03 HoneywodHoneywood
Emilyn Stam and John David Williams
Independent (emilynandjohn.com) 

This toe-tapping, instrumental/folk 15-track release showcases the superb Ontario-based duo Emilyn Stam (five-string fiddle, piano accordion) and her husband John David Williams (clarinet, diatonic accordion) in both their original and their arranged traditional “balfolk” style tunes, a Western European Dutch, German and French style of folk dances such as waltzes, schottisches, rondeaux and mazurkas.

Great entertaining diverse musical feels throughout. Their tune J & C Mazurka opens with a reflective lead clarinet against fiddle plucks leading to a tight quiet duet. Their cover of the traditional Brittany tune Laridés features upbeat conversational fiddle/clarinet interludes, and clarinet octave shifts. Williams plays diatonic accordion with Stam’s fiddle in the lyrical, sensitive, tightly phrased cover of the traditional Dutch Marche de Roux/La Baigneuse (Marche/Waltz).

Five special guests add new colour to select tracks including upright bassist Alan Mackie’s deep low pitches in After the Snow/Autumn in the Valley (Schottische); and Nathan Smith’s great fiddling as Stam picks up the piano accordion to play backdrop grooves and doubling driving clarinet lines in Red Bay/The Stone Whale/Stukjes (Jig Chapelloise).

Stam and Williams play with joy, technique and superb musicianship. Honeywood is the Ontario town where Stam and Williams were married in 2017, and also where their first two Big Branch Festivals for balfolk were held. No festival this year due to the pandemic, but there is so much great music here to keep you dancing at home, and hopefully out and about soon!

Listen to 'Honeywood' Now in the Listening Room

01 PeeblesDelicacies in the Garden mdDelicacies in the Garden of Plenty
Sarah Peebles; Kyle Brenders; Nilan Perera
Independent (secondharvestca.bandcamp.com)

Concerned about Canadians impacted by COVID-19, Toronto-based experimental musicians and composers Sarah Peebles (shō, electroacoustics), Kyle Brenders (saxophones), Nilan Perera (altered electric guitar) joined forces to help. Earlier this year they released their album Delicacies in the Garden of Plenty, proceeds from which benefit Second Harvest, Canada’s largest food rescue charity. 

The eponymous tracks one and four are free improvisations by the trio performed at Ratio, the intimate former downtown Toronto performance space. They feature Perera’s delicate experimental electric guitarism, Brenders’ saxophonic exploration of “the interaction of intentionality and surprise,” and Peebles’ chordal performances on shō, the Japanese mouth organ. The slowly evolving music of Delicacies... is a testament to the trio’s improvisational skill, deep listening and generosity of shared spirit.

The inner two tracks are hybrid soundscape-electroacoustic works by Peebles, featuring the sound of birds, amphibians, insects and water from Aotearoa/New Zealand, masterfully mixed with occasional shō and electroacoustic interpolations. The nearly 20-minute In the Canopy – Meditations from Paparoa and Kāpiti Island (2005/2020) is the album’s standout work. Deeply informed by Peebles’ long involvement with sound ecology and biodiversity, she uses her beautiful field recordings of nature sounds and studio-made electroacoustics, layering and extending them into a compelling musical statement. 

In addition to learning from the voices of the land, Peebles points out that her approach in the work was informed by indigenous Māori concepts reflecting spiritual dimensions. In this music we get a rare glimpse of the sort of eloquent, non-hegemonic sonic dialogue possible between nature and humans. It’s an impressive feat even when constructed in the recording studio for our listening pleasure.

02 KamancelloOf Shadows
Independent (kamancello.com)

Last year I reviewed Kamancello II: Voyage. I noted that the portmanteau word Kamancello was invented to serve as the name of the Toronto-based bowed-string instrument duo of Kurdish-Iranian kamanche player and composer Shahriyar Jamshidi, and classically trained Canadian cellist and composer Raphael Weinroth-Browne. Weinroth-Browne is also a member of the progressive metal band Leprous. And his motoric metal cello chops occasionally emerge in his Kamancello contributions.

Describing their music as “East-meets-West,” rendering “improvised performances [that] transcend genres and cultural boundaries,” they take us on another epic musical journey on their new six-track album Of Shadows. As on the previous outing, improvisation is front and centre. The duo proudly states as much on its Bandcamp page – “recorded live at Union Sound Company in Toronto … all of the music on this album is fully improvised and unedited” – lending the musical dialogue an organic quality. Yet there are also well-developed modal-melodic frameworks and formal structures shaping the improvs into a coherent musical narrative.

Individual tracks in Of Shadows often commence quietly without pulse, then slowly develop a polyphonic texture through a fluent dialogue between these two sensitive musicians building themes and dramatic tension. Listening to this new album reinforced an appreciation of the timbral differences between the mellow deep cello sound and that of the thinner, higher tessitura kamanche, distinctions effectively exploited by the duo. Yet again, it was the perfect music to accompany my inner journey this evening.

