David Murray & the Gwo Ka Masters (with Taj Mahal and Sista Kee): Southern Skies

David Murray returns to the studio with traditional Guadeloupian gwo-ka percussionists, and this time brings along Taj Mahal and Sista Kee as guest vocalists. As you may know, Taj Mahal comes from a blues perspective and Sista Kee a gospel-rap orientation, but, honestly, there aren't enough genres to go around here. The Caribbean participants deliver a blistering world music beat, while Murray and the rhythm section superimpose their brand of heavy James Brown-ish funk. So this is one occasion when the well-known guests on the date adapt to the hosts rather than the other way around. Murray contributes an aggressive solo over a static harmonic accompaniment, but this isn't the place for fancy chord changes. The rhythm, hot and unrelenting, is the centerpiece here, and David Murray risks coming across like a sideman at his own date. Even the mix sends that message. It sounds like the rest of the band has been pushed back behind a partition of percussion. Is it jazz? Is it dance music for the block party of all time? I'll leave the labels to others, but I will validate the potent rhythm content, which is filled to the brim and spilling over the sides.

November 08, 2009 · 0 comments

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Arun Ghosh: Aurora

Stuart Nicholson recently reported in these virtual pages how clarinetist Arun Ghosh captivated the audience at the recent Jazzahead festival in Bremen with his exciting brand of British-Asian jazz. The unknown artist sold dozens of copies of his self-produced CD Northern Namaste within a few minutes of leaving the stage. And I can understand why. Unfortunately US fans will have a hard time to tracking down this music—I couldn't find a single online retailer in the US who had stocked it, and needed to order it from Amazon's UK web site. But it is well worth going to the trouble to hear this band, and enjoy Ghosh's probing clarinet work. The basic formula is familiar—a medium-fast modal chart over a repeating rhythmic pattern. But Ghosh shows that even the old recipes have plenty of life in them, especially when played this well. The whole band gets high marks, but the leader is the clear star, and one of the most interesting reed players on the scene. I plan on keeping a close eye (and ear) on Ghosh. I just hope some retailer makes it easy for me by carrying his CDs.

June 29, 2009 · 0 comments

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Cyminology: Niyaayesh

Of the many hypocrisies associated with the record industry, the examples I find most dispiriting come when label execs brag about their devotion to finding talent that is "fresh and different" . . . and then continue to release wannabe CDs that jump on every passing fad. This "sheep pretending to be lions" attitude is almost de rigeur at certain echelons of "the business" these days. Fortunately we still have Manfred Eicher, who really does present music that breaks out of the mold, and has done so with commercial and artistic success for forty years.

Cyminology is a case in point. This band, led by Cymin Samawatie, a German vocalist of Iranian descent, defines its own sound. Benedikt Jahnel may be a jazz pianist, but his conception resists pigeonholing; his keyboard work unfolds like a musical cinema, with narrative force rather than standard jazz phraseology. Bass and drums provide flashes of color, and (unlike so many American jazz bands) don't push and prod the music—these players realize that they are the music. Their sound is constitutive not catalytic. And Cymin Samawatie situates herself so far from what passes as jazz singing that you could waste a month of your life trying to construct a genealogy that gets you from Ella and Sarah to her ritualistic immersion in Persian texts.

If you are looking for music that reinforces your current tastes and fits neatly into the jazz rotation on your iPod, you are advised to pass on this track (and the entire As Ney CD, for that matter). But if you believe that jazz is not a stockpile of phrases or a "historic style," but is a spirit and openness to the possibilities of sound, then this music is required listening.

June 04, 2009 · 0 comments

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Ravi Shankar/Philip Glass: Ragas In Minor Scale

"Ragas in Minor Scale," performed by master musicians Ravi Shankar and Philip Glass, is an interesting slice of East-West fusion. While Glass' extensive training is most evident in the properly constructed composition, Shankar adds some very enticing embellishments upon the main theme on an instrument that is generally a stranger to the musical scope of such composers as Glass. Both men sound at ease well outside of what should be perceived as their respective comfort zones, and the music glides along effortlessly.

Everyone involved is obviously having a great time playing music that audibly sounds carefree, yet scholars may notice that the musicians throw a wrench into the plans by adding some major keyed trills at the very end that defy the song title's notion that the ragas are strictly performed in minor keys.

