01 Okan SombrasSombras
OKAN
Lulaworld Records LWR010
(okanmusica.com)

The two creators of OKAN are Elizabeth Rodriguez on vocals and violin and Magdelys Savigne on vocals, congas, cajon, bata drums and small percussion. Both artists are also the primary composers of the material on their exquisite new recording, Sombras, which translates as “shades”… and that’s exactly what this talented duo has given us – hues, intensities and variegations. Sombras was produced by uber-talented bassist Roberto Riveron (who also performs on the CD). The inspired lineup of players also includes Anthony Szczachor and Frank Martinez on drums; Bill King, Danae Olano, Jeremy Ledbetter and Miguel de Armas on piano and keyboards; Reimundo Sosa on quinto guitar; Pablosky Rosales on tres guitar; Alexis Baro on trumpet and Mari Palhares on pandeiro and surdo. 

The title track opens with the intoning of a sacred blessing – perhaps for Mother Africa herself, by way of Cuba – followed by a pulse-racing Latin explosion featuring sumptuous, dynamic vocals, a stirring and volatile piano solo from de Armas and the entire face-melting ensemble. Certainly one of the most moving tracks on the project, Laberinto seamlessly segues from a folk-song-like interlude into a very contemporary number, steeped in pure, powerful Cubanismo. 

Other delights include Desnudando El Alma (Stripping the Soul), which is a heartrending and muy romantico ballad, made all the more melancholic by the moving string arrangements and the always gorgeous piano work of King, as well as a technically thrilling bass solo from Riveron. With the charming closer, Luz (Light), we are again transported to a magical place of ancient sights, smells and emotions – Cuba puro – OKAN si! 

02 Stick BowResonance
Stick & Bow
Leaf Music LM231 (leaf-music.ca)

Adventurous duo Stick & Bow is comprised of Canadian marimba player Krystina Marcoux and Argentinian cellist Juan Sebastian Delgado. With the release of their new recording, the two Montreal-based musicians have been succinctly described as “rediscovering the classics through a continuous musical search…” 

The CD includes 13 diverse pieces, including unique, contemporary interpretations of works by familiar and obscure composers, including Bach, Bartók, Piazzolla, Nina Simone, Paco De Lucia and Radiohead. Opening the program are Bach’s Adagio and Prelude. This is a luxurious interpretation, filled with exotic flavours and unusual nuances, as well as a seamless segue into a bebop-centric idyll of pizzicato and percussion, defined by razor sharp time and profound dynamics – and yes, a Marimba can be played with dynamics!

Fandango, by Luigi Boccherini, is rendered here with a youthful joy and percussive tango motifs, and Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances are tinged with a lithe, soulful, loving and mystical impression of the ancient Roma people. With Nina Simone’s Love Me or Leave Me, the finger-snapping duo lends a cfilm noir quality to this anthem of 1950s relationship dysfunction, and also deconstructs the tune in a totally delightful way that belies the depressing lyric.

A standout of the project is the iconic Astor Piazzolla’s Invierno porteňo. The emotions and attack of the two players – moving together as one organism – are both raw and incandescent, and the duo’s impassioned interpretation of the late Stéphane Grappelli’s Tzigane is nothing short of masterful. The quirky closing track, Paranoid Android (from Radiohead) conjures a stark, staccato cello attack, all supported by Ruth Underwood-like underpinnings – just brilliant.

Listen to 'Resonance' Now in the Listening Room

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.

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