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19 mai 2007

McKennitt returns to delight Celtic music fans

There was cause for rejoicing among Celtic music fans last night. After eight years away from touring, Canada's Loreena McKennitt returned to Victoria, once again conjuring up her ethereal Celtic/world-music tapestries.

I'd forgotten how prominently atmosphere figures at a McKennitt concert. The petite, red-haired singer-songwriter - who performs again tonight at the Royal - sang from a stage set resembling the interior of a Persian palace. McKennitt appeared in a spotlight amid royal blue draperies, an exotic ogee arch and fog-machine clouds gently drifting overhead.

Dressed in a coat-gown with a faux leopard-skin peeking out underneath, she seemed in fine form despite her hiatus from the road. In particular, McKennitt's voice sounded clear and strong.

"What a great pleasure it is to be back here again," she told an enthused full house. They ultimately rewarded her 2 1/2 -hour concert with three standing ovations.

McKennitt - switching between harp, accordion, electric keyboard and grand piano - was backed by a nine-piece band reflecting the catholic nature of her musical interests. While cellist Caroline Lavelle and violin whiz Hugh Marsh tended to dominate, the group also included a Greek lute, tabla, hurdy gurdy, Celtic bouzouki and the violin-like lyra.

For those who love the side of McKennitt veering closest to traditional Celtic music, nothing topped Bonny Portmore. This old song, about Irish forests being logged for shipbuilding, benefited from her singing which - although affectingly girlish - was powerful and true. The melody of Bonny Portmore is beautiful, and the sparse cello/harp accompaniment worked wonderfully well.

Other traditional style pieces included McKennitt's song The Highway Man. Based on a poem by Alfred Noyes, it's a romantic tale with a stately Elizabethan feel. The same regal air permeated The Lady Of Shalott, a McKennitt piece based on the famous Tennyson poem.

Other compositions reflect the singer-songwriter's late-career interest in the European and Eastern influences on Celtic culture. For her song Caravanserai, from her new album An Ancient Music, McKennitt draws inspiration from a trip to Turkey, where it's believed Celts travelled around 300 BC. With the droning hum of various exotic instruments in the background, Caravanserai didn't sound like anything from British Isles - still, the soaring sound of the singer's distinctive voice made it sound her own.

At times, her music came close to the rock/world-music hybrid musicians such as Peter Gabriel have explored. Once or twice, rock-style drumming and electric guitar solos made a distinctly un-McKennitt-like appearance. Still, her arrangements consistently avoided bombast, and the integrity of her artistic vision tended to win out.

In a general sense, what this musician does is create a deeply romantic, old-world sanctuary from the electronic babble of 21st century life. If the hiss and twitter of iPods and cellphones get you down, a visit to McKennitt-land is like a trip to a new-age spa. Jangled nerves are soothed by the elemental buzz of ancient instruments.

That her show appears steeped in history makes the experience seem more profound. Close your eyes, and one feels linked to the empires of long-forgotten kings and tartan-clad nomads from thousands of years ago.

18 mai 2007

Hossein Alizadeh & Djivan Gasparyan

Endless Vision: Persian and Armenian Songs (World Village)

Endless Vision unites Armenian virtuoso Djivan Gasparyan on duduk (an eight-holed, double-reed flute made of apricot wood, derived from the regional shepherd's flute) and Iranian master Hossein Alizadeh on tar and shurangiz (new Iranian lute). Their live 2003 outdoor performance at Tehran's Niavaran Palace was accompanied by a trio of singers (in Armenian, Azeri and Persian), Armen Ghazaryan (duduk), Vazgen Markaryan (bass duduk), and the Hamavayan Ensemble (vocals, oud, shurangiz, percussion).


Born in the Soviet Republic of Armenia and trained at the Komitas Conservatory of Yerevan, Gasparyan is responsible for elevating the duduk to classical status in Armenian traditional music. His career began in 1948 with the Tatool Altounian National Song and Dance Ensemble and the Yerevan Philharmonic; some listeners may recognize his work from the soundtrack of Martin Scorcese's The Last Temptation of Christ. Gasparyan has recorded with Peter Gabriel, the Kronos Quartet, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and numerous others.

Alizadeh began his career in the late 1970s after studying Persian classical music at the University of Teheran's School of Music; he conducts the Iranian National Orchestra of Radio and Television, and enjoys an international reputation as a soloist and composer at home and abroad.

