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The home of music journalist Nicholas Jennings, author of Lightfoot, the definitive new Gordon Lightfoot biography from Penguin Random House.

Liner Notes: Bruce Cockburn - Humans

brucecockburn humansRanked by many people as Bruce Cockburn’s best album, Humans is a watershed release in the acclaimed Canadian singer-songwriter’s stellar career. It came in the midst of tumultuous change in Cockburn’s life, following the breakup of his 10-year marriage and his move from the country to the city. After a decade of rural existence, living in a camper and then settling in tiny Burritt’s Rapids, south of Ottawa, the longtime loner took up residence in downtown Toronto. It was, he told reporters at the time, a deliberate test of his faith. “I moved with the express purpose of absorbing myself in human society to see what it was,” said Cockburn. “If, as a Christian, I was being asked to love my fellow human beings, I couldn’t love them very well if I didn’t know anything about them.”

    With 1980’s Humans, Cockburn challenged himself musically as well as spiritually. The album represented the first of his more electric, rock-oriented releases, after the trilogy of acoustic jazz folk recordings that culminated in 1979’s Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws. The latter produced the reggae-flavored “Wondering Where the Lions Are,” which became a Top 40 hit in both Canada and the United States. Where “Lions” featured the rhythm section of Jamaican star Leroy Sibbles’ group, Humans’ anthemic “Rumours of Glory,” with its bouncy bass, added the reggae legend himself on backup vocals. Cockburn, wielding an electric guitar and backed by such new band members as violinist Hugh Marsh and keyboardist Jon Goldsmith, infused the entire album with a tougher, more uptempo sound. “I really wanted to play reggae music and rock ’n’ roll,” he

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Liner Notes: Bruce Cockburn - High Winds White Sky

brucecockburn highwindsThe stark black and white cover photo speaks volumes about Bruce Cockburn in the early 1970s. He stands alone at the foot of a bridge, surrounded by snow-capped trees, looking like what writer Jack Batten then described as a “splendid survivor of Robin Hood’s merry men dressed in leather jerkins and boot-high moccasins.” At the time, the rising singer-songwriter possessed a deep fascination with the wilderness and things medieval—especially Renaissance music. And although already on a quest, Cockburn had not yet embraced his particular brand of Christianity. He was, in his own words, a “spiritual loner who sought truth in nature.” 

Images and references to rivers, birds, mountains and, especially, sunlight abound on 1971’s High Winds White Sky—as they do on Cockburn’s previous self-titled debut album and the subsequent Sunwheel Dance. The three albums formed a powerful acoustic trilogy that established Cockburn as one of Canada’s most important performers of introspective, literate songs. Unfortunately, they also typecast him as a pastoral folkie, an image that Cockburn found ultimately restricting. For one thing, his tastes went well beyond just folk into country blues and global music. And his interests led him to Buddhist teachings, from the Beat writers to the Sutras themselves. Blending all of those elements, High Winds White Sky remains a landmark recording—as fresh and

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Liner Notes: Bruce Cockburn - Circles in the Stream

brucecockburn circlesOne of the marks of a great live album is the ability of the artist to inject his material with new vitality, to the point where even well-known songs take on fresh meaning. Bruce Cockburn did exactly that with Circles in the Stream, which caught the Canadian folksinger at the culmination of his first tour with a full band. That group provided the kind of intelligent and intuitive accompaniment that creates an inspired—and inspiring—concert experience. “It’s amazing to hear how tight we are together,” percussionist Bill Usher once recalled, on hearing the recording. “We’re all hitting the same accents at the same time and in harness with each other.”

Recorded in the spring of 1977 at Toronto’s venerable Massey Hall, Circles in the Stream captures Cockburn at the peak of his creative powers. Originally released shortly after Cockburn’s fine transitional album In the Falling Dark, the live recording blends adventurous jazz textures with his more familiar folk influences. The album opens with the stirring sound of a traditional Scottish tune on bagpipes, before Cockburn and his sidemen—Usher, bassist Robert Boucher and electric pianist and marimba player Pat Godfrey—segue into a shimmering rendition of “Starwheel.” Following a marimba-laced version of the stark “Never So Free,” Cockburn launches into three newly written songs: the stunning guitar instrumental “Deer Dancing Round a Broken Mirror,” the dreamy, jazz-tinged French song “Homme Brûlant (Burning Man)” and the rhythmic, politically charged number “Free to Be.”

