Chris McKhool, Kevin Laliberte, Eddie Paton, Drew Birston, Rosendo Leon, plus special guest stars; Jamie Hopkings and orchestra. Red River Entertainment MCK 2055.
Publicity for this disc, Symphony!, assures us it is a “crossover album,” in this case a fusion of jazz, pop, blues, and classical. I’d say the emphasis here should be on the jazz, pop, and blues elements, for the classical part does take a definite back seat, despite the use of a fifty-five-piece orchestra to accompany the headliners. In other words, don’t expect something like the Jacques Loussier Trio playing arrangements of famous classical works. This one is more pop-jazz than not.
In the event you haven’t heard of them, the Sultans of String are an award-winning Canadian instrumental group out of Toronto, Ontario, who combine bits of Spanish flamenco, Cuban rhythm, Arabic folk, and French Gypsy jazz. Founding members Chris McKhool and Kevin Laliberté started performing together in 2004, employing a combination of McKhool's six-stringed violin and Laliberté's flamenco guitar. They discovered that their particular brand of rhythms and melodies worked well onstage, and, accordingly, they began recording and touring with a full band.
The membership of the Sultans of String will give you an idea of the kind of thing they do: Chris McKhool, six-string violin and vocals; Kevin Laliberté, nylon string guitar, steel string guitar, electric guitar; Eddie Paton, nylon string guitar; Drew Birston, acoustic and electric bass, scat; and Rosendo “Chendy” León, percussion, palmas, drums, and jaleo. Also on the program are various guest stars on specific numbers: Bassam Bshara, Dala-Amanda Walther and Sheila Carabine, James Hill, Larry Larson, and Paddy Moloney (of The Chieftains). Backing the instrumentalists are members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the National Ballet Orchestra, the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra, and others, lead by conductor Jamie Hopkins.
You can hear a couple of minutes below of the opening number, “Monti’s Revenge,” inspired by a piece called “Csardas” by the Italian composer Vittorio Monti. “Csardas” sounds like a Hungarian Gypsy tune, and it’s clear the Sultans are having fun playing it. "Monti's Revenge" gets progressively more animated as it goes along, ending in a whirlwind finish. The players are each virtuosos on their instruments, so the music sounds quite accomplished, quite polished, yet quite spontaneous. And quite invigorating.
And so it goes through ten tracks. Indeed, if there's anything to complain about it's that like most pop albums, ten selections don't amount to much time-wise: about forty-nine minutes. Still, it's quality over quantity, no?
Among the tunes, a few I favored most were "Palmas Sinfonia," a Spanish flamencan-inflected piece; "Emerald Swing," a fiddle-swing Gypsy mash-up; "Sable Island," with Paddy Moloney joining in on pennywhistle and uilleann pipes; a lovely ballad entitled "A Place to Call Home"; and a vigorous Middle-Eastern piece, "Road to Kfarmishki," which opens with the sound of the Arabic oud, an ancestor of the modern guitar.
The only vocal on the program is "Will You Marry Me" by Chris McKhool, a very personal song. Then, things close with a guitar duet, "Encuentros," which has a lovely lyrical appeal.
As I say, the album's title, Symphony!, is a little misleading. There isn't a lot that one could seriously associate with a symphony here beyond the fact that the Sultans of String employ a modestly sized orchestra to accompany them. Still, if you enjoy modern popular music, the album represents a good cross-section of jazz, blues, Gypsy, Mediterranean, and, yes, maybe even a touch of classical.
Producer Chris McKhool recorded most of the music in Toronto, Canada, 2013, although Paddy Moloney recorded his contribution to the proceedings in Dublin, Ireland. The sound is rather hi-fi-ish, if that makes sense. It's close and flat, as in one-dimensional, yet with excellent definition and loads of punch. In fact, it's transferred at such a high gain that it practically blew down the house when I first turned it on. Like a lot of pop albums, the actual dynamic range seems a bit limited, though, with everything coming at one very loudly. Nevertheless, it all seems to work, if you don't mind a kind of Phase-4 clinical sonic approach rather than a purely realistic one.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here: