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Heaven and Earth
(December 2008)

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A finger style guitarist finds heaven with ambient electronics



John Gregorius
Heaven and Earth

On his solo debut album, Heaven and Earth, John Gregorius finds a meeting ground between Windham Hill fingerstyle guitar and ambient music. The heritage artists of Windham Hill were all influenced by 70s progressive rock sounds, and so was John Gregorius, especially the pastoral side of groups like Genesis with the finger-style playing of Steve Hackett, Anthony Phillips and Mike Rutherford. John Gregorius cites them, but you can also hear the influence of Windham Hill's Will Ackerman and Michael Hedges in his playing.

However, though it has some nice solo acoustic tracks, what really makes Heaven and Earth rise above are the ambient landscapes where Gregorius sets his tunes. Enoesque landscapes ride under "Mercy," surrounding his finger-style guitar and electric, country-tinged lead with a hazy aura. A William Orbit style sequencer pattern traces the outline of "Pearls of Great Price," which at its core is a meeting of Ambient Americana and eastern music. Udu drum and a guitar lead that sits between languid country blues and Indian raga turns into an east-west fusion.

John Gregorius is a musician of eclectic tastes, but with a unified vision. You can tell he's listening to acoustic players, but also has his fingers in rock and ambient music. A track called "Secret to Light" sets plaintive acoustic guitar in an atmosphere of growling, shoegazer rock textures and rolling drums played with mallets that come straight off the launch pad of Pink Floyd's "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun." On the other hand, Leo Song's rubbery fretless bass sound had me thinking Michael Manring had slipped in.

Echoes of early music by Steve Tibbetts might come to mind while listening to Heaven and Earth. Gregorius doesn't think in Tibbetts's epic scale, but his mixture of acoustic and electronic, psychedelic and pastoral, world and folk music recalls albums like Yr.

Heaven and Earth is a subtly intoxicating album that seems comfortable, while at the same time taking you to new destinations each time you put it on.

© 2008 John Diliberto


3 Cities
(November 2008)

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Two Englishmen and 70 Asian musicians converge in an east-west electronica exotica



Bombay Dub Orchestra
3 Cities

From the opening track of "Egypt by Air," Bombay Dub Orchestra signals their return like the warming rains of the summer monsoons. Instruments and voices echo distantly and ambiguously before Garry Hughes drops in a fuzzed synthesizer bass line that barks against a middle eastern oud, followed by a swell of Bollywood strings and a throbbing groove topped by dumbeks. Bombay Dub Orchestra sound ancient and modern, ironically kitschy and cosmic all at once.

East-west fusions have been going on since at least the early 1960s when Ravi Shankar sat down with musicians like jazz saxophonist Bud Shank and classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin. That cross-legged crossover hasn't stopped and one of the latest iterations comes from the Bombay Dub Orchestra: Garry Hughes, Andrew T. MacKay and about 70 or so musicians from India, the Middle East and England.

There's lots of acts sampling world music, but Bombay Dub Orchestra's compositions are played by live musicians. Bansuri flutes, sitars, and santoors float through a landscape of lush Bollywood string orchestras arranged by Andrew T. Mackay. These acoustic instruments are set in an electronic landscape mostly provided by Garry Hughes from his collection of vintage synthesizers. Hughes creates the soundpool where east and west, ancient and modern converge. On a track like "Spiral," the bowed stringed instrument called the dilruba is taken out for a solo by Saroja, then Hughes creates a similar sound on synthesizer, only going backwards. That's the charm of Bombay Dub Orchestra, where east doesn't just meet west, but exists in a region of liminal hues and transitional effects.

Indian vocals lace the album together, from the complex counterpoint created on "Monsoon Malabar" to "Fallen," where Mumbai-based singer Hamsika Iyer bends her voice into a song of yearning.

But it's the instrumental side of Bombay Dub Orchestra that keeps drawing you back. Trading on their movie orchestra arrangements, epic tracks like "Feasting with Panthers" have a cinematic expanse like one of those 1950s exotic road movies transferred to the 21st century. "Map of Dusk," on the other hand, evokes 60s space age bachelor pad music with its slinky, sliding guitar riff and suspended lounge piano.

