01 Iimpressions of debussy coverImpressions of Debussy
Lori Sims; Andrew Rathbun; Jeremy Siskind
Centaur Records (andrewrathbun.com) 

With its evocative harmonies and imaginative rhythms, the music of Debussy particularly lends itself to jazz interpretations and the blending of the two idioms meld perfectly on this Centaur recording featuring nine of Debussy’s Préludes played by pianists Lori Simms and Jeremy Siskind together with soprano saxophonist Andrew Rathburn. The disc is a delight!

Comprising 18 tracks altogether, the well-ordered sequence features Sim’s performance of a prelude as it was originally written, immediately followed by the same piece reimagined by either Siskind or Rathburn and performed by the duo. The arrangements were first presented at the Gilmore Keyboard Festival in 2016.

Sims’ performance is poised and sensitive, at all times beautifully nuanced. And what is particularly appealing is the manner in which the jazz interpretations reinvent the original in such a creative way that frequently the piece is transformed altogether. As an example, the esoteric and mysterious mood of preludes such as Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir and Feuilles mortes is almost abandoned in the jazz version and replaced instead by the use of a brisker tempo and jazz harmonies in an amiable conversation between the two parts. Yet other re-interpretations are closer to the original, such as Minstrels with its quirky rhythms and slapstick good humour.

Throughout, the duo plays with a freshness and spontaneity that truly breathes new life into traditional repertoire in a very convincing way – how could Debussy not have approved?! Impressions of Debussy is perfect listening for a summer evening – or anytime for that matter. Recommended.

02 Daugherty This LandMichael Daugherty – This Land Sings (Inspired by the life and times of Woody Guthrie)
Annika Socolofsky; John Daugherty; Dogs of Desire; David Alan Miller
Naxos 8.559889 (naxosdirect.com/items/daugherty-this-land-sings-inspired-by-the-life-and-times-of-woody-guthrie-534848) 

Celebrated American composer Michael Daugherty’s musical tribute This Land Sings: Inspired by the Life and Times of Woody Guthrie arrived just after George Floyd’s death and the protests against racism. The CD’s theme of social injustice in the songs and life of Woody Guthrie (1912-1967) is timely. But how did Daugherty in 2016 compose music out of music? The answer is versatility. Travelling across America in space and time, the tribute includes many stops: Utah at the 1915 death of singer-labour activist Joe Hill; Oklahoma during the 1930s dust storms; with Guthrie as a cook on US Merchant Marine convoy ships; and at a Jewish community in New York where Guthrie lived after World War Two. The composer alludes to well-known Guthrie songs and parodies traditional American songs, mixing in his own often-satirical poetry and music. The brilliant David Alan Miller-conducted small ensemble Dogs of Desire begins with a quasi-Stravinsky-ish Overture that has eerie suggestions of Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land. Soprano Annika Socolofsky’s low vibrato-less sound is especially effective in the duet The Ghost and Will of Joe Hill, but I wondered if baritone John Daugherty’s ringing timbre was appropriate in this composition’s initially rough milieu. 

Nevertheless, the two singers later became the work’s saving graces as Daugherty’s lyrical musical voice emerged. Hearing the spare voice/single instrument combinations in Bread and Roses (soprano/bassoon) and I’m Gonna Walk That Lonesome Valley (baritone/clarinet), I had travelled a long way indeed.

04 Strings for PeaceStrings for Peace
Amjad Ali Khan; Sharon Isbin; Amaan Ali Bangash; Ayaan Ali Bangash
Zoho ZM 202004 (zohomusic.com/cds/isbin_stringsforpeace.html) 

Innovative Grammy-winning guitarist Sharon Isbin has just released a new recording that not only pushes cultural musical barriers and stereotypes, but breaks them down entirely. Isbin is joined here by iconic sarod master, Amjad Ali Khan and his talented sons, Amaan and Ayaan Ali Bangash. Noted drummer/tabla player Amit Kavthekar, adds his considerable talents to both the intensity and the beauty of the repertoire. The project itself is comprised of stirring ragas and talas, composed in the traditions of region-specific North Indian classical music. The CD was recorded in New York City following the ensemble’s successful and aptly titled “Strings for Peace” 2019 tour of India, and features four original compositions by Khan that are based on popular ragas, and were written and arranged specifically for Isbin’s transplendant musicianship, as well as for her deep, intuitive understanding of this thrilling music, steeped in antiquity.

With over 30 diverse albums to her credit, Isbin’s sibilant and precise guitar work is the perfect complement for Khan’s ancient sarod – both in timbre and tone. Of special note are By the Moon, in which languid, dreamy drone tones conjure up the magic and mystery of the moon’s esoteric power; in contrast, Love Avalanche is a rousing, rhythmic celebration, involving an intricate and melodic musical conversation between Isbin and Khan. The irresistible Sacred Evening is an experience of gentle, fragile beauty as well as a dip into the eternal sea of oneness that we are all a part of.

This inspired ensemble will spread their much-needed message of peace, beauty, unity and understanding through music in an upcoming United States cross-country tour next year, beginning with appearances at the world-famous Tanglewood and Caramoor Festivals.

01 Sass JordanRebel Moon Blues
Sass Jordan
Stony Plain Records SPCD1410 (sassjordan.com)

The visceral beauty – yes, such a thing is possible – together with the long-limbed melancholy of the blues, is what makes the music of Rebel Moon Blues by Sass Jordan a flaming masterpiece. Despite the fact that she hasn’t made a recording in almost a decade, she has clearly been in top form throughout that period. Jordan indulges in what can only be described as a spontaneously intuitive unleashing of these melodies. There is no gratuitous ornamentation, no playing to the rock gallery; no fuss; just the raspy hardness of her vocals unfolding with enormous colour and emotion song after song.

There is never any room for shallowness with the blues and Jordan seems not only to understand that perfectly, but to find places to reach deep within her chest to deliver on the emotion that the songs demand. She is appropriately intimate on My Babe, relentless and unforgiving on One Way Out and rivetingly plaintive on Still Got the Blues. The reason she can breathe life into those songs and the others on the disc is because she seems to inhabit them as if they were hers and hers alone, despite the fact that other musicians actually penned these classic tunes. 

Part of the allure of this recording comes from the fact that the musicians who support Jordan on her journey are fully attuned to her artistry. Together with Jordan they make this a recording to die for.

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.

Listen to 'I Bless the Wounds' Now in the Listening Room

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.

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