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(December 2004)

Anja Lechner & Vasillis Tsabropoulos
Chants, Hymns and Dances

In the 1970s, someone dubbed ECM Records "the most beautiful sound next to silence." No one has fulfilled that ideal more than Anja Lechner and Vasillis Tsabropoulos with their album CHANTS, HYMNS AND DANCES (ECM). Lechner is the German cellist with the Rosamunde Quartet and the Greek-born Tsabropoulos has several jazz trio albums out. On CHANTS, HYMNS & DANCES they adapt the music of Armenian mystic G.I. Gurdjieff and Thomas de Hartmann in a series of serene improvisations that will have you redefining your concepts of beauty. Gurdjieff wasn't a musician, but he would sing his melodies to de Hartmann, who then wrote them out.

These are simple songs and modal themes that left on their own, are sweet, innocent gems. But Lechner & Tsabropoulos take these themes and expand them in lyric improvisations that will leave you breathless. Tsabropoulos drops notes like liquid mercury while Lechner sings her cello lines, perhaps much as Gurdjieff sung them to de Hartmann. In the center of two suites of Gurdjieff compositions are three works by Tsabropoulos. He bases his music on Byzantine church hymns and they share Gurdjieff's Middle Eastern sensibility, mixed with the gothic echoes of European classical music. Producer Manfred Eicher has refined this CD down to an essence that is rarely found in music. Recorded in a church in Frankfurt, if you boost the volume on the sustained ring-outs, you can hear children playing outside, a perfect metaphor for the innocence and spirituality of this CD. Historically, we've picked seasonal CDs for our December CD of the month, but I can't think of a better recording with which to contemplate the season.

© 2004 John Diliberto

(November 2004)

Erik Wollo
Blue Sky, Red Guitars

Erik Wollo's music floats with the grace of a hawk, effortlessly riding air currents that are left painted and glistening in his wake. But what sounds effortless is actually deeply layered, intricately woven and composed with a poetic language. Sometimes Erik is acoustic, as on GUITAR NOVA, sometimes all electronic, like POLAR DRONES, but it's on the blending of these two worlds that BLUE SKY, RED GUITARS really glistens. Erik Wollo bases most of his compositions on ostinato patterns that flicker at your consciousness like a mandala in motion, constantly cycling in prismatic shifts. Because of this modal approach, and his arching single string e-bow solos, Wollo's music has an Indian sensibility, without sounding Indian at all. Revealing roots that you might not suspect from most of his music, Wollo covers two songs from German electro-dance godfathers, Kraftwerk. He transforms their "In the Hall of Mirrors" and "Computerlove" into pastoral guitar chamber instrumentals. It's difficult to make music that is at once pristine and still screams through the air, but Erik Wollo does it on BLUE SKY, RED GUITARS, an album that is about as perfect as they come.

© 2004 John Diliberto

(October 2004)


Jan Garbarek
In Praise of Dreams

There are many musicians who see music with borders and attempt to break them down. Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek doesn't see boundaries at all. He passes through gateways and crosses over borders without acknowledgment. I first heard him in the early 1970s blowing torrid, Coltrane-inspired solos across the knotty music of jazz composer George Russell. Soon thereafter, Garbarek joined the nascent ECM Records and quickly became one of their flagship artists, creating a uniquely atmospheric brand of jazz. In the intervening decades, he's recorded gothic hymns with the Hilliard Ensemble, reconstructed Norwegian folk music and played chamber jazz with pianist Keith Jarrett. Garbarek's collaborators include Tunisian oud players, Indian sitarists and Sami singers. He's also had a penchant for making atmospheric records that owe little to jazz. Albums like All Those Born With Wings were studio constructions, as Garbarek over-dubbed saxophones and played keyboards in moody tone poems. In Praise of Dreams is in that tradition. Garbarek reaches for the mystical on this album of haunting chamber themes, playing across rhythm loops, spare percussion from Manu Katché and the almost nostalgic sounding viola of Kim Kashkashian. He orchestrates many of his improvisations off Kashkashian's viola, echoing her melody lines, then spiraling out with a soprano sound that cuts to the core, and tenor saxophone that seems to smolder on lava fields. In this case the lava fields are distinctly chilled grooves. Partly a hymn, partly a call to an interior world, In Praise of Dreams is a gothic hymn in a cathedral of the imagination.

