06 Amici CanadaInspired by Canada - Notre Pays
Mireille Asselin; Amici Chamber Ensemble
Marquis Classics MAR 81485 (amiciensemble.com)

Whenever popular or folk songs are recorded in a classical arrangement and for classically trained voices, the dreaded word “crossover” raises its ugly head. But let us remember that Cantaloube orchestrated the folk songs of the Auvergne and Carmina Burana was nothing but an elaborate fake (Orff initially claimed inspiration from medieval music scores): today, both are great examples of much-beloved music from the concert stage. So it really boils down to how the song selections and arrangements are realized.

Here, Serouj Kradjian’s arrangements and the playing by his colleagues in the Amici Ensemble (clarinetist Joaquin Valdepeñas and cellist David Hetherington) are first rate. So is the voice of and interpretation by Mireille Asselin – she truly gets the spirit of French-Canadian music, which dominates on this disc. The song selection, however, may trigger some arguments. There are many other songs in the oeuvre of Leonard Cohen beyond the vastly overexposed and horribly abused Hallelujah, that would have been a better fit. Similarly, I cannot help but wonder, if River would not have been a better choice from the vast Joni Mitchell catalogue than A Case of You. The true standouts musically are La Vieux Piano by Claude Léveillée, a Canadian composer of some of Edith Piaf’s songs, and the Huron Carol (another controversial appropriation). These two pieces truly assert the rights of folk and popular songs to be given the “full treatment” and to safely dispense with the crossover label.

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07 Laila BialiLaila Biali
Laila Biali
Chronograph Records CR-060 (chronographrecords.com)

The intense emotional realms that the music of Laila Biali inhabits pay tribute to the ecstatic world of Sufi poetry, the kaleidoscopic one of pop metaphors and to one where her own enduring spirit prevails. Each of the 12 songs on this disc probes joyful and profound corners, allowing us to enter into these private worlds in which ebullience and hope are conveyed in striking terms. Biali evokes dramatic and psychological atmospheres as if both Jalaluddin Rumi and David Bowie were looking over her shoulder, but with her own sense of urgency, rhythm and colour.

The disc opens with the joie de vivre of Got to Love and closes with an equally exuberant version of Let’s Dance. In between, Biali evokes many-splendoured romantic images and daubs these vividly coloured recreations with a seemingly infinite array of vibrant and melancholy musical idioms – including the profound and the soaring gospel-driven. In Wind and Dolores Angel respectively, her captivating vivacity rules the roost among a stellar cast that includes vocalist Jo Lawry, drummer Larnell Lewis and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire.

Individual listeners – depending on their familiarity with Laila Biali – will no doubt find a favourite track to latch onto here but each has its own charm. And every one of the 11 musicians’ performances – vivid and articulate – seize the attention as they exercise their skills alert to the expressive need of the vocalist and pianist’s bold and emphatic art.

08 Black ManhattanBlack Manhattan, Vol.3
Paragon Ragtime Orchestra; Rick Benjamin
New World Records 80795-2 (newworldrecords.org)

Years ago Rick Benjamin, the conductor of the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra, was thrilled to discover a rich horde of sheet music of African American composers working in New York City during the half century from the late Victorian era to the Harlem Renaissance.

Searching for their recordings however, he found remarkably few examples documenting this pioneering African American music. At the roots of ragtime, jazz, period social dance, musical theatre, silent cinema and the Great American Songbook, he felt this music was being unjustly neglected.

Three Black Manhattan albums later, PRO has recorded 60 pieces by 32 African American composers, using “carefully curated, new recordings of first-rate performances played from authentic scores.” Volume 3 contains theatre songs and instrumentals by 21 different composers. Some are relatively well known today (Scott Joplin), yet most have largely been relegated to music history’s back pages.

If I had to pick one selection, it would be the beautifully perfect ballad Love Will Find A Way from the Broadway show Shuffle Along (1921) by Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle. (I had the good fortune of chatting with Blake after his solo piano recital at York University in the early 70s. It’s one of my cherished early musical memories. Mr. Blake was in his 90s. I was… younger.)

It seems to me that Benjamin’s wish that his “efforts have started to close this gap in America’s cultural memory” and “enable the world to rediscover this magnificent music” is admirably served by this album.

