03 Calum GrahamThread of Creation
Calum Graham
Independent (calumgraham.com)

Like all of us – including some great guitarists – Calum Graham boasts eight fingers and two thumbs on two hands. But it is his singular musical brain that governs it all. And when everything aligns cosmically the result is extraordinary. In fact it is quite magical, because when you put a guitar in his hands (he plays several kinds – acoustic, baritone and harp) the instrument sometimes becomes a chamber ensemble.

On Thread of Creation, his sixth album, Graham takes us right into the heart of his magical world that included the iconic Tabula Rasa. With Graham’s hands, the guitar reveals its huge vocabulary of sounds, which with minimalist electronic effects combine to make it sound as big as an ensemble. Graham brings his unique musical insight and musicianship to deploy all of the instrument’s capabilities effectively.

From using harmonics and pizzicato to exotica such as “nut-side,” “nail-sizzle” and “bi-tone tapping,” to combining each with a battery of percussion. (Does his guitar have a drum-set attached, you would wonder.) Graham turns a simple one-to-five-minute song into a poetic miniature. His music is inspired, original and daring, and there are several examples of this on Thread of Creation – such as The Nomad and Ma Lumière – to name but two. Bassist Michael Manring makes In Lak’Ech truly atmospheric; Antoine Dufour does likewise on Absolution. Meanwhile Graham emerges as the pre-eminent artist-technician.

04 Hockey SweaterThe Hockey Sweater/Le Chandail de hockey
Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra; Gemma New; Roch Carrier
Centrediscs CMCCD 26619
(cmccanada.org)

Who would we Canadians be without our favourite winter sport, hockey? And how about those Team Canada Juniors! …Countless intense discussions have taken place about the rivalry between the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs. No wonder Roch Carrier’s popular 1979 short story The Hockey Sweater is such a hit. Set in 1946 Saint-Justine Quebec, life revolves around school, church and most importantly boys playing hockey, each wearing the Montreal Canadiens Maurice Richard Number 9 hockey sweater. But the story’s young hero needs a new one so his mother orders it from the Mr. Eaton, who sends him a Toronto Maple Leafs jersey instead. Aargh, intrigue…

Commissioned by the Toronto Symphony, National Arts Centre and Calgary Philharmonic orchestras, composer Abigail Richardson-Schulte worked for a year composing The Hockey Sweater before its 2012 premiere. Her musical storytelling is immaculate and supports, yet never overpowers, the spoken story, here dramatically and clearly narrated by Carrier himself in separate English and French tracks. 

Many musical styles surface throughout, from the opening quasi-traditional Québécois fiddle tune to the use of organ in the church, school and, of course, hockey rink fanfare! Dramatic writing emphasizes story moments, like string slides with the hair glue story (the boys would use “glue, lots of glue” to emulate their idol Richard’s hair style), softer sadder music with the Leafs sweater arrival, horn and string interludes, and a final string reel with closing horn note and percussion hit. Intermittent audience cheering (and booing) throughout adds to the musical imagery. 

Richardson-Schulte is currently composer-in-residence with the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra, and serves as artistic director of the HPO’s What Next Festival. Under the direction of Gemma New, the HPO come together in a well-balanced and joyous team effort in what has become an annual highlight of the orchestra’s winter season. The Hockey Sweater shoots and scores!!

01 Orchid EnsembleFrom a Dream
Orchid Ensemble
Independent OE 2018 (orchidensemble.com)

Lan Tung (erhu, vocals), Yu-Chen Wang (zheng) and Jonathan Bernard (percussion) are the Vancouver-based trio Orchid Ensemble. Established in 1997, the trio incorporates Chinese musical instruments and traditions with global sounds, regularly commissioning scores from North American composers. One of its goals is to develop “an innovative musical genre based on the cultural exchange between Western and Asian musicians.” True to its mandate, this album is a collection of works by Canadian composers, along with two arrangements of Chinese originals.

The title track From a Dream by American-Canadian composer Dorothy Chang was inspired by images of China’s Huangshan (Yellow Mountain). Chang reflects the poetic qualities of this spectacular landscape, by turns evoking in her deftly wrought impressionistic score the stillness, strength, delicacy and resilience of this iconic site.

No Rush, by Vancouver composer and conductor Jin Zhang, also explores contrasts – though here sourced from within – segueing from tenderness and strength, forcefulness and tranquility. Each instrumentalist gets a solo turn. Veteran percussionist Bernard gets a workout on a wide spectrum of metal, wood and skin, struck and bowed instruments, erhu virtuosa Tung shines as the dramatic melodic voice, and zheng player Wang imbues her part with rhythmic incision and energy.

Fire (2007) also by Zhang, was inspired by stories of the 1960 fire that burned Nanaimo’s Chinatown to the ground. This near-cinematic work, with a chorus of four voices, evokes human struggle, hardship and the opportunity for regeneration: an uplifting theme with which to close to this enjoyable album.

