01 Stephan Moccio TALES OF SOLACE webTales of Solace
Stephan Moccio
Decca Records (stephanmoccio.com)

WholeNote readers may be familiar with Stephan Moccio from his acclaimed work as a world-class songwriter, penning megahits for such artists as Celine Dion, Miley Cyrus and Avril Levigne. On this recording, however, Moccio leaves behind his songwriting chair for the piano bench, as he returns to the keyboard and his beloved classical roots, with stunning results.

Tales of Solace offers us 16 beautifully crafted and intimate vignettes, each with its own particular sonic and thematic signature, united throughout by Maccio’s poetic touch and great command of harmony, timing and space. Vaguely familiar sounding melodic motifs rise to the surface, only to disappear back into the rolling and shifting musical landscape, cinematic, yet intimate in its scope and detail.

Many of the pieces are deeply personal: Through Oscar’s Eyes is for his son, and features a delicate melody over rolling arpeggiated figures. La Fille Aux Pouvoirs Magiques unfolds like a beautiful meditation, an acknowledgement for someone special in his life. All are performed and recorded on his custom-built Yamaha YUS5 piano.

It takes a great deal of patience and deep listening to create this kind of music. Thank you, Stephan Moccio, for one of the finest and most memorable releases of the year – one to treasure.

Listen to 'Tales of Solace' Now in the Listening Room

02 Tamar Mistral webMistral
Tamar Ilana & Ventanas
Independent (tamarilana.com)

Tamar Ilana had been dancing and singing in the flamenco/Middle Eastern/Balkan music realm since she was a girl, so although still relatively young, she’s now somewhat of a global-music veteran. She comes by it honestly, as her mother, Dr. Judith Cohen, is a respected ethnomusicologist who Ilana credits with introducing her to many of the styles of music on this lovely album.

Mistral is the third release by the Toronto-based group, and Ilana and her Ventanas bandmates cover off a range of instruments and styles. All contribute vocals in an impressive seven different languages. Percussionist Derek Gray does multiple duty on Tibetan singing bowls, cymbals, darbuka, djembe, cajon and good ol’ drum kit. Demetri Petsalakis’ string mastery shines on oud, lyra and saz. Benjamin Barile’s assertive guitar playing is an excellent foil for Ilana’s strong, emotive singing. Barille also wrote two rousing flamenco tunes, and Jessica Hana Deutsch contributed several songs – including a lovely instrumental honouring Martin Luther King Jr. – along with versatile violin and viola playing throughout. Bass player Justin Gray co-produced the album and has kept it relatively raw, letting the musicians’ talent and passion come through in an authentic way. The lyrics (helpfully translated in the liner notes) reveal themes of longing, loss and love – themes that unite us all, no matter where we’re from.

Listen to 'Mistral' Now in the Listening Room

03 Lamia Yared webChants des Trois Cours
Lamia Yared & Invités
Independent (lamiayared.com)

Over the scope of 15 tracks on Chants des Trois Cours, commanding Lebanese-Canadian singer and music director Lamia Yared plus seven virtuoso musician “friends” explore three of the cultures that contributed to the Ottoman musical world. This ambitious Persian composers and Among the album’s delights are the songs in muwashshah, the musical form from Aleppo, Syria with Arabic-Andalusian poetic roots. Jalla Man Ansha Jamalak (A Tribute to Your Beauty), set in maqam Awj Iraq and in the Mrabaa metre of 13 slow beats, is a beautifully performed example.

Montreal-based Yared’s voice soars above her group of outstanding instrumentalists: Nazih Borish (oud), Reza Abaee (ghaychak), Elham Manouchehri (tar), Joseph Khoury (riq and bendir) and Ziya Tabassian (tombak). Cellist Noémy Braun and bassist Jérémi Roy ably enrich the album’s bottom end. Didem Başar, featured on Turkish kanun, also provided the nuanced and very effective arrangements. 

But it is Yared who brings Chants des Trois Cours to life. Propelled by her elegant vocalism, linguistic skills and artistic vision, she piques our interest in the rich musical legacy of this multicontinental, multicultural empire. That this impressive achievement was conceived and produced in Montreal is yet another wonder.

