Music Reviews - March, 2008


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So here I am trolling for greeting cards in Sagrada, my favorite progressive store for the healing arts in Oakland, California when I hear the mournful sound of a wood flute. Gravitating toward the CD player, I spy the cover of Following the Call.

My thought, “Oh how I wish CDs like this came my way for review,” must have been formed with great intention, because a subsequent look through the piles of review CDs perpetually threatening to consume our casa revealed that Following the Call had recently reached our doorstep.

Licater, trained in classical silver flute and the healing arts, discovered the power of Native American flute at a pow wow. Improvising on wood and clay flutes made by eight different contemporary artisans (all of whom she generously credits in the liner notes), the Northern California-based artist’s free-form CD is ideal for relaxation and meditation.

Yes, many of these flutes inevitably bring to mind the sounds of a mourning dove searching for its mate, but the longing calls for oneness and union. If I had to choose a word besides “spiritual” or “peaceful” to characterize Licater’s music, it would be “open.”

Translation: Yes, this is a disc to own!


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Many great Spanish and Argentinean composers have written songs so melodic, colorful, and passionate as to make instrumentalists jealous. Rather than coveting singers’ privilege, violist Kim Kashkashian and pianist Robert Levin have created a beautiful CD of song transcriptions. The artists don’t content themselves with copying note-for-note; instead, vocal lines are sometimes altered and expanded, registers changed, and non-vocal effects added for extra expression. Given that Levin excels in improving embellishments and cadenzas for the music of Mozart, and Kashkashian is one of the most expressive violists around, the results are supremely tasteful and compelling. Especially in the slower, more inward songs, Asturiana resonates on such a heartfelt level as to have inspired a panel of international music critics to nominate it for a MIDEM chamber music award.

While ECM includes song translations to enable us to understand what Kashkashian and Levin are “singing” about, the two musicians manage to speak eloquently without words. I would never want to replace treasured vocal recordings of Maria Barrientos, Conchita Supervia, and Victoria de los Angeles singing de Falla’s Siete Canciones populares espanolas; mezzo Bernarda Fink singing Guastavino; and de los Angeles performing Montsalvatge’s Canciones negras and Granados’ Tonadillas. Though Kashkashian and Levin “sing” with less idiomatic fire, their equally soulful artistry merits accolades.


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Noted early music specialist John Eliot Gardiner began his unprecedented Bach Pilgrimage in Weimar on Christmas Day in 1999, concluding in New York 53 weeks later. Traveling with two of his prized ensembles, The Monteverdi Choir and The English Baroque Soloists, Gardiner managed to perform all of Bach’s 198 surviving church cantatas on the appointed feast day within a single year. With new cantatas learned, rehearsed and performed every week, the unprecedented pilgrimage produced a remarkably high level of singing and playing.

A companion to two previous releases devoted to Bach’s cantatas for Christmas, this CD captures the final concert of Gardiner’s achievement. How singers and instrumentalists managed to travel long distances, rehearse on the fly, and deliver such heartfelt, polished performances is proof of their devotion to Bach.  Given the heavenly simplicity of the vocal and instrumental artistry on this CD, it’s hard to imagine that anything less than divine intervention made these performances possible. Volume 1 won Gramophone’s 2005 Baroque Vocal and Record of the Year, Volume 13 won France’s coveted Diapason De L'Annee Award, and Volume 15 was nominated for a recent Gramophone Award. The series appears on the label named after the initials Bach wrote on each of his cantatas - SDG for Soli Deo Gloria - "to the glory of God alone." Along with Masaaki Suzuki’s ongoing Bach series for BIS, glorious indeed.


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Rarely does an internationally distributed classical artist personally petition for a review. But when Bay Area/Boston-based violinist Zina Schiff suggested I might be moved by the spiritual content of her renditions of music by Ernest Bloch (1880-1959), I seized the opportunity. Born in Switzerland, Bloch immigrated to the United States in 1916, where his music was championed by three of the leading conductors of the era. Soon he was directing music programs in Cleveland, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and UC Berkeley. Most widely known for his Sacred Service, commissioned in 1927 by Temple Emanu-El of San Francisco, he devoted the last 28 years of his life to composing.

Although Bloch attributed the major themes of his great Violin Concerto (1938) to Native American songs he heard in New Mexico, the influence of Jewish cantorial chants bring to mind another incongruous juxtaposition, the sounds of the Bohemian woods echoing through the Native American and “Negro” melodies of Antonín Dvorák’s New World Symphony. Bloch’s music is often filled with drama, has a certain contemplative quality that brings to mind Talmudic scholars pondering deeper meanings, and is quite moving. The disc also contains two other works. Baal Shem, whose title refers to the visionary “miracle worker” founder of Chasidism, contains three fanciful movements which are explicit in their references to Jewish life. Suite Hébraïque, written when Bloch was 70, is a visionary suite whose final movement celebrates the founding of the then-new State of Israel. Despite dry recorded sound, Schiff and Bloch’s mastery and commitment shine through with commanding presence.


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If you only listen to the music, with its amiable, dance-inducing rhythms and infectious spirit, you’ll have no idea what Oliver Mtukudzi is singing about. In fact, the accompanying saxophone riffs by Samson Mtukudzi might occasionally – just occasionally – lead you to believe you’ve encountered an African Kenny G. But if you check out the liner notes, you discover that Zimbabwe-based vocalist Oliver Mtukudzi’s seemingly carefree music addresses men who go about deceiving innocent youngsters, creatures whose footprints leave clues to their beneficence or danger, learning to listen as others speak, rejecting disharmony and hate in favor of love, and making a difference by praying together for the nation. In other words, this is music of a people who, even amidst hardship, suffering and addiction, manage to celebrate their joy.

Mtukudzi, who has recently established the Pkare Paye Arts Centre in Norton, Zimbabwe, is so beloved in his country that he is known as “Tuku.” He began recording over 30 years ago with a band called Wagon Wheels, then formed his current wonderful back-up band, Black Spirits. Singing in Shona (and in English on other discs), his lyrics about political turmoil, AIDS, economic issues, and personal integrity have made him his country’s best-selling artist. Bonnie Raitt has called Tuku a “treasure,” and used his music as inspiration for the song “One Belief Away.” Tuku’s soulful artistry exemplifies music’s potential as a catalyst for change.


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It’s no wonder that Soulfood’s liner notes devote scant space to details about their music; their best compositions invite you to leave the world of details behind. The present compilation, intended for yoga, meditation and massage, contains seven extended tracks drawn from six previous SoulFood releases. The music, with such titles as “Dreaming,” “Soaring” and “Bliss,” lives up to the Massage Magazine quote by yours truly affixed to the cover: “This is great stuff. Ideal for floating away!”

The folks responsible for Soulfood’s music - Gordy Schaeffer, aka DJ Free, and Peter Schimke - have created an immediately recognizable sound. Schaeffer began playing music at the tender age of 8, and has since charted Top 15 on Billboard and won Best Score for IMAX® Extreme. Although these boys also create “world, rhythm & chill” tracks, their most mellow compositions, including everything on this CD, is the stuff of dreams.

SpaScapes Massage features the kind of spacey fare that encourages the spouse to mutter, as she/he climbs into bed, “Play that some more, honey.” An ambient mix of piano, electronic keyboards, Native flutes, woodwinds, crystal bowls, chimes, and thankfully unobtrusive nature sounds, the music ambles along to the blissful land of nowhere in particular. Which is quite a lovely place to be. Check out SoulFood mp3 Radio at Though the music sounds much fuller and warmer on CD, even a brief listen will convince.