02 Lynn HarrisonSomething More
Lynn Harrison
Independent (lynnharrison.ca)

Sometimes a low-key first impression leads, like the title of this CD, to Something More. Toronto folk singer Lynn Harrison’s finely crafted, penetrating lyrics and music become more and more intriguing as the disc progresses. In the title song I was at first concerned about plainness, but now I realize that, together with hollow-sounding guitar chord voicings, the repeated word “something” builds a sense of trouble effectively. Relentless lyrical uncertainty is appropriate enough in the song Riddle, yet in the closing guitar passage acceptance emerges non-verbally. In another song, Don’t Know How It Works, the line “To turn this anxious overflow into an easy grace” is especially memorable. In When I’m on the Water the continuation goes “… I’m above deep blue/When I hold my paddle I can glide on through.” With political and environmental themes, Protester and Pretty It Up become distinguished contributions in the social justice tradition.

Hope in the face of difficulty is pervasive, and this artist’s inner depth no doubt also supports her work as Unitarian Universalist minister. In Harrison’s folk style, her clear alto voice and confident acoustic guitar work are notable. Enriching influences from blues, rock and jazz in her songs are realized by stellar contributions from Noah Zacharin on guitars, including slide work on You Come to Me, and from too many other excellent instrumentalists to name individually. Production by Zacharin in association with Douglas September tops it all off professionally and imaginatively.

Listen to 'Something More' Now in the Listening Room

03 Simjone Baron Arco BeloThe Space Between Disguises
Simone Baron & Arco Belo
Independent GF0001 (simonebaron.com; arcobelo.com) 

American pianist/accordionist/composer/arranger Simone Baron created her self-described “genre queer” seven-member chamber ensemble Arco Belo to perform styles ranging from classical to jazz to folk to world to new music. This debut release is a grounded creative quasi-work in progress performed with expertise. Co-produced with bassist Michael Pope and percussionist/drummer Lucas Ashby, Baron’s music is eclectic accessible listening.

Baron is equally proficient in arranging and composing. Highlights include her opening track composition, Post Edit Delete, with lush string sounds opening, followed by her solo piano playing leading to a more jazz sound with solo violin. Its diversity is surprisingly not fragmented and introduces the listener to Baron’s self-described musical “worlds as different gestures.” Her Passive Puppeteer touches on many, never dissonant, ideas featuring her piano grooves and accordion runs supported by Pope’s electric bass virtuosity. Love her three short Disguise Interludes with static electronic sounds and voice.

Baron’s arrangement of Brazilian composer Tibor Fittel’s Valsa, which features a lyrical accordion part with bass, full string section and traditional harmonies, shifts from sad to upbeat rhythmic tango. Baron’s sensitive accordion performance here would benefit from more subtle dynamic variations but the high accordion pitches, trills and repeated notes at the end are colourful. World music sounds abound in her take on Béla Bartók’s Buciumeana/Kadynja.

String players Aaron Malone, Bill Neri and Peter Kibbe, and percussionist Patrick Graney complete the band membership. Other special guests play here too and Baron’s musical forecast shines brightly!

04 WesterliesWherein Lies the Good
The Westerlies
Westerlies Records WST001 (westerliesmusic.com) 

The Westerlies are a brass quartet playing postmodern roots music with classical finesse while throwing in some down and dirty jazz licks and a few extended techniques. Wherein Lies the Good is their third album and the current members are Riley Mulherkar and Chloe Rowlands (trumpet) and Andy Clausen and Willem de Koch (trombone). The album is just over an hour with 18 songs and they run the gamut from Charles Ives to five gospel numbers transcribed from the Golden Gate Quartet’s arrangements, and an original from each member of the group.

One of my favourites is Robert Henry, written by Clausen for his nephew’s birth. It has a beautiful lilting melody played by the trumpets over pensive and moving trombone bass lines. It contains strains of minimalism with rapid fire exchanges between the trumpets and crisp articulation from everyone. Like many of the works, it has several sections which shift moods and keep the listener engaged. On the other hand, Entropy Part II becomes densely discordant and downright spooky. Wherein Lies the Good is a fresh delight and the arrangements make the four horns seem like a much larger ensemble.

