Shankar: Song For Everyone (ECM 1286)

 

Shankar
Song For Everyone

Shankar 10-string double violin, drum machine
Jan Garbarek soprano and tenor saxophones
Zakir Hussain tabla, congas
Trilok Gurtu percussion
Recorded September 1984 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Shankar and Jan Garbarek’s previous collaboration, Vision, opened many people’s ears to the more fruitful possibilities of idiomatic blends. And while that initial project yielded a fascinating album in its own right, I always felt it lacked something I couldn’t quite articulate. With Song For Everyone, that lack becomes clear once Trilok Gurtu and Zakir Hussain level the playing field with their earthy rhythms. In their presence, electric violin and saxophone can soar even higher, knowing there will always be a ground to return to. As if to underscore this point, Shankar also employs a drum machine, as in the delightful “Paper Nut” that inaugurates us into the album’s universe. Shankar’s Philip Glassean harmonies and flexible dips form a sling that shoots us in slow motion toward the Visionary galaxy of “I Know,” where his sparkling pizzicato lines are reinvigorated by the presence of tabla. Garbarek has hardly ever sounded as clean as he does here. He digs deep into his emotional and technical reserves and proves his chameleonic abilities, such that whenever he returns with the theme in tow, it is always as if from a long journey. This enchanting track also exemplifies the coalescence of which these two musicians are so worthily capable. “Watching You” reinstates the drum machine, which is immediately valorized by Shankar’s likeminded precision (even when multi-tracking, he sounds like one instrument). Ascendant chording provides ample uplift for Garbarek’s rainbow arcs. The violin solo here proves that Shankar’s mastery comes not from the top down, but from the inside out. He makes the most demanding passages seem effortless and the simplest seem complex, as in “Conversation.” Here his virtuosity enhances Garbarek at his adaptive best. After the anthemic jubilation of the title track, “Let’s Go Home” comes across as introverted, though no less energetic. “Rest In Peace” ends the album with bowed heads. It is a slow dissipation of cloud, a gentle breeze of the heart, the empty chambers of a body in which music is the only tangible spirit.

Alfred Harth: This Earth! (ECM 1264)

 

Alfred Harth
This Earth!

Alfred Harth tenor, alto and soprano saxophones, bass clarinet
Paul Bley piano
Trilok Gurtu percussion
Maggie Nicols voice
Barre Phillips bass
Recorded May 1983, Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

This Earth! represents Alfred Harth’s second ECM appearance, supporting a stellar cast of musicians that includes Barre Phillips on bass, Paul Bley at the keys, Trilok Gurtu on percussion, and the inimitable Maggie Nicols doing what she loves. The words are by Vicky Scrivener, which could easily be a pen name for Nicols herself—such is the immediacy with which the words seem to pour from her lungs.

“Female Is The Sun” is the album’s anthem. Structured around a counterpoint of bass clarinet and pianistic asides, its skeleton comes to life through Nicols’s animations. Each verse hoists us deeper into the sky, until we begin to feel the heat of that “old gold woman” who oversees our every waking moment:

The earth’s hot eye reels
fenced
and groans before
vestal temperament

The piano and bass in “Relation To Light, Colour and Feeling” are like two adjacent houses. Between them, a sagging clothesline, from which wordless songs, doubled by sax, hang in the breeze of a balmy afternoon. Words await us at the end, each a folded cloth, a swaying branch, a chirping bird.

Luxurious mezzotints and shades
glowing wash of tones

A percussive introduction opens us to the fabulous spoken word performance of “Studying Walk, A Landscape.” Nicols carries us along with her unpretentious tugs, inscribing the scenery with tightened, almost saxophonic squeals. There is an urban whimsy to be found here, refreshing but also tinged by world-weary bitterness. Phillips also has a lovely solo in this whimsical track with heft and shape.

A wish, relief from a circle

In “Body & Mentation,” piano and bowed bass engage Harth’s tenor with bright energy. Gurtu spreads his palms wide through these aural veins, Harth tracing with a palmist’s care. Their interplay vacillates: a few steps from Gurtu, a few expulsions from Harth. Each move forward italicizes the piece’s sentence structure, closing on an elegiac statement from Bley.

Love’s tug –
our barge;
sweet clamorous tidings
on the unique
journey backwards
to progression.

“Energy: Blood/Air” reveals the album’s most porous textures. Over a tightly knit ostinato, Harth breathes life into Nicols, who skims a poem’s surface before slipping into protracted improvisation. Bley floats a light solo over our heads, gathered up amid a handful of bass.

Today she sits
in the angled skies…
lowering lids
at the blushing
earth.

The “Three Acts Of Recognition” that follow slip a contemplative card into this highly charged deck as Harth’s tender yet robust tenor ladles sound into our silence. Some well-chosen reverb lends a throated quality his song. Overtones mingle as piano chords lay down new ground for every self-aware step. A pause. Bley reaches into his instrument, plucking and strumming strings directly, while Harth spins molecules in the air. Another pause. We return to the keyboard, flowing through to the end.

Between the clean
and tender sheets
we’ll hear us out.

“Come Oekotopia” crackles in rain sticks and cymbals, drawing bass from the soil. Harth improvises over Phillips’s nimble strumming. His long-held note midway through is one of the album’s highlights. Percussive bells diffuse this energy. Nicols makes a phonemic cameo at the end.

The mind streams
to pulse
relinquishing

Her subsequent recitative in “Waves Of Being” offsets a gorgeous solo from Bley, who cannot help but raise his own voice in the flare of the moment. Phillips’s bass is bright and bleeds into Gurtu’s string of metal (gongs), wood (sticks), and exoskeletons (shells). Harth’s bass clarinet bubbles with finality, fading into a sustained pluck of piano strings.

Accapella
flourishing
descants…
Acoustically
tonic.

“Transformate, Transcend Tones and Images” shows Nicols in fine melodic form. As the album’s last image, seems to thrive at its center. Nicols adlibs the remainder, as if to dissolve these impressions just enough so that no one can claim them. “Woman in a violet tail-coat,” she sings, “blows her soul-blue sax on south bank.” But we never hear that sax. Instead, we get a string of unrecorded words:

…translate…
…transcend…
…transform…

leading us into the unknown discoveries of the journey ahead.

Harth is an attentive player who writes without erasing, sings without opening his mouth, exhales without hypocrisy. His notes are often shared on This Earth!, but he is never the mimic. Among this session’s band mates, Gurtu proves to be a particularly interesting choice. His cymbal-focused work adds the illusion of a full kit without the overbearing weight thereof. Bley and Phillips, on the other hand, are unmistakably present. Yet Nicols’s voice is the real poetry of the album. She transcends the words she sings even as she inhabits them, bringing genuine physicality to their contours.

Another out-of-print gem, its elusiveness makes it all the more visceral an experience once it finds its way to your turntable.

From left: Maggie Nicols, Alfred Harth, Paul Bley, Barre Phillips, Trilok Gurtu

(photo by Ralph Quinke)