El Tren del Sur by Serge Lopez & Anouck Andre – flawless cadence and finesse

_MG_0158-Modifierhttp://www.vincentphotographie.com/

A few weeks ago, I was contacted by French guitar player Anouck André, who had some great news to share: the upcoming release of her debut record. I was extremely excited, as I’d been following her work for years and was looking forward to listening to her first studio release.

Anouck and I got acquainted a couple of years ago when the fusion enthusiast read my interview with Al Di Meola and contacted me to introduce herself and her work. I was immediately captivated not only by her evident skill, but also by the tenderness and affection with which she treated her instrument. She told me that she was hoping to put out a record soon and I asked her to send it to me whenever it was ready.

Though I already had high expectations of whatever the promising musician would come up with, when she sent me El Tren del Sur I was completely blown away.

For starters, it was entirely different from what I’d envisioned. I thought I was going to get an entertaining but inconsistent presentation of an ambitious young musician’s first attempt at putting together a coherent story. Perhaps a fast-paced fusionrama with just a bit too much flash and a bit too little depth. That would have been expected, and it would still have been a ton of fun.

What I received instead was a polished masterpiece, a work of maturity and finesse.

Here’s the catch: instead of exploding on the music scene with the aforementioned typical debut album, shouting “This is me and this is what I do!” from the top of her lungs a la Land of the Midnight Sun, Anouck softly whispers, “I’m here to tell you a story you will not soon forget.”

The story in question is penned by French flamenco guitarist and composer Serge Lopez.

Now, if you’ve never heard Serge before, you need to stop reading this article, click on this link and come back when you’ve exhausted the playlist, or – better yet – just let it play in the background while you read.

El Tren del Sur is a collaboration featuring, in Anouck’s own words “nylon string for [Serge] and folk guitar for me.” It consists of eleven tracks, nine of which are written by Lopez, all of which feature exquisite aesthetics and a delightfully homogeneous blend of the composer’s vision and experience and Anouck’s warmth and tenderness. The chemistry between the two guitarists and the level of mutual respect discernible in their interplay took me back to Mark Knopfler’s and Chet Atkins’ Neck and Neck, one of the most beautiful collaborative efforts in the history of guitar music.

The album begins with “Sueño Andaluz”, a surprisingly restrained song that gently eases the listeners into the story, rather than throwing them right in the middle of the narrative, as is usually the preferred method of the recording industry. This haunting, nocturnal tune reminds me a bit of Marc Ribot playing the works of Frantz Casseus – incidentally one of my all-time favorite albums – as it lulls the listener into the spell of its allegorical scenery. It’s an elegant point of departure that sends a resounding message about the mindset behind this splendid record.

“El Americano” demonstrates the skillful balance between folk melancholy and flamenco energy that lies at the core of this partnership. Its compositional texture is similar to Horea Crisovan’s My Real Trip – chosen Best Instrumental Record of 2014 by The Music and Myth – especially of Horea’s duet with Vlatko Stefanovski.

Next off is a delicate tribute to Claude Nougaro’s “Toulouse”, one of the album’s highlights for its flawless cadence and purity of emotion. Following it, the title track sets a melancholy tone that borders on anxiety, where you get a sense that the musicians not only play off one another, but fervidly depend on each other – a gorgeous, almost agonizing symbiosis and another one of the album’s best offerings.

This deeply emotional interaction turns into a festive, flamenco-infused display of stunning stringwork in “Esperando el Viento” and culminates in the provocative “A mi Amigo Jacky” where the musicians truly get to let their hair down, playfully switching mood and momentum several times. The intense “La Familia” stays true to its name. It’s heavier, laden with a generational dynamic that ranges from warm and cozy to strained and even slightly aggressive, down to its climactic finale.

Though certainly a satisfying track, “Viajando” feels like it falls just a bit short of the ambitious standard set by the rest of the songs. However, the tempestuous “Montañas” quickly directs the course, preparing the listener for the grand finale that consists of the up-beat and intimate “Maestro Rachid” and – perhaps a surprise (it certainly was for me!) – a superb rendition of Erik Satie’s “Gymnopedie No 1”. As a long-time admirer of Satie’s work I was delighted by this tribute, which concluded the album on a note of reflection and compliment.

On The Music and Myth, I often feature records whose sound is unorthodox, avant-garde, sometimes confrontational and other times downright courting the grotesque. I’ve written about trailblazers and mad scientists, people who turn their inner turbulence into a wild emotional catharsis and reimagine their medium in complex ways. El Tren del Sur is not one of those records. What it is, however, is something that made me aware of its increasing rarity: a collection of straightforward, simply beautiful music that is neither reductive nor – as is sometimes the way of the ECM catalog – cold and spectral.

A charming and tasteful record, El Tren del Sur receives a standing ovation from The Music and Myth!

Advertisements

Horea Crișovan’s My Real Trip – a heartfelt expression of love for the medium

Image

This week’s record is very dear to me for two important reasons. First, because I’ve followed the career of veteran guitarist Horea Crișovan for over a decade, during which time I anxiously awaited his first solo endeavor. Second, because it is a work I’ve had the opportunity to watch grow from primary recording stages to finished product.  After my recent interview with Horea, where he told me that he was preparing a collection of entirely acoustic compositions, we’ve kept in touch and he has sent me the “first drafts” of various tracks as he got around to recording them.

In a way, I am biased when it comes to My Real Trip, mainly because I was a fan of this album before it even existed. Throughout the years, fans have had the opportunity to enjoy this versatile musician’s work in numerous bands spanning various genres. While his technique has always been impeccable and his activity as sideman and band-member offered generous views into the depths of his talent, it always felt like the full extent of his potential was only rarely glimpsed. On My Real Trip, Horea gets to showcase music that is entirely his own, undiluted and uncontaminated by outside influences. The record was composed and recorded entirely by the musician (in his self-built sound-box in the middle of his living room), then sent to sound technician Adrian Popescu in Paris, who took over the mixing and engineering aspect (by the way, kudos to him because the sound is absolutely fantastic).

My Real Trip doesn’t only feature Horea the guitarist, but also Horea the composer. The listener finds him at his most comfortable: on acoustic, playing profoundly melodious, story-driven songs. This is the purest form of music: self-released, in limited edition, containing entirely and exclusively the artist’s vision – a veritable breath of fresh air in an industry cluttered with easy-listening tunes for the lowest common denominator. In a way, this is the anti-record: an independent work of art that celebrates the musician’s vision and character. This is Horea drinking wine, it’s Horea riding his beloved bicycle or retreating to the mountains to think. It’s Horea playing the music he loves most, with no-one hovering over him, telling him what to write or pressing him to adjust his compositions to the perceived demands of an easily distracted target-audience. His target audience consists of people who love music for the artistry and dedicate their full attention to it. His audience does not merely want to hear sounds, they want to experience music and My Real Trip delivers.

In that respect, this album is a rare occurrence.

The record begins with a song called “Intro Classic”, an appropriate opener because it encapsulates all the key elements of Horea’s compositions: the admirable technique, sublime musicality and most importantly, the narrative. “Enlight” follows in the same vein. Both are simple, straightforward tracks shaped in what I like to call “the a-b-a design”, where b is a lively, fast-paced middle-fragment framed by two delicate theme-based sections (a) which create a sort of introduction and conclusion to b. This only serves to strengthen the aforementioned narrative. In fact, when Horea sent me the tracks in their early stages of development I suggested a certain track placement in order to produce what I thought was the most coherent sequential flow (a writer’s habit). Fortunately, he did not take my advice and, instead, drew up a much better track placement which makes even more sense from a storytelling perspective.

