02_viking_vacationVikings on Vacation
Ensemble Polaris
Bisma Bosma Records BBR002
(www.ensemblepolaris.com)

Self-described Arctic fusion band Ensemble Polaris takes a well deserved sonic break from its usual Northern Exposure with “Vikings on Vacation”. As the hilarious cover art so aptly displays, the dour Viking horsemen are melting on the beach. And while they may not be headed Due South - superb renditions of Swedish folk material are still a main focus - the choice of tracks by such non northern stars as Nino Rota and local Torontonians conjure up more of an international musical pastiche.

Band member Kirk Elliott contributes Cod’s Anatomy, a five part suite of short melodies written after a trip to sunny Newfoundland. Many styles are visited here with the Reel from Doran House a toe tapping joie de vivre. Guest composer Andrew Downing’s You Lovely Island is outstanding. Inspired by some melodies from West Side Story’s America, the piece allows the ensemble a chance to prove that they are more than just another folk music band. This is Leonard Bernstein on the rocks with its lilting melodies and rhythm. Member Debashis Sinha’s Emil Goes to Market is a world music piece originally written for Maza Mezé given in a joyful Polaris rendition.

Our musical vacationers are more laid back in their performances this time. The group plays with care, precision and creativity. However, considering the skills and musicality of the players, more spontaneous improvisation would have been a welcome addition.

“Vikings on Vacation” is great music to enjoy whether you are travelling the world or just taking a short holiday on the veranda.

Concert note: Ensemble Polaris celebrates the release of “Vikings on Vacation” in concert at the Music Gallery/Church of Saint George the Martyr on Friday October 16.

03_amanda_martinezAmor
Amanda Martinez
Independent (www.amandamartinez.ca
)

Amanda Martinez is in love. Marriage and a new baby have coloured her already sweet disposition and prompted her to produce this tribute to the promise that life holds, called, of course, “Amor”. With her long-time guitarist Kevin Laliberté and newer collaborator, husband and bass player Drew Birston, Martinez traverses the borders between various Latin musics, pop and jazz. Flamenco is the chief influencer, rearing its exotic head on Gitana, an ode to a gypsy dancer, and Te Prometo, a sort of mellow At Last by way of the Mediterranean. Cuban bandmates Chendy Leon (percussion) and Alexander Brown (trumpet) get to show off their roots on Tómalo and Martinez’s Mexican heritage asserts itself on Alma Mia. Throughout, she channels the gorgeous Mexicana cantora, Lila Downs. Although Martinez doesn’t have the guts and throatiness that distinguish Downs, her trademark straddling of chest and head voice is there and reinterpreted appealingly by Martinez’s pretty mezzo. It takes a lot of confidence to sing a song that has been covered often and performed perfectly, as is the case with Cucurrucucú Paloma and in particular, Caetano Veloso’s version of it, (if you’ve never heard it, do yourself a favour and seek it out on YouTube) but Martinez does her own beautiful, heartrending version here, appropriately ending the record with a reminder that love has its painful side, too.

Concert note: Amanda Martinez’s CD release concert is at the newly opened Koerner Hall on October 23.

04_ancient_egyptian_qanunThe Art of the Early Egyptian Qanun,
Vol. 2
Traditional Arabic Music Ensemble
Independent (www.georgedimitrisawa.com
)

This album is the sequel to an album of the same name, without the volume number, since at the time no one had forecast the incredible audience response that buoyed The Traditional Arabic Music Ensemble to grace us with more of the same. The first album came out in the spring of 2008, and notably garnered the 2009 Juno Award for World Music Album of the Year. This time George Sawa, Toronto’s own Egyptian music expert has put together, along with his colleagues, Suzanne Meyers Sawa and Raymond Sarweh, what I feel to be perhaps a stronger offering than the first. If not stronger, then certainly more mature. This is evident right off the top with the first cut, Raqset Sayyed Mohammed stretching over the ten-minute mark and offering a rich and varied array of musical textures within a unified whole.

I literally kept playing this album over and over: the music doesn’t get tired, it doesn’t get stale. It doesn’t even have what some might call “the same sound”, referring to an idiomatic Arabic ‘world music sound’. The energy is fresh and the deep resonance of the percussion drives the listener to yearn for more. If there was an over-riding flavour of this group’s creative output, it would be authenticity. Sawa has gone to great lengths to virtually resurrect an exact replica of a period instrument that is most likely unique in the world. Two thumbs up! Do I hear a trilogy in the offing?

02_Melody_GardotMy One and Only Thrill
Melody Gardot
Verve B001256302

Melody Gardot is a powerful new presence on the North American jazz/pop scene. I was enchanted by her live performance at the Toronto jazz festival (see my blog) and am pleased to hear that her charisma and ability to draw in a listener with her intimate vocal delivery has translated beautifully to recording. Her strong songwriting skills — developed while recovering from a serious traffic accident that left her sensitive to light and relying on a cane to walk — are what set her apart from the herd of young jazz singers content to rework old standards. Her unique voice is a contrast of styles with its fast vibrato hinting at the old world, à la Piaf, and her controlled, up close on the mic nuance adding an of-the-moment Leslie Feist style. Her phrasing is all her own, especially on the gorgeous title track, with its laid bare, confessional lyrics: “Birds may cease to spread their wings / Winters may envelope springs / But it don’t matter, it don’t matter ‘cause / When I’m with you / My whole world stands still / You’re my one and only thrill.”

