Toronto, Canada’s Juno-nominated composer, conductor, and pianist Saman Shahi’s debut album Breathing in the Shadows illustrates more than just Shahi’s writing and playing talents. It illustrates his ambition and stylistic command in equal measure. A prime example of those four characteristics appearing from a single piece is the song “Another Coffee”. The track hails from one of the album’s three song cycles, Orbit. Orbit grabbed second prize in the prestigious Canadian Amateur Musician’s Association’s 2019 Composition Compositions. It assumes even greater luster when juxtaposed against the other two song cycles included on Breathing in the Shadows. There’s no question, however, that the song stands on its own as well. “Another Coffee” achieves many of the same effects as a standalone song as it does working as an important piece of a larger sonic puzzle.
It has a distinct downbeat texture. The lyrical yet slightly woozy gait of Tara Scott’s piano playing carries us into the song and vocalist Fabian Arciniegas soon joins. His resonant lower register fills the song with contrast, yes, but they complement one another extraordinarily well. No one can deny lyricist Jelena Ciric’s part in the song’s success. The literal yet literate and even poetic way Ciric orchestrates concrete imagery into an unexpected storytelling tapestry will linger with many.
Arciniegas understands the material as few other singers could. He brings audible discipline to every line and breathtaking vocal control fueling each syllable with feeling. Singers who have the creativity to never sing anything the same way twice without bungling at some point are rare. Arciniegas, however, presses all the right buttons and entertains listeners from the first line to last.
His technical skills are obviously steeped in classical and even opera. Listeners weaned or accustomed to straightforward pop singers will hear fast the differences between the self-taught and professionally trained. Arciniegas certainly belongs in the second category. Never mistake this for a lack of connection though. As said earlier in the review, Arciniegas’ emotional edge is unparalleled in this style.
Scott’s piano playing provides the necessary underpinning for elevating the lyrics. The song is, in essence, a duet for piano and voice. Scott recognizes this from the outset and the effort toward tailoring the piano parts to the lyrical mood and Arciniegas’ voice makes a crucial difference for the song’s potential. “Another Coffee” wallows in bathos when in the hands of lesser talents. The trio of lyricist Ciric, Scott’s piano, and Arciniegas’ voice, instead, finds a winning combination with this performance.
He’s a long way from writing and recording a pop album, but imaginative listeners can divine Shahi’s eventual endgame as a composer. There’s ambition lurking behind the notes reaching for the goal of bringing classical and pop songs together with a dollop of the theatrical. He wants to expand on that and even an excellent song such as “Another Coffee” is a dry run for even greater triumphs to come. If that proves to be so, it’s nevertheless one hell of a dry run. You’ll hear nothing else like it in 2023.
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