01 Taraf SyrianaTaraf Syriana
Omar Abou Afach; Naeem Shanwar; Noémy Bruan; Sergiu Popa
Lula World Records LWR029 (lulaworldrecords.ca/taraf-syriana)

Montreal-based quartet Taraf Syriana was founded in 2020. Its international virtuoso musicians who had moved earlier to Montreal are Romani/Moldavian Sergiu Popa (accordion), Syrian-based Omar Abou Afach (viola) and Naeem Shanwar (qanun), and Swiss Noémy Braun (cello). In this self-titled debut ten track release, the quartet interprets, arranges and performs Syrian and Romani folk music, with other folk traditions from the region like Balkan and Kurdish, showcasing their dedication to this music. 

Opening track Me Dukhap Tuke features Popa and Braun with guest instrumentalists Nazih Borish (oud) and Mohammed Raky (darbouka) accompanying famed Romani guest vocalist/guitarist Dan Armeanca in his happy, exuberant song featuring soaring vocals above florid accordion lines and attention-grabbing vocal shots during instrumental solos. Armeanca also sings his Romani lyrics Come dance to my song above these supportive tight instrumentalists in the upbeat Sare Roma. Raky joins the quartet in the traditional Kurdish folk song Kevoke (The Dove), an accessible rendition with melodic musical accordion alternating with other instrumental solos. A surprise is Abdul-Karim’s Tango by Mohammed Abdul-Karlm, a “tango” in which its composition and Taraf Syriana’s instrumentation change the traditional tango sound colour while maintaining some familiar stylistic qualities. Guest vocalist Ayham Abou Amar and all instrumentalists perform the Syrian folk song Al Maya in an almost pop-sounding rendition. Taraf Syriana play their meditative, reflective composition Dialogue intimes. Each slow carefully placed musical note to closing fade shows a different side of the ensemble.

This Taraf Syriana release is perfect, uplifting music.

02 Denielle BasselsLittle Bit a ‘ Love
Denielle Bassels
Independent  (deniellebassels.com)

Vibrant and fresh are two descriptors that are worn easily by delightful and innovative vocalist, tunesmith and arranger, Denielle Bassels. With the release of her second studio project, Bassels shines and establishes herself as one of the most intriguing jazz/pop singer/songwriters on the current scene. Harkening to the swing era, and yet firmly contemporary, Bassels is joined here by talented musicians throughout, including her core band, bassist Russ Boswell, violin/viola player Drew Jurecka, vibraphonist/guitarist Thom McKay (who, along with Bassels, serves as co-producer here) and noted percussionist Chendy Leon, as well as guests.

The majority of tunes here were both composed and arranged by Bassels, and the uplifting opener (and title track) incorporates irresistible swing motifs with Bassels’ smoky, sultry, sonorous voice, accented by sweet background vocals. Another treat is Tangled Thread, the complex rhythmic and melodic vocal line reminiscent of the sassy Boswell sisters, replete with a fine acoustic guitar solo from Tak Arikushi. Another stunner is Lazy Gazing – a perfect marriage of melody, lyrics and arrangement. The bluesy Gone is a heart-rending and soulful romantic idyll rendered with intensity and heart, and the inclusion of McKay’s vibes on the Cinema Noir-ish Big Bad Wolf is genius.

The closer, I Wanna Be Like You, is consummately performed by Bassels, and with the clever addition of Jacob Gorzhaltsan’s stirring clarinet work, the listener is magically transported to a lower east-side speak easy where they are regaled by a talented, luminous chanteuse!

03 Al QahwaWeyn Allah
Al Qahwa
Independent (alqahwa.bandcamp.com/album/weyn-allah)

Depending on who you talk to, the word multiculturalism is either meaningless, or a politically correct supercharged word, especially in a post-pandemic world where everyone becomes easily overheated about everything. If the media is to be believed even Canada has not been spared the blushes of intolerance, and there seems no reason to doubt this. 

However, Canadian artists like the one-world-one-voiced Al Qahwa have always fought back against any form of divisiveness in the exquisite poetry of their music, sometimes with subtly crafted lyrics and at other times with more overt sounding words. The album Weyn Allah feels slightly different, not only because the title asks (and translates to) Where is God? But more than that there appears to be a more elemental, haunting cry that emanates from this music. The song of the same name hits the proverbial right spot in every way: poignant lyrics, elegant music and perfect execution.  

Elsewhere, on Dunya Farewell chromatic notes sigh, but the harmonic cushioning rarely falls where you anticipate. Vocalist Maryam Tollar embodies this elegance in the plaintive evocations of her vocals sung with Jono Grant’s excellent performance on nylon-string guitar.  

