01 Bird von BingenFelix Anima
Jeff Bird
Independent (jeffbird.com)

Canadian multi-instrumentalist Jeff Bird, familiar to many as the harmonica player for the Cowboy Junkies, describes his interpretations of the music of Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) as “Man plays 800-year-old music on the harmonica.” And so he does, with passion, clear musical understanding and respect on eight of her sacred chants. Bird also supports his harmonica playing with many other instruments like shruti box and lap steel, with special guest pianist Witold Grabowiecki on two tracks.

This is such a rewarding magical listening experience. Bird’s perfect breath control on harmonica emulates the original vocal lines throughout all his contemplative arrangements. The opening solo Lovingly Inclined Towards All is amazing from the start, with nice use of drone and musical touches maintaining von Bingen’s original stylistic aspects. Noble Rupert is given a reflective performance on harmonica and shruti box, as a low drone note supports the lead harmonica lines featuring dynamic held note swells. The Third Flies Everywhere is an intense harmonica/piano duet tour de force as the resonating very low piano notes contrast a detached piano melody, with the harmonica introduction adding new colour. A mid-piece solo piano leads to duet melodic conversations and an inspiring reflective harmonica line against more florid piano movement.

Bird’s decades-long passion for von Bingen’s music has enabled him to create a new brilliant sound mix of medieval and modern arrangements for instrumentations that all just work perfectly to the final harmonica closing fade.

Listen to 'Felix Anima' Now in the Listening Room

02 Songs without WordsSongs without Words – Torchsongs Transformed
Les Délices
Navona Records NV6195 (navonarecords.com)

A unique programming scenario highlights this second release by Les Délices, a Baroque instrumental trio founded in 2009 by Baroque oboist Debra Nagy, with members Mélisande Corriveau on viola da gamba and pardessus de viole, and Eric Milnes on harpsichord. Here the trio performs 17th- and 18th-century vocal airs and 20th-century jazz standards and torch songs, creating mindset-altering music.

As no published solo music existed for Baroque woodwinds prior to 1700, vocal songs were adapted for instruments. Les Délices chose French love songs from some of the greatest 17th-century songwriters. Highlights include Marin Marais’ Prelude in A Minor featuring intricate ornamentations and trills, clear phrasing and clear harpsichord accompanying cadences. Nice melodic and ornamental interplay between harpsichord and oboe makes for a straightforward Baroque rendition of Jean-Baptiste de Bousett’s Pourquoy, doux rossignol. Strong ensemble playing keeps the listener’s attention throughout a slow and heartbreaking rendition of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Tristes apprets.

The big surprises here are the contemporary songs. For example, the Patsy Cline/Willie Nelson classic Crazy is true to the original, with the almost-country-band rhythmic harpsichord and viola da gamba supporting the wailing oboe melody. John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s Michelle highlights an upbeat pop harpsichord with a sing-along oboe melody. The closing Joseph Kosma/Johnny Mercer Autumn Leaves features almost percussive harpsichord chords with an almost walking bass viola da gamba background, highlighted by an oboe lead complete with solo improvisation.

This is successful risk-taking music!

03 DreamersDreamers
Magos Herrera; Brooklyn Rider
Sony Masterworks 190758907123 (brooklynrider.com)

In a context where the term “dreamers” is being misused to characterize immigrants as being motivated by some kind of imaginary land grab or cultural invasion, celebrating beauty and one-ness becomes a political act. New York City-based Mexican vocalist and composer Magos Herrera and the noted string quartet Brooklyn Rider’s debut collaboration is, in their own words, “Celebrating the power of beauty as a political act.” This breathtaking Hispano-centric recording includes not only poetry and compositions from Violeta Parra, Gaetano Veloso, Federico García Lorca, João Gilberto, Gilberto Gil and Octavio Paz, but also contains gems from the Ibero-American songbook, arranged with a fresh, new perspective. All of the poets and composers featured on the CD have come from places that have endured brutal national violence and oppression.

Produced by Brooklyn Rider’s violinist Johnny Gandelsman, the CD opens with Nina – with lyrics drawn from a poem by Paz and music by Herrera and Felipe Pérez Santiago. Herrera’s sonorous and evocative vocal sound is magic itself, and the string arrangement is percussive and urgent. Brooklyn Rider also includes Colin Jacobsen on violin, Nicholas Cords on viola and Michael Nicolas on cello.

On the exquisite Dreams, written by Paz (with English lyrics by Herrera), she clearly sings “We have to sleep with open eyes – and we must dream with our hands.” Every song on this CD is a work of art, guaranteed to open every heart. A total delight is Brazilian political activist Veloso’s De Manhã (It’s Morning), as is the swinging bossa by Gil, Eu vim da Bahía (I come from Bahía).

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.

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