02 Don BrayI Bless the Wounds
Don Bray
Independent DBCD2006 (donbray.ca)

Ottawa-based, singer-songwriter Don Bray’s self-produced sixth recording succeeds on several levels. It features Bray’s appealing soft baritone and fine guitar work. Subtle, concise contributions of backup singers and tasteful ensemble players are impressive, especially those from guitarist/vocalist Terry Tufts. Most outstanding of all are Bray’s original songs. He states he was “born to an abusive father, and a rape victim; that set me up for 27 years in the Toronto Fire Department.” He continues to cope with complex PTSD, and this disc’s 13 songs include a wealth of life insights expressed in lyrical-musical work of a high order. 

Bray does not shy from the rough and rude, as in Don’t You Think It’s Time, which ironically applies a warm melody plus gentle fingerpicking to voicing the need for leaving a house party horror show. In the confidently uptempo I Don’t Get Out Much, the singer comments wryly on a life of procrastination and isolation. Time to Go is an attractive country waltz with pedal steel and mandolin – but about abuse. Best of all for me is the exquisite I Bless the Wounds, which is well chosen as the title track. Here I find the progression from darkness to light haunting, as the songwriter finds love again in waltz time. There is always risk in self-disclosure, and we are fortunate that Bray has brought forward these timely meditations on loss and hope with such self-knowledge and dignity.

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03 Rory BlockPower Women of the Blues Vol.2 – Prove it on me
Rory Block
Stony Plain Records (m2.labelstore.ca)

The last (and only) time I saw Rory Block perform was at the Winnipeg Folk Festival in 1985. But I remember being blown away by what I heard, and how she rocked that workshop stage! So, 35 years and six Blues Music Awards later, I am happy to report that Block continues to rock! With her recent album, Prove it on me, the second in her Power Women of the Blues series dedicated to the groundbreaking women of the blues, Block “proves it on us” why she is considered one of the world’s finest blues artists.

While the first album of the series honoured the legendary Bessie Smith, this second volume celebrates some of the more obscure, yet immensely talented women of the blues; the well-known title track by Ma Rainey, and Memphis Minnie’s In My Girlish Days are the exceptions. 

Each carefully chosen track features the “Rory Block Band,” that is, Block on vocals, all guitars, all drums and percussion. Her signature raw energy, soulfulness, authenticity and scorching vocals breathe new life into sassy tunes like Helen Humes’ He May Be Your Man, It’s Red Hot by Madlyn Davis, Rosetta Howard’s If You’re a Viper and Milk Man by Merline Johnson. Other names to look out for: Arizona Dranes, Lottie Kimbrough, Elvie Thomas. 

Block has always paid homage to those who came before her. Prove it on me secures the place of these founding women of the blues in the annals of blues history.

01 Kora FlamencaKora Flamenca
Zal Sissokho
Analekta AN 2 9171 (analekta.com)

Zal Sissokho is a griot, continuing the grand oral traditions of his Mandinka people of Senegal in Montreal where he settled in 1999. His long clan lineage and deep improvisation skills are on full display when he plays the 21-string kora and sings in Malinke and Wolof as a solo performer and collaborator with numerous bands.

Ever since he heard flamenco performed live in Seville, Sissokho dreamt of combining Andalusian music and the Mandinka culture of his native West Africa. Kora Flamenca – a musical collaboration with composer and virtuosa flamenco guitarist Caroline Planté – is the result. The album’s ensemble also includes percussionist Miguel Medina, first-call Montreal oudist Mohamed Masmoudi and bassist Jean Félix Mailloux. Sissokho explains, “I sought to expand the limits of my instrument, the kora, as far as possible. Inspired by soaring improvisational flamenco riffs, I tried to create a hybrid style… [To me] musical inspiration begins with respect for the instrument’s tradition, history and sounds. Then… I sought to… push my collaborators to create music in which composition, technical prowess and improvisation unite…” 

Musically and stylistically, kora and flamenco guitar are worlds apart. Linked by their common plucked string heritage however, Sissokho and Planté find ample common musical ground on which to hang flights of melodic fancy. Characterized by fast tempi, pop-forward arrangements, brief modal improvisations and Sissokho’s vocals, this set of ten concise songs makes a convincing case for combining kora and flamenco

02 Levantine RhapsodyLevantine Rhapsody
Didem Başar
Analekta AN 2 9172 (analekta.com)

Didem Başar is a professionally trained player of the kanun, or Turkish zither. On this CD, she unites Turkish and Western classical music under her own compositions, scoring them for kanun and Western instruments played by Guy Pelletier (flutes), Brigitte Dajczer (violin), Noémy Braun (cello) and Patrick Graham (percussion). Başar works with the Centre des Musiciens du Monde, which enables such cross-cultural experiences to happen. 

