Thursday, October 7, 2010

In review--Catalan!

Marina Rossell
Clàssics Catalans…
Gran Teatre del Liceu de Barcelona
World Village

Only an accomplished vocalist/folkloric interpreter could open a concert with a fragile love song sung a cappella (Touch Me) and nearly bring the house down. However, Mariana Rossell, a Catalan folkloric specialist delivers a commanding performance ripe with heartfelt emotions. On her CD, Gran Teatre Del Liceu from the concert released in 2009 on World Village, I could already hear Rossell’s immaculate phrasing, and felt amazed at the life she breathed into 100 year old songs. The DVD concert offers an hour and half of sheer pleasure as the collection of songs reflecting about love, death, patriotism for Catalonia, and defiance. And if that’s not enough, Rossell treats each story as if they’re her own and she’s a consummate storyteller too.

The DVD, Clàssics Catalans provides the entire sold-out concert along with a 30 minute documentary about a handful of the songs Rossell performed. In the documentary we see Rossell entering a shop specializing in archival sheet music. And we witness her excitement as she discovers old gems, mainly dance music (sardana) or sits at the piano once owned by a composer of these old songs—his ghost lingers around Rossell who in turn glows at her discoveries. But mostly the documentary supplies viewers with passion for these old songs.

The concert footage proves that when carefully arranged and with an array of musical guests, not to mention top-notch musicians, folkloric music provides exciting entertainment. I know that when I watched the concert tears welled in my eyes several times and by the end of the concert, when all the musicians, including a girl’s choir (Cor Vivaldi), a drum troupe (Coetus Or questra de Percussions), Enriq Orti and Xavier Molina (tenores) and a Basque accordionist (Kepa Junquera) to perform a reprise of Mother of the World the tears broke through the dam. Prior to the finale, Rossell performed a defiant a cappella song, Virolai and footage of audience members rising out of their seats to salute both the singer and the song’s sentiments brings on a heart-shattering moment.

Rossell, who shares a birthday with Saint Anthony (she mentions this in the concert) and donkeys, possesses a talent that holds her audiences captive. As a music interpreter, she’s in the same category with Greek musician Savina Yannatou, both of these women deserve the title of musical alchemist as they transform old, even forgotten songs into their own works of beauty. They possess the ability to reach the hearts and souls of their listeners with each carefully sung phrase and the ability to attract the best musicians for their work.

I’m not through with this DVD yet. I plan on showing it to family and friends. Too bad my Spanish grandmother passed away over a year ago. She would have enjoyed this Catalan music and certainly the bit about lace-making. My grandmother also made lace, worked as a seamstress, and loved Latin poetry. These heartfelt songs would have brought tears to her eyes, I’m sure. Though I’m not sure she would have understood the Catalan language in which the songs are sung. In any case, viva la España!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

In review--Play time! (Native American music for children)

Randall Paskemin
Good Night Sweet Dreams to You, I Love You
Native American Lullabies and Songs for Children
Canyon Records

Navajo Songs for Children
Canyon Records

Plains Cree Indian and a loving father of several children, Randall Paskemin brings us a collection of gentle songs which can be sung to children at bedtime or anytime. Sung in a round dance style with the calm pulse of the mother earth heartbeat drum, Paskemin sings mainly in English and has provided lyrics to the songs on his album Good Night Sweet Dreams to You, I Love You.

While these songs feel sweet and simple enough for a young child to grasp and even sing along, I believe that the tranquility presented in each song could also assist adults in relaxing after a challenging day. Use these songs as de-stressors for the entire family (provided you don’t have teens that rebel against the idea). Therapists of all stripes could also apply this love-felt music to healing the inner child. While the songs provide sweet and loving lyrics, they won’t cause a gag reflex in adults who prefer not to listen to children’s music.

And studies mentioned in books such as Daniel Levitan’s This is Your Brain on Music suggests that children need simple music that they can follow. And the music created for children, when done right helps the brain to develop and provides an outlet for music appreciation. When adults feel overwhelmed with stress, our nervous systems also respond to gentle, slower tempo simple songs. So pull this CD out, and relax with your child as you put her or him to bed.