© 2004 John Diliberto

(September 2004)

Jeff Johnson & Brian Dunning
The Katurran Odyssey

Jeff Johnson and Brian Dunning have been setting fantasy novels and Celtic myths to music since they got together on the Songs of Albion discs more than a decade ago. Their latest CD finds them creating a score for Terryl Whitlatch's illustrated book, The Katurran Odyssey. Whitlatch has been working at Lucas films for years, designing creatures for Star Wars films, among other things. But Johnson amd Dunning don't opt for a prog-rock opus or light and breezy New Age landscape. Instead, they orchestrate a richly textured panorama with Johnson's inventive keyboard textures and melodic touch along with the airy themes of Dunning's flute. Tracks like "Behind the Water Wall" conjure up an air of mystery and portent with Janet Chatval's ghost fairy vocals and Johnson's ostinato piano of portent. Fiddler John Fitzpatrick scratches out a troll-like dance on "Shifting Sands" over thudding percussion hits and Johnson's wafting synthesizer atmospheres. Dunning's staccato ripsaw flute provides an unusual rhythm for "Following the Butterflies." The Katurran Odyssey is a bit less obvious in its influences than previous CDs, which often relied on Middle Eastern and Celtic themes. Instead, Johnson and Dunning have opted for a more impressionistic sound that conjures in its own world.

© 2004 John Diliberto

(August 2004)

Layne Redmond
Invoking the Muse

Layne Redmond came of age at the height of the global percussion boom in the early 1990s, which peaked with Micky Hart's Planet Drum. She was a member of the Glen Velez group then and from that master of frame drumming she learned how to dissect and bisect a rhythm ten ways towards infinity. On her own, Redmond has pursued the spiritual side of drumming, finding resonance in ancient trance and healing traditions. Invoking the Muse is her most fully realized recording to date. The concept is nine hymns based on "Hymn to the Muse," written by Mesomedes of Crete in the second century A.D. Redmond weaves a hypnotic world of ritual and dreams using trance rhythms performed by herself and Tommy Brunjes, singers Laurel Massé and Ruth Cunningham, and the virtuoso soloing of bansuri flute player Steve Gorn and violinist Vicki Richards. The women's choirs sometimes sound a little daffy, but on tracks like "Radiant Pleasure" and "Moon's Lament" they lend a serene repose with melodies and harmonies that Redmond feels are extensions of her frame drum rhythms. Gorn, Richards and the lead singers seem to dip into the pads of the women's choir as if they were ladeling ethereal melodies out of a pond. Although Redmond wrote most of the tracks, one piece will be familiar to Echoes listeners. It's Glen Velez's "Seven Heaven," a piece she, Gorn and Velez recorded on the 1987 album of the same name. Here, Redmond switches to African mbiras to underscore Gorn's curving melodic arc. Many meditation- based percussion CDs can be deadly dull out of context. Layne Redmond's Invoking the Muse transcends the genre's limitations.

© 2004 John Diliberto

(July 2004)

