01 Stephanie MartinApril Snow
Stephanie Martin; Chad Irschick
Sovereign Productions SPM002 (stephaniemartin.ca)

Luminous vocalist/composer Stephanie Martin not only possesses a delicious vocal instrument, but on her new, completely appealing recording, she also demonstrates her considerable chops as a composer of accessible, highly musical material. Expertly produced and co-written by the brilliant Chad Irschick, this gorgeously crafted CD is comprised entirely of original compositions arranged with intelligence and skill … in fact, Martin’s musical expression is beautifully defined by the harmonically satisfying vocal and instrumental arrangements.

The talented musicians who join Martin on the project include gifted multi-instrumentalist Tom Szczesniak on bass, keyboards and accordion, David MacDougall on drums (whose work is the strong, invigorating and steady pulse of the recording), Brian Barlow on percussion, Michael “Pepi” Francis on acoustic and electric guitars, Chad Irschick and Steve O’Connor on keyboards and yeoman featured guest vocalist Neil Donell.

Martin incorporates a number of influences into her vocal and writing style – transcending definitions and embracing elements of contemporary, pop, country and jazz musics. Her clear, stunning soprano (slightly reminiscent of the late, great, Nicolette Larson) deftly glides over the 13 satisfying melodies, making it all seem so easy and organic – replete with poetic lyrics that detail vivid and visceral life experiences to which we can all relate. Top tracks include the rhythmic and exciting Brazilian-influenced  Roundabout;  the anthem of independence, No Hard Feeling; the blistering political statement, Circle of Elders, featuring face-melting guitar work from Francis; the gorgeous ballad, The Sweater Song, made all the lovelier by Szczesniak’s acoustic piano and the album closer, No One in Particular, a gentle and uplifting vocal duet with Donell.

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02 Brady instruments of happinessInstruments of Happiness - Electric Guitar Quartet
Tim Brady; Gary Schwartz; Michel Héroux; Antoine Berthiaume
Starkland ST-224 (starkland.com)

I cannot think of anything more exciting for any electric guitar super fan than listening to the Electric Guitar Quartet. Guitarists Tim Brady, Gary Schwartz, Michel Héroux and Antoine Berthiaume are each formidable instrumentalists who join listening and technical forces touching on all styles of guitar, be it rock, funk, new music, etc.

Three composed works are featured here. Brady’s The Same River Twice: Symphony # 5.0 is full of symphony orchestra-like harmonies, riffs, guitar effects adventures, a funky waltz and an intense closing section featuring loud verbal rhythmic counting. Each group section is divided by refreshing solo guitar meanderings. Brady then takes on this work as a solo piece. The Same River Twice Symphony #5.Solo is more introspective and different in its attitude. It feels more programmatic with its washes of sound in Freeze, and the dripping effects in Thaw.

Berthiaume’s Fungi is a sensitive and classical flavoured ensemble work in 6/4 time with its peaceful interludes and sections alluding to film and tango reminiscent dance music. Brady then remixes two live studio performances of Rainer Wiens’ What is Time? Wiens imaged it as a “series of clouds, constantly changing…” by utilizing different guitar preparations either fixed or performed in random order and requiring each performer to listen to each other’s breathing. The result is a sonic blast of washes and effects.

This is great happy music to be enjoyed over and over again!

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03 Silk RoadSing Me Home
Silk Road Ensemble; Yo-Yo Ma
Sony Masterworks 88875 18101 2 (sonymusicmasterworks.com)

This latest album by Yo-Yo Ma and Silk Road examines unique and diverse perspectives of home, with original and traditional tunes composed and/or arranged by members of the ensemble. Joining them are a number of stellar guest artists, amongst them singer Rhiannon Giddens, the Grammy-winning vocal octet Roomful of Teeth, Galician band Rustica, Malian kora player Toumani Diabaté, and the great Indian sitarist Shujaat Khan, among many other notable international performers. Each track tells a unique story. The Taiko drums of Shingashi Song are later followed by the voice of Dima Orsho, who shares a glimpse into a Syrian village wedding. Fiddler Martin Hayes adds a haunting cavalry march. In Little Birdie, singer Sarah Jarosz pays sweet tribute to the late Pete Seeger, with the addition of pipa (Chinese lute) and sheng (Chinese mouth organ) to the mix while Going Home is sung in both Chinese and English by vocalist and banjo player Abigail Washburn with ensemble member Wu Tong. Master guitarist Bill Frisell creates a wonderful interplay with Silk Road members on shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute) and Indian tabla. This recording provides a veritable tapestry of world fusion; nonetheless, each selection is truly distinct and highly reminiscent of many diverse conceptions of home.

