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02/20/2017
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February Tunes: Julian Velard, Craig Price, The Khalifes, Kerri Louisa, Andy Chew

You've probably noticed that there aren't many pianists on the pop/folk music circuit. That is, of course, because of logistics–you can't exactly toss a Steinway into the back of your Honda. It's also about sound; true devotees know that electronic keyboards are poor substitutes. (I know one musician who says he'd rather starve than play a tinny Yamaha.) So let's devote a bit of space to a few keyboardists who tickle a lot of keys on the road.

Julian Velard recently released Live @ Pianos, an intriguing pastiche of selections and styles. Hey, why not head off the Billy Joel comparisons and do a killer cover of "My Life," but pare it with an original ("Do It Alone")? That one aside, Velard reminds me of Matt Nokoa in that he's a good vocalist and that his repertoire is one part hipster and one part showman. He's a native New Yorker, a background he (sort of) honors with "New York, I Love It WhenYou're Mean," a love/hate letter that captures the Big Apple's simultaneous allure and horror. There's also the semi-schmaltzy "Brooklyn Kind of Love," which sounds like the kind of standard an urbanized Willie Nelson would take on. Songs like "I Don't Know How to Drive" find Velard in a pop mood; others such as "24-Hour Flower Boy" and "Glad I Wasted all My Time" are more in the light jazz mode. I prefer less ostentatious music, but I loved, loved, loved Velard's cover of "Rainbow Connection," which is so sensitively done as to remind you that it doesn't matter if a frog croons a song that damn good.

I don't know if Craig W. Price is the pianist on his album Earth or not. About all I can tell you is that he's from Nebraska, sings a lot like Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes, is a Christian artist, and that's there's lots piano on his release–mainly of the dripping rain variety. As befits praise songs, most of the album is contemplative, which is both a strength and weakness. The album has a soupy ambience that's good for musing upon life's mysteries, but I doubt you'll ever see these songs in a youth group songbook–not because they're too prayerful, but because they are low on musical hooks and sing-along possibilities. I liked Price's voice and lost myself a few times in dreamy instrumentation, but it was also hard at times to distinguish one song from the next. Check out "East West," which I see as the strongest track. Also check out the very religious "Rocks" to see if he's coming from where your head is located.★★

The piano figures prominently on the album Andalusia of Love by the father/sons trio of Marcel, Rami, and Bachar Khalifé. This project is Marcel's brainchild. He is a Lebanese composer, oud player, and peace activist (2005 UNESCO Artist for Peace) with an interest in fusing Arabic and Western music. The piano is his instrument of choice for fusion and it's safe to say that his Julliard-educated son Rami knows his way around the keyboards. Younger brother Bachar also plays piano and electronic keyboards, plus various percussion instruments. For those who don't know, Andalusia is today a small section of southern Spain, but was once an Islamic kingdom (711-1212) that encompassed all of the Iberian Peninsula and parts of southern France. (Grenada didn't fall until 1492.) This is a sophisticated project that stitches classical music, jazz, folk, and Arabic melodies and vocal styles. You'll hear Spanish cadences in "Ouhibouki," crystalline highbrow/high keys on "Taratil," vocals evocative on North Africa on "Ana Li Habibi," and experimentation bordering on dissonance on "Yadaik." I'm quite taken with "Ya Habibi." which opens with soulful and morose vocals but whose percussion moves the piece into joyfulness evocative of belly dancing.

In other musical news––

I recently ran across an album titled Bring the Rain by an Australian singer named Kerri Louisa. It's a sweet, occasionally poignant recording in a pop/folk vein. This record is a bare bones homespun recording with just Louisa on acoustic guitar, Jared Murti on bas, and Nathan Edgell on keyboards, electric guitar, and percussion. For me it's the kind of stripped-to-the-bone record that makes folk music more honest and compelling than pop. My favorite tracks were "Barren Place," "Bring Me," "Hard to Breathe," and "When She Smiles." The first is quite a song–a soft, sad country folk ditty that, at 7:20, takes its time in building to a lush climax and allows Edgell to ease us down with his sad piano notes. Louisa has the sense to follow with the string band ditty "Being Me," with its mountain music ambience." By contrast, "Hard to Breathe" uses quick notes and sharp, brief pauses to create catchy pop-laced folk. "When She Smiles" is sunny with finger-snapping cadences. Louisa is also an activist with Destiny Rescue, an organization seeking to end the use of children in the Asian sex trade industry. Good heart. Good musician. Check her out.

Acid folk has emerged as recognized subgenre and, like all such terms, is equal parts useful and deceptive. It is, however, the label I'd apply to most of From the Ruins by New Hampshire native Andy Chew. His is a trippy album of ambience-drenched vocals amidst a musical swirl of acoustic guitar, bell-like tones, meditative cadences, background vocal textures, and cross cutting sounds. Chew's intent is to capture the cycles of the natural world and he admits that many of the tunes came from experiments with tunings and frequencies. The end result is music that, at its best, is trance-like in the way a good Grateful Dead jam can be, but also just as repetitive. Chew's arrangements emphasize mood and groove over hooks and articulated lyrics. Once we're inside his musical whirlpools, we snag bits and pieces of his lyrics like so much flotsam whizzing by us. At times he's as pensive as Tim Hardin or Nick Drake and perhaps as oblique. I liked this recording, but only in small doses at a time that kept the sameness at bay. Too much feels like a soundtrack for getting high. Maybe this is one of those releases for which single tracks are more satisfying. Go the NoiseTrade and try "Dark Forest," "Woven of Pine," and the title track.

