Friday, April 2, 2010

In review--Sliding into the 21st Century

V.M. Bhatt and Matt Malley
Sleepless Nights
World Village

When I first saw that Vishwa Mohan Bhatt was releasing a recording on World Village, I got excited, but then after I saw that the master Indian slide-guitarist had teamed up with a rock musician, Matt Malley (Counting Crows), I felt somewhat reluctant to review the CD, Sleepless Nights. While the concept of East meets West, musically speaking, intrigues me, some of those collaborations come off as hyperkinetic Bollywood soundtracks. I know some music fans love that type of music, but at this stage of the game, I desperately need music that soothes, not jars my nerves.  I'm not the average music listener and music is my medicine for healing tension and sensitivities.

However, I’m a great admirer of V.M. Bhatt and I have several of his Sense World Music recordings in my collection. He’s well-respected in his homeland, India, for good reason, and here in the West, where he came onto the radar after collaborating with Ry Cooder, another musician I admire, on the Grammy Award winning album, A Meeting by the River. I also have enjoyed Bhatt’s collaboration with Rajasthani gypsy musicians, Desert Slide (Sense World Music).

But how would I feel about Bhatt’s collaboration with a rock bassist/keyboard player? I find synthesizers cold and plastic sounding. If it were possible I would pluck synthesizer tracks out of otherwise acoustic music. Other sensitives (people who are hypersensitive to sound, environmental stress, etc), have also complained about the effects of electronic instruments on their nerves. (The odd thing is electronic music only started grating on my nerves a few years ago. Up until that point, I liked it).

The musicians, also includes table player Subhen Chatterjee who bridges the gap between East and West, pull off a modern sound that gives off the exotic fragrance of Indian classical music. Bhatt’s playing, which was recorded in single takes and heavily improvised, sparkles here, as it should. This is the musician who invented the Indian slide-guitar, also known as a Mohan veena and he’s certainly the musician accredited for taking the instrument beyond Indian classical music. On the opener, Rainbow in My Heart, Bhatt takes the lead and plays melodic passages that would easily roll off of a singer’s tongue. And true to the singing-style of playing of Indian classical music, on Languid with Longing and the final track, Silent Footsteps, the slide guitar takes on a vocal quality. I can almost hear a vocalist stepping in and singing the melodic lines.  Bhatt lends his vocal talent on the titular track.

I have enjoyed listening to most of the selections on the album with the exception of The Scalding Rain in which the keyboard distracts me and leaves me feeling overly tense. The song would sound better in my opinion without the keyboard. Perhaps, piano or a xylophone would sound better to my ears. I also find the keyboard invasive on tracks 5 and 6, though the masterful musicianship of Bhatt lifts those songs to a blissful place. Thankfully, Malley is a wise musician and producer who knows when to step out of the way and allow Bhatt to do his thing. A musician not steeped in yoga or a fan of Indian classical music, like Malley, would have overpowered the delicate Indian slide-guitar.

On one hand, this type of collaboration opens new ears to classical Indian music and its players. But on the other hand, I hope it doesn’t open the door to Indian classical music playing second fiddle to fusion projects. The music provides a blissful cadence and the closing track works nicely as a piece for practicing yoga or meditating. I’m reminded of George Harrison’s collaborations with Indian musicians and his commitment to Indian spirituality. It’s better to approach other cultures with open minds and open hearts, to embrace the other, but to never let a dominant pop culture take the lead. This creates a fragile situation, but one that with the right amount of reverence and respect, can provide us with new types of music genres.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

In review--Baroque Andes-Style

Florilegium and Arakaendar Bolivia Choir
Bolivian Baroque, Vol. 3
Music from the Missions and La Plata
Channel Classics (distributed by Harmonia Mundi)

When I think of Bolivian music, Andes folkloric traditions surface with panpipes, traditional flutes, charango (a lute made from an armadillo) and bombo drum. I had never connected European baroque music with the South American country, but of course it makes sense that the Spanish colonists and missionaries would have brought baroque music with them.

For those of you not familiar with Bolivia, the landlocked South American country is bordered by Peru and Chile on the west, Brazil on the northeast, Paraguay and Argentina in the south. The Andes country’s population is comprised of Afro-Bolivians, Spanish descent, and Creole. However, the majority of Bolivians are Indians of pure Aymara and Quechua backgrounds.