Başar’s initial composition Devr-i Raksan will immediately remind visitors to Turkey of that country’s rich musical heritage; listen to its thoughtful kanun solo sections as they build up to a climax of plaintive string playing, a lively flute part and vigorous drumming. Often, the compositions are short; Bird Song lasts just 2:26, but I challenge anyone to find so many variations on percussion instruments to create as many bird sounds as there are on this single track! 

On one occasion, Başar dips into classical Turkish music. She states that Kantemiroğlu’s Rast Peşrev still has the power to inspire even though that composer died almost 300 years ago; complex playing by all the instrumentalists contributes to an arrangement unfamiliar to Western ears.

Başar offers Cry as a plea for all those suffering the consequences of deadly conflicts. The endless wanderings of refugees are echoed in the flute part as it intermingles with the kanun to represent pain and sorrow. Riddle is her other intensely personal composition. Short but intense and loud phrases on the kanun and cello are intended to represent contrasting feelings: is life itself not a riddle?

And Canada is not forgotten. 5 à 7 is “happy hour” in Quebec. What with the five- and seven-beat textures of Başar’s composition of that name, it is just the right time to invite guests round to enjoy traditional Turkish cuisine to the backdrop that is Levantine Rhapsody.

03 Jessica DeutchjpgTraces
Jessica Deutsch and Ozere
Independent (jessicadeutsch.com)

The music of Jessica Deutsch on Traces may not appear to require a virtuosic, high-flying performance on the violin but make no mistake; it is diabolically difficult to play. There is great demand for atmospheric playing complete with subtle innuendo, dynamics and colour. Deutsch has this in spades and brings all of it to the repertoire on the album.

Each of the works – exquisite miniatures borne aloft by her lonesome violin, supported by mandolin or guitar, glued together by cello and contrabass, with occasional keyboards and voices – is laden with intimacy and an emotional intensity that can only be described as the poetry of feeling. Deutsch’s performance throughout is lightly perfumed and evocative, especially in the slower songs, where her sensitivity shows best. The ephemeral Traces and The Bones of Clouds, with its wispy imagery not unlike the early poetry of Elizabeth Bishop, are superb examples of her playing. 

Deutsch creates a perfect blend of delicacy and muscularity. Her ingenuity enables her to combine phrasing and touch with subtle shifts of emphasis that refashions phrases in an unexpected but utterly convincing manner. Her playing throughout, combined with cello and bass is highly redolent of the rustle of expensive raw silk. The rest of the group is completely harmonically and rhythmically entwined with Deutsch’s artistry. Their performances are altogether remarkable, possessing sinewy vigour and dynamism which contributes to putting a unique stamp on this music.

01 Ensemble VivanteLatin Romance
Ensemble Vivant
Opening Day ODR 7458 (ensemblevivant.com)

This is Ensemble Vivant’s 14th album. Founder, artistic director and pianist, Catherine Wilson, and her merry band of fellow world-class musicians, have been serving up a captivating mix of classical, Latin, jazz, ragtime and music from the Great American Songbook, in an intimate chamber music format for over 30 years!

Writing this, as I am, on Valentine’s Day, how very appropriate that so much of the music, and the music-making, on Latin Romance is absolutely stirring and heart-achingly beautiful; Wilson’s opening solo on Gismonti’s Memoria Y Fado is especially poignant. And speaking of matters of the heart, sadly, noted Canadian composer, John Burke, whose rich and rhythmic La Despedida for solo piano (a gift to Wilson, his longtime friend and colleague) graces track five, passed away on January 18, 2020. (Eerily, and perhaps fittingly, La Despedida – translated as “The Farewell” – was the last piece of his music Burke heard performed, live, before he died six weeks later.)

Wilson, along with bassist Jim Vivian, violinist Corey Gemmell, violist Norman Hathaway, cellist Sybil Shanahan, and guests Don Thompson, whose vibe work on Gismonti’s Lôro is an exhilarating tour de force, trumpeter Kevin Turcotte, and Juan Carlos Medrano and Luisito Orbegoso on Latin percussion, sparkle, shimmer, pulsate, yearn, beckon, move, tango and haunt in gorgeous (and often sexy) pieces by Piazzolla, Jobim, Lecuona, Albeniz, Mozart Camargo Guarnieri, Ernesto Nazareth, Leroy Anderson and Phil Dwyer.

Latin Romance is chamber music at its evocative best!

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