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Various Artists
A Winter's Solstice: Silver Anniversary Edition

Will Ackerman created the Winter's Solstice series because he'd heard "Jingle Bells" too many times. A Winter's Solstice, born in 1985, was his antidote: original music, obscure carols and classical themes that reflected the mood and ambience of the winter season. And it worked.

Since that first Windham Hill Winter's Solstice album, the concept has gone through some changes, bottoming out in 1999's abysmally kitsch Winter Solstice on Ice. With this Silver Anniversary Edition, Dawn Atkinson, who produced the first Winter's Solstice disc, has gone back to the original concept of non-traditional seasonal music and novel arrangements of Christmas classics. She's also brought in some old stand-bys, soliciting works from Paul McCandless, Barbara Higbie, Will Ackerman, Philip Aaberg and Liz Story.

Much of this all-new Winter's Solstice turns on classical themes. Ex-Kronos Quartet cellist Joan Jeanrenaud teams up with guitarist Steve Erquiaga on an airy Handel piece and Paul McCandles adapts Orlando Gibbons' "The Silver Swan." Others explore traditional carols, including Erquiaga's double guitar filigree on "Greensleeves." But as in Winter Solstice discs past, the best compositions are usually the originals. Keyboardist Tim Story, a Winter's Solstice stalwart, unfolds another gorgeously melodic ambient chamber piece called "What Comes December." Tracy Silverman and Thea Suits turn in a wistful duet for electric violin and flute, and TV composer W.G. Snuffy Walden goes soft focus on "Moon Lake." While "Beneath the Trees" by Ackerman and Aaberg, seems born in the snow covered trees of Ackerman's Vermont home, Hawaiian Ozzie Kotani's slack key "Queen's Prayer" seems to have nothing to do with the season. Yet, it somehow fits the mood.

©2001 John Diliberto

David Darling
Cello Blue

David Darling, along with Tim Story is one of the principal architects of ambient chamber music. If you don't know what that is, a quick listen to Darling's new CD will tell you. Playing acoustic and 5-string electric cello, Darling orchestrates slow, elegiac largos, dotted with brush strokes of synthesizer, colored with drops of acoustic piano and enfolded in environmental sounds. This is a follow-up album to his 1993 release, Eight-String Religion and as on that CD, Darling orchestrates a symphony of melancholy and yearning, recalling the mood of Barber's "Adagio for Strings" or Hans Zimmer's "Journey to the Line." Layering pizzicato cello against languid bowed lines, Darling creates enveloping soundscapes that are only occasionally short-changed by pedestrian synthesizer programming. The title track is a serene lullaby while "Morning" offers a delicate pastoral expanse. Darling is an artist who knows the difference between serenity and shlock and he's always on the correct side of that divide.

©2001 John Diliberto

 

Bang on a Can: TERRY RILEY-IN C

Steve Reich: Triple Quartet/Music for a Large Ensemble/Electric Guitar Phase

Steve Reich: Triple Quartet
Bang on a Can: Terry Riley--In C

These two CDs aren't issued as a pair, but the timing of their coincidental releases couldn't be better. Steve Reich and Terry Riley, along with Philip Glass and LaMonte Young were the shock troops of early minimalism, bringing it out from the avant-garde and into something

approaching the mainstream, influencing everyone from Tangerine Dream to The Who. These two albums each feature new recordings of seminal works by Reich and Riley and it's remarkable how powerful they remain after 35 years.

Steve Reich's TRIPLE QUARTET features three early works, notably his 1967 composition, "Violin Phase," resurrected here as "Electric Guitar Phase." Using a limited number of melodic phrases repeated and thrown in and out of sync over the course of four overdubs, guitarist Dominic Frasca discovers a world of melody and rhythm, constantly cycling in elliptical orbits.

Likewise, Reich's 1977 "Music for a Large Ensemble" is a luminous work. Drawn from the same era as "Music for 18 Musicians," it's given a new performance by Alarm Will Sound and Ossia with a slightly different arrangement by conductor Alan Pierson. "Triple Quartet," from 1999, is given its recording premiere here. With the Kronos Quartet layered three times over, it harkens back to works like "Violin Phase" but Reich's writing is now more melodically extravagant, with siren calls, shifting textures and skewed counterpoints. It's a hypnotic piece.