Already a NAMMY nominee at the age of 17, Talibah Begaye performs for the little ones on her recording Navajo Songs for Children, though she sings most of her lyrics in the Dinè dialect with a few English phrases peppered throughout. Right now I hear her singing about a superhero. She accompanies herself on a frame drum set the heartbeat of our Earth Mother and her chants have a trancelike feel to them, with phrases repeated in a mantra fashion.

Running at 49 minutes, the music here probably wouldn’t work well for bedtime music. But perhaps, your child would enjoy waking up to these up tempo songs. The Prayer Song and Walk in Beauty teach children how to appreciate their Creator and the natural world, and these songs could also provide a wonderful way to start or end the day. I imagine that this recording would be educational for both Native and non-native children. Nothing like delving into ethnic cultures at a young age.

As Talibah shows respect to her elders and the young ones too, she shares her Navajo traditions. With so much talent, I wonder what this young woman will have achieved by the time she reaches my age. When I turned 17 the only accomplishment I could boast was graduating from high school, and this young woman has already been nominated for a prestigious Native American Music Award. Someone special must have sung some fabulous songs to her when she was a child.

In review--The Ancestors are Calling Collect

Huun Huur Tu
Ancestors Call
World Village

There are few musical cultures left on the planet that take us to a deeply primal place and even some of those cultures, mainly hailing from indigenous people have been swallowed up by electronic music or turned into popular culture in the form of world music. But for any of you who have listened to an a cappella Saami yoik, a traditional Navajo chant, Aboriginal didgeridoo, Tibetan nomadic music, or Tuvan throat-singing have experienced that deep primal place. Your root chakra opens.

Shamanism and music were wedded to each other hundreds of thousands of years ago. The first flutes, drums, harps, etc were put to shamanic use, as were many of the early singing traditions. These shamans knew about the power and intent of sound and put it to good use either healing others in some way or put it to bad use through sorcery to trip up an adversary. But even without any prior knowledge of shamanism or ancient musical practices, a music listener can experience their rootedness to the natural world listening to primal music. This certainly proves true with the Tuvan quartet Huun Huur Tu’s latest recording, Ancestors Call.

The CD liner notes speak of this natural connection and for many listeners an experience of merging with the natural world, whether a rock, a stream, or the sky feels like a real possibility. Listening to Ancestors Call provides an adventure into the unknown, even if the listener is already familiar with Tuvan throat-singing and culture. Many of us aren’t that familiar with this Central Asian country, its nomadic people, or its music which only lends to further fascination. And the desire to delve further in the exploration of something truly foreign feels like a compelling need to some of us.

Daniel Levitan writes in his book, This is Your Brain on Music, that our musical tastes are formed by the time we reach 20 years of age. However, as a caveat, he mentions a separate group of humans who possess more adventurous taste in music and the musical journey becomes the equivalent of lifelong education, at least it is for me. I didn’t grow up with Tuvan throat-singing or anything closely resembling it and how does a person make the leap from Disney tunes to rock music to exotic world music or the music of indigenous people? The word "indigenous" didn’t even enter my vocabulary until I was 28 years old when a downstairs neighbor introduced me to a collection of indigenous chants released by Ellipses Art. And yes, Tuvan throat-singers appeared in the collection of field recordings. However, at that time, I wasn’t ready to listen. Now I am.

Ancestors Call feels more like a universal spiritual experience than a recording. Yes, the CD contains music, but sounds so exotic that it feels more like entering a sacred space and as the title implies, connecting with ancestors, but not just of humans, of every creature. The only other time I felt this deeply connected to nature through music was when I first discovered Saami yoiks. And by the way, Saami yoikers also practice throat-singing.