3 Cities is named for London, Mumbai and Chennai where it was recorded, but Bombay Dub Orchestra take you much further.

© 2008 John Diliberto


What a Great Place to Be
(October 2008)

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An ambient
Americana anthem



Sumner McKane
What a Great Place to Be

It's been several years now that guitarist Sumner McKane has been releasing albums of evocative soundscapes dipped in Americana as cinematic as a John Ford western and as nuanced as an Andrew Wyeth painting. But McKane's landscapes are tinged in ambient atmospheres and pulled by an undertow of psychedelia that makes them some of the most unassumingly mind-bending music of the decade.

And unassuming may be Sumner's only problem, because there's little that's extravagant or extraneous in his music. As I said about his October 2005 CD of the Month, North, it's like a long ride through the countryside. He carries you places before you're even aware you're going. Take one of his unwieldy song titles, "After the Fireworks We Walked to the Rope Swing." It's gawky and long, but strangely evocative of a nostalgic sensibility. Sumner takes you there, but not before a long dimly lit sunrise, a pristine soundscape and a feedback-laced guitar solo unfold. That track alone makes What A Great Place to Be essential, but Sumner keeps coming, layering guitars, acoustic and electric, in delirious melodies across ambiently etched backings. Songs like "Riding in Cars in the Woods" references his country background with pedal steel like guitar lines, while simultaneously echoing Pink Floyd, circa Dark Side of the Moon.

Most of Sumner McKane's What a Great Place to Be was birthed at the same time he brought his two daughters into the world. No doubt their presence impacted the sometimes serene nature of the album, but Sumner's music has always had a homespun quality. His CD covers are usually home snapshots and landscapes from Maine, and his titles, like "1975 Chevrolet" harken back to his youth.

Sumner manages to touch the nostalgic, wistful side of us, without being remotely quaint or corny. Sumner McKane's new album is What A Great Place to Be and it makes you feel exactly like that, wherever you're listening. It's like the gentlest acid dream in a sun-drenched meadow and it's our CD of the Month for October.

© 2008 John Diliberto


Save Your Light for Darker Days
(September 2008)

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Digitonal
Save Your Light
for Darker Days
What do you do when you're a classical musician, but you fall in love with 90s electronica and technology? The band called Digitonal took their symphonic instruments and plugged in, and in the process have made a powerful and moving work of ambient chamber music called Save Your Light for Darker Days.

Digitonal formed in 1997 around Andy Dobson. He was supposed to be a classical clarinet player but was drawn to electronica bands like Boards of Canada, Aphex Twin and Orbital. It wasn't until 2001 and a song called "Come and Play" that Digitonal found its voice. That's when Egyptian violinist Samy Bishai came on board. Bishai had already abandoned his classical career, opting to play jazz and world music. You can also hear him on a new CD with Senegalese kora player Seckou Keita.

As Digitonal, Dobson and Bishai marry their love for modern classical music from Steve Reich to Arvo Pärt, with chilled electronic grooves and soulful, Samuel Barber-like moods.Andy Dobson finds a distinctive voice for his clarinet that veers more toward a soprano saxophone timbre. His lead line on "93 Years On" begins smokey and melancholic before turning into a blistering cry of luxurious anguish.

Digitonal has passages of both serene classical beauty and glitch strewn grooves. If you hear symphonic strings in their music, it's always Samy Bishai whether it's a single violin or 87 of them, overdubbed and looped. He adds the searing chamber sound to tracks like "Silver Poetry," soloing in a quietly rhapsodic style over Dobson's syncopated grooves.

Digitonal call their music “cinematic electronica.” And on their new album, Save Your Light for Darker Days, they go widescreen with a soundtrack of classical elegance and often wistful moods. Many of the titles have a sense of yearning, loss and nostalgia, but they’re all tempered by the darkness of Blade Runner moods. No surprise there, since Andy Dobson cites Vangelis's score to Ridley Scott’s dark sci-fi thriller as the best soundtrack ever.