03 Brass FabulousBrass Fabulous
Jason Rosenblatt & Orkestra Severni
Independent (rachellemisch.com)

Founded in 2009 by trombonist Rachel Lemisch, the Montreal-based Orkestra Severni (Northern Orchestra) performs brass band repertoire of Klezmer, Moldavian and Serbian traditions. Besides their great energetic performances here, what makes their debut release even more exciting is that all 11 tracks are original works rooted in the new Eastern European music genre by composer/pianist/harmonica player Jason Rosenblatt.

Rosenblatt’s compositions embody many styles. The opening Sirba from the three-movement Sirba a la Oscar is driven by fast upbeat rhythms that are always in control. A great effect is having its final cadence resolve into the introduction of the next movement, Hora, a work comprised of more traditional-sounding melodies, rhythms and exquisite dynamic shifts. The striking rhythmic bounces of the silences between the resounding brass shots in the third movement, Freylach, showcase the musicians’ tight ensemble technique. Rosenblatt Kid’s Contra features a descending chromatic line that makes for happy walking music with a carnival feel. Nice style contrast is Chassidic Love Tango, with its traditional tango groove interspersed with brief three-quarter waltz sections. The closing Anshei Brzezan Nign has a lullaby-feel ending with sublime held-piano sounds.

All the accomplished band musicians, along with special guest Ben Holmes (trumpet) play brilliantly. Sound quality is great too. Brass Fabulous lives up to its name. This a spectacular addition to the brass band repertoire, well deserving of lots of fans and of lots of listening hours.

04 DalavaThe Book of Transfigurations
Songlines SGL 2408-2 (songlines.com)

About the group Dálava, reviewer Mark Tucker wrote, “… I was both chilled and thrilled by the fusion of avant-garde, ancient, and progressive musics…” After listening to their second album The Book of Transfigurations, released on the Vancouver boundary-crashing Songlines label, I’d have to agree. Dálava’s project crosses and combines several genres, disciplines, generations and continents. At its core is the duo of American vocalist Julia Ulehla and guitarist Aram Bajakian (known for his work with John Zorn and with Lou Reed). Musical and life partners, they perform Moravian folk songs of the 19th and early-20th century transcribed over 100 years ago by Ulehla’s Czech musicologist great-grandfather. The songs are then transfigured through their 21st-century sensibilities, informed by world music, creative jazz and post-rock.

Ulehla is currently working on her PhD researching Moravian song with UBC ethnomusicologist Michael Tenzer. Her scholarship is amply illustrated in the lavish 36-page booklet (including original lyrics with English translations and commentary) and it richly informs Dálava’s interpretations. As for Bajakian, he keeps busy gigging on guitar with other bands, including the American-Hungarian folk/art-rock band Glass House Ensemble.

The duo’s music, while a profoundly personal statement, is also emotionally supported and amplified on the album by leading musicians on the Vancouver creative music scene: cellist Peggy Lee, Tyson Naylor on multi-keys, bassist Colin Cowan and Dylan van der Schyff on drums.

Ulehla and Bajakian have reportedly already made a splash in the Czech Republic with their live interpretations of this material. I predict Dálava’s affective music will gain many more global fans with this release.

01 Jordana TalskyNeither of Either
Jordana Talsky
Independent JT-17-02 (jordanatalsky.com)

Although Neither of Either is the second album released by Jordana Talsky, it feels a little like a debut, since this one is almost exclusively original songs. The Toronto-based singer-songwriter (and lawyer) teamed up with JUNO Award-winning producer, Justin Abedin. It’s a happy collaboration, for although the songs are harmonically and rhythmically straightforward at their heart, the textures added by the arrangements and production lend complexity and richness.

The predominant style of the album is indie-pop but there are touches of jazz and soul throughout, making it an interesting listen. It’s even a little bit country on Ways, which has a hook worthy of any Nashville hitmaker. Sick veers into fist-pumping rock-song territory except it’s done almost all a cappella, which gives it an unusual twist. The techno-tinged Bitter Sweet Heart (co-written with J. Gray) is another standout with its pretty chorus.

Talsky’s voice is warm and appealing – powerful when needed, at times pure and sweet – and her style is refreshingly free of artifice. Her singing and arranging skills really shine on the unaccompanied pieces (like her take on Alanis Morissette’s You Oughta Know, the only cover) where it’s all her – no other singers, no band – and it’s impressive.

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