Heidi Lange

Independent (www.heidilange.ca)

Singer-songwriter Heidi Lange has flown in under the radar to drop her debut CD, “Later”. While Lange has spent most of her musical career teaching and directing musicals, her own solo performing career hasn’t been high on her list of priorities. But as a songwriter she felt compelled – by personal loss, as is so often the case with songwriters – to get these songs out. The disc has two handfuls of tunes, only a few of which are covers, and nary a done-to-death standard in sight. The genre is hard to pinpoint – cabaret and soul with a touch of jazz - seem to be the biggest influences. The original tunes have a certain comforting familiarity to them. Any Time Soon is an old school R&B lament for a lost love, with appropriately yearning sax work by Pat Carey, and My Own is a gospel-inspired anthem to female independence, with stately accompaniment by brilliant pianist Robi Botos.

Lange has a warm and expressive voice that is at its best on the quieter, more controlled pieces which are predominant here. So her cover of Stevie Wonder’s Tuesday Heartbreak, which calls for more freedom and funkiness, sounds strained and out of the comfort zone for her and some of the band – with the exception of Colin Barrett’s relaxed, solid bass work, which holds it together. While the other covers, Gloomy Sunday – complete with Hammond organ by keyboardist Peter Kadar – and Snuggled on Your Shoulder fit like a glove.

Cathy Riches


Jaffa Road

Independent JR0001


March 25 saw Toronto’s Lula Lounge at overflow capacity, a lively party atmosphere on the occasion of the release of Jaffa Road's first CD. While this band is relatively new on the world music scene, its musicians are not. Jaffa Road, a Jewish-pop band rooted in tradition, not only takes its place alongside the likes of Toronto’s other fusion groups, such as the Arabic–Greek ensemble Maza Mezé, and Indian–Jazz ensembles Autorickshaw and Tasa, it also shares some of their musicians. “Sunplace” opens with a tabla riff delivered by Ravi Naimpally, and the CD features other well-known guest artists or regulars, Dr. George Sawa (qanoon), Ernie Tollar (eastern flutes), Chris McKhool (violin), Chris Gartner (bass, guitar), Sundar Viswanathan (sax), Jeff Wilson (percussion, kalimba, etc.), and co-producer/composer Aaron Lightstone (oud, guitars, saz, synthesizers).

The star of this recording is however vocalist Aviva Chernick, who sings in Hebrew, English and Judeo-Spanish (Ladino). Also no stranger to Toronto's music scene, Chernick has previously released a CD with The Huppah Project, as well as her solo recording, “In the Sea” (see www.avivachernick.com). “Sunplace” is a collection of songs, either newly composed to traditional texts, or arrangements of traditional songs, and a couple of entirely new ones. The opening number is a call to peace, based on the phrase from Isaiah “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor shall they learn war any more”. The CD’s title track Makom Shemesh (sun place) evokes a desert landscape. Be’er Besade is a lively tune from 1950’s Israel. Im Ninalu, a traditional Yemenite melody, was first made popular (to my knowledge) by the late Yemenite-Israeli pop singer Ofra Haza; the version here opens with an introduction by Cantor Aaron Bensoussan. Love songs include the traditional Ladino Una Ora en la Ventana, and a new composition based on the Hebrew Song of Songs,

(open the night for me) which closes this recording. Chernick and the band give polished performances throughout.

Karen Ages


Denis Plante; Mathieu Lussier; Catherine Perrin

ATMA ACD2 2581

At Grigorian.com

I almost fell off my chair when I began to listen to the opening track from this new release. Astor Piazzolla's Libertango is a familiar work – I've heard the late great bandoneonist/composer perform it, I own his recording of it, I've played it and a number of my students play it – but I have never heard it like this! Harpsichordist Catherine Perrin plays the familiar melody with such aplomb that my interest is tweaked though I'm a little confused about the instrumentation. Gradually the other two instrumentalists, bandoneonist Denis Plant, and bassoonist/early music specialist Mathieu Lussier join in, and the stage is set for some fascinating albeit at times totally odd tracks of Latin flavoured originals and covers.

The experimentation with instrumentation is the key here. Both Plante and Lussier are composers too. Their contribution of pieces here are the most successful tracks. Lussier's Fantaisie is a strong, wistful work that walks the thin line of popular and classical music in its contrapuntal writing. Tango a los Nisenson from Plante's “Le tombeau d'Astor” is a comically tongue in cheek take on tangos. Both composers act as arrangers too, with their takes on Piazzolla, Villa-Lobos, Ayala and Falu respectable though not as intriguing as their own works.

