03a JesseCook LibreLibre
Jesse Cook
Coach House Music (jessecook.com)

Matt Sellick and friends
Independent (mattsellick.com)

Two Canadian guitarists, renowned for their flamenco-based music that incorporates other musical influences, both have exciting new releases.

My online research shows that flamenco guitar music originated in Spain and is comprised of singing, dancing, guitar and percussive rhythms enhanced by hand claps, foot stomping and the like. Musician/composer/producer Jesse Cook performs his Spanish guitar stylings with amazing Algerian multi-instrumentalist Fethi Nadjem, modern trap rhythms and 808 beats in ten tracks, exploring new sounds based in flamenco tradition with touches of jazz, pop and world music. Seven tracks are composed by Cook. Number 5 has the repeated distant spoken words “number five” as Cook’s mellow single line guitar transforms into virtuosic melody with runs.

Nadjem’s entry adds a different colour to the guitar lines leading to tight violin and guitar improvisations above the rhythms. Love the traditional palmas hand-clapping rhythms with the guitar/violin playing in the upbeat Jaleo. The title track has more radio-friendly tonal singalong guitar above simpler drum grooves. Three Cook/Nadjem co-compositions here include Hey! featuring more rock music sentiments with flamenco flourishes, dance-along rhythm grooves and ascending violin lines. Guest performers also appear on select tracks. Cook’s and Nadjem’s sky-high precise conversational playing, and Cook’s musicianship and technical/production expertise, make for outstanding original music.

Listen to 'Libre' Now in the Listening Room

03b Matt SellickYounger flamenco guitarist/composer Matt Sellick’s fourth solo album is also superb. Having moved – aka uprooted – to Toronto from Thunder Bay, Sellick builds on his own original intense flamenco sound in collaboration with some of his favourite Toronto musicians here, including Jesse Cook with whom he tours internationally. Sellick plays solo on the opening Quiet World highlighted by technically challenging fast runs with slight spaces between phrases, as if two musicians were playing. Upbeat High Park is a happy-fast flamenco guitar walk/dance in the park grounded by electric bass (Dan Minchom) and rhythmic cajón and palmas (Matias Recharte). Cook is featured on Soot and his characteristic guitar strums and fast melodious solo lines add his personal touch to Sellick’s rocking earworm flamenco sound. Full-band sound is surprisingly created with just Sellick’s guitar and Marito Marques’ percussion in the faster duet Going Home. Colourful high- and low-pitched guitar alternating melodic phrases and strums above drums build intensity to the accented closing. Saxophonist Chelsea McBride is also featured on one track.

Thank you to Jesse Cook and Matt Sellick for admirably expanding and recording their uplifting flamenco guitar sounds during these difficult COVID pandemic times.

Listen to 'Uprooted' Now in the Listening Room

01 bill mcbirnie w13h6Forever
Bill McBirnie; Bruce Jones
Extreme Flute EF09-EP (extremeflute.com)

This is the third Extreme Flute release, and on this new musical salvo, all of the compositions were penned by Bruce Jones, who also produces, performs on guitar, percussion and synths. Co-producer Bill McBirnie performs masterfully here on flute and alto flute, along with Robin Latimer on electric bass. As COVID was in full throttle during the actual recording of this CD, the production process was complex, and involved countless exchanges of sound files between McBirnie and Jones. The material here has a lovely Brazilian bent – purposely chosen by McBirnie and Jones for the music’s healing and optimistic properties in a time of global pandemic.

First up is Criole Blessing (Saravá Criola), a lilting, reggae-infused samba that generates pure joy and features gymnastic soloing from McBirnie and a potent rhythmic background from Jones. Also a stunner is the legato and sensual samba, dedicated to McBirnie’s wife, Song for Svetlana (Um Choro Para Svetlana) which is rife with lovely exchanges between alto flute and guitar.

Of special mention is the delightful, contemporized bossa, It’s the Time (Saber Se Amar) in which McBirnie soars over the chord changes and rhythmic patterns of this thoroughly elating tune, and also  Dreams and Light (Canta Canção) a beautiful balladic bossa with a thrilling rhythmic backbone and mystical percussion.

The closer, Full Moon Blue Wolf (Lua Cheia Lobo Azul) features deep Brazilian-inspired vocals by the multi-talented Jones and McBirnie’s dynamic and elastic soloing in concentric circles of melody and percussion.

02 big space 2 ai4lvIn Relation To
Big Space
Independent (bigspaceband.com)

The latest Big Space album, In Relation To, is equal parts technically impressive and refreshingly easy on the ears. Tastefully incorporating elements of math-rock, post-rock and funk into their blend of fusion, the trio’s firm grasp of the songwriting process is consistently on display. Despite recording live in studio with no overdubbing, the airtight rhythm section, composed of drummer Ashley Chalmers, bassist Ian Murphy and guitarist Grant King, manage to remain in near-perfect lockstep with each other throughout. Thankfully, their outstanding proficiency as a unit doesn’t end up as a vehicle for listless noodling. Instead, it greatly enhances the overall clarity of the musical ideas. The track Relevator is a masterclass in tension and release. Largely buoyed by the tandem of Chalmers and Murphy, Big Space repeatedly establishes a memorable, stripped-down groove that eventually builds to multiple, expertly realized climaxes. During these synchronized bursts of sublime energy, King’s commanding solos manage to spearhead the band’s gargantuan sound without once crossing the line into overplaying. The musicians’ combination of precision and restraint along with their knack for melody writing gives In Relation To a distinct, beguiling quality.