So this brings us to the English baroque ensemble Florilegium and the Arakaendar Bolivian Choir (comprised of singers of American Indian descent) recording, Bolivian Baroque, Vol. 3. The recording provides both baroque instrumental pieces performed on organ and period instruments, as well as, sacred choral music once performed by the Indians that converted to Catholicism in the missions of Bolivia.

The intriguing liner notes provide the historical significance of this music along with information about the missionary composers of that era. We also learn about the church organs built by Indians and we are introduced to poly choral music (music composed to be performed by two or three choirs at a time). So besides, this unique musical experience, there’s a lot of information to digest. The recording immerses listeners in gorgeous choral pieces sung in lilting mixed voices, organ toccatas performed by British keyboardist James Johnstone and baroque sonatas performed by the small period ensemble, Florilegium.

Music director Ashley Solomon, also hailing from the UK founded the Bolivian choir which consists of indigenous vocalists. He travels regularly between England and Bolivia working with the choir, researching Bolivia’s archives and touring the choir in Europe and its homeland. He was awarded the Hans Roth Prize for his work with the choir. According to the liner notes, “This prestigious Bolivian award has been given to him in recognition of the enormous assistance he has given to the Bolivian native Indians, their presence on the international stage and the promotion and preservation of this music.”

While I don’t normally listen to baroque organ music (reminds me too much of church), the organ performances on this CD can only be called thrilling and astounding. You might add archival to the list of adjectives since Johnstone performed the works on a Bolivian mission organ (built by Indians). The mixed choir serves up stunning vocals and rich harmonies (take a listen to Al Llanto mas tierno composed by Juan de Araujo). And the instrumental pieces performed by the ensemble, especially Sonata No. IV composed by an anonymous source glistens. The shimmering flute on the second movement, Andante captured my attention. The recording ends with a folkloric piece, not related to the baroque era, “Little Orange” which is performed by the choir and backed by a Andes traditional lute, charango.

This recording is not the first I’ve heard of European Catholic church music performed by indigenous people of the New World, but it is the first I’ve heard from South America. The recording offers an earful of phenomenal music, especially for fans of the baroque era music, but it also offers a glimpse into a history unknown to most of the world. And if you’re wondering if the music has a healing effect, the answer is a resounding yes. Baroque music lends itself to good digestion (listen to while eating a meal), retaining information while studying and I’ve found listening to it helps with writing blocks.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

In review--Gutsy, Raw and Adventurous Impressions

Dante String Quartet with Simon Crawford-Phillips
Debussy String Quartet
Ravel String Quartet and Violin Sonata
Hyperion/Harmonia Mundi

In 2000 or 2001 when I was reviewing cinema, I checked out the film, Un Coeur en Hiver (A Heart in Winter) by Claude Sautet from the library. While the love story in the film portrayed by French actors Daniel Auteuil and Emmanuelle Beart felt cold and philosophical to me, the music by Ravel struck a chord. Unfortunately, I did not think of writing down the soundtrack information and I ended up checking out every Ravel recording from the library in search of the music. To make a long story short, I finally found the music on Dante String Quartet’s Debussy String Quartet/Ravel String Quartet and Violin Sonata.

And I finally found a Ravel and Debussy recording where the musicians perform all the movements of the compositions. I heard only one movement of Debussy’s String Quartet in G minor, Assez vif et bien rythmè and single movements of the Ravel pieces performed on previous recordings so this new recording is a real treat. The Dante Quartet (Krysia Osostowicz-violin, Giles Francis-violin, Judith Busbridge-viola and Bernard Gregor-Smith-cello) and joined by pianist Simon Crawford-Phillips on the Ravel sonata, play these French Impressionist music classics for all their worth.

The liner notes mention that during Debussy’s and Ravel’s heyday, young composers did not compose string quartets. And the composers who did try their hand at string quartets were long established and over 60 years old. Debussy’s String Quartet in G minor attracted its share of detractors including fellow composer Chausson.  They considered the adventurous string quartet as presumptuous But Debussy, and his younger colleague Ravel, thumbed their noses at the musical conventions of that time, especially if the conventions carried a fragrance of Romantic Era music.

The French Impressionist composers wrote for chamber musicians, though Debussy and Ravel both composed for ballets and operas, though small and elegant in scope. The string quartets, on Dante Quartet's recording certainly have those moonlit path or cherry blossoms falling gently from trees moments, but tension bubbles up from underneath and sometimes explodes into slightly strident passages. The strings whether plucked or bowed, sometimes a combination, are employed to the fullest effect. You’ll also find some colorful counterpoint and intriguing textures that leave orchestral impressions though the pieces are performed on four or five instruments when the piano is added.  Ravel was known for his ingenius orchestrations and both composers created incredible sonic environments that engaged all the senses.