While I don’t want to give the wrong impression, throat-singing appears on this recording, but along with singing and traditional instruments. The singing at times sounds similar to the Tibetan nomads or traditional Chinese folksongs. I imagine that the legendary Silk Road and itinerant musicians have something to do with the Chinese modes and scales, even vocal inflections appearing in the Tuvan music. But then who really knows about who taught who how to sing?  Love songs appear alongside songs of defiance. Horses and women are honored in these songs, as well as, the ancestors in the haunting closing track.

I recommend this recording for anyone fascinated with folk cultures from around the world, but also shamanic practices that employ music/sound. The most amazing aspect of discovering a new type of vocalization (this one is ancient), is that it allows us to move away from the European well-tempered scale and the Bel Canto singing style that most of us have come to accept as normal. The world offers so much more to those who enjoy quests. Take this one, it's well worth it.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

In review--Breathless road trip

Mike Marshall
An Adventure 1999-2009
Adventure Music

I’m not sure that a prolific musician such as master mandolin player Mike Marshall needs a retrospective. The musician’s output is already on this side of incredible and he’s teamed up with just about every kind of musician out there from early music to bluegrass players and Brazilian legends. His album with the Swedish trio Vasen made sense too because similar to the musicians that comprise Vasen, Marshall also knows his way around winding musical roads.

On the other hand, to take in the wide scope and breadth of Marshall’s work on the Adventure Music label, lasting over a decade now, a retrospective places this musician’s work in perspective. His musical output has been phenomenal --not just in the number of albums released, but in his versatility and adaptability to varying musical genres. This guy performs virtuoso mandolin in so many musical languages that it must cause listeners’ heads to spin. I’m not talking Linda Blair here, but if you’ve heard Marshall in action then you must have done your share of double takes. You might have fallen out of your chair a few times too. Certainly Marshall’s performances won’t please those listeners already weak in the knees. As CD’s title (An Adventure) implies, only the brave at heart will embark on this journey.

Tracks from nine albums are featured on An Adventure. And the producers had the formidable task of culling songs from those albums which include Psychograss (2005), Choro Famoso (2004), Brazil Duets (re-issue on Adventure Music in 2005), and Mike Marshall and Darol Anger withVasen (2007) just to name a handful. And if you’re wondering if this eclectic collection hangs together the answer is yes. Marshall acts as the linchpin.

So does Mike Marshall need to release a retrospective? Probably not, but I’m glad that he did. An Adventure provides a shortcut for the mandolin player’s newest fans and a roadside souvenir for his devoted followers. The adventure of course hasn’t ended and is as they say in the movies, just beginning, if you can actually catch your breath after listening to this recording. The sheer beauty of tracks such as Quando Mais Longe, Mais Perto for instance might snatch your breath away, if the views from the winding road, Egypt and Loke’s Troubles haven’t already. Enjoy the ride.

In review--Aye Ignacio!

Septeto Nacional Iganacio Piñeiro
¡Sin Rumba no hay Son!
World Village

Fans of old-style Cuban son unite. Get ready to dance. In its 9th decade Septeto Nacional Iganacio Piñeiro sizzles and the 14 tracks that appear on ¡Sin Rumba no hay Son! run the gamut from soulful ballads to sole-burning son habaneros and rumba-tinged sons. The crisp, clear production on the recording brings out the sparkling horns, lush clave-lead rhythms, and shimmering très. The musicians run a tight ship performing one punchy song after another to the point where it’s almost impossible not to leap out of this chair and dance. Seductive, oh, yes! This is Cuban son at its finest, and well, this national treasure had 90 years to perfect their craft. Similar to wine vintage, Cuban son also grows better with age.

Now featuring its 4th generation of players, Eugenio Rodrìguez in his perfectly modulated voice leads the way. He’s equally at home on a fast number like the opener Embale tiene la llave as he is on a more soulful bolero-son Bella criolla and listen to his gorgeously phrased delivery on the bolero En tus ojos yo veo. Agustìn Someillan Garcìa’s trumpet also stands out on the bolero as it soars over a percussive groove provided by Francisco David Oropesa Fernàndez (bongos) and Crispìn Dìaz Hernàndez. Rounding off the septet, Raùl Acea Rivera anchors the group on his double bass, and Enrique Collazo (très), and Dogoberto Sacerio Oliva (guitars), provide lute support.

