01 St. Annes cover artJamie Thompson and the Urban Flute Project – Live at St. Anne’s
The Junction Trio & Friends
Independent (urbanfluteproject.com)

This latest CD from the Urban Flute Project is a compilation of 20 performances recorded live over the first ten years of the Music at St. Anne’s concert series. That makes it more than just a CD; it is a “remembrance of things past,” a chronicle of a time and a place when a loosely knit band of musicians listened to the impulse to bring music to life – yes, to make it live but also, as documented in the listings in The WholeNote over the course of that decade, to bring it to the life of their community. For this they received very little money and only a modicum of fame, as many in the community do. Music at St. Anne’s was the musical equivalent of what British theatre and film director Peter Brook called – in his book The Empty Space – “Holy Theatre...the theatre of the invisible-made-visible.”

The CD brings all this to life, with unvarnished live performances which, maybe just because they are unedited and un-doctored, make those moments in lost time immediate and all the more precious because they are gone. The names of over 20 musicians are listed, and many more unnamed were involved because there are performances by three choirs. The range of music is vast, from a motet by Thomas Tallis to improvisations involving both conventional instruments and secondhand pots and pans which produce the most magical sounds, and something of everything in between.

This CD is like a slice of The WholeNote made audible, and a testament to our need for art in life.

02 Toronto TablaBhumika
Toronto Tabla Ensemble
Independent (torontotabla.com)

Bhumika, a rich philosophical Sanskrit term, derived from bhūmi meaning earth or soil, can refer to a writing surface, receptacle, or an introduction to a book, among other things. Bhumika is also the title of the Toronto Tabla Ensemble’s sixth album and its first track. Composed by TTE’s artistic director and tabla educator Ritesh Das, the title track, featuring a chanted Sanskrit sloka, is dedicated to Ritesh Das’ brother the influential kathak dancer and teacher Chitresh Das (1944-2015). The liner notes also acknowledge another key artistic inspiration, Swapan Chaudhuri who is among today’s outstanding tabla masters.

Bhumika the album reflects the richness of the tabla’s extensive technique, repertoire and the complexity of Indian rhythmic practice: the album features talas (rhythmic cycles) of 5½, 9½ and 11 beats. It also speaks to Ritesh Das’ larger artistic ambition to engage culturally with his Toronto home and collaborate with other resident musical cultures and musicians. For example, instruments heard on the album include ritual Indian conch trumpet, finger cymbals, Hindustani tabla and sarod, Carnatic mrdangam, but also drum kit, violin, Chinese zheng, flute, and the Japanese taiko ensemble Nagata Sachu. Most of them are played by Toronto area musicians, some of whom are students of Das.

For me the strength of this album is the convincing argument it makes for the tabla forming the core of a musically compelling drum-centric ensemble in 2018 Toronto, far from its (first) homeland. Before Das dreamed it in 1991, that did not exist.

03 QSFA QSF Journey
Quartet San Francisco
Reference Recordings RR-143 (referencerecordings.com)

The boundaries between music genres are fluid and constantly moving these days, with many musicians experimenting and combining elements of different styles in both new compositions and interpretations of the traditional ones. Classical music seems to be an especially productive foundation for such crossovers, breeding many exciting projects. One of them is the latest release by Grammy- nominated Quartet San Francisco – A QSF Journey. Most of the tracks on the album are written and arranged by Jeremy Cohen (the first violinist of the quartet) and the album contains seven world premieres, making it an adventuresome journey into the chamber music of the 21st century.

While the album features arrangements of traditional folk songs (Chinese, Mongolian and African), many of the tracks are rooted in the tango tradition and, to some extent, American folk. Rhapsody in Bluegrass combines two vastly different works – Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and bluegrass tune Orange Blossom Special. The result is a lively, toe-tapping, buoyant tune. Frederico II, written by Italian cellist and composer Giovanni Sollima, is a whirlwind piece with a constantly pushing rhythmical drive and strong medieval roots. I really enjoyed Cohen’s tango pieces as well – Al Colón, Francini, La Heroína and the opening Tango Eight – and their passionate, cheeky melodies. QSF members are true crossover stars. Their playing is effortless and entertaining, with just the right amount of classical touch, and with an abundance of beauty.

Listen to 'A QSF Journey' Now in the Listening Room

04 Tanya WillsIt’s Time
Tanya Wills Quartet
Independent (tanyawills.ca)

Carrying the DNA of an artistic lineage, it is no surprise that gifted vocalist, dancer and actor Tanya Wills would enter the family business and manifest an international performance career. With the release of her debut CD, Wills has drawn from her diverse career experiences and fashioned an eclectic, stirring and musically stunning recording – beautifully recorded by Bernie Cisternas. Acting as producer here, Wills has assembled the perfect musical complement to her smoky, substantial, mezzo-soprano: Jordan Klapman on piano, Bill Bridges on guitar (and also primary arranger) and Ron Johnston on bass.

A few of the sources of the intriguing material on this project come from the worlds of musical theatre, the European/American cabaret culture of the post-WWI era, American popular song, traditional folk music, a proto-rock ‘n’ roll contribution from Elvis and two original compositions, including Tony Quarrington and Klapman’s dark bossa, Rain on the Roof.

One of the many standouts is Wills’ performance on Lazy Afternoon. Her voice is exquisitely controlled, as she weaves a laconic, gossamer web of sensuality around the mesmerized listener, and Bridges’ guitar accompaniment is nothing short of luminous. Another track of note is Arthur Hamilton’s Cry Me a River – a passive/aggressive anthem made popular by the late Julie London. Wills puts her own contemporary stamp on the tune, cleverly morphing the intent of the lyric into a statement by a strong woman (rather than a victim’s lament). I would be remiss if I didn’t single out the joyous rendition of If I Were a Bell – Frank Loesser’s hit from the venerable musical Guys and Dolls. Wills imbues this tune with just the right amount of spice and sass.

Listen to 'It's Time' Now in the Listening Room

05 Anba TonelAnba Tonèl
Daniel Bellegarde
Independent (danielbellegarde.com)

Daniel Bellegarde has enjoyed a 35-year career as a freelance percussionist primarily in Quebec. As he explains, Anba Tonèl (Under the Arbor), his first album as a leader, primary arranger and composer, is the fruit of his research on the confluence of European and African musics in the French Caribbean.

In Anba Tonèl, with the aid of nine musicians and five singers, he explores – through arrangements and compositions – unfamiliar musical territory to outsiders: rural French Caribbean music, the result of that hybridization. Dance music represented includes the contra-dance (square dance), quadrille, minuet-congo, and Haitian twoubadou, a popular genre of guitar-based Haitian music. The album aims to evoke the music performed by Haitian and French West Indies slaves during the 19th century and field workers in the early 20th.

Not a synth or drum set to be found here, the lead French Creole vocals by Marco Jeanty are accompanied by all-acoustic instrumentation. We hear the prominent sound of the banjo (which appears to have been played in the Caribbean before mainland North America), violin, guitar, dobro and manouba (bass kalimba-rumba box), as well as percussion instruments from the French Antilles including tanbou di bass (large tambourine), ti bwa (small wooden slit drum), graj (metal scraper) and chacha (calabash rattle).

I’m no expert on the origins or development of this music. As presented here by Bellegarde however, it has considerable range of mood and is full of danceable musical energy and charm; plus it’s sung and played with authentic-feeling élan.

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