02 Miguel ZenonMúsica de las Américas
Miguel Zenón
miel music (miguelzenon.com)

All of the eight elegantly constructed tracks on this inspired project were composed by noted NYC-based alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón, who cites the American continent’s fascinating and complex history as his inúspiration (including the near genocide of untold numbers of indigenous peoples that occurred under the boot European colonialism). Zenón has surrounded himself with a superb ensemble, featuring his long-time quartet of Luis Perdomo on piano, Hans Glawischnig on bass and Henry Cole on drums. Special guests include percussionist Paoli Mejias, Victor Emmanuelli on barril de bomba, congero Daniel Diaz and the renowned Puerto Rican ensemble Los Pleneros de La Cresta.

The first track is Tainos y Caribes where bittersweet, percussive, contrapuntal modalities embody the clashing of the peaceful, agrarian Tainos and the conquest-driven Caribes. Exquisite alto work from Zenón stirs the soul and invigorates the emotions – incorporating future bop modalities with ancient rhythmic forms, while the rhythm section manifests the matrix of creativity. Perdomo shines here with a piano solo par excellence. A clear standout is Navegando (Las Estrellas Nos Guían), which evokes the seafaring culture of the Indigenous Carribean peoples, who travelled incomprehensible distances in open canoes, simply by an advanced knowledge of the stars, and the contribution of Los Pleneros de la Cresta take the listener on a viaje encanto

The gorgeous closer, Antillano (Indigenous peoples from the Antilles) also features dynamic and visceral congas courtesy of Diaz. This is a CD not to be missed and Zenón is, without question, one of the leading lights of Afro/Latin/jazz fusion. Additionally, this sumptuous project has been dedicated to the memory of the late master musician, and dear friend of Zenón, Héctor “Tito” Matos.

03 Carlos CardozoMeu Mundo – My World
Carlos Cardozo
Lula World Records LWR026A (carloscardozo.ca)

Brazilian-Canadian musician Carlos Cardozo has for many years enriched Toronto’s music scene, as he seems to be on every Brazilian music group’s first call list. If there’s a Brazilian music gig, Cardozo will almost surely be there. Now he can add songwriting to his long list of musical accomplishments, alongside singing and playing cavaquinho, guitar and percussion. Dozens of his musical compatriots, both in Brazil and Toronto, have added their talents to this album either through co-songwriting (in particular Elias Barros), arranging or playing on the tracks. Credit for much of the beautiful production and several of the arrangements goes to the uber talented guitarist, André Valério. 

While those of us who aren’t fluent in Portuguese won’t be able to fully understand the lyrics, we can still easily appreciate the sentiment and the exceptional musicality of Meu Mundo. The first track Amor ao meu Sertão, a gorgeous tribute to a region in the northeast of Brazil, sets the tone for the album, which is in large part a love letter to Cardozo’s homeland. From the gentle samba and dreamy strings of Beija-flor da Fumaça (loosely, about a hummingbird) to Forró de Pernambuco (forró is a genre of traditional music from the northeast) or Uma volta na Veneza brasileira (a funky 70s-style tribute to Recife, known as the Brazilian Venice), Meu Mundo takes us on a musically rich and heartfelt journey and we are the better for it. Find the album and videos on Cardozo’s website.

04 Jacqueline SchwabI Left My Lamp
Jacqueline Schwab
Sono Luminus DSL-92257 (sonoluminus.com)

American pianist Jacqueline Schwab is renowned for her musicianship in many Ken Burns documentaries including The Civil War, Baseball and Benjamin Franklin. Here, she performs a collection of her solo piano arrangements of 19 traditional decades-spanning classic songs associated with American immigrants from many cultures 

Schwab’s respectful, well-thought-out arrangements and performances are simultaneously true to the original song form while incorporating her unique artistic vision. The opening track, the air For Ireland I’d Not Tell Her Name is a free flowing, sensitive musical performance which is followed directly by the upbeat, high-pitched melodic jig, The Blarney Pilgrim. Schwab amazingly sets three Scottish fiddle tunes successfully to piano, like the second reel Miss Dumbreck being held together by low-pitched left-hand accompaniment. Her straightforward, harmonic, “very classical” playing of Sibelius’ Finlandia Hymn is coupled with the Swedish waltz Vals efter Soling Anders with its free time and singalong quality. The well-known habanera La Paloma is played surprisingly, successfully slower than usual, featuring full melodic right hand. There is a moving darker improvisational feel to Schwab’s blues-flavoured rendition of the spiritual Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child. Other tracks feature music from Brazil, Bulgaria, Italy and more.

