02 Monkey HouseFriday
Monkey House
Alma Records ACD72692 (almarecords.com)

Monkey House has been together for 25 years and has just released its fifth album, Friday. The band is made up of some of the busiest and best players in Toronto – Mark Kelso on drums, Pat Kilbride on bass and Justin Abedin on guitar – but it is L.A.-based keyboardist and songwriter, Don Breithaupt, who’s driving the bus.

Breithaupt is known for his adulation of Steely Dan, and while it shows in his songwriting on Friday, this isn’t a tribute album and the band has a sound all its own. And, like Steely Dan, the musical style is hard to categorize – perhaps sophisticated pop tinged with jazz and R&B? I don’t know. What I do know is that this is an exceptional album from beginning to end, with superb songwriting and performances, and impeccable production by Peter Cardinali with engineering by John “Beetle” Bailey.

Highlighting standout tracks when all 12 tracks are so strong is a challenge, but The Jazz Life – featuring Manhattan Transfer on backing vocals and a killer bass solo by Kilbride – is one. The love song that Breithaupt wrote for his wife, Because You, is another, especially since it is surprisingly unsentimental with its driving rhythm and complex harmonies. Another surprise is that the most ballad-y song on the album is the cover of Walter Becker’s Book of Liars. Becker – who died while Monkey House was making this record, hence the inclusion of this song on the album – certainly wasn’t known for ballads and this mid-tempo tune isn’t sappy in the least. But it is both beautiful and poignant in typical sardonic Steely Dan style. Shotgun has pop hit written all over it and you can check out the fun video, produced by Academy Award-winner J. Miles Dale, on YouTube.

Listen to 'Friday' Now in the Listening Room

03 Aviva ChernickLa Serena
Aviva Chernick
Independent AVGC003 (avivachernick.com)

A deep bond with another can lead to unexpected journeys in one’s life. Such was the case for singer Aviva Chernick, who began extensive studies of the Balkan Judeo-Spanish repertoire after meeting Flory Jagoda, known as the keeper of the Balkan Ladino tradition. La Serena is, in a way, an homage to Flory, Aviva’s beloved mentor and teacher, but also an intimate story of the longing for one’s homeland and tradition that is slowly disappearing.

Ten songs, some traditional Sephardic folk melodies and some Jagoda originals, are all arranged by Chernick and her main musical collaborators on this album, guitarist Joel Schwartz and bassist Justin Gray, in a way that brings forward the intimacy and immediacy of each tune. Mostly sung in Ladino (with some additional text in English), the lyrics are captivating and touching. Chernick’s vocals are pure in expression and unencumbered of any particular tradition or style.

The album opens with A Ti, Espanya, a simple and bright original tune by Jagoda, which conveys the love for homeland that is no more. Min Hameitzar, written by Chernick and Gray, has a mystical energy and wonderfully galloping percussion elements. La Serena, the central piece on the album, is a stunning heartfelt tune that seduces with its pure vocal expression. Esta Montanya de Enfrente features longing guitar lines emphasizing the beauty of both the melody and poetic lyrics.

A wonderful collection of meaningful tunes that will leave your heart longing for more.

Listen to 'La Serena' Now in the Listening Room

04 Heather DaleSphere
Heather Dale
Amphis Music AM7440 (heatherdale.com)

Canadian author, playwright, poet, vocalist, composer and multi-instrumentalist, Heather Dale, is currently poised on the cusp of her 20th recording release, aptly titled Sphere. This uber-creative, multi-disciplined, golden-voiced renaissance woman has fashioned (along with co-producer/arranger/multi-instrumentalist Ben Deschamps), 11 challenging compositions, all of which reflect a mesmerizing mashup of world music motifs, ambient electronica and folk music as well as a healthy dose of contemporary Celtic folk balladering.

Dale deftly performs all vocals here, and also plays hammered dulcimer, piano, tin whistles, synths and Hammond B3. She is joined on her sonic, global journey by Deschamps on bass, electric guitar, cittern, bouzouki, mandolin, synth and viola, and co-producer/engineer Dave MacKinnon on tape loops, drums and guitar; Jim Casson on drums; Ben Grossman on hurdy-gurdy/percussion; Meghan Cheng and Amanda Penner on violin and Alex McMaster and Betsy Tinney on cello.

First up is Bacchanalia – mystical, exotic, sensual, rife with elements of Eastern music and invoking visions of ancient instruments raised in celebration of a hedonistic Roman god… a palpable, pagan scene… and yet, somehow magically transformed through poetry into a modern cautionary tale. Dale’s sonorous vocal instrument is a pitch-perfect, honey-soaked, shape-shifting tool – alternately warm and steely – ideal for telling her irresistible lyrical stories. Triumphant Return is a potent anthem, where the triumphant one is not the one returning, but the one who was abandoned. Another gem is Flower Child – perhaps autobiographical – a wonderful pizzicato arrangement which transports the listener into the middle of a seemingly insoluble familial estrangement. Something that many of us can relate to.