Shankar himself is responsible for mixing up some of the modes; after all, his general improvisational style, though evolved, has always utilized such ironies, and this recording is no exception. The energetic diversity is always fresh here, and the aura of respectability looms large as everyone emerges from the session as golden as the morning sunrise that the ragas seem to symbolize.

May 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Ravi Shankar Project: Village Dance

Passable, yet somewhat unengaging, Ravi Shankar Project's "Village Dance" is a track that sounds like the production was warmed-over to provide the most commercial viability possible. The playing is great, of course, but the thick reverb washes away most of the recording and the rest of the musical elements ride atop the effect until the discerning listener wishes for a drier mix.

The composition itself (featuring several blistering resolves) seems fine, but the recording does not represent what it sounds like the ensemble was shooting for from the get-go. Musically, Shankar is the star; even though the players are sharing space effectively, he stands out despite the watery sonic presentation and performs in the reliable manner expected of him on all of his material. You can picture people doing tribal dances to this music while dwelling in second or third world villages, and at least that portion of the goal was achieved. Kudos to the participants regardless of however flabbily they were captured in the studio, because the dynamics are completely absent and any potentially colorful elements are washed out by a monochromic tint.

May 14, 2009 · 0 comments

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Rudresh Mahanthappa: Apti

"I first started a version of this group when I lived in Chicago back in 1996," Rudresh Mahanthappa explains. "There was a sort of pressure put upon me to do something Indian as there was no precedent for an Indian-American jazz musician at the time. I disbanded the group rather quickly as I felt I lacked the skills and knowledge to lead such a trio with musical and cultural integrity." Mahanthappa was concerned lest this attempt at crossing musical boundaries, sometimes as daunting as geographical ones, might collapse into "exoticism" or exploitation of his ancestry.

A dozen years later, Mahanthappa returns to the alluring intersection between jazz and South Asian music, and the result is a gripping recording that brings together contrasting traditions in a seamless whole. The affinity between Indian music and jazz, hinted at in countless modal recordings over the years, is made manifest in this high-voltage performance. From the opening melody statement, Mahanthappa plays right on top of the beat with a fierce insistence. Usually this type of playing strikes me as lacking in phrasing, yet the saxophonist shows that you don't need soft, warm contours to give shape to a melody line. If you put together the right combinations with the proper moments of emphasis, even a boxing match conveys beauty and grace. And, yes, this is something of a pugilistic performance. Mahanthappa's solo extends the energy and - perhaps even more remarkably - the vocabulary of the melody, and the torrent of notes does justice to both the South Asian and post-Trane tributaries that flow into its construction. Rez Abassi and Dan Weiss also impress on this track. The end result is surprising to the degree that it doesn't sound exotic, rather like a natural marriage of true minds to which none of us should admit impediments.

December 30, 2008 · 0 comments

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Kala Ramnath & Ganesh Iyer: Raga Ahir Bhairav / Charka Vaham

This collaboration between two leading Indian violinists is itself a fusion of contrasting musical cultures. North Indian Kala Ramnath and her counterpart from the South, Ganesh Iyer, bring with them their respective Hindustani and Carnatic musical traditions, beautifully merged in this 40-minute performance. The opening section "Alap" is an improvisation in free tempo, starting in the lower register and gradually ascending in a dialogue that gains passion as it progresses, but never loses its centering focus. The following section falls into more structured time, and the pace accelerates in the concluding moments of this morning raga. Throughout, Ramnath and Iyer demonstrate their rich singing tones and distinctive phrasing, a sliding calculus of tone color which moves as smoothly as a skater on pristine ice. In a world of musical sound bites, this recording takes its time and rewards listeners willing to do the same.

December 21, 2008 · 0 comments

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Jayme Stone & Mansa Sissoko: Ninka Nanka

The banjo is unfairly tainted in the mind of the general public—who probably know the instrument best from the theme song to The Beverly Hillbillies or perhaps the film Deliverance. But the next time you hear someone shout out "Squeal like a pig" when the banjo starts to play, remind the ruffian that in Africa this instrument has a royal lineage.

