Saturday, January 25, 2014

Frifot - (untitled, 1999)

(untitled; 1999)
ECM Records (Out of print)

This is probably my favorite of their work. This album shows the diversity in the beauty of the groups folk-style playing: some tunes emphasize vocals, some straight-up tunes, some moments have loose solo instrumentation. Although the band seems to be centered around 3 players (viola, violin, and mandola/cittern), they additionally play other instruments, such as various flutes, pipes, harmonica, dulcimer, cowhorn, etc.
Most of the tracks are stunning.  Fafänglighet features fiddle harmonies that crosses over each other, and the tempo seems to fluctuate.  There are moments where it seems the tune might come to a screeching halt, and times when it feels like they're racing through a portion of their melody.  But, as you can easily hear in the quieter passages, their feet are tapping on the 1st and 3rd beat of every measure, and their playing stays totally in time:

There are times where the players seem to be straining the volume and tonal abilities of their instrument to their peak, especially on their harmonies:

There is also a sense of "melodic compression" in a couple of the tunes... Where a main melody is repeated, or its rhythm is condensed or altered, with a lesser note value than originally introduced, until it catches up with the beat once again.

The one track the stands out the most is "I Hela Naturen/Mjukfoten."  Divinely executed, it starts like a loosely-woven ballad with Ale and Lena.  Moving into a solid rhythm on solo mandola, fiddles come in only for last minute or so and truly take it to supernatural planes with engulfing dynamics:

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Naghmeh Farahmand - Unbound

Naghmeh Farahmand

Being a great tombak player is comparable to being a great violinist, in that it requires the same level of conditioning, nuanced placement, and application of the fingers.  Many Eastern traditional percussion instruments have, by their very design, the potential for a great range of sounds.  The rich historical guru branches and diverse techniques built from that have resulted in giving the tombak player a vast lexicon to work with – one that is expanding and being polished by every generation.  This could be why, like the Indian tabla, the tombak is showing resurgence and integration with other folk ensembles outside of the Persian or Kurdish traditions.

Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for the tombak to take a back seat in music for Persian classical ensemble: either playing long phrases that revolve around melody instrumentation and the poetry sung, or in playing repetitive trance-like phrases.  Thus, Unbound is a great title for performance of this context, as most tracks run through phases of rhythms and instrumentation and can change spontaneously.  These changes sometimes add to what’s already there, and other times totally redirect tension to forge a parallel rhythmic sensibility – ultimately combining and culminating what has been built.  The result in being unbound is intimate illumination of the dense, variegated nature of both the player and the instruments.

As a player, Naghmeh has great and consistent technique; as an artist, her playing is marked with clever hooks and phrasings.  Despite being of small origins, the production quality is top-notch, and although Unbound runs shorter than an average full-length album, it is very diverse and does not suffer from “overdub in excess.”  Its nature makes it a great introduction to exotic percussion instruments of the area (for the audiophile), or a great source of inspiration for modern or tribal dance (for dance addict).  Best yet, in making a solo album, Naghmeh is utilizing her artistic license – a passport that could bring her and her playing to a great many new and outside-the-box contexts that both develop her as a musician, and bring forth wonderful fruit to the expectant listener.
-Seth Premo

Quintetto Nigra - Sonno Fortunado

Quintetto Nigra (Polifonie dal Piemonte)
Sonno Fortunato
Felmay ( /

It seems there is a trend in the choral or vocal music recordings to produce albums in a church, or perhaps large cathedral.  Though the natural echo and reverb provided by such locations yields ambience, these conditions run the risk of undermining both the skills of the vocalists, and the clarity of the arrangement’s organization.  Beautiful works by the Bulgarian Pirin Singers, the Celtic choir Anúna, and works of the Scandinavian composer Knut Nystedt have all compromised musical clarity for the sake of atmosphere.
Sonno Fortunato by Italy’s Quintetto Nigra is not a recording in such spatial conditions, thankfully, and this aural intimacy affords the listener a front-row seat to their excellence in execution, arrangement, and musicality.

The work’s subject is the traditional folk songs of the northwestern Piedmontese region of Italy, on the border with France.   As such, the tunes are inherently full of the essence of the people’s lives, both lyrically and musically: “Më séu chatà 'n marì,” features some tonal sighing and even culminates into a brief span of laughter at one point...

The first verse of, “Vous voulez me faire chanter,” is performed folk-style by the local singer from whom they acquired the song.  The arrangements are highly ambitious but cohesive, and the quintet’s skills match these ambitions: at times, an uncannily accurate deep bass tone or dense tetrachord can seem to stifle a listener’s cognizance.

Their voices are perfected instruments, and it shows in moments where the harmony is dense... how they emulate instrumentation by singing onomatopoetically...

