05 John FinleySoul Singer
John Finley
Vesuvius Music (johnfinleymusic.com)

Vocalist and composer John Finley’s impressive career includes more than 50 years of navigating the heady waters of blues, popular music, gospel and soul. During that time, not only has Finley established himself as a compelling and vibrant performer, but also as a fine composer and noted crafter of hit tunes. He has shared the stage with an array of top-flight artists, including the Rolling Stones and The Temptations. After an extended stay in LA, Finley returned to his native Toronto in 2018 and subsequently released perhaps the finest recording of his soulful career.

Brilliant producer/arranger Lou Pomanti is a driving force behind this project, having co-written two tunes and performed on piano, organ and keyboards. The fine cast of musicians also includes Marc Rogers on bass, Larnell Lewis and Davide Direnzo on drums, John Findlay and Sam Pomanti on guitar, William Carn on trombone, William Sperandei and Tony Carlucci on trumpet and Alison Young on Saxophone.

Nearly all 11 compositions on this album were penned or co-penned by Finley, and first at bat is Let Me Serenade You. Gospel motifs saturate this soulful, B3-driven tune and Finley’s well-lived-in, elastic tenor swoops and dips through this joyful track, replete with exquisitely placed horn lines and swinging, rhythmic, background vocals. Other highlights include GO, an uber-cool journey into a deep cave of funk and also the enervating closer, Who Will the Next Fool Be – a languid, down-home blues tinged with just the right amount of ennui, vigour and regret by Finley. This exceptionally conceived, produced, written, arranged and performed album is one of the most musically and emotionally satisfying recordings that I have had the chance to experience this year.

06 Breath Hammer Album Cover Art Martin Shamoonpour Design GraphicTherapyBreath & Hammer
David Krakauer; Kathleen Tagg
Table Pounding Records (tablepoundingmusic.com)

Alchemy is an attempt to turn base metal into gold. That’s a bit like what clarinetist David Krakauer and pianist Kathleen Tagg have done with this release. Issuing a call for raw material, in the form of song ideas, from their various musical friends, they then gave each a treatment blending electronic with acoustic effects. You wouldn’t know it from listening, but each track is a mosaic of multiple electronic bits.

The Hammer is Tagg, an adept performer/engineer of the prepared piano who uses her experience in contemporary extended techniques to expand the instrument, unlocking its potential for sounds well beyond convention. Breath is supplied by Krakauer, who is possibly best known for his mastery of the klezmer style, although that is just one of the several musical hats he wears. Per The Wall Street Journal: “Krakauer… moves so seamlessly between different genres… you’d almost think there’s no appreciable difference between jazz, klezmer and formal classical music.”

You might categorize this as a jazz-coloured klezmer album, the experience elevated or transformed by virtue of the novel sounds produced by the two musicians. Both engage in beat-boxing, bouncing bops of sound out of the bodies of their instruments. Tagg gets inside the lid and draws a plectrum across the strings beyond the bridge, sending shivers up the spine. Soft-shoe breath effects alternate with pop bottle hoots in the intro of Rattlin’ Down the Road. Demon Chopper is great rapid-fire fun. Listen and wonder: “How’d they do that?”

01 Iimpressions of debussy coverImpressions of Debussy
Lori Sims; Andrew Rathbun; Jeremy Siskind
Centaur Records (andrewrathbun.com) 

With its evocative harmonies and imaginative rhythms, the music of Debussy particularly lends itself to jazz interpretations and the blending of the two idioms meld perfectly on this Centaur recording featuring nine of Debussy’s Préludes played by pianists Lori Simms and Jeremy Siskind together with soprano saxophonist Andrew Rathburn. The disc is a delight!

Comprising 18 tracks altogether, the well-ordered sequence features Sim’s performance of a prelude as it was originally written, immediately followed by the same piece reimagined by either Siskind or Rathburn and performed by the duo. The arrangements were first presented at the Gilmore Keyboard Festival in 2016.

Sims’ performance is poised and sensitive, at all times beautifully nuanced. And what is particularly appealing is the manner in which the jazz interpretations reinvent the original in such a creative way that frequently the piece is transformed altogether. As an example, the esoteric and mysterious mood of preludes such as Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir and Feuilles mortes is almost abandoned in the jazz version and replaced instead by the use of a brisker tempo and jazz harmonies in an amiable conversation between the two parts. Yet other re-interpretations are closer to the original, such as Minstrels with its quirky rhythms and slapstick good humour.

Throughout, the duo plays with a freshness and spontaneity that truly breathes new life into traditional repertoire in a very convincing way – how could Debussy not have approved?! Impressions of Debussy is perfect listening for a summer evening – or anytime for that matter. Recommended.

