05 KomitasKomitas
Gurdjieff Ensemble; Levon Eskenian
ECM New Series ECM 2451

Komitas’ name is familiar to many local music-lovers, thanks to Isabel Bayrakdarian’s performances and CD of his songs. Soghomon Soghomonian (1869-1935), considered the founder of Armenian musical nationalism, took the religious name of Komitas upon his ordination as a priest in 1895. The priest-musician not only composed original works, but transcribed some 3,000 folk tunes, arranging many for piano, often indicating the folk instrument to be imitated by the pianist, such as the plucked-string tar, the double-reed zurna and duduk, and the tmbuk drum. These annotations assisted Levon Eskenian, director of the Gurdjieff Ensemble, when arranging some of Komitas’ folk-derived pieces for his ten-member folk-instrument group. These, then, are arrangements of arrangements, rather than any original Komitas compositions.

This is a disc to be dipped into, rather than listened to all at once, as most of the 18 tracks, like most of Komitas’ songs, are slow and sad. Only three up-tempo pieces interrupt the melancholy: the raucous Mankakan Nvag XII for reeds and drum; Lorva Gutanerg, a pogh (flute) solo; and Hoy, Nazan, a very pretty, gently flowing pogh-kanon (zither) duet. By far the longest track, over 11 minutes, is Msho Shoror, processional dance music for a traditional religious pilgrimage, now stately, now mournful, with the keening wails of zurnas and duduks, and the haunting sound of the pogh.

While more up-tempo pieces would have been welcome, this CD’s beautiful melodies and vivid, piquant instrumental timbres deliver genuine listening pleasure.

01 Persian SongsPersian Songs
Nexus; Sepideh Raissadat
Nexus 10926 (nexuspercussion.com)

Persian Songs, the 16th album on its own Nexus label (there are numerus others in addition), provides an interesting dual portrait of the veteran Toronto-based, internationally renowned group’s musical roots and multi-branched evolution. It’s also an exhilarating listening experience. Two musical suites are featured on the album, both skillfully arranged by Nexus member and University of Toronto music professor Russell Hartenberger. They provide insights into his – and the group’s – career-long investment in two (often complementary) threads: on one hand 20th century American music, and on the other, music performed outside the Euro-American mainstream.

First up is Moondog Suite, a mellow tribute to the compositions of Louis T. Hardin (1916–1999), a.k.a. Moondog, the outsider American composer, street musician and poet. His music has been cited as an influence on the development of New York musical minimalism. Hartenberger’s caring and crafty arrangements, rearrangements and adaptations for keyboard-centric percussion provide a disarmingly straightforward presentation of Moondog’s tonal contrapuntal melodies. The Suite is capped by Suba Sankaran’s cameo appearance singing the cheery I’m This, I’m That, set in a classical passacaglia form.

The album’s centerpiece is the eight-part Persian Songs, featuring arrangements of songs by the award-winning contemporary Iranian stage director, novelist and songwriter Reza Ghassemi. Musical interpretations of poems by giants of the Persian classical literary period, including Hafez, Sa’adi and Rumi, these songs are evocatively sung and accompanied on the setar by the Iranian vocalist Sepideh Raissadat. Steeped in the rich Persian music tradition from an early age, she has been called “a key figure in the new generation of classical Persian song interpreters.” In 1999 Raissadat took the bold step of giving a solo public performance at the Niavaran Concert Hall in Tehran, the first female vocalist to do so after the 1979 Iranian revolution.

Raissadat is currently pursuing her doctoral studies in ethnomusicology at the U. of T. with Dr. Hartenberger among others, just one of the fascinating interconnecting threads on this album. Hartenberger’s arrangements, Raissadat’s singing and Nexus’ precise performances culminate in eight and a half minutes of glorious music making on Az In Marg Matarsid; Bouye Sharab. It’s a powerful illustration of the vibrant and rich transcultural musical tapestry being woven right now, right here in Toronto.

02 Sultans of StringSubcontinental Drift
Sultans of String; Anwar Khurshid
Independent MCK2060 (sultansofstring.com)


World music Canadian superstars Sultans of String continue to expand their musical journey with the addition of guest sitar master Anwar Khurshid in this release. Khurshid adds energy and Eastern flavours to the already diverse-sounding flamenco, Arabic folk, Cuban rhythm, East Coast fiddling and you-name-it-sounding band. The result is perfect, joyful music performed by perfect musicians.

Founding members violinist/bandleader Chris McKhool and guitarist Kevin Laliberté along with guitarist Eddie Paton, bassist Drew Birston and Cuban master percussionist Rosendo “Chendy” Leon have created the band’s signature successful blend as heard on the rhythmical percussion-driven Subcontinental Drift and the more folksy A Place to Call Home. It is their strength of vision that welcomes Khurshid’s musicianship to all the tracks. Rakes of Mallow is an ancient Irish fiddle tune introduced to India and taught to local musicians during the English rule. Sung passionately by Kurshid, it is followed in medley form by the rollicking original Rouge River Valley. Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind is given a timeless world beat cover. Journey to Freedom is an uplifting positive song/anthem sonic blend tracing Kurshid’s journey from Pakistan to Canada. Other special guests lending their signature sounds to specific tracks include Ravi Naimpally, Shweta Subram, Waleed Abdulhamid and a backing choir.

