Saturday, October 15, 2011

In review--Andean Christmas and Tango

Dino Saluzzi, Anja Lechner, Felix Saluzzi
Navidad de los Andes
ECM Records

I’ve heard two other of Argentine bandoneon player-composer Dino Saluzzi’s recordings and each time I felt captivated by the soulfulness of his compositions.  On Navidad de los Andes (Christmas of the Andes), cellist Anja Lechner and his brother reed player Felix Saluzzi come on board.  All these musicians have already collaborated with each other on previous recordings, but this is their debut as a trio on ECM.  And yes this is exciting news.

I put my headphones on to listen deeply to this musical landscape and I felt rewarded with the subtle nuances of a bow gliding across strings, the click of the bandoneon keys, and breath flowing through reed instruments.  But the best way to describe the music here can be found in the liner notes where Leopoldo Castilla shares his reflections on the Saluzzi’s compositions.  “In this beautiful musical work the sound is born with intensity of wind and powerful progression of the sand that preserves memories.”

I add that all the instruments (cello, bandoneon, clarinet and saxophone) are in themselves capable of sweeping melodic runs alternating with dissonance which cause listeners to hold their breath and later they release tension with a gasp or a sigh, just like the tango.  Out of all the bandoneon players performing and composing these days, Dino Saluzzi comes the closest to resurrecting the music of the late Astor Piazzolla, another musician who found beauty and tension around every corner.

So let’s take a look at a few of the songs on Navidad de los Andes.  Fragments offers a mournful cria with clarinet runs cascading into a wall of sound built by the bandoneon and cello—leaves me close to tears.  Son quo’ñati marries the haunting strains of Andes Indian traditional music with the new tango repertoire.  Whereas, Requerdos de Bohemia (Memories of Bohemia) offers us a pure tango which feels as fresh and hopeful as new love, yet as happy-sad as mature love.  And yet it represents the dance of new love. 

Gabriel Kondor recalls the songs on the previous ECM recording, Juan Condori, another venture into indigenous territory wed to Argentine tango.  El Vals de Nosotros (Our Waltz) features the high end of the cello and we hear why Anja Lechner receives acclaim for her talent.  Otoños (autumn) grieves in musical gasps—the bandoneon resembles bellows in the wind, the clarinet the wind, and the cello a bush seduced then abandoned by the wind.

I’m amazed by how easily and seamlessly these musicians combine their talents, effortlessly exchanging leads, with one instrument performing background for a few measures only to take up the lead melody. If there are any ego issues among these musicians, it’s not evident on this recording that inspires my soul and fills my heart with the type of music that causes me to swoon. 

In review---Ravi Returns

Ravi Shankar
Nine Decades, Vol. II
Reminiscence of North Vista
East Meets West Music


Nine Decades, Vol. III
Orchestral Experimentations
East Meets West Music

Imagine it is 1969 and you’re sitting in Hollywood parlor witnessing two ragas performed in the intimate space of Ravi Shankar’s home.  Not only that, Shankar and tabla player, Alla Rakha just returned from playing Woodstock.  While we can’t travel back in time, you can listen to Raga Kaunsi Kanada North Vista (28:14) and Raga Bihag North Vista (39:22) in your home now that the ragas were re-mastered and on Reminiscence of North Vista released as part of Shankar’s Nine Decades series.  Shankar’s and Rakha’s performance feels alive and even spontaneous coming off this disk.  This vibrant presence in my room is hard to explain.

Raga Kaunsi Kanada begins with a meditative alap that last for most of the duration of the track.  An alap allow musicians to prepare themselves for the composition part of the raga and orients listeners.  I think of the alap is a bridges between outer world concerns and the inner listening experience.  And ragas definitely take me inward, even the fiery passages and delightful exchanges between musicians.  Here we have sitar and tabla, two instruments most of us are familiar with thanks to world music and East-West music fusion.  Sadly I can barely hear tabla on the first raga.  On the second raga, it’s another story.  On Raga Bihag the tabla comes in about two thirds of the way through the 39 minute raga, and Rakha comes out to play.

While I greatly appreciate the meditative quality of the alap, listening to the players build and release tension while increasing speed represents excitement.  Incidentally, Ravi Shankar has been credited as bringing the tabla from a background to a foreground instrument.  In his 90+ years, the master musician brought numerous innovations to Indian classical music and certainly possesses the genius talent to pull off such innovations, though not without controversial from the old school players of the past.  I’m pleased that Shankar has chosen to release archival recordings on his label since these disks provide for me thoughtful music and music education. 

Orchestral Experimentation marks another inroad for Shankar.  The compositions on this disks range from 1949 to 1954 when the sitar player had access to renowned classical musicians from South (Carnatic music tradition) and North (Hindustani music tradition), India and western musicians.  Oddly, many of these compositions end up sounding like classical Chinese music to my ears, and I definitely conjure images of the Silk Road.  Alternately I’m reminded of the passions and betrayals portrayed in Bollywood classic songs.  Again, Shankar was breaking new ground and I’m certain his fusion work inspired such modern labels as Sense World Music and its fusion projects.

Let’s look at a few compositions from the archival recording, Orchestral Experimentions (Nine Decades, Vol. 111).  The recording opens with the longest raga on the album, Gorakh 6 ½, ( 6 1/2 refers to the beat cycle),which sounds like Silk Road classical music with a sitar to my ears.  You’ll hear a lot of flute and strings on this recording, the composition Dhana Kauns is no exception.  It opens on a cheerful note as a trembling flute and warm tabla beats greet the listener.  The plucky Chanchal Rajani features a xylophone type instrument in conversation with a galloping orchestra and again I’m reminded of Chinese classical music.   Jantil Granthi (A Twisted Knot) closes the recording.  Percussion makes a stronger presence on this composition and the sitar performs a meatier role than on previous compositions on the recording.  I’m not sure what the title implies, but the musicians set a romantic mood with its sweeping melodies—probably my favorite composition on the CD.