...and in their use of surges in volume for rhythmic accentuation...

What better way to remember the stories and sensibilities of your peoples’ yesterdays than to breathe new life into older tunes?  Quintetto Nigro succeeds in making a highly memorable recording.
-Seth Premo

Bijan Chemirani/Kevin Sedikki - Imaginarium

Kevin Seddiki & Bijan Chemirani
Imaginarium World Village (

Bijan Chemirani and his brother Keyvan are both prodigies of the Persian drum master, Djamchid Chemirani, and their seemingly implacable desire to integrate with other musicians around the world is evident in their history of releases. Since their monolithic 1997 release, Trio de Zarb, the family’s musical wanderlust has led them all over the world.  Bijan’s travels brought him to record with African balafon and kora players (Neba Solo Trio, Ballaké Sissoko), masters of Greek music (Ross Daly, Stelios Petrakis), East Indian Carnatic vocalists (Sudha Ragunathan), as well as multi-instrumentalist wizards like Efrén López.  Kevin Seddiki also plays percussion, but his primary foundation is guitar, working with the likes of Al di Meola, Glenn Velez, and Lebanese artist Yasmine Hamdan.  He has recorded and performed with Bijan before, as part of the Oneira 6tet, and his playing on 2008’s Orion with Stelios Petrakis was more than enough to rouse curiosity and appreciation for whatever technique and background gave him his sound.

Imaginarium presents both new work and some well-known jazz tunes stemming from the two artists. The new tunes are not the least bit unambitious in their rhythms: “19 Bridges” is a tune written for 19 beats (or what in Indian culture they often refer to as a 9 ½ beat cycle)...

...and some tunes have cycles more common to Persian culture (the 10/8 in “Sar Andjam,” and the 5/8 for “On Saturn’s Rings”).  There is also a tune based in 11-beat cycles, “Schumannsko,” and the rhythm that underlays the Africanesque sounds in “Bamako” is based on a count of 15. This variety comes in addition to the more familiar jazz nature of the Brazilian chorinho tune “Cochichando,”...

...and a beautiful jazz variant of the Charles Aznavour/Jacques Plante tune, “La bohême.”

Some sounds coming from the drums and guitar are new as well. The zarb used in “On Saturn’s Rings” is a newer modification to the drum where snares are applied, resulting in a hybrid sound combining zarb and cajón. In the same track, the guitar’s foreign harmonies, pick slides, and chirps, paint an otherworldly picture upon a beat with shifting rhythmic emphasis.

The guitar work in “Bamako” sounds frayed, as if paper were covering the sound hole of the instrument. The tone is still there, but a subtle rattle accompanies each note, and its intensity matches the volume of what is played. The outcome is an atmosphere of frailty or brokenness that affords more than if the guitar were played standard.

Although it can’t be referred to as a fault, the big cross-cultural collaborative projects they have both participated in (with the numerous personnel and talents onboard) can often create an album that is very intensive – where the most relaxed moment is a brief intro preceding the tune, or an individual‘s solo/taksim. Imaginarium comes from a different angle: brave in its exploration, subtler in its energies, and giving much attention to painting an atmosphere by including techniques that are more than just stunts, but sounds inherent to the nature of the work. As an album both exotic and familiar, and mindful and gentler in its energies, Imaginarium satisfies deeply. -Seth Premo

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Stelios Petrakis - Orion

Stelios PetrakisOrion

I first became aware of Mr. Petrakis through his work with the stringed instrumentation of Ross Daly, and also the Chemirani: a family of profound Persian percussionists.  I purchased this on a whim.
Glad I did.

Bill Bruford, the drummer of Yes, King Crimson, and Earthworks, used a metaphor, "polishing the diamond," once in an interview. That is the best depiction of what Stelios has done with this album; all his work with multi-cultural instrumentalists has been applied to this fruit (Orion) to perfection.

I tend to find much of Greek music to be riotously festive; whirling chains of melodies to a very solid, interesting beat. Two great additions on this disc are the common use of bagpipes, and the use of guitar. To include all the instruments used would be insane. Generally, the album includes rhythm, string, and wind instruments from Greece, Crete, Turkey, Spain, India, northern Africa, Iran, eastern Europe, and the western classical tradition.

What's striking about this album (that doesn't happen as much in the cultural music) is it's blended, symphonic sound. World artists, in collaboration, can seem to add their musical "two cents worth" at all times; leading to everyone jamming out very well, but negating a project's possible breadth. In doing so, the players are very good at creating tracks with a single essence or feeling. This album has a much more premeditatively-symphonic sound; as if many different musical roads & ideas were traveled and ruminated upon before deciding the application within the tune. Any given track will have parts when 'these' instruments play, but 'those' don't, for example, and vice versa. Additionally, each instrumentalist's skills are highlighted, but never dominating for extended periods of time.

Walking through the first four tracks opens doors to show:
Some wonderfully-layered string instrumentation in the intro, and vocals by Mitsos Stavrakakis, whose voice gets more confident and bold with each passing verse:

Syrtos dance tunes in the form of "Pare Me Nyhta" -- a raucous, fast-paced chain of melodies:

Some truly satisfying and entertaining interplay between instruments during the jam section "Orion and Pleione":

To Alogaki Tis Nyhtias, starting out with a most wonderful flamenco-esque guitar intro, moves into beautifully-sung verses, upheld by subtle guitar and slow-rolling bendir (frame drum) beat. The lyrical nature of the melody is accentuated during the chorus harmonies of lyra, cello, and flute:

The strident and mixed instrumentation of "Kainouria Agapi"; a tune which seems to cohesively go 15 different directions:

Track 6 has guitar pioneering the way in the beginning as well, breaking into high-speed Balkan-esque folk nature in no time. Despite the 8 1/2 minute length of the track, it never feels repetitive, continuously moving through a series of different melody variations and choice instruments.

There's lots to love about the Mediterranean-rooted sounds on this album, and its coupling with other elements: flamenco, carnatic (south Indian), Persian, and Balkan. All elements are applied with first-rate production quality, and the musicianship is in complete service of the music as a whole. Maybe the only concerning thing for Stelios Petrakis is that, after making an album of this magnitude, where does one go from here?
-Seth Premo

Friday, January 17, 2014

Mavra Froudia

Stelios Petrakis, Efren Lopez, Bijan Chemirani
Mavra Froudia
Musiepoca ( –

Ages ago, it seems, (or perhaps when we were of younger mind) the  world used to be a place where magic dwelled, and one could wield supernatural forces to manipulate the natural world: sticks could turn into snakes, rabbits could appear from an empty hat, and a clever man could make something other than our wallet vanish right before our very eyes.  However, in today’s times, few believe in a sense of magic that is not manipulation.  These days, the closest we get to magic is in some modified definition of the concept of magic: things happening in ways for which there is no decent explanation.  For example:
"How is it that my car keys can just disappear?"
"Where does the raw material of a McDonald's hamburger patty come from?"
"How does congress get re-elected?"
Magic, my friends.

Certain music can have an enchantment upon us that seems magical, in that we might not know exactly why we're drawn to it, but we are.  It is more than just the exotic rhythms, tones, and instrumentation in Mavra Froudia that give it allure.  With the exception of one traditional tune from Karpathos, this release features seven new compositions from Bijan Chemirani, Stelios Petrakis, and Efren López, set for a wide array of instrumentation.  Their music writing is heavily influenced by the principles of various folk music styles they’ve devoted their lives to playing, but also richly flavored by their own creative energies. 

The new album’s breadth of instrumentation, composition styles, and atmosphere will take a long time to outwear.  Perhaps the fact that song titles use four different languages is an indicator of the broad world of the ideas that prompt their muses.  El nuvol d’Oort,” is a tune inspired by the theories of Dutch astronomer Jan Oort, and although “Hortus Deliciarum,” has a rhythm based in Pontic music, it was written in honor of Hieronymus Bosch, a medieval painter who created some of the earliest and most well-known illustrations of the vielle à roué – the French term for Hurdy Gurdy that is the composition’s central instrument.   The trio Chemirani/ López/Petrakis prove that they are magi of a musical kingdom whose focal point may be the Mediterranean, but also has strong footholds from Western European turf, all the way to Afghanistan. 

In the end (and as history often shows), their work is not magic, but an act of fine craftsmanship. Although one finds odd meters in “Hortus Deliciarum,” “A.A.A.A.A.A.A.,” and “El nuvol d'Oort,” (9, 7, and 5-beat cycles, respectively) Mavra Froudia’s other tracks are based in time signatures more common to western music. Each successive listen unveils a little more of the care involved in their processes:
-López’s creation of wonderful melodic runs on the laouto and bulgari in the open spaces of title track’s melody, harmonizing in stereo to different subdivisions of the main beat.

-The steel string microtonal harmonies and fretless guitar work of “Üç Telli.”

-The delicate but flashing articulations on Petrakis’s lyra in “Syvritos.”

-Chemirani’s flock of fingers and inexhaustible rhythmic variations on the Persian zarb, most noticeably in the 5-beat cycle of “El Nuvol d'Oort,” which ends up building a whole new platform from which to introduce the tune’s final melodic sections.

