01 Kora FlamencaKora Flamenca
Zal Sissokho
Analekta AN 2 9171 (analekta.com)

Zal Sissokho is a griot, continuing the grand oral traditions of his Mandinka people of Senegal in Montreal where he settled in 1999. His long clan lineage and deep improvisation skills are on full display when he plays the 21-string kora and sings in Malinke and Wolof as a solo performer and collaborator with numerous bands.

Ever since he heard flamenco performed live in Seville, Sissokho dreamt of combining Andalusian music and the Mandinka culture of his native West Africa. Kora Flamenca – a musical collaboration with composer and virtuosa flamenco guitarist Caroline Planté – is the result. The album’s ensemble also includes percussionist Miguel Medina, first-call Montreal oudist Mohamed Masmoudi and bassist Jean Félix Mailloux. Sissokho explains, “I sought to expand the limits of my instrument, the kora, as far as possible. Inspired by soaring improvisational flamenco riffs, I tried to create a hybrid style… [To me] musical inspiration begins with respect for the instrument’s tradition, history and sounds. Then… I sought to… push my collaborators to create music in which composition, technical prowess and improvisation unite…” 

Musically and stylistically, kora and flamenco guitar are worlds apart. Linked by their common plucked string heritage however, Sissokho and Planté find ample common musical ground on which to hang flights of melodic fancy. Characterized by fast tempi, pop-forward arrangements, brief modal improvisations and Sissokho’s vocals, this set of ten concise songs makes a convincing case for combining kora and flamenco

02 Levantine RhapsodyLevantine Rhapsody
Didem Başar
Analekta AN 2 9172 (analekta.com)

Didem Başar is a professionally trained player of the kanun, or Turkish zither. On this CD, she unites Turkish and Western classical music under her own compositions, scoring them for kanun and Western instruments played by Guy Pelletier (flutes), Brigitte Dajczer (violin), Noémy Braun (cello) and Patrick Graham (percussion). Başar works with the Centre des Musiciens du Monde, which enables such cross-cultural experiences to happen. 

Başar’s initial composition Devr-i Raksan will immediately remind visitors to Turkey of that country’s rich musical heritage; listen to its thoughtful kanun solo sections as they build up to a climax of plaintive string playing, a lively flute part and vigorous drumming. Often, the compositions are short; Bird Song lasts just 2:26, but I challenge anyone to find so many variations on percussion instruments to create as many bird sounds as there are on this single track! 

On one occasion, Başar dips into classical Turkish music. She states that Kantemiroğlu’s Rast Peşrev still has the power to inspire even though that composer died almost 300 years ago; complex playing by all the instrumentalists contributes to an arrangement unfamiliar to Western ears.

Başar offers Cry as a plea for all those suffering the consequences of deadly conflicts. The endless wanderings of refugees are echoed in the flute part as it intermingles with the kanun to represent pain and sorrow. Riddle is her other intensely personal composition. Short but intense and loud phrases on the kanun and cello are intended to represent contrasting feelings: is life itself not a riddle?

And Canada is not forgotten. 5 à 7 is “happy hour” in Quebec. What with the five- and seven-beat textures of Başar’s composition of that name, it is just the right time to invite guests round to enjoy traditional Turkish cuisine to the backdrop that is Levantine Rhapsody.

03 Jessica DeutchjpgTraces
Jessica Deutsch and Ozere
Independent (jessicadeutsch.com)

The music of Jessica Deutsch on Traces may not appear to require a virtuosic, high-flying performance on the violin but make no mistake; it is diabolically difficult to play. There is great demand for atmospheric playing complete with subtle innuendo, dynamics and colour. Deutsch has this in spades and brings all of it to the repertoire on the album.

Each of the works – exquisite miniatures borne aloft by her lonesome violin, supported by mandolin or guitar, glued together by cello and contrabass, with occasional keyboards and voices – is laden with intimacy and an emotional intensity that can only be described as the poetry of feeling. Deutsch’s performance throughout is lightly perfumed and evocative, especially in the slower songs, where her sensitivity shows best. The ephemeral Traces and The Bones of Clouds, with its wispy imagery not unlike the early poetry of Elizabeth Bishop, are superb examples of her playing. 

Deutsch creates a perfect blend of delicacy and muscularity. Her ingenuity enables her to combine phrasing and touch with subtle shifts of emphasis that refashions phrases in an unexpected but utterly convincing manner. Her playing throughout, combined with cello and bass is highly redolent of the rustle of expensive raw silk. The rest of the group is completely harmonically and rhythmically entwined with Deutsch’s artistry. Their performances are altogether remarkable, possessing sinewy vigour and dynamism which contributes to putting a unique stamp on this music.

