01 Balkan ConfluenceConfluence – Balkan Dances and Tango Neuvo
Zachary Carrettin; Mina Gajić
Sono Luminus DSL-92256 (sonoluminus.com/store/confluence)

Confluence marks the second release for the acclaimed Sono Luminus label by husband-and-wife duo, pianist Mina Gajić and violinist Zachary Carrettin. The pairing of Marko Tajčević’s folky Balkan Dances with the contemporary tangos by Ray Granlund may seem risky at first glance but it works very well and is a reflection of the cultural influences that are meaningful to these two performers. Here we have a flowing together, a merging of two different compositional languages, coming from regions that are geographically distanced but complementary with their distinct rhythmicity and melodic flavour. 

The selected tangos were written for Carrettin and it is obvious how much he enjoys playing them. The passion and lyricism, mixed together in both the writing and interpretation, are truly engaging. Granlund leaves room for improvisation and plenty of interpretative choices, and Carrettin thrives on the explorative freedom the tangos are providing. His sound is mellow and intense at the same time, as if he is daring us to get up and join him in dance. 

Tajčević’s Balkan Dances, written for solo piano, are not as exuberant but they have an absolutely relentless rhythmical drive, reminiscent of Bartók, and the melos and sturdiness of Balkan music. Gajić brings the percussiveness to the forefront and she does it with both grace and conviction. TangoNometria, one of the pieces on the album, easily links all the aspects of the music and performances on display here – ever-shifting rhythms, visceral melodies and thrilling interpretations.

Listen to 'Confluence' Now in the Listening Room

02 Lamia Yared OttomanOttoman Splendours
Lamia Yared; Ensemble Oraciones
Analekta AN2 9176 (analekta.com/en)

Diverse does not begin to describe the musical heritage of the Ottoman Empire. Full credit then to Lamia Yared, who has assembled a suitably diverse CD, drawing on Sephardic, Turkish, Hebrew and Greek music. Full credit to Didem Başar for her plaintive settings of most of the songs on the CD.

The backbone of the collection comprises a group of Ladino songs, some of which feature melodies that would not be out of place among the courts of medieval Europe; Dicho me habian dicho is a case in point with the haunting singing of Yared and its vivacious string accompaniment.

Ensemble Oraciones’ interpretations of the Turkish songs bring home the liveliness of this tradition; for example, Niçin gördüm seni highlights all the Ensemble’s players, one by one, in a spirited performance enhanced by Yared’s yearning voice.

Perhaps the most eccentric tracks on the CD are the songs written by Greek composers. Kouklaki mou (My Doll) begins with a clarinet intro by Yoni Kaston in full accordance with the rebetiko tradition of the Greek underworld. The tune may have been borrowed by Judeo-Spanish musicians but Kouklaki mou has its own place in Greek music – performed by women singers delivering their song within the hashish dens of Athens (the little doll is not the sort of woman you would want to bring home to any Jewish mother.)  

Mention should certainly be made of the instrumental contributions, for example the staccato drumbeats of Tres morillas eventually interweaving with the urgency of the kanun part. The versatility of the kanun is in fact proven by Başar’s own playing.   

The performers were very brave in condensing music from a whole swath of Europe onto one CD – which demonstrates how right they were to amalgamate their exceptional talents. 

Listen to 'Ottoman Splendours' Now in the Listening Room

03 Les ArrivantsHome
Les Arrivants
Analekta AN 2 9175 (analekta.com/en)

Les Arrivants is a positive COVID-19 pandemic creation. The three musicians -- Amichai Ben Shalev on bandoneon, Abdul-Wahab Kayyali on oud, and Hamin Honari on percussion -- independently settled in Montreal between the summers of 2019 and 2020 where they met and found a musical common ground playing together as an ensemble. They each draw on their personal backgrounds, resettlement experiences and respective musical expertise of Argentinian tango, classical Arabic music and traditional Persian rhythms with Montreal contemporary/traditional/improvised music and life during COVID to make unique music 

Each musician is also a composer. Title track Home (Chez Soi) by Honari has his repeated percussion rhythm grounding the bandoneon’s modern wide-pitched, held notes and chords midstream, then an oud solo and a closing upbeat group build. Kayyali’s Burkaan (Volcan/Volcano) is fast and fun, more traditional oud music, with the band members doubling and answering the oud lines. Each member performs a solo track. Shalev’s bandoneon composition Solitude is a musical contemporary storytelling take on the tango genre with swells, held notes and wide-pitch ranges. Special guests Reza Abaee on gheychak, and Pierre-Alexandre Maranda on double bass, appear on select tracks like the closing Nava by Parviz Meshkatian, showcasing the band’s world, improvisation and popular style musicianship.

