Saturday, May 5, 2012

In review--Swinging French

Ben Powell
New Street
Independent/Ben Powell Music

Perhaps it is not too strange that an English child prodigy-turned jazz player interprets French gypsy jazz, aka French swing.  Violinist (both classical and jazz), Ben Powell pays tribute to the legendary French violinist St├ęphane Grappelli on his independent recording New Street.  However, New Street travels beyond a tribute album to French swing players, in that Powell honors American jazz legends too such as Thelonious Monk on Monk 4 Strings and adds classical music touches, such as the reference to Bach on the end of Judith.

Powell performs with his quartet (Tadataka Unno on piano, Aaron Darrell on bass and Devin Drobka on drums) and with a St├ęphane Grappelli tribute trio (Gary Burton on vibraphone and Julian Lage on Guitar) and by including both ensembles, Powell explores intriguing sonic territory.  One interesting side note, the trio performs Gary composed by Grappelli for Gary Burton who plays vibes on this version.  I imagine that these musicians have musical stories to share, but in the meantime, check out the opener Judith in which Powell’s violin takes on Hungarian gypsy strains or the closing track, Piccadilly Stomp, when Powell’s violin goes into full swing.

While Powell certainly bridges the gap between classical and jazz worlds, his playing at times sounds restrained to me.  Perhaps, this subtle approach deserves a few more listens so that I soak in musical nuances, such as the whispering of bow-hairs on the strings, and the silence between the notes.  The musicians seem inspired by jazz icons of the past, but I just wish they would turn it up a few notches.  They do on Piccadilly Stomp, as mentioned earlier, and guest vocalist Linda Calise’s cabaret vocals add charm to Edith Piaf’s La Vie En Rose.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

In review--Lute Songs under a Pink Moon

Joel Frederiksen & Ensemble Phoenix Munich
Requiem for a Pink Moon
An Elizabethan Tribute to Nick Drake
Harmonia Mundi

Curiosity reared its head when I received press information about the early music ensemble lead by Lute player Joel Frederiksen covering the folk songs of Nick Drake.  After researching the modern revival of early music and folk traditions from the 1960s and 1970s, I already knew about a fusion between early European and folk music, and in fact, famous folk songs, Greensleeves and Scarborough Fair hail from the renaissance.  However, Joel Frederiksen and Ensemble Phoenix Munich cross the paths of English folk musician Nick Drake (1970s) with the melancholic lute songs of the Elizabethan John Dowland on the folksy Requiem For A Pink Moon, titled after one of Drake’s classics.

In case you are wondering about the overall effect, the songs take on a 1970s folk revival feel despite the musicians performing the songs on early music instruments.  However, unlike Sting, who covered John Dowland’s lute songs on recording Songs from the Labyrinth (Deutsche Grammophon, 2006), Frederiksen opts for a less modern sound than Sting, who came late to early music and possibly for a single project.  The musicians on this recording by virtue of their early music background actually give Drake’s modern songs an early music makeover with the approach appearing academic, especially when the songs draw rich comparisons to Dowland’s lute songs.  Oddly, Dowland and Drake could do an exchange and switch time periods with each other and few listeners would notice.

Dowland and Drake are both known for melancholic songs with rich poetic imagery.  Who would have thought of including songs from both repertoires on a single album? Fortunately, Frederiksen recalled learning how to play Drake’s songs on his guitar.  “I was deeply affected by Nick Drake’s music from the moment I first heard it, in 1982, eight years after his death. The union of plaintive voice, the intricate guitar accompaniments, and moving lyrics...spoke to me.”  Frederiksen discovered Dowland’s lute songs during his freshman-year of college and was struck by the poetry.

 I’m more familiar with Dowland’s songs than Drake’s folk repertoire.  However, this album provides an immersion into Drake’s guitar work and poetry on Road, Pink Moon, From the Morning, Time Has Told Me, and other songs paired with Dowland’s His Golden Locks, Come, Heavy Sleep, Time Stands Still, etc.  Sacred chants (the requiems), Frederiksen’s Ocean and Michael Cavendish’s Wand’ring in This Place round out the recording.  Any listener not paying close attention might mistake the songs as composed by a singular modern composer.

I don’t find the recording warm, but actually haunting, possibly because of the early death of Drake at the age of 26.  Yet, despite the feeling of lingering musical ghosts hanging around my computer, Frederiksen’s deep baritone/bass vocals coupled with Timothy Leigh Evans tenor vocals and the throaty bass tones of Domen Marincic’s viola da gamba (ancestor of the cello), create a deeply relaxing musical experience, in which fans of Elizabethan music and Nick Drake classics feel satiated.

Monday, April 30, 2012

In review--Forbidden Singers

Mahsa & Marjan Vahdat
Twinklings of hope
Kirkelig Kulturversted (Norway)

Not legally permitted to share their immaculate vocals with the Iranian public, the Vahdat sisters have recorded and released albums on the Norwegian label, Kirkelig Kulturversted.  In 2003, founder of KKV, Erik Hillestad, discovered the Iranian sister vocalists when he produced the album Lullabies from the Axis of Evil.  The album that brought light to the humanity present in the countries the former US President George Bush, Jr. deemed evil, launched the Vahdat sisters’ international career.  Since that time, the Vahdat sisters have released several recordings on KKV and their latest, Twinkling of hope features ancient and contemporary Persian/Iranian poetry performed on traditional instruments and sung in a traditional voice.

The irony of the Iranian government’s law forbidding women to sing in public ensures that the Iranian people experience only half of their humanity.  Each of us is comprised of female and  male halves; when men oppress women, they steal also from their own souls.  Imagine a people forbidden to hear the female interpretation of the spiritual longing found in the poetry of Hafiz or Rumi on stage.  While I won’t launch into a lecture on this topic, I encourage anyone reading this to support the courageous Vahdat sisters who break the law anytime they sing on a public stage in their country.  Sadly, these talented sisters not only sing in a traditional style that takes years, if not decades, to master, but they compose and co-compose the music that accompanies these spiritual poems.

I am fortunate that as an American (so far), that I can listen to and review the Vahdat sister recordings.  If the sisters toured to my part of the world, I could freely attend the concert, even if I don’t understand a word of the language in which the sisters sing the songs.  I can enjoy the music with my little knowledge of the sisters’ homeland, politics, and culture.  However, having watched different ethnic groups enjoy the music of their corresponding homelands at festivals and special gatherings, I noticed that when people and their music reunite, something magical happens, that isn’t fully understood by outsiders.  Tears flow, hearts open, and bonds form.  To take this right away from a people breaks my heart.  It breaks everyone’s heart even without her knowledge. 

The sisters appear with their ensemble on this album, featuring Atabak Elyasi on setar (traditional lute), Pasha Hanjani on ney-flute, and Ali Rahimi on daf (drum) and percussion. The overall sound feels contemplative while setting a spiritual space for the Persian poetry of yearning that appears on the album.  The sisters sing solo, in tandem, sometimes harmonizing, or in musical conversation, not confused with call & response vocals where vocalists repeat phrases back and forth.  While each song flows beautifully into the next, I especially enjoyed the songs Garden of Visions, Lullaby, Golden Straws of Wheat, Crane, Come, My Beloved, and the titular song.  The musicians provide the text in its original language and English translations in the CD booklet.  Immerse yourself in these exquisite songs.