© 2008 John Diliberto


The Scent of Light
(August 2008)

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Nouveau Flamenco pioneer expands in cinematic colors

Ottmar Liebert
The Scent of Light

To the casual listener, Ottmar Liebert might seem like he's still plying the same innovative style he launched some 18 years ago with the album Nouveau Flamenco. But he's taken that sound into different directions over the years, from ambient to electronica to classical. Now, with The Scent of Light he's accomplished something much more subtle than those other forays, expanding his compositions into quietly epic tone poems that are cinematic in scope and contemplative in form. In many ways, The Scent of Light is a direct descendent of his 1993 CD, The Hours Between Night + Day. Like that album, many of the songs here are inspired by Liebert's travels, and rather than fiery flamenco, Liebert takes a more introspective path with subtle, spacious arrangements.

"Silence: No More Longing" exemplifies the approach on The Scent of Light. It begins with Liebert’s slow, introspective solo guitar, with a few furious flamenco runs tossed in. It's a long, pensive rumination with some subtle, gurgling keyboards that float up and disappear, setting you in a languorous mood. About halfway through, Jon Gagan comes in with a melodic fretless bass line, beginning a slow, rhythmic build to a crescendo with Stephen Duros playing a fuzzed out electric guitar riff that lifts the track up like a new dawn.

The Scent of Light is full of these subtle touches, like the reverse percussion echoes on “Firelight,” the call and response guitars of "The River: Writing in Water," and the tamboura drone and tabla on "Candlelight."

This all gives Ottmar Liebert's music the atmospheric breadth that makes The Scent of Light a trip you can take over and over again. Ottmar is calling this his best album ever. I'll need more time for that kind of assessment, but it's certainly one of his best and that's why it's our Echoes CD of the Month for August.

© 2008 John Diliberto


Wind of the East
(July 2008)

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Listen to samples:
1-Wind of the East
2-The Greeting
3-Prayers and Salutations
4-The Eagle’s Story

5-First Light
6-Seeds and Ceremony
7-Sunrise
8-Guidance and Forgiveness
9-Peace and Light

Peter Kater and Sacred Earth
Wind of the East

With a new project called Sacred Earth, pianist Peter Kater expands his reputation as one of the leading purveyors of Native American fusion. With Sacred Earth, he's created four albums from four compass points, each featuring different Native musicians including Rita Coolidge, Bill Miller and Kevin Locke. The latest and third in the series is called Wind of the East and on that CD, Kater collaborates with Cheyenne flute player Joseph Fire Crow and Paiute violinist Arvel Bird.

Wind of the East oscillates between spacious, contemplative themes like "The Greeting" to more rhythmically driven, instrumentally ornate works like "Sunrise." Echoes of Kater's Natives, his pioneering CD of duets with Native flute player R. Carlos Nakai, are heard in an intimate duet with Fire Crow on "Seeds and Ceremony." But this collaboration has more of an ensemble feel than his chamber music designs with Nakai. Arvel Bird’s violin has a warm melodic tone and lyrical sound that whirls through Kater's arrangements. While there's little intrinsically "native" in the violin, Joseph Fire Crow is a student of traditional flute songs who nevertheless plays freely within this music, creating soulful melodies and bird-like calls. I love the way the flute and violin lines interweave. On "The Eagle's Story," Bird's short, arcing violin sounds like a call out to Fire Crow, whose flute emerges from the violin echo at the beginning. It’s one of the more energized tunes on the album, with melodies that spin between the two native musicians and guitarist Mike Hamilton, the unsung hero of this recording. His rhythm comping and finger-picked interplay tie many of these tracks together.

Wind of the South is still waiting to waft in, but in the meantime, Wind of the East blows a gentle, intricately detailed breeze through the native landscape and it's our CD of the Month for July.

© 2008 John Diliberto


The 10,000 Steps

(June 2008)

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Biomusique
The 10,000 Steps
You've heard the voice of Lisbeth Scott. You may have picked up on one of her solo singer-songwriter albums like Dove or heard her calling the heavens in gothic chants with State of Grace. But it's more likely you've encountered her in dozens of film soundtracks, including The Chronicles of Narnia, The Sixth Sense, Munich and the latest Indiana Jones film.

It's that side of Lisbeth Scott that turns up on the debut album of Biomusique, a collaboration with Greg Ellis. He's highly regarded as a percussionist who works in films and plays in settings as diverse as Billy Idol and Juno Reactor, and was the rhythm half of the Persian fusion duo Vas. But with Lisbeth Scott, he's found a different kind of collaborator. Lisbeth brings a classical sensibility and a gentle feel to songs that read like haiku. The duo layer percussion, piano, guitars, dulcimer and even a bit of trumpet, getting a sound that defies categories, orchestrating their own, intimate chamber music spaces.Each song is like a hymn. The opening "Ananda" finds Scott calling out passionately in despair and anguish. "Caeili et Terra" (Heaven & Earth) is a lament with Scott's voice stacked up in Enyaesque choirs. "The Tender Green" mixes Ellis's tribal drums with Scott's layered, serene vocals, intoning "There is a world somewhere, way up high, way down deep." It builds to a slow, erotic throb that resolves to a tribal coda. Like a Rumi poem or an Abbess Hildegard von Bingen chant, Scott's spare lyrics can be heard as love poems or hymns to a higher spirit.Greg Ellis has placed the instruments in a delicate balance that matches Scott's lyrics. On one song, Lisbeth Scott just sits down and plays piano in a pensive, Arvo Pärt-like meditation while Ellis blows some disarmingly affecting trumpet, like an elegy for Miles Davis.

Their name might sound like the product of a scientific gene splice or music created by plugging into plants, but Biomusique is much more about human souls than earth souls.
© 2008 John Diliberto


Unspoken

(May 2008)

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Electro-cellist goes global

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Jami Sieber
Unspoken
The cello isn't your father's classical instrument anymore. It's not even Yo-Yo Ma's. A new generation of cellists is taking the most soulful of classical strings in new directions. You can hear it in rock acts like Loreena McKennitt, Rasputina, Apocalyptica and Cursive. Jami Sieber takes a quieter approach than most of them, joining cellists like David Darling, Zoe Keating, Rena Jones and Hans Christian from Rasa in creating an ambient chamber music. Jami has been a favorite on Echoes since her debut solo album, Lush Mechanique in 1994.

Unspoken, her latest CD started out as a poetry and music project she released with Kim Rosen called Only Breath. I have to confess, when I hear the words poetry and music together, my ears glaze over. But on Unspoken, Sieber leaves the spoken words out and let's the poetry of her music speak. It's a richly textured album featuring Sieber's multi-tracked and looped cello, often joined by an ad hoc world music ensemble. "The River Between" is a spiraling dance centered on Sieber's cello and the bansuri flute of Steve Gorn, while the title track explodes in a serge of rhythm and a pulsing bass line from Kai Eckhardt (bassist with Stanley Clarke, Randy Brecker, John McLaughlin). Sieber has a wonderful sense of space, sending accenting cello arcs dipped in reverb through the stereo spectrum.While there are no words on Unspoken, Sieber brings some vocalise to bear, intoning an ethereal choir on the darkly brooding "Night Song" and exuberant chants on "The River Between." She also drops in a few solo cello pieces, just to show she can do it, but it's her looped and ensemble pieces that stand out.

© 2008 John Diliberto


The Bog Bodies and Other Stories

(April 2008)

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A pastoral elegy for ancient corpses

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Gerry O'Beirne
The Bog Bodies and Other Stories

I'm not sure where to begin with a new album by Irish guitarist and singer-songwriter Gerry O'Beirne. Do I start with the wonderful, multi-tracked instrumentals he's written for guitars, dobros and other stringed folk instruments? Or the macabre imagery of the title, The Bog Bodies and Other Stories?