The production qualities feature a balanced mix and live off the floor clear tone quality. Subcontinental Drift is simply great music for all to enjoy and respect.

03 Linda McRae

Shadow Trails
Linda McRae
Borealis Records BCD237 (lindamcrae.com)

This stirring roots/folk/country project is the inspired brainchild of Canadian vocalist/composer/multi-instrumentalist Linda McRae and her husband, retired rancher and poet, James Whitmire. The material (nearly all original) is inspired by the Nashville-based couple’s life-affirming work with incarcerated, nascent writers being held in the notorious New Folsom Prison, as well as their important work with at-risk youth – many of whom contribute moving lyrics and their personal stories to this recording. Perhaps best known as a member of the platinum-selling band Spirit of the West, McRae brings to the table her well-lived-in contralto and infallibly honest delivery. Well-produced by guitarist Steve Dawson (who also serves as frequent co-writer), each tune tells a story of love, loss, regret, poverty, isolation, injustice and also grace. In addition to Dawson and Whitmire, McRae’s talented collaborators also include bassist John Dymond, drummer Gary Craig, keyboardist Steve O’Connor and an array of guests including fiddler Fats Kaplin and Ray Bonneville on harmonica.

The music here is unflaggingly authentic, deeply satisfying, refreshingly acoustic and imbued with a big dose of soul and a skilled musicality. Of special note are Linda’s biographical reverie, Can You Hear Me Calling; also Flowers of Appalachia, with lyrics by Ken Blackburn – an inmate in New Folsom Prison who became a poet and lyricist through the Arts in Corrections program – and finally Singing River, the heartrending tale of Te-lah-nay and the dehumanizing treatment of Yuchi Native Americans and their brutal relocation away from their beloved “Singing River” in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Whether roots music is your cup of tea or not, this standout recording is a consciousness-raising journey through a challenging emotional landscape that also embraces hope and redemption.

01_Quadrophenia.jpgPete Townshend’s Classic Quadrophenia
Alfie Boe; Billy Idol; Phil Daniels; Pete Townshend; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Robert Ziegler
Deutsche Grammophon 479 5057

British rock icon Pete Townshend has embarked on a project to arrange his music into orchestral scores for future generations to perform. The album Quadrophenia was first released in 1973 by The Who. Written by Pete Townshend, the rock opera is set during the 1960s Mod movement and tells the story of the troubled youth Jimmy. Composer, orchestrator and Townshend’s life partner Rachel Fuller took on the monumental task of arranging it for symphony orchestra, choir and singers. The resulting Classic Quadrophenia is an intriguing mix of rock anthem, movie soundtrack, Broadway musical, opera and classical symphonic overture.

Tenor Alfie Boe sings with a satisfying mix of operatic passion and rock star angst in the role of Jimmy, originally sung by Roger Daltrey. Boe makes the part his own, especially in the closing Love Reign O’er Me where his powerful expressive singing against the colourful choir washes, tinkling piano and thundering percussion transforms the rock anthem into an operatic showcase. Billy Idol as Ace Face sings with his trademark gruff presence; Phil Daniels is convincing in the part of Jimmy’s dad; while Townshend as the Godfather makes satisfying yet way too brief vocal and guitar appearances. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Robert Ziegler and the London Oriana Choir under Dominic Peckham perform with joyful conviction. An accompanying DVD supports with visuals and informative commentaries.

Missed here in performance is the Who’s rock stadium energy, stage presence and spontaneous musicality, yet Classic Quadrophenia soars as a more classical music alternative.

unnamed.jpgAsia Beauty
Ron Korb
Humble Dragon 2015 (ronkorb.com)

Ron Korb’s new CD, Asia Beauty, is a charming hybrid – sad, sweet melodies with a Chinese and sometimes a Celtic feel – played on a variety of instruments, traditional and modern. Korb’s melodies are accompanied by small ensembles which include an astounding 27 musicians playing 15 different plucked, bowed or hammered Chinese, Celtic and Western string instruments, one of which is always the piano, playing harmonic progressions recognizably of the Western tradition.

Reflecting on this amalgam of East and West, Korb muses in the liner notes, “In the 1930s...Hong Kong, Shanghai, Singapore and Hanoi were meeting places between East and West. ...I wondered how the cultures intermingled and all the secret romances that must have occurred.” Later he writes about the “bittersweet feelings” and “sublime romantic tragedy” expressed by both traditional and contemporary pop Asian music. The same atmosphere is to be found on most of the tracks on this CD.

Most intriguing, however, is the Celtic influence, which never seems far away in Korb’s music, helped along at times by, but never dependent on, Sharlene Wallace’s Celtic harp and Korb’s penny whistle. In fact the Chinese bamboo flute (dizi) and the traditional Chinese clarinet (bawu) seem made for the Celtic idiom, which mysteriously and frequently appears.

Both Eastern and Western musical currents are part of who Ron Korb is as a musician and as a man. He has totally assimilated the musical language of both traditions; the result is music which is really neither one nor the other but both.

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