The first two tracks are clean and tame, creating an identity for the sound of the album, after which the songs start branching out into more diverse themes and structures. The third song is “Times Passing By”, my personal favorite. It is a restrained and candid piece with a bit of a Spanish vibe whose brilliance lies in its profound subtlety and emotional expressiveness. It might not instantly stand out like “Bossa Rossa”, “Dance” or “Marco Polo”, but repeated listening reveals a very delicate work which manages the difficult task of being very sentimental while also remaining cerebral. Speaking of “Bossa Rossa”, it follows “Times Passing By” and further diversifies the musical landscape with some catchy bossa nova, leading into a formation of four powerful songs which form the core of the record, both in track-placement and symbolism.

The lyrical dynamic is dominated by two powerful themes: “My Real Trip” and “Mecanisme” (Mechanisms), which are preceded by “Dans” (Dance) and “Dream” respectively.  The duality of these songs,  expressed through their rural-charm-versus-urban-anxiety motif, forms the core of this album’s story. “My Real Trip” is introduced by “Dans”, with its fast-paced balkan-inspired rhythm developing into the slow, somewhat folk-sounding “trip” which evokes images of travel and country scenery. According to Horea, it’s a musical theme that has been haunting him for a long time. The balance is created with the somber, brooding  pair of “Dream” connected with “Mecanisme”, its sound-effects of beating clocks counterbalancing the natural, sacred charm of the aforementioned songs with visions of a synthetic, profane landscape. The story’s character awakens from a wonderful dream of freedom and bliss to find himself back in his consuming urban environment. The way in which this particular portion of the record is established and elaborated is nothing short of genius and will be as haunting to the listeners as it no-doubt is to the musician.  “Rain Still Falling” and “Nameless Song” continue with a lighter atmosphere, dispersing some of the tension from the previous “chapters” of this musical travel journal. If I’m not mistaken, “Rain Still Falling” is an older composition which I think I’ve heard before in one of his acoustic gigs. For me, it gave the record a nice touch of familiarity and continuity.

“Marco Polo” is another outstanding track, and the only one which features another musician, Leb i sol guitar-great Vlatko Stefanovski. I have to admit that at first I wasn’t thrilled about the collaboration, if only because this is such an intensely personal project for Horea that I felt any outside interference (be it Vlatko, Dominique DiPiazza or even Mark Knopfler) would feel like an intrusion and take away from the personal relationship between the listener’s ears and Horea’s mind. However, the Macedonian virtuoso supplies an outstanding contribution that never once feels out of place or takes away from the aura of intimacy that envelops the songs.  Far from being invasive, it helps paint a wonderful picture of the artistic relationship and profound respect between two musicians.

“Epilog” (Epilogue) does not, in fact, close the record. It is as if the artist felt that the song was too dark and restive and did not want the listener to feel burdened. Indeed, while it is an amazing composition which takes me back to Marc Ribot’s Silent Movies, it does not reflect the character of the musician like “Forrest Song”, in which the nature-loving guitarist predictably retreats into the woods, where the soul is at ease and the mind is free. This is the true epilogue to the story of this “trip”, a song with a powerfully anecdotal character, reminiscent of Mark Knopfler’s latest compositions (which is not a comparison I make lightly since I’ve been worshipping Knopfler ever since my teens). Thus, the final chapter is warm and lighthearted, accurately reflecting the musician’s personality.

All in all, while the music is very accessible for all audiences, My Real Trip is first and foremost a purist’s record. It is a work which demands complete focus. The message is powerful, but it is whispered, not shouted. Take your time with this one. Isolate yourself from everything but this amazing music. It will then reveal subtle nuances you would have never known were there if you had just relegated it to background- or car-music.

Horea Crișovan’s long-awaited debut is a heartfelt expression of love for the medium. The musician invites you into his own personal space and you truly feel like you are a part of his compositional universe. With this record, Crișovan proves that he is not only an admirably gifted guitar player but also a world-class composer whose rightful place is in the upper echelon of the international quality music scene.

by Andrei Cherascu

The natural sound of the guitar – an in-depth interview with Horea Crișovan

Horea

For a long time I have been planning on interviewing a Romanian musician whose work I’ve been  following for over a decade. He is a well-known and highly respected session guitarist whose talent is, in my opinion, unmatched on the Romanian music scene. He has performed in a wide array of bands and musical projects but now he is preparing to launch his first solo venture which is shaping up to be an iconic presence on the quality music scene. His name is Horea Crișovan and I invite you to read this in-depth interview in which he talks about his debut record, his views on writing and recording music, his experiences playing alongside the likes of Dominique DiPiazza and life as a full-time musician. Enjoy!

Chapter 1: Who is he?

“Well, what does it even mean to be a great musician?” he says and shrugs, then leans back on the swivel chair at his desk. We’re in his living room drinking white bio-wine out of two coffee mugs (the wine glasses are at his girlfriend’s house) and talking about the qualities that make up a good musician.

“I don’t know,” I answer. “How about having a writer offer to write a comprehensive article about your work?”

He laughs. Horea Crișovan does not think he is a great musician. In fact, he doesn’t even care whether he is or isn’t. What he cares about is the quality of his compositions and the purity of his sound. He wants his music to be perfect not because he wants the credit, but because he feels he owes it to his songs.

“It would be a shame about these songs if I don’t execute them properly,”

This humble and down-to-earth demeanor is what makes this highly accomplished musician as likeable in person as he is on stage.

“Vanity is the cancer of the ego” he always says. It’s a phrase he keeps repeating like a mantra, with the steadfast and slightly comical conviction of a musical monk, until it  becomes almost a leitmotif for our conversations. Over the last few weeks I’ve had the opportunity to spend some time with him and we discovered that we have quite a lot in common, from our taste in music to our mutual interest in wine and a similar mindset to the way in which we approach our respective art-forms. There is, however, one topic about which we disagree: Horea doesn’t think he is the best guitarist in the country.

Chapter 2: The Romanian Music Scene            

I’m standing in front of the entrance to the hotel we’ve chosen as our meeting point waiting for Horea to make his appearance. Predictably, he shows up on his bicycle, an object that has become almost as associated with his image as his trusty guitar. He owns a car (an older Mercedes he’s planning to get rid of) but he doesn’t own a driver’s license. The bike has been his primary means of transportation probably from around the time he embraced an ovo-lacto-vegetarian diet and started jogging a daily five kilometers. No doubt that’s the reason why he looks like he hasn’t aged at all since the day I first saw him perform with funk band Blazzaj in 2003.

“Hi, it’s great to finally meet you,” he says as we shake hands and I thank him for taking the time to speak with me. Our relationship so far has been limited to the unavoidable Facebook-friendship and a mutual appreciation of each other’s work.  It turns out Horea knows and likes The Music and Myth almost as much as I like his music, a humbling revelation for me and an important stimulus to keep this website alive no matter where my writing career eventually takes me. We enter the hotel and Horea politely asks if we may take a seat at one of the tables in their restaurant for a cup of coffee, which he then proceeds to order with milk and honey. I start off the interview with a question that has been plaguing me for years:

What ever happened with the third Blazzaj record?

(For those who have no clue what I’m talking about, funk band Blazzaj, of which Horea is an integral part, has been around for fifteen years. They’ve released their first record in 1998 and their second in 2003. Ever since then there’s been talk of a third record with new compositions being presented at concerts every once in a while but it has failed to materialize for a decade now for some reason)

“Well, Blazzaj is a very disorganized band (he laughs). I’ve recorded my guitar parts somewhere in 2009. I think it took me about four or six days. But I think Petrică (Ionuțescu) still has to record his trumpet section and Vita (vocalist Tavi “Vita” Horvath) still has to write some lyrics. Right now they’re both busy with their respective bands, Negură Bunget and Implant Pentru Refuz, so I understand.”

