Saturday, July 31, 2010

Book Review--Catch Me if You Can

Song Catchers
In Search of the World’s Music
By Mickey Hart with K.M. Kostyal
National Geographic (2003)

I found this gem at Village Books in Bellingham, Washington. I wasn’t planning on buying any books, but then I made the mistake of checking out the arts section in the store. Tucked in with the music theory and Rough Guide to Classical Music, I found Song Catchers (In Search of the World’s Music). I made the mistake of picking up the book and turning each lovingly crafted page portraying both the history of ethnomusicology and recording devices as seen through the passionate eyes of Mickey Hart.

Grateful Dead drummer/ethnomusicologist, Hart caught the anthropological bug early in life when he found a recording of African pygmies at his family home. He delved into this secret world without knowing where it would lead him later in life. And similar to the other famous song catchers he mentions through the book, (Frances Densmore, John and Alan Lomax, Moses Asch…), he caught himself in a race to save the world’s indigenous music before it disappeared in the din of this technological age. Ironically, technology (digital) is also involved with transferring decaying tapes and wax cylinders for future generations.

Hart writes with both a passionate eye and a compassionate heart. He asks shouldn’t the royalties of recordings go back to the original source, after all he cites that we are stealing other people’s music if we don’t compensate the musicians of that culture. I agree. Hart begins with, “Music expresses who we truly are and links us with the infinite universe; it is the orphan echo of the Big Bang that blew us into existence. It gives shape to our thoughts and feelings, things we can’t express in words, turning spirit into sound. Music is the path the spirit travels between the physical and metaphysical worlds.”

This concept then launches a journey that begins in the Victorian Age with the anthropologists and song collectors of that time, as well as, the newly invented recording equipment of that era. And readers are introduced to key players who invented new technology and who collected songs from people rapidly losing their culture, language and music. As we know some of the song catchers record the original source and archive it, while others such as Kitka (women’s choir from San Francisco specializing in Eastern European polyphony music), collect, preserve and perform music. And it wasn't for musicians such as Hart, Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon, Bonnie Raitt, etc... would we even be listening to world pop?

Most important world music and many traditions we take for granted would not be around if someone had not placed their faith in it, validated its importance and recorded it for posterity. Hart mentions in the book how the Grateful Dead benefited from the Lomaxes preservation of blues and folk music, and so have pop, rock, and other types of musicians. And in fact, the blues can be traced back to West Africa. So can the banjo. Old European dances from the renaissance and baroque periods still exists in the traditional music of Latin America and other former colonies of European nations. When we casts out our nets and dig up the roots, we find that music has a huge universal story to tell us. And Hart and his co-writer Kostyal provide us with a starting point.

The breadth and scope of this book amazes and entices me. There was no way I could walk away leaving that book on the shelf.  I highly recommend this book, which can be purchased at discounted prices.

Friday, July 30, 2010

In review--Blowing in the Wind

Imani Winds
Terra Incognita
E1 Entertainment

Although Imani Winds formed in 1997, Terra Incognita marks the first album I’ve heard by the quintet. As the name would imply this chamber ensemble features wind instruments, but not all woodwinds, French horn is included bringing a wide range of sonorities. IW performs both original and interpretations of classical, jazz, and traditional. Terra Incognita (named after the Wayne Shorter piece performed on this recording), also features works by Cuban expat Paquito D’Rivera and composer Jason Moran. Guest musicians include D’Rivera on clarinet and Alex Brown on piano. The recording is part IW's Legacy Project, featuring music from around the world.

I’m particularly fond of projects that marry classical music to jazz, world, and folkloric idioms. And I’m not surprised to hear work by D’Rivera on this recording since he combines all those elements in his music. Remember his track on the album and documentary film Calle 54? Imani Winds, (Valerie Colman, flute, Toyin Spellman-Dìaz, oboe, Mariam Adam, clarinet, Jeff Scott, French horn, and Monica Ellis, bassoon), perform a classical-jazz blend that recalls Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (I hear hints of Ravel too), with Latin jazz flavors, which plays out like salsa club in the last few lines of D’Rivera’s Wind Chimes.  In fact, D’Rivera and Brown’s blues tinged Latin jazz performances on Kites over Havana and Wind Chimes contribute to this exhilarating recording.

I’m surprised at the number of young chamber ensembles, Spanish Brass also comes to mind, that explore territory that bridges classical with other genres. These ensembles infuse new vibrant energy to classical music with their adventurous spirit. Imani Winds experiments too with harmonics often with the five instruments veering off in different directions then colliding at jaunty angles. It’s interesting to hear the bassoon, clarinet, oboe, flute, and French horn in conversation, not just musical, but also cultural dialogues. The overall effect of IW’s performance of Jason Moran’s suite Cane, Wayne Shorter’s Terra Incognita and D’Rivera’s Kites over Havana/Wind Chimes could easily send shivers of joy up listeners’ spines—truly a delightful and enlightening recording.

