01 Gordon GrdinaSafar-E-Daroon
Gordon Grdina’s The Marrow
Songlines SGL2410-2 (songlines.com/release/safar-e-daroon)

Gordon Grdina draws on two distinct musical cultures, contemporary jazz and traditional Middle Eastern music; chooses musical partners from two different cities, Vancouver and New York; and realizes his musical visions on two distinct instruments, the electric guitar and the oud, a short-necked, fretless Middle Eastern lute. Among Grdina’s various ensembles, The Marrow is the one most strongly marked by Arabic and Persian sources; the musicians are Vancouverites (violinist Josh Zubot and percussionist Hamin Honari) and New Yorkers (bassist Mark Helias and cellist Hank Roberts); further, Grdina plays only oud in this band, making it a group of fretless strings and percussion with strong ties to the tonal inflections and compound rhythms of music that have stretched from the Eastern Mediterranean to India and Spain.

Safar-e-Daroon (inner journey) isn’t pure Eastern music (the journey East likely led for some by John Coltrane), and Western harmonic nuances supplement the focused modal intensity, but there’s a consistent emotional and spiritual dimension. Mini-con, a brooding Grdina theme launched by Helias, has a soaring improvisation by Zubot, while Roberts, one of jazz cello’s finest representatives, articulates the keening wail at the heart of Shamshir. Illumination is marked by the dense and subtle counterpoint of picked, bowed and plucked strings. 

The concluding Gabriel James, named for Grdina’s son and inspired by a moment when the two played together, has the composer strumming a harmonic pattern under the sustained strings’ melodies. It suggests the wide-open spaces of the North American West.

02 Beth Anne ColePerhaps the Gods of Love
Beth Anne Cole
Independent BAC103 (bethannecole.com) 

Aristotle, Horace and Longinus, all writing with passion on the art of poetry – and speaking in a forthright manner of art in the mimesis (adopting Plato’s word for the imitation) of life – have stressed, in no uncertain terms, that the rhythm of music and dance elevates the dramaturgy of art. It would seem that Beth Anne Cole declares her unstinting allegiance to those classic dictates and she appears do so with elemental facility. This is why we easily fall prey to her beguiling music.

Throughout her breathtaking recording, Perhaps the Gods of Love, Cole infuses the convention of song with an emotional intensity that can only be described as the poetry of feeling. This too seems instinctual, for she weaves recitation and singing together with one melodic invention inexorably following the other seamlessly; the instrumentation ornamenting the lyric and vice versa. 

Cole’s rendering of this music is striking; with perfect diction, intonation and expression – all this whilst singing Sailor (in English), La Fille de l’île (in French) and Amol iz Geven a Mayse (in Yiddish). In original work too, such as My Story of Ruth, Cole displays an inventiveness that comes from an uncommon understanding of character and emotion born of accuracy and sensitivity, all of which is framed in a judicious mix of traditional and modern expression. Throughout this recording, Cole’s instrument-playing cohort is fully attuned to her vision and artistry.

03 HoneywodHoneywood
Emilyn Stam and John David Williams
Independent (emilynandjohn.com) 

This toe-tapping, instrumental/folk 15-track release showcases the superb Ontario-based duo Emilyn Stam (five-string fiddle, piano accordion) and her husband John David Williams (clarinet, diatonic accordion) in both their original and their arranged traditional “balfolk” style tunes, a Western European Dutch, German and French style of folk dances such as waltzes, schottisches, rondeaux and mazurkas.

Great entertaining diverse musical feels throughout. Their tune J & C Mazurka opens with a reflective lead clarinet against fiddle plucks leading to a tight quiet duet. Their cover of the traditional Brittany tune Laridés features upbeat conversational fiddle/clarinet interludes, and clarinet octave shifts. Williams plays diatonic accordion with Stam’s fiddle in the lyrical, sensitive, tightly phrased cover of the traditional Dutch Marche de Roux/La Baigneuse (Marche/Waltz).

Five special guests add new colour to select tracks including upright bassist Alan Mackie’s deep low pitches in After the Snow/Autumn in the Valley (Schottische); and Nathan Smith’s great fiddling as Stam picks up the piano accordion to play backdrop grooves and doubling driving clarinet lines in Red Bay/The Stone Whale/Stukjes (Jig Chapelloise).

Stam and Williams play with joy, technique and superb musicianship. Honeywood is the Ontario town where Stam and Williams were married in 2017, and also where their first two Big Branch Festivals for balfolk were held. No festival this year due to the pandemic, but there is so much great music here to keep you dancing at home, and hopefully out and about soon!

