01_minor_empireSecond Nature

Minor Empire

World Trip Records WTR001 (www.minorempire.net)

All my initial scepticism immediately disintegrated with the first track of Minor Empire's debut release “Second Nature.” No second rate bad world music here. Leader/electric guitarist/programming guru Ozan Boz has carefully eliminated any such occurrences with his careful combinations of Western pop sounds, jazz improvisations, and Turkish traditional music and his superb arrangements. Toss in band members Ozgu Ozman (vocals), Michael Occhipinti (electric guitar), Chris Gartner (bass) and Debashis Sinha (percussion), Ismail Hakki Fencloglu (oud) and Didem Basar (kanun) and the result is a smart band creating intriguing sounds and melodies set to a backdrop of funky beats.

Especially noteworthy is Zuluf Dokulmus Yuz. Ozman’s sultry vocals weave effortlessly through a tapestry of musical influences. What a great idea is to have short interludes based on makams with catchy titles like Ozan's Psyche and Selim's Anatomy (featuring the amazing guest clarinettist Selim Sesler) which allow the instrumentalists to solo and shine.

Unfortunately there are no translations for the lyrics. I learned a long time ago in my band playing days that the listener wants to know the meanings of the lyrics. But the production values are high and the sound quality superb. Fall is the time to get back to work and back to school. There is no better backdrop than the worldbeat sounds of “Second Nature” to get you back into the groove.


02_gamma_knifeGamma Knife

Maria Kasstan

Independent (www.myspace.com/mariakasstan)

I’m almost ashamed to admit that it has been a very long time since I have heard someone of my generation producing a folk CD that rails against the establishment, but Maria Kasstan has good reason. Her partner of 25 years died as a result of a heart attack right outside of police headquarters. Allegedly, the officers who discovered him assumed the man to be homeless and neglected to administer CPR. Her sorrow and anger are deeply felt by the listener in the last few tracks of the recording. The tracks are arranged as a story of their life together, celebrating the fullness of the good times and grieving the loss with a voice both strong and tender. Upon first hearing, I absolutely fell in love with the first track, Act of Love. Kasstan is known for her work as a pollinator advocate or “seed lady.” This song is a catchy, happy tribute to Mother Nature, with a playfully whimsical arrangement by producer Bob Wiseman... I couldn’t stop singing it all day long! The simple joys continue with Beets in the Cellar and the romantic Didn’t Wait for the Moon. The poignant Saint Jude brings the listener’s awareness back to the stark contrasts existing in Toronto neighborhoods. This artist has not forgotten her beginnings as a folk singer in 1960s Yorkville and reminds us that even as grannies we can still have a powerful voice for change.

03_nylonsSkin Tight

The Nylons

Linus Entertainment 270134

The a capella vocal group The Nylons has been around since 1979 and although all but one of the original members has moved on, the group's trademark upbeat sound is fully intact on its 15th recording. The mix of funky rhythms, jazzy harmonies and quirky mash-ups is due in part to the addition of Toronto-based group-singing luminary, Dylan Bell. As producer and arranger of most of the 12 tracks, and even guest scatter on one, Bell is like the Fifth Nylon (as George Martin was known as the Fifth Beatle) and a big contributor to the success of “Skin Tight.” Of course, the four singers - Claude Morrison (the original), Tyrone Gabriel, Garth Mosbaugh and Gavin Hope - do the heavy lifting. Whether called on for vocal percussion, tight harmonies, scat solos or beautiful crooning, all the singers do their part with skill and joy. The repertoire is largely covers from a variety of eras and genres and while some stay relatively true to the originals with voices substituting for the instruments, others get fresh reworkings. Spider-Man gets a clever spin as it ranges between funk, swing and rap, with a solo courtesy of bass Tyrone Gabriel, while Teach Me Tonight sees lead singer Gavin Hope essentially doing homage to Al Jarreau's version over a Four Freshman-like doo-wop accompaniment. The closing track Gone Too Soon, with its Gene Peurlingesque arrangement, is a beautiful tribute to both its originator Michael Jackson and one of The Nylons founding members, the late Denis Simpson.