Or better yet, point the culprit in the direction of the CD Africa to Appalachia, which is the fruit of banjoist Jayme Stone's time in Mali exploring the historical antecedents of his instrument. The kora is closer to the harp than the banjo, yet the pairing of Stone with Malian kora player Mansa Sissoko is an inspired idea. An arcane and still mostly unwritten history lies hidden behind the instruments assembled here, but their combination creates a fresh sound that is neither African nor Appalachian. The track opens with a free-flowing mood piece, an ethereal marriage of string sounds, but in the final 1½ minutes the tempo picks up into a strange type of holistic hoedown. Then at the very close a flamenco flavor enters, all too briefly, before the performance comes to a sudden halt—leaving this listener for one wanting more.

December 21, 2008 · 0 comments

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Barrett Martin: Agbadza

Barrett Martin is a musical polymath whose interests and talent have been spread over rock music (as drummer for Screaming Trees), percussion-driven instrumentals (Earthspeaker and others), and the unclassifiable music of Tuatara. Barrett's solo work has a meditative feel where ideas slowly unfold over initial and subsequent listens. On "Agbadza," as an insistent groove is set up, a series of arpeggios provides harmonic underpinning. As parts of the main theme are repeated and transformed (I'm thinking of Martin's use of vibraphone and steel drums), other players swoop in to take impressive and impressively unified solos. Particularly effective are Craig Flory on flute and Dave Carter on trumpet and flugelhorn. As you might expect, Martin holds it all together with grace and fluidity behind the kit.

December 18, 2008 · 1 comment

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Chuck Bernstein: Delta Berimbau Blues

The malleability of the Delta blues tradition has been demonstrated all over the world, from Liverpool to Calcutta. Here Chuck Bernstein adopts the Brazilian berimbau, the one-stringed bow from Bahia, for his cross-cultural explorations. As Shelly Manne once said, the berimbau "is good for many uses: you can hunt with it or smoke it." Well I am not sure about the wisdom of lighting up your berimbau, but clearly you can also play blues on it. Think of it as a South American alternative to the diddley bow, that African-inspired one-string instrument that was the starting point for many Delta blues masters of the past. Bernstein makes the most of his inspired vision of berimbau blues. He claims that he first heard the instrument on a Sergio Mendes record, but anyone listening to this track would think that these guys grew up in some juke joint outside of Clarksdale. Due credit must be given to Bernstein's partner, Greg Douglass, whose outstanding guitar work is responsible for most of the bent thirds on this track. This self-produced CD could easily get lost in the shuffle, but it is a contender for my list of best blues recordings of the year.

November 20, 2008 · 1 comment

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Ry Cooder & V.M. Bhatt: A Meeting by the River

Ry Cooder has always had his own quirky concept of fusion. Back with Chicken Skin Music in 1976, he was mixing spicy Tex-Mex, Hawaiian and American roots flavors like some Paul Prudhomme of the music world. He later went on to embrace everything from 1950s R&B to the Buena Vista Social Club. But Cooder's 1993 CD A Meeting by the River reveals a different, if no less praiseworthy, side of his musical split personality. This recording represents an exemplary blending of Hindustani musical traditions with the soundscapes of the U.S. of A. Cooder's partner, V.M. Bhatt, may have studied sitar with Ravi Shankar, but here he plays an instrument of his own invention, the Mohan veena, a modified hollow-bodied guitar with 20 strings. The addition of tabla and dumbek (a goblet-shaped drum from North Africa) contribute to the multicultural flavor. This is a classic recording and one that still sounds fresh years later.

November 20, 2008 · 0 comments

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Bill Laswell: Lost Roads

Bill Laswell is deservedly renowned as a musician and as a producer of some of the most diverse material you will likely ever find. Punk, funk, metal, jazz, rock, ambient and world music – you name it, he's done it. As a musician, he co-composed and played on Herbie Hancock's monster hit "Rockit." As a producer, he has run the gamut and even remixed existing Miles Davis and Carlos Santana albums. The CDs from those efforts, Panthalassa and Divine Light: Reconstructions & Mix Translation, both met with great praise and/or harsh criticism. His willingness to take on such risky projects over the years speaks volumes about his musical tenacity and vision. Another of these interesting endeavors is Hear No Evil.

