02 Janice Jo LeeAncestor Song
Janice Jo Lee
Independent (janicejolee.ca)

Multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Janice Jo Lee has had seven years between albums, during which time she has peeled away several layers of her former self in order to lay bare her spiritual, political, cultural and environmental bones. Lee, a well-known artist in both Kitchener and Toronto, is more than music. A poet, folk artist, improvisor, facilitator, creator and comedy workshop leader, she is nearing the height of her powers in this latest album, a beautiful collaboration with another Ontario native, producer JoJo Worthington.

Overture: Ancestral Song opens the album with a medley similar to the opening of a musical, leading into Oil in the Grand, a story of contamination on the Grand River, with beautiful vocal harmonies. Here I am is Lee’s statement of her new anthem of taking space and commanding control of her own power. Moonlight Tide is fun and slightly campy, featuring Lee’s poetic lyrics and vocal range. She Looked like Me is a folk-inspired gem about her ancestral Korean heritage, but could be an anthem to anyone feeling disconnected from their own lineage. Swim Forever features Korean lyrics to a strongly rhythmic melody and features the beautiful flugelhorn playing of Rudy Ray (probably my favourite track on the album). The jazzy Crumpled Heart Unfolding and Account Ability, the folksy Child Inside and her vocal looping on Take Space, the catchy Ancestral Song itself, and the power rock-inspired closer Patient as the Land will give you the vast range of Lee’s style, skill and passion.

03 Babylonia SuiteBabylonia Suite
Ilios Steryannis; Sundar Viswanathan; Jessica Deutsch; Nawras Nader
Independent (iliosjazz.ca)

The names Babylonia Suite and Ilios Steryannis are incorporated into the circumference of a pictogram on the top right-hand corner of this CD cover. This otherwise rather unobtrusive icon of a tree with spreading roots and branches that seem to be encapsulated by both title and name is both intriguing and revealing. For in these roots and branches – fascinating in their ancient modes and modern interpretations – lies a thrilling musical ride. 

You are treated to a series of works that begin with the title song Babylonia itself. The tumbling Middle Eastern groove oscillates between a 6/4 and a 12/8 pulse and sets the tone for the rest of the disc. The first six songs make up the narrative suite of the title that spans the cultural topography of the ancient region which Steryannis’ maternal ancestors once called home. 

The drummer has, of course, called Canada home for many years, but like so many Canadians celebrates diversity as he knows best. His Greek-Hebrew culture unfolds as if in a parade of Middle- and Near-Eastern street musicians whose passionate ululating melodies, eloquent harmonies and infectious rhythms emerge through a modern vortex.  

While Steryannis has sought to celebrate the ancient origins of his maternal heritage this music is far from a sentimental journey written in odd metres. The brawny, polyrhythmic Blue Rumba, meditative Sun Song and vivid 400 North and Laplante also reveal a composer with a refined, multi-dimensional melodic voice.

04 Sybarite5Collective Wisdom
Bright Shiny Things (brightshiny.ninja)

New York string quintet Sybarite5 is back with their first studio album in five years performing nine single movement tracks combining classical, contemporary, improvisations and folk sounds. The two original band members double bassist Louis Levitt and violinist Sami Merdinian are now joined by three new members – violinist Suliman Tekalli, violist Caeli Smith and cellist Laura Andrade. 

Paul Sanho Kim’s arrangement of Punch Brothers’ Movement and Location is zippy with repeated violin fast lines, grooves and ideas keeping listeners enthralled. Three short Komitas Armenian Folk Songs are arranged by Sybarite5’s Merdinian (himself of Armenian heritage). In The Red Shawl a yearning sense is depicted by low held strings with above lines. Spring is tearjerking, with slow and solemn low bass held notes and gradual instrumental entries. Oh Nazan features a faster rhythmic hopeful opening with high pitched lines.  

Tight ensemble playing featuring Greek melodies with reggae rhythms embodies Curtis Stewart’s Mangas. Jessica Meyer’s Slow Burn is held together by similar danceable ideas in different sections. Composed earlier during a period of loss, Pedro Giraudo’s own arrangement of his Con un nudo en la garganta is a slow dark tango that builds to closing intensity. Michael Gilbertson’s Collective Wisdom third movement starts with snappy percussive string pizzicatos that continue to add tension until the sudden accented loud closing with bangs. Jackson Greenberg’s so different Apartments has rain, coffee machines, AM radio news sound and electronics while each musician is given the freedom to play their lines as they wish.

Sybarite5 brilliantly play breathtaking music to be enjoyed over and over.