Special thanks to artistic residency support from the Montreal-based Centre des Musiciens du Monde in collaboration with Analekta for this album. Les Arrivants’ tight seamless blending of styles and instrumentals creates accessible, colourful, world/popular music for all to enjoy.

Listen to 'Home' Now in the Listening Room

01 Dance with MeDance With Me
Barbara Hannigan; Lucienne Renaudin Vary; Berlage Saxophone Quartet; Ludwig Orchestra
Alpha 790 (naxosdirect.com/search/alpha790)

Music and dance are rooted deep in the human condition. Canada’s favourite soprano-conductor Barbara Hannigan, directing the musicians of the Ludwig Orchestra and Berlage Saxophone Quartet, celebrates the popular music of the 20th century on Dance with Me. Covering 12 dances ranging from Viennese waltz to foxtrot, tango to quickstep, rumba to one-step, from slow dance to samba, salsa and jive, this well-recorded album is engineered to get your feet shuffling.

In some ways it feels like a follow-up to their 2018 Grammy Award-snagging Crazy Girl Crazy, the collaboration with composer-arranger Bill Elliott. This music has a personal resonance tinged with nostalgia for Hannigan, who stated that she “was thrilled to go back to this aspect of my musical roots, to reawaken special memories of singing and playing keyboards with a dance band in Nova Scotia.” 

Hannigan sings four songs on the card. She brings a girlish charm to I Could Have Danced All Night, emotional drama to Moonlight Serenade and a pouty sexuality to Fluffy Ruffles. One of her signature near-operatic interpretations takes centre stage: Kurt Weill’s dramatic, wistful minor-key tango-habanera, Youkali, is an ideal vehicle for her portrayal of the universal yearning for paradise lost.

I should mention Elliott’s accomplished orchestral arrangements for the Ludwig Orchestra. This fun album tickled my latent ballroom genes. Trigger warning: it may well tickle yours too.

02 Jordana TalskyZahava
Jordana Talsky
Independent (jordanatalsky.com)

I really admire artists who evolve and embrace new styles and technologies. Taking a risk is never easy, and with Zahava, Jordana Talsky has made the leap from more traditional music-making to relying solely on her voice, using vocal looping to produce a whole EP. As is true for a lot of developments, Talsky stumbled upon looping by accident. She was trying to find a quick way to capture musical ideas and found that doing a recording was faster than notating. 

Having a strong voice, big range and a variety of vocal colours to draw on certainly helps, and Talsky has it all, plus exceptional songwriting skills and an ear for arranging. Collaborating with talented multi-instrumentalist Justin Abedin – here lending a hand with producing, recording and songwriting – also helps. The six songs on the EP are all very accessible in that they follow traditional verse-chorus structures and have relatable themes about self-exploration and relationship struggles. The general musical style is more in the pop vein than Talsky’s earlier jazzy releases and tinges of the blues show up on Trouble Up and there’s a soulful edge to City Lights. Oh Yeah has hit written all over it. 

There are plenty of artists out there using looping and other technologies to one degree or another and, of course, lots of great music is being made by singers recording the old fashioned way, in a studio with a band. I just really appreciate it when artists mix it up a bit, and Zahava is a fine example of that.

03 Luis Mario Ochoa jpegForever Lecuona
Luis Mario Ochoa
Independent (luismario.com)

Ernesto Lecuona, known as “the Gershwin of Cuba,” is the subject of the latest release by singer-guitarist Luis Mario Ochoa. Since Lecuona wrote both music and lyrics during his prolific and celebrated career, I suppose he’s both George and Ira Gershwin. Indeed, his most famous work was done in the field of operetta and film (for which he was nominated for an Academy Award), and Ochoa includes several of those tracks, lovingly reproduced here.

You couldn’t find a more authentic interpreter of this music than Ochoa, who was born and raised in Cuba and studied the great masters during his musical education at the University of Havana. Cuba’s loss was Toronto’s gain when Ochoa emigrated here in 1990 and became a bandleader and regular feature on the club circuit. Ochoa has drawn on the deep Toronto talent pool for the world-class musical support on this album, including gifted multi-instrumentalist Louis Simao on bass, fellow countryman Hilario Duran on piano (no electronic keyboards here!) and Luis Orbegoso and Chendy Leon on percussion.  

With songs dating back to the early 1900s, this is a nostalgic but still relevant collection of classic Cuban sounds. Themes of heartbreak and longing never go out of style, do they? Neither does dancing, and this album will surely inspire you to get on your feet and take a turn around the floor. This may be especially true for non-Spanish speakers, as all the songs are in that language, of course. But everyone speaks the language of uplifting rhythm and Ochoa’s beautiful guitar playing and bright, plaintive singing clearly convey the message.

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