Michele Mele
Independent (www.michelemele.com)

With the release of ChaCha, composer and vocalist Michele Mele clearly illustrates not only her ineffable sweetness of soul, but a gamin wit, impeccable phrasing and mastery of the delicious musical hook. On this, her fifth (and finest) recording, Mele shines on keyboards and her pure, distinctive vocals are in full force and gorgeously recorded. For this project, brilliant producer and guitarist Greg Kavanagh has assembled a tight, groovy cadre of A-List players, including Michael Stewart on sax, Bill McBirnie on flute and guitarist Lou Bartolomucci (notably on Cabana Boy and Answer Every Question). The material on ChaCha is a tasty mix of brand new songs and several previously recorded tunes that have been given a complete (and delightful) re-imagining, such as the charming Tree Frogs (originally written for her then ten-year-old son in celebration of his love of amphibians).

Mele is a natural, highly connective and communicative performer and writer, who made quite a splash recently with her hit one-woman show “Naked on the Rocks.” Her appealing Astrud Gilberto-ish vocals are a refreshing change from the over-wrought divas all too frequently holding sway on the airwaves and in the clubs. The title track is irresistible – rhythmic, clever and sexy – and the Latin sizzler Hold Back Trigger is another stand-out, as is the lilting bossa, One Thing for Sure. Check out Michael Stewart`s potent solo on Stop Talking. This is a gem of a recording – the optimum soundtrack for a languid Sunday afternoon with the New York Times, a mimosa and the perfect company.

The Vegetable Orchestra
Transacoustic Research/Monkey TRES008 (www.vegetableorchestra.org)

With popular concern about fresh and organic produce as its height, Vienna’s 12-piece Vegetable Orchestra (VO) should garner kudos from environmentalists. That’s because all of the instruments the members play are painstakingly fashioned from fresh vegetables.

More than gimmickry – although most of these sound legumes can only be played once and are then turned into soup for the concert audience – these compositions and improvisations are part of the Viennese tradition of sonic experimentation that dates back to Schoenberg and Webern; although it’s more bio-degradable. Unlike self-contained serialism however, the VO’s repertoire draws from pop, concrète, noise, improvised and electronic music. Krautrock, for instance, approximates the sound of that noisy genre with distorted cabbage scrapings. Meanwhile Le Massacre du Printemps reaches a level of timbral intensity by layering repetitive percussion from a pumpkin bass drum, an eggplant clatterer, a carrot xylophone and a bell pepper hooter with parsley, leek and celeriac crackles that seem to emanate from a frying pan. The mélange finale showcases an opposing lyrical airiness propelled by radish bass flute and carrot flute.

There are other tasty interludes of sound mulching. They include Regen which suggests electronic oscillations, actually created by leek membrane pulsations as well as French bean crackles processed through a bean-tip pickup; and Brazil, whose swinging Latin-American-like maraca motion plus percussion and castanet-like resonations result from a bean shaker, eggplant clapper, celeriac bongo and leek pulses. The tune even ends with some swaying vamps from carrot xylophone and calabash bass.

High quality rather than high caloric sounds, it seems somehow appropriate that this sonic salad is served up on a CD, which after all is the same shape as a dinner plate.

Many groups think of themselves as jazz bands, especially when they offer just a teeny dose of improv, or swing, or interaction or any of the other basic elements of the art form. Some are content to operate on the music’s fuzzy boundaries.

01_Sultans_of_StringThis trio could be classified as neo-jazz – they certainly aren’t purveyors of smooth jazz. The Sultans Of String do global music in which you’ll detect Flamenco, Roma, Arab, Cuban and Brazilian elements as well as plentiful grooves on their third album Move (Indie MCK 2050 www.sultansofstring.com). It’s a polished affair of 12 cuts with much colourful atmosphere, savage to sweet execution and terrific violin work from leader Chris McKhool. At his side are guitarists Kevin Laliberte and Eddie Paton, bass Drew Birston and sterling percussionist Chendy Leon as well as an army of guests. There’s much to enjoy from the Afro-Spanish blend of Andalucia to the lively Emerald Swing and the ultra-jazzy Ernie’s Bounce - and stuff to avoid (a cloying Heart of Gold for instance) – but overall it’s fun, if perhaps a little too polished.

02_Boxcar_BoysThe Boxcar Boys offer a dozen tracks and interesting instrumentation on Don’t Be Blue (Indie www.theboxcarboys.ca) with Rob Teehan, sousaphone, John David Williams, clarinet and composer of eight tunes, Karl Silveira, trombone, Laura Bates, violin and Ronen Segall, accordion. There’s vintage jazz, humour, Klezmer, blues, hillbilly vocals and more here, and you surely can dance to this circus music.

