Whether the recent innovations of internet-marketed independent labels and small-scale recordings can slay the corporate giants of drum machines and media saturation remains to be seen. But judging by the strong response to guitarist Steve Howe’s latest acoustic album, Natural Timbre, there is room in the world of music for more than Britney Spears.
Howe, long known as a guitarist’s guitarist, has sold millions of albums as a member of the sophisticated rock band Yes. Over the years, Howe, a workaholic Englishman, has also made a string of stellar independent acoustic recordings covering many styles of music.
As the title suggests, this is an acoustic album and has Howe playing overdubbed duets on mandolins, mandocellos, classical guitar, steel string guitar, a Japanese Koto and a dobro. His son, Dylan, helps on drums and a violinist adds some finishing touches.
“Intersection Blues” is just one example of the unexpected twists Howe’s songs can take. Starting off as a bittersweet jazz tune, the chords become contrapuntal and soon take off into a sharp, upbeat Appalachian rag that is reminiscent of the late Chet Atkins. This song is typical of how Howe takes a traditional melody and gives it startling but logical twists of dissonance and dynamics.
While the album consists mostly of classical, folk, country and jazz pieces, Howe’s ongoing association with Yes receives some nods in the music. The album is capped off with instrumental versions of three Yes hits, using a mandolin trio in place of the familiar vocal harmonies. Even the rock songs maintain the acoustic feel.
With this independent label release, we see the truth of the saying that acoustic music is more earthy and rewarding than Hollywood glitz.
Remember Shakti reminisces of world music fusion
English jazz guitarist John McLaughlin’s Remember Shakti is perhaps the most enjoyable fusion group since McLaughlin teamed with Miles Davis over three decades ago.
Much of the music created by the fusion of world genres faces a simple dilemma: How can musicians express themselves with integrity while respecting foreign music traditions? The pan-cultural career of McLaughlin maintains respect for the Indian music he performs while blending in jazz idioms. Since McLaughlin left trumpeter Miles Davis’ jazz-rock band in the early 1970s, he has created a huge output of original and stylistically-varied albums with numerous bands. Among these bands was the influential 1970s acoustic band Shakti.
Shakti created more than an East-meets-West sound, but an aggressive mixof previously-separate Indian traditions as well. The original Shakti had McLaughlin’s vigorous jazz improvisation and thoughtful melodies, but worked within authentic Hindustani (Northern Indian) rhythmic structures and Karnatic (Southern Indian) harmonies. Although the band lasted only three years (1975-1978), it was so respected and memorable that in 1998 the Indian government invited McLaughlin and the reorganized band to perform in honor of India’s 50th anniversary of independence.
This incarnation of Shakti has McLaughlin and master tabla drummer, Zakir Hussain, from the original group as well as new personnel. The new Shakti is far from a nostalgia ride, but rather an ongoing celebration of Indian musical cultures and improvisation.
To those new to Eastern music, this album has strange-sounding singing and an almost ESP-sounding interplay between the musicians. The essential element is the complex rhythmic cycles that not only prescribe beats, but also inflections on the beats. The call-and-response portions where McLaughlin’s percussive guitar echoes Hussain’s melodic tabla drum brings to mind the notion that “In order to master a rhythmic cycle, you have to be able to sing it before you can play it.” Once the listener gets the hang of the cycles and inflections, the songs become singable and the improvisations fun to hear.
McLaughlin learned from Miles Davis how to pick creative sidemen. On thepop-sounding “Luki” and the subtle “Giriraj Sudha,” vocalist Shankar Mahadeven entertains as does U. Shrinivas’ speedy electric mandolin and Debsshish Bhattacharya’s memorable slide guitar. Their improvisations create a spectacular blend of Indian music and jazz.