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
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
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.

Listen to 'Espiral' Now in the Listening Room

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.

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