Listen to 'Sphere' Now in the Listening Room

05 Blue Moon MarqueeBare Knuckles & Brawn
Blue Moon Marquee
Independent (bluemoonmarquee.com)

With the release of their third recording, noted Pacific Coast duo Blue Moon Marquee has served up a sumptuous buffet of 11 original songs – all infused with elements of Depression-era jazz, swing, 1950s proto-rock and “Roma Blues.” The music is also informed by philosophical aspects of Indigenous culture, including Native Canadian legends. Consistent with their nostalgic bent, the project was recorded using vintage RCA mics, resulting in a warm, luscious analogue sound. The duo (featuring A.W. Cardinal on vocals/guitar and Jasmine Colette “Badlands Jass” on vocals/bass/drums) are joined on this fine recording by noted West Coast musicians, Darcy Phillips on keyboards, Jerry Cook on reeds, Jimmy “Hollywood” Badger on drums, Jack Garton on trumpet and Paul Pigat on guitar.

The sassy opener, Big Black Mamba is funky and soulful, with sinuous parallel baritone and bass lines establishing a fine bedrock for this swamp-circuit-style blues. The evocative vocal by Cardinal is reminiscent of a young, energetic Tom Waits. Also of note is the irresistible, Fever Flickering Flame – a bit of pure romance, dripping with nostalgia, longing and swing! Hard Times Hit Parade is also a standout, featuring a sultry vocal by Colette, beautifully accented by Garton on muted trumpet. Its heady sepia-toned imagery perfectly captures the loss, futility and desperation of the Great Depression.

Lost and Wild is the closing salvo, boasting a stunningly relaxed vocal by Cardinal, which brings to mind the lyrical sophistication and interpretive skill of Leonard Cohen. This highly musical recording is not only a delight for the ear, but it’s deep, subterranean content will continue to resonate with the listener.

06 Al QahwaCairo Moon
Al Qahwa Ensemble
Independent AlQahwa01 (alqahwa.ca)

Ernie and Maryem Tollar, master of wind instruments and vocals respectively, have been mainstays of the Toronto music scene individually, and also have often come together to make music. But rarely has their musicianship been showcased more beautifully than here, where they have combined with oud specialist Demetri Petsalakis for the second time as Al Qahwa, on their album Cairo Moon.

Apart from bringing to life the atmosphere of (usually loud) music and joyous camaraderie heard in coffee houses en route to Leipzig from Damascus, this recording also recalls the glorious tradition that gave us the likes of the great vocalists Om Kalsoum and Najah Salam, and instrumentalist Hamza El Din, among others. On Cairo Moon, the Tollars and Alfred Gamil display extraordinary musicianship in the Mediterranean tradition. More remarkable, much of this is new music; the tradition of popular Arabic music is alive and well and thriving in – of all places – Canada.

Equally significant is the fact that musicians such as the prodigiously-gifted Tollars are thriving alongside others such as Nagmeh Farahmand, Majd Sukar and the aforementioned Gamil and Petsalakis. The evidence is all over this album, in the exotic and ululating soundworld of the Middle East, robustly captured in the glimmering textures of Maryem Tollar’s voice and the eloquent musicians immersed in the traditions that influenced this rich repertoire.

07 Bruce CockburnCrowing Ignites
Bruce Cockburn
True North Records TND737 (truenorth.labelstore.ca)

It has been 14 years since Bruce Cockburn first gave notice of what an extraordinary guitarist he really was on his first instrumental album Speechless. Until then he was better known as one of the great purveyors of what is generally classified as folk music. Of course, that classification is highly restrictive because Cockburn, as we all know, transcends the boundaries of that genre. Debates notwithstanding, Crowing Ignites is a perfect reminder of Cockburn’s virtuosity as a guitarist, and of his exquisite musicianship.

There are seven new compositions here. Yet each appears to be a spontaneous meditation at once simple and lyrical, abstract and profound. Cockburn’s magnificent tone – both on regular acoustic and acoustic baritone guitar is magnificent. With fingers and thumb he imbues every note with the purity of song. His playing is passionately free and bluesy, and speaks also of his country roots.

Cockburn’s instinct for brooding lyricism and often for joyful spontaneity provides the perfect setting for songs such as April in Memphis, The Mt. Lefroy Waltz (with bassist Roberto Occhipinti, cornetist Ron Miles and drummer Gary Craig) and Sweetness and Light. When he turns his attention to matters of the soul and of spirituality, he paints his music affectingly with a myriad of deep and varied colours. Angels in the Half Light, Pibroch: The Wind in the Valley and (especially) Bells of Gethsemane are eloquent examples of the profundity of his musicianship.

Listen to 'Crowing Ignites' Now in the Listening Room

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