04 Sounds of BrazilSounds of Brazil
Angela Turone; Chris Platt
Independent (chrisplattmusic.ca; angelaturone.com)

Angela Turone and Chris Platt, like so many of us around the globe, have become smitten with Brazilian music. Although there is a deep, rich musical culture in that country that goes beyond bossa nova, that well-known style is the focus of the Toronto-based duo’s debut album, Sounds of Brazil. Bossa nova has a light, breezy air to it which belies the complexity of the music and the skill required to master it, which Turone and Platt do, with a little help from some friends. 

Turone beautifully handles all the piano playing and singing – much of the latter in Portuguese – and her warm, pure vocals really suit the style. Platt does all the deft guitar work, most prominently on nylon string. The duo covers standards by Jobim, de Moraes and others – several from the classic Getz/Gilberto album, which essentially introduced bossa nova to North America – with a few jazz standards and lesser-known gems too. There’s plenty of collaboration with local talent, including ethnomusicologist and keyboardist, Gordon Sheard, who produced the album. Andrew Downing’s cello work shines on many tracks, in particular on the haunting Chega de Saudade. On the sprightly Doralice, everyone’s agility is on display, in particular Chase Sanborn on trumpet and John Nicholson on flute doubling Turone’s vocal gymnastics. The standout, for me, is Lendas Brasileiras by Guinga. Gorgeous. The final tune – featuring percussionist Helio Cunha – ventures into samba territory and since that style epitomizes the renowned pre-Lent celebrations in Rio, A Festa Do Divino, is a fitting closer to this fine album. 

Listen to 'Sounds of Brazil' Now in the Listening Room

05 John FinleySoul Singer
John Finley
Vesuvius Music (johnfinleymusic.com)

Vocalist and composer John Finley’s impressive career includes more than 50 years of navigating the heady waters of blues, popular music, gospel and soul. During that time, not only has Finley established himself as a compelling and vibrant performer, but also as a fine composer and noted crafter of hit tunes. He has shared the stage with an array of top-flight artists, including the Rolling Stones and The Temptations. After an extended stay in LA, Finley returned to his native Toronto in 2018 and subsequently released perhaps the finest recording of his soulful career.

Brilliant producer/arranger Lou Pomanti is a driving force behind this project, having co-written two tunes and performed on piano, organ and keyboards. The fine cast of musicians also includes Marc Rogers on bass, Larnell Lewis and Davide Direnzo on drums, John Findlay and Sam Pomanti on guitar, William Carn on trombone, William Sperandei and Tony Carlucci on trumpet and Alison Young on Saxophone.

Nearly all 11 compositions on this album were penned or co-penned by Finley, and first at bat is Let Me Serenade You. Gospel motifs saturate this soulful, B3-driven tune and Finley’s well-lived-in, elastic tenor swoops and dips through this joyful track, replete with exquisitely placed horn lines and swinging, rhythmic, background vocals. Other highlights include GO, an uber-cool journey into a deep cave of funk and also the enervating closer, Who Will the Next Fool Be – a languid, down-home blues tinged with just the right amount of ennui, vigour and regret by Finley. This exceptionally conceived, produced, written, arranged and performed album is one of the most musically and emotionally satisfying recordings that I have had the chance to experience this year.

06 Breath Hammer Album Cover Art Martin Shamoonpour Design GraphicTherapyBreath & Hammer
David Krakauer; Kathleen Tagg
Table Pounding Records (tablepoundingmusic.com)

Alchemy is an attempt to turn base metal into gold. That’s a bit like what clarinetist David Krakauer and pianist Kathleen Tagg have done with this release. Issuing a call for raw material, in the form of song ideas, from their various musical friends, they then gave each a treatment blending electronic with acoustic effects. You wouldn’t know it from listening, but each track is a mosaic of multiple electronic bits.

The Hammer is Tagg, an adept performer/engineer of the prepared piano who uses her experience in contemporary extended techniques to expand the instrument, unlocking its potential for sounds well beyond convention. Breath is supplied by Krakauer, who is possibly best known for his mastery of the klezmer style, although that is just one of the several musical hats he wears. Per The Wall Street Journal: “Krakauer… moves so seamlessly between different genres… you’d almost think there’s no appreciable difference between jazz, klezmer and formal classical music.”

You might categorize this as a jazz-coloured klezmer album, the experience elevated or transformed by virtue of the novel sounds produced by the two musicians. Both engage in beat-boxing, bouncing bops of sound out of the bodies of their instruments. Tagg gets inside the lid and draws a plectrum across the strings beyond the bridge, sending shivers up the spine. Soft-shoe breath effects alternate with pop bottle hoots in the intro of Rattlin’ Down the Road. Demon Chopper is great rapid-fire fun. Listen and wonder: “How’d they do that?”

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