01 Ensemble VivanteLatin Romance
Ensemble Vivant
Opening Day ODR 7458 (ensemblevivant.com)

This is Ensemble Vivant’s 14th album. Founder, artistic director and pianist, Catherine Wilson, and her merry band of fellow world-class musicians, have been serving up a captivating mix of classical, Latin, jazz, ragtime and music from the Great American Songbook, in an intimate chamber music format for over 30 years!

Writing this, as I am, on Valentine’s Day, how very appropriate that so much of the music, and the music-making, on Latin Romance is absolutely stirring and heart-achingly beautiful; Wilson’s opening solo on Gismonti’s Memoria Y Fado is especially poignant. And speaking of matters of the heart, sadly, noted Canadian composer, John Burke, whose rich and rhythmic La Despedida for solo piano (a gift to Wilson, his longtime friend and colleague) graces track five, passed away on January 18, 2020. (Eerily, and perhaps fittingly, La Despedida – translated as “The Farewell” – was the last piece of his music Burke heard performed, live, before he died six weeks later.)

Wilson, along with bassist Jim Vivian, violinist Corey Gemmell, violist Norman Hathaway, cellist Sybil Shanahan, and guests Don Thompson, whose vibe work on Gismonti’s Lôro is an exhilarating tour de force, trumpeter Kevin Turcotte, and Juan Carlos Medrano and Luisito Orbegoso on Latin percussion, sparkle, shimmer, pulsate, yearn, beckon, move, tango and haunt in gorgeous (and often sexy) pieces by Piazzolla, Jobim, Lecuona, Albeniz, Mozart Camargo Guarnieri, Ernesto Nazareth, Leroy Anderson and Phil Dwyer.

Latin Romance is chamber music at its evocative best!

Listen to 'Latin Romance' Now in the Listening Room

02 Lynn HarrisonSomething More
Lynn Harrison
Independent (lynnharrison.ca)

Sometimes a low-key first impression leads, like the title of this CD, to Something More. Toronto folk singer Lynn Harrison’s finely crafted, penetrating lyrics and music become more and more intriguing as the disc progresses. In the title song I was at first concerned about plainness, but now I realize that, together with hollow-sounding guitar chord voicings, the repeated word “something” builds a sense of trouble effectively. Relentless lyrical uncertainty is appropriate enough in the song Riddle, yet in the closing guitar passage acceptance emerges non-verbally. In another song, Don’t Know How It Works, the line “To turn this anxious overflow into an easy grace” is especially memorable. In When I’m on the Water the continuation goes “… I’m above deep blue/When I hold my paddle I can glide on through.” With political and environmental themes, Protester and Pretty It Up become distinguished contributions in the social justice tradition.

Hope in the face of difficulty is pervasive, and this artist’s inner depth no doubt also supports her work as Unitarian Universalist minister. In Harrison’s folk style, her clear alto voice and confident acoustic guitar work are notable. Enriching influences from blues, rock and jazz in her songs are realized by stellar contributions from Noah Zacharin on guitars, including slide work on You Come to Me, and from too many other excellent instrumentalists to name individually. Production by Zacharin in association with Douglas September tops it all off professionally and imaginatively.

Listen to 'Something More' Now in the Listening Room

03 Simjone Baron Arco BeloThe Space Between Disguises
Simone Baron & Arco Belo
Independent GF0001 (simonebaron.com; arcobelo.com) 

American pianist/accordionist/composer/arranger Simone Baron created her self-described “genre queer” seven-member chamber ensemble Arco Belo to perform styles ranging from classical to jazz to folk to world to new music. This debut release is a grounded creative quasi-work in progress performed with expertise. Co-produced with bassist Michael Pope and percussionist/drummer Lucas Ashby, Baron’s music is eclectic accessible listening.

Baron is equally proficient in arranging and composing. Highlights include her opening track composition, Post Edit Delete, with lush string sounds opening, followed by her solo piano playing leading to a more jazz sound with solo violin. Its diversity is surprisingly not fragmented and introduces the listener to Baron’s self-described musical “worlds as different gestures.” Her Passive Puppeteer touches on many, never dissonant, ideas featuring her piano grooves and accordion runs supported by Pope’s electric bass virtuosity. Love her three short Disguise Interludes with static electronic sounds and voice.

Baron’s arrangement of Brazilian composer Tibor Fittel’s Valsa, which features a lyrical accordion part with bass, full string section and traditional harmonies, shifts from sad to upbeat rhythmic tango. Baron’s sensitive accordion performance here would benefit from more subtle dynamic variations but the high accordion pitches, trills and repeated notes at the end are colourful. World music sounds abound in her take on Béla Bartók’s Buciumeana/Kadynja.

String players Aaron Malone, Bill Neri and Peter Kibbe, and percussionist Patrick Graney complete the band membership. Other special guests play here too and Baron’s musical forecast shines brightly!

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