04 MazID
Bleu 44 BLEUCD-4445 (mazworld.ca)

Montreal group MAZ has many accolades under their belt. With this, their third album, there should be many more to come as the group tastefully takes Québécois traditional music in a new direction, as the group self-describes, “in a flow of trad, jazz and electro.”

Each member is a superb performer/composer. Leader/electric guitarist/banjoist Marc Maziade plays and sings with confidence and originality. His opening zippy clear vocals in the traditional tune La guenille foreshadow what the future tracks will bring, with a fast-driving bass groove by Hugo Blouin, great fiddling by Pierre-Olivier Dufresne, and Roxane Beaulieu on keyboards. The rest are original tunes which feature interesting style developments. Love the club dance feel of Projet 4, as a touch of folk is supported by solid low-end bounce and electro music. Le fléau moves at a nice walking pace as traditional music is modernized with a nice accelerando, bouncy melody, instrumental solos and closing squeaks. Le cercle dives into more contemporary sounds with its larger interval leap melodic lines, multi-rhythms and quasi-atonal harmonic changes. The fun upbeat closing of ID 4/4 – reel du chemin moves subtly from pop vocals and grooves to a more traditional reel so we can all remember where their music came from!

MAZ members are so respectful of each other that the multi-genre styles they are transforming and combining never feel contrived and produce fresh, accessible, inventive Québécois world music.

05 Jordan OfficerThree Rivers
Jordan Officer
Spectra Musique SPECD-7866 (spectramusique.com)

Perhaps like many outside of Quebec, I first discovered guitarist Jordan Officer by way of his association with vocalist Susie Arioli. First impacted by the authenticity of his guitar playing and by how deeply he had drunk from the well of Charlie Christian, Carl Kress and Django Reinhardt, Officer established a high bar of excellence for guitarists in Canada, playing meaningfully and without unnecessary sentimentality in what I might describe as “roots” music; a performative style that foregrounds acoustic timbres, period-piece instruments and non-digitally mediated sounds to conjure up a place and space of yesteryear.

Said commitment continues here on Three Rivers, but, like many broad musical thinkers, Officer is now beyond genre in his approach. While there are clear flourishes of jazz throughout, this recording is an expansive musical undertaking that employs the blues, country, a connection to hymns, and gospel singing with whimsically expressive lyrics scattered throughout. It sounds like a road album or a travelogue with sights and sounds, all quintessentially American, created sonically or in the mind’s eye. I was not familiar with Officer as a singer before this recording, but am not surprised to discover that he is talented, expressive and, most of all, musical in his delivery. This is a thoroughly enjoyable recording, both musically and sonically, and one that should earn Officer heightened accolades and fans.

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.

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