04 Heavyweights BrassThis City
Heavyweights Brass Band
Lulaworld Records (heavyweightsbrassband.com)

The uplifting, toe-tapping, impressive playing of the Heavyweights Brass Band in their third release has the band live up to its name with great, diverse musical sounds. The five members – John Pittman (trumpet), Chris Butcher (trombone), Paul Metcalfe (tenor saxophone), Tom Richards (tuba/keyboard/trombone) and Lowell Whitty (drums/percussion) – are each brilliant in any role from soloist, to backup support, to improvisers, to astute group musicians, to composer/arrangers. This time they travelled to New Orleans to record in the city of their inspiration, collaborating with special guests from both there and Toronto.

The eight tracks blast with wide-ranging styles and influences. Richards’ Two Foot Ticket is an intriguing mix of low tuba lead line contrasted by higher pitched horns sections and a smart solo by guest guitarist Kevin Breit. I love guest Roger Lewis’ Roger’s Intro, with its wailing baritone sax leading into Metcalfe’s get-up-and-boogie funky dance tune Dance Out On The Corner. There’s a refreshing, almost laid-back yet fun feel in the Metcalfe arrangement of Stevie Wonder’s hit Tell Me Something Good. Another change of pace is guest vocalist Jackie Richardson soaring through Pittman’s at times almost folk music arrangement of Steve Earle’s This City.

Great to hear the Heavyweights evolving both in the to-be-expected brass band funk/Latin/jazz/R&B tradition and taking on the challenges of covers, different styles and working with special guests. All of which makes for dancing and listening hurrahs.

05 ZimbamotoTambai
Zimbamoto
Independent (zimbamoto.com)

Tony Montague, music journalist for the Georgia Straight and ROOTS, wrote, “Zimbamoto is the most exciting band playing African music to emerge on the West Coast for too many years.” Based on the evidence on Tambai, I have to agree.

Led by lead singer, mbira, and marimba player Kurai Mubaiwa, his band Zimbamoto’s sound and energy firmly rooted in the exhilarating traditional and contemporary melodies and rhythms of Zimbabwe and surrounds. Having played the mbira since childhood in his native Zimbabwe, Mubaiwa has in the last 20 years established himself as a leading mbira/marimba musician and teacher. He has toured internationally with musicians like Cesária Évora, Chiwoniso Maraire and Vusi Mahlasela. His group Zimbamoto sings in Shona and plays with an Afrobeat sensibility. The band’s drive is firmly anchored by Curtis Andrews’ deeply West African informed and tonally-inflected drum kit playing. Vancouver guitarist Mark Campbell, bassist Greg Valou and percussionist/singer Navaro Franco round out this adept band.

The lyrics of this exhilarating ten-song album explore Mubaiwa’s experiences growing up in Zimbabwe. I love the moments when a song switches to cut time, as on the outstanding track Asila Mali. Other beautiful musical moments of note: harmonically textured and contrapuntal vocal response choruses, striking reggae moments, and every time a countermelody or response chorus confidently strides across the prevailing 6/8 feel.

Mubaiwa chose a Shona word for “dance” for the title of Zimbamoto’s debut album and I for one can’t stop moving to this infectious and well-crafted music.

06 Robi BotosOld Soul
Robi Botos; Larnell Lewis; Mike Downes; Seamus Blake
A440 Entertainment (robibotos.com)

This new release by Robi Botos, a multi-instrumentalist, composer and two-time JUNO Award winner, is personal and frank, an ode to life experiences. In his liner notes Botos explains the inspiration behind each song – a tribute to his hometown of Budapest and a childhood musician friend, a journey from Europe to North America, a favourite standard and a salutation to a tune by Prince. Recorded in one day, off the floor, this album truly keeps up with a centuries-old tradition of joyful music-making.

Although a mixed bag of styles (jazz, funk, Motown, gospel, Romani folk), each tune is very much played in Botos’ style – groovy, grand, upfront and authentic. Musicians on this record are exceptional and the esprit de corps is compelling. Robi Botos plays several instruments, including a lesser-known harpejji (electrical stringed instrument), but it is the magnetism of his piano solos that is the most captivating. Out of five original tunes, Budapest has the most nostalgic feel and Old Soul brings forth many of the musical traditions that influenced Botos in his career. Praise, a musical poem on being grateful, has the most mesmerizing piano motif that grabs you from the beginning and doesn’t let go. The album concludes with a tribute to Prince. Calhoun Square is a funky, full-bodied piece, with wild solos and rhythms.

Skillfully crafted, emotionally intelligent, this record is distinguished by its heartfelt tunes and first-rate musicianship.

07 Rick WilkinsTribute to Rick Wilkins
Ensemble Vivant with Guido Basso; Brian Barlow; Mike Murley
Opening Day (ensemblevivant.com)

Ensemble Vivant is just the chamber group you would want when you need music to sound symphonic. And when you add the husky seduction of Guido Basso’s horn, the cool eloquence of Mike Murley’s tenor saxophone, the rumbling majesty of Jim Vivian’s bass and the percussion colouring of Brian Barlow, what you get is absolute magic.