The lonesome wail of Ernie Tollar’s reeds and winds is breathtaking. Meanwhile, the delicately knitted single notes from Demetri Petsalakis’ oud, framed with the deep rumble of Waleed Abdulhamid’s bass and the resonant thunder of Naghmeh Faramand’s daff all make for a truly affecting experience.

04 Laila BialiYour Requests
Laila Biali
Imago EMG607 (lailabiali.com)

Gifted pianist and vocalist Laila Biali has just released an all-star recording with an interesting twist; in addition to welcoming vocal luminaries Kurt Elling, Emilie-Claire Barlow and Caity Gyorgy, the repertoire is based on requests that she has received from audience members during her performances. 

There are ten exquisite tracks here. Biali’s instrumental collaborators include clarinetist Anat Cohen, Grégoire Maret on harmonica, Michael Davidson on vibes, Kelly Jefferson on tenor/soprano sax, George Koller on bass, Ben Wittman (who also shares arranging and production credits with Biali) and Larnell Lewis on drums and Maninho Costa on percussion.

First up is the classic standard, Bye Bye Blackbird, arranged with a contemporary and rhythmic sensibility, replete with a dynamic sax solo from Jefferson. Directly following is a diaphanous take on Oscar Levant’s Blame it on My Youth. Biali’s voice is sultry and emotive here, perfectly interpreting the story of the poetic lyric. Also of note is Rogers and Hart’s immortal ballad My Funny Valentine, rendered here (with palpable musical chemistry) as a lovely duet between Biali and the inimitable Elling.   

A true highlight is an inspired duet with Barlow on Rogers and Hammerstein’s My Favourite Things. Barlow and Biali harmonize effortlessly and easily manifest a joyous track. Additionally, Biali shines on both piano and voice on a sumptuous take on Autumn Leaves. Her interpretation of Johnny Mercer’s renowned lyric is perfection itself, enhanced by another dynamic soprano sax solo from Jefferson and sensitive and creative bass work from Koller. 

05 Nicky Schrire Nowhere GirlNowhere Girl
Nicky Schrire
Anzic Records (nickyschrire.bandcamp.com/album/nowhere-girl)

This is singer-songwriter Nicky Schrire’s first release in ten years and she’s come a long way since then, both geographically and musically. Born in London, England, raised in South Africa and educated in New York, Schrire has made her home in Toronto for the last few years. Her previous jazz recordings had a healthy dose of covers from the Great American Songbook, with a smattering of originals, but Nowhere Girl’s 11 tracks are all (but one) written by Schrire. 

Whether this is a jazz album is debatable, if you care about such things, but what’s not in doubt is the high quality of the songwriting, singing and playing. Supported by the Canadian jazz trio, Myriad3 (Ernesto Cervini, drums, Dan Fortin, bass and Chris Donnelly, piano) and local luminary saxophonist Tara Davidson, there’s plenty to satisfy jazz fans. Starting with the driving title track and finishing in a similar high energy style with My Love featuring Mozambican Julio Sigauque’s guitar work. In between is a collection of lilting, poetic songs delivered with Schrire’s pretty, unaffected voice that lends a somewhat Celtic feel to many of the tracks. Her travels inform a lot of this new album both literally, with songs like In Paris and This Train (about New York City), and also musically, as styles from various cultures subtly leave their marks.

Listen to 'Nowhere Girl' Now in the Listening Room

06 Brandon Seabrookbrutalovechamp
Brandon Seabrook
Pyroclastic Records PR27 (store.pyroclasticrecords.com)

Brandon Seabrook is known to be a composer who eschews both sonic norms and overheated emotion. But on brutalovechamp he seems to tear up that musical playbook, to turn his own insides out and even bare his soul. These are works, seemingly like musical shards of raw emotion. You don’t really need to unscramble the three-word mash-up of the title or reach the end of the booklet to discover that Seabrook was gutted by the loss of man’s best friend, his dog Champ. 

Seabrook creates dizzying layering-on of tonal cadences, mixing guitar, mandolin and banjo, into the low instrumentation of bass recorder, alto, B-flat and contrabass clarinets and two contrabasses. Into this he has a cellist pour liquid notes, while the ensemble glimmers, redolent of a myriad of percussion instruments. This unusual collision of timbre creates a musical feast for the senses. 

If Seabrook means for you to feel the evocations of his pain at losing his beloved dog, then this you certainly do up close and personal on brutalovechamp. This is all inward-looking music, raw in a Jean-Paul Sartre-esque, existential sort of way. And although Seabrook may be averse to labels, some works cannot escape sonic allusions to the symbolists like Arthur Rimbaud, in for instance, Gutbucket Asylum. But make no mistake, every piece of music on this recording bears the authentic imprint of Seabrook’s feral sound palette.

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