Saturday, December 27, 2008

Mombacho - Mike Janzen Trio & Friends

A collaborator with Steve Bell indulges his passion for jazz

Mombacho
Artist: Mike Janzen Trio & Friends (www.mikejanzen.ca)
Label: Signpost Music
Length: 12 tracks/77:12 minutes

My introduction to Mike Janzen comes through Steve Bell. Janzen’s classical-tinged piano playing and his orchestration on Bell’s Symphony Sessions is impressive and indicative of his talent.

On Mombacho, his sophomore release, Janzen is indulging his passion for jazz. For someone like me who has limited exposure to the genre, it’s like listening to someone sing in a foreign language. But superb craftsmanship, the warmth of a live-feel and the technical precision of a studio recording make this inviting even for the uninitiated.

This jazz evolves through plenty of improvising. It’s energetic, vibrant (not somber) and creative.

The piano-playing is like a swollen stream darting here and there on its meandering journey. I enjoy the short, odd-sounding bass solos. It’s not often that you hear them. They sound like something unhinged, twisting in the wind.

Crisp-sounding drums are also allowed brief moments of abandon. All the instruments celebrate the freedom of liberation from simple pop and rock structures.

The sound is gloriously organic with no synths or overwrought production. It is keyboards, bass and drums with occasional sax and other support. The use of organ on a couple of songs and its use as the only keyboard on the title song add interest.

Most songs extend beyond five minutes. Janzen is the primary composer with collaboration from the others. Three notable covers: "Mrs. Robinson" (Simon and Garfunkel), "All the Diamonds" (Bruce Cockburn) and "God Put a Smile on My Face" (Coldplay) get a jazz makeover.

“Masaya” and “All the Diamonds” are the only tracks with vocals.

Janzen is a master of music, who makes this a fun listen and something different.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Where We Were - Kerri Woelke

A slice of Americana from Canada

Where We Were
Artist: Kerri Woelke (www.kerriwoelke.com)
Label: Signpost Music
Length: 14 tracks/50:51 minutes

Singing to a karoke machine in her early years and learning to play guitar in a dorm bathroom were just the beginning for Kerri Woelke. She spent years refining her skills in Canadian bands Dirty Old Hank and Gretchen before switching to a singer/songwriter mode. Today she is an Artist in Development with Canadian indie label Signpost Music. Where We Were, her sophomore CD, follows her self-titled debut. Since September 2008 she has been on tour with Steve Bell.

Students of relationships take note. With a folk, country and roots oriented style of music, Woelke often sings about demise between people and the hope of renewal. “I’ve danced with lots before / but never felt so bruised and sore / is it possible to love like this,” she asks on “Last Dance.” In the next stanza she wonders if “this love we’ve lost” can “be found again.” On “Sweep” we hear her resolve after a breakup. “I’ll just sweep / clean up the mess you made of me.”

But don’t get the wrong impression. This is not all about “suffering here below,” to borrow a phrase from an old hymn. Something magical takes place on “Take a Chance.” Only a woman could write such an inviting and vulnerable song. “Take a chance / take a chance on me,” she sings in a childlike voice. This sounds like something that one of Sufjan Steven’s background singers would make. The music is sparse with exotic instrumentation including a banjitar, which is found on a number of songs. Vibes and a quiet bass clarinet make this the perfect soundtrack for a modern day fairy tale—a show like Pushing Daisies could work this into an episode. This song alone makes the CD worth having.

As she continues with, “This is my little love song out to you / I know you thought we were through / and now I’m left here loving you,” my heart melts, and I bask in the sweetness. Songs like this are the reason why I listen to music. They sweep away the gathering gloom, and suddenly the world seems a brighter place.

No synths, light production, and lots of acoustic instrumentation that meshes well, make for a pleasant, organic sound throughout the CD. Often the tone of her voice and some use of pedal steel guitars give this a light country feel. But there is also blues, gospel, and even a little Johnny Cash influence. I could imagine June Carter or the man in black singing some of these songs.

“What Would it Take” and “Tonight I Am the Wind” lean toward alt-folk and are favorites. On the former she intrigues by asking, “What would it take for me to be / happy in my own skin.” The music is acoustic picking accompanied by a low-sounding distorted guitar, reminding me of Katie Herzig. In the latter song you can hear the solace in her voice, “Any peace that I might find / comes in the valleys where I hide / I pass through landscapes turned to dust / carrying pieces of my past.” Here she sounds like a woman at peace.

I’m partial to her folk side, but the rootsy feel and her strong voice make the entire CD appealing. Nothing but good will come from her continued collaboration with Steve Bell and Signpost.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Devotion - Steve Bell

Singer/songwriter worship with a Taize influence

Devotion
Artist: Steve Bell
Label: Signpost Music
Length: 12 tracks/59:24 minutes

Steve Bell has recorded many inspirational and praise-oriented songs, but Devotion marks the first time that he has created an album for use in worship settings. But unlike his other recordings, Bell has not written any of the songs. Most are by Gord Johnson, whom Bell acknowledges as one of his greatest influences.

Johnson recently started to write simple but elegant songs that were being used in their Winnipeg church. “These contemplative song-prayers have so often gently led us into the presence of the Holy that several of us felt we needed to offer them to the wider worshipping community,” writes Bell in the booklet that comes with the CD.

Don’t get the idea that everything is quiet. The CD opens with “Almighty God,” which explodes with background vocals from Bell and Carolyn Arends and rock that hasn’t been heard in awhile on a Steve Bell record.

The music styles vary. “The Lorica” is as light and catchy as a Celtic reel. “Praise the Father, Praise the Son” has a strong melody and a full-bodied sound. There’s even a gospel and blues-influenced communion song (“Embrace the Mystery”). “Who Condemns You Now” has few words and a sparse sound that includes an English horn.

This is one song that strongly shows the influence of Taize worship on Johnson's writing. Taize music reflects the contemplative nature of an ecumenical and monastic community founded in France by a man known as “Brother Roger.” This style often uses simple phrases from the Psalms or other parts of Scripture, which are repeated as an aid to meditation and prayer. Some lyrics on this release have a little more depth, but they all mirror this style, which is growing in popularity.

Bell dresses the words with acoustic picking and creative musical interludes. Producer Roy Salmond’s ethereal guitars and synth work give some tracks a more ambient sound. One can find similarities with the recent releases of Jeff Johnson, who has also been inspired by Taize worship.

“Gone is the Light” is one example of just how good the result of this influence can be. It’s a haunting reflection on our brokenness and Christ’s suffering. It’s part of a song cycle that is somewhat liturgical. It starts with a view of God’s attributes, which segues into our need for the redemption spoken of in this song. It then shifts to a celebration and nurture of the new life within, followed by the closing “Benediction.”

The cover is a hoot, with Bell looking like a Jewish rabbi chasing his hat that is being blown by the wind. He sees it as a picture of his relationship with God, who he continually pursues but “playfully (maddeningly)” remains just beyond reach.

Devotion is an enhanced CD that contains printable lead sheets and lyrics. This has everything needed to use the material in one’s own setting. The enhancements also include a video of Bell performing “Deep Calls to Deep” with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra.

Even though I can appreciate contemporary praise and worship, I find this type of music more appealing. It merges Bell’s acoustic singer/songwriter bent with songs that are simple enough to facilitate worship that gets beyond words and music.

Jesus spoke of those who worship in spirit and truth. If the Church has been strong on the truth side, this could help balance the scales by inspiring more worship in spirit.

The originality and creativity on this CD make it one of Bell’s best recordings. Don’t be surprised if it gets a Juno award, the Canadian equivalent to a Grammy.

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