It’s no secret that I adore the more rustic Cuban music so I’m certainly enamored with this recording. I find the call and response vocals, Afro-Latin cross rhythms, acoustic lutes, and horn solos invigorating. This isn’t the type of music that I would choose while writing a review, yet it’s keeping my fingers hopping over this keyboard and inspiring my exhausted body onwards and upwards. Do you think this sunny music could cure my cold? At least when I’m listening to these hombres I feel happy.

If you're a fan of Cuba's old guard music, then you don't want to miss this recording. I haven't enjoyed Cuban music this much since first hearing the debut CD of the Buena Vista Social Club. You won't find the same drama played out as on the BVSC disc, but you won't need it. Your feet will ache to dance and its like Samite once said in concert that its an insult to the musicians if the audience doesn't get up and dance.  Baila!

Monday, October 4, 2010

In review--Gotta have Friends...

Jovino Santos Neto (and friends)
Veja O Som (See the Sound) 2 CDs
Adventure Music

The music that Brazilian multi-instrumentalist Jovino Santos Neto performs and composes possesses a sunny vibration. This warm vibration won’t toast you, but leave you feeling warm and slightly tingly when listening to his new recording, See the Sound. Certainly I find Jovino’s music falling on the healthier side of things as I find much of Brazilian jazz and traditional music. On See the Sound (title derived from a quote at a recording session), involves some world travel, 20 fabulous duets with North and South American musicians, and performances not soon to be forgotten any time soon.

Let’s start with the list of musical duo partners which includes: David Sanchez (tenor sax), Mike Marshall (mandocello and mandolin), Gretchen Parlato (voice), Paquito d’Rivera (C clarinet), Bill Frisell (electric guitar), Airto Moreira (voice, percussion), Tom Lellis (voice, shaker), Anat Cohen (soprano sax), Danilo Brito (mandolin), and Joe Locke (vibraphone). And on CD #2, the musicians that come on board include: João Donato (electric piano), Monica Salmaso (voice), Ricardo Silveira (acoustic guitar), Luiz Guello (pandeiro, effects, congas, djembe), Toninho Ferragutti (accordion), Joyce Moreno (voice), Vittor Santos (trombone), Paula Morelenbaum (voice), Gabriel Grossi (harmonica) and Teco Cardoso (flute).

I mentioned all the musicians that partner with Jovino on the tracks because each of them brings their own signature to the songs, not to mention their heartfelt joy. And for me that’s what stands out the most, not the virtuosic playing (which runs throughout), but a feeling of togetherness and a real joy for performing Brazilian music, Latin jazz, and standard American jazz. The musicians open their doors and hearts to each of us on this recording, and how can I possibly describe the feeling I garner from their openness, other than delightful?

The other dilemma I run into is choosing favorites among 20 sparkling tracks. The vocals whether sung by the women or men all present us with careful phrasing and jazz syncopation, not to mention a palette of emotions. Take a listen to Gretchen Parlato’s tear-drenched interpretation of Antonio Carlos Jobim/Vinìcius de Moraes’ How Insensitive. You might recall Astrud Gilberto singing the same song decades ago, but this new version will leave you holding your heart. On CD#2, Paula Morelenbaum delivers a vocal performance of a lifetime on the song Joana Francesa.