Fritz Heede
Illuminated Manuscripts

The Echoes CD of the Month is usually the latest, greatest CD we find in a given month. In fact, we usually pick the disc even before it's released. This month's disc is different. It actually came out early last year, but it only recently got into our hands at Echoes. And it impressed us so much we decided to make an exception so it doesn't get lost. Illuminated Manuscripts is a vibrant world fusion CD orchestrated by multi-instrumentalist Fritz Heede. You've heard him recently playing with Suzanne Teng, but he's an artist in his own right, working mostly on film and TV soundtracks. Illuminated Manuscripts is also a soundtrack to a kaleidoscopic animated DVD of the same name. Like that DVD, Heede's music transports you into a constantly morphing, surreal world full of propulsive rhythms, serpentine melodies and floating ambiences. It's a virtual middle eastern dervish in a psychedelic dream with Heede weaving his guitars, sitar and keyboards in with a group that includes percussionist Gilbert Levy, world flutist Suzanne Teng and a host of middle eastern musicians playing oud, douduk, and kanun. It's the presence of live musicians that sets Heede's work apart from that of cut-and-paste, ethno-techno laptop jockeys. And if you really want to blow your mind, check out the DVD of Illuminated Manuscripts. ©2004 John Diliberto Buy the DVD>> see examples of images from the DVD>>

(June 2004)

Music from and Inspired by the Film Monster

Monster was a harrowing film portrait of Aileen Carol Wuornos, a street prostitute who was executed for killing seven men in Florida during the 1980s. But even as I watched the film and its tragic tale of Wuornos's destructive circumstances, near redemption and ultimate spiral toward her demise, I was drawn to the powerful underscore by BT, (Brian Transeau). BT is best known in electronic dance circles, but he stepped outside that framework into ambient terrain for Monster. From the opening "Childhood Montage" sequence, it's apparent this won't be the normal Hollywood film score. Taking cues from Brian Eno and Thomas Newman, BT crafts a melancholy refrain of tremolo guitar, chime-like keyboards and ripped metal into a haunting landscape. Like a lot of artists lately, BT is finding ambient atmospheres in a rustic Americana which he deploys in the slide guitars and dobros of "Girl's Kisses." Even the gamelan effects of "The Bus Stop" harken to American maverick Harry Partch. To really hear BT's magic, listen to the additional 5:1 surround DVD. BT adds-in nine extra ambient interlude tracks, creating an extended suite that enhances the atmospheres, as instruments are deployed throughout the 5:1 sound spectrum, hocketing themes across the room. This isn't one of those surround mixes with just ambience in the back channels. BT envelops you in the score, with any given instrument coming from any 360 degree point in the room. The DVD also features a mini-documentary on the score with BT and director Patty Jenkins and scenes from the film with options to listen with dialogue, sound effects or music. Whether you listen to the standard CD, or the 5:1 surround mix, Monster is a soundtrack that stands apart from the movie.

(May 2004)

Feast of Silence

It's been four years since Vas released an album. In that time, founders Azam Ali and Greg Ellis have released solo albums, and played with artists like Mickey Hart and Billy Idol. Each Vas album has seen a move towards more complex arrangements and song structures and Feast of Silence continues that trend. In fact, these aren't songs as much as epic journeys with Greg Ellis providing a shifting landscape of percussive grooves and timbres, moving from frame drums and dumbeks to bells and tabla, all within a song. And the vocal arrangements of Azam Ali, always haunting, have never been so elaborate as she stacks her voice into Bulgarian choirs on "Amrita" and Middle Eastern incantations on "Mandara." Guest musicians abound, adding depth to Vas's core percussion/vocal sound with bansuri flutes, guitar, throat singers, cello and oud. Feast of Silence features Ali's first English lyrics on a Vas CD. Over a bell-like percussion cycle from Ellis, Ali bends her English words in odd accents, taking them to the edge of intelligibility on "In Our Faith." She sings in English again on "The Reaper and the Flower," adapting the Longfellow poem in a Celtic-Middle Eastern dance. And on the title track, a slow motion, overly-elongated dirge. Vas creates music from the global experience, a sound of universal ecstacy and lament.