-The rondeau form of “A.A.A.A.A.A.A.,” led by the Afghan rebab, where every new melodic verse covers different terrain, re-contextualizing the main motif.

A good portion of the appeal of their instrumental music comes from creating or reciting melodies that seem to travel places and have stories to tell.  Their level of refinement shows each player knowing how to work with and embellish the other, and at the same time, move the tune along, changing the atmosphere as they see fit.  In that way, each track's arrangement turns pages of the musical story effortlessly from moment to moment.  Even two years after its initial release, the stories and “magic” of Mavra Froudia can stand out as regularly-played gems in one’s music collection.

Trio Chemirani - Invite

Trio Chemirani
Accords Croisés (

Accords Croisés (

Perhaps one of problems with mixing jazzers and folk musicians is that, though they may borrow some ideas across the musical borders, they don't seem to fully embody the element of the other.  In some cases, the mix creates a tendency to negate each other’s best attributes.  The resultant feeling is that, rather than truly integrating on all levels, the musicians are actually on separate sides of a fence playing roughly the same kind of tune.  Jazzers can have a (sometimes inappropriate) tendency to turn folk music into a "jam track," and some folk musicians seem to play limitedly: tonally locked into a jazz arrangement's tetrachords or other western sensibilities about music.

Invite is a rare gem of an album, especially because it is not that type of album.  Maybe it's the way Ballaké Sissoko's kora attempts at playing dense harmonies in arpeggio, which are more common on a piano (track 5, "Azadeh,"), or Renaud Garcia-Fons's impassioned attack and blazing runs on the upright bass (track 7, "Oryssa") that matches a level of excitation usually only capable or attempted on smaller stringed instruments.  Either way, the essence throughout the album is one where they are truly integrating themselves, and working with energies their instruments aren’t inclined to attempt.

Being a Trio Chemirani album, it does have your drum-based or drum-only tracks (tracks 1, 8, 12, 15), which is truly warranted for them, as their compositions can be so tightly-woven and variegated as to render other accompaniment a distraction.  A welcome rhythmic addition to the sonic palette is the not-so-commonplace use of metal - in particular crash, ride and high-hat cymbals. Their glassy texture is a warm jazz-like addition to the presence of wood, clay, and skin drums that is useful without bringing the redundancy of a full drum kit.  Additionally, the trio knows when to take a step back, as illustrated in their playing on “Azadeh” (track 5): they go through phases of relaxed sustainment of the underlying base rhythm, letting the tune breathe, which could also be considered characteristic of a jazz drummer's accompanying of a softer, slower tune.

Chemirani's drum prowess is front-and-center on “Bâd-é-Saba” and “Âtash.”  The former is a composition with a tanpura drone that shifts meters in blocks of 4 bars - initially starting in 9/8, then reducing to 7/8 for four bars, then 5/8 for four bars, and finally 3/8 for 4 bars.  This basis of 16 bars remains the constant and the zarb is played rather straightforward on the first pass.  Each successive run of 16 bars shows increasing intensity, rhythmic variation, and interplay.  This is a very interesting structural approach given that it seem as though western musicians too often think of a time signature as the stabilizer, and all that is done musically to be put on top of that constant.

The latter, “Âtash,” is a piece in 9/8 that demonstrates the drummers' ability when the time is static.

Ross Daly's work on this album is exceptional.  Synkathistos” (track 6) is a restless flame of a tune, the first part of which encompasses a timing of no less than 36 beats (divided 9+7+6+7+7), and features a taksim/solo in 9/8 time that is more emotionally palpable and vivid than much of his playing on other recordings.  

Nokay” (track 14) is another wonderful tune, which Ross plays on the Afghan rebab, and illustrates a whole different energy: bouncing and joyous.  Given that much rebab music seems to have a tonal center that alludes to sorrow or mystery (and is perhaps reflective of the socio/political issues in the last few decades), it is wonderful to hear the sound of the instrument in a state of splendor.

Sylvain Luc gives sweetness to the album through “Dordaneh” (track 4), a beautiful tune that colors the album and the track’s percussion work with both melodic and harmonic complexity.

Saadi” (track 9) features Luc too, wherein he marvelously details his playing with bends, arpeggios, and slurs that are not common characteristics of western guitar-playing.

La Marelle,” with Omar Sosa illustrates Sosa’s ability to accommodate the playful rhythm and springing energy of the udu, but also use harmony and sustain to draw the tune's nature into something a little more contemplative, but contented.

The album ends with "Sarv," a pleasant groovy drum track for the three Chemirani.

Invite is an album that should appeal to folk music lovers as well as jazzers that are looking for examples of thinking outside the box, but also in a way that does justice to all of its elements, and where true integration is easily audible. -Seth Premo