This meld of Persian and Armenian songs unfolds slowly and dramatically; the musicians and singers give one another plenty of room to explore the delicate nuances of these complementary and evocative musical traditions, whose microtonal character is accented by the plaintive duduk and the extraordinary overtone singing of Hourshid Biabani, Afsaneh Rasaei and Ali Samadpour.

Reflecting upon this remarkable performance ought to call into question the wisdom of perpetrating in Iran the militarist folly and human sacrifice that already haunt Armenian and Iraqi history. By contrast, as Gandhi observed when asked his opinion of Western civilization, "It would be an excellent idea." - Michael Stone

17 mai 2007

Rachel Z, fresh from Peter Gabriel tour, leads a trio

Music Preview: Rachel Z, fresh from Peter Gabriel tour, leads a trio

Back in 1999, Rachel Z was a relative unknown when she performed with her eight-piece band at Washington, D.C.'s Kennedy Center as part of the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival. Since then, she has forged a career as a teacher, developed music for her various-sized groups and spent the past three years as the keyboardist for the innovative rocker Peter Gabriel.

"Working with Peter was incredible," said Z, speaking aboard a train en route to Philadelphia from New York. "He's a creative force and it was incredibly fun to work with him." With Gabriel, Z performed before crowds as large as 30,000. Another time the group traveled to South Africa for a benefit honoring former President Nelson Mandela. "Oprah was there and we had dinner with Mandela," she continued. "We performed a song called 'Biko' that Peter had written for Stephen Biko. It was awesome."

Now, the primary focus is her trio, which she'll feature Saturday night at Gullifty's. Showcasing music from her latest release, "Dept. of Good and Evil," the concert will also feature bassist Maeve Royce and drummer Bobbie Rae. "We are really excited about this project," said Z. "We have been developing this concept that mixes rock and pop with jazz." Z has been bridging genres for some time, and "Dept. of Good and Evil" continues along that path.

In addition to some vibrant piano playing, the recording is filled with wonderfully orchestrated and eclectic arrangements, and Z has Rae to thank for that. "Bobbie Rae is the visionary," said Z. "He can pick out some of the hippest stuff out there."

The album opens with a breezy "Soul Meets Body" before giving way to a harmonically rich "Milky Way." A nod to Sting's "King of Pain" is followed by Joe Henderson's "Inner Urge," which finds the pianist referencing some of her influences, musicians like Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner and the late Kenny Kirkland.

"I always have to tip my hat to McCoy, Chick Corea and people like Kenny because they were a major influence on me," said Z. The recording also reexamines Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine," and Wayne Shorter's "ESP" is a tour de force. "I'm really into developing my trio," said Z. "I told Peter that I am through with sideman gigs, and he announced my new CD on his Web site. I want this trio to be a force, and we want to introduce this music to a young audience."

The British Invasión

As DJ and co-founder of the band Sidestepper, Richard Blair didn't just embrace Colombian music — he went native

When Peter Gabriel coined the term 'world music,' he never meant for it to be put in a ghetto. It was supposed to be the world's music for the world, without distinctions," explains Richard Blair, the front man for the Colombia-based electronica band Sidestepper. Blair should know. He worked as an engineer at Gabriel's Real World Studios in England during the global music boom of the early Nineties, before running off to make Latin electronic music in South America.

Listen to Blair describe Bogota's steamy underground nightclubs, where his band romps out its vibrant tropitechno, and you can understand why he's never looked back. "If you're not up for joy and laughing and dancing and sweating until six in the morning, you don't go out," Blair reports during a recent phone call from his adopted hometown. "How could you possibly leave when there's an open bottle on the table? How could you be so rude?"

Manners aside, it's physically impractical to slip out of a Sidestepper show. The band's fans pack themselves in so tightly that they seem to move as one giant, pulsating body to the funky rhythms. All, of course, while belting out a chorus of wacky phrases such as "bacalao sala'o!" ("salty codfish").

While decidedly Latin in tone, Sidestepper's sound is rooted in the many cultures Blair mixed during his engineering career. The Brit first stumbled onto the global music scene back in England in 1989, when he got a job recording reggae and "Bhangla" (Indian-Anglo) music at Sinewave Studio in Birmingham.

Before long he was tweaking music from Cambodia and Senegal to Venezuela and Pakistan at Gabriel's Real World Studios in Wiltshire. "It was an extraordinary education, and I suppose the feeling that Gabriel brought to all of this was that it's all music and we're all musicians," Blair says...