Even though the performances and production qualities are superb, the instrumental grouping results in an odd timbre, and the occasional thin sound. This aside, “Bataclan!” is worth a listen to hear smart musicians experiment intelligently.

Tiina Kiik

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Click above Thumbnails to jump to review below.

Under the Canopy

The Huppah Project

Independent HP0001 (www.thehuppahproject.com)

I first heard Aviva Chernick in concert with her band Jaffa Road, in the packed Brigantine Room at last fall’s Ashkenaz Festival at Harbourfront. That same weekend saw the release of her latest (and second) CD, “Under the Canopy”. Part of “The Huppah Project”, this CD is a collection of Jewish wedding music, sung entirely in Hebrew, with instrumental accompaniment. Many of the lyrics come from the Song of Songs or other liturgical texts, with either traditional music or music composed in our own era, and at least one song is from 1950s Israel. All are arranged by Chernick and/or ensemble members Aaron Lightstone, who plays ud, guitar and saz, and Jeff Wilson (drums, percussion, cornet). Chernick is the one who shines in this recording and is definitely one to watch on the Toronto music scene. She sings with a purity and clarity of vocal tone that carries this genre well, and to my knowledge is one of the only female vocalists in Toronto specializing in Jewish music of this sort (ie. non-klezmer, Hebrew based). Other back-up musicians include Ernie Tollar (ney) and George Sawa (qanun), who are featured in Heviani el Beit Hayayin (To the Vinyard’s house), a traditional Moroccan song. Visit www.avivachernick.com for more about this artist’s activities.

Karen Ages

Concert note: Aviva and her band Jaffa Road will be giving a CD release concert at the Lula Lounge, March 25 (see www.jaffaroadmusic.com).




Musica Latina

Quartetto Gelato

Linus 2 70104 www.quartettogelato.ca

Quartetto Gelato returns with a soulful collection of Latin American selections. Both joy and tragedy have resulted in personnel changes for this much loved Canadian ensemble. Cellist Kristina Cooper has left for marriage and parenthood. The untimely death of founding member oboist Cynthia Steljes is extremely gripping – both as a musician and individual she was a bright light in the musical community and is deeply missed. It is with gratitude that we note the superb playing of these two on Meditango and BesameMMucho in this new release.

New QG members cellist Carina Reeves and clarinettist Kornel Wolak join violinist/tenor Peter De Sotto and accordionist Alexander Sevastian to continue the ensemble’s musical journeys. The tight ensemble playing, astute musicality and sheer happiness illuminate each track. The selections featured should be familiar to most listeners. Tico Tico is a rhythmic joy to listen to with Sevastian’s florid accordion work. Wolak melts the aural senses in Um a Zero while De Sotto charms his way through Manha De Carnival. I wish that cellist Carina Reeves could be heard in the forefront more often - her supportive playing is superb but her elegant performance as a lead instrumentalist is underutilized. A number of special guests are featured including the wonderful Penderecki String Quartet.

Quartetto Gelato’s music is extremely appealing. It is the choice of repertoire combined with an esoteric musical approach that makes the unmistakable sound so lovely. Yes, you have probably heard most of the tunes on “Musica Latina” thousands of times before. You just haven’t heard them the Quartetto Gelato way!

Tiina Kiik


Like Light Off Water

Daphne Marlatt; Robert Minden;

Carla Hallett

Otter Sound OB 105 (www.LostSound.com)

Capturing the historical essence of a west coast fishing community, Daphne Marlatt’s long poem Steveston was published in 1974 as a much-acclaimed book with photographs by Robert Minden. For this recording, Marlatt reads passages from that work as well as the postscript added to the 2001 edition. With an evocative soundscape composed and performed by Minden and Carla Hallett, the images of a “boom and bust” town at the mouth of the Fraser River centered around fishing boats and cannery and the psychological states of its inhabitants are brought to life with qualities ranging from eerie trepidation to awestruck wonder. The quality and pacing of Marlatt’s voice is superb and a striking similarity between her speaking voice and Hallett’s singing makes for a beautifully seamless transition in the narrative flow. Minden’s photographic talent translates very well to the evocation of visual imagery through sound. The music is sparse but highly effective with mechanical noise set against the rippling and twinkling of water and light, together with haunting depictions of mysterious and erotic undercurrents mixed with the gentle beauty of the night sky. Pure poetry, pure sound, shifting the listener’s consciousness to the depths of pure feeling.