This is exactly the case with Ensemble Vivant’s live Tribute to Rick Wilkins, a fitting homage to the prodigious composer, arranger, conductor and tenor saxophonist. He was a pillar of such legendary bands as the Canadian Brass and the orchestra of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (among many others), and onetime music director of CBS, Los Angeles – credentials surely deserving of the rhapsodic homage accorded the 81-year-old by the Ensemble here.

This is chaste and faultless Wilkins-arranged repertoire ranging from Kern and Gershwin to J.S. Bach and Ernesto Lecouna, presented on DVD (directed by Darryl Lahteenmaa) and on CD (captured with muted serenity by Chad Irschick). Led by pianist and artistic director Catherine Wilson and comprising violinist Corey Gemmell, violist Norman Hathaway and cellist Sybil Shanahan, the music (recorded at Grace Church on-the-Hill in Toronto) sheds fresh light on Wilkins’ work. An obsessive perfectionist, he polished these works into gleaming gems. As a composer who also played piano, he seems to have written for the instrument idiomatically and this is heard in everything, most especially on Ragtime from “Divertissement”.

Ensemble Vivant parleys with the familiarity of old friends, yet their playing always retains a sense of gracious etiquette associated with the noble chamber ballroom for which this music was intended. Nothing is forced, exaggerated or overly mannered; tempos, ensemble and balance all seem effortlessly right. The string sound is lucid, while the trumpet, flugelhorn and saxophone add great warmth and swing. These are, in sum, sincere and poised accounts, a fitting tribute to the musical character of Rick Wilkins.

Listen to 'Tribute to Rick Wilkins' Now in the Listening Room

01 Kate McGarryThe Subject Tonight is Love
Kate McGarry; Keith Ganz; Gary Versace
Binxtown Records (katemcgarry.com)

With their debut trio recording, vocalist/composer Kate McGarry, guitarist/bassist Keith Ganz and pianist/accordionist Gary Versace have realized a project that has been in preparation for more than a decade. Friendship, love and creativity propel this ensemble. McGarry and Ganz are life partners, and Versace has been a close friend and musical collaborator to both. The trio act as producers/arrangers here, exploring the many facets of love with both original and venerable material, perfectly synthesized through McGarry’s uniquely cinematic musical perspective.

The CD opens with the title track, which features a brief poem from the 14th-century Persian poet and mystic Hafiz, underscoring McGarry’s belief that “love is the sub-stratum of all things.” The music for the brief, stark, spacey piece was actually improvised over the theme of Ganz’ arrangement of the standard Rodgers and Hart classic, My Funny Valentine (which is gorgeously rendered in full on the CD by McGarry).

A delightful inclusion is Sammy Fain’s Secret Love, positioned here as the polar opposite of the familiar Doris Day version – capturing an innocence and purity of first love, and featuring a sumptuous and agile guitar solo as well as seamless transitions from straight ahead, to a lilting bossa and back again. Equally wonderful is the trio’s take on the rarely performed Benny Golson/Kenny Durham tune Fair Weather. McGarry’s effortless, pitch-perfect and thoroughly gorgeous voice belongs in the rarified company of Julie London and Irene Kral. The ideal bookend to this skillfully crafted, uplifting CD is the Lennon and McCartney hit, All You Need is Love – delivered with a fresh, second-line feel.

02 Lemon Bucket OrchestraIf I Had the Strength
Lemon Bucket Orkestra
Independent (lemonbucket.com)

Following up on its 2015 JUNO Award-nominated album Moorka, Toronto’s “Balkan-klezmer-gypsy-party-punk” Lemon Bucket Orkestra weaves a narrative that runs throughout its new record’s 11 titles. The through line is based on an old Slavic prison ballad about a rebel returning home.

Covering a wide emotional range, the theatrically presented songs and instrumentals – several infused with the 12-musician band’s furiously fast dance-friendly energy – also reflect the musicians’ personal experiences on the ground during the recent Ukraine-Russia conflict. LBO leader Mark Marczyk explained in a recent press release, “If I Had the Strength is … about coming home, about never being the same, about the parts of ourselves we lose, the parts we gain, and about the prisons we inhabit or that inhabit us.”

The album also echoes aspects of LBO’s immersive musical theatre work Counting Sheep. In 2016 The Guardian reviewer Mark Fisher dubbed it as “the polyphonic protest show that puts you inside Kiev’s Maidan. Using folk singing, found footage and a revolutionary interactive staging, Marichka Kudriavtseva and Mark Marczyk’s ‘guerrilla folk opera’ throws Edinburgh audiences into the heart of the Ukrainian struggles.”

LBO once again draws inspiration from the deep well of Eastern European folklore for If I Had the Strength, primarily from Ukrainian traditions. Guest soloists include Canadian diva Measha Brueggergosman, Montreal-based rapper Boogat, and on the moving concluding track Peace, Toronto’s Choir! Choir! Choir!. They effectively broaden the aesthetic range and audience appeal of this gripping new album.

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