01 Okan SombrasSombras
Lulaworld Records LWR010

The two creators of OKAN are Elizabeth Rodriguez on vocals and violin and Magdelys Savigne on vocals, congas, cajon, bata drums and small percussion. Both artists are also the primary composers of the material on their exquisite new recording, Sombras, which translates as “shades”… and that’s exactly what this talented duo has given us – hues, intensities and variegations. Sombras was produced by uber-talented bassist Roberto Riveron (who also performs on the CD). The inspired lineup of players also includes Anthony Szczachor and Frank Martinez on drums; Bill King, Danae Olano, Jeremy Ledbetter and Miguel de Armas on piano and keyboards; Reimundo Sosa on quinto guitar; Pablosky Rosales on tres guitar; Alexis Baro on trumpet and Mari Palhares on pandeiro and surdo. 

The title track opens with the intoning of a sacred blessing – perhaps for Mother Africa herself, by way of Cuba – followed by a pulse-racing Latin explosion featuring sumptuous, dynamic vocals, a stirring and volatile piano solo from de Armas and the entire face-melting ensemble. Certainly one of the most moving tracks on the project, Laberinto seamlessly segues from a folk-song-like interlude into a very contemporary number, steeped in pure, powerful Cubanismo. 

Other delights include Desnudando El Alma (Stripping the Soul), which is a heartrending and muy romantico ballad, made all the more melancholic by the moving string arrangements and the always gorgeous piano work of King, as well as a technically thrilling bass solo from Riveron. With the charming closer, Luz (Light), we are again transported to a magical place of ancient sights, smells and emotions – Cuba puro – OKAN si! 

02 Stick BowResonance
Stick & Bow
Leaf Music LM231 (leaf-music.ca)

Adventurous duo Stick & Bow is comprised of Canadian marimba player Krystina Marcoux and Argentinian cellist Juan Sebastian Delgado. With the release of their new recording, the two Montreal-based musicians have been succinctly described as “rediscovering the classics through a continuous musical search…” 

The CD includes 13 diverse pieces, including unique, contemporary interpretations of works by familiar and obscure composers, including Bach, Bartók, Piazzolla, Nina Simone, Paco De Lucia and Radiohead. Opening the program are Bach’s Adagio and Prelude. This is a luxurious interpretation, filled with exotic flavours and unusual nuances, as well as a seamless segue into a bebop-centric idyll of pizzicato and percussion, defined by razor sharp time and profound dynamics – and yes, a Marimba can be played with dynamics!

Fandango, by Luigi Boccherini, is rendered here with a youthful joy and percussive tango motifs, and Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances are tinged with a lithe, soulful, loving and mystical impression of the ancient Roma people. With Nina Simone’s Love Me or Leave Me, the finger-snapping duo lends a cfilm noir quality to this anthem of 1950s relationship dysfunction, and also deconstructs the tune in a totally delightful way that belies the depressing lyric.

A standout of the project is the iconic Astor Piazzolla’s Invierno porteňo. The emotions and attack of the two players – moving together as one organism – are both raw and incandescent, and the duo’s impassioned interpretation of the late Stéphane Grappelli’s Tzigane is nothing short of masterful. The quirky closing track, Paranoid Android (from Radiohead) conjures a stark, staccato cello attack, all supported by Ruth Underwood-like underpinnings – just brilliant.

Listen to 'Resonance' Now in the Listening Room

03 Calum GrahamThread of Creation
Calum Graham
Independent (calumgraham.com)

Like all of us – including some great guitarists – Calum Graham boasts eight fingers and two thumbs on two hands. But it is his singular musical brain that governs it all. And when everything aligns cosmically the result is extraordinary. In fact it is quite magical, because when you put a guitar in his hands (he plays several kinds – acoustic, baritone and harp) the instrument sometimes becomes a chamber ensemble.

On Thread of Creation, his sixth album, Graham takes us right into the heart of his magical world that included the iconic Tabula Rasa. With Graham’s hands, the guitar reveals its huge vocabulary of sounds, which with minimalist electronic effects combine to make it sound as big as an ensemble. Graham brings his unique musical insight and musicianship to deploy all of the instrument’s capabilities effectively.

From using harmonics and pizzicato to exotica such as “nut-side,” “nail-sizzle” and “bi-tone tapping,” to combining each with a battery of percussion. (Does his guitar have a drum-set attached, you would wonder.) Graham turns a simple one-to-five-minute song into a poetic miniature. His music is inspired, original and daring, and there are several examples of this on Thread of Creation – such as The Nomad and Ma Lumière – to name but two. Bassist Michael Manring makes In Lak’Ech truly atmospheric; Antoine Dufour does likewise on Absolution. Meanwhile Graham emerges as the pre-eminent artist-technician.

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