So the record is still in work?

“Oh yeah, it will come out, of course. It’s already written. In fact I think we have too many tracks so we’ll chose around eleven or twelve from the twenty that currently exist. Some of those twenty are still in a project phase, we didn’t even finish them because we didn’t feel they were interesting. We’ll have to see when the album comes out. It all depends on Uțu (bass player and recording engineer Uțu Pascu). He’s involved with the National Theater and the German Theater and he also plays with Kumm, a band with which he is currently touring Germany and other countries. So he’s not really available right now. He’s the one mixing the record. There are many factors at play.”

The conversation shifts to performing, specifically how important it is to convey your feelings to the audience. This expressiveness is a trait most evident in the performances of this virtuous musician. I mention that the reason I couldn’t get into Al DiMeola’s first few records was his emphasis on speed and technique at the expense of emotion.

“So, you don’t like the first twenty years of DiMeola’s career but you like Horea. That’s not bad.” He laughs again. This funny, easy going-side of Horea’s is beautifully captured in his playing, and especially in his acoustic compositions. When I tell him that his acoustic work is my favorite he seems pleased.

“Oh man, you just have to come by my place,” he says, “I’ll show you where I record the songs,”

He shows me a picture of a small sound-box he’s set up in his living-room, built by himself.

Tell me about what it means to be a full-time musician in today’s Romanian music scene.

“I had the ambition of making a living from music exclusively, but not as a target. I caught a favorable circumstance. If I were twenty-something years old right now instead of forty-one I wouldn’t be able to make a living as a musician. There are people around who, at twenty-five or twenty-six are very talented and perhaps more gifted than myself. Not as composers but from the point of view of technique, availability, the capacity to adapt. They’re all night-owls this new generation, they all go to bed at eight in the morning. I’m not like that, I’m old-school. I don’t think I’d be a survivor in this jungle if I wouldn’t have the background that you know so well, with all the pain and the effort and all the projects: Neurotica, Blazzaj, Abra  and Ilie (Stepan).  Every one of my projects. But at the same time, because I’ve lived a modest life, I’ve managed to mobilize myself musically and spiritually, in order to write exactly the music that you like.

The fact that that I manage to make a living from music is a fortunate occurrence and I’m always sort of expecting this dream to end. The way the economy is, with the financial crisis that doesn’t seem to end…

And it’s not a hundred percent yet; I’m still a radio voice-over, I lend my voice to all sorts of commercials. I can say I earn about eighty percent of my living from being involved in music. I also consider myself really lucky. I’m not a big drinker, I don’t exaggerate when it comes to vices. I own a car but I don’t have a driver’s license, I get around on my bike. So I don’t need a lot of money in order to live. I did need a lot of money to buy microphones and guitars, because if what you do doesn’t sound good then you have no way of expressing yourself. That’s the ugly part. Because of that I have to ask for money, perhaps more money than other people my age and that’s why I maybe get some negative backlash.”

Well, to be honest, I’ve heard stories about your supposed high financial demands when you play with Fely.

(Horea plays together with pop vocalist Fely Donose as part of Fely & The Band which also includes Florin Cvasa)

“Oh yeah, with Fely we ask for more money, because it’s mainstream. We have to. And I have to tell you – this isn’t even off the record  – at forty-one years of age I feel it’s my responsibility to lay a bed for the new generation to sleep in. Who’s going to ask for more money if not me? If the guys who have already made a name for themselves in their respective niches don’t ask for a decent pay than the up-and-comers will end up singing for free, or maybe they’ll even have to pay to perform in a club. This general displeasure with the fact that we ask for a decent pay is unfounded. Those who play music for a living should be happy that prices are what they are.”

There’s a lot of envy out there, especially towards Fely, who is incredibly talented and successful. I’ve heard many people criticize you guys for playing covers, but I think it’s bullshit. It’s not like you can just go out and hear Adele and Whitney Houston songs live anytime. I think it’s great that you play these songs and I don’t think you should feel pressured to write new music if you don’t want to.

“Well, Fely does write music, she writes a lot of very successful pop music.”

I don’t really follow the pop scene so I don’t know much about that.

“Her songs are multi-million-viewed. And I have a message for those who think we charge too much: we charge the standard rates for a cover band that plays a two hour set. Except with us you get the flagship: you get Fely, who is very well-known. And here’s another secret: we’ve been around in this particular formula for three years now and we charge one hundred Euro more than we did when we held our first gig. Except now we play a lot longer. We just live by the credo that we love to play music, we don’t really care about making big money. There is another category of people who pay us a lot more than what we asked for, sometimes two and a half times more, and then they brag about how much they paid for Fely & The Band. You’d be amazed. So they brag about how much they paid us and then word gets around that we ask for a lot of money.”

Well, for me, that’s why I want The Music and Myth to always remain the one writing venture that I don’t do for money. I do it just because of the passion I have for music. I don’t earn a dime from this website nor do I want to. I want it to remain a labor of love and passion. Music has helped me overcome some really dark times in my life. If it weren’t for music, if it weren’t for Tom Waits, Mark Knopfler…

Horea’s face lights up at the mention of Knopfler and I remember that I’ve heard him play Dire Straits tunes in some of his gigs. It turns out that he too is a great admirer of the former Dire Straits front-man and guitar-player.

 Chapter 3: What makes him tick?

The idea of writing an article about Horea had been on my mind from the day I first started The Music and Myth, but I wanted to wait for the right moment. That moment came this February and it seems that the timing could not have been more perfect. I decided to approach him about this interview after I saw his performance at the BA.Rock festival in October. At the time I was looking forward to interviewing Al DiMeola so I was already listening to a lot of acoustic guitar music when Horea’s performance completely blew me away. It reminded me just why I’ve been a fan of his for over a decade now. We talked and I told him what I wanted to do and we decided to wait until the hustle and bustle of the winter holidays was over. When I called him at the beginning of February I found out that this article was going to appear at a very important time in his career as he is preparing to release his debut album of acoustic solo compositions. I was very excited to hear this as this is one record that is definitely a long time in the making.

Horea Crisovan is a well-known name on the Romanian music scene. This versatile guitarist has been around for a long time and he has been contributing his talent to a varied scope of projects, from funk band Blazzaj (where I first became acquainted with his work), to rock bands Neurotica and BIO, to his work with iconic musician Ilie Stepan, to the Mozart Rocks project which is exactly what it sounds like and most recently his work in the cover band built around the incredible voice of the talented and delightful young vocalist Fely Donose. However, I have personally always been more attracted to his acoustic compositions which he plays predominantly at festivals and in various formulas (most often with Mario Florescu, Teo Milea and Victor Miclăus). Sadly, these evanescent compositions are hard to find (barring some Youtube appearances which are few and far between) and in my opinion a solo record showcasing Horea Crișovan the acoustic guitarist and composer was long overdue. From the moment we talked on the phone to set up a date for the interview to the moment we ended up drinking wine in his living room as he gently played Dire Straits songs on his Auden guitar I managed to fulfill an ambition I’ve had ever since I started being interested in quality music: finding out what makes Romania’s best guitarist tick.

 Chapter 4: The international music scene and his real trip

“I’m a maniac when it comes to Mark Knopfler, I love him a lot,” he says with a large smile on his face. “You write a song like ‘Romeo and Juliet’ or ‘Brothers in Arms’…or ‘Telegraph Road’…”

That’s my all-time favorite…

“…you write a song like that and you can just start growing silk-worms (laughs), or…I don’t know…start making banners or laminating ID cards…”

We both laugh for a few moments.

“…I think I know the solo from ‘Telegraph Road’ by heart” (he went on to prove this bold statement when we hung out at his home).