03 amir elsaffar ucvzyAmir ElSaffar – The Other Shore
Rivers of Sound Orchestra; Amir Elsaffar
Outhere Music OTN 640 (outhere-music.com)

Amir ElSaffar’s exquisite recording begins – most appropriately – in the wispy smoke of a prayer (Dhuha), heralding that time when the sun is at its zenith. The ululations of his near falsetto voice are the perfect setting for this supernatural music. ElSaffar is an astute composer, vocalist and trumpeter who also plays the santur, a Middle Eastern version of the zither. 

What is most remarkable about this music is its swirling, alchemical fusion of mugami modes, mystical, microtonal music that stands in stark contrast to the Western pentatonic scale. That ElSaffar has managed to gather together a group of musicians from diverse backgrounds who play his proverbial Zen – or Sufi – creations with idiomatic brilliance is a testament not just to the musicians who play it, but also to the fact that ElSaffar can write music from such a deep niche while still having universal appeal. 

Part of the reason for that is that humanity is riven by a universal, existential angst that has literally ripped humanity apart. ElSaffar intends for us to listen with our hearts; to make amends and be transformed into more spiritual beings. 

To this end his suite leads us onward and upward. His swirling dervish-like Concentric drives us to what Plato once called divine madness. The composer suggests this magical state may be attained with Medmi, the mesmerizing contemplative finale of this singularly eloquent and symphonic work that takes us to The Other Shore.

04 the fretless y7gsmOpen House
The Fretless
Birthday Cake BDAY037CD (thefretless.com)

Canadian Juno award-winning string quartet The Fretless is Trent Freeman (fiddle/viola), Karrnnel Sawitsky (fiddle/viola) Ben Plotnick (fiddle/viola) and Eric Wright (cello). Each member is a technical and musical virtuoso. Together they transform stereotypical classical ensemble instrumental and roots music sounds into new sonic forms. The Fretless continue their musical explorations in this, their sixth release, collaborating with vibrant powerful singers on ten tracks of carefully chosen, arranged, performed and produced covers. 

The arrangements are clearly influenced by a wide range of styles. Retrograde, featuring Ruth Moody, is a slower work with held string notes, melodies and plucks colourfully mixing with Moody’s vocals and closing humming. Dirty Work is a short dramatic new take on the Steely Dan tune with Freddie & Francine singing fast clean vocals against repeated instrumental grooves and a guitar solo reminiscent background strings. Less intense instrumentals put the spotlight on The Bros. Landreth singing their own Let it Lie, another more straightforward roots rendition. Alessia Cara’s Stay gets upbeat, rocking wailing by Nuela Charles as the quartet supports with repeated chordal textures and held low-note swells. Closing track Fall Away Blues, with guests Red Tail Ring, including its composer Laurel Premo, has classical music reminiscent of background strings and countermelodies until a fast flourish mid-section with a bit of welcome instrumental improv showcasing the quartet’s diverse talents. 

Thank you to The Fretless for providing the vocalists the opportunity to develop and record songs with them. Outstanding music.

05 caroline wiles z1xztGrateful
Caroline Wiles
Independent (carolinewiles.com)

Ontario-based, self-taught musician and songwriter Caroline Wiles performs her musical heart out with lush lead and harmony vocals, and clear guitar/harmonica playing in her fifth release, Grateful. Nine tracks are her own compositions, which run the sound spectrum from 60s-70s-80s’ flavoured pop to country, and one Gordon Lightfoot cover, all recorded by her longtime Hamilton, Grant Avenue Studio producer/bassist/multi-instrumentalist Bob Doidge. 

Wiles’ melodies and storytelling lyrics are heartwarming. A highlight is the earworm title track Grateful, dedicated to her sister, featuring positive real-life sentiments like “I am so grateful for you,” a feeling we can all relate to. Make a Memory with Me is an upbeat 70s tune with wide-ranging high/low pitched vocals and singalong la-la-la sections. What Could Have Been is a radio-friendly pop song with a solo voice alternating with her own group vocals singing “I may never win” to a final held note. Country style Lovey Dovey, has solo and full harmonic sung sections and full band instrumentals featuring Shane Guse fiddle backdrop and solo interludes. It is so admirable that Wiles has recorded her first-ever cover, Gordon Lightfoot’s Talking in Your Sleep, as a respectful tribute to the Canadian icon. Her perfect diction and vocal colours are emotional as bandmember Amy King’s vocal harmony/solo piano stylings keep the mood. Lightfoot has complimented Wiles for all her performances here.

Precise intonation, smooth rich vocal colour, enthusiastic instrumental performances and easy listening songs make Grateful a release for listeners of all ages.

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