06 Al QahwaCairo Moon
Al Qahwa Ensemble
Independent AlQahwa01 (alqahwa.ca)

Ernie and Maryem Tollar, master of wind instruments and vocals respectively, have been mainstays of the Toronto music scene individually, and also have often come together to make music. But rarely has their musicianship been showcased more beautifully than here, where they have combined with oud specialist Demetri Petsalakis for the second time as Al Qahwa, on their album Cairo Moon.

Apart from bringing to life the atmosphere of (usually loud) music and joyous camaraderie heard in coffee houses en route to Leipzig from Damascus, this recording also recalls the glorious tradition that gave us the likes of the great vocalists Om Kalsoum and Najah Salam, and instrumentalist Hamza El Din, among others. On Cairo Moon, the Tollars and Alfred Gamil display extraordinary musicianship in the Mediterranean tradition. More remarkable, much of this is new music; the tradition of popular Arabic music is alive and well and thriving in – of all places – Canada.

Equally significant is the fact that musicians such as the prodigiously-gifted Tollars are thriving alongside others such as Nagmeh Farahmand, Majd Sukar and the aforementioned Gamil and Petsalakis. The evidence is all over this album, in the exotic and ululating soundworld of the Middle East, robustly captured in the glimmering textures of Maryem Tollar’s voice and the eloquent musicians immersed in the traditions that influenced this rich repertoire.

07 Bruce CockburnCrowing Ignites
Bruce Cockburn
True North Records TND737 (truenorth.labelstore.ca)

It has been 14 years since Bruce Cockburn first gave notice of what an extraordinary guitarist he really was on his first instrumental album Speechless. Until then he was better known as one of the great purveyors of what is generally classified as folk music. Of course, that classification is highly restrictive because Cockburn, as we all know, transcends the boundaries of that genre. Debates notwithstanding, Crowing Ignites is a perfect reminder of Cockburn’s virtuosity as a guitarist, and of his exquisite musicianship.

There are seven new compositions here. Yet each appears to be a spontaneous meditation at once simple and lyrical, abstract and profound. Cockburn’s magnificent tone – both on regular acoustic and acoustic baritone guitar is magnificent. With fingers and thumb he imbues every note with the purity of song. His playing is passionately free and bluesy, and speaks also of his country roots.

Cockburn’s instinct for brooding lyricism and often for joyful spontaneity provides the perfect setting for songs such as April in Memphis, The Mt. Lefroy Waltz (with bassist Roberto Occhipinti, cornetist Ron Miles and drummer Gary Craig) and Sweetness and Light. When he turns his attention to matters of the soul and of spirituality, he paints his music affectingly with a myriad of deep and varied colours. Angels in the Half Light, Pibroch: The Wind in the Valley and (especially) Bells of Gethsemane are eloquent examples of the profundity of his musicianship.

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08 Ian and SylviaThe Lost Tapes
Ian & Sylvia
Stony Plain Records SPCD1408 (stonyplainrecords.com)

Thank goodness for downsizing! Because that’s what Sylvia Tyson was doing – that, and gathering archival materials for Calgary’s National Music Centre – when she discovered, in her front hall cedar chest, a long-forgotten treasure trove of recorded-live-in-studio, Ian & Sylvia performance tapes from the early 70s. And thank goodness Tyson wisely asked some of the best ears in the business, i.e., Danny Greenspoon (an accomplished musician, himself) to produce and edit (once the 1/4-inch analogue tapes were digitized) Ian & Sylvia The Lost Tapes. Because the results are masterful!

To be clear, this is not so much a review as it is an homage to these pioneering Canadian icons of folk and country music, who helped pave the way for the likes of Gordon Lightfoot and Joni Mitchell. I mean, who the heck is going to “review” Ian & Sylvia singing Four Strong Winds, Summer Wages, Keep on the Sunny Side or When First Unto This Country, four of the 13 best-known and beloved classics appearing on disc one of the double album?

What’s exciting for this 60-year-old folkie-at-heart is the selection of previously unreleased performances on disc two. Irresistible are the covers of Sweet Dreams, Jimmie’s Texas Blues, The Last Thing On My Mind and Together Again.

Ian & Sylvia met 60 years ago. Last week they were both inducted, separately, into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. Ian & Sylvia The Lost Tapes is a heart-warming reminder of why their music still holds up.

09 Phoebe TsangButton Music
Phoebe Tsang
Off (phoebetsang.com)

Listening to multi-talented Hong Kong- born British-Canadian Phoebe Tsang’s Button Music one experiences her wide-ranging, idiosyncratic, poetic and musical gifts.

Two multi-movement works are featured. Unbutton is a six-part journey into the challenge of losing a button. Love the attention-grabbing No.1, opening with staccato echoing repeated notes on violin and a vocal on the word “button”, just like the popping sound of losing a coat button. Touches of Romantic-style sad tonalities surface in No.2. A nod to folk music in No.3 with a party mood jig-quality violin part until the abrupt vocal/violin stop. No.4 presents Tsang at her very best as atonal violin lines coupled with emotive held-note vocalizations create a unique personal sound. Use of the familiar song lyric line “Button up Your Overcoat” in No. 5 creates a toe-tapping musical theatre song quality complete with extended violin solo with numerous effects. No.6 is performed with perfect phrasing, tonal quality, sad mood and a building musical tension.

The theatrical three-movement Cards from the Tarot de Marseille features a tight ensemble feel created by one performer in King of Cups. Creepy spoken words supported by a high-pitched violin sets the spooky mood of The Hermit. Tsang shows off her violin virtuosity in Le Pape with fast lines and a repeated note marching effect.

In the final track, Tsang says “Music is Power”, perfectly describing Tsang the artist. Powerful!

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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