I think that’s one thing you really have in common with Mark is that you both have that certain feeling for melody…

“Well, it’s important.”

I know, but not everyone has it. Some guitar-players possess this feeling more than others. It’s something the audience can sense when hearing you play, especially on acoustic. As a listener you think to yourself: this guy really thinks of the melody, he’s not just trying to be aggressive or to show off his skills. You’re intensely focused on the melody.

“Yeah, that’s the most important aspect, it took me a while to understand that. Still, it’s always been my instinct to create melodious tunes. You’ll get a lot of that on my records.”

Tell me about your records.

“There will be two: one for solo acoustic guitar and another one with a band. I’m working on the first one now. My Real Trip, that’s what it’s going to be called. The next one will probably come out next year. But you have to drop by my place to really understand what it is I’m doing. I’ve already recorded the first three tracks (this conversation happened on February 7th) and I think I’ll have a total of about eight or nine. On the first. On the second, I’ll have about seven songs.

How are you going to launch and distribute it?

“It’ll be a non-profit thing. I’ll produce about 500 records myself with the financial help of some friends.”

So you never thought about taking it to a label?

“We’ll see. For now, I just want to record it and tell the world: this is me! The record is called My Real Trip. This is who I am. I’ll just see if I sign with a label. We’ll see what happens.”

I’d just like to see you on the international market. I always think: here’s this excellent guitarist and composer, and he’s so well-known in Romania…why isn’t he know internationally? You certainly should be. I’d like to see you simply as Horea Crișovan the composer and guitar-player and not just as a member of a certain band. Not Horea from Blazzaj, or Horea from Fely & The Band…

“I was always in the background, I enjoy that. I enjoy annihilating the vanity. And I always say this: there’s a great difference between vanity and ego. We Easterners, we kind of know this. The ego is something we need because it defines us. If you didn’t have your ego you wouldn’t be able to write anything. If I didn’t have mine I wouldn’t have the confidence that a certain group of notes belongs to me. Ego is good. But vanity is the cancer of the ego. That’s what you need to keep under control: vanity! The moment you start denying it, that’s when it’s at its strongest. I’ve always tried to keep my ego in check so I didn’t mind this side-musicianship. But at a certain point it can become a dead end. So this record is my first attempt to make myself known. But it’s not ambitious, not at all. I don’t try to force it on anyone. I just put it in front of your door and say: Hey, remember me? You saw me at that concert…here are those songs you liked.

It will be a record on which you’ll be hearing a human being, not a machine that produces chords and ranges. It will be a man. I’ll record it at my home. I worked about three weeks at the logistics of the recording process, making the acoustic box sound good, I have all sorts of soundproofing foam, I bought a laptop that makes very little noise so that I can record even at 3AM in the morning when the building is asleep and there’s that kind of silence that makes your ears ring…that’s when I have to record.

Because from three microphones you get a lot of background noise and the album is going to be completely recorded using microphones. It will not be edited for mistakes. For example, a certain track will be recorded in eight versions and I’ll just pick one entire version, rather than cut a certain part from version number 5 and another from version number 3 and so on, and stick them together. If I don’t get it right one night, no problem. I’ll go to sleep and try it again the next night.”

So it will be just one take

“Just one take for every song. If you don’t do that you’ll lose the spectrum. If you change even slightly the position of the microphones it doesn’t sound the same. The whole record has to have the same sound, like Knopfler or Floyd, the same sound, the same harmonics. I want that for my own record too. I want that natural sound, that little imperfection that gets you closer to the common man, the man who doesn’t know that it takes so and so many hours of studying to play a certain range “perfectly”, to make it sound “crystal”, those are not words I like.

I just try to think to myself: what is my reference? In twenty years, when I play this record,  what do I want to hear? I don’t want fashionable effects or compressions or mixing or stereophonic, just the natural sound of the instrument. You know how it is. My guitars are all made from Indian rosewood, they’ve got rosewood back and sides and cedar tops. Wood can’t evolve as a sonic concept in thirty years, the Indian rosewood sticks to the cedar in the same way. A guitar that’s properly constructed will be constructed the same way in twenty years. Same with pianos. You might be surprised to find that an old piano might sound the same as a new Steinway or Yamaha with an extra zero in the price-tag. That’s why I want the natural sound of the guitar. I want to have something to look back to in the future. I want to be able to say ‘well, at least it sounds natural’. If I play it back and it sounds just like it did on the guitar that means that I’ve properly aligned the microphones and I played nice. The natural sound of the guitar, that will be the motto for this album. I’ve always searched for the acoustic sound and I’ve always had a connection to it. I want beautiful songs that sound natural. It’s sort of a reaction against radio edits. I don’t want this record on the radio, thanks!”

We talk about the state of the current music scene, especially as pertains to young musicians. I mention to him what Al Di Meola told me: that he felt there are many talented young musicians  but they  don’t write as much as they should.

“Interesting,” says Horea with a contemplative gaze, “My impression is that they compose too much.”

We both burst out laughing. He then shows me some more photos of the small sound-box he built at home and again he tells me that I just have to come by and see it. I can feel how much it means to him, how attached he is to this place where he creates his music. It’s his getaway. It reminds me of the affection I have for my little home office, the place where I write, where I am writing this very article. I spend most of my time in here and in many ways it’s my favorite place in the world. I feel something similar in the way in which Horea talks about his little home studio.

Chapter 5: Valentine’s Day

One week after the initial interview I arrive at Horea’s home to check out his self-built sound-box. My wife is with me, helping me out with some of the photo equipment. The small one-room apartment is dominated by a construction that looks like some sort of time machine. It’s  made from soundproofing foam and inside, it’s a world of its own. Microphones, a silent laptop, recording equipment and a chair complete this DYI studio.  Once I take a seat and put the headphones on I’m completely immersed in Horea’s universe and the isolation that allows him to focus on the purity of his compositions. It’s his own world, both the journey and the destination of his real trip.

We sit down and talk for a while. With the interview now behind us we are just making friendly conversation. With  one of his guitars in his lap he gently plays a few notes from time to time, following the course of the discussion. I mention my struggle to get the interview with Al DiMeola and he plays a bit of ‘Mediterranean Sundance’, I talk about experiencing Mark Knopfler live in Budapest and all of a sudden it’s the opening chords from ‘The Man’s Too Strong’ where I decide to join in on vocals. By the time we get to Romeo & Juliet Horea’s girlfriend and my wife join in on the impromptu jam-session and it all turns into an evening of fun around campfire sans the actual fire. The highlight, though, was when Horea backed up his bold statement and proved that he, indeed, knows the solo from ‘Telegraph Road’, one of my all-time favorite songs. This entire experience captures the essence of Horea Crișovan the musician. He is a man who makes music accessible to the listener, who captures the essence of music reduced to its bare essentials. He doesn’t like to hide behind the smoke and mirrors of sound effects and a loud volume. He prefers the natural, unadulterated sound of his instrument. On stage Horea plays like he is in his living-room and vice-versa. Every time he performs it’s like he invites you into his home and I think that is the key ingredient to his amazing charisma.

On our way home my wife turns on the radio and we hear a sappy love-song which serves to remind us that it’s Valentine’s Day. We had all but forgotten this questionable holiday as we don’t make a habit of celebrating it. But if we did, I can’t picture a more pleasant way of spending the evening.

Chapter 6: Love the audience you’re playing for, feed off their reactions

What music do you usually listen to? Especially when you compose?

“Lately I listen to very little music because I play a lot of my own stuff to pick up on what needs to be changed. Mostly I listen to old stuff that I really like and that gives me energy. Usually, I play Knopfler’s A Night in London every once in a while. I play Richard Bona’s Marciac gig with Raul Midon, I listen to a lot of Hiromi, also the gig in Marciac. The Marciac stuff is usually recorded very well and that’s important to me.”

