01 Dan PittMonochrome
Dan Pitt
Dan Pitt Music (dan-pitt.com)

Call this a cynical outlook, but I generally see likening one artist to another, particularly in music, a cheap trick employed by unimaginative writers. A saxophonist with avant-garde tendencies quickly “calls to mind Ornette Coleman.” Likewise, any legato-leaning guitarist post-1990 becomes “Metheny-esque” when described in banal jazz prose. During my second listen to Dan Pitt’s Monochrome, I ate my above words as I subconsciously likened many of his tones and textures to modern guitar greats like Bill Frisell and Ben Monder. On this 2020 release of contemporary solo guitar music, I would argue these influences merely show that Pitt has done his homework. The music presented is far from ever sounding derivative, but its uniqueness as an album also largely stems from diversity throughout its ten tracks. Pitt’s use of electric and acoustic guitars, as well as effects and samples, creates tasteful contrasts to the pieces presented, without taking away from the album’s cohesiveness as a whole. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic places many aspects of our lives in limbo, I am not envious of those releasing albums this year, forcedly adapting to the new normal of limited capacity and online album releases. To offer a silver lining for Monochrome, I hope that this album can benefit from the quarantined or working-from-home audience, who now have time to give it the uninterrupted 38 minutes of listening it deserves.

02 OKANEspiral
OKAN
Lulaworld Records LWR011 (lulaworldrecords.ca)

Afro-Cuban music fused with jazz elements and rhythms from around the world, this album is impossible to listen to without moving one’s feet and occasionally breaking into dance. These talented women have heart, they have a groove, and they are backed up by an impressive list of talented musicians. Elizabeth Rodriguez (vocals, violin) and Magdelys Savigne (vocals, percussion), classically trained Cuban-Canadian musicians and JUNO nominees, are the force de jour behind this lively album. Their music is colourful, sassy and engaging. Both use their respective instruments in a way that draws the listener right into the centre of creation, resulting in divine violin solos and driving crossover rhythms. 

Nested among seven original songs are three beloved standards: Cumba, Cumba; Besame Mucho (a much livelier version than expected); and the closing Pie de Foto. OKAN’s original tunes stay within the boundaries of the respective genres but make good use of the crossover elements. 

Espiral is based on Cuban musical heritage and around the themes of immigration and love. The title song opens the album in a bright manner, using a traditional blend of instruments and chants. Trocada is more jazzy, with bewitching violin solos, colourful percussion and an impressive piano solo (Miguel de Armas). Aguila’s Latin groove is filtered through sultry violin lines and beautiful vocals. 

With Espiral, OKAN continues doing what they do the best – creating music that transcends borders and brings in the joy.

Listen to 'Espiral' Now in the Listening Room

01 Gordon GrdinaSafar-E-Daroon
Gordon Grdina’s The Marrow
Songlines SGL2410-2 (songlines.com/release/safar-e-daroon)

Gordon Grdina draws on two distinct musical cultures, contemporary jazz and traditional Middle Eastern music; chooses musical partners from two different cities, Vancouver and New York; and realizes his musical visions on two distinct instruments, the electric guitar and the oud, a short-necked, fretless Middle Eastern lute. Among Grdina’s various ensembles, The Marrow is the one most strongly marked by Arabic and Persian sources; the musicians are Vancouverites (violinist Josh Zubot and percussionist Hamin Honari) and New Yorkers (bassist Mark Helias and cellist Hank Roberts); further, Grdina plays only oud in this band, making it a group of fretless strings and percussion with strong ties to the tonal inflections and compound rhythms of music that have stretched from the Eastern Mediterranean to India and Spain.

Safar-e-Daroon (inner journey) isn’t pure Eastern music (the journey East likely led for some by John Coltrane), and Western harmonic nuances supplement the focused modal intensity, but there’s a consistent emotional and spiritual dimension. Mini-con, a brooding Grdina theme launched by Helias, has a soaring improvisation by Zubot, while Roberts, one of jazz cello’s finest representatives, articulates the keening wail at the heart of Shamshir. Illumination is marked by the dense and subtle counterpoint of picked, bowed and plucked strings. 

The concluding Gabriel James, named for Grdina’s son and inspired by a moment when the two played together, has the composer strumming a harmonic pattern under the sustained strings’ melodies. It suggests the wide-open spaces of the North American West.

02 Beth Anne ColePerhaps the Gods of Love
Beth Anne Cole
Independent BAC103 (bethannecole.com) 

Aristotle, Horace and Longinus, all writing with passion on the art of poetry – and speaking in a forthright manner of art in the mimesis (adopting Plato’s word for the imitation) of life – have stressed, in no uncertain terms, that the rhythm of music and dance elevates the dramaturgy of art. It would seem that Beth Anne Cole declares her unstinting allegiance to those classic dictates and she appears do so with elemental facility. This is why we easily fall prey to her beguiling music.

Throughout her breathtaking recording, Perhaps the Gods of Love, Cole infuses the convention of song with an emotional intensity that can only be described as the poetry of feeling. This too seems instinctual, for she weaves recitation and singing together with one melodic invention inexorably following the other seamlessly; the instrumentation ornamenting the lyric and vice versa. 

Cole’s rendering of this music is striking; with perfect diction, intonation and expression – all this whilst singing Sailor (in English), La Fille de l’île (in French) and Amol iz Geven a Mayse (in Yiddish). In original work too, such as My Story of Ruth, Cole displays an inventiveness that comes from an uncommon understanding of character and emotion born of accuracy and sensitivity, all of which is framed in a judicious mix of traditional and modern expression. Throughout this recording, Cole’s instrument-playing cohort is fully attuned to her vision and artistry.

03 HoneywodHoneywood
Emilyn Stam and John David Williams
Independent (emilynandjohn.com) 

This toe-tapping, instrumental/folk 15-track release showcases the superb Ontario-based duo Emilyn Stam (five-string fiddle, piano accordion) and her husband John David Williams (clarinet, diatonic accordion) in both their original and their arranged traditional “balfolk” style tunes, a Western European Dutch, German and French style of folk dances such as waltzes, schottisches, rondeaux and mazurkas.

Great entertaining diverse musical feels throughout. Their tune J & C Mazurka opens with a reflective lead clarinet against fiddle plucks leading to a tight quiet duet. Their cover of the traditional Brittany tune Laridés features upbeat conversational fiddle/clarinet interludes, and clarinet octave shifts. Williams plays diatonic accordion with Stam’s fiddle in the lyrical, sensitive, tightly phrased cover of the traditional Dutch Marche de Roux/La Baigneuse (Marche/Waltz).

Five special guests add new colour to select tracks including upright bassist Alan Mackie’s deep low pitches in After the Snow/Autumn in the Valley (Schottische); and Nathan Smith’s great fiddling as Stam picks up the piano accordion to play backdrop grooves and doubling driving clarinet lines in Red Bay/The Stone Whale/Stukjes (Jig Chapelloise).

Stam and Williams play with joy, technique and superb musicianship. Honeywood is the Ontario town where Stam and Williams were married in 2017, and also where their first two Big Branch Festivals for balfolk were held. No festival this year due to the pandemic, but there is so much great music here to keep you dancing at home, and hopefully out and about soon!

Listen to 'Honeywood' Now in the Listening Room

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