See fall touring dates at and information on the recording at

Thursday, July 29, 2010

In review--It's a New World After All

Jordi Savall
Hespèrion XXI & other groups
El Nuevo Mundo
Folias Criollas
Aliavox/Harmonia Mundi

Fans of early music know that if they wish to take a musical journey to the renaissance, baroque period, or even to King Louis XIV court, Jordi Savall and his ensembles can take them there. I’m not sure where the Savall-Figueras family comes up with the energy to release as many early music gems as they do, but I’m grateful as a music reviewer and armchair scholar. I also started thinking of these musicians as the musical equivalent of a royal Catalan family. They certainly play courtly music, colonial, rustic and otherwise.

I’m still catching my breath after reviewing a Bach recording (The Brandenburg Concertos) by Jordi Savall recently. And now he and his musicians have united with early music and folkloric musicians in the Americas, “New World” where they explore colonial music that combined music of American Indians, Spanish settlers, missionaries, and African slaves. While I had heard religious music of this period performed by indigenous musicians, mostly Christmas music, I had not heard the colonial roots of Mexican son and early music of Peru and Colombia. Hearing baroque ensembles performing sacred church music alternating with folkloric music from the 1600s feels like a real treat. Hearing the different vocal styles, the period instruments playing alongside their rustic counterparts adds to the excitement of this musical journey. I often wondered where Venezuela came up with so many traditional lutes.

The title track, Folias Criollas, a son jarocho from the Veracruz state of Mexico certainly sounds familiar with its rapid-fire lutes and fiery vocals, and in fact, this particular track resembles contemporary son jarocho. This genre of Mexican son plays an important role since it brought together music al influences of indigenous people, African slaves, and Spanish colonialists. The Mexican son (a regional musical genre that varies by region) married European dances, lutes, and poetry, to African and indigenous rhythms. This recording provides the roots of the folkloric traditions of Latin America and also provides us a glimpse into colonial religious music as you hear on several of the tracks.

I saw a few familiar song titles such as Balajù (Veracruz), El Pajarillo (Mexico) and El Cielito Lindo (Mexico) hoping to hear traditional songs of those titles, but the songs that appeared on this recording hardly resemble the popular songs of today. This however, left me wondering if the popular songs are in fact modern versions of the songs on this recording or that the shared titles are merely a coincidence. Songs change drastically over a 400 year period. In any case, hearing the roots of traditional Latin American songs certainly take my mind on a backwards journey through time.

El Nuevo Mundo not only features Jordi Savall and Hespèrion XXI and his wife soprano Montserrat Figueras, but also Tembembe Ensamble Continuo and La Capella Reial De Catalunya. Lutes, flutes, harps, percussion, strings and other instruments create a festive environment where old and new worlds come together and the past and the present become one.,

Sunday, July 25, 2010

In review--Saluzzi's Enchanted World

Dino Saluzzi
El Encuentro

I first discovered Argentine bandoneon master Dino Saluzzi when he released his ensemble’s recording, Juan Condori. I instantly fell in love with Saluzzi’s composition which married musical instincts with compassionate poetics. This poetry wasn’t conveyed in words, but in the universal language music, with musical conversations reflecting on jazz and Argentine indigenous sensibilities. And actual words can barely convey the fragile moments, the nuances, and the sudden sweeping gestures present in Saluzzi’s compositions. He’s a musician that clearly wears his heart on his sleeve.

The next recording I heard and reviewed featured Saluzzi with German violoncellist Anja Lechner, Ojos Negros. The musical conversation sounded even more delicate and intimate, those haunting exchanges between the violoncello and the bandoneon, falling deeply into classical chamber music with a far-reaching effect. And now on Saluzzi’s live debut for ECM, El Encuentro, not only has Anja Lechner and Saluzzi’s brother Felix Saluzzi (saxophone) come on board, but so has the multidimensional Metropole Orchestra (Netherland) conducted by Jules Buckley. We shouldn’t be surprised however since all of these players could be called nothing short of musical adventurers exploring the territories where classical meets folkloric and jazz. All of these players are versed in working with jazz, classical and folkloric musicians and listeners can hear that energy on El Encuentro.

The four pieces with banks of strings holding a backdrop for violoncello, bandoneon and saxophone feel more dreamy than haunting. They feel hopeful and sweeping emotions that recall Rachmaninoff’s symphonic work and other late Romantic era symphonies float in and out of this dreamscape. Saluzzi who hails from Argentina, worked with the late Astor Piazzolla and other musical pioneer Gato Barbieri forges new musical territory here. You’d expect to hear tango pieces with the bandoneon leading the way, but with the exception of  tango-like outbursts that occurs in the titular track, the bandoneon swims in the orchestral realm. You still hear a passionate longing.  Also on the final track, Miserere some Piazzolla-like new tango passages appear. There’s still a sense of melancholy and a hint of something tragic, but the fragile sensibilities that hide in every note and every gesture transform this recording into a masterpiece.

I recommend this recording for people who spend the time to enjoy nuances in music, who support musical pioneers, and who take the time to listen to powerful music and ward off any distractions while doing so. El Encuentro doesn’t provide us with background music, but music that demands our attention. And there’s so much going on musically on this recording that you’ll want to pay close attention. Super sensitive listeners will especially enjoy El Encuentro and those with an innocent heart will fully comprehend this music.