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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02 Gloaming3
The Gloaming
Justin Time JTR 8617-2 (justin-time.com)

For their third salvo, contemporary Irish fusion quintet, The Gloaming, has released an intriguing piece of work that not only embraces traditional Irish motifs, but seeps into the modalities of contemporary and neo-classical, piano-driven musics. This is authentic, indigenous, world music enfolded sumptuously into a thought-provoking new music setting. Pianist (and producer) Thomas Bartlett is the spine of the ensemble, fearlessly injecting skilled, rhythmic elements into the music. The haunting, sibilant vocals of Iarla Ó Lionáird inform much of the material, and transport the listener back into the mists of time. With three Irish and two Irish-American members, the music also speaks to the inter-generational scars of the near genocide of the Irish people, and the resulting painful, global diaspora.

The splendid, passionate and skilled work of generational fiddler, Martin Hayes, gauges the intensity of the music and Hardanger d’Amore player Caoimhin Ó Raghallaigh consistently elicits a warm, substantive sound from his viola-like instrument (with sympathetic strings). Along with guitarist Dennis Cahill they establish the musical pulse, the very heartbeat of the goddess Danu herself.

Highlights of this expertly recorded CD include Meachán Rudaí and Amhrán na nGleannI. The former is a setting of a poem by Liam Ó Muirthile (about a son remembering his late mother), and the latter is an ancient tune lamenting the death of a chieftain, and also a song that Lionáird has been performing since he was a small boy. Also of special note is Reo, written by the ensemble, and featuring lyrics drawn from a poem by the iconic mid-20th-century Irish poet, Seán Ó Ríordáin.

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03 Norah Jones Begin AgainBegin Again
Norah Jones
Blue Note Records B002978602 (bluenote.com)

Begin Again is the reflection of an artist who’s continuing to develop and evolve. Norah Jones first came on the scene in 2002 with Come Away With Me, which introduced a fresh, gorgeous voice with a jazz sensibility that was a shift from the prevailing pop music of the time. That release turned Jones into a global phenomenon and over the years, she’s continued to release successful, Grammy-winning records and collaborate with a diverse range of artists like Herbie Hancock, Outkast and Foo Fighters.

Begin Again is an eclectic collection of original tunes co-produced by Jones and recorded at various studios with a handful of collaborators such as guitarist Jeff Tweedy of Wilco fame and drummer-extraordinaire, Brian Blade. The tone is set with the powerful opening track My Heart is Full and many of the songs, such as Uh Oh and Just a Little Bit, continue in that experimental vein, with the musicians laying down a meditative bed and Jones layering vocals over top. The album is keyboard dominant, courtesy of Thomas Bartlett, Pete Remm and Jones herself. Although calling Remm’s sublime Hammond B3 work “dominant” isn’t capturing the subtle textures he lends to the songs.

Missing from Begin Again are some of those exquisite, soulful ballads that Jones does so well – though Wintertime comes close. So while the album is a good listen and full of fine musicianship, it won’t break your heart.

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