Admir Shkurtaj piano
In the modest liner notes to his first solo piano album, composer/accordionist Admir Shkurtaj cites Béla Bartók (1881-1945) as a vital influence. The parallel is closely fetched, for each has mined the land of tradition for melodic ore and fashioned from it something altogether his own. Shkurtaj began his musical training in the Albanian capital of Tirana, but relocated to Salento—the heel of Italy’s boot—in 1991. There he studied composition (further under Alessandro Solbiati in Milan), even completing a degree in electronic music, and began exploring the local culture by way of his roots at the intersection of Balkan and jazz trajectories. The combination lends an archival air to this smattering of compositions by him and others among a hearty selection of folk song arrangements.
One can hear Bartók loud and clear in the Tarantella del Gargano. Its robust and complex flavors are all the more so for Shkurtaj’s delightfully jazzy touches, which also permeate Σeλφω (Selfo). The latter comes from Epirus, a region of northwestern Greece that borders Albania to the north, and in the present rendition yields a whimsical sound palette by threading scraps of the Italian newspaper Il Manifesto through the piano’s strings. Kali nifta undergoes similar preparation, using candles and fingertips to trace a jangling Balkan rumba. To to to is the album’s most poignant and recalls the work of Eleni Karaindrou, if not the other way around, while Comu è bellu cu bai pe’ mare and Cuccurucù lend oceanic playfulness. These experiments reach their pinnacle in the self-styled “musical screenplay” of Pizzica di San Vito. There is something of a tinkerer’s aesthetic in Shkurtaj’s playing that comes out especially in this piece. Like a child before a toolbox and a broken toy, he dismantles the music and puts it together in his own working fashion. The quality of his touch is also in strong evidence, perhaps bearing the torch of accordion virtuoso Giandomenico Caramia, to whom San Vito is dedicated.
Hyrje is the first of two originals and opens the disc resonantly. It is the compass for what follows, pointing to a world of intensely focused emotion. Pizzica di Santa Lucia is another fascination: random acts of pianism seek out the traditional Salentine dance that ends it. Works by two lesser-known composers round out the proceedings. Salvatore Cotardo’s are exuberant and crackling, approaching moth-like grace in the provocative dance of Aspro to chartí. Daniele Durante’s Luna otrantina trims the wick of nostalgia, trembling with contrasts as it fades with an impressionistic sigh.
Mesimér reminds us that tradition does not belong only to the past, as if we were somehow cut off from it over time. By virtue of its name, it continues through the reinterpretations of dedicated artists who recognize that where they’re going has everything to do with where they’ve come from. Performance is the most engaging form of preservation, and by virtue of his own Shkurtaj opens many doors. Such music is more than just another stamp for our internal passports. It is itself the journey such a stamp represents.
(See this review in its original form and hear samples at RootsWorld.)