Classifying music is always tricky and, in some cases, ill-advised. But as a critic, I must try to help readers understand what they would hear if they were sitting here with headphones on while spouse and children scurry about the house. Sometimes, classifying and comparing are the handiest tools to do this. So in my system, "Lost Roads" would be classified as meditative Indian-jazz-trance. This is not exactly a stretch on my part as the tabla maestro Zakir Hussain and Indian violin master Shankar are two of the tune's most obvious voices. Guitarist Skopelitus, a frequent Laswell collaborator, adds gentle affected arpeggios as Laswell seems content to take a simple role. We also hear some sitar-like plucking. A Hussain solo is always reason to take notice. "Lost Roads" may be a tune in a perimeter search for a melodic theme. (To be fair, as the first cut, "Lost Roads" acts almost as an overture for the rest of the CD). But it has a pleasing enough vibe that whether this tune was 7 minutes long, as it is, or 20 minutes, you would enjoy it just the same.

November 20, 2008 · 0 comments

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Bill Laswell: Lost Roads

The personnel of this 1988 recording is impressive, but also a bit ominous … as promising as a bad day at the United Nations after the translators have gone home. Yet the end result is about as perfect a realization of "world fusion" as you will ever encounter.

Meet the cast. We have Nicky Skopelitis, the eclectic American string player of Greek heritage (you name it, he has played it at some point … lute, oud, banjo, and—yes!—guitar); Indian violinist L. Shankar, who has recorded with John McLaughlin, Frank Zappa, Yoko Ono and lots of other diverse artists; Aïyb Dieng, a percussionist from Senegal; Cuban conga drummer Daniel Ponce; and, of course, the bassist and master of the soundscapes, Bill Laswell. I am surprised Laswell didn't add a didgeridoo player, so that he could have every continent covered. Not that there is much lacking in the collective CVs of these players. If someone can get these diverse views of rhythm to peacefully coexist, there may be hope for mankind yet.

And not only do they coexist, they flourish. This band sounds like they have been playing together for decades, so natural and seamless is the interaction. My ears are especially drawn to Zakir Hussain's tabla, but everyone gets an A+ in this class. Especially Mr. Laswell, who had the brilliance—and courage—to pull off this awe-inspiring collaboration.

November 19, 2008 · 0 comments

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Tabla Beat Science: Audiomaze

In Western music we have come to view the percussionist as providing accompaniment. The "serious music" repertoire (note: quotation marks indicate a quizzical tone in my voice) often dispenses entirely with percussion, and even commercial acts tend to hide the drummer at the back of the bandstand. Indeed, it is almost a truism among know-it-alls in the music world that you never let a drummer lead the band (although this is usually whispered out of earshot of the guy with the sticks in his hands).

But all this is an aberration, a quirk of history. I have discussed elsewhere the sociological reasons for the marginalization of percussion in Western music. Yet you don't need to take it from me, just open your ears. Even today, many traditional styles of music show us the limitations of our Western idealization of harmony—both as a technique and as a metaphor—revealing the power that is unleashed when the beat reigns as the master of the music, from which everything else radiates.

Bill Laswell may be a bassist (among other things), but he understands the power of percussion in a way that few others do. He has demonstrated this sensibility in a number of recordings, but especially with Tabla Beat Science, the group he formed with Zakir Hussain in 1999. The marriage of electronica with tabla may sound like an edgy concept, but this music exists at the center not the edges. Hussain's tabla grounds everything. It is not just the heartbeat of the band; it is the whole cardiovascular system. (It helps that the tabla is recorded with great presence in the mix.) Laswell's contributions here—switched-on sounds from the electronics factory—fit perfectly, as natural in juxtaposition as sparks accompanying a flame. In a music world that hypes so many phony fusions, this one stands out.

November 19, 2008 · 0 comments

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Rudresh Mahanthappa: Ganesha

This invigorating track from the stellar CD Kinsmen has been in frequent rotation on my CD player. Instead of driving the song structure with chord changes, Mahanthappa sets it in motion via a repeating 14-beat melodic pattern with a heavy funk orientation - think of it as a Carnatic "Chameleon." (Whoops . . . Boy George may have that phrase trademarked.) But the presence of alto saxophonist Kadri Gopalnath and violinist Avasarala Kanyakumari soon take this into musical currents far beyond the conventional formulas of fusion, or even jazz for that matter. I have been very impressed with the interplay between these two artists in other settings, and they again deliver a stunning performance here. Mahanthappa follows with a brilliant solo, more grounded in the jazz vocabulary, but he is also channeling some heavy South Indian spirits as well. The rhythm section is outstanding throughout this 11-minute performance, and might even leave you wondering why the mridangam, a double-headed drum associated with Carnatic music, doesn't show up more often on groove tunes.

November 19, 2008 · 0 comments

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