Listen to 'Honeywood' Now in the Listening Room

01 PeeblesDelicacies in the Garden mdDelicacies in the Garden of Plenty
Sarah Peebles; Kyle Brenders; Nilan Perera
Independent (secondharvestca.bandcamp.com)

Concerned about Canadians impacted by COVID-19, Toronto-based experimental musicians and composers Sarah Peebles (shō, electroacoustics), Kyle Brenders (saxophones), Nilan Perera (altered electric guitar) joined forces to help. Earlier this year they released their album Delicacies in the Garden of Plenty, proceeds from which benefit Second Harvest, Canada’s largest food rescue charity. 

The eponymous tracks one and four are free improvisations by the trio performed at Ratio, the intimate former downtown Toronto performance space. They feature Perera’s delicate experimental electric guitarism, Brenders’ saxophonic exploration of “the interaction of intentionality and surprise,” and Peebles’ chordal performances on shō, the Japanese mouth organ. The slowly evolving music of Delicacies... is a testament to the trio’s improvisational skill, deep listening and generosity of shared spirit.

The inner two tracks are hybrid soundscape-electroacoustic works by Peebles, featuring the sound of birds, amphibians, insects and water from Aotearoa/New Zealand, masterfully mixed with occasional shō and electroacoustic interpolations. The nearly 20-minute In the Canopy – Meditations from Paparoa and Kāpiti Island (2005/2020) is the album’s standout work. Deeply informed by Peebles’ long involvement with sound ecology and biodiversity, she uses her beautiful field recordings of nature sounds and studio-made electroacoustics, layering and extending them into a compelling musical statement. 

In addition to learning from the voices of the land, Peebles points out that her approach in the work was informed by indigenous Māori concepts reflecting spiritual dimensions. In this music we get a rare glimpse of the sort of eloquent, non-hegemonic sonic dialogue possible between nature and humans. It’s an impressive feat even when constructed in the recording studio for our listening pleasure.

02 KamancelloOf Shadows
Independent (kamancello.com)

Last year I reviewed Kamancello II: Voyage. I noted that the portmanteau word Kamancello was invented to serve as the name of the Toronto-based bowed-string instrument duo of Kurdish-Iranian kamanche player and composer Shahriyar Jamshidi, and classically trained Canadian cellist and composer Raphael Weinroth-Browne. Weinroth-Browne is also a member of the progressive metal band Leprous. And his motoric metal cello chops occasionally emerge in his Kamancello contributions.

Describing their music as “East-meets-West,” rendering “improvised performances [that] transcend genres and cultural boundaries,” they take us on another epic musical journey on their new six-track album Of Shadows. As on the previous outing, improvisation is front and centre. The duo proudly states as much on its Bandcamp page – “recorded live at Union Sound Company in Toronto … all of the music on this album is fully improvised and unedited” – lending the musical dialogue an organic quality. Yet there are also well-developed modal-melodic frameworks and formal structures shaping the improvs into a coherent musical narrative.

Individual tracks in Of Shadows often commence quietly without pulse, then slowly develop a polyphonic texture through a fluent dialogue between these two sensitive musicians building themes and dramatic tension. Listening to this new album reinforced an appreciation of the timbral differences between the mellow deep cello sound and that of the thinner, higher tessitura kamanche, distinctions effectively exploited by the duo. Yet again, it was the perfect music to accompany my inner journey this evening.

04 Sounds of BrazilSounds of Brazil
Angela Turone; Chris Platt
Independent (chrisplattmusic.ca; angelaturone.com)

Angela Turone and Chris Platt, like so many of us around the globe, have become smitten with Brazilian music. Although there is a deep, rich musical culture in that country that goes beyond bossa nova, that well-known style is the focus of the Toronto-based duo’s debut album, Sounds of Brazil. Bossa nova has a light, breezy air to it which belies the complexity of the music and the skill required to master it, which Turone and Platt do, with a little help from some friends. 

Turone beautifully handles all the piano playing and singing – much of the latter in Portuguese – and her warm, pure vocals really suit the style. Platt does all the deft guitar work, most prominently on nylon string. The duo covers standards by Jobim, de Moraes and others – several from the classic Getz/Gilberto album, which essentially introduced bossa nova to North America – with a few jazz standards and lesser-known gems too. There’s plenty of collaboration with local talent, including ethnomusicologist and keyboardist, Gordon Sheard, who produced the album. Andrew Downing’s cello work shines on many tracks, in particular on the haunting Chega de Saudade. On the sprightly Doralice, everyone’s agility is on display, in particular Chase Sanborn on trumpet and John Nicholson on flute doubling Turone’s vocal gymnastics. The standout, for me, is Lendas Brasileiras by Guinga. Gorgeous. The final tune – featuring percussionist Helio Cunha – ventures into samba territory and since that style epitomizes the renowned pre-Lent celebrations in Rio, A Festa Do Divino, is a fitting closer to this fine album. 

Listen to 'Sounds of Brazil' Now in the Listening Room

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