Ghost Town Blues Band
It's difficult to restrict Ghost Town Blues Band to the label "blues combo." With its solid horn section, and varied styles and arrangements, the group is much more than a sum of its parts, with a unique approach to R&B and rock.
The group's fifth album, Shine, is a testament to its collective might, finding the meaty heart of each song and delivering it directly into your speakers. Memphis, Tenn., native Matt Isbell is pretty much the nucleus of the band's energy. He sings with passion and a road-tested potency that grabs your attention immediately. His menacing growl on the swampy, mid-tempo Dirty works to get the song's imagery ("The current’s taking me under, now I’m drowning in insanity…") across superbly, while the cheery Evangeline has him sounding as optimistic about new love as anyone could be.
Isbell can also be counted on to offer up some pretty startling guitar work all over Shine. He uses a host of instruments — including cigar box guitar and something called a "silverware chest guitar" — and if you are a fan of tasteful, perfectly situated solo, Isbell is your guy. Givin’ It All Away is a particular gem that trades well on its jam rock-like groove, featuring a marvellous trombone solo by band member Suavo Jones. Carry Me Home is a six-plus minute, full-bodied review of virtually everything this band does well and is an example of why GTBB has been won a number of music awards over the last few years. (There's a bit of rap on one song that, while an honest effort to contemporize their sound, serves only as a distraction.)
Shine documents a band at the height of its powers and while the blues music world is always pretty crowded, GTBB is the kind of combo that should be mentioned along with the finest of its contemporaries.
STREAM THESE: Carry Me Home; Givin’ It All Away
★★★1/2 OUT OF FIVE
— Jeff Monk
Eagle & Hawk
Surprisingly, it’s been nine years since Eagle & Hawk released new material. The Winnipeg-based Indigenous rock band has certainly been active over the years, touring summer festivals and playing prestige gigs such as this year’s Canada Day show at The Forks with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, and singer Jay Bodner and guitarist Vince Fontaine always seem to make the scene at the Juno Awards, where they are regulars on Jim Cuddy’s Juno Cup hockey team.
Last year, E&H marked 20 years as a touring band, CBC commissioned a documentary and core members Bodner, Fontaine, bassist Spatch Mulhall and drummer Rich Reid were inspired to start writing again. The result is Liberty, a seven-song collection of six new tunes and a rich re-recording of Song for the Sundancer (called simply Sundancer here) featuring new vocal tracks from Pamela Davis, Neewa Mason and Shannon McKenney.
Co-produced by Fontaine and longtime collaborator Chris Burke-Gaffney, Liberty is a showcase for Eagle & Hawk’s greatest attributes — this is a solid, tuneful rock group whose knack for rousing choruses and tasteful playing appeals across generations.
The band’s not afraid to make statements, either, and there are plenty on this record. Opener Great Divide addresses the social, political and racial divisions of our world, Liberty lambastes U.S. immigration policy under Donald Trump, while She’s Come of Age celebrates the strength of women and Spirit, an all-too-brief instrumental, is an acknowledgement of the power of Mother Earth.
STREAM THESE: Great Divide; Liberty; Sundancer
— John Kendle
Esbjörn Svensson Trio
EST Live in Gothenburg (ACT)
In 2008, several weeks before he was scheduled to appear at the Jazz Winnipeg International Jazz Festival, the pianist /leader of EST, Esbjörn Svensson, died in a diving accident in Sweden. The jazz community is still grieving the loss of one of the major voices and cutting-edge trios in contemporary jazz. With Dan Berglund (bass) and Magnus Öström (drums), EST was redefining trio jazz with incredible skill and artistry.
This album is a previously unreleased concert from 2001 — one Svensson apparently called one of the best shows the trio ever did. However this album got here after all this time, this two-CD set is simply essential for any EST fan. (The accompanying notes by Svensson about concert preparation and living in the creative moment are also worth close attention.)
There are several extended tracks, such as Good Morning Susie Soho or The Rube Thing, with trademark interwoven themes, swirling rhythms and occasional use of electronics that would become more common in the years between this concert and 2008. As with any premature death, the "what ifs" are heartbreaking. This album demonstrates a trio that was totally comfortable with itself but ceaselessly restless in development. Where they might have gone next can only be conjectured, so why not enjoy all we can of what we have?
From ballad to pounding speed, the three players — all amazing musicians, with a synchronicity that is jaw-dropping — make it all seem logical and easy. Highly recommended.
Stream these: From Gagarin’s Point of View, The Chapel
— Keith Black
Music by and Inspired by Brahms
Steven Masi piano (Navona Records)
This unique release celebrates the highly introspective solo piano music of Johannes Brahms, as well as the ties that bind across the ages, with two new contemporary works inspired by the late romantic composer included as paired "companion pieces."
American pianist Steven Masi brings out the rich tonal colours and sonorities of each of the larger-scale Brahms offerings ostensibly now serving as prototypes, including his Three Intermezzi, Op. 117, regarded a cornerstone of the repertoire. In turn, Brahmsiana II, written by Robert Chumbley, offers a shimmering distillation of the earlier work’s brooding ethos, with the pianist further heightening Brahms’ unabashed lyricism while harnessing a wholly contemporary musical language particularly evident during the central Scherzo.
The second Brahms work, his Six Klavierstucke, Op. 118, returns listeners to the older world, once again brought to life by Masi with limpid expressiveness. He displays his luminous tone and arching phrasing during each of its six movements, with No. 2 Intermezzo in A Major and the penultimate No. 5, Romance in F major becoming album highlights, contrasted by his rhythmically crisp No. 3 Ballade in B minor, and a particularly exultant No. 1 Intermezzo in A minor showcasing his technical prowess.
Its partner piece, the four-movement Echoes of Youth composed by Jonathan Cziner, resonates as an authentic response to the decidedly tonally based romanticism of the Brahms, including stark dissonances given wide berth with his sparser writing style. Of Cziner’s own suite, the opening Romance — its cascades of sound fully exploiting the full range of the keyboard — proves deeply felt emotionalism speaks across time and space, and in whichever dialect one might be uttering one’s own longings of the heart.
STREAM THIS: Romance from Jonathan Cziner’s Echoes of Youth
— Holly Harris