Which brings us to Terry Riley's "In C", the first real manifesto of minimalism. In 1964, Riley composed a series of melodic cells that could be played by any combination of musicians. Locked into a rhythm of a steady pulse pounded in two Cs, an octave apart, each musician could play a cell as long as they wanted, then move onto the next. The genius of Riley's work is how coherent and inexorable it sounds while at the same time throwing up an infinite amount of variations each time it's played.

"In C" is performed here by Bang On A Can. You might recall the way they transformed Brian Eno's "Music for Airports" a few years ago. With instrumentation that includes strings, tuned percussion, electric guitar, reeds and the Chinese pipa of Wu Man, Bang on A Can charts a delirious course through "In C," sometimes spinning in concentric orbits, at other times alighting on the same phrase in regimented lockstep before slowly fracturing away. Nearly four decades after Terry Riley originally conceived it,"In C" remains, as one critic said, the first masterpiece of the global village.

©2001 John Diliberto

 

Erik Wollo
Wind Journey

Erik Wollo is a relatively unheralded musician, yet he's been an integral part of the Echoes soundscape for years, going back to his album TRACES in the late 1980s, to SOLSTICE in the mid-90s to last year’s GUITAR NOVA. GUITAR NOVA focused on his acoustic guitar work as he multi-tracked guitars in atmospheric, ringing string orchestras. On his new CD, WIND JOURNEY, he plugs back in, firing up his synthesizers again and dropping in electric guitar solos that sound like they swept in from the stars. Each piece on Wind Journey is a cinematic trip, often powered by insistent sequencer lines, elaborate synthesizer orchestrations and topped off with some of the most cutting guitar lines this side of Mike Oldfield.

Although Wollo records his music in a basement studio in Frederikstad, his compositions are more evocative of Norway's sweeping, jagged mountain ranges and vast coastal fjords. I know that's a cliché, but Wollo's music is anything but. This is an album you'll be hearing on Echoes for months to come.

©2001 John Diliberto

Paul Ellis
Into the Liquid Unknown

The sound of German electronic space music from the 70s has held a powerful sway over any musician twisting knobs on a synthesizer. A quarter century after Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze codified their sound, people are still making music like they stepped into a Berlin time warp. And it's not surprising. The sound of rolling sequencer patterns, swirling effects and laser burst melodies still sounds fresh. To put on Phaedra or Body Love is to be transported once again. Paul Ellis is one of many who were mesmerized by that sound, as evidenced by his group, Dweller at the Threshold. But with his second solo album, he's finally breaking away, making a music that, while still reflecting his roots, moves into a space that hasn’t been trampled. INTO THE LIQUID UNKNOWN is built around analog synthesizer sounds and interlocking sequencer patterns that build into maze-like designs. He drops the simple 4/4 rhythm, plodding drum machine patterns and smothering synthesizer string pads that plague most post-70s space musicians. Instead, his lines are clearly etched into black space, rhythms are suggested more than played, with melodic lines squeezing through delays and filters, morphing in endlessly fascinating timbres.

©John Diliberto 2001

 

Brian Eno and J. Peter Schwalm
Drawn from Life

It's been quite some time since Brian Eno, the first of Ten Artists for Ten years of Echoes, has put out a truly satisfying album. DRAWN FROM LIFE remedies that situation with a quintessential ambient recording that pushes in new directions. Of late, Eno's music has been abstract. He's put out limited edition releases of his installation soundtracks that have less form than cirrus clouds and his last proper ambient album, THE DROP in 1997. I described in it one review as "metallic synthesized and sampled sounds etching out skeletal rhythms and melodies that are as thready the pulse of a heart transplant candidate." Eno was working with a self-composing program called Koan at the time and the melodic non-sequiturs coupled with his flat, metallic choice of timbres, seemed lifeless. Along comes German drummer and composer J. Peter Schwalm and suddenly, there's a shape and texture to ambiences that invite, entice and mystify. Eno has long been a fan of early Miles Davis BITCHES BREW-era fusion and you can hear that influence in a free interplay of sonic textures, solo fragments and those haunting melodies that Eno conjures. It's a cyber-noir sound, with an atmosphere of black and white cityscapes shot through a misty haze at night. On "Like Pictures Part Two" Laurie Anderson intones some oblique lyrics like "Some things are just pictures. They're scenes before your eyes." Drawn from Life has plenty of pictures for the minds eye.