To be honest, I wish I knew more about Indian classical music because these recordings deserve a more expert review than I can give.  As a listener I’m intrigued by the archival recordings and the love Ravi Shankar puts into them.  I thank him for sharing his memories with us while also educating us along the way.  Always the ambassador of classical Indian music, I’m glad he’s handpicking the music for this series.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

FYI: The Sounds of Pure Silence

Even when we think we are listening to silence, we still hear ambient sounds of our urban and rural environments.  Scientist Gordon Hampton, with his research project One Square Inch has traveled the world in search of pockets of pure silence.  He found one such spot in the Hoh Rain Forest in Washington State.

I found the article on scientist Gordon Hampton's research about sound in the Hoh Rain Forest in Washington Magazine, (Summer 2010) or issue #5. While I don't have the online link to this article, you can learn more about this research at

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

In review--Groovin' to n'goni

Sibiri Samakè
Bamana Hunter Music
Dambe Foli
System Krush

Every traditional culture has its healing plants, magic, and sacred music.  The Donso (hunter) of Mali is no exception.  Finding roots in the ancient Mande Kingdom of West Africa, the Donso once were in service to the Great Mande King Sunjata Keita, who you hear about a lot in the traditional music and history of Mali. The Donso served as soldiers for the king, along with providing spiritual healing and nourishment to their communities.

True the traditional songs, sung in their original language, that appear on Dambe Foli possess a trance and ritualistic aura. While the liner notes supply me with information about each of the song-sets, I can barely read the font in which the information appears.  From what I can glean the album contains praise songs (not uncommon with traditional Malian music), protection spells, and ceremonial songs.  The Donso n’goni (not to be confused with the banjo-like n’goni of Mali), shakers and scrapers (percussion) act as a backdrop for hypnotic vocals in a musical conversation, sounds closer to ritualistic chants than singing, though occasionally, the lead singer’s (Sibiri Samakè) vocals swoop upward.

In describing the Donso n’goni, this bass harp has a large calabash (gourd) as its bass and in which strings stretch upward reminding me of another West African harp instrument, the kora.  The instrument emits a throaty jangling sound, with no better words to describe it. And the music performed by the Donso musicians reminds me of music of the Tuareg and the Desert blues of the late Ali Farka Toure.  Anyone who enjoys hypnotic West African blues will find this recording of interest.  And as you listen more deeply to this album, you feel your brain fall into a relaxed state.  In fact, I just feel like lulling about rather than writing a review.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

In review--Birds, Stars and Twilight Songs

Heather Masse
Bird Song (2009)
Red House Records

The Wailin’ Jennys
Bright Morning Stars
Red House Records

The music industry is rife with irony.  For instance Heather Masse, a musician with a solo career and a member of two bands, marks the third alto vocalists for the Canadian band The Wailin’ Jennys.  The first two altos left the band to pursue solo careers, but neither of them became a "Prairie Home Companion" darling in the manner that Masse had.  However, each alto brought her own signature to the band such as the old English ballads influence of Cara Luft and the mandolin-tinged bluegrass of Annabelle Chvotsek and each vocalist helped to transform WJ.

Heather Masse, the only American vocalist in the band, brought her music conservatory experience, mainly as a jazz vocalist and her love of old timey blues and jazz.  While you can certainly hear these influences in the form of bluegrass swing (Cherry Blossom Love) on the WJ’s third studio recording, Bright Morning Stars, Masse’s solo outing Bird Song delves into smoky blues with country guitar riffs (High Heel Woman), socio-political fare that recalls Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell (Our World, Chosen) and folk-pop (I Don’t Want to Wake Up) and gospel-blues (Over the Mountain).  Masse’s style, though elegant feels too diverse at the moment, almost lacking a clear direction.  Yet, the alto pens enticing hooks such as on the title track, which sticks in your head all day. And we hear Masse’s vocal range to full effect here, from subtle and sexy (Bathtub) to rousing and humorous (High Heeled Woman). 

Masse’s eclectic album should please fans of Americana and jazz since the musicians blends the best of both worlds, though you won’t find any virtuoso solos of mandolin, guitar, or banjo players here.  The album showcases Masse’s vocal range and songwriting skills, not to mention her quirky sense of humor. And no doubt Wailin’ Jenny fans will gobble this one up.

Bright Morning Star marks the first Wailin’ Jennys studio album that includes Masse.  Oddly she doesn’t play bass on the album, Bill Dillon, a guest musician, handles guitar, bass, and mandolin duties.  The instrument arrangements and production appear status quo with previous studio albums, but the vocal harmonies have less of a wowing effect here (exceptions Storm Comin' and Cherry Blossom Love).  I think this is mainly due to Ruth Moody and Masse’s solo ventures and the musicians’ separate personal lives.  That doesn’t take away however from the beauty of the songs, which seem more personal as if the musicians carry the weight of the world.

The album provides plenty of poetic images, especially of the natural world such as on Masse’ Bird Song, Mehta’s requiem Away But Never Gone, and Moody’s Storm Comin’.  If I had to lump this album into a genre, I’d choose bluegrass and in second place I’d choose alternative country western.  The women provide us with heartfelt vocals (especially Mehta) and well-crafted songs that should please any music lover of any genre.