01 Natalie MacMasterCanvas
Natalie McMaster; Donnell Leahy
Linus Entertainment 270787 (natalieanddonnell.com) 

Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy have long been considered Canada’s reigning power couple of Celtic music. With their latest project (released on St. Patrick’s Day) the virtuosic fiddle duo expands the boundaries of traditional Celtic modalities by embracing global sounds with the help of diverse, world-class guest artists, framed with innovative, contemporary arrangements. Many of the 13 tracks here have been penned by MacMaster, Leahy and co-producer, exquisite guitarist, Elmer Ferrer. 

The opening title track is a pulsing wall of sound, parenthesized by thrilling segments of MacMaster and Leahy’s masterful fiddle work, which seamlessly segues into the dynamic, Colour Theory featuring Brian Finnegan on both flute and Irish whistle. Other delights include the joyous Dance Arnold Dance, which incorporates a fine horn section, and Woman of the House which features noted Celtic vocalist Rhiannon Giddens, who dives deep into the emotional history of the Irish and Scottish settlers in Canada, and both the joy and pain of their exile. 

Iconic cellist, Yo-Yo Ma, brings his soulful presence to So You Love – a diaphanous, heart-rending and deeply moving ballad performed here with perfection, displaying a sinuous string trio of Ma, MacMaster and Leahy. Additionally stunning is the addition of Josemi Carmona’s flamenco guitar on both Galicia and Caramelo, which celebrates the deep, ancient Celtic connections in Spain, and The Laird O’Bemersyde where MacMaster and Leahy’s fiddles and ensemble literally weep with longing. A truly inspired recording guaranteed to move even the coldest heart.

02 Stranger StillThe Songs That Are
Stranger Still
All Set! Editions AS016 (all-set.bandcamp.com) 

First gaining recognition as a jazz bassist/composer, Pete Johnston has gradually revealed other facets of his creative imagination. Stranger Still is a song project, a quartet devoted to settings of the distinguished Maritime poet Alden Nowlan (1933-1983), like Johnston once a resident of Hants County, Nova Scotia. Johnston plays acoustic and electric guitars and banjo here and occasionally sings as well, along with the clarion principal singers Mim Adams and Randi Helmers and bassist Rob Clutton.   

For the group’s second Nowlan collection, Johnston continues to refine his art, continuing to develop an idiom that falls principally in a British folk tradition, but which has expanded its range to suggest medieval plainsong along with touches of the richer harmonic vocabulary of jazz. There’s a fundamental affinity between Johnston’s music and Nowlan’s poetry, a clarity and direct address with subtle nuances of diction and musical phrasing that continually surprise. Nowlan’s poetry can comfortably set a mythic theme in a commonplace home: in I, Icarus the narrator explains, “My room was on the ground floor at the rear of the house.” In the instrumental introduction to the opening Snapshot, guitar and bass fuse into a single instrument. Johnston occasionally augments the quartet in surprising ways, adding organist (and singer) Andrew Killawee to bring substantial power and depth, notably to The Bhikku, adding cathedral-like grandeur and harmonium wail to an Eastern theme.  

Johnston is developing as distinctly Canadian an art-form as one might conceive.

03 Marc JordanWaiting for the Sun to Rise
Marc Jordan
Linus Entertainment 270730 (marcjordan.com)

Marc Jordan is a member of a very small, select group – Canadian artists who have garnered recognition and success beyond our borders and represented Canada on the global stage with their skill, originality, artistic integrity and creativity. Jordan’s latest release, which was produced and arranged by Lou Pomanti and co-produced by Jordan, is yet another shining example not only of Jordan’s gifts as a poet, composer and musician, but also of his ineffable taste and understanding of the essential need for human communication through the arts.

The majority of the 12 tracks here were written by Jordan in collaboration with Pomanti, Steven MacKinnon, John Capek and Bruce Gaitsch – with a few treats from Jimmy Webb, Tears For Fears, Blue Nile’s Paul Buchanan and Pomanti. The irresistible project kicks off with The Last Buffalo, which features lush, contrapuntal strings and segues seamlessly into Best Day of My Life – a moving romantic ballad, lovingly rendered by Jordan and featuring a sumptuous trumpet solo by the iconic Randy Brecker. Coltrane Plays the Blues invokes Jordan’s famous “after-hours netherworld” zone.