There are few more eye-opening experiences than a trip abroad. But if you got a little bit of cash for the holidays and don't have either enough of it or the time to hop a plane right now, a global musical journey is as close as a few mouse clicks and as cheap as a few bucks. Here are a three wonderful examples.

I adore African music and Jamal, a new release from the Malian band Alkibar Junior, is one of my favorite releases of 2016. A quick lesson for those less familiar with African music: In the West, melody and instrumental solos are usually dominant, with bass and percussion providing scaffolding. Much of West African music is the opposite. Singer Sekou Touré anchors this album. (Don't confuse him with the deceased Guinean dictator of that name. Touré is a common surname in West Africa.) Touré hails from the same commune in Timbuktu as the famed Ali Farka Touré (1939-2006) and several members of the latter's band appear on Jamal, an album of praise songs dedicated to those who guided northern Mali through recent political and economic crises. What a recording! On "Suka," Sekou Touré's voice mesmerizes and calms; on "Tjmi" he opens with a vocal blast, then settles into a groove in which all the voices, instruments, and percussion blend into a soupy mix. The overall effect is akin to having been forcibly hurled into a stream then deciding to just float along with the current. Instruments are played skillfully, but not in that look-at-me individual style of Western music. "Djugal" has a meaty bass part that opens the song, but it's just a start/stop/go framing device; "Kori" is like an electrified lullaby in which Diadie Bocum's guitar, Touré, and the backup singers rock us to serenity. And then there's the soulful and meditative "Daou," which is the kind of song that conjures Deadheads of a bygone era in a drifting circular dance, heads titled back, and eyes closed. The songs are mostly in Songhai, but you won't need translation—joy and tranquility transcend language. (PS: CD song titles and those on the download version don't always match, but I think they're the same tracks.)

The first question that occur when you hear Sandaraa is geographical. Is this a Middle Eastern band? South Asian? Balkan? A klezmer ensemble? The answer is "yes." It is Lahore-meets-Brooklyn in conception, a collaboration between Pakistani singer Zebunnisa Bangash and metro New York clarinet master Michael Winograd. The fiddler, guitarist, bass player, accordionist, and percussionist are also based in Brooklyn, though several of them have deep ethnic roots and none of them seem to be constrained by any particular national border when they pick up their instruments. Ms. Bangash is a marvel. We listen to her undulations, staccato cadences, and elides duel with Winograd's clarinet on a song like "Jegi Jegi" and hear klezmer strained through a world music filter. Nothing is hurried on their self-titled EP. There is the trance-meets-keening of "Mana Nele" clocking in at 7:20, and the trippy "Bibi Sanem Janem" at 5:40. The latter song is typical of how Sandaraa build compositions. It opens with a soulful clarinet solo and eases into swaying rhythms that explain why this ensemble's 2013 founding was partly underwritten by the Center for Traditional Music and Dance. "Dilbrake Nazinin" is a particularly lovely piece that unfolds to guitarist Yoshie Fructer bending the strings as if he were wielding a sitar and he commands the first minute and a half before Bangash sings. She stays quiet and wistful until the 3:50 mark when the song leaps into higher gear–only to have Ms. Bangash settle it back to a more contemplative level. I call this the feather-hammer-feather effect. The EP's final track, "Haatera Taiyga" spotlights tin-pan-style percussion from Richie Barshay that frames several instrumental surges bordering on wildness–but there is always Bangash's voice that invokes an angel standing pacific in the middle of hot oil. Sandaraa often reminded me of a South Asian version of Pentangle. That's a good thing–a very good thing.

Amira Medunjanin is a Bosnian singer from Sarajevo and is considered by many to be the world's finest interpreter of Sevdah, which doesn't have an easy English translation. Oddly, to get it, it's helpful to think of ancient Greek medicine. The Greeks thought there were four basic elements: air, water, fire, and earth. These corresponded to four bodily "humors:" blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. Sevdah derives from the last of these, the least plentiful humor in the body, but the animating force connected with melancholy, pensiveness, pragmatism, and pessimism. If you get the idea that Medunjanin's latest CD, Damar, is layered with dark tones, you're on the mark. One reviewer called her the "Bosnian Billie Holiday." I get that, but to my ear, fado legend Amalia Rodrigues is a better match. Sevdah is a music of sorrow–like fado or a less ribald version of Greek rebetika. Why would you wish to hear such music? Because Ms. Medunjanin's vice will freeze you in your tracks; because her songs will stir things in your soul. And because you had no idea that darkness came in so many shades. On Damar she works with jazz pianist Bojan Z and guitarist Boŝko Jovíc, the first of whom sets new moods with a single note or pause, and the latter of whom is steeped flamenco fingering. This album demands more that you feel what Medunjanin sings rather than understand the lyrics. I don't know any Croatian, but even good translation software struggles with titles such as "Pjevat cemo sta nam srce zna." (My best guess: "Sing What the Heart Knows.") I can tell you, though, that it's a soulful mid-tempo song in which Medunjanin's mildly operatic quaver oozes emotion. I can also tell you that "Tvojte ociLeno mori" is a Macedonian folk song that feels as if it were sung by a sad madrigal, and that "Ah sto cemo Ljubav Kriti" ("Oh, Why Should We Hide Our Love?") is a traditional Herzegovina song that unfolds deliberately and mournfully. I can also tell you that the title track demonstrates the literal depths of Medunjanin's range, as she dips down to smoky tones reminiscent of the husk of Marlene Dietrich. Pain has seldom sounded so good.