Ah, so you do like Jazz

“Of course I do. But I’m not a great musician, I don’t know notes on the level of a Hiromi, you know? And Keith Jarrett’s also great, I like him.”

At this point his phone rings and it’s his band-mate Fely Donose, who is having trouble connecting to the local area network on her laptop. I crack a few jokes about having worked in IT and I try to give some advice but in the end the solution is the infallible option: restart it.

There’s something else I wanted to ask you. Now that you’ll be releasing this album, will you try to promote it internationally as well? 

“Well, for that I’d need to sign with a big label. I don’t know, we’ll just see. When it’ll be finished…”

When will it be finished?

“I’m pressing hard. My Real Trip should be finished around April-May. Like I said it will be around five hundred copies, but nothing fancy. A cheap cover. It will be mostly a presentation record. But, if there is interest from record labels it can re-recorded, re-mastered and remixed. I don’t want to sit on it for too long because I want it to have the same vibe, the same feeling. The more time you spend on a record the more you risk losing the message.”

Every record has to have its own story. It has to have a coherent narrative. It doesn’t matter how complex a record is…

“Mine will be very simple (laughs).  It will feature two instruments, two of my guitars. On the acoustic end I work with two companies: with Schertler and Auden. On electric guitars I work with Manne. I’ll use nylon chords on the Schertler and metallic ones on the Auden.”

Alright, let’s talk some Jazz. I know you’re name is always connected with the Gărâna Jazz Festival. 

“I’ve got a great emotional connection with the Gărâna festival. Six years I’ve played there. But I don’t know what to say, it’s become such a big event that it almost seems strange to play alongside such huge names. I’ve played with John McLaughlin’s bass player, Dominique DiPiazza opening for The Yellow Jackets. But I sucked. I rehearsed for eight hours every day with Dominique and it was horrible…I think I’d like to repeat the experience but not necessarily with him, maybe someone else. He’s very crazy, this guy (laughs).”

Well, McLaughlin is kind of eccentric as well.

“I met him (McLaughlin) in Frankfurt. I was wearing a t-shirt that read Alligator and he came up to me and pointed at it and said ‘You’re an alligator’. He was joking around. I said ‘Wow, John, I’m very honored to meet you, very honored. You know I played with your bassist, Dominique DiPiazza’. He said ‘Really? And you could play with him?’ (laughs). I asked him what he meant and he said Dominique is very, very choosey. If he doesn’t like the person he’s playing with he’ll just pick up his bass and leave.’

That almost happened to me in Gărâna. For three days he kept me in incredible tension, I barely got any sleep. He kept saying we’re incompatible, that he likes my playing, just not on his tracks. At the end, two hours before the gig, he gave me a hug and said ‘You play very well. You’re the first musician I know who knows only a little but plays at a high level. Most of the others know a lot but they don’t play very well’. “

We both burst out laughing.

That’s great.

“I’d like to feature Dominique on one of the records, either this one or the next one. I still have to decide which one. Because I wrote a piece for two basses, called ‘Basic Dance’. And I played it and sent it to him. I’d like to have him (Dominique) and Decebal Bădilă on it. They’re friends. I sent it to both of them a few years ago and they agreed to be on it. They don’t even have to meet, each of them will record it in his own studio, send the tracks and I’ll mix them over here. You can imagine how hard the track was to write because I had to play the bass parts myself. It took me about two days to get the hang of it, to be able to play what was in my head. I can’t very well send a bad track to Dominique and Decebal, they’re A-level players. So I sent it and Dominique said ‘Why don’t you play the bass yourself on this track, you play very well.’ (laughs) I said, ‘No, no. You’re mistaking me for someone else (laughs)’. So he liked it. He even said ‘Horea, why didn’t we play your compositions at the Gărâna Festival? You’re aware you weren’t performing at the level suited for my compositions.’ I said ‘Of course I’m aware, your tracks were recorded with Biréli Lagrène (laughs)’. Bireli’s probably the greatest acoustic guitar player in the world today, I don’t think there’s anyone better than him right now. There was this very difficult piece we had to play called ‘Dinello’. I had no idea what to do with it. I copied it from Bireli note for note. I studied for a month waking up at 6 AM in the morning every day with my metronome next to me. And Dominique said ‘Oh, I don’t want you to play it like Bireli Lagrène, I don’t like the way he played on this one.’ (laughs) That’s Dominique DiPiazza for you. I’d also like to record something with Vlatko (Stefanofsky). I know he’s really busy so I might drive up to Skopje to record, just to play the track face to face, that might turn out to be really great. If Vlatko has the time I’d also like to tour three cities with him: Timisoara, Cluj and Bucharest.”

So when the record is done do you plan on touring extensively to promote it?

“I’m not sure about that. It’s hard to find somebody to play with, someone who’ll play my songs the way I want them played. That person has to be willing to take my directions where sound is concerned and not play too loud on stage. Because everything will be unplugged. If the right person exists, someone who doesn’t suffer from the ‘cancer of the ego’, then perhaps I’ll play with them. If not, then for now this music will only be featured on the record. The second record, the one with Mario Florescu, Teo Milea and Victor Miclăuș, is already almost entirely written. It will be recorded live. My sound engineer from Paris, Adrian Popescu, the same person who’s helping me out on the first record, he’ll travel over here especially to set up the microphones and to record it and he’ll probably also bring his own high-end equipment. The big problem with a record like this is percussion, percussion eats up decibels and needs to be completely phonically isolated. Also, another tricky factor is that, in order to get a powerful sound you need to amplify via cable. That means that the instrument’s piezoelectric pickup helps you avoid feedback. But that’s not a natural sound. It’s powerful but it doesn’t necessarily convey what you want, in a sensitive track. It doesn’t always pick up all the notes in a chord. You need a microphone in front of an acoustic instrument and in order to place one or even two microphones you need the stage to be quiet. If it’s rock, let it be rock! Pump up the volume and let’s have a good time! Because that’s the feeling and the vibe. But if it’s acoustic and you want to obtain a wooden sound, one where you can hear the chord, the finger, the fingerprint, where your soul can pass through that instrument, you need to be very careful with the sound. These are details that separate those who think they know from those who really do.

In a way that’s tricky because you’re always tempted to want your instrument to be heard from everywhere…that’s vanity. The balance with the self must be attained at a volume that’s perhaps only a little louder than when you play at home, so that you can hear your friend playing beside you and he can hear you. It’s all about the relationship between the musicians. That’s why the biggest brands of the boutique-zone don’t build powerful amps. You won’t get a Schertler amplifier at over 250 or 300 watts. Because why would you play the guitar loud on stage?

I’m only concerned with what can be heard on stage. Whatever will be heard in the venue is the concern of the sound engineer. But if the sound on stage is already pseudo-natural, by the time it reaches the speakers it’s gone and you’ve lost that tiny bit of genuineness. The sound that reaches the speakers will be distorted anyway, so at least try to keep that natural sound at fifty percent. And that is your responsibility as a performer. The most important thing when you’re creating an album is to record it properly: the recording level, accuracy and silence. The music I make is very simple, not simplistic, but simple: simple music. In a way it’s semi-naïve.”

I think the way you planned out this record, the concept behind it, is complex.  

“That’s something you, the listener, have to feel. Everything I do comes from instinct, I don’t necessarily plan it out. The tracks haven’t been developed too much. Probably the most difficult one lasted two hours. It was a momentary feeling, I picked up the guitar and started playing. But for two of the songs I couldn’t play what I was imagining in my head. ‘Enlight’, for example, took me about two days. I had everything planned out in my head, just the way you hear it now, only nicer (laughs). But I just couldn’t play it classically on the regular guitar. It just didn’t sound well. So I had to fumble around with the guitar’s attunement.”