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04 TurkwazNazar
Turkwaz
Independent Turkwaz01 (facebook.com/NazariTurkwaz)

With their first album Nazar, the Toronto based vocal quartet Turkwaz introduces a wondrous world of uniquely imaginative songs. This compilation features a selection from the Middle East, Turkey, Greece and the Balkans, collected individually over many years. While the songs themselves are traditional, the creative vocal arrangements and the use of exotic world instruments make this music delightful to the ear and harmonically surprising at times. Turkwaz – Maryem Tollar, Brenna MacCrimmon, Sophia Grigoriadis and Jayne Brown – sounds both pure and raw, with sincerity and sentiment that comes from their deep appreciation of this music. Their individual voices are light yet loaded with emotion.

Collectively, the intended textures of their voices are exquisite. The lyrics, sung in Turkish, Arabic, Greek, Macedonian and Bulgarian, are pure poetry, and for the most part fragrant with love themes. Nested in between the songs are expressive improvisatory vignettes by guest artists – Demetrios Petsalakis (spectacular on bağlama, outi), Nagmeh Farahmand (daff, tombak), Ernie Tollar (duduk, bansuri flute, saxophone) and Andrew Downing (cello).

Among many charming songs, a few numbers stood out for me. Send Me a Message My Love, The Beloved Visited Me in the Myrtle Garden, Love on a Rainy Day and the lively Alexandris/Grandpa’s Brandy all share alluring harmonic twists and delicately ornamented melodies, the power of voices being a driving force. The word nazar is derived from Arabic “sight” or “seeing.” It is a perfect title for this album as the members of Turkwaz bring forward their musical vision to each song. 

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05 CountermeasureMade to Measure
Countermeasure
Independent (countermeasuremusic.com)

Review

Toronto a cappella group Countermeasure showcases itself as a musically astute and on-the-edge vocal group. Using only their voices, they create a mind-boggling array of sounds from harmonic lyrical choral to rocking percussive to instrumental sounds. Exciting and groundbreaking to say the least, the 14 young members are led in this energetic band project by composer/arranger Aaron Jensen.

A plethora of styles and influences are technically and convincingly performed. Cole Porter’s I’ve Got You Under My Skin is a funky percussive rendition with lush harmonies, horn and bass sounds supporting soloist Qwyn MacLachlan. Jensen’s ballad Fox in the Field highlights more classic wistful colourful harmonies and phrases. Train the A Take draws on the standard Take the A Train as fragments of melodies are combined and repeated while amazing train-like vocal noises keep it moving. Covers of a Middle Eastern world music-flavoured Bruce Cockburn’s Lovers in A Dangerous Time, and pop, jazz and you-name-it spiced Beatles’ I Saw Her Standing There give each song refreshing new aural lives. The title track Made to Measure is an uplifting touch of musical theatre written by member J-M Erlendson. Witty yet never sarcastic, the show goes on with brevity, drama and comedy.

Sometimes there is too much of a good thing as so many stylistic references and percussive sounds overtake the essence of the piece. Nonetheless, Countermeasure is a rising star in the Canadian music and recording scene.

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10_Strings_and_a_goatskin.jpgAuprès du Poêle
Ten Strings and a Goat Skin
Independent (tenstringsandagoatskin.com)

Woodstoves, community, dancing, good cheer, fire in the heart – such is the atmosphere on this album, and the aura of this music.  It brought dance to my feet and the love of life to my mind, in no particular order.

This is the third CD released by the acoustic trio from Prince Edward’s Island. Rowen Gallant (fiddle, viola, tenor banjo, vocals), Jesse Périard (guitar, pump organ, backing vocals) and Caleb Gallant (bodhràn, foot percussion, snare, cajón, clawhammer banjo, vocals) may be young but each is a very accomplished musician in his own right.  

While rooted in Acadian and Scottish roots and their love for traditional maritime music, Ten Strings and a Goat Skin were able to expand on this album into truly original interpretations and add unique compositional voices of their own, spicing it with indie and world music flavours. Thus this album comprises of a curious mix of original and traditional tunes and features an array of guest musicians, including Leonard Podolak (also producer of this album) and the members of Les Poules à Colin.

The title track, Auprès du Poêle, moves along with elegance and drive, and features a lovely scat voice/violin duet towards the end. Among many engaging tunes, my favourite were tracks 4, 5 and 6. When First I Came To Caledonia is a beautifully arranged traditional Cape Breton ballad – the dark viola timbre and the mellow voice add the melancholy touch. Shoot the Moon, one of the original tunes, has a few world music twists and a beautiful fiddle/percussion episode. Finally, Maluron Lurette, starts with a solitary melody that continues through progression of instruments and voices.

Sizzling fiddles, dynamic guitars and banjos and ever driving percussion – this album promises and delivers good times.

Concert Note: Ten Strings and a Goat Skin’s busy summer schedule includes three stops in OntarioJuly 7 at Hugh’s Room in Toronto, July 8 at the Almonte Celtfest in Almonte and July 9-10 at the Mariposa Folk Festival in Orillia.

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