The inveigling title track is both visual and potent – a song in search of a film – and Rio Grande explores the damage that has been done to Mother Earth, as well as an invitation to BE the changeas we measure our hope against the eco crisis at hand. Other tasty delights here include the soulful Tell Me Where it Hurts, Jimmy Webb’s The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress, performed with Jordan’s distinctive, sensitive style, and the luminous arrangement and performance of Buchanan’s The Downtown Lights. In short, this is a triumph of a recording from a world-class artist, performing at the peak of his skills – rife with creativity, talent and insight.

04 Bruno Capinan Tara RaraTara Rara
Bruno Capinan
Independent (capinan.com) 

Bruno Capinan (they/them) is a Brazilian-Canadian singer and songwriter whose music combines traditional Brazilian rhythms with contemporary pop and rock influences. For Tara Rara, their sixth album, they delve into stories and sounds stemming from their home state of Bahia. 

Since all the songs are in Portuguese, those of us who don’t speak that language won’t be able to literally understand the songs, but the emotions come through via Capinan’s expressive singing. Capinan has explained that the inspiration for Tara Rara, which means rare desire, came to them in a dream about two enslaved men who fell in love on a slave ship travelling from Africa to Brazil. The themes of the songs relate to love, pain, childhood memories, reclamation, catharsis and heritage.

Musically, there is plenty to appreciate with pretty melodies and infectious rhythms plus beautiful string, woodwind and horn accompaniments throughout. Much credit goes to producer Vivian Kuczynski, who also mixed, arranged and played keyboard, synthesizer and guitar on all the tracks. The album opens with Ode ao Povo Brasileiro (Ode to the Brazilian People), a polyrhythmic tune that blends traditional Brazilian percussion with modern electronic sounds. From there, the album explores a range of styles, including the haunting Deuses Deusas, the gently swinging samba Meu Preto and the danceable Mafua. Fans of Brazilian music will find much to enjoy on this dynamic and eclectic album.

05a Gamelan 4Gamelan Music of Cirebon Indonesia Volume 4
Gamelan Sinar Surya

Gamelan Music of Cirebon Indonesia Volume 7
Gamelan Sinar Surya

Gamelan Melayu – Traditional Gamelan Music Of Malaysia
Gamelan Sinar Surya
Independent (gamelan.bandcamp.com)

Gamelan Sinar Surya (Javanese for Rays of the Sun), a collective of 16 musicians and dancers from Santa Barbara, California, has a unique artistic mission. Directed by the indefatigable musician, music director, teacher and cultural activist Richard North, for decades the group has been dedicated to the preservation, performance and dissemination of the traditional performing arts of Cirebon, located on the northcentral coast of the island of Java, Indonesia. Cirebon is a cultural region with deep historic roots, richly endowed with dynamically evolving artistic traditions. North made his first visit to Cirebon in 1976 and his reaction to what he experienced was profound. “I immediately fell in love with the culture, especially the music.” 

Gamelan Sinar Surya (GSS)’s practice centres on the music played on numerous kinds of the indigenous gamelan, which can be described as an orchestra of various hanging gongs, gongchimes, metallophones, a xylophone, flutes, drums and sometimes other instruments and voices. Of GSS’ three newest releases, two are dedicated to the performance of traditional Cirebon gamelan repertoire, while the third explores the different gamelan music performed on the Malaysian mainland.

Gamelan Music of Cirebon, Indonesia: Volume 4 includes music played on four types of Cirebonese gamelan; each with its own tuning, playing style, character and a bespoke repertoire. Many of the instrumental pieces played by these antique gamelans are rarely heard today. For instance, the tracks Abduhu and Bragalan illustrate one of the reasons: the great age of some of these works. They originated in the Javanese sultanate of Banten, founded by Sunan Gunung Jati before he became the second king of Cirebon in 1479 CE. Abduhu and Bragalan are played on the seven-tone gamelan pelog forming part of the repertoire of the vanished Banten shadow-puppet theatre.