(April 2004)

Stephen DeRuby
Sacred Spaces

On Echoes we like music that falls in the cracks. Music that defies easy categorization, that seems to toss out bridges from acoustic to electronic, ancient to the future, earthy to ethereal. Stephen DeRuby does that adroitly, and unselfconsciously on his latest album, Sacred Spaces. Stephen DeRuby is a flute maker and player who draws from a global palette. Playing all the instruments himself, DeRuby mixes guitar, Chinese harps, hammered dulcimer, percussion and keyboards in a subtly nuanced landscape. Atop it all are DeRuby's array of Native American flutes. He creates flute choirs on the tine-stepping rhythms of "Infinity," layering bass and soprano flutes, with an Armenian duduk that infiltrates the space in serpentine undulations. Sacred Spaces is a spirit dance of musical exotica, wafting with the aroma of an Indian temple one moment, spiraling in middle eastern arabesques the next. DeRuby isn't compositionally robust. Songs seem to begin in the middle of nowhere and end the same way. Melodies are sometimes carefully drawn and detailed, other times carelessly strewn about the exotic textures. With titles like "Within You," "Revelation" and "Astral Traveler", DeRuby is clearly poised towards the new age and meditative market. But Sacred Spaces exceeds those expectations.

(March 2004)


Lanterna is at the leading edge of a style called Ambient Americana. It's a sound passed down through Brian Eno's "Apollo," Bruce Kaphan's "Slider" and Moodswings' "Horizontal." Led by guitarist Henry Frayne, Lanterna has just enough twang and tremolo to give their music a big sky country feel. But it's a country tinged by atmosphere, bathed in reverb and refracting crimson dusks through echo delays. Frayne first came to our attention with the Midwest-based ethereal rock band Area. He's released several albums with Lanterna and Highways is the latest stop along the road.The album swings from floating ambient guitarscapes like "Clear Blue" with its layered spiderweb of delayed guitars, to more energized, but still chilled, groove works like "Brightness." Lanterna recalls the days of great guitar and surf bands like The Ventures, the Chantays and Dick Dale, but brought into a more contemporary and ambient world that has more to do with hypnotic moods than hemi-charged grooves. Lanterna is a breath of fresh ambient air, blown in from the midwestern plains. And the perfect Echoes CD of the month to bring in Spring.

©2004 John Diliberto

(Februaryl 2004)

Moya Brennan
Two Horizons

From the first sonorous chorale cascade, it's obvious this is the voice of Moya (formerly spelled "Maire") Brennan. She was the sound of Clannad, the Irish band that paved the way for the new Celtic music of the 1980s and 90s. Now on her own, Brennan continues with a personalized music, neither Celtic nor New Age, rock nor folk.Two Horizons is a symphony of the voice as Brennan articulates a tale of spiritual journey mixed with Irish mythology centered around the harp, the instrument she's played since she was a child. While Moya's previous two CDs explored her Christian rebirth, Two Horizons takes a step back with a more open and welcoming view of spirituality. Two Horizons plays like an extended hymn, a celestial chorale punctuated by Moya's rippling Irish harp melodies, the pulse of bodhran drums, and just enough electronica synth pads and grooves to take this into chilled meditation territory. But atop it all is the voice of Moya Brennan, stacked in choirs, singing plaintively of lost paths and personal redemption. Clannad's "Theme from Harry's Game" was the template for Enya's sound and Moya returns to it in full force on this CD, which is produced by Ross Collum, who has worked with Enya.

(January 2004)

Suzanne Teng and Mystic Journey
Miles Beyond

After several years' wait, flute player Suzanne Teng returns with a follow up to her imposing 1999 solo debut, Mystic Journey. Miles Beyond picks up on the global rhythms and world flutes that made her debut so compelling. The core of the album is Teng and percussionist Gilbert Levy, playing flutes and hand drums from India, Africa, Egypt and Persia. Their melodies and rhythms spiral off each other in desert arabesques. Miles Beyond is a meticulously composed and arranged work with oud, string bass, keyboards and guitar fleshing out the sound in a music that uses traditional sounds for a new, pan-global music. Whether playing ocarina, Turkish ney, Indian bamboo flutes or the Balinese suling, Teng is a master of pulling melodies out of the air and bending them in sensual, calligraphic designs. Miles Beyond is an auspicious first CD of the Month for 2004.

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