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.

04 Elon TurgemanClimb Up
Elon Turgeman
Independent (elonturgeman.com)

The music on Climb Up by the Israeli guitarist Elon Turgeman oozes youthful impetuosity and yet is remarkably poised, bereft of empty pyrotechnical displays or sentimental indulgence. Rather, it is rigorous and driven throughout by architectural acuity, which is why for those of us who have not heard of the guitarist it will come as a welcome surprise to hear how well integrated this work sounds, for the most part at least.

Turgeman’s approach to the electric guitar is well-formed and despite his young years it sounds very erudite. The guitarist plays in a style that for all its frequent rambunctious phrases and lines is deceptively limpid, as if his wrists were almost disconnected from the rest of his arms – held together by hyperactive nerve ends that, in turn, control hyperactive fingers that could be urged to dart up and down the fret board almost at will. This is wonderfully displayed on the title song Climb Up and, again, on Paco, a song presumably dedicated to the late Andalusian flamenco-style genius Paco De Lucía.

With the added support of Avi Adrian on piano, Yorai Oron on bass, together with Mark Rozen on tenor and soprano saxophones and the percussion colourist Adam Nussbaum on drums, Turgeman raises the level of his game to a rarefied realm with these painterly, impressionistic studies. Throughout this program Turgeman plays with insightful colours, translucent introspection and fantasy – and instrument and recording are beautifully married too.

Listen to 'Climb Up' Now in the Listening Room

01 OdessaHavanaConversation of the Birds
David Buchbinder’s OdessaHavana
Independent MFR CD003 (odessahavana.com)

David Buchbinder’s release Conversation of the Birds forays into the countryside of fantasy while still staying on course for the musical realms between the Baltic and Cuba, where he befriends much more than fine feathered friends in the forests outside Odessa and Havana. If one has been an admirer of the trumpeter and his extraordinary group, one can now be persuaded to go travelling with him and his posse that includes drummer Mark Kelso, violinist/violist Aleksandar Gajic, extraordinary pianist Hilario Duran and the ineffably beautiful vocals of Maryem Hassan Tollar – you can hear a sense of freedom in her voice as she remembers the elegance of the proverbial bridesmaid in La Galana, while the elegance of the band sends her spirits soaring during another visit to Iberia in Bembe Andaluz.

Throughout the visceral excitement of this music the listener is transported to a rarefied realm, all but becoming a part of the vivid, natural landscape – one that mixes beauty and danger, and conjures the exotic locales in the keening ululations of Tollar as well as in the congas, bongos, chekere and darbuka. All of the musicians are completely attuned to Buchbinder’s unique vision and artistry. Saxophonist John Johnson, Flamenco guitarist Benjamin Barrile and percussionists Joaquin Hidalgo and Raquy Danziger deliver hugely powerful performances evocative of steamy Cuban and Turkish afternoons as well as freezing Baltic nights on this inspiring musical journey.

02 KUNEKUNÉ – Canada’s Global Orchestra
The Royal Conservatory 8088909562 (rcmusic.com/performance/KUNE)

Launched last year as the New Canadian Global Music Orchestra, the Toronto ensemble self-described as “Canada’s Global Orchestra” has recently been gifted with a name change. Rebranded KUNÉ, it has produced an ambitious eponymous debut album as its calling card. KUNÉ means “together” in Esperanto, the most widely spoken constructed language in the world. With one of its core tenets being “to foster harmony between people from different countries,” it’s an apt language with which to succinctly express the raison d’être of this multicultural musical group.

The ensemble consists of 13 virtuoso Canadian resident musicians each with deep roots in a different country’s music and language, plus Métis fiddler and singer Alyssa Delbaere-Sawchuk. Under the skilled artistic direction of the JUNO Award-winning trumpeter, composer and “cultural inventor” David Buchbinder, this album is the first permanent record of KUNÉ’s “journey to create a band that looks and sounds like Canada today.”

The opening track features Delbaere-Sawchuk’s suite We Met in Tkaranto. Locating the band’s project firmly on native land, the track twigs us to the multi-border-crossing musical journey ahead. Delbaere-Sawchuk’s confident fiddling at first welcomes the listener to what sounds like familiar Celtic territory. It’s only when the kora, sitar and other world instruments enter that we realize that this album aims to add layer to multicultural musical layer.

To detail the vast range of musical and cultural influences, instruments and music genres traversed in the album’s 14 tracks is impossible to do succinctly – let alone to adequately assess the artistic and cultural resonances generated. I won’t hesitate however to state that repeated listening will gradually reveal plenty of music to explore for the globally curious sonic traveller. They will find both musical riches and a worldview-affirming transcultural harmony.

03 Near EastNear East
Near East Trio (Ravi Naimpally; Demetri Petsalakis; Ernie Tollar)
Independent NE001 (neareasttrio.com)

This excellent album is like an elegant railway system linking jazz, folk, Hindustani, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern music, which all seems to come together in an elegant 21st-century conservatoire. But to describe it as such might also give the impression of overcooking when in fact it is a masterpiece of subtlety. Ernie Tollar’s reeds and woodwinds are an exotic take on the lineage of the cool spacey music of an Indian durbar and the moist echo of a Turkish bath. The exotic atmospherics come from the flute, albeit in a less than conventional setting, even as Tollar summons breathy woody tones from the instrument. These float benignly over the sound of Demetri Petsalakis’ lutes, which in turn add a rich harmonic foundation to the music.

Meanwhile the regal rumble of Ravi Naimpally’s tabla makes for a hypnotic trance-like beat. The surprises when they come on songs such as Cairo and Muzafir are effective but discreet: a gamelan-like riff is played as pizzicato harmonics; a delicate curlicue of a bass drum line underpins what sounds like a Gaelic lament played on the flute; and a close-knit ensemble passage on Muzafir develops from a single phrase. That said, there are moments throughout when the trio loosens just enough to let the individual instrumental personality through, as when a soaring ney flute emerges imparting a mystical tinge, or a lyra solo arises from the relentless cycles conjuring the otherworldliness of this music.

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