Schwab “travels the musical immigrant America” in her intelligent, clear, balanced piano performances and arrangements, complemented with clear production sound quality and Stephanie Smith’s detailed informative liner notes. This is a fabulous cross-section of American immigrant music.

01 Charke CormierThe Equation of Time
Charke-Cormier Duo with Celso Machado
Leaf Music LM260 (leaf-music.ca)

Featuring Derek Charke on flute and bass flute and Eugene Cormier on guitar, this CD takes its title from Charke’s composition The Equation of Time, which occupies the last four tracks and refers to the fact that it is composed of an equal number of fast and slow sections. Arguably, however, the CD might better have been called The Equations of Time, not only because of tempos, but also because the compositions found on it were written in four different centuries, and the two older compositions include contemporary additions and variations seamlessly incorporated by the composer-performers themselves. This in itself adds yet another temporal dimension, the composer-performer, a rarity in our day, but typical earlier in the life of western music.

Added to all this are percussionist Celso Machado’s contributions, six pieces of Brazilian dance music, adding a musical sensibility at least as remote from contemporary Canadian music making as the much older compositions on the disc by Frescobaldi (17th century) and Wilhelmine von Bayreuth (18th century). The result is a strange and intriguing series of juxtapositions of new and old, familiar and unfamiliar, expected and unexpected musical experiences, a sort of musical surrealism, evocative of the artistic ferment of the second and third decades of 20th-century Europe, but with a vitality coming from real artistic expression and not imitation. I should add as well that the performances are infused with an equal vitality and artistry.

Charke, Cormier and Machado have reinvented the CD as a work of art in itself, more than just a concert program frozen in time.

Listen to 'The Equation of Time' Now in the Listening Room

02 Monkey HouseRemember the Audio
Monkey House
Alma Records ACD62422 (almarecords.com)

Thirty years is a long time for a band to be together and it’s an even longer time to keep coming up with fresh, inventive songs. But Don Breithaupt, the songwriter, keyboardist, lead singer, producer and all-around driving force behind Monkey House, has done it again. As with their five previous releases, Remember the Audio hits the sweet spot between familiar and fresh and sophisticated and accessible. 

For those unfamiliar with the band, Breithaupt has been up front about his love for and emulation of Steely Dan’s sound. And this latest work has that same super tight pop/rock/jazz feel (courtesy of core members Justin Abedin, guitar, Mark Kelso, drums, Pat Kilbride, bass and Lucy Woodward, backing vocals) that SD did so well, while also being very original. 

Every one of the 11 tracks is strong and very Monkey House but each has its own charms, too. The title track is a catchy homage to the powerful nostalgia of the music of one’s youth; Skin in the Game has some funky New Orleans nuances (and NOLA resident, Chris Butcher, guesting on trombone); and the beautiful, bittersweet ballad, New York Owes You Nothing, haunts. 

Breithaupt explained that although most of the music was written pre-pandemic, some of the lyrics were written during the first dark months of lockdown, so there’s an understandable sense of foreboding to some of the songs, in particular the punchy opener, The Future Is Almost Gone and The Last Days of Pompeii (“Will the last one out of L.A. kill the light”). The closing track wraps things up fittingly: Mose Allison’s Ever Since the World Ended, although penned in 1987, could have been written last week the way it wittily evokes our current times.

Listen to 'Remember the Audio' Now in the Listening Room

03 Mikkel PlougDay in the Sun
Mikkel Ploug
Songlines SGL1635-2 (songlines.com)

The Danish guitarist Mikkel Ploug recorded this collection of 14 pieces for solo acoustic guitar last December. I loved every track on this album: introspective, inventive, tasteful and positive. If you enjoy playlists like “Acoustic Guitar Chill” but you wish the tracks were just a bit more intellectually satisfying, this album is for you. 

The style is, as Ploug himself says, genreless: it sits somewhere near the intersection of jazz, folk, minimalism and classical. In fact, one of the pieces is Ploug’s take on a nocturne by the contemporary Danish composer Bent Sørensen. The playing is nuanced and heartfelt and I’m happy to say the producers kept things real by not trying to cover up the sounds of finger slides and the occasional twang. 

Most of the tracks are recorded on Ploug’s steel string guitar but on two of them he uses a flamenco guitar with gut strings: gorgeous. The title is perfect; this album feels like a sunny day spent with a good friend.

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