01 OKANOkantomi
Lula World Records LWR036A (okanmusica.com)

The luminous duo of Canadian-Cuban musician/composers Elizabeth Rodriguez (vocalist and violinist) and Magdelys Savigne (vocalist and percussionist) are more widely known as Okan, and have already established themselves as the international co-ruling reinas of Afro-Cuban Music. With their latest release, not only have they composed nearly all of the material here, but they have incorporated the propulsive talents of their core ensemble into the CD (bassist Roberto Riveron, drummer Frank Martinez, keyboardist Jeremy Ledbetter and synthesizerist Miguel de Armas). Additionally, they have invited a staggering number of talented guests into their masterful recording. The compositions are all creatively connected to Mother Earth and are universal in their appeal. The deep emotional and musical verity of Okan challenges us to think and feel beyond boundaries.

The opening salvo is the incendiary Eshu Nigüe (Elegua), which thrusts us into the rich culture of West Africa, rife with magic and power and the fascinating fusion of Latin modalities with the rhythms of the ancestors. Quick on its heels is the stunning vocal duet, La Reina Del Norte featuring the relentless percussion of Reimundo Sosa and Emadio Dedue, as well as ridiculous violin work from Rodriguez. The title tune takes a sultry, contemporary twist with superb contributions from guitarist Elmer Ferrer.

Other stunners include the sumptuous, No Volvi, and the gorgeous, classically infused Preludio y Changui composed by Fritz Kreisler with stunning performances by Katherine Knowles on cello, Lara St. John and Rodriguez on violin, Matthew Giorlami on double bass and Sarah Di Niverville on viola. This irresistible recording is an invigorating, pure and potent project, as well as a triumph of Afro-Cuban fusion.

02 ErasEras
Randy Raine-Reusch; Michael Red
HMR3 Productions (isla.bandcamp.com/album/eras)

Veteran Vancouver-based multi-instrumentalist, composer and world music pioneer Randy Raine-Reusch and electronic musician, composer and DJ Michael Red join forces in six deep sonic meditations on Eras

The project has a fascinating backstory: back to 2014 when Red met Raine-Reusch in the latter’s home- world instrument-museum. Raine-Reusch is not only a noted instrument collector but has also spent his career studying and playing them. He specializes in performing and composing experimental music for instruments from around the world, particularly those from Asia.

During their 2014 recording session, Raine-Reusch chose various acoustic instruments from his vast collection including Asian flutes and various string zithers, African harps, and gongs. Adopting an intuitive interactive process, the duo recorded their finely-grained and honed improvisations, Red electronically processing them. The album was completed over the course of several days, but rather than immediately releasing it, they chose to leave it “to mature and distil.” The duo decided to finalize Eras this year, being “careful to preserve the direct and intuitive process that permeates the recording.”

Evocative track titles such as Five Names of Peace, Shifting Silence, Inner World and Winter Water capture the meditative, slowly flowing focus of the music. Between Is Six, the opening track, sets the tone with Raine-Reusch’s sensitive breath-centred sounds made on a low flute, sensitively modulated over the stereo sound stage by Red. And the last album sound is the most exquisitely languid fadeout I’ve heard all year. 

How to sum up the music on Eras? Rather than New Age, descriptors such as shadow worlds, sonic incantations and dreamtime may make more sense.

03 Vandana Vishwas KabeeraKabeera The Thinker
Vandana Vishwas
Independent VV004 (vandanavishwas.com)

After a couple of albums in which Vandana Vishwas bent like a reed in the wind, allowing her Indian cultural topography to collide with her experience of Western contemporary music, the luminous-voiced singer looks inward, to the ancient Indian roots that sustain her artistry. 

The album, Kabeera – The Thinker… takes the poetry of the 15th-century Northern Indian mystic, Kabir but sets it to music with a wholly modern sensibility. 

Vishwas’ lofty vocals seem to create a stratospheric atmosphere in keeping with the mysticism of the lyricist and central character of these songs – that is Kabir whose philosophical minstrelsy (at the height of his powers) is purported to have dramatically altered religious thought not simply within Hinduism, but also among Sikhism. Remarkably, so deeply mystical were Kabir’s verses that he was also embraced by the Muslim Sufi, who shared a similar mystical relationship with God.

Much of Kabir’s poetic output was originally written in Bhojpuri, a Northern Indian dialect in the region where Kabir was born and raised. It is a testament to the preservation of Indian culture that Bhojpuri is still in use in that linguistic heartland, where wandering minstrels still write lyrics to their devotional songs.

The music of Kabeera – The Thinker… may have a more focussed appeal as Vishwas sings all the lyrics in Hindi. But her lustrous voice is seductive, beckoning listeners to dig deeper into the world of this legendary Indian mystic.

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