05b Gamelan 7Gamelan Music of Cirebon Volume 7- Live Concert was recorded in front of a live audience in Santa Barbara. GSS’ seventh album includes pieces from the characteristically bright and cheerful five-tone gamelan prawa repertoire. The outlier here is the lilting, spare Timang Burung from the Malaysian gamelan tradition, instrumental music which typically accompanies a dance depicting a princess awaiting the arrival of a bird of paradise in a palace garden. The track Moblong is a further example of North’s underlying mission. A delicate classical melody from the gamelan prawa repertoire, it is traditionally played to calm the bride in a royal wedding at the Kacirebonan Palace. North learned it in the 1980s from the palace arts director, Pangeran Haji Yusuf Dendabrata. On returning to Cirebon after a 17-year absence he was surprised to find no living musicians who knew the piece. This recording is part of an initiative to re-introduce it to the Cirebon repertoire.

05c Gamelan MelayuGamelan Melayu: Traditional Gamelan Music of Malaysia

With deep historical roots on the Indonesian islands of Java and Bali, gamelan music performance has over the last few hundred years spread to other cultural spaces – and eventually around the world, including Canada – adapted into scores of distinct regional styles. Gamelan Melayu is one of a constellation of treasured Malaysian arts, the music linked to elaborate royal dances known collectively as joged gamelan, back in the day performed in the palaces of Malay sultans. Despite its centuries-old pedigree, gamelan Melayu is relatively unknown among the global music community. Richard North studied this rare gamelan style in 1980 with the well-known Malaysian joged gamelan expert Marion d’Cruz. After a long wait, this is GSS’ first album to feature this melody-forward music. Listeners get a privileged glimpse into music imbued with a distinctive delicate regional charm, convincingly rendered.

01 Both Sides of JoniBoth Sides of Joni
Janiece Jaffe; Monika Herzig
Acme Records JM001 (acmerecords.com)

There is no question that Joni Mitchell is a member of a small coterie of artists who have contributed to the very ethos of 21st century music itself (in all of its splendid diversity). Mitchell’s synesthesiac blendings of unconventional melodies, chordal structures and contemporary poetry have touched our hearts and minds, and it’s the eclectic nature of Mitchell’s work that has lent itself to a variety of tributes. With this posthumous release from award-winning vocalist Janiece Jaffe and pianist/arranger Monika Herzig, Mitchell’s work is interpreted with a fresh, jazz-oriented perspective, which includes stalwart performances from noted jazz artists Greg Ward on saxophone, Jeremy Allen on bass, Carolyn Dutton on violin and Cassius Goens on drums.

Included in this compelling recording are Herzig’s innovative arrangements of Mitchell’s most commercially successful songs, as well as some lesser-performed gems. First up is Help Me, which features a melodious, a cappella sax intro which then segues into a rhythmic, swinging musical tapestry replete with stunningly beautiful multi-track vocals from Jaffe. Jaffe’s voice is a delight to the ear. Her clear, pitch-perfect tones embrace the melody and charge it with meaning and Goens’ relentless drums and Ward’s improvisational choices propel this superb track.

The title track is rife with emotional content – exploring the nature of hindsight and regret, and Mitchell’s melancholy River (from Blue) has been cleverly arranged by Herzig. My Old Man is a total delight, warm and ebullient with well-chosen chord substitutions, fully embracing jazz motifs and featuring a solid electric bass solo from Peter Kienle and lighter-than-air soprano work from Ward. The Hissing of Summer Lawns is a triumph in every way – transporting Mitchell’s intent to a whole new dimension of free jazz featuring an energizing piano solo by Herzig. Also of special note is The Circle Game – presented here with a profound innocence and pristine vocal. Although Jaffe died suddenly prior to this release, her vision and musicality will be celebrated with extensive tours in the U.S. and Europe featuring New York City chanteuse Alexis Cole.  

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