01 Lenka LichtenbergMasaryk – Národni Pisnē: Czech, Moravian and Slovak Folk Songs Reimagined
Lenka Lichtenberg
ARC Music EUCD2751 (lenkalichtenberg.com)

Is there a new wave of interest in Czech folk music among Canadian-based musicians? Two recent albums suggest so. In the last issue of The WholeNote I reviewed The Book of Transfigurations, an album of Moravian songs originally transcribed by Julia Ulehla’s Czech musicologist great-grandfather, reimaged by the group Dálava. Casting the folk music net geographically wider, in Masaryk: Národní Písně, Czech-born Toronto-based singer-songwriter Lenka Lichtenberg presents an album of Slovak, Czech and Moravian songs. She enriches them with her 21st-century world music aesthetic.

Drawing on the important songbook Národní Písně (Songs of the Nation) by Czech musician and diplomat Jan Masaryk (1886-1948), Lichtenberg and Czech musician Tomas Reindl have fashioned imaginative arrangements of 14 songs. European folk instruments such as the cimbalom, kantele and bagpipes join standard orchestral instruments in their elaborate charts, firmly placing these songs in a European context. Interestingly, Reindl’s gentle tabla playing on several songs and the didgeridoo on another serve to shift those songs’ focus slightly from the Czech lands, rendering them more universal. The album was recorded in studios in the Czech Republic and in Toronto, further underscoring its internationality.

The award-winning Lichtenberg’s unaffected vocals soar over the acoustic instrumentals, often overdubbing herself with characteristic regional harmonies. Like Ulehla, Lichtenberg has a family relationship to these songs: she grew up singing some of them.

The entire album, obviously a product of great care and love, rewards multiple listens.

Listen to 'Masaryk – Národni Pisnē: Czech, Moravian and Slovak Folk Songs Reimagined' Now in the Listening Room

02 Buffy Sainte MarieMedicine Songs
Buffy Sainte-Marie
True North Records TN0681 (truenorthrecords.com)

Buffy Sainte-Marie is an iconic, award-winning, Indigenous Canadian composer, vocalist and national treasure as well as a lifelong social activist. For the past 50 years she has written and performed her unique songs of forward motion, insight and healing as “medicine” to the people – all people. Sainte-Marie describes this new recording, as “a collection of frontline songs about unity and resistance – some brand new and some classics – and I want to put them to work.” This is the fifth collaboration between talented musician Chris Birkett and Sainte-Marie. They act as co-producers here, and Birkett has deftly recorded and mixed the 13 dynamic tracks.

The stirring opener, You Got to Run is co-written by Sainte-Marie and Tanya Tagaq and features fine vocals and a relentless arrangement defined by a perfect balance between acoustic and digital instruments, propelled by skilled keyboard, bass and drum programming by Jon Levine, Max Kennedy Roach on drums and Justin Abedin on guitar – and The War Racket is an infectious/rap-tious and rhythmic contemporary protest song that sadly is still as pertinent now as it was 30 years ago.

Standouts include the energizing Carry it On, and the charming, guitar-centric folk song Little Wheel Spin and Spin. Of special note is the final track on the CD, Alabama 3’s Power in the Blood – a wall of sound, embracing rock modalities and driving home the futility and horror of war. Sainte-Marie’s vocal instrument is as dynamic and powerful as ever, but now resounds with an even warmer tone of life experience, bringing a new musical palette to her perpetually relevant work. 

04 PayadoraVolando
Payadora Tango Ensemble
Independent (payadora.com)

Payadora Tango Ensemble has made a memorable mark on the Canadian music scene with their accomplished ensemble playing and toe tapping energetic versions of the Argentinian tango, the form the world loves to listen, play and dance to. The group – Rebekah Wolkstein (violin, vox), Branko Dzinovic (accordion), Robert Horvath (piano) and Joe Phillips (double bass) – now expands its tango horizons with a wider compositional cross section.

The traditional tango is represented by the perfect performance of Adios Muchachos/I Get Ideas. The Adios portion is a more traditional performance with guest vocals by Elbio Fernandez. Then a walk on the jazzier side happens as Wolkstein sings the English words to great bass meandering explorations and piano tinklings. There are two original arrangements of Argentinian folk songs, but most fun is hearing Brahms step across the dance floor in the unique Horvath arrangement of Hungarian Dance No.1.

There are three original tunes. The slow reflective opening of Drew Jurecka’s Niebla Oscura features high accordion tones against a violin melody, and lower accordion tones against piano chords. Longer phrases and mood shifts lead into a sneaky final tango piano section. Horvath’s Tavasz goes from reflective opening piano to tango. Wolkstein’s Volando is more contemporary with accordion shots, metrical piano groove and a soaring build to the final violin glissando.