04 Saqqara webSaqqara
Esbe
New Cat Music (esbemusic.uk)

Esbe does not score the instruments and sounds she needs before recording her music. As she herself puts it, she allows serendipity to take her on its own particular journey until there is one unified picture. And this CD presents a highly varied picture as Esbe travels from Egypt (hence Saqqara, site of Egypt’s oldest Step pyramid) through India, Sri Lanka and North Africa.

In fact, modern boundaries count for nothing as Esbe casts her sensuous veil of voice and instrument (and even sound effect) over her listeners, who feel themselves entranced within the lingering and languorous sounds of traditional desertscapes. And yet the sounds of the desert are not the only ones on Esbe’s CD. She employs the Indian tabla, tambourine and various synthetic sounds to create her own Qawaali Dance, a tribute to a spirited and demanding dance form. Her fondness for the rich music of India leads to Eyes of blue, a lovesong of intense beauty. 

Paint the moon is perhaps the most distinctive track. It starts with the most lively beat on the CD, before introducing heartfelt lyrics described by Esbe as perhaps a plea by the moon for an end to the natural depletion of the world by humanity.

Esbe’s final composition inspired by the desert is Bedouin Prince, reflecting the longstanding presence of the Bedouin in North Africa. Its mystic percussion part sets the backdrop for some highly romantic thoughts. In fact, looking at the CD as a whole, those of the romantic persuasion can invite a significant other round, dim the lights and listen to Saqqara...

Listen to 'Saqqara' Now in the Listening Room

01 Dan PittMonochrome
Dan Pitt
Dan Pitt Music (dan-pitt.com)

Call this a cynical outlook, but I generally see likening one artist to another, particularly in music, a cheap trick employed by unimaginative writers. A saxophonist with avant-garde tendencies quickly “calls to mind Ornette Coleman.” Likewise, any legato-leaning guitarist post-1990 becomes “Metheny-esque” when described in banal jazz prose. During my second listen to Dan Pitt’s Monochrome, I ate my above words as I subconsciously likened many of his tones and textures to modern guitar greats like Bill Frisell and Ben Monder. On this 2020 release of contemporary solo guitar music, I would argue these influences merely show that Pitt has done his homework. The music presented is far from ever sounding derivative, but its uniqueness as an album also largely stems from diversity throughout its ten tracks. Pitt’s use of electric and acoustic guitars, as well as effects and samples, creates tasteful contrasts to the pieces presented, without taking away from the album’s cohesiveness as a whole. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic places many aspects of our lives in limbo, I am not envious of those releasing albums this year, forcedly adapting to the new normal of limited capacity and online album releases. To offer a silver lining for Monochrome, I hope that this album can benefit from the quarantined or working-from-home audience, who now have time to give it the uninterrupted 38 minutes of listening it deserves.

02 OKANEspiral
OKAN
Lulaworld Records LWR011 (lulaworldrecords.ca)

Afro-Cuban music fused with jazz elements and rhythms from around the world, this album is impossible to listen to without moving one’s feet and occasionally breaking into dance. These talented women have heart, they have a groove, and they are backed up by an impressive list of talented musicians. Elizabeth Rodriguez (vocals, violin) and Magdelys Savigne (vocals, percussion), classically trained Cuban-Canadian musicians and JUNO nominees, are the force de jour behind this lively album. Their music is colourful, sassy and engaging. Both use their respective instruments in a way that draws the listener right into the centre of creation, resulting in divine violin solos and driving crossover rhythms. 

Nested among seven original songs are three beloved standards: Cumba, Cumba; Besame Mucho (a much livelier version than expected); and the closing Pie de Foto. OKAN’s original tunes stay within the boundaries of the respective genres but make good use of the crossover elements. 

Espiral is based on Cuban musical heritage and around the themes of immigration and love. The title song opens the album in a bright manner, using a traditional blend of instruments and chants. Trocada is more jazzy, with bewitching violin solos, colourful percussion and an impressive piano solo (Miguel de Armas). Aguila’s Latin groove is filtered through sultry violin lines and beautiful vocals. 

With Espiral, OKAN continues doing what they do the best – creating music that transcends borders and brings in the joy.

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