03_GypsophiliaHalifax-based Gypsophilia (not to be confused with US band of the same name) is seven-strong. They all sing and play multiple instruments on Constellation (FMG026 www.gypsophilia.org), an album that expands on their fondness for Django Reinhardt. The 11 tunes, all by band members, are all distinctly different, a movie score perhaps with its touches of bop, classical, whimsy and waltzes. If these troubadours return to the GTA, go see.

02_Chris_LeeBailar Conmigo

Christopher Lee; James Brown

Manor House Records MHR220811

Several years ago, while attending a concert at a local high school, I was quite impressed by the talent of a young student named Christopher Lee. Today, some 25 years later, I am amazed at how this young musician has developed. In this CD Chris Lee has collaborated with Toronto guitarist James Brown, a faculty member of the Royal Conservatory. This all-Latin CD spans a wide spectrum of works from such standards as Abreu’s Tico Tico and Albeniz’s Granada and Seville to works of such contemporaries as Chick Corea, Christopher Caliendo and collaborator James Brown. Five of the 15 selections are by Caliendo, including the world premiere recording of his Mistero.

The guitar’s role is primarily accompanying the flute, where it is always tasteful. Brown’s solo opportunities on such tracks as Corea’s La Fiesta and his own Toronto Folk Song show his talents well. However, this CD is really a showcase for Chris Lee. His dazzling technique on Tico Tico and Caliendo’s Caliente come across as all the more amazing when contrasted with the subtle tones of such works as Ponce’s Estrellita.

For me, the highlight is El Choclo, one of the most recognizable of all tangos. This begins with a slow section where the performer introduces us to an amazing spectrum of tonal colours. Here the haunting sounds reminded me of a native flute circle.

The CD ends with dazzling virtuosity of Caliente. A must have recording.

sarah_sleanLand and Sea
Sarah Slean
Pheromone Recordings PHER CD 1019

The contrast in styles between the two discs that comprise Sarah Slean’s “Land and Sea” is remarkable. Although why the monikers “Land” and “Sea” were chosen is not readily apparent, nothing much is readily apparent on this recording. And I mean that in a good way – a lot of Slean’s songwriting needs to be sat with before its beauty and meaning can be gleaned. The music on the two discs has basically been divided into hard-scrabble, guitar-prominent pop/rock on “Land,” while “Sea” is all swelling strings (arranged by Slean and Jonathan Goldsmith) and rolling melodies.

I confess I preferred “Sea,” largely because Slean’s Kate Bush-esque soprano is softened on the more languorous tempos. But there is still a lot of drama and gutsiness to “Sea,” especially on Napoleon and Attention Archers. “Land” features the same intelligent, worldly lyrics as “Sea,” while Joel Plaskett’s production choices draw out the fun side of Slean’s work. So the advice to get rid of baggage in Set it Free comes off as cute and non-preachy, and the gospel touches on Amen are subtle and nuanced. Slean is touring extensively throughout Southern Ontario and Canada in November. Check www.sarahslean.com.

01_minor_empireSecond Nature

Minor Empire

World Trip Records WTR001 (www.minorempire.net)

All my initial scepticism immediately disintegrated with the first track of Minor Empire's debut release “Second Nature.” No second rate bad world music here. Leader/electric guitarist/programming guru Ozan Boz has carefully eliminated any such occurrences with his careful combinations of Western pop sounds, jazz improvisations, and Turkish traditional music and his superb arrangements. Toss in band members Ozgu Ozman (vocals), Michael Occhipinti (electric guitar), Chris Gartner (bass) and Debashis Sinha (percussion), Ismail Hakki Fencloglu (oud) and Didem Basar (kanun) and the result is a smart band creating intriguing sounds and melodies set to a backdrop of funky beats.

Especially noteworthy is Zuluf Dokulmus Yuz. Ozman’s sultry vocals weave effortlessly through a tapestry of musical influences. What a great idea is to have short interludes based on makams with catchy titles like Ozan's Psyche and Selim's Anatomy (featuring the amazing guest clarinettist Selim Sesler) which allow the instrumentalists to solo and shine.

Unfortunately there are no translations for the lyrics. I learned a long time ago in my band playing days that the listener wants to know the meanings of the lyrics. But the production values are high and the sound quality superb. Fall is the time to get back to work and back to school. There is no better backdrop than the worldbeat sounds of “Second Nature” to get you back into the groove.


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