© 2001 John Diliberto

 

Peter Kater and R. Carlos Nakai
THROUGH WINDOWS AND WALLS

R. Carlos Nakai is beginning to reach a saturation point with three new albums so far in 2001. But this third CD, "Through Windows and Walls," finds him in one of his most advantageous positions, working with keyboardist Peter Kater. Each musician seems to bring out the strengths and shore up the weaknesses of the other. For Nakai, that means his melodies become crisper, more clearly delineated and couched in a sonic environment that seems custom designed, and meticulously wrought. On the other hand, Nakai's direct spirit and austere approach tone down Kater's tendency towards overly sentimentalized melodies and orchestrations. Like earlier Kater and Nakai albums, this speaks to a native chamber sound. It's slightly more classical and less world&SHY;oriented than on Nakai's "In a Distant Place" CD, although percussionists Geoffrey Gordon and Michael Moses Tisch lay down percolating percussive bed on several tracks. While Nakai on his own tends to vamp, Kater gives his melodies dramatic structure like the long crescendo of "When Worlds Collide" and the cinematic turns of "Walk With Me."

© 2001 John Diliberto

 

Afro Celt Sound System
Volume 3: Further in Time

Afro Celt Sound System returns with their third CD and continues to fulfill the prophecy of their name. Just like previous albums, FURTHER IN TIME features a synchro-mesh of Irish, African and electronica rhythms locked into dervish grooves that could go on forever. On top is a weave of ecstatic soloing from uilleann pipes, Irish whistles and fiddles, and African koras. "Colossus" is the groove masterwork of the album, while the two-part composition, "North" reaches cinematic expanses. But some of Afro Celt's most yearning music exists here as well, including N'Faly Kouyate's album-closing "Onward" and Iarla O'Lionard's keening "Lagan." Afro Celt takes a few chances on FURTHER IN TIME. Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant turns in a classic performance that could have fit right on Zep's fourth album. With its heroic refrain, pastoral, English 12-string acoustic guitar and the additional voice of Welsh singer Julie Murphy, it echoes Led Zeppelin's "Battle of Evermore." Likewise, Peter Gabriel sings the lead vocal on "When You're Falling," an Afro-pop style piece that would have seemed light on a Gabriel CD, let alone an Afro Celt disc. Neither one is a bad song, they're just not Afro Celt songs. But they don't hold back an album that otherwise refines Afro Celt Sound System's euphoric, often hallucinatory whirl. It sends you plummeting on a roller-coaster of delerious rhythms and instrumental cross-cutting that leaves you spinning.

© 2001 John Diliberto

 

Green Isac
GROUNDRUSH

It's been much too long between albums for Green Isac, about five years. And I've actually held off making it an Echoes pick, because its charms are subtle and work their ways over time. But their latest CD, Groundrush, reminds me why they've been one of our favorite groups on Echoes over the years. Green Isac is a Norwegian duo working ethno-techno strategies with a sly humor and grace worthy of Brian Eno from his Another Green World days. As they have on previous albums, Green Isac mixes ethnic instruments like the Chinese yang ch'in, African djembe and Indian Bansuri flute. These are spun into kinetic rhythms, sometimes electronically powered, but more often acoustic, with accents from manipulated guitars, and quirky synths, setting them in alien landscapes. Green Isac takes the simplest melodies, from the repeated flute line of "Sufi Too" to the electric piano theme that emerges out of the echoed rhythms of "Mifune," and turns them into Pachebel-like canons. Groundrush has an air of mystery and intrigue, but Green Isac renders it with a twinkle in their eyes.

© 2001 John Diliberto

 

Jalan Jalan
BALI DUA

Jalan Jalan's first album BALI, was a Pick CD in 1999, and their second album, BALI DUA, is no less imposing, but in the quietest way possible. Orchestrated once again by Yasufumi Yamashita, from the group Sorma, Jalan Jalan mixes instruments, melodies and rhythms drawn from Bali's gamelan orchestras and insinuates them into synthesizer ambiences that have the calming presence of slow breathing. BALI DUA is more lush than its predecessor. On "Sekar," a gentle guitar cycle frames the gamelan themes, while on "Kaja," an unnamed Balinese singer intones a folk melody of vibrato-laden melismas over a slow motion dance of synthesizers and gamelan. Like Pachebel's "Canon" and Brian Eno's "An Ending (Ascent)," Jalan Jalan's compositions seem to move towards some infinite point, with melodies spiraling in minor key refrains. And as on their first album, that point only moves deeper with each listening.

