Amanda Tosoff – Earth Voices
( Empress Music. CD Review by Lavender Sutton)
In a video for the 2016 Toronto Jazz Festival, Canadian pianist, composer and educator Amanda Tosoff explained her then-new project Words and how she was inspired by poems that resonated with her to improvise and eventually compose songs to accompany the poetry. This project was very well received, and also nominated for a 2017 Juno award.
She went on to say “I had so much fun writing these compositions…I would like to continue doing this…expand my compositional skills with larger ensembles and more strings…”
Which brings us now to 2021, with the release of Earth Voices. Tosoff has taken the concept that she so brilliantly mastered with Words and built upon it. More instruments, more beautiful poems, more vocalists that equal more invigorating compositions that inspire and lift the already powerful words off the page into the present moment.
This time, she has featured the voices of 7 different Canadian vocalists on 8 evocative poems.
The album is book-ended with award-winning vocalist Emilie-Claire Barlow, who’s label Empress Records released Earth Voices. The first track is an Edgar Allan Poe poem called A Dream Within a Dream and while the poem itself is quite romantic and softly inquisitive, Tosoff’s composition is confident and bold – almost like a challenge – it has dreamlike qualities that build, especially through the solo section, but the piano line that intertwines with the saxophone line is suggestive of a very powerful dream.
Pablo Neruda’s Sonnet 49 starts with a cyclical piano pattern that seems like a continuation of the previous “dream” and is accompanied by sharp, mysterious lines from the string section, reminiscent of the words that all revolve around love in the natural sense, the sky, time, light and dark. Tosoff’s solo steps out of the box just enough, as the band continues to thrum a more latin-like rhythm beneath before it returns to the familiar lyrical road. Robin Dann has a gorgeously hollow voice that is so suited to this arrangement.
Here and Heaven, an arrangement of the song from Yo-Yo Ma’s Goat Rodeo Sessions really shows how broad Tosoff’s influences are. A mixture of jazz, folk and Bluegrass all rolled together. The openness of the harmonies between the voices and within the string section are used to remind us that modern jazz can be stirred together with other genres – it’s natural. Alex Goodman’s guitar solo reminds us that this is for-sure a modern jazz album, and Morgan Childs is featured on the drums throughout.
Alax Samaras’ voice is rich in colour and depth and it’s certain that this arrangement of Rumi’s poem – Birdwings – could have easily been found on an early Kurt Elling album. Oh, Life, features Samaras and Laila Biali and brings a more delicate touch to the album. These words are from a musical adaptation by a Canadian musical director, Mike Ross, called Spoon River.
The Fiddle and the Drum was originally a Joni Mitchell tune that was sung a capella. It is known for being a commentary of a Canadian citizen living in the USA which is perhaps a poignant political point to be made at the moment. It features the voice of Lydia Persaud and Allison Au on alto sax. Tosoff’s addition of an arrangement here augments the message beautifully.
The voice of Felicity Williams is welcomed back, as she was the vocalist that sang all the compositions on Tosoff’s last project. The words of Walt Whitman’s To a Stranger acts almost as a response to Joni Mitchell’s previous sentiment. The arrangement features only the strings as they gently carry Williams’ soft voice carefully through.
The first note of Finis, a poem by Marjorie Pickthall, is repeated as a pedal and it feels like a new beginning, as though this is only the first song of the album. The feeling is intensified by the recapitulation of Barlow’s voice. There’s a certain jubilant, expectancy about it and the words exclaim Give me a few more hours to pass/give me a few more days to keep/give me a few more years to fill…
Maybe this is a statement that Tosoff intended as a sign off. We’ve journeyed even further down the road of blending poetry and voices with the world of modern jazz and the hope is that there are a few more hours, days, years for her to continue.
Emilie-Claire Barlow, Laila Biali, Michelle Willis, Lydia Persaud, Robin Dann, Felicity Williams, & Alex Samaras
Allison Au (alto sax) Kelly Jefferson (soprano sax), Alex Goodman (guitar), Amanda Tosoff (piano), Jon Maharaj (bass), Morgan Childs (drums), Aline Homzy (violin), Jeremy Potts (violin), Laurence Schaufele (viola), Beth Silver (cello)
LINK: Earth Voices at Bandcamp