Each musician is a star soloist in their own right. Playing together has allowed them to develop and mature turning Payadora into a superstar group.

Listen to 'Volando' Now in the Listening Room

06 Amici CanadaInspired by Canada - Notre Pays
Mireille Asselin; Amici Chamber Ensemble
Marquis Classics MAR 81485 (amiciensemble.com)

Whenever popular or folk songs are recorded in a classical arrangement and for classically trained voices, the dreaded word “crossover” raises its ugly head. But let us remember that Cantaloube orchestrated the folk songs of the Auvergne and Carmina Burana was nothing but an elaborate fake (Orff initially claimed inspiration from medieval music scores): today, both are great examples of much-beloved music from the concert stage. So it really boils down to how the song selections and arrangements are realized.

Here, Serouj Kradjian’s arrangements and the playing by his colleagues in the Amici Ensemble (clarinetist Joaquin Valdepeñas and cellist David Hetherington) are first rate. So is the voice of and interpretation by Mireille Asselin – she truly gets the spirit of French-Canadian music, which dominates on this disc. The song selection, however, may trigger some arguments. There are many other songs in the oeuvre of Leonard Cohen beyond the vastly overexposed and horribly abused Hallelujah, that would have been a better fit. Similarly, I cannot help but wonder, if River would not have been a better choice from the vast Joni Mitchell catalogue than A Case of You. The true standouts musically are La Vieux Piano by Claude Léveillée, a Canadian composer of some of Edith Piaf’s songs, and the Huron Carol (another controversial appropriation). These two pieces truly assert the rights of folk and popular songs to be given the “full treatment” and to safely dispense with the crossover label.

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07 Laila BialiLaila Biali
Laila Biali
Chronograph Records CR-060 (chronographrecords.com)

The intense emotional realms that the music of Laila Biali inhabits pay tribute to the ecstatic world of Sufi poetry, the kaleidoscopic one of pop metaphors and to one where her own enduring spirit prevails. Each of the 12 songs on this disc probes joyful and profound corners, allowing us to enter into these private worlds in which ebullience and hope are conveyed in striking terms. Biali evokes dramatic and psychological atmospheres as if both Jalaluddin Rumi and David Bowie were looking over her shoulder, but with her own sense of urgency, rhythm and colour.

The disc opens with the joie de vivre of Got to Love and closes with an equally exuberant version of Let’s Dance. In between, Biali evokes many-splendoured romantic images and daubs these vividly coloured recreations with a seemingly infinite array of vibrant and melancholy musical idioms – including the profound and the soaring gospel-driven. In Wind and Dolores Angel respectively, her captivating vivacity rules the roost among a stellar cast that includes vocalist Jo Lawry, drummer Larnell Lewis and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire.

Individual listeners – depending on their familiarity with Laila Biali – will no doubt find a favourite track to latch onto here but each has its own charm. And every one of the 11 musicians’ performances – vivid and articulate – seize the attention as they exercise their skills alert to the expressive need of the vocalist and pianist’s bold and emphatic art.

08 Black ManhattanBlack Manhattan, Vol.3
Paragon Ragtime Orchestra; Rick Benjamin
New World Records 80795-2 (newworldrecords.org)

Years ago Rick Benjamin, the conductor of the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra, was thrilled to discover a rich horde of sheet music of African American composers working in New York City during the half century from the late Victorian era to the Harlem Renaissance.

Searching for their recordings however, he found remarkably few examples documenting this pioneering African American music. At the roots of ragtime, jazz, period social dance, musical theatre, silent cinema and the Great American Songbook, he felt this music was being unjustly neglected.

Three Black Manhattan albums later, PRO has recorded 60 pieces by 32 African American composers, using “carefully curated, new recordings of first-rate performances played from authentic scores.” Volume 3 contains theatre songs and instrumentals by 21 different composers. Some are relatively well known today (Scott Joplin), yet most have largely been relegated to music history’s back pages.

If I had to pick one selection, it would be the beautifully perfect ballad Love Will Find A Way from the Broadway show Shuffle Along (1921) by Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle. (I had the good fortune of chatting with Blake after his solo piano recital at York University in the early 70s. It’s one of my cherished early musical memories. Mr. Blake was in his 90s. I was… younger.)

It seems to me that Benjamin’s wish that his “efforts have started to close this gap in America’s cultural memory” and “enable the world to rediscover this magnificent music” is admirably served by this album.

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