02 Daugherty This LandMichael Daugherty – This Land Sings (Inspired by the life and times of Woody Guthrie)
Annika Socolofsky; John Daugherty; Dogs of Desire; David Alan Miller
Naxos 8.559889 (naxosdirect.com/items/daugherty-this-land-sings-inspired-by-the-life-and-times-of-woody-guthrie-534848) 

Celebrated American composer Michael Daugherty’s musical tribute This Land Sings: Inspired by the Life and Times of Woody Guthrie arrived just after George Floyd’s death and the protests against racism. The CD’s theme of social injustice in the songs and life of Woody Guthrie (1912-1967) is timely. But how did Daugherty in 2016 compose music out of music? The answer is versatility. Travelling across America in space and time, the tribute includes many stops: Utah at the 1915 death of singer-labour activist Joe Hill; Oklahoma during the 1930s dust storms; with Guthrie as a cook on US Merchant Marine convoy ships; and at a Jewish community in New York where Guthrie lived after World War Two. The composer alludes to well-known Guthrie songs and parodies traditional American songs, mixing in his own often-satirical poetry and music. The brilliant David Alan Miller-conducted small ensemble Dogs of Desire begins with a quasi-Stravinsky-ish Overture that has eerie suggestions of Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land. Soprano Annika Socolofsky’s low vibrato-less sound is especially effective in the duet The Ghost and Will of Joe Hill, but I wondered if baritone John Daugherty’s ringing timbre was appropriate in this composition’s initially rough milieu. 

Nevertheless, the two singers later became the work’s saving graces as Daugherty’s lyrical musical voice emerged. Hearing the spare voice/single instrument combinations in Bread and Roses (soprano/bassoon) and I’m Gonna Walk That Lonesome Valley (baritone/clarinet), I had travelled a long way indeed.

04 Strings for PeaceStrings for Peace
Amjad Ali Khan; Sharon Isbin; Amaan Ali Bangash; Ayaan Ali Bangash
Zoho ZM 202004 (zohomusic.com/cds/isbin_stringsforpeace.html) 

Innovative Grammy-winning guitarist Sharon Isbin has just released a new recording that not only pushes cultural musical barriers and stereotypes, but breaks them down entirely. Isbin is joined here by iconic sarod master, Amjad Ali Khan and his talented sons, Amaan and Ayaan Ali Bangash. Noted drummer/tabla player Amit Kavthekar, adds his considerable talents to both the intensity and the beauty of the repertoire. The project itself is comprised of stirring ragas and talas, composed in the traditions of region-specific North Indian classical music. The CD was recorded in New York City following the ensemble’s successful and aptly titled “Strings for Peace” 2019 tour of India, and features four original compositions by Khan that are based on popular ragas, and were written and arranged specifically for Isbin’s transplendant musicianship, as well as for her deep, intuitive understanding of this thrilling music, steeped in antiquity.

With over 30 diverse albums to her credit, Isbin’s sibilant and precise guitar work is the perfect complement for Khan’s ancient sarod – both in timbre and tone. Of special note are By the Moon, in which languid, dreamy drone tones conjure up the magic and mystery of the moon’s esoteric power; in contrast, Love Avalanche is a rousing, rhythmic celebration, involving an intricate and melodic musical conversation between Isbin and Khan. The irresistible Sacred Evening is an experience of gentle, fragile beauty as well as a dip into the eternal sea of oneness that we are all a part of.

This inspired ensemble will spread their much-needed message of peace, beauty, unity and understanding through music in an upcoming United States cross-country tour next year, beginning with appearances at the world-famous Tanglewood and Caramoor Festivals.

01 Sass JordanRebel Moon Blues
Sass Jordan
Stony Plain Records SPCD1410 (sassjordan.com)

The visceral beauty – yes, such a thing is possible – together with the long-limbed melancholy of the blues, is what makes the music of Rebel Moon Blues by Sass Jordan a flaming masterpiece. Despite the fact that she hasn’t made a recording in almost a decade, she has clearly been in top form throughout that period. Jordan indulges in what can only be described as a spontaneously intuitive unleashing of these melodies. There is no gratuitous ornamentation, no playing to the rock gallery; no fuss; just the raspy hardness of her vocals unfolding with enormous colour and emotion song after song.

There is never any room for shallowness with the blues and Jordan seems not only to understand that perfectly, but to find places to reach deep within her chest to deliver on the emotion that the songs demand. She is appropriately intimate on My Babe, relentless and unforgiving on One Way Out and rivetingly plaintive on Still Got the Blues. The reason she can breathe life into those songs and the others on the disc is because she seems to inhabit them as if they were hers and hers alone, despite the fact that other musicians actually penned these classic tunes. 

Part of the allure of this recording comes from the fact that the musicians who support Jordan on her journey are fully attuned to her artistry. Together with Jordan they make this a recording to die for.

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