What does your creative compositional process look like? For example, Di Meola told me he loves to write music at his house in Miami. Every chance he gets he retreats there and starts composing.

“Congratulations to him, I just write music at home. I don’t have a house in Miami (laughs).

Well, there are two styles. The music for this acoustic record I’m working on has been written simply by picking up the guitar. The music I write for the various bands I play in has mostly been composed on the bicycle. On my many long trips on the bike, especially at night where there’s not so much noise from the cars, I get a certain theme playing in my head. My greatest accomplishment has been buying a cell-phone with a recording option, one of those little Nokias. I think almost the entire BIO album has been written as a result of me belting out into the phone (laughs). But whenever I start the compositional process I have a clear idea of where I’m going.”

When you’re finished recording these records, will you continue with the acoustic solo work?

“Well, I’ll keep doing this. Unfortunately, you don’t earn a lot of money doing this so I’ll have to do some mainstream work as well. But I definitely won’t neglect the acoustic work. I just want to let it grow naturally. If there is a demand for it and the record is appreciated I’ll be very happy.”

So what makes a good musician? I still say you’re Romania’s best guitarist, I don’t care if DiPiazza said you know only a little.

(Laughs) No, that’s completely true, I don’t know a lot. I haven’t studied music. But in the end it all comes down to conveying your art. You have to love the people in front of you, the audience you’re playing for. You have to love them. You have to feed on their reactions to your music. If you look into the crowd and you see somebody reacting to your music that’s it, that’s the moment! And you already play differently than you have in your last gig. You adapt. If you’re just cold, just a musical machine there’s no point in doing this. I was very touched by what Răzvan Mazilu (a Romanian dancer and choreographer) had to say about my song, ‘Times Passing By’. It’s a song I composed in about fifteen minutes, it wasn’t hard at all to create. I already had a clear picture of it in my mind. So one day, at the rehearsals for the Baroque Festival in Bucharest Răzvan said ‘Horea, I’d like to die listening to this music’. And he is a great artist who expresses a lot through the way he dances, the way he moves, the natural simplicity of his gestures on stage. I was very moved by his words, by the fact that an artist of his caliber had been impressed by ‘Times Passing By’. It means I’m doing something right. And it’s a song that’s simple, just like Răzvan’s own gestures: very simple, very clear, conveying emotion very directly. But that’s something that the listener has to feel.


Hey everyone, if you like my articles on The Music and Myth, perhaps you will also enjoy my novel Mindguard. You can find it exclusively on Amazon.

Mindguard Cover

Marius Pop & The M Theory – a first step in the right direction

Image

Guitar-season continues on The Music and Myth as today I focus on the debut solo-work of a very talented Romanian musician (and on the man’s birthday no less), namely guitar-player and composer Marius Pop .

First Step is a record that came out in 2009 so it is by no means new. Still I wanted to write about it because I am in a phase of my musical “research” where I want to focus specifically on Romanian guitarists and see what my country has to offer in this department.This interest has been sparked by two things: the insightful interview I landed with guitar-legend Al Di Meola (which apparently I plug in every one of my articles) and the experience of a stellar performance from Horea Crisovan a while back. I already wrote about the very talented Nicu Patoi and the incredible Horea so let’s see what Marius has to offer.

So far Marius Pop’s biggest claim to fame is playing guitar for Smiley, a Romanian pop musician of questionable musical value. However, his solo-endeavors are fortunately well-anchored in the Jazz fusion genre. First Step is an album that was released under the moniker Marius Pop & The M Theory and it features a variety of very competent musicians like Joe Balogh, Oliver Bader, Radu Miculiță (guitars), Gabriel Drăgan, Marcel Moldovan (drums), Dan Georgescu, Radu Niculescu (bass) and Alex Racoviță, Mihai Ardelean (keyboard). The sheer amount of talent involved in this record should be more than enough to at least offer a comfortable diversity and range of styles, all held together by the common thread of Marius Pop’s songwriting (almost all of the ten tracks have been composed by Pop).

Before I start writing about the record itself I want to share with my readers a piece of information I’ve come across this summer, one that I found very interesting. A while ago I wrote about Turn of Phrase, a brilliant album by The Music and Myth’s favorite guitar-player, Paul Kogut. The record also featured Jazz-legends George Mraz and Lewis Nash. I found the album itself absolutely brilliant (in fact, it was hands down one of the best Jazz records of the year) but I was not a big fan of the rather precipitated beginning. I wrote:

The record begins abruptly with the track “So That Happened” wasting no time on intros or build, not usually my favorite approach but very effective when handled correctly.

I’ve always emphasized in my articles the importance of structure and well-planned track placement so I always find it a bit disappointing when a record just sort of starts without giving the listener a proper introduction. Perhaps that has a lot to do with my profession. As a writer I am accustomed to the vital importance of a good opening line. The fate of your whole 600-page novel can hang on that one opening line in the first chapter so I have always had a hard time understanding why a work of music would not attribute the same structural importance to the first track. Paul wrote to me and offered some very interesting insight into the recording industry. Here’s what he had to say:

I dig what you’re saying about jumping in with no intro or build, I’ll generally open a concert that way. “So That Happened” [the opening track on Turn of Phrase] was a last minute addition to the record, inspired by a conversation with Steve Khan. I gave him a call a few weeks before the recording since he was familiar with the studio we were using. He answered the questions I had about floor plan and such, and then he offered this advice. “With George and Lewis on the record, it will probably get noticed by the program directors, but they’ll probably only listen to the first 30 seconds. If you can hit them with a concise statement right out of the gate, it will help with airplay” I didn’t have a tune that fit the bill, so I came up with a line on It Could Happen To You inspired by Steve’s tune Buddy System.

I found this explanation absolutely fascinating and it cleared up some confusion I had about opening tracks on certain records. It seems that sometimes a musician simply has to dive into the music head-first to get decent airplay. Makes sense. That being said if I were a program director and I only played the first 30 seconds of First Step  (both the record and the track) I would probably not continue playing the rest. Unfortunately, I’d be missing out on some great music.

I am not at all a fan of the way the record begins. If this is your first interaction with Marius Pop and you are unfamiliar with the man’s extraordinary talent then the first few seconds, which intentionally sound crude and hard-edged, might instantly turn you off from the entire album. It would have been a fitting start for last week’s album but not this one. Nothing wrong with the track in itself, it’s a very decent tune which does a great job of showcasing the technique of the musicians, I just would have placed it somewhere else on the record, but maybe that’s just one of my quirks.

The album continues with “Groove Del Sol” where a funky and very well-inspired use of the bass instantly hooks the listener and makes them want to hear more (now this would have made a great opening track!). The record does take a bit of time to become comfortable with its sound and general direction, which often happens on a composer’s first outing. In that respect, it’s a bit of a slow starter. The first four tracks (“First Step”, “Groove del Sol”, “The Way It Is” and “Divide and Conquer”) are all good-quality songs that benefit from a great delivery but they do seem to lack a bit of personality which would have turned them from good to really great.

However, with “The Hacker”, a bluesy, catchy and well-executed song written by Joe Balogh -also the first truly memorable track – the album finally gains some serious momentum which it manages to keep throughout. “Hey Dude” introduces some elements of rock and entertains with cool interplay between drums and guitar while “Marbri” seems to borrow from Marius’ experience on the pop music scene with its easy-listening vibe. Normally that would make me instantly dislike the song but Marius pulls it off to perfection with his amazing mastery of the instrument and his feel for melody.

