Saturday, March 30, 2013

In Review--Chinese Tales & an Erhu

Orchid Ensemble 
Life Death Tears Dream
Independent Release (Canada)

 I first encountered the Orchid Ensemble at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival in 2003.  That same summer a publicist representing several Vancouver-based ensembles and bands, sent me Heartland (the ensemble's 2000 CD), then in 2004, I connected with Lan Tung, the founder of Orchid Ensemble and the erhu (Chinese fiddle) player.  She sent me the CD, Road to Kashgar.  Both recordings, world music with an emphasis on classical Chinese songs and instruments left an impression on me.  Now, almost a decade after the ensemble’s second CD, I received Life Death Tears Dream in the post.

While Heartland featured Chinese songs and Road to Kashgar featured Silk Road songs, the latest recording melds western and eastern music thus presenting world music in the broadest sense.  For instance, you might wonder about the Spanish titled song, Ay La Llamo which spotlights Lan Tung belting out flamenco while she accompanies herself on the erhu.  Tung holds her weight, even against Andalusian gypsy singers.  East meets West also on the titular track when a western choir sings Chinese text accompanied by the erhu and Chinese zither.  And there are some interesting musical excursions here in which I like some compositions more than others.  For instance, I find Three Variations on Plum Blossoms with its slow and moody erhu, the zither’s bent notes, marimba and chimes delightful.  I also enjoy Al Kol Hama-asim with the polyphonic voices of the instruments and Wind Desires the Clouds with its stunning vocals.

However, the ensemble leaves me in the dust with the overly haunting Ghostly Moon, which is too performance art for my taste, and Cocoon which sounds gloomy to my ears.  Overall though,  Lan Tung, Haiqiong Deng (zheng-a Chinese zither) and Jonathan Bernard (marimba and percussion) bring their diverse talents and expertise to another intriguing musical conversation.  Orchid Ensemble composes and arranges music as intricate as a puzzle and as delicate as a spring blossom.

In review--An Eye for Nyro

Mark Winkler
The Laura Nyro Project
Cafe Pacific Records

I used to hear the name Laura Nyro a lot during my early days of reviewing music, but I can’t say that I knew her music personally.  At least that’s what I first thought when I received Mark Winkler’s The Laura Nyro Project in the post.  On a trip to YouTube, I found two familiar tunes from my childhood, Wedding Bell Blues and Up on the Rooftop.  Born in 1947, Nyro represented the folksy-blues side of the baby boomer generation with her peak years in the 1960s and 70s.  In the realm of Carol King (another prolific songwriter), Nyro composed songs in styles ranging from girly pop to soulful blues with gospel of the Black Church tossed in, though Nyro was white.

With big shoes to fill, jazz stylist-vocalist Mark Winkler set out to honor Nyro’s melismatic vocals in his baritone voice on The Laura Nyro Project.  And I have to say, he’s done a wonderful job of it. In the liner notes, Winkler spoke of his growing up with Nyro’s vocal soundtrack and how even today, most of the songs on his player were penned by Nyro.  So what songs did he choose for this project? The CD opens with the bluesy-gospel And When I Die and Stoned Souls Picnic, which sounds more dreamy than bluesy.  Winkler digs in to the grittier lyrics of California Shoeshine Boys, the cautionary lyrics of He’s a Runner, and the friendship song Emmie.  My favorite song here is Upstairs by a Chinese Lamp.  I enjoy the imagery of Nyro’s lyrics and Eli Brueggeman’s arrangement (piano, guitar, bass, drums and flute).  In fact, the arrangements of these nostalgic gems hit the spot--simple, elegant, and to the point.  So anyone out there needing a Nyro fix, pick up this CD (available April 16, 2013).

Sunday, March 24, 2013

In review--Soaring song byrd

The Byrd Ensemble 
Markdavin Obenza 
In the Company of William Byrd 
Scribe Records

Seattle has for several decades acted as a hotbed for music communities, including an early music community that began in the 1970s.  These days, Seattle’s early music community features a few of the founders of the early music scene as well as, newcomers such the Tudor Choir, Renaissance Singers and The Byrd Ensemble, named after renaissance church music composer William Byrd.  On the ensemble’s latest recording, In the Company of William Byrd the singers explore the music of Byrd’s contemporaries and mentors who hail mostly from the European mainland.

Here we have a lush recording of renaissance polyphonic singing exploring the sacred works of Philip van Wilder, a Flemish lutenist, Alfonso Ferrabosco, an Italian composer, Clemens non Papa (also covered by the Tudor Choir in a 2006 recording), Thomas Morley (English composer), and rounding off the Byrd’s company on the CD, Philippe de Monte.  The singers alternate between Byrd’s contemporaries and Byrd’s compositions.  I’m not sure if this arrangement is supposed to show contrast and comparisons or highlight the composers who influenced Byrd’s compositions.  In either case, we are treated to crystalline sopranos and glorious voices throughout the vocal spectrum.

I have listened to numerous renaissance polyphonic recordings since writing an article on the topic in 2006 and In the Company of William Byrd certainly holds its own with the international recordings I’ve reviewed over the years.  In fact, both I and the songbirds in the tree outside have enjoyed this recording immensely since the first listening session.  I’m now listening to the recording a second time through headphones and I can easily imagine myself sitting in a cathedral with these voices cascading off a vaulted ceiling and sacred walls.   

The chant currently playing, Tristitia et anxietas enchants my senses with the balance of voices running right up the chakras.  Kudos to the singers and arrangers for their hard work, passion for early music and for sharing their vocal talent in this format.  After all, with their talent, these vocalists could easily lend their voices to any genre.  I’m glad they chose early music.