Two other new songs rank among the album’s highlights. Like “Deer Dancing,” the wondrously intricate instrumental “Cader Idris,” named after a Welsh mountain which means “Chair of Idris,” showcases Cockburn’s superb fingerpicking and fretwork. “Red Brother Red Sister” acknowledges the historic

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Liner Notes: Bruce Cockburn - Big Circumstance

brucecockburn bigcircumstanceThe result of three years of traveling to such far-flung places as Mozambique, Nepal and Central America, the songs on 1989’s Big Circumstance reflect Bruce Cockburn’s heartfelt reactions to war, repression and environmental abuse. The celebrated Canadian singer-songwriter was already well known for such forthright songs of the 1980s as “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” and “Call it Democracy.” With Big Circumstance, Cockburn ended the decade with some of the most politically potent material of his career, including “If a Tree Falls,” which tackled the issue of rain forest destruction. “From Sarawak to Amazonas, Costa Rica to mangy B.C. hills,” he sang angrily, “ancient cord of coexistence hacked by parasitic greedhead scam.” The accompanying video—one of Cockburn’s best—didn’t pull any punches either.
   

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Liner Notes: Roberto Occhipinti - Yemaya

robertoocchipinti yemayaRare is the bassist who steps forward to lead his own ensemble. Rarer still is the bandleader who successfully bridges the worlds of jazz and classical music. Roberto Occhipinti clearly belongs to that rare breed. On his first album, 2001's Trinacria, Occhipinti explored the range of Latin jazz through works by Thelonious Monk, Cuban piano virtuoso Hilario Durán and his own compositions. His follow up album, 2003's The Cusp, expanded on the concept, adding violin, flutes, reeds and horns while tackling composers as diverse as Wayne Shorter, Jimi Hendrix and Giacomo Puccini. Now, with Yemaya, Occhipinti has given full flight to his musical vision, employing horns, a string quartet and a full string symphony orchestra on classical arrangements of Cuban, Brazilian and original jazz pieces. It’s an inspired synthesis.

The album opens with "Maracatres" by Brazilian pianist Jovino Santos-Neto, in which saxophonist Phil Dwyer's fluttering solo floats over a swelling ocean of horns and strings. The breezy title track has bata drummer Pedro Martinez singing a warm homage to the goddess of sea and nature in the Afro-Cuban religion while Moscow's Globalis Symphony lend rich orchestral accompaniment. Equally striking is the sumptuous string arrangement of

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Liner Notes: The Paupers – Dig Deep 1966-1968

Liner Notes: The Paupers – Dig Deep 1966-1968
Canadians have a peculiar ability to downplay—or forget altogether—their artists’ achievements. “Cultural amnesia,” Margaret Atwood once called it. Canada’s first lady of letters could well have been referring to how the fabulous Paupers were (until now) relegated to the delete bins of Canadian music history. Atwood was giving her first poetry readings at Toronto’s Bohemian Embassy when The Paupers were establishing themselves as a legendary live act up the street, in Yorkville clubs like the El Patio and Boris’ Red Gas Room. The group went on to score radio hits such as “Simple Deed” and “If I Call You By Some Name.” But most significant—and forgotten—is the fact that in the months leading ...
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Liner Notes: Chalk Circle - The Best of Chalk Circle

chalkcircle bestofA thinking band from the 1980s, Chalk Circle was that rare group of musicians who combined socially conscious lyrics and chiming guitars in an age dominated by big hair and synthesizers. Listening to the band’s music again, what stands out is how fresh and forceful it still sounds. The songs have aged remarkably well.

Part of the reason lies in Chalk Circle’s sources of inspiration: literature and the environment. The group took its name from a play by Bertolt Brecht, about fighting for your convictions in the face of pressure. And the band members, who grew up in Newcastle, Ontario, near the controversial Darlington Station, never shied away from writing about the dangers of nuclear power. As singer-guitarist Chris Tait, who wrote most of the groups lyrics, put it: “We feel most comfortable writing about subjects that are around us.”

Originally formed as a trio in 1983 by Tait, bassist Brad Hopkins and drummer Derrick Murphy, Chalk Circle rounded out its sound with the addition of keyboardist Tad Winklarz, a classically trained pianist who fled his native Poland shortly before the imposition of martial law. The song “Buildings” arose from one of the first

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