05 Spinning in the WheelSpinning in the Wheel
Projeto Arcomusical
National Sawdust Tracks NS-028 (nationalsawdust.org)

Projeto Arcomusical is “a world music sextet reimagining the Afro-Brazilian berimbau through unique and powerful chamber music.” Spinning in the Wheel is the second album by this Decalb, Illinois-based sextet co-founded by American composers, percussionists and berimbau-ists Gregory Beyer and Alexis C. Lamb.

A member of the musical bow family found around the world, the Brazilian berimbau is an essential accompaniment of capoeira, the Afro-Brazilian martial art combining elements of dance, acrobatics and instrumental and vocal music. At first glance a simple instrument, the berimbau has at least six distinct parts. It includes a wooden bow and steel string, a beater to strike the string with, a small stone or coin pressed against the string to change the pitch, a gourd-like shell secured to the berimbau amplifying/modulating the string in conjunction with the player’s body, and a small rattle held in the stick hand. Using all these sound modifiers the berimbau is capable of a large range of expression, especially when several musicians are involved. Arcomusical’s six berimbaus allow the production of an extended number of tones making possible extended-range melodies, harmonies and spatial effects. In only a few years it has toured widely and commissioned over 30 new scores.

Chief among them is Roda (2016) by American composer Elliot Cole. An engaging and impressive four-movement, 20-minute work, it’s the most substantial musical statement on Spinning in the Wheel.

I was initially drawn to the novelty of Arcomusical’s instrumentation, but after just a few minutes of listening to Spinning in the Wheel I found its music clearly conceived and passionately performed.

Listen to 'Spinning in the Wheel' Now in the Listening Room

01 Amanda MartinezLibre
Amanda Martinez
Sola Records (amandamartinez.ca)

Singer-songwriter Amanda Martinez delves deeper into her background with the release of Libre. The daughter of a Mexican father and South African mother, Martinez has been exploring her Latin roots for years now, so it’s the African side that’s new here. Produced by her longtime collaborator, guitarist Kevin Laliberté, Martinez has enlisted a handful of singers and songwriters – such as Canadian jazz singer Kellylee Evans and Cuban-born Pablosky Rosales – for the ten original songs on Libre. Kevin Laliberté's distinctive guitar playing and Donné Roberts’ beautiful warm vocals blend perfectly with Martinez’s light pretty voice. Bassist (and Martinez’s husband) Drew Birston and percussionist Rosendo “Chendy” Leon round out the core band. Standout tracks include Begin and En La Distancia.

The album has a predominantly Latin sound to it (Mexican and a little flamenco here and there) and I found the African touches to be quite subtle. This is partly due to the fact that most of the lyrics are in Spanish. For those of us who don’t understand that language, translations are available on Martinez’s website. The poetic lyrics’ main themes are love and longing in its many forms – for a land, a lover or a child. Or you could not worry about what the lyrics say and just let the music wash over you and carry you away. The album has a sweet, old-fashioned feel to it that gives us a welcome escape to gentler times and idyllic places.

Listen to 'Libre' Now in the Listening Room

02 Gloaming3
The Gloaming
Justin Time JTR 8617-2 (justin-time.com)

For their third salvo, contemporary Irish fusion quintet, The Gloaming, has released an intriguing piece of work that not only embraces traditional Irish motifs, but seeps into the modalities of contemporary and neo-classical, piano-driven musics. This is authentic, indigenous, world music enfolded sumptuously into a thought-provoking new music setting. Pianist (and producer) Thomas Bartlett is the spine of the ensemble, fearlessly injecting skilled, rhythmic elements into the music. The haunting, sibilant vocals of Iarla Ó Lionáird inform much of the material, and transport the listener back into the mists of time. With three Irish and two Irish-American members, the music also speaks to the inter-generational scars of the near genocide of the Irish people, and the resulting painful, global diaspora.

The splendid, passionate and skilled work of generational fiddler, Martin Hayes, gauges the intensity of the music and Hardanger d’Amore player Caoimhin Ó Raghallaigh consistently elicits a warm, substantive sound from his viola-like instrument (with sympathetic strings). Along with guitarist Dennis Cahill they establish the musical pulse, the very heartbeat of the goddess Danu herself.

Highlights of this expertly recorded CD include Meachán Rudaí and Amhrán na nGleannI. The former is a setting of a poem by Liam Ó Muirthile (about a son remembering his late mother), and the latter is an ancient tune lamenting the death of a chieftain, and also a song that Lionáird has been performing since he was a small boy. Also of special note is Reo, written by the ensemble, and featuring lyrics drawn from a poem by the iconic mid-20th-century Irish poet, Seán Ó Ríordáin.