While Debussy composed his string quartet in 1893, Ravel took several years to compose his violin sonata, which was composed from 1923 to 1927, ten years before Ravel would die from an experimental brain surgery. By the 1920s however, Ravel had discovered American jazz and you can hear a bluesy element in the second movement of the violin sonata. I have even heard versions where a banjo plays the first few measures of the sonata. But then Ravel was a composer with a few surprises up his dandy sleeves. Remember he employed a whip lashing the stage at the beginning of his Piano Concerto in G major.

As far as Dante Quartet’s recording, I’m honored to add this one to my collection. I feel that the quartet captured the essence and personalities of the French composers. I can also feel rawness and excitement listening to the recording. And thankfully, because the quartet played the pieces in their entirety, I finally found music I had been seeking for ten years. If only I could find the DVD of the movie again.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

In review--Bon Anniversaire Chopin (200th)

Frèdèric Chopin (1810-1849)
Stephen Hough
Chopin Late Masterpieces

I regret that up until now, I have only heard Frèdèric Chopin’s music in passing. I heard waltzes and lullabies mostly, but I had never sat down with a recording and taken a good listen or attended a piano recital of Chopin’s music. I knew tidbits of information about the Polish composer’s tumultuous relationship with French author George Sands (a woman) and his death at a young age from TB, but only now with the 200th anniversary of Chopin’s birth (he was either born in February 22 or March 1 in 1810), am I getting acquainted with the composer and virtuoso pianist.

I received English pianist extraordinaire Stephen Hough’s Chopin (Late Masterpieces) recording in the mail yesterday. The premise behind the recording revolves around the innovations and transformations that take place in an artist’s work during the last years of life. Many great artists of various disciplines are mentioned in the liner notes, but many of these artists lived beyond 40 years, Chopin died at the age of 39. And similar to another famous composer, Mozart who died at the age of 33, Chopin was also hailed as a child virtuoso, both as a pianist and a composer with some of his greatest innovations of genres and inspirations outpouring in his late years. These works include Barcarolle in F sharp major, four mazurkas (a Polish dance), Polonaise-Fantasy in A flat major, two nocturnes, Piano Sonata No 3 in B minor and the recording ends with Berceuse in D flat major.

Stephen Hough performed a diverse set of compositions in which he could display his mastership of slow and lyrical passages in contrast to fiery ones in the vein of the Romantic Era in which Chopin lived and composed his music. The liner notes mention some of the innovations that Chopin brought to nocturnes and his invention of the Polonaise-Fantasy genre. Rich harmonics and counterpoint come up in the liner notes, but more importantly can be heard throughout the pieces on the recording. All the pieces sound complicated despite their sometimes tranquil mood. The Polonaise-Fantasy in A flat major possesses many moods from a sheer playful delight to a small blast of passion. It feels broody at times too.

Piano Sonata No 3 in B minor also displays mood swings and great dexterity on the pianist part. Not only is Hough faced with the technical challenges, but also the emotional ones. While not possessing the over-the-top passion of Russian Composer Sergei Rachmaninoff’s piano concertos or even Russian Composer Sergei Prokofiev’s piano concertos, nonetheless I'm surprised of the range of dynamics in Chopin’s late work, since I mainly have known him as the composer of tranquil piano work. And I recall a friend playing a CD of Chopin’s waltzes and lullabies to put her child to sleep (over 16 years ago now).

Chopin lived with a lung ailment (either tuberculosis or cystic fibrosis) since his childhood, which curtailed his adult life and intimate relationships, especially with George Sands. Similar to Mozart, who Chopin admired, he enjoyed early years as a child prodigy and later great esteem as a composer in Western Europe as well as, back home in Poland where he is still hailed as a musical genius. While Mozart’s work possessed childlike glee and wild abandonment of a sort, Chopin’s music flows with emotions (not surprised since he was born under the sign of Pisces, which rules flowing emotions and music). Chopin mostly composed for solo piano and his work must have seemed small in comparison to other Romantic Era composers of his time, and certainly more quiet and contemplative, though not less broody than composers such as Ludwig van Beethoven.

