02 Tina HarttAbsence of You
Tina Hartt
Independent (tinahartt.com)

The instrumentation hooks you, the arrangements reel you in and Tina Hartt’s passionate performance catches you. Trust Your Heart is an arresting original composition, with Jonathan D. Lewis’ wistful strings cascading over Hartt’s evocative lyricism; equal parts yearnful and triumphant. The relationship between form and substance shines through in every note Hartt sings. Every once in a while, when the band employs silence or coordinates hits for emphasis, Hartt shapes her phrases in a way where profundity takes center stage. In lines like “I can’t touch but I can dream” from I Can Look but I Can’t Touch, that hesitation adds an exclamation point to the echo effect the music creates, bringing the idea home with great clarity. 

Aside from Hartt’s consistent ingenuity as a vocalist and limitless creativity, this album is tied together by how incredible it sounds. Credit is due to Steve Dierkens for the mixing, because it adds a great feeling of intimacy and closeness to the album. There are no effects imposed on any musicians present and yet the sound is recorded with startling detail. Every element of the music feels like the most prominent aspect at any given moment, and it is this kind of clarity that lends to Hartt’s voice perfectly. From the very first track to the end, there is a singular directness of Hartt’s approach to her music, and the effectiveness of said approach cannot be overstated.

03 Harry BartlettWildwood
Harry Bartlett Trio
Independent (harrybartlettmusic.com)

Harry Bartlett, an accomplished jazz guitarist and composer with a music degree from the University of Toronto, has played in festivals and venues across Canada and has also toured public schools to provide improvisation workshops. Although currenting living and playing in Toronto, he grew up in the Pacific Northwest and the music for Wildwood was composed while living on Gambier Island (approximately 50 km northwest of Vancouver). Titles like Snowfall on Sword Ferns and Circle of Moss and Fire Smoke evoke the landscapes which inspired Bartlett’s music. Wildwood was recorded over three days on that same Island. 

All the tunes have an atmospheric quality that is enhanced by the trio’s empathic playing. Burgess Falls is hauntingly melodic, and the guitar work combines a Bill Frisell-feel with a few country-ish riffs. Sailing Over Troubled Waters features a distorted and atonal guitar line along with swirling and bashing drums to mimic an occasionally violent storm. Wildwood is an engaging and beautiful album with Caleb Klager (bass) and Harry Vetro (drums) providing nuanced support to Bartlett’s superb guitar work.

04 Blink TwiceBlink Twice
Jackson Welchner
Plutoid Records (jacksonwelchner.com)

“Let’s go grab a coffee/and talk about every moment since/since we had last crossed paths.” Blink Twice is comfort music. The harmony is warm, the strings are soft, the rhythms are sweet, the lyrics are reassuring. The five-pattern-synth ostinato on the title track will bounce around your skull for hours as it soothes you into a heightened state of being. Sum of All Strings feels like the chamber movement to end all others, as it meditates on its final figure, with an abrupt fade leaving the listener time to recompose themselves. Sarah Thawer’s ride cymbal shimmers, Michael Davidson’s vibes intrigue, Thom Gill’s arpeggios envelop, while Patrick Smith, Kae Murphy and Anh Phung’s countermelodies positively delight.  

Contemporary music that commands perhaps the most respect is the kind that treats the low end with the same respect it treats the mids and highs. Jackson Welchner’s arrangements are an exercise in perfect, immensely cathartic balance. The music is progressive, stylistically well-versed while being astonishingly easy to move to. Welchner’s voice is absolute velvet, while being able to consume the cosmos on The Distance. The versatility is in the consonants, and in the consonance. Nary a second of music doesn’t feel cared for and nurtured. It would be easy to come across as hyperbolic saying it, but at this point in the year, it’s hard to find many first (or second, or third…) listens more holistically gratifying than this.

05 Silent Tears PayadoraSilent Tears – The Last Yiddish Tango
Payadora Tango Ensemble
Six Degrees 657036132924 (payadora.com/silent-tears)

This Payadora Tango Ensemble project features guest musicians and vocalists, and executive producer/English text adapter Dan Rosenberg. It is comprised of tango-flavoured song settings of heart-wrenching memoirs, poems, testimonials and writings by female Holocaust survivors in Canada about the traumatizing violence women and children experienced during the Nazi occupation of Poland. The main lyric sources are from Dr. Paula David’s Terrace Holocaust Survivors Group Poetry Project at Toronto’s Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care, and from Toronto-based Holocaust survivor Molly Applebaum. All arrangements are by Payadora’s Drew Jurecka.

