01 Dance with MeDance With Me
Barbara Hannigan; Lucienne Renaudin Vary; Berlage Saxophone Quartet; Ludwig Orchestra
Alpha 790 (naxosdirect.com/search/alpha790)

Music and dance are rooted deep in the human condition. Canada’s favourite soprano-conductor Barbara Hannigan, directing the musicians of the Ludwig Orchestra and Berlage Saxophone Quartet, celebrates the popular music of the 20th century on Dance with Me. Covering 12 dances ranging from Viennese waltz to foxtrot, tango to quickstep, rumba to one-step, from slow dance to samba, salsa and jive, this well-recorded album is engineered to get your feet shuffling.

In some ways it feels like a follow-up to their 2018 Grammy Award-snagging Crazy Girl Crazy, the collaboration with composer-arranger Bill Elliott. This music has a personal resonance tinged with nostalgia for Hannigan, who stated that she “was thrilled to go back to this aspect of my musical roots, to reawaken special memories of singing and playing keyboards with a dance band in Nova Scotia.” 

Hannigan sings four songs on the card. She brings a girlish charm to I Could Have Danced All Night, emotional drama to Moonlight Serenade and a pouty sexuality to Fluffy Ruffles. One of her signature near-operatic interpretations takes centre stage: Kurt Weill’s dramatic, wistful minor-key tango-habanera, Youkali, is an ideal vehicle for her portrayal of the universal yearning for paradise lost.

I should mention Elliott’s accomplished orchestral arrangements for the Ludwig Orchestra. This fun album tickled my latent ballroom genes. Trigger warning: it may well tickle yours too.

02 Jordana TalskyZahava
Jordana Talsky
Independent (jordanatalsky.com)

I really admire artists who evolve and embrace new styles and technologies. Taking a risk is never easy, and with Zahava, Jordana Talsky has made the leap from more traditional music-making to relying solely on her voice, using vocal looping to produce a whole EP. As is true for a lot of developments, Talsky stumbled upon looping by accident. She was trying to find a quick way to capture musical ideas and found that doing a recording was faster than notating. 

Having a strong voice, big range and a variety of vocal colours to draw on certainly helps, and Talsky has it all, plus exceptional songwriting skills and an ear for arranging. Collaborating with talented multi-instrumentalist Justin Abedin – here lending a hand with producing, recording and songwriting – also helps. The six songs on the EP are all very accessible in that they follow traditional verse-chorus structures and have relatable themes about self-exploration and relationship struggles. The general musical style is more in the pop vein than Talsky’s earlier jazzy releases and tinges of the blues show up on Trouble Up and there’s a soulful edge to City Lights. Oh Yeah has hit written all over it. 

There are plenty of artists out there using looping and other technologies to one degree or another and, of course, lots of great music is being made by singers recording the old fashioned way, in a studio with a band. I just really appreciate it when artists mix it up a bit, and Zahava is a fine example of that.

03 Luis Mario Ochoa jpegForever Lecuona
Luis Mario Ochoa
Independent (luismario.com)

Ernesto Lecuona, known as “the Gershwin of Cuba,” is the subject of the latest release by singer-guitarist Luis Mario Ochoa. Since Lecuona wrote both music and lyrics during his prolific and celebrated career, I suppose he’s both George and Ira Gershwin. Indeed, his most famous work was done in the field of operetta and film (for which he was nominated for an Academy Award), and Ochoa includes several of those tracks, lovingly reproduced here.

You couldn’t find a more authentic interpreter of this music than Ochoa, who was born and raised in Cuba and studied the great masters during his musical education at the University of Havana. Cuba’s loss was Toronto’s gain when Ochoa emigrated here in 1990 and became a bandleader and regular feature on the club circuit. Ochoa has drawn on the deep Toronto talent pool for the world-class musical support on this album, including gifted multi-instrumentalist Louis Simao on bass, fellow countryman Hilario Duran on piano (no electronic keyboards here!) and Luis Orbegoso and Chendy Leon on percussion.  

With songs dating back to the early 1900s, this is a nostalgic but still relevant collection of classic Cuban sounds. Themes of heartbreak and longing never go out of style, do they? Neither does dancing, and this album will surely inspire you to get on your feet and take a turn around the floor. This may be especially true for non-Spanish speakers, as all the songs are in that language, of course. But everyone speaks the language of uplifting rhythm and Ochoa’s beautiful guitar playing and bright, plaintive singing clearly convey the message.

04 Joy RideJoyRide
Colin Maier; Charles Cozens
Independent (joyrideconcerts.com)

Oboist Colin Maier, who also plays bass here, and accordionist/pianist Charles Cozens, are the Canadian duo JoyRide. Their multi-instrumental performances, arrangements and compositional talents are centre stage in hybrid music incorporating many styles including classical, jazz, klezmer, blues and tango in this, their first studio album.

JoyRide performs the music perfectly. It’s a bonus to hear them also talking in humourous conversations like in the opening Maier/Cozens Spirit of Earth chat about Maier’s on tour encounter with pelicans above Maier’s bass and Cozens’ keyboard backdrop music. The next track, Cozens’ super-fast arrangement of the Dixieland classic, Tiger Rag, features alternating virtuosic oboe and accordion lines. Cozens’ COVID-lockdown-inspired upbeat composition, Isolation Blues, has Maier on harmonica, Cozens on honky-tonk piano and both on vocals. Relatable COVID-experience lyrics, midstream chatter like “I finally learned how to use a vacuum,” and colourful piano and harmonica solos make this my nomination for COVID theme song.

 Music only in Cozens’ J.S. Bach arrangement renamed Air on a Blue String as string members from Burlington’s New Millennium Orchestra join in a very classical start with its famous opening theme played true to style by Maier’s oboe until Cozens’ gradual piano change to jazzy style eventually gives way to a more classical ringing note strings closing. Time to dance in Cozens’ Tango de la Noche with his bouncy tango nuevo accordion lines, his upfront piano grooves, Maier’s bass and oboe lines, and strings.

From serious to hilarious, JoyRide’s release should lift all music lovers’ spirits to make life fun again!

05 Vlada MarsRemains of the Day
Vlada Mars
Independent (vladamars.com)

There are some albums that go straight for the heart of the listener and stay there for a while. Remains of the Day is certainly such an album. Written for solo piano, this music is pure poetry, spoken from the heart with a genuine sense of purpose. 

Vlada Mars, Serbian-Canadian composer and pianist based in Vancouver, has seven albums under her belt but this one definitely stands out. Although dedicated to all matriarchs of the world, Remains of the Day is an ode to one woman – Mars’ mother. Composed over the period of two years and paralleling the last few months of her mother’s life, her subsequent death and Vlada’s own grieving, this album is so personal that the listener can’t help but feel the emotions expressed as part of ourselves.

Mars presents a unique compositional voice. Genre crossing and embracing the minor keys, her music is haunting, nostalgic, intimate. There are no big statements here but rather everything is expressed in understated, meaningful gestures that have beauty in their core. Still, there is an unmistakable passion, especially in the juxtaposition of the driving rhythms underneath tender voices. Mars is a master of rubato phrases, which adds to her flair for sentimental melodies. Perhaps the meaning of Saudade, one of 11 compositions on the album, shows the nature of her music the best – a melancholy of longing for something or someone that is no longer here. 

Note: this album is not available for streaming. One can purchase it from Vlada’s website as a CD or download.

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