The instrumental performances also delight with Paquito d’Rivera, Bill Frisell, and Joe Locke leading the way. In fact, Locke/Santos Neto’s interpretation of Nature Boy (penned by Eden Ahbez) stands out here. To be honest, I could listen to these CDs all day long, and have pressed the replay button several times. I’m able to think clearly, stay focused, and enjoy this music while I catch up on my reviews, correspondence and other work. And on top of that, Jovino Santos Neto always leaves me in a good mood. That’s no small talent. Cloudy day, caught a cold, no problem. Just slip in these discs and it’s all good.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Book review--Glenn Gould Hauntings

A Romance on Three Legs

Glenn Gould’s Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Piano
Katie Hafner
Bloomsbury USA

In 1982 or 1983 I experienced a supernatural encounter in a department store in north Bellingham. My mother and I both recall me walking up to one of those electronic keyboards in fashion at the time, turning it on, and then playing something virtuosic. I only remember turning the keyboard on and then waking from a trance and seeing a small crowd of people standing around applauding. My mother recalls the actual impromptu performance.

Prior to this “episode” I had never taken piano lessons, thought I sucked as a musician based on a personal tragedy I experienced when I auditioned for the high school band and I had nearly flunked music theory at Western Washington University. I had given up the notion of ever pursuing my dream career as a musician or composer until a boost of confidence from the department store incident changed the course of my life.

That was my first encounter with the spirit of Glenn Gould, but I didn’t know who he was at the time and wouldn’t learn about Gould until almost 20 years later when I saw the movie, The Red Violin (another fateful moment) and a colleague told me about the documentary by the same writer-director team, Thirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould. While I was watching the documentary in my apartment, I felt a presence in the room and when I listened to the various interviews interlaced throughout the film, I remembered the keyboard incident in Bellingham. I realize that saying that it felt like a ton of bricks hit me is a cliché, but that’s how I felt upon the moment of my realization. Could that actually have happened?

Author Katie Hafner opens her biography, A Romance on Three Legs with similar testimonies by fans or listeners of Glenn Gould’s music. They too sensed his supernatural presence. She closes the book with a story about a Hungarian pianist performing on Gould’s beloved piano--a Steinway labeled “CD318” inching its way to the edge of the stage while she played music that the late Gould despised. But even beyond that Gould’s spirit comes through in biographies written about him, the documentary mentioned earlier and his career worth of recordings.

Hafner’s book though doesn’t just focus on Gould and his myriad of eccentricities or his virtuosic talent. She gazes at the love affair a man had with one piano, the piano’s tuner Verne Enquist, and the Steinway family, as well as, the history of Steinway pianos. She educates her readers about the mechanics and structure of pianos, and even gives a few lessons on the challenges tuners face. And what musician can’t relate to obtaining the perfect instrument? This isn’t just relegated to pianists. Violinists, cellists, guitarists, etc…all deal with the quirks of their particular instrument, tuning problems, ergo dynamics, and physical ailments caused by playing instruments not in alignment with a physical body. I have often dreamed of the perfect guitar both in sound and in bodily comfort.

Another focus of the novel revolves around Gould's antagonistic relationship with the Concert Artists department at Steinway & Sons.  Certainly any musician would understand that each pianist would need a particular piano to perform their repertoire. Most of the Steinway pianos of Gould's time had tight action and keyboards made for fiery performances of the Romantic Era performers whereas, the more sensitive Gould performed the work of Bach. Also Gould's relationship with his perfect piano, CD 318 ends in tragedy when the instrument some how falls off a five foot loading dock and is severely damaged. It is never restored to its once miraculous state. The romance ends and it feels like a tragic loss.

Hafner manages to get into the heads of musicians, technitions, piano makers all the go in-betweens. She indulges her subject Gould, but doesn’t have a problem telling some of his well-kept secrets both in his personal and professional life. However, I walk away from this book with chills running up and down my spine. The book itself isn’t frightening, but the fact that Glenn Gould died from a stroke on October 4, 1982, or Saint Francis of Assisi’s Feast Day hits home with me. How is it that I would find this book at the library (or it found me) two days before an anniversary of Glenn Gould’s death? And just like his fellow Libran Francis of Assisi, both men died around the time of their respective birthdays. Both men loved animals. And both men were considered eccentric, but adored just the same. I’ll leave you to ponder the rest. Oh, yes, and Francis of Assisi also was gifted with musical talent.