Let's get the macabre out of the way first. Bog Bodies are nearly perfectly preserved corpses dating back over 5000 years that have been discovered in bogs in northern Europe and the British Isles. They've got them in museums all over the place and they're very eerie to see. Here's a Wiki link with a picture: O'Beirne names two tracks for the bog bodies, "Oldcraoghan Man" and "Clonycavan Man." I don't know why O'Beirne picked that for an image, because his album is a beautiful, pastoral foray that manages to tap his Irish roots while actually sounding very Americana. Even though Bog Bodies is subtitled, Music for Guitar, that doesn't quite do it justice. On the "The Desert and Two Grey Hills," O'Beirne is playing 12 and 6 string guitars, slide guitar, Spanish guitar, ukelele, and using an e-bow. Staying strictly acoustic (does an e-bow count?), he takes a page from Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells doing the one-man orchestra thing. And like Oldfield, his songs are gorgeously lyrical.Gerry O'Beirne is a veteran singer-songwriter. His tunes have been covered by Maura O'Connell, Mary Black, and Cathie Ryan. He's also popped up as a folkie on A Prairie Home Companion. But on The Bog Bodies he shuts up and plays his guitar, along with just about anything else you can pluck and strum. Even though Gerry O'Beirne is Irish and hangs with Irish folk superstars like Kevin Burke, Andy Irvine, and the Waterboys, this album has more of a western americana feel. Especially when he's playing the National Steel Guitar, which seems to be the reborn instrument of the 21st century. O'Beirne plays it with a slide and it immediately calls up images of country blues and high plains, tapping into that Ry Cooder Paris, Texas vibe.Gerry O'Beirne's The Bog Bodies and Other Stories is our Echoes CD of the Month for April. Don't let the title scare you off. It's a beautiful album to welcome in spring.

© 2008 John Diliberto


Jamshied Sharifi "One"

(March 2008)

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Iranian-American musician creates a global hymn

Jamshied Sharifi
One

In 2001, on the one month anniversary of 9-11, we sent out a call to musicians to submit music as part of An Echoes Requiem for 9-11. Jamshied Sharifi sat down and in a couple of days composed the most haunting and moving track we received. Simply called “Requiem,” it featured his wife and daughter singing in pygmy voices and Moroccan singer Hassan Hakmoun. Reworked slightly, with Seamus Egan from Solas on low whistle, it remains a poignant lament and it's now a powerful conclusion to his new album, One.

From the first spiraling notes of Tibetan singer Yungchen Lhamo to the final notes of Requiem, it's evident that Jamshied Sharifi has picked up where he left off some ten years ago with his debut album, A Prayer for the Soul of Layla. That album brought musicians from many traditions together, calling out in spiritual chants, singing elaborate minarets of melody, all deployed over a lush, world fusion soundscape. Sharifi does it again, with many of the same singers, on One. We already knew Jamshied Sharifi's work before his solo album. He's composed soundtracks for Clockstoppers, Muppets from Space and Harriet the Spy. But those film credits don't really prepare you for the sound of Jamshied Sharifi's personal music. For that, you have to look to his work with the techno tribal group, Mo Boma. In fact, bassist Sküli Sverrisson and guitarist/percussionist Carsten Tiedemann from Mo Boma appear on One. They're part of a global cast laying down Sharifi's transcultural grooves and haunting moods, continuing the "One-World" view of this international musician born of an Iranian father and American mother in Topeka, Kansas. Jamshied Sharifi crosses global traditions, mixing instruments from Mexico, Africa and the middle east in percussively melodic arrangements with his keyboards and electronic wind instrument. In this exotic sound world, he creates a home for artists like longtime collaborator, Hassan Hakmoun, the Gnawa musician who prowls the sky with his desert cry and plucked sintir. Veteran mystical singer, Iranian-born Sussan Deyhim, graces a couple of tracks with her throaty, sensually imploring voice and singer-songwriter Paula Cole taps into a different, more ecstatic side on tracks like "A Charlotte Sky." Jamshied Sharifi's A Prayer for the Soul of Layla was our CD of the year in 1997. One might join it in 2008, but for now, it's the easy choice for our March CD of the Month.