04_wingfieldkastningI Walked Into the Silver Darkness

Mark Wingfield; Kevin Kastning

greydisc GDR 3508 (www.markwingfield.com)

This is a collection of original pieces for guitars. I found myself amazed at the range of guitar voices produced. A very extended palette of sound is due to the odd variety of guitars being played. There are conventional 6-string guitars but also we hear a 14-string contraguitar, 12-string extended baritone guitar, heavily processed electric guitars and even fretless guitar. The sounds had me searching through the liner notes wondering what I was hearing. Wingfield and Kastning are surely pushing the envelope with this disc. According to the liner notes, an “open mind” is required to appreciate these compositions, which are all improvised in the recording studio by two extremely gifted guitarists who had not played together until the time of this recording.

Sonically, the recording is reminiscent of an ecm release, a mix of acoustic and electric sounds with a generous amount of spatial enhancement surrounding the sound. Its multi-tracked, or layered construction, is assembled in an interesting fashion, with some sounds very forward while some are quite distant. It isn't very natural sounding in that the reverberation times differ drastically, with very dry acoustic guitars often surrounded by heavily treated reverberant electric tones.

As a guitarist, I am forever amazed at the compositional aspect of the instrument. I learned how to play with a very tattered Pete Seeger method book about 40 years ago and learned the early American styles of flat-picking and finger picking, using a handful of basic chords, and have had a lifetime of pleasure working in that idiom. For most of what I play, I really only need a guitar that has the first five or so frets. When I hear “modern” guitarists who are pioneering sounds and musical textures, I am in awe of how they can express themselves by travelling through every region of the instrument, often with what seems like effortless abandon. This collection of original instrumental pieces will impress all guitarists, no doubt.


01_lori_cullenThat Certain Chartreuse

Lori Cullen

Independent LC2011 www.loricullen.com

Lori Cullen is a steadfast presence on the music scene in Toronto, consistently producing fine albums and appearing in and putting together live shows that bring together dozens of talented local artists. Although her songwriting is strong, I like her best as a song stylist and her latest, “That Certain Chartreuse,” is dominated by examples of that unique talent. Along with guitarist/partner Kurt Swinghammer, bassist Maury Lafoy, drummer Mark Mariash and keyboardist David Matheson, everyone from the Bee Gees to Suzanne Vega to King Crimson gets the careful caress of Cullen's interpretations. Rainy Day People is given an emotional depth it never had at the hands of Gordon Lightfoot (as un-Canadian as that may be to say). While Baubles, Bangles and Beads gets a delightful and crazy mix of sitar-like guitar sounds, a hint of Optimistic Voices-style vocal arrangements, and trumpet playing, courtesy of Bryden Baird, that has the distinct Cullen/Swinghammeresque imprint. The Shania Twain hit that she wrote with her now very ex husband, Forever and For Always, is done without irony and restores our faith in the possibility of love and loyalty.

02_unspoken_dreamsUnspoken Dreams - Stories from Rumi

Ariel Balevi; William Beauvais

Independent WLCD 012010

Storyteller Ariel Balevi and guitarist/composer/improviser William Beauvais are a creative team to be reckoned with. “Unspoken Dreams - Stories from Rumi” is concurrently perplexing and interesting in its content and presentation.

Balevi “reads” five stories from the Masnavi, a collection of stories and stories within stories that Rumi, the 13th century Sufi poet and mystic, used in his teachings. Balevi's diction is clear, and his timing is impeccable. Most surprisingly, he has the uncanny knack of drawing the listener deep into the text when least expected to create a powerful listening experience. He is an excellent storyteller with a distinctive voice that brings the stories he so loves to life.

At times, Balevi risks becoming a bit over the top in his sentiment. This is where guitarist William Beauvais weaves his magic. Clearly relishing his musical supporting role, Beauvais’ improvisations, compositions and performance provide the perfect backdrop/soundscape while simultaneously creating clear boundaries to prevent a sonic crash. Between stories as musical interludes, his renditions of the simple Yoruban and Bantu songs are beautiful moments which prepare the listener for the next story.

The sound of the voice and guitar blend with ease and colour. Production qualities are superb. Fans of storytelling should be impressed by “Unspoken Dreams - Stories from Rumi.” The rest of us open minded enough to give this Balevi/Beauvais collaboration a listen should be pleasantly surprised. The disc is available through the Canadian Music Centre Distribution Service (www.musiccentre.ca).


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