Wednesday, April 21, 2010

In review--Bathing Beauties

Milagro Acustico
Thermae Atmospherae
Look Studio/CNI Music

Since 2002 when I was first introduced to the Italian ensemble Milagro Acustico, I have reviewed several of its recordings. MA’s music can best be described as a musical journey through time and space that marries contemporary genres such as jazz with ancient Silk Road and Mediterranean music traditions. The musicians, led by Bob Salmieri embed passionate female and male vocals within an array of exotic acoustic instruments. Fans of Middle Eastern and Turkish lutes, percussion as well as, flamenco guitar, western horns, and bass will feel at home listening to the 3-CD album, Thermae Atmospherae.

When I put the first disc into my player the songs sounded familiar to my ears. So I brought out previous MA recordings and I noticed that many, if not all the music on the CDs had been pre-recorded and I believe arranged in a slightly different manner. Thermae Atmospherae revolves around the concept of the Roman bath, but could imply Turkish and other community bath situations. Each CD represents a different room in the Roman bath, (Frigidarium, Tepidarium and Caladarium).

The liner notes cite, “…It is an endless journey along the coasts of the Mediterranean Sea, visiting the countries bordering this basin that always unites and divides people who lived through their business, struggles, religions, ideas and cultures.” Fortunately, music provides a universal language with a multitude of timbres, melodies and rhythms that unite us and bring peace when most needed. And in the hands of Milagro Acustico, music also acts as a travel companion that entices us with the exotic and the familiar.

For instance, the third CD alone provides ethereal music that recalls spiritual pilgrims, Sufi poets and New Orleans-style jazz (Escape from Bogsac), mixed with belly dancing rhythms. A listener can sit back in his or her armchair with the headphones on, and travel around the world in the course of three CDs. I wouldn’t recommend MA’s music for meditation, but certainly some of it entices a dance or two out of its listeners or a deep listening experience with the music acting as the main focus. Turkish, Arabic, Mediterranean, Silk Road genres and jazz all make their home on these discs and even with this odd fusion, the musicians succeed with this multinational acoustic groove project.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

In review--Contemporary Norway

For All Times
Kirkelig Kulturverksted

Kjetil Bjerkestrand
Piano Poems
Kirkelig Kulturverksted

For All Times marks the Norwegian choir Skruk’s 33rd anniversary. Led by Per Oddvar Hildre, Skruk never ceases to surprise me with its delightful musical exchanges. According to the press notes, the innovative choir embarked on a variety of cross cultural projects with musicians from Central Asia, Central and South America and New Orleans. This retrospective CD features highlights from those musical explorations and also of its many soloists over the years including Palestinian Rim Bana on track 13. Many of the soloists have gone onto experience successful musical careers, as they should. The collection of beautiful voices on this recording could only be called sublime.

What stands out for me is the breadth of the choir’s repertoire. You’ll hear Andes flutes (and percussion), on one piece, Silk Road percussion and instruments on another and New Orleans jazz on still another. You’ll also find European-style choral music with crystal clear soprano vocals. The colorful vocal arrangements and orchestration holds my interest as a listener and I find the music deeply relaxing without putting me to sleep. I enjoy international choir projects and feel deeply moved with music that knows no borders.

Whether this choir is new to you or a classic you’ve known about for decades, I recommend this recording as both an introduction to the Norwegian choral tradition and a marker for previous projects that still feel relevant and fresh today.

At Fifty-four years Norwegian pianist/organist/keyboardist Kjetil Bjerkestrand makes his solo debut Piano Poems. While I’m a fan of piano music, I favor jazz, Latin jazz and European classical. Piano Poems will no doubt provide a reflective even meditative pool for many listeners. However, I find the music here slightly melancholic and the electronic elements (though subtle) distract me. The collection of songs falls into new age piano with some hints of classical and other genres.

However, don’t let my personal taste deter you from at least listening to Bjerkestrand’s solo efforts. He has an ear for melody and he’s light on the keys. He also holds an esteemed place in Norway as a session player. The press notes cite, "‘Una corda’ means ‘one string’. This musical expression is used in written piano music to indicate that the composer wants to soften the note, and this is accomplished when the pianist presses the leftmost pedal so that only two of the three strings for each tone are sounded.”

Piano Poems provides agreeable background music for meditation, but not for work that involves driving or operating machinery. The music possesses relaxing qualities and would be ideal for energy and massage therapy, but please check with your clients first since some people do not enjoy synthesizers. Fortunately the core of the album revolves around a Steinway piano, which in itself sounds gorgeous. And fans of new age piano music, such as work by Peter Kater, would enjoy this recording.