© 2001 John Diliberto

 

Patrick O'Hearn
SO FLOWS THE CURRENT

After four years, keyboardist and composer Patrick O'Hearn finally returns with a new CD. It's not a departure from the music he's been recording since INDIGO nearly ten years ago, yet it's another perfection of that sound. Patrick remains a master of mood, conjuring atmospheres that tug on the consciousness like a half remembered dream. But there's a more organic feel to SO FLOWS THE CURRENT than in past O'Hearn albums. He said they used no MIDI or sequencing on the album and I believe it. Although O'Hearn's music has never sounded wooden, the textures here roll more naturally, the nuances of performance are a bit more telling. And then there's the guitar of Peter Maunu. His mostly acoustic strings are a warm sound in the grey field of O'Hearn's arrangements. Maunu explodes into "Northwest Passage" with rippling arpeggios over a snake-bitten desert groove that recalls Steve Roach's DUST TO DUST. "Traveler's Rest" also has a western sensibility from Maunu's guitar, which might be why its original title was "Cheyenne." The classic O'Hearn sound can be heard on the ominous moods of "Panning the Sands," with its mix of percussive accents and metallic electro-string plucks. SO FLOWS THE CURRENT isn't the step forward that Patrick O'Hearn needs to make, but it's so lush and enveloping, you don't mind if he stays here a while longer.

© John Diliberto 2001

 

Bruce Kaphan
"Slider"

I can already tell you what one of the Echoes Top Ten albums of 2001 will be. It's the solo debut of Bruce Kaphan (pronounced Kap-in). He's a veteran of the San Francisco music scene, a member of the American Music Club, sideman to artists like R.E.M and David Byrne, none of that prepares you for this journey into ambient pedal steel guitar. Kaphan takes all the beauty of this country & western icon, the plaintive wail, the human vocal quality, the uncanny pitch shifts, surgically removes the country corn, and sends it across southwestern landscapes and out into space. Songs like "High Desert" ring with pure country air and joy, while"Country & Eastern" and "Back in the Light" ride on Indian tabla drums, as the pedal steel emulates the sitars sinewy call. And on "Clouds" and "Outpost," Kaphan finds an entirely new language with these melodically rich, enveloping soundscapes. Robert Rich has approached this sound with his simple lap steel guitar, and BJ Cole gave broad pointers in this direction, but Bruce Kaphan has nailed it with a subtlety and precision that few will equal. Expect to hear this album a lot on Echoes over the next few months.

© John Diliberto 2001

 

Ronu Majumdar
HOLLOW BAMBOO

A couple of years ago, trumpeter Jon Hassell put out one of our favorite albums on Echoes, FASCINOMA. The band for that CD included Ry Cooder on electric guitar and Indian bansuri flute player Ronu Majumdar. Apparently, the FASCINOMA sessions went so well, they all stuck around to play on Majumdar's solo album. The results are HOLLOW BAMBOO. Not nearly as hallucinatory as FASCINOMA, Majumdar engages Hassell and Cooder in raga variations, creating interior improvisations and muted ecstatic flights. Cooder plays his electric guitar with a heavy tremolo,like the sound of another world breaking thru at the periphery while Hassell's breathy slurred trumpet echoes Majumdar's spiraling flute lines. The album also moves through more traditionally inclined ragas with just Majumdar and tabla. Majumdar spins out swirls of melody, extending them on a time line that seems like it could go on forever. To hear Majumdar in a more traditional raga setting, a companion disc called LADY ASTRIDE THE TIGER has also been released.

© John Diliberto 2001

 

Eri Sugai
MAI

One-woman vocal choirs are everywhere, from Adiemus to Enya, but Eri Sugai has created one of the least affected and serenely entrancing chorales of recent memory. A Japanese singer who has spent most of her time in the commercial jingle and pop music worlds, MAI, is a declaration of her voice as an instrument. Like many contemporary female exotic singers, she works up her own language, a haunting melange of Asian-tinged phonemes that she casts into a morphing global choir. The opening gothic hymn of "Horizon" sounds like a flock of descending angels, while "Honen Bushi" takes a traditional Okinawan folk song and turns it into a tribal chant. "Aqua" was actually a commercial soundtrack in Japan and Sugai's South African style vocalese on it recalls Adiemus's " Adiemus", which also began life as a commercial. Sugai, who composed and arranged all the music, sparingly decorates her brush stroked compositions with traditional Japanese instruments and keyboards. She reputedly created hundreds of vocal overdubs on any given song, yet, unlike some more popular singers in this genre, she never loses the detail of her melodies, nor the distinct layers of her lush harmonies.

© John Diliberto 2001

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