03 Al QahwaWeyn Allah
Al Qahwa
Independent (alqahwa.bandcamp.com/album/weyn-allah)

Depending on who you talk to, the word multiculturalism is either meaningless, or a politically correct supercharged word, especially in a post-pandemic world where everyone becomes easily overheated about everything. If the media is to be believed even Canada has not been spared the blushes of intolerance, and there seems no reason to doubt this. 

However, Canadian artists like the one-world-one-voiced Al Qahwa have always fought back against any form of divisiveness in the exquisite poetry of their music, sometimes with subtly crafted lyrics and at other times with more overt sounding words. The album Weyn Allah feels slightly different, not only because the title asks (and translates to) Where is God? But more than that there appears to be a more elemental, haunting cry that emanates from this music. The song of the same name hits the proverbial right spot in every way: poignant lyrics, elegant music and perfect execution.  

Elsewhere, on Dunya Farewell chromatic notes sigh, but the harmonic cushioning rarely falls where you anticipate. Vocalist Maryam Tollar embodies this elegance in the plaintive evocations of her vocals sung with Jono Grant’s excellent performance on nylon-string guitar.  

The lonesome wail of Ernie Tollar’s reeds and winds is breathtaking. Meanwhile, the delicately knitted single notes from Demetri Petsalakis’ oud, framed with the deep rumble of Waleed Abdulhamid’s bass and the resonant thunder of Naghmeh Faramand’s daff all make for a truly affecting experience.

04 Laila BialiYour Requests
Laila Biali
Imago EMG607 (lailabiali.com)

Gifted pianist and vocalist Laila Biali has just released an all-star recording with an interesting twist; in addition to welcoming vocal luminaries Kurt Elling, Emilie-Claire Barlow and Caity Gyorgy, the repertoire is based on requests that she has received from audience members during her performances. 

There are ten exquisite tracks here. Biali’s instrumental collaborators include clarinetist Anat Cohen, Grégoire Maret on harmonica, Michael Davidson on vibes, Kelly Jefferson on tenor/soprano sax, George Koller on bass, Ben Wittman (who also shares arranging and production credits with Biali) and Larnell Lewis on drums and Maninho Costa on percussion.

First up is the classic standard, Bye Bye Blackbird, arranged with a contemporary and rhythmic sensibility, replete with a dynamic sax solo from Jefferson. Directly following is a diaphanous take on Oscar Levant’s Blame it on My Youth. Biali’s voice is sultry and emotive here, perfectly interpreting the story of the poetic lyric. Also of note is Rogers and Hart’s immortal ballad My Funny Valentine, rendered here (with palpable musical chemistry) as a lovely duet between Biali and the inimitable Elling.   

A true highlight is an inspired duet with Barlow on Rogers and Hammerstein’s My Favourite Things. Barlow and Biali harmonize effortlessly and easily manifest a joyous track. Additionally, Biali shines on both piano and voice on a sumptuous take on Autumn Leaves. Her interpretation of Johnny Mercer’s renowned lyric is perfection itself, enhanced by another dynamic soprano sax solo from Jefferson and sensitive and creative bass work from Koller. 

05 Nicky Schrire Nowhere GirlNowhere Girl
Nicky Schrire
Anzic Records (nickyschrire.bandcamp.com/album/nowhere-girl)

This is singer-songwriter Nicky Schrire’s first release in ten years and she’s come a long way since then, both geographically and musically. Born in London, England, raised in South Africa and educated in New York, Schrire has made her home in Toronto for the last few years. Her previous jazz recordings had a healthy dose of covers from the Great American Songbook, with a smattering of originals, but Nowhere Girl’s 11 tracks are all (but one) written by Schrire. 

Whether this is a jazz album is debatable, if you care about such things, but what’s not in doubt is the high quality of the songwriting, singing and playing. Supported by the Canadian jazz trio, Myriad3 (Ernesto Cervini, drums, Dan Fortin, bass and Chris Donnelly, piano) and local luminary saxophonist Tara Davidson, there’s plenty to satisfy jazz fans. Starting with the driving title track and finishing in a similar high energy style with My Love featuring Mozambican Julio Sigauque’s guitar work. In between is a collection of lilting, poetic songs delivered with Schrire’s pretty, unaffected voice that lends a somewhat Celtic feel to many of the tracks. Her travels inform a lot of this new album both literally, with songs like In Paris and This Train (about New York City), and also musically, as styles from various cultures subtly leave their marks.