Dianne Wells






01_darbazi 02_nagata
03_cairo_toronto 04_neeraj_prem

Click the above covers to jump to the reviews below.

The Toronto area boasts some of the finest talent representing non-Western and traditional music, and four recently released CDs attest to the rich diversity of the city’s cultural fabric. The Georgian vocal ensemble Darbazi has been around since 1995, performing music from the Caucasus region that bridges Europe and Asia. While director Shalva Makharashvilli hails from that region, the other nine or so members are primarily local, but you wouldn’t know it, listening to this CD entitled Vakhtanguri. This is folk music and vocal polyphony at its finest, and it’s easy to hear why Darbazi has been so well received during visits to Georgia. The ensemble and soloists deliver each number with that wonderful open-throated vocal style characteristic of Georgian music, good diction, and outstanding harmonic intonation. The title song, described as a table song, is one of the most intricate, and features yodelling from member David Anderson (of Clay and Paper Theatre fame). The dance song Kakhuri Satsekvao features Makharashvilli as melismatic vocal soloist. Some of the numbers are accompanied by traditional instruments; both plucked and bowed, expertly played by ensemble members. All songs are traditional, and include “toasting” songs, dance, love, and work songs, liturgical and epic poem settings, and songs about life in general. The CD is dedicated to the memory of ensemble member John Martin, who passed away in 2007. (www.darbazi.com)

02_nagata Having celebrated its tenth anniversary, Nagata Shachu (formerly the Kiyoshi Nagata Ensemble) recently released its sixth CD, Tsuzure (Tapestry). Toronto’s best known Japanese Taiko ensemble delivers polished performances of eleven works, composed by founder and director Kiyoshi Nagata and ensemble member Aki Takahashi. These compositions are very much rooted in Japanese tradition, however with what Nagata, a former Kodo Drummers protégé, refers to as “looking within the box”. What distinguishes this ensemble is its use of instruments in addition to Taiko drums. The title piece of this CD is a good example of this, employing the zither-like koto, shinobue (transverse flute) and ankle bells alongside the drums, weaving a delicate texture of sound. Other instruments used include shakuhachi (end blown flute), and shamisen (lute), with various others added for the final piece, Mamagoto, literally “child’s play”. Koe Narashi is purely vocal. Percussion lovers won’t be disappointed though; this is primarily a drumming ensemble, featuring Taiko drums of all shapes and sizes generously donated by their drum-manufacturing sponsors in Japan. Expertly engineered, this CD is dedicated to the memory of Nagata’s teacher Oguchi Daihachi (1924-2008). (www.nagatashachu.com)
Husband and wife team Maryem and Ernie Tollar need no introduction here; Maryem is probably this country’s best known Arabic vocalist, while Ernie is a multi-instrumental wind player and composer. Cairo to Toronto (ROM 09) is their third CD together, and is to a certain extent an autobiographical account of Maryem’s own journey, exploring themes from alienation and longing to freedom and hope for a better future. The title also refers to the two guest artists on this recording, Dr. Alfred Gamil (violin) and Mohamed Aly (violin and oud), who came here from Egypt to work and perform with Maryem and her ensemble this past year. This is a stunning recording all around - a melding of traditional Arabic-rooted melodic style with jazz and pop nuances.The vocal selections are sung and primarily composed by Maryem, with some of the lyrics by her uncle Ehab Lotayef. Some of my favourite tracks however are among the five purely instrumental numbers, three of which are composed by Ernie Tollar, the other two by Alfred Gamil. These sound the most authentically traditional Arabic, though are not quite. The track Duetto Nahawand, a violin duet featuring Gamil and Aly closes the CD. The other musicians are familiar to Toronto audiences: Levon Ichkhanian (guitar), Andrew Stewart and Rich Brown (bass), Deb Sinha (various percussion), Alan Hetherington and Daniel Barnes (drums). (www.cdbaby.com/cd/maryemernietollar) 03_cairo_toronto
04_neeraj_prem When we think of sitar and tabla, the vast tradition of Indian classical music comes to mind. But United Voices departs from this path. Described as “An Indo-Canadian venture of world Christian hymns”, produced by Hamilton-based sitarist Neeraj Prem, this is gospel with an Indian twist. While the overall sound is decidedly Indian, the texts and musical settings are indicative of another East meets West endeavour. The recording opens with a lively rendition of The Lord’s Prayer (composed by Manick Deep Masih), and includes settings of other Christian hymns arranged Prem. Two songs (My Heart and My Offering) written by Prem, were inspired by ancient Hindi hymns. The “band” includes sarangi (bowed lute), shehnai (Indian oboe), keyboards, saxophone, guitar, percussion, and several fine vocalists. The closing number, Amazing Grace, is a seventeen minute meditation (Prem and Margaret Bárdos vocals), retaining the melody that we’re all familiar with but employing Indian vocal/melodic techniques and instrumental accompaniment that reminds me of the arrhythmic “alap” section of some Indian classical pieces. This CD is dedicated to the memory of Prem’s parents. (www.ragamusicschool.com)

