Cymin Samawatie/Ketan Bhatti: Trickster Orchestra (ECM 2696)

Cymin Samawatie
Ketan Bhatti
Trickster Orchestra

Cymin Samawatie vocals
Ketan Bhatti drums
Trickster Orchestra
Recorded January 2019, Meistersaal, Berlin
Engineer: Martin Ruch
Assistant engineer: Philip Krause
Mastering: Christoph Stickel
Cover photo: Fotini Potamia
An ECM Production
Release date: April 23, 2021

I wait for the LORD, my soul doth wait, and in his word do I hope. My soul waiteth for the Lord more than they that watch for the morning: I say, more than they that watch for the morning.
–Psalm 130:5-6

Since gracing ECM’s catalog with three facets of its musical wisdom, Cyminology reconfigures itself on a larger scale. This time, the group’s leader, singer Cymin Samawatie, and mainstay percussionist Ketan Bhatti drop their stones into the pond of the Trickster Orchestra, forming a 23-piece supergroup poised to interpret a wide repertoire that includes Old Testament scripture and Sufi poetry, connected by linguistic threads spun in Hebrew, Arabic, Turkish, and Farsi. Instruments span an even wider gamut, from the koto of Naoko Kikuchi, the kanun of Bassem Alkhouri, and the sheng of Wu Wei to the clarinet of Mona Matbou Riahi, the recorders of Susanne Fröhlich, and the viola of Martin Stegner. Among the resulting music’s many excitements is the feeling that, despite finding themselves in unfamiliar territory, the musicians paint with an exploratory quality that makes every blade of grass their own.

“Shir hamaalot” is one of two songs cowritten by Samawatie and Bhatti. This stark setting of Psalm 130 evokes the inner turmoil born of self-awareness that prompted David to praise God with such fervency, while “Keşke” (“If Only”) melodizes a poem by Efe Duyan. This playful exploration of morbid topics, from trauma and self-harm to disaster and desire of the flesh, presents the human voice as a fluid presence given afterlife through electronic manipulations in what is arguably the album’s expressive apex.

On their own, each composer emotes with a genuinely distinctive quality. Samawatie’s sound-world is designated by its careful attention to syntax, its validation of textual histories, and its uplifting of the human experience. In “Gebete,” the tangible words of Rumi blend into Psalm 23, the former’s resignations easing into the latter’s divine comforts through tribulation before the sun’s radiance shines crosswise through the mesh of Sura 91. Like the verses themselves, the music blurs the line between inner and outer. Samawatie’s voice is joined by those of Rabih Lahoud and Sveta Kundish, who string their incredible harmonies from far and wide. In “Modara” and “Por se ssedaa,” we encounter freer singing and groovy undercurrents, respectively. Both look beyond the veil of religion to a place where reverence can flourish without constriction.

Bhatti’s atmospheres are more overtly about contrast. From the whispered imaginings of “Tounsibuurg,” which constitutes the album’s solar plexus, to the urgency of “Hast Hussle II,” he examines a mélange of influences, cultural touchpoints, and philosophical inquiries. Even the emerging chaos of “Kords Kontinuum” feels narratively structured, especially when the bass clarinet of Milian Vogel peeks above a rim of cloud while the viola works clockwise through its string games.

These songs are sirens of tomorrow gracing the here and now, each strand of their hair fanning out to reveal a possible trajectory across arid land, through murky waters, and over snow-dusted mountains. Still images are so frequent and congruent that, before long, they begin to take on the illusion of movement one would expect to find in the flipbooks of childhood.

This unusually thorough (and thoroughly unusual) experience is an ode to those who feel most at home in liminal spaces.

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