“Nefertiti” follows with shades of Al Di Meola – a great compliment, I feel, to any guitar-player, especially one so young – and it’s easily the best track of the bunch. “Liquid Sountrack” is smooth, with great timing and, again, slight hints of Di Meola on Consequence of Chaos  (but maybe I’m just “in the zone”)  and “Home” provides a short and delicate acoustic send-off for this well written and generally very fun record.

First Step is primarily a testament to Marius Pop’s enormous talent as a guitar-player. He is a very young musician who plays like a very experienced musician, wise beyond his years and with stunning technique and a flair for the instrument. As a songwriter, there is still room for growth as the record at times sounds a bit “vanilla”. Still, Marius Pop definitely takes a first step in the right direction and he will convince any listener of his of his talent as a guitarist and his potential as a composer. Seeing as how it’s been four years already, The Music and Myth hopes a sophomore release is in the making. Definitely looking forward to it!

Ceramic Dog’s Your Turn – unkempt and unrestrained

Image

I did not pick out this week’s record specifically because it’s so radically different from last week’s, it just happened this way and I’m glad it did.

It’s interesting to compare the two guitar-driven works. They are on opposite ends of the musical spectrum just like the two respective guitar-players, both brilliant for different reasons, have powerfully contrasting styles and an antithetical approach to songwriting.  One  is a technique-driven virtuoso with an almost scientific approach to songwriting and melody and the other is an avant-garde, experienced session-master with a vast and diverse repertoire, who takes melody, throws it in a meat-grinder, then sets it on fire, puts it in a hammerlock and hits it with a bull-wrench.

I’ve written about Marc Ribot before and I think he’s one of the most entertaining musicians of the modern era. He’s also very much an acquired taste no matter which one of his many projects you check out.  With works that range in scope, sound and delivery (not to mention decibels), Marc Ribot, one of the most versatile guitarists and songwriters in the world, seems to be having the most fun on his Ceramic Dog records. At least that’s how the music comes off to the listener.

The sound is unkempt and unrestrained, a liberating experience for both band and audience as the three musicians spend little time worrying about the norms and conventions of modern music.

The aforementioned band consists of Shahzad Ismaily on bass and Ches Smith on drums, both powerful players and impeccable technicians and, of course, Marc Ribot on guitar and sometimes vocals. The variety of sounds is amazing for a band that consists of only three musicians.

The trio’s 2008 debut record Party Intellectuals was a ton of fun and it’s a work that still manages to sound fresh. Now, five years later, Your Turn  proves a worthy successor; a more consistent but also more conventional record that documents the three musicians’ growth as a band.

In my review of Party Intellectuals I said the record had “multiple-personality disorder”, meaning that the styles and sound of the songs contrasted powerfully which gave it its diversified sound but also its not-always-consistent quality. It was definitely a roller-coaster-ride but it felt like it lacked a common thread.

Your Turn, on the other hand, manages to take a page out of Tom Wait’s book and offer variety while maintaining a distinct character throughout. It’s less experimental-noise and more hard rock which I think brings it closer to what Marc Ribot had in mind for Ceramic Dog in the first place. This consistency in its structure also makes it a tad more accessible as some of Marc’s avant-garde work (and I’m thinking primarily of his Rootless Cosmopolitans and Shrek phase) at times proved too hard to digest even for the most stubborn connoisseur.

The album starts off with “Lies My Body Told Me” a somewhat low-key track (at least for this record) that offers great interplay between Marc’s guitar and his vocals. Speaking of that, the record is fairly evenly divided between instrumental tracks and vocal songs.  Marc is aware of his pretty much pedestrian voice and he makes brilliant use of it by intentionally employing it as burlesque instrument of sarcasm through which the message is delivered all the more raw and convincing. Some of the vocal tunes carry a powerful punch, like the clever and cranky “Masters of the Internet” which follows the technically impeccable but otherwise unremarkable title track. “Masters” is a brilliant, straight-forward song that lashes out against music pirating but can be applied to any art-form in the Internet age. Against a (sort of) Arabian theme Marc yells:

We have a new business model, We’ll blow you for a nickel

And if you like our CD we’ll blow you for free and if you don’t you can bite our heads off

As a freelance writer I personally feel a special connection to this particular track. I can’t help but get chills down my spine when I hear “our labor has no value/content is our name”. I believe this single line is the most pertinent commentary I’ve ever come across on what I call the “contentization” of art (but you can just go ahead and call it the “content craze”, it has a much better ring to it)

This being The Music and Myth, I also have a little story:

I’ve recently conducted an in-depth interview  with Al Di Meola and what resulted is probably the most extensive article I’ve written for this website. It features my recount of the struggle of getting the 30 minute sit-down, a review of the concert as well as the interview in its entirety. A reader told me she thought the article was absolutely great, that  “you can see it is well documented, and written with great passion” but that it is “too long to read when you don’t have much time but are dying of curiosity”.

Her well-meaning feedback which completely missed the contradiction, painted a great picture of a society that craves quality and information but cannot stomach anything beyond readily-available light-on-content distractions and free entertainment. “Masters of the Internet” sums this up brilliantly. I also have to commend the excellent percussion on this song.

The record continues with the instrumental track “Ritual Slaughter”, another vehicle for the band to show off their amazing skill and intuitive timing, after which “Avanti Popolo”, an interlude that would have seemed out of place on any other record (but not on this one) leads us to  “Ain’t Gonna Let Them Turn Us Round” (or what Marc calls the Affordable Health Care Act song). I’m not an American so I don’t feel I have the right to comment on the context but I can make the statement that I feel this song delivers its message very efficiently.

Speaking of delivering messages efficiently, the prime example is the record’s flagship track “Bread and Roses”. Inspired by the eponymous poem by James Oppenheim, the song adapts the lyrics to fit its dynamic and explosive structure:

As we go marching, marching / through the beauty of the day

A thousand kitchens darkened/ A thousand mill lofts gray

Are touched with all the radiance/ a sudden sun discloses

Yeah, it is bread we fight for/ Bread and Roses

Powerful lyrics and passionate vocals, coupled with the angry energy of the instrument and the flawless timing of the musicians make this one of the most well-crafted songs I’ve heard in a long time. Also Marc’s “industrial” guitar solo is truly something magnificent, my favorite since his emotional guitar work on “La Vida es un Sueno” from his first Cubanos Postizos record.

For “Prayer” Marc goes back to his roots as a Rootless Cosmopolitan (I can never pass up the opportunity to make a bad pun) as the band gets to go crazy with what I’ve already affectionately called “seizure music”, once again displaying masterful cohesion in an instrumental tour-de-force. They follow it up with the laid-back, bluesy and surprisingly catchy “Mr. Pants goes to Hollywood” and the mock-nostalgic “The Kid is Back” before taking a crack at Dave Brubeck’s “Take 5”. I’ve always been a fan of Marc’s cover songs, he adds his entertaining and eccentric spin on them ( see “The Wind cries Mary” or “Dame Un Cachito Pa Huele”); again, he does not disappoint.

The record closes off with the funny, if somewhat juvenile,  “We are the Professionals” in which the band parody the sound of the Beastie Boys followed by “Special Snowflake”, a quick instrumental mish-mash to close the curtains on another great album.

I generally have nothing but praise for what Marc Ribot brings to the music industry, whatever form his projects may take. I find his entire body of work fascinating but I have to admit that I have a soft spot for Ceramic Dog.

In the company of the musically like-minded Shahzad Ismaily and Ches Smith, Ribot seems to be at his most comfortable. The band  takes the elements that make Ribot’s various projects great and combines them to produce the distinctive sound of Ceramic Dog.  Their sophomore release is a commentary on the multi-faceted music industry but also it is simply one wild ride.