These songs are based on the inter-war tangos which were popular in the Jewish Central European communities such as four here composed by Artur Gold (1897-1943) who was murdered in the Treblinka Death Camp. Gold’s last tango composition Nie Wierze Ci is arranged into A Prayer for Rescue, based on two 1942 Applebaum diary entries. Marta Kosiorek’s moving heartbreaking vocals, Rebekah Wolkstein’s violin and Jurecka’s bandoneon countermelodies, with steady tango grooves by Robert Horvath’s piano and Joseph Phillips’s double bass are an intriguing uplifting/sad mix. Four songs are composed by Wolkstein. Her The Numbers on My Arm features Aviva Chernick’s colourful emotional vocals with words from the Terrace Group about wearing long sleeves in Canada to hide the numbers branded on Auschwitz prisoners is given tight ensemble support. The release also features guests Lenka Lichtenberg and Olga Avigail Mieleszczuk (vocals), and Sergiu Popa (accordion).

This is the most memorable release I have ever had the privilege to listen to and review.

01 Dizzy FayHooked
Dizzy & Fay
Independent (dizzyandfay.com)

Dizzy & Fay are at it again. With Hooked, their second release in just two years (thanks lockdowns!), the duo (keyboardist, songwriter, arranger and producer Mark Lalama and Juno-nominated singer and songwriter Amanda Walther) continues to build its persona, reminiscent of smoky jazz clubs, late nights and one too many martinis.

Hooked ventures beyond the duo and their considerable playing and singing skills though, with arrangements rich with woodwinds (Johnny Johnson) horns (William Carn and Jason Logue) drums (Davide DiRenzo) and bass (Rich Moore). The City of Prague Philharmonic even makes a couple of appearances and Drew Jurecka’s orchestrations on those tracks really shine.

As great as all of those accoutrements are, what draws us in most is the songwriting. Inspired by the Great American Songbook, Lalama and Walther have given us a set of songs that are both lyrically and musically strong and stylized, yet heartfelt. Themes of love and longing dominate but no modern album is complete, it seems, without at least one song about the pandemic and I’m Alright elegantly shrugs it all off while Good News cleverly evokes the strange mix of ennui, despair and coziness many of us felt. Hooked is playful and cool but will break your heart if you let it. 

(The duo’s virtual world, the Dizzy & Fay Speakeasy, complete with tour dates and merch, can be explored at dizzyandfay.com.)

Listen to 'Hooked' Now in the Listening Room

02 Sheku SongSong
Sheku Kanneh-Mason
Decca B0036196-02 (deccaclassics.com/en/artists/sheku-kanneh-mason)

Since winning BBC Young Musician in 2017 cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason has been much in demand from every musical quarter, traversing a road to glory, the envy of many musicians, some twice – even three times – his age. It is now safe to say that the music world is Kanneh-Mason’s oyster, albeit with room to spare for all his über-gifted siblings.  

But the cellist has – to all intents and purposes – pride of place in music’s rarefied realm. His Shostakovich First Cello Concerto unearthed real depth. From evidence of his various Decca recordings he seems to have soaked up every experience in the glitz and gush of what you might call his formative years. At the time of reviewing Song, with its repertoire culled from the classical and the popular, and from secular and sacred pieces, Kanneh-Mason is set to perform his interpretation of Elgar’s monumental Cello Concerto in E Minor Op.85 – a work long held out of bounds because of Jacqueline du Pré’s iconic 1962 recording – with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. (Unfortunately, that will have taken place by time of publication.)

However, Song amplifies the truth that Kanneh-Mason may have inherited Du Pré’s crown. The freshly radiant interpretation of Beethoven’s Variations on Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen, Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words (both also feature his brilliant pianist-sister, Isata), Stravinsky’s Chanson russe and Bach’s sacred music are spectacular. But Same Boat, a song composed by Kanneh-Mason (with vocalist Zak Abel) is the album’s apogee. In this simple song lies notice of Kanneh-Mason’s glowing compositional genius. 

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