As someone who believes in the healing aspects of music, I wonder if composing and playing piano, prolonged Chopin’s life. His sister died of TB at the age of 14 and his father also died from the disease. Chopin also had many bouts years prior to his death when his doctors pronounced him already dead from the disease, and yet, he recovered as if something, most likely his music kept him going. Only time will tell if researchers find a “Chopin Effect” for healing lung ailments and other pulmonary diseases. Ironically, the composer’s heart was preserved and it is held in a church in Poland. And my final word on that I get a sense that the composer put a lot of heart into his music. Certainly I can feel some heartfelt emotions on my end 200 years after Chopin’s birth. And cheers to Stephen Hough for bringing these heartfelt emotions alive on this disc.

Note: For piano buffs--Chopin composed and played a Pleyal piano.

Monday, March 29, 2010

In review--Ladies Sing the Blues

Catherine Russell
Inside This Heart of Mine
World Village

Ana Moura
Leva-Me Aos Fados
World Village

I received jazz/blues chanteuse Catherine Russell’s third release on World Village, Inside This Heart of Mine in early March. I’ve been champing at the bit because I want to shout out to the world about this fabulous recording. And Ms Russell’s provided us with a spicy repertoire filled with jumpin’ jive, New Orleans jazz (Dixieland, I believe), some smooth standards, swing and blues classics. From the opener, the steamy titular with Russell’s captivating vocals to the New Orleans number, Struttin’ with Some Barbeque. The song even entices a vegetarian like me—rhythmically and melodically speaking.

The swinging All the Cats Join In features some stunning solos by Dan Block on saxophone and Jon-Erik Kellso. Russell shows off her vocal prowess on the swing numbers, especially on We the People with its delightful syncopation and on the Gospel-tinged Troubled Waters. She’s equally at home rousing the band as she is belting out those soulful blues laments. Her voice framed by accordion, horns, piano, banjo, acoustic bass, violin, drums, guitar, and tuba, Russell’s recording sounds like a classic.

Jazz ballads such as November and the titular track would be at home on Madeleine Peyroux’s and other standard jazz performers’ recordings, but in Russell’s hands the repertoire of songs composed by Willie Dixon, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, and others, boil over with ingenuity. She’s a mature performer who runs circles around her younger contemporaries. Some jazz and blues women vocalists merely emulate those grand dames that came before, but Russell comes off as an original that interprets classics and applies the right nuances from her emotional palette. Inside This Heart of Mine proves unforgettable with the tunes resonating in the mind and body long after the CD stops playing.

Portuguese fado has been labeled the blues of Portugal. Many years ago Mariza, then a rising international star, captivated my ears and turned me onto fado. I had heard archival fadistas prior to that, but hearing modern interpretation of Portuguese blues sung by a contemporary fadista blessed with a vocal and emotional range felt like a real pleasure. Since those fateful moments when Mariza’s fados found my willing ears, I have enjoyed albums by numerous fadistas, most of them sopranos and all of them representing a new generation of fado superstars.

I had seen Ana Moura’s name around, but I’m only getting on board now with her newest CD, Leva-Me Fados. A contralto, it took me a few minutes to adjust to her voice, since most of what I’ve heard so far in the world of fado has been sung by mezzo-sopranos and sopranos. Moura opens with the title track and she reminds me a horse leaping out of a start-up gate. It’s not exactly an off-to-the-races moment, but Moura sings from a place of power and passion. The traditional musical arrangements are sure to please the fado veterans that took Moura under their wings, early in the vocalist’s career. In fact, this recording reminds me of the archival fado recordings I discovered back in the 1990s—back when few Americans outside the Portuguese immigrant communities knew about this vocal genre. Yet anyone who believes in fate or expresses healthy emotions would have fallen in love with artists such as Mariza and Moura even back then.

Listening to Por minha conta (track 3) it’s easy to see why rock and pop musicians fell in love with Moura’s vocals, or why the fado veterans nurtured the young vocalist’s career. She’s young and from another era, but she sings with gusto and all that she is worth. It would not be unheard of to feel authentic emotions and wipe tears from your eyes while listening to this particular track. And you don’t even need to know the English translation of the text. (English and other language translations of the text appear in the liner notes).

Similar to the flamenco diva that takes us to duende or the blues singer that causes us to feel emotions deep down in our bones, Moura awakens dormant feelings. The 17 tracks provide an emotional map for this musical journey. I just can’t imagine anyone not enjoying the immense pleasures this album provides. And if you’re like me, pick up fado recordings by Mariza, Cristina Branco, Joana Amendoeira and other singers of fate and enjoy a music festival in your home.

World Village