Al Di Meola’s All Your Life – a profound and respectful tribute to the most famous band in the world

Image

Last week I had the incredible honor of sitting down for an in-depth interview with Al Di Meola, an accomplished Jazz composer and one of the most talented guitar-players in the world. We talked about many things, but mostly, about his new record All Your Life which, in Di Meola’s own words, is “a tribute to Lennon and McCartney, who […] were great pop songsters.” When I first heard that Al Di Meola was returning to play a gig in my hometown as part of his Beatles and More tour I was intrigued since he himself is by no means a “pop songster” and his complex, technique-driven guitar compositions are a far cry from the simple, straightforward and conventionally melodic anthems by the most famous band in the world.

Still, in the interview Di Meola referred to himself as a Beatles “fanatic” and talking to him I got a palpable sense of the deep love he has for this band. It was interesting to discuss music with him from this level, to experience a world-class composer in the guise of a simple music enthusiast like myself, with favorite bands and fond memories of tunes from his youth. The whole experience made me even more interested to hear his “take” on these songs.

I did not get an opportunity to hear much of them at the concert as the set list consisted mostly of his own compositions and his renditions of songs by Astor Piazzolla. That is understandable given that most people attend his concerts to revel in his masterful technique and incredible control of the guitar while All Your Life features a more toned-down Di Meola, focused primarily on capturing the essence of these songs and then re-shaping them in his image without straying too much from the original. It was a very wise approach from a very experienced musician.

So brace yourselves, for this is not a record of Jazz fusion and lightning-fast playing, which might disappoint any fans oblivious enough to not be aware of what this album represents (the same people who still buy Mark Knopfler’s solo work expecting to hear new Dire Straits tunes).

I have to admit that I was never really a fan of The Beatles. I could appreciate the music but I never found it very stimulating, personally. There’s that saying that you’re either into The Beatles or you’re a fan of The Stones but I was never really interested in either band growing up and was, instead, listening to something else entirely. While I was never crazy about the Beatles, I have always been a fan of Al Di Meola.  From the start I had confidence that this would be a magnificent work.

You can instantly tell that All Your Life is not an album of cover songs so much as it is a work of tribute and the artist is found reshaping and reinventing the popular tunes, distancing himself from the Beatles versions just enough for the tracks to stand on their own rather than carry the acoustic baggage of the originals. The versatile musician uses his technique to add depth where it otherwise might have been lacking due to the absence of lyrics. I was curious if Di Meola felt any pressure in reinventing such well-established songs and if that pressure might have leaked into the final product but the musician himself gave a very clear answer to that question in the interview.

The album starts off with “In My Life”, my personal favorite Beatles track, if only for the reason that it was introduced to me through a Johnny Cash cover.  It is, however, not my favorite song on this record.  The guitar is, of course, flawless  and the song shines on the magnificent technique alone but I found the percussion a bit unnecessary and distracting. I feel the song would have worked better with just the guitar so I can’t help but wish he would have chosen another opening track to set the tone of the album; perhaps the second one, the absolutely brilliant “And I Love Her” (which, incidentally, makes perfect use of percussion to enhance the melody rather than distract from it). This song stands out, alongside “Eleanor Rigby” and “Because” as the best of the bunch, albeit for different reasons. “And I Love Her” creates a perfect blend of catchy melody, structural depth and  flawless delivery, while ”Because” is almost unrecognizable at first and yet stays true to the ambiance of its namesake and possesses a quality about it that captures the very essence of the original.  This is the quintessential cover song (or tribute song rather) and composers everywhere should take note. As for “Eleanor Rigby” this very intense piece of music remains the most faithful to the original, brilliantly recreating its tension and adding just enough of Di Meola’s characteristic sound to make it different.

I chose to highlight these three tracks because I consider them to be the best but, really, every song on the record is in its own way a musical marvel, from  the playful “Michelle” to the emotional “Day in the Life” and the haunting “She’s Leaving Home”, the final track on the album.  Each is a testament to the profound relationships that form between fellow artists and their works. This is a musician’s record  first and foremost, created by a musician for musicians and the listeners are left to relish the complex connections that can be found only in the works of peers.

All Your Life, with its simple arrangement and its intricate delivery, is an extremely well-rounded work first and foremost because of the context of its creation. When musicians of this caliber decide to pay tribute to each other the result can be nothing but a masterpiece.

Ilie Stepan, Horea Crisovan and Mario Florescu close off the Timisoara Baroque Festival

ba.rock.acustic.live.ilie.stepan.horea.crisovan.mario.florescu-FS183838DF

Like I said in my previous article: October has so far been a good month for music, especially last weekend when I got to attend two great events; both of which were outstanding in their own way. Saturday I was at the JazzyBIT concert that brought the house down and Sunday found me at the Philharmonic for the closing concert of the Timisoara Baroque Festival, a gig featuring three very well-known and extremely accomplished musicians: Ilie Stepan, Horea Crisovan and Mario Florescu.

Mario Florescu is the leader of Mario & The Teachers, an ethno-Jazz act I’ve written about before and is an accomplished and talented percussionist. Both him and Ilie Stepan have been around for decades and have been part of some true revolutions – not only in music, as Stepan is known for having been on the Opera balcony giving the proverbial finger to the Ceausescu regime in a time when things were getting pretty hot all over Romania. He is also known for composing the revolutionary anthem “Timisoara” together with Marian Odangiu, while at the helm of rock band Pro Musica.

Still, while I greatly respect both these artists and their indisputable accomplishments, the real reason I attended the event was to see guitar player Horea Crisovan. Horea has got the Romanian musical audience divided: some say that he is one of the best guitar players in Romania while others claim he is the absolute best guitar player in the country. I’ve been following his career ever since the early 2000’s when he was performing with Jazz-Funk band Blazzaj (among many many…many others), a band I was really into at the time. The thing with Horea is that he is involved in so many projects that you never know what you’re going to get. Though he is immensely talented, his talent is not always showcased at maximum potential in some of the bands he’s part of, which is probably the only downside of being a very versatile and very active musician. Still, when I read his name alongside that of Florescu and Stepan as well as the word “acoustic” I knew it was going to be Horea at his very best. Not only was I not disappointed but the show completely exceeded my expectations.

The performance was divided into two parts. The first was a straight-forward showcasing of the two guitar players’ talent, with the main focus on Horea and his incredible speed and dexterity through an abundance of lighthearted compositions as well as some well-known international tracks (“Hotel California” and “Fragile” by Sting). I was completely blown away by Horea’s playing. Perhaps because of his many musical projects, some requiring less of his gifted input than others, it is easy to forget just how amazingly talented and multilateral this man is when it comes to his approach to the guitar. Since I will return to the Philharmonic to see Al DiMeola perform in November I couldn’t help but wonder what the veteran guitarist would think of Horea’s playing but I can’t imagine he would do anything else  but enthusiastically clap with the rest of us.

The second part was what I called the “nostalgia” part, with Stepan and Florescu front-and-center, playing songs from the heyday of their careers, complete with intense and sensitive musical videos and with Horea backing them up on electric guitar. It was a very emotional performance that could be enjoyed in its entirety only with the empathetic connection and involvement from the audience, as many remembered the era in which these songs were in their prime.

Unfortunately, because of the big age-gap, I know I couldn’t entirely connect with the music like a large part of the audience seemed to do and I’m sorry that I couldn’t award this second part of the show the emotional investment that it deserved. Even so, I did enjoy it greatly and the passionate presence of past memories was almost palpable. All-in-all it was a beautiful event that had something for everyone. It showcased the superb talent of a young musician as well as the staying-power of the veteran performers but most of all it demonstrated the beautiful symbiosis between them.

You can watch the entire event live at the following link:

http://www.infoo.ro/Evenimente-INFOO-LIVE-ZS776971TD.html