Listen to 'Nowhere Girl' Now in the Listening Room

06 Brandon Seabrookbrutalovechamp
Brandon Seabrook
Pyroclastic Records PR27 (store.pyroclasticrecords.com)

Brandon Seabrook is known to be a composer who eschews both sonic norms and overheated emotion. But on brutalovechamp he seems to tear up that musical playbook, to turn his own insides out and even bare his soul. These are works, seemingly like musical shards of raw emotion. You don’t really need to unscramble the three-word mash-up of the title or reach the end of the booklet to discover that Seabrook was gutted by the loss of man’s best friend, his dog Champ. 

Seabrook creates dizzying layering-on of tonal cadences, mixing guitar, mandolin and banjo, into the low instrumentation of bass recorder, alto, B-flat and contrabass clarinets and two contrabasses. Into this he has a cellist pour liquid notes, while the ensemble glimmers, redolent of a myriad of percussion instruments. This unusual collision of timbre creates a musical feast for the senses. 

If Seabrook means for you to feel the evocations of his pain at losing his beloved dog, then this you certainly do up close and personal on brutalovechamp. This is all inward-looking music, raw in a Jean-Paul Sartre-esque, existential sort of way. And although Seabrook may be averse to labels, some works cannot escape sonic allusions to the symbolists like Arthur Rimbaud, in for instance, Gutbucket Asylum. But make no mistake, every piece of music on this recording bears the authentic imprint of Seabrook’s feral sound palette.

01 Natalie MacMasterCanvas
Natalie McMaster; Donnell Leahy
Linus Entertainment 270787 (natalieanddonnell.com) 

Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy have long been considered Canada’s reigning power couple of Celtic music. With their latest project (released on St. Patrick’s Day) the virtuosic fiddle duo expands the boundaries of traditional Celtic modalities by embracing global sounds with the help of diverse, world-class guest artists, framed with innovative, contemporary arrangements. Many of the 13 tracks here have been penned by MacMaster, Leahy and co-producer, exquisite guitarist, Elmer Ferrer. 

The opening title track is a pulsing wall of sound, parenthesized by thrilling segments of MacMaster and Leahy’s masterful fiddle work, which seamlessly segues into the dynamic, Colour Theory featuring Brian Finnegan on both flute and Irish whistle. Other delights include the joyous Dance Arnold Dance, which incorporates a fine horn section, and Woman of the House which features noted Celtic vocalist Rhiannon Giddens, who dives deep into the emotional history of the Irish and Scottish settlers in Canada, and both the joy and pain of their exile. 

Iconic cellist, Yo-Yo Ma, brings his soulful presence to So You Love – a diaphanous, heart-rending and deeply moving ballad performed here with perfection, displaying a sinuous string trio of Ma, MacMaster and Leahy. Additionally stunning is the addition of Josemi Carmona’s flamenco guitar on both Galicia and Caramelo, which celebrates the deep, ancient Celtic connections in Spain, and The Laird O’Bemersyde where MacMaster and Leahy’s fiddles and ensemble literally weep with longing. A truly inspired recording guaranteed to move even the coldest heart.

02 Stranger StillThe Songs That Are
Stranger Still
All Set! Editions AS016 (all-set.bandcamp.com) 

First gaining recognition as a jazz bassist/composer, Pete Johnston has gradually revealed other facets of his creative imagination. Stranger Still is a song project, a quartet devoted to settings of the distinguished Maritime poet Alden Nowlan (1933-1983), like Johnston once a resident of Hants County, Nova Scotia. Johnston plays acoustic and electric guitars and banjo here and occasionally sings as well, along with the clarion principal singers Mim Adams and Randi Helmers and bassist Rob Clutton.   

For the group’s second Nowlan collection, Johnston continues to refine his art, continuing to develop an idiom that falls principally in a British folk tradition, but which has expanded its range to suggest medieval plainsong along with touches of the richer harmonic vocabulary of jazz. There’s a fundamental affinity between Johnston’s music and Nowlan’s poetry, a clarity and direct address with subtle nuances of diction and musical phrasing that continually surprise. Nowlan’s poetry can comfortably set a mythic theme in a commonplace home: in I, Icarus the narrator explains, “My room was on the ground floor at the rear of the house.” In the instrumental introduction to the opening Snapshot, guitar and bass fuse into a single instrument. Johnston occasionally augments the quartet in surprising ways, adding organist (and singer) Andrew Killawee to bring substantial power and depth, notably to The Bhikku, adding cathedral-like grandeur and harmonium wail to an Eastern theme.  

Johnston is developing as distinctly Canadian an art-form as one might conceive.

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