It’s interesting to note what a little record label clout can do for a girl, as a long line-up of horn, string and rhythm section players grace the album, including such heavyweights as Vinnie Colaiuta and Larry Klein. Harmonically rich strings, masterfully arranged and conducted by Vince Mendoza, provide a soundscape that enhances without overpowering. But Gardot holds her own by doing all the guitar and piano work on the disc, and adds some charming bossa nova-style lilt to the only cover on the recording, Over the Rainbow. Expect big things from Ms. Gardot.

Cathy Riches

01_snow_queenClassical Fairy Tales - Patrick Cardy’s
The Snow Queen & The Little Mermaid
Angela Fusco; Alex Baran; Chamber

Music Society of Mississauga; Peggy Hill
CMSM Concert Theatre for Kids

(
www.chambermusicmississauga.org)

Two compositions by the late and much loved Carleton University music professor Patrick Cardy are featured on this new release. Based on two familiar Hans Christian Anderson children’s stories, Cardy has woven his narrative and music into a palette of word and sound painting, suspense, and musical colours.

The Snow Queen is scored for string quartet and narrator. Angela Fusco gives a convincing performance in telling the saga of lost little boy, and the little girl who loves him so. Her clear diction and amusing character voices highlight her rendering of eternal love to a backdrop of strings. On occasion the music is a wee bit too commercial for my liking, but thankfully these instances are few and far between.

The Little Mermaid has Fusco joined by the excellent Alex Baran in narration. The musical score is stronger here, with the mixed musical ensemble more in the forefront, especially in the gripping track The Sea Witch. The narration and music are equal partners here, probably creating rejoicing in “the distant realms of heaven”, the powerful closing line of this interesting work.

Applause to violinist, producer and CMSM Concert Theatre of Kids Artistic Director Peggy Hills for fulfilling her promise to the late composer that she would record The Snow Queen. Along with The Little Mermaid, this is music for both the young and young at heart.

Tiina Kiik

01_black_flowersBlack Flowers

Sarah Slean; Art of Time Ensemble

Pheromone Recordings PHER CD 1008

www.pheromonerecordings.com

The Art of Time Ensemble has come out with an absolute stunner of an album. "Black Flowers" is a project spearheaded by piano virtuoso Andrew Burashko, featuring singer Sarah Slean. Burashko has a penchant for bringing together artists and performers from diverse disciplines and styles to present music in fresh ways. For this project, he and Slean pulled together an assortment of tunes written by some of this country's folk/pop heroes - Ron Sexsmith, Mary Margaret O'Hara, Feist and the master himself, Leonard Cohen - and enlisted arrangers and musicians from the jazz and classical world. The result is a collection of modern art songs rooted in diverse Canadian sensibilities.

While the players are top notch, the real stars of this recording are the arrangers. One might expect that having a different arranger for each of the nine songs would result in a random mishmash of styles, but this feels like a real collection with a cohesive theme running through it. The arrangers have taken songs that are, for the most part, harmonically simple and made them over into complex, multi-layered beauties. The arrangements demand a level of musicianship that this group more than delivers. Slean is the perfect vocal foil with her pure instrument and strong interpretive skills; unleashing emotion one moment then pulling back to lay bare the lyrics the next. John Johnson's impeccable reed work is wide-ranging and impressive, giving us moody, growly sax lines on Bruce Cassidy's arrangement of O'Hara's To Cry About, then delicate clarinet on Roberto Occhipinti's take on Sarah Harmer's Lodestar. Rob Piltch turns in an inventive, sensitive guitar effort. The superb strings are supplied by bassist George Koller, cellist Shauna Rolston and the aptly named violinist Ben Bowman. Visit www.artoftimeensemble.com for more detail.

Cathy Riches

02_royal city

That's A Plenty

Royal City Saxophone Quartet

Independent RCSQ2006

www.studiospace.com/rcsq

If someone were not familiar with the sounds and capabilities of a modern saxophone quartet, this CD would be an excellent starter to explore the many voices of such an ensemble. From Dixieland to Irish folk melodies, and from Bach to Thelonious Monk, this covers a broad spectrum of melodies and performance styles. The title track, That's A Plenty, starts things off with a rousing rendition of this Dixieland classic. Driven along by the solid, clean no nonsense bass line of leader Ernie Kalwa, we are treated to two more numbers in a similar vein before being introduced to a wide range of more soothing melodies. These range from Danny Boy, and other traditional Irish fare, through Over the Rainbow on to Bach's Air on the G String. In the more modern jazz idiom there is Thelonious Monk's Round Midnight and the well known Harlem Nocturne. In this latter number, and a couple of others, the addition of a string bass and percussion provides the extra drive required by these selections. One standout is the clever Bach's Fireworks Music (sic), composed in 1980 by Calvin Hampton. This jazzy number has much of the exuberant motion that characterizes the Brandenburg Concerti, but performed on instruments not yet invented in Bach's day. Had Bach been living today, one could certainly imagine him writing something like this. All in all this CD deserves a spot in the collection of anyone with eclectic tastes.

Jack MacQuarrie

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