02 MazacotePatria
Mazacote
Justin Time JTR 8620-2 (justin-time.com)

Patria is simply one of the most exceptional Latin music projects that has been released in recent memory. The recording is a vibrant celebration of the brave, indefatigable Nicaraguan people and their culture; and the beautiful, sibilant Spanish, in symbiosis with the African and Indigenous musics that emanate from Central America, are the jewels that propel this potent and passionate music. Although not overtly a political album, Mazacote has said the following, “This album is dedicated to the people of Nicaragua and to those who fight injustice and intolerance around the world.”

The CD is produced by Adam Popowitz and trumpeter/flugelhornist Malcolm Aiken. All lyrics were written by lead vocalist and guitarist David Lopez and all music was written by the ensemble. This invigorating, dynamic group also includes Niho Takase on piano; Chris Couto on congas, timbales, bongos and percussion; Fito Garcia on bass; Rod Murray on trombone; Mario Sota on guitar and Frankie Hidalgo on vocals.

The opening salvo is Levanta La Copa (Raise the Cup) – a joyous celebration of life, expressed by dynamic vocals, a tight, relentless rhythm section, authentic horn arrangements and supernatural percussion. Garcia’s distinctive, stand-up, electric bass is essential for this genre of authentic Latin music. A true masterpiece is the sinuous ballad, Pueblo, filled with longing and nostalgia; these and other emotions are not only expressed musically, through the skill of the players, but also in the superb vocal by Lopez. Mi Patria (My Native Land) features Aiken on flugelhorn, whose sumptuous tone and perfect intonation contribute massively to the technical sophistication of the ensemble.

Listen to 'Patria' Now in the Listening Room

03 Natalie MacMasterSketches
Natalie MacMaster
Linus Entertainment 270431 (linusentertainment.com)

There is so much joy and sparkle in the performances, arrangements and compositions in Canadian superstar Celtic fiddler Natalie MacMaster’s first new solo album in eight years. A mix of traditional Celtic and original tunes, she is joined by one of her favourite musicians, Tim Edey, on nylon and steel string guitars and accordion, and other instrumentalists on select tracks in this toe-tapping collection.

Her solid musical stylistic takes are supported by the combination of perfectly segueing different tunes in single tracks. The upbeat opening Father John Angus Rankin in Three Reels sets the mood for the rest of the music with her effortless style mastery. Great accordion clog violin transcription opens The Golden Eagle set. In Tribute to John Allan, MacMaster asked her cousin the late John Allan Cameron’s son Stuart to play his dad’s guitar in the opening Glasgow House March, a tune she learned from John, which is then followed by numerous faster reels and strathspeys played with spirited fiddle rhythmic bounce.

The Macmaster/Edey arrangement of James Scott Skinner’s Professor Blackie is a mellower violin/guitar ballad with precise phrasing, soaring lines and effortless pitch jumps. As composers, MacMaster and Edey’s Morning Galliano, named after the French accordionist, has a perfect French/Celtic feel with Edey’s accordion flourishes and chords playing in tight, happy duets with the violin. Of MacMaster’s own compositions, noteworthy is her closing same-named bluegrass/jazz-tinged tune from the Judy’s Dance track. Lots of fun!

01 Skye ConsortSkye Consort & Emma Björling
Emma Björling; Skye Consort
Leaf Music LM225 (leaf-music.ca)

How exactly does a Celtic-Quebeco-Franco-Anglo-Acado-Gallo-Baroquo band team up with a Swedish folk singer? The answer to this intriguing question, posed by the liner notes, begins in November 2017, when vocalist Emma Björling was invited to Montreal to take part in a project which also featured members of the Skye Consort. The musicians casually discussed another possible collaboration; however, when Björling’s return flight to Sweden was cancelled due to inclement weather, the plans for this collaboration really began to solidify. On the final night of her stay, it was decided: there would be a new project. Glasses were raised, and voilà, Skye Consort & Emma Björling was on its way.

Flash forward to 2019, the group is embarking on tour and releasing their first CD. There is truly something for everyone on this fine recording, a collection of Swedish, Norwegian, Irish, Scottish, English, French-Canadian and original songs. Herr Hillebrand, a fitting upbeat opener, showcases the talents of the entire group. Next, Björling delivers a powerful, riveting rendition of Om Berg Och Dalar, a traditional Norwegian love song which segues into a Swedish polska. Björling’s stunning original, En Ängel, features empathic support from Amanda Keesmaat (cello) and Seán Dagher (bouzouki). The fiddle tunes, played by Alex Kehler, are an absolute pleasure.

The songs are beautifully arranged, and Björling’s vocals are fully integrated into the ensemble, giving the music the feel of a true collaboration. One of the best folk recordings of 2019.

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