© 2008 John Diliberto


International Guitar Night II

(February 2008)

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Four virtuosos reach six-string nirvana

International Guitar Night II
It's a fingerstyle fantasy when International Guitar Night comes to town. They’re a touring group with a revolving cast of acoustic guitarists with one constant, founder Brian Gore. He's sacrificed much of his own career to make the world safe for acoustic guitarists: prior participants have included Peppino D'Agostino, Andrew White, Vishwa Mohan Bhatt and Andrew York from LAGQ. On this album, Gore corrals England's Clive Carroll, D'Gary from Madagascar and Miguel de la Bastide from Trinidad via Canada. You couldn't imagine a more stylistically diverse crew, but they all converge into a symphony of strings on IGN II. Clive Carroll follows in the finger style tradition of Davey Graham and John Renbourn, bringing a Celtic flair to his often complex excursions. Miguel de la Bastide is from a post Paco De Lucia generation of flamenco musicians, playing death-defying runs, counterpoints and rhythms on his nylon string guitar. Brian Gore is a highly melodic player, plugging into a sound between Leo Kottke and Windham Hill players like Alex De Grassi. The real find, however, is D'Gary. Hailing from Madagascar, he was on a mid-1990s collection called A World Out Of Time. His sound is part blues, part raga and part the cyclical plucking that recalls the valiha, a tube harp from Madagascar. D'Gary adds a rare vocal touch to IGN with his soulful song, "Betepo." But the rest of IGN II is instrumental with the four guitarists playing solos, duets, trios and quartets, often exchanging dagger licks on tunes like "Torrecillo del Leal" with Bastide and Carroll or "Swaddle Time Blues" with Carroll and Gore. But these musicians, while flashy, are never about flash and a trio piece by Gore called "Zen Scream" reveals the subtle intricacy they can conjure with Gore, Carroll and Bastide converging on this circular, vaguely country, melody. International Guitar Night is both the best guitar sampler you can imagine, and a coherent journey into the wonder of 6 strings times 4. It's our CD of the month for February 2008.

© 2008 John Diliberto


Garden of Delight

(January 2008)

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A world fusion of exotic moods and scented textures

Paul Avgerinos
Garden of Delight
It's a journey into eastern exotica on Garden of Delight, the latest album from Paul Avgerinos. Avgerinos is a veteran musician and multi-instrumentalist who was trained at the Peabody Conservatory and worked as an orchestral bassist. That was before he heard Wendy Carlos's Switched-On Bach and decided to plug in. He's still wired, but now he uses his Connecticut studio as mission control for a world fusion sound that employs musicians from Turkey and the middle east as well as western players on instruments as technologically polarized as the Indian bansuri flute and Electronic Wind Instrument (EWI). The flute is played by Steve Gorn, who weaves his soul-drenched melodies like wisps of smoke curving off a candle. Listeners of New Age records in the 1980s might recall Kevin Braheny, who played synthesizers and EWI. He's changed his name to Kevin Braheny Fortune, but that distinctive EWI sound, part flute, part violin, returns here on tracks like "Night Blooms" and "Bird of Paradise," effecting middle eastern slides and arcs.
Avgerinos creates an attractive, smooth surface that can actually detract somewhat from the subtle changes going on underneath. He uses Christine Yandell and Malika Zarra as ethereal choirs and sensual sirens, and plants gentle synthesizer pads across his compositions. Tracks like "Jasmine" could be a seductive walk into a harem while the opening "Rose of Heaven," featuring Avgerinos on nylon-string guitar, creates the perfumed aura of a temple. Turkish ney flute master Omar Faruk Tekbilek blows his serene, Sufi-inspired melodies across several tracks. He's joined by several other Arabic musicians on oud, violin and percussion, who lend some gravitas to the proceedings. Garden of Delight is an enchanting vision that reveals more each time you travel down its paths.

© 2008 John Diliberto

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