06 Robi BotosOld Soul
Robi Botos; Larnell Lewis; Mike Downes; Seamus Blake
A440 Entertainment (robibotos.com)

This new release by Robi Botos, a multi-instrumentalist, composer and two-time JUNO Award winner, is personal and frank, an ode to life experiences. In his liner notes Botos explains the inspiration behind each song – a tribute to his hometown of Budapest and a childhood musician friend, a journey from Europe to North America, a favourite standard and a salutation to a tune by Prince. Recorded in one day, off the floor, this album truly keeps up with a centuries-old tradition of joyful music-making.

Although a mixed bag of styles (jazz, funk, Motown, gospel, Romani folk), each tune is very much played in Botos’ style – groovy, grand, upfront and authentic. Musicians on this record are exceptional and the esprit de corps is compelling. Robi Botos plays several instruments, including a lesser-known harpejji (electrical stringed instrument), but it is the magnetism of his piano solos that is the most captivating. Out of five original tunes, Budapest has the most nostalgic feel and Old Soul brings forth many of the musical traditions that influenced Botos in his career. Praise, a musical poem on being grateful, has the most mesmerizing piano motif that grabs you from the beginning and doesn’t let go. The album concludes with a tribute to Prince. Calhoun Square is a funky, full-bodied piece, with wild solos and rhythms.

Skillfully crafted, emotionally intelligent, this record is distinguished by its heartfelt tunes and first-rate musicianship.

07 Rick WilkinsTribute to Rick Wilkins
Ensemble Vivant with Guido Basso; Brian Barlow; Mike Murley
Opening Day (ensemblevivant.com)

Ensemble Vivant is just the chamber group you would want when you need music to sound symphonic. And when you add the husky seduction of Guido Basso’s horn, the cool eloquence of Mike Murley’s tenor saxophone, the rumbling majesty of Jim Vivian’s bass and the percussion colouring of Brian Barlow, what you get is absolute magic.

This is exactly the case with Ensemble Vivant’s live Tribute to Rick Wilkins, a fitting homage to the prodigious composer, arranger, conductor and tenor saxophonist. He was a pillar of such legendary bands as the Canadian Brass and the orchestra of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (among many others), and onetime music director of CBS, Los Angeles – credentials surely deserving of the rhapsodic homage accorded the 81-year-old by the Ensemble here.

This is chaste and faultless Wilkins-arranged repertoire ranging from Kern and Gershwin to J.S. Bach and Ernesto Lecouna, presented on DVD (directed by Darryl Lahteenmaa) and on CD (captured with muted serenity by Chad Irschick). Led by pianist and artistic director Catherine Wilson and comprising violinist Corey Gemmell, violist Norman Hathaway and cellist Sybil Shanahan, the music (recorded at Grace Church on-the-Hill in Toronto) sheds fresh light on Wilkins’ work. An obsessive perfectionist, he polished these works into gleaming gems. As a composer who also played piano, he seems to have written for the instrument idiomatically and this is heard in everything, most especially on Ragtime from “Divertissement”.

Ensemble Vivant parleys with the familiarity of old friends, yet their playing always retains a sense of gracious etiquette associated with the noble chamber ballroom for which this music was intended. Nothing is forced, exaggerated or overly mannered; tempos, ensemble and balance all seem effortlessly right. The string sound is lucid, while the trumpet, flugelhorn and saxophone add great warmth and swing. These are, in sum, sincere and poised accounts, a fitting tribute to the musical character of Rick Wilkins.

Listen to 'Tribute to Rick Wilkins' Now in the Listening Room

01 Kate McGarryThe Subject Tonight is Love
Kate McGarry; Keith Ganz; Gary Versace
Binxtown Records (katemcgarry.com)

With their debut trio recording, vocalist/composer Kate McGarry, guitarist/bassist Keith Ganz and pianist/accordionist Gary Versace have realized a project that has been in preparation for more than a decade. Friendship, love and creativity propel this ensemble. McGarry and Ganz are life partners, and Versace has been a close friend and musical collaborator to both. The trio act as producers/arrangers here, exploring the many facets of love with both original and venerable material, perfectly synthesized through McGarry’s uniquely cinematic musical perspective.

The CD opens with the title track, which features a brief poem from the 14th-century Persian poet and mystic Hafiz, underscoring McGarry’s belief that “love is the sub-stratum of all things.” The music for the brief, stark, spacey piece was actually improvised over the theme of Ganz’ arrangement of the standard Rodgers and Hart classic, My Funny Valentine (which is gorgeously rendered in full on the CD by McGarry).

A delightful inclusion is Sammy Fain’s Secret Love, positioned here as the polar opposite of the familiar Doris Day version – capturing an innocence and purity of first love, and featuring a sumptuous and agile guitar solo as well as seamless transitions from straight ahead, to a lilting bossa and back again. Equally wonderful is the trio’s take on the rarely performed Benny Golson/Kenny Durham tune Fair Weather. McGarry’s effortless, pitch-perfect and thoroughly gorgeous voice belongs in the rarified company of Julie London and Irene Kral. The ideal bookend to this skillfully crafted, uplifting CD is the Lennon and McCartney hit, All You Need is Love – delivered with a fresh, second-line feel.