Listen to '3' Now in the Listening Room

03 Norah Jones Begin AgainBegin Again
Norah Jones
Blue Note Records B002978602 (bluenote.com)

Begin Again is the reflection of an artist who’s continuing to develop and evolve. Norah Jones first came on the scene in 2002 with Come Away With Me, which introduced a fresh, gorgeous voice with a jazz sensibility that was a shift from the prevailing pop music of the time. That release turned Jones into a global phenomenon and over the years, she’s continued to release successful, Grammy-winning records and collaborate with a diverse range of artists like Herbie Hancock, Outkast and Foo Fighters.

Begin Again is an eclectic collection of original tunes co-produced by Jones and recorded at various studios with a handful of collaborators such as guitarist Jeff Tweedy of Wilco fame and drummer-extraordinaire, Brian Blade. The tone is set with the powerful opening track My Heart is Full and many of the songs, such as Uh Oh and Just a Little Bit, continue in that experimental vein, with the musicians laying down a meditative bed and Jones layering vocals over top. The album is keyboard dominant, courtesy of Thomas Bartlett, Pete Remm and Jones herself. Although calling Remm’s sublime Hammond B3 work “dominant” isn’t capturing the subtle textures he lends to the songs.

Missing from Begin Again are some of those exquisite, soulful ballads that Jones does so well – though Wintertime comes close. So while the album is a good listen and full of fine musicianship, it won’t break your heart.

04 Andy MilneThe Seasons of Being
Andy Milne & Dapp Theory
Sunnyside SSC 1482 (andymilne.com)

Following his battle with prostate cancer, gifted composer and pianist, Andy Milne determined to channel the concepts of homeopathy (which he had utilized in his recovery) into a new kind of musical synthesis. This manifested into a fascinating, largely improvisational project for his long-running ensemble, Dapp Theory. During Milne’s recovery, his illuminations surrounding the relationship of musical “one-ness” and physical healing, morphed into a Chamber Music America commission, presented here as Seasons of Being. One aspect of Milne’s intent was to compose for the individual musicians in his ensemble, in non-restrictive ways that would allow them to grow, explore and also function as an integrated creative organism.

Joining Milne on this recording are his venerable bandmates, Christopher Tordini on bass, Kenny Grohowski on drums, Aaron Kruziki on woodwinds and John Moon on vocals. Also taking part is an array of talented guests, including Ben Monder on guitar, Ralph Alessi on trumpet and Christopher Hoffman, cello.

The CD kicks off with Surge and Splendor – a rhythmic and spoken word foray (perfectly attenuated by Grohowski’s drums) which fearlessly probes the rich embroidery of life’s components, finally segueing into a woodwind bubble from Kruziki that surrounds the entire ensemble – like a healthy, plump cell – bursting with creativity and life force, exemplified by Mondor’s vibrant guitar solo, and lovely, diaphanous cello work by Hoffman. Also of special profundity is The Guardian, featuring Alessi’s gorgeous trumpet.

One need not subscribe to the practice of homeopathy to resonate with this heady recording, because no one can dispute the healing power and collaborative magic of music.

05 kamancelloKamancello II: Voyage
Shahriyar Jamshidi; Raphael Weinroth-Browne
Independent (kamancello.bandcamp.com)

The invented portmanteau word Kamancello serves as the name of the Toronto-based duo of Kurdish Iranian kamanche player and composer Shahriyar Jamshidi and classically trained Canadian cellist and composer Raphael Weinroth-Browne. Joining forces around four years ago they’ve taken audiences into transcultural musical territories as yet unexplored. They describe their music as “East-meets-West,” rendering “improvised performances [that] transcend genres and cultural boundaries.” But that’s a modest appraisal of the rich journey they take us on in Kamancello II: Voyage, their second album.

Improvisation is undoubtedly present in abundance here, but there are also well-developed modal frameworks and formal structures at work too. There are four extended pieces titled Emergent, Tenebrous, Voyage and Threnody, each with a well-defined shape. They begin quietly without pulse, exploring ornamented melodies, slowly developing a polyphonic texture trough sensitive interplay between the musicians. The duo’s seamless exchange of lyrical melodies is influenced both by the Kurdish and Iranian modal world as well as by the pre-modern classical cello repertoire. Each performance then segues to a dance-like section with Weinroth-Browne’s virtuoso cello often providing the forceful accompaniment, performing fast-moving bowed climaxes accented by fortissimo bass notes. In places we’re reminded of his progressive metal and neo-folk affiliations. That dense energy propels the music forward, providing welcome contrast to the stillness of other sections, a kind of a narrative arch.

Throughout, Jamshidi and Weinroth-Browne give each other a generous amount of breathing room to express the wide range of human experiences suggested by the track titles. On re-listening, it struck me how this music also gifts listeners the space to venture on our own inner journeys too.

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