.

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