02 Lemon Bucket OrchestraIf I Had the Strength
Lemon Bucket Orkestra
Independent (lemonbucket.com)

Following up on its 2015 JUNO Award-nominated album Moorka, Toronto’s “Balkan-klezmer-gypsy-party-punk” Lemon Bucket Orkestra weaves a narrative that runs throughout its new record’s 11 titles. The through line is based on an old Slavic prison ballad about a rebel returning home.

Covering a wide emotional range, the theatrically presented songs and instrumentals – several infused with the 12-musician band’s furiously fast dance-friendly energy – also reflect the musicians’ personal experiences on the ground during the recent Ukraine-Russia conflict. LBO leader Mark Marczyk explained in a recent press release, “If I Had the Strength is … about coming home, about never being the same, about the parts of ourselves we lose, the parts we gain, and about the prisons we inhabit or that inhabit us.”

The album also echoes aspects of LBO’s immersive musical theatre work Counting Sheep. In 2016 The Guardian reviewer Mark Fisher dubbed it as “the polyphonic protest show that puts you inside Kiev’s Maidan. Using folk singing, found footage and a revolutionary interactive staging, Marichka Kudriavtseva and Mark Marczyk’s ‘guerrilla folk opera’ throws Edinburgh audiences into the heart of the Ukrainian struggles.”

LBO once again draws inspiration from the deep well of Eastern European folklore for If I Had the Strength, primarily from Ukrainian traditions. Guest soloists include Canadian diva Measha Brueggergosman, Montreal-based rapper Boogat, and on the moving concluding track Peace, Toronto’s Choir! Choir! Choir!. They effectively broaden the aesthetic range and audience appeal of this gripping new album.

04 Yuz YuzeYüz Yüze
Ihtimanska
Independent (ihtimanska.com)

World music fans (and the rest of us too) are in for a big treat as saxophonist Ariane Morin and accordionist/pianist Yoni Kaston perform duets based on Bulgarian and Turkish folk and urban music. Both are superstar instrumentalists who together make unique, colourful, uplifting sounds.

The Montreal-based Ihtimanska duet clearly understands the music they are interpreting, making their arrangements so exciting. Morin plays her virtuosic lines clearly while constantly listening and reacting to Kaston’s shifting rhythms, long accordion drones and lead lines. Bourgasko horo is a traditional Bulgarian tune from the Black Sea. The fast toe-tapping opening leads to a slower section, closing with a faster accordion and saxophone interchange with touches of jazz sounds sneaking in with the held accordion notes and sax flourishes. Thracian Bulgarian choral piece Brala Moma Rhuza Cvete is given a Baroque-flavoured rendition, as Kaston’s well-suited accordion harmonic progressions and melodies are performed with great phrasing and supported by sax embellishments. A highlight is the traditional Bulgarian Thracian Racenitsa with its shifting rhythms, breathtaking rapid sax lines, and great dialogue between accordion and sax. Kaston’s piano stylings on three tracks add almost popular flavours, while vocalist Brenna MacCrimmon is a welcome guest with her clear lyrical voice and intonation on two tracks.

So much work, effort, understanding, respect and fun has gone into this captivating, uplifting release. Great work by great musicians!

05 So Long SevenKala Kalo
So Long Seven
Independent SLS02 (solongseven.com)

Formed a few years ago, So Long Seven is a Toronto music collective comprised of Neil Hendry (guitars), Tim Posgate (banjo, bass guitar), William Lamoureux (violin, other strings) and Ravi Naimpally (tabla, other percussion). Individually they’re among Canada’s leading instrumentalists on their respective instruments and chosen music genres. As a group they share a common mission. “We all love music. We often play and compose for each other with great mutual respect, trying to challenge, push and inspire each other,” reflects Posgate. He also makes a point of pointing to the diverse influences on group members spanning not only cultures, “but generation too – they cover four decades in age, with a member in each (20s, 30s, 40s and 50s).”

Their sophomore album Kala Kalo reflects that democratic spirit of sharing. Each musician has contributed two or more compositions – plus they leave each other plenty of room to stretch out in fluent, expressive solos. The album’s 11 tracks feature numerous influences from many worlds of music. There is an overlying feeling, however, of collective music-making throughout the album, underscored by loose a cappella choruses on several tracks.

By the way, the invented phrase Kala Kalo translates as “black” in both Hindi and Romani respectively; the album is dedicated to those black sheep who have been marginalized and ostracized personally or politically. Whether you self-identify as a black sheep or not, my bet is that you will feel a warm welcome in the imaginative musical world presented on this disc.

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