04 Ukranian CD coverFor You, O Ukraine
Ukrainian Youth Ensembles
Independent (ukrainianyouthensembles.com)

The Ukrainian Youth Ensembles are a Toronto-based group consisting of the Levada Women’s Choir, the Orion Men’s Choir and the Vanguard Concert/Marching Band. Music director Roman Yasinsky is ably assisted by choral conductor Zhanna Zinchenko. The majority of the 100 plus members trace their ancestry back to Ukraine.

This CD is a compilation of 25 selections all of Ukrainian origin, opening with the rousing Our Unseverable Kozak Ancestry with combined choirs and band accompaniment. And then there is a broad spectrum of combinations. The choirs are heard individually or combined with band accompaniment, piano accompaniment or a cappella. Seven of the selections are from the Songs of the Ukrainian Sich Riflemen, who were instrumental in recapturing Kiev from the Red Army in 1918.

Instrumentation of the band is somewhat different from what we normally find in a full concert band. There are no oboes, bassoons or bass clarinets, but the brass sections are augmented by instruments usually confined to brass bands. There are E-flat alto horns in addition to the French horns, and there are twice as many cornets as trumpets. Overall, the performances are excellent, as is the recording quality.

At first sight the cover of this CD might be intimidating for anyone who is not fluent with the language. However, it comes with a 24-page booklet, in both Ukrainian and English, containing photographs of the ensembles in addition to notes on the music.

01 RakkatakSmall Pieces
Rakkatak
Independent RA017 (rakkatak.com)

Toronto tabla player Anita Katakkar founded Rakkatak as a solo project in 2009. Abetted by a laptop and sequencer, hers was a mix of classical Hindustani music and electronica performed with a pop-music aesthetic. For Small Pieces, Katakkar invited into the studio bassist Oriana Barbato, sitar player Rex Van der Spuy who’s been playing sitar in Toronto since 1989, plus eight guest musicians. Collectively they represent a cross-section of what has been tagged the Toronto Gharana – local musicians pursuing music rooted in the classical Hindustani tradition. The larger ensemble on the album also effectively broadens Rakkatak’s aesthetic focus to embrace a more inclusive sonic palette.

Of mixed Indian and Scottish ancestry, Katakkar noted that “I heard plenty of Indian music growing up from my grandmother.” She began studying tabla with the Toronto Tabla Ensemble’s Ritesh Das, and later in California and Kolkata with the pre-eminent tablist Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri. As she matured as a creative musician Katakkar found she “had stories to tell.” Eesha’s Song, track five on Small Pieces, featuring the sitar of Joanna Mack and violin of Jessica Deutsche, was meant as an elegy to a friend’s daughter who passed away much too young. In it, Katakkar’s tabla solos “were inspired by running up a big hill and barely being able to keep up, sort of like Eesha’s heart.”

The album closes with Riffing on 9, a solo for Katakkar, bringing the album back to her early career working with just tabla and laptop. It’s a stripped down salute to the Asian Underground movement that initially inspired her on her fascinating creative journey.

02 Taiko torontoToronto Taiko Tales
Nagata Shachu
Independent KNE013 (nagatashachu.com)

On several occasions I’ve written about the Toronto group Nagata Shachu in my WholeNote World Music column. “Nagata Shachu is one of our city’s musical treasures,” I wrote in one, “…its performances invariably filled with a high level of ensemble musicianship coupled with mental and corporeal discipline.”

Canadian-born percussionist Kiyoshi Nagata, the group’s founding artistic director, has composed and performed taiko-based music for theatre, film, dance and radio. He’s also collaborated with musicians practising many genres of music, including most recently the Toronto Tabla Ensemble.

Nagata Shachu’s Blu-ray release Toronto Taiko Tales shows the group in top form. The concert video footage shot in 2016 at Aki Studio Theatre, in Toronto’s core Regent Park neighbourhood, not only captures the group’s usual lofty musicking but also its inventive choreography. In that category I include playful deployment of drumsticks, and intense physicality in performance, all attractively captured in medium shots, close-ups and in clear audio.

The well-crafted compositions are by Kiyoshi Nagata and associate artistic director Aki Takahashi, who is also the founder of the Japanese folk ensemble ten ten. Takahashi offers a welcome palate cleanser in contrast to Nagata Shachu’s drum-centric repertoire, with a moving rendition of her song Zare Shamisen, which she sings accompanying herself on the shamisen.

I also enjoyed the peaceful footage of Toronto’s natural landscape as it passes though the seasons, artfully interspersed throughout the video. It’s a welcome reminder of the rhythms of nature pulsating in the multicultural city we all call home.

03 Danielle BasselsWhat About Wool Wishbags
Denielle Bassels
Independent DEN001 (reverbnation.com/deniellebasselsquintet)

Denielle Bassels is a fresh new voice on the Toronto scene. This is despite the fact that she borrows from some well-established styles like trad jazz and gypsy jazz. Yet her songwriting and singing approach make it all sound rather modern and at times surreal. Bassels’ appealing voice is reminiscent of a few indie pop singers, like Corrine Bailey Rae and Feist, who have had an influence on the latest generation of vocalists. And her solid range and technique serve the tunes well.

The arrangements and instrumentation also lend a fun quirkiness: ukulele, percussion, clarinet, horns and violin bounce along through most of the tunes. Bassels’ writing and production partner Mike Mathieson plays a number of the instruments and joins core rhythm players Andy Mac, guitar, Scott Hunter, bass, and Joe Ryan, drums.

The songwriting is consistently upbeat throughout, or at least has a veneer of positivity, despite a few thought-provoking lyrics. Spiders Kiss is a 3/4 time, Euro-tinged lament with a je ne regrette rien attitude and Silly Lion seems to be about betrayal, but it’s hard to fathom. The title track has a wacky, stayed-too-long-at-the-carnival feel to it. Perhaps the best approach to What About Wool Wishbags is to not take the words too literally and simply enjoy the album as a light-hearted lark.

05 Qu4rtzA Cappella 101
Qw4rtz
Analekta AN 2 8860 (analekta.com)

Members of Qw4rtz, Louis Alexandre Beauchemin, François Pothier Bouchard, Philippe Courchesne Leboeuf and François Dubé, began singing together in the boys’ choir of Les Petits Chanteurs de Trois-Rivières and burst fully realized onto the professional stage in 2010. With the release of their debut CD, this remarkably skilled a cappella vocal quartet has presented the listener with an irresistible potpourri of musical motifs, including material from the worlds of jazzy-pop, alternative/indie, rap as well as their own takes on classic French Chanson. Not since Blossom Dearie’s Blue Stars of Paris has such a superb, Francophone vocal ensemble emerged (a cappella or otherwise).

Clearly influenced by groups as diverse as The Four Seasons and Manhattan Transfer as well as musical theatre, these talented artists see no stylistic boundaries and specialize in blurring the lines. Qw4rtz’s two tenors, frequently arranged in unison, effortless contrapuntal commitment and solid, relentless bass lines, lend a dynamism to all of the clever and complex arrangements found here.

The 13-track CD kicks off with the bombastic Julie – Les Coocs and segues into the delightful Fais-moi un show de boucane (Give Me a Show of Smoke). Nearly unbearably beautiful are Hymne à l’amour (Hymn to Love), written by the “Little Sparrow” herself, the great Edith Piaf, and her protégé Charles Aznevour’s Emmenez-moi (Take Me). A rollicking and joyful stand-out, Boum boum boum/Elle me dit (Boom Boom Boom/She Tells Me) is guaranteed to please, as is the emotional and energetic closer, Papaoutai.

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