01_Eliza_Pope.jpgCall Me a Fool
Eliza Pope
Independent (elizapope.com)


Talented vocalist and songwriter Eliza Pope’s debut CD is a delightful potpourri of re-conceptualized Broadway show tunes, jazz standards and original compositions. The project was co-produced by Pope and yeoman keyboardist/arranger Mark Kieswetter, who also performs magnificently on the CD. To say the least, this recording is an auspicious opening salvo for an emerging artist.

Included is a soulful take on Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg’s 1939 Oscar-winner Over the Rainbow. Kieswetter’s contemporary chord substitutions are the perfect complement to Pope’s tasty vocal line. With facile use of her head voice, Pope soars delicately over, around and above the well-known melody, pushing it right into 2015. Also of note is the jaunty Depression-era original Where Will I Find Love, which evokes a historical mode without becoming derivative of it – no easy task! Eric St. Laurent’s well-placed acoustic guitar work is exceptional on this track, calling to mind a young Charlie Christian. Another fine original is Try, which explores a more pop-oriented aspect of Pope’s versatile vocal and writing style.

A standout is Feeling Good, penned by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse for their hit Broadway show, The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd. Pope makes wonderful use of her lower register here, and resists the temptation to convert this tune into an overwrought cabaret anthem. Pope also displays her ability to swing, with a thoroughly delightful rendition of Fats Waller’s Crazy ’Bout My Baby. Noted bassist Ross MacIntyre provides the necessary backbone here, and truly shines on this groovy cooker. Of particular beauty is the gorgeous ballad Little Girl Blue, written by Rogers and Hart for the 1935 Broadway musical Jumbo and rendered by Pope with the full intent of the genius composers firmly in place.

Red Chamber
Za Discs N17 mei-han.com


Red Chamber is not your typical Chinese string band. The Vancouver-based group has seriously eclectic, transcultural tastes. Led by the zheng scholar and virtuoso Mei Han, the group includes Guilian Liu on pipa, Zhimin Yu on zhongruan, daruan, and Geling Jiang on sanxian and zhongruan. They are all masters of their respective plucked Chinese string instruments.

Already well established as professional musicians in mainland China, these women sought a second home on Canada’s west coast where they have expanded both their careers – and ears. Mei Han reflects on this process of cultural awareness: “[As we] travelled around the world and collaborated with artists from a wide range of cultures, we have grown to become more open and aware.”

Gathering, their second album, exhibits influences of diverse musics discernable in the inclusion of instruments such as the tabla, djembe, dumbek and gong. Multiethnic melodic layers are also in ample evidence. The scores variously draw on Chinese, Arabic, West African, Klezmer, Greek, Turkish, Cape Breton and Métis sources, performed on Red Chamber’s Chinese plucked strings. The latter range from the brittle high-trilled notes of the pipa to bass daruan tones.

The album’s success owes much to Vancouver composers Moshe Denburg, John Oliver and Randy Raine-Reusch. They each contributed scores, exploring this transcultural terrain, which were then skillfully articulated and extended by the musicians. Just one example: while Ah Ya Zein, an Arabic love song arranged by Raine-Reusch, is culturally anchored by Gord Grdina’s moody oud expositions, it is MeiHan’s inspired mercurial zheng solo that provides the most unexpected musical thrill.

I saw Red Chamber live at Toronto’s Music Gallery in 2010. I was mightily impressed not only by the individual virtuosity of the musicians, but also by their tight ensemble and culturally inclusive repertoire. Until they grace a hall near you, this enjoyable record is the closest to a transnational musical Silk Road journey you can experience.

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