06 Kiran Ahluwalia7 Billion
Kiran Ahluwalia
Independent KM2018 (kiranmusic.com)

Steeped in the vocal traditions of India and Pakistan, Kiran Ahluwalia has, in the course of six albums, restlessly explored world music genres featuring collaborations with Celtic fiddler Natalie MacMaster, Malian group Tinariwen, Portuguese fado masters and jazz guitarist Rez Abbasi. Her discs have garnered her two JUNO Awards and other significant accolades.

Over six songs, with music and lyrics by Ahluwalia, 7 Billion explores yet more musical crossroads in search of the human condition with the help of her five-piece band of electric guitar, electric bass, keyboards, tabla and drum kit. “When you take different styles and merge them together… then you’re really developing a new hybrid genre,” Ahluwalia says. “For me it’s important to blur the musical boundaries between my Indian background, influences from Western sounds and… Mali. It’s incredibly invigorating when I feel a connection in expressions from different cultures and then figure out ways to connect them seamlessly in my music,” she states. Her lyrics speak of realizing female desire without shame, the perils of love, and raging against the institutionalization of religion.

Recorded in a Toronto studio, Ahluwalia’s We Sinful Women caps the album. Its lyrics use a 1991 Urdu feminist poem by Kishwar Naheed (translated by Rukhsana Ahmad, the Pakistani novelist, playwright and poet). A powerful indictment of male oppression of women, it’s also a rocker with a hook-y chorus, with room to feature driving jazz breaks by electric guitarist Abbasi and organist Louis Simao. It’s worth another listen.

07 Michael KaeshammerSomething New
Michael Kaeshammer
Linus Entertainment 270337 (linusentertainment.com)

There can be no question that talented pianist and vocalist Michael Kaeshammer has been on a trajectory of excellence since his first JUNO nomination in 2001. Having entered the jazz world as a wunderkind, Kaeshammer is now a fully realized mature artist, and with his latest release (which he also produced) he has plumbed the depths of the New Orleans sound. He is bolstered on this heady trip down South by some of the finest jazz musicians on either side of the Mason-Dixon Line, including Cyril Neville, George Porter Jr., legendary drummer Johnny Vidacovich, Mike Dillon, the New Orleans Nightcrawlers Brass Band and bassist David Piltch. Other noted guests include Colin James, Randy Bachman, Curtis Salgado, Jim Byrnes, Amos Garrett and Chuck Leavell of the Rolling Stones.

Of the original 11 tracks on this CD, ten were penned by Kaeshammer and all were recorded at the historic Esplanade Studios, located in the heart of New Orleans’ Treme District. Kaeshammer has unapologetically blurred the musical lines here between boogie-woogie, trad jazz, blues, straight ahead jazz, Zydeco and more. The CD kicks off with Scenic Route. On this groovy cooker, Kaeshammer sings with a new depth and intensity. The tight horn section and relentless, skilled drumming from Vidacovich make this track a standout.

Also wonderful is Do You Believe – where meaty vocals and harmonica from Salgado and the brilliant horn arrangement by saxophonist/pianist Phil Dwyer ensure that this track is a thing of beauty. Also of note is the melancholy Weimar, which parenthesizes the project, and puts Kaeshammer’s lyrical and romantic piano chops firmly on centre stage.

08 Lake street Dive Free Yourself UpFree Yourself Up
Lake Street Dive
Nonesuch 2 567158 (nonesuch.com)

I first came across Lake Street Dive when I caught their (viral) YouTube cover of The Jackson Five hit I Want You Back, shot live on a street in Boston. I was immediately drawn in by lead singer Rachael Price’s throaty, soulful voice. Add to that the four-piece band’s tight vocal harmonies, groove and cohesion and I was hooked. But that was six years ago when doing cool covers in jazzy/R&B style was their main thing. Now the group’s songwriting is at the fore with their latest release, Free Yourself Up, and their sound has shifted to a more swaggering electric/soul/pop feel. Vocal harmonies, however, are still a strong and endearing feature of the band.

Bass player Bridget Kearney (formerly of Joy Kills Sorrow) did most of the songwriting on the album either alone or with bandmate Mike Olson (trumpet, guitars). Her specialty is breakup songs and she and the band manage to make them driving and soulful yet still melodic, as in Good Kisser and the beautiful Musta Been Something. The songs co-written by Olson and drummer Mike Calabrese are lyrically a little more insouciant but still clever, as in the very funky Red Light Kisses and Doesn’t Even Matter Now. Generally the album is a head-bopping ride and I bet this band would be a lot of fun to see live. Details of their extensive tour – including a stop in Toronto on June 25 as part of the TD Toronto Jazz Festival – can be found at LakeStreetDive.com.

01 Minor EmpireUprooted (Turkish traditional music reimagined)
Minor Empire
World Trip Records WTR002 (minorempire.net)

Minor Empire, the Toronto group at the vanguard of Turkish-based world music in the country, is led by singer-songwriter Ozgu Ozman and electric guitarist and synth programmer Ozan Boz. Founded in 2010, the band attracted kudos early on for its debut recording Second Nature. It garnered several significant Canadian Folk Music and Independent Music awards. It’s been touring ever since. The same qualities which propelled the band to the top of the Canadian world music radio charts – Ozman’s limpid renditions of traditional Turkish folk songs and her own compositions with Turkish lyrics, accompanied by Boz’s electro-funk soundscapes – also serve Minor Empire very well in Uprooted. Exclaim! cited the music’s “slinky, duby… rhythms” while other reviewers have tagged it dreamy, trip-hop-inspired and stylishly hip.

However you categorize it, the star here is Ozman’s voice. Her use of characteristic Turkish vocal ornamentation in the songs, sung in Turkish, is relaxed yet focused, warm and expressive even to those unfamiliar with the language. A large part of this music’s accessibility to general Canadian audiences is no doubt due to Boz’s studio-savvy vernacular-infused settings. The presence of notable band members in Uprooted – guitarist Michael Occhipinti, bassist Chris Gartner, drummers Ben Riley and Mark Kelso, percussionist Patrick Graham and several other guest musicians – also confirms those positive assessments.

Even if you don’t understand a word of Ozman’s lyrics, you’re still in trusted, satisfyingly hip musical hands here.

02 Polka DogsThe Bee
Polka Dogs
Happy Day Records HDR 404 (thepolkadogs.com)

It’s been nearly 25 years since the category-defying Polka Dogs first burst onto the Toronto scene with their unique mashup of irresistible tunes, made all the more magical by their non-standard instrumentation of banjo, accordion, tuba, trombone and drums. Following their debut, the group soon became an integral part of the downtown entertainment scene, and they joyously oompah-ed, sang, blew and strummed their way into the nostalgia of post-80s hipsters.

On the venerable ensemble’s brand new offering, producer/banjoist/vocalist John Millard has once again composed the majority of the material, with additional contributions from Martha Ross and Tom Walsh. The talented Polka Dogs include Colin Couch on tuba, Tiina Kiik on accordion, Millard on banjo, Walsh on trombone and Ambrose Pottie on drums. This project has been beautifully recorded by Mike Haas in Toronto, and also by John Dinsmore and Andrew Penner at the Lincoln County Social Club.

The opener, Beardy Boy, has a joyous melody, snappy arrangement and clever, heart-warming lyrics. Of special note is tubaist Couch, who has superb intonation and articulation, and provides a steadfast yet pliant and swinging bass line throughout. Standout tracks include Peaceful and Quiet – rife with Brechtian nuances; The Bells, a feverish, tango-inspired tour-de-force for trombonist/vocalist Walsh; and also the sweetly nostalgic (and totally schmaltz-free) 1981. Millard’s masterful arrangement of the title track begins with an eerie brass drone and skeletal banjo riffs, until the group creeps in with intervals of fourths, embodying contemporary existential angst and a general disconnect from nature. This is a truly satisfying recording that captures vital and relevant musical artists in motion – engaging the future.

Listen to 'The Bee' Now in the Listening Room

03 SoarSoar
Catrin Finch; Seckou Keita
bendigedig (bendigedig.org)

Listening to the music of Welsh harpist Catrin Finch and the Senegalese kora player Seckou Keita on their disc Soar, you immediately become part of a soundscape that mixes beauty and visceral energy. It seems as if the multitude of fingers – and the voice of Keita – combine with an ethereal sense of harmonic delineation so that Téranga-Bah (for instance) unfolds with visceral passion and musicality, overt embellishments oscillating between insightful amplification of emotions and mellifluous distractions. Finch’s supple facility for rapid passagework is also to the fore in Bach to Baïsso, as is Keita’s contrapuntal communicative articulacy, and there is pathos aplenty in Listen to the Grass Grow.

The virtuosic performances by both musicians are breathtaking during the three-quarters of an hour of music, as it continues to echo in the perfection in the strings’ intonation as their youthful volcanic talents play with theatrical tautness and élan. Combining ancient modal drones, classical elegance and avant-garde subversion, this duo creates a compelling sound-bed for what often appears to be a myriad of voices of contrasting character. Finch and Keita masterfully work the music of their respective – Welsh and Senegalese – traditions that have seldom come together so gloriously.

This is perfect stuff from Finch, a celebrated harpist whose firm lithe voice and Olympically agile technique allow her to combine dazzling virtuosity with dramatic expression. The same can be said of Keita, whose accuracy and ethereal falsetto seem perfect for this musical collision.

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