Mountain Project Merges Nepali and Bluegrass Music

The Mountain Music Project
Mountain Music MMJ 2614
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The challenge of all concepts is to translate vision into accessibility. In 1983, The Chieftains proved that Western and Asian musicians could make beautiful music together. The Mountain Music Project seeks to expand the idea. Producer Danny Knicely operates from the assumption that hills are hills, whether the mountains are the Appalachians or the Himalayas; that it makes no difference if a wooden flute comes from Ireland or the Himalayas (bansuri); and that fiddles are fiddles, whether they are finely crafted, or roughly hewn from a chunk of wood and finished with a sheath of goatskin stretched across the chamber (sarangi). He then gathered American bluegrass and Nepali musicians and told them to make mountain music together.

The results are mixed, though it’s no fault of the musicians from Nepal’s musical Gandharba caste. On The Mountain Project, the Nepali musicians (Buddhiman, Manoj, Jagat, and Ganesh Gandharba) do a better job of upholding their traditions than some of the Americans do with Appalachian songs. The instrumentals are so good on both sides of the divide that one can instantly hear why Danny Knicely and Tara Linhardt conceived the project. Buddhiman Gandharba’s raw sarangi notes and vocals on “Sita Rani Ma” are a perfect parallel to Tim O’Brien’s yearnful “Going Across the Sea;” both sing and play their fiddles as if they were the lost grandchildren of Tommy Jarrell. Put them together on a song like “My Home is Across the Blue Ridge Mountains” and the synergy is even more obvious. Bring in some more Yanks–Curtis Burch (dobro), Mark Schatz (bass), Tony Trischka (banjo), and beautiful sounds meld. And the producers were right about the flutes; either Jagat Gandharba’s bansuri or Aaron Olwell’s Irish flute fill the aural spaces nicely. I wish the same could be said for all the singing. I don’t know the vocal work Knicely or Ricky Baugus well enough to say whether the recording is badly balanced or if they are weak singers, but I can say that what we hear on this album gets overwhelmed by the mix. Bottom line: hills are hills, but not all vocals are created equally. --Rob Weir

Check out the very crisp trailer from the related film project


Joe Craven Trio Explodes Genres

All Four One
Blender Logic Arts 005

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Everything about The Joe Craven Trio confounds. First of all, it’s only a trio if you don’t count Craven himself, which would be a huge mistake for such a demon mandolin player, fiddler, and arts activist. Second of all, those instruments plus the accordion hefted by band mate Rick Kuhns would lead the uninitiated to think this is a bluegrass band, which it most assuredly is not. Third, iTunes seems to think it belongs in a category called “Easy Listening,” which in my mind is associated with music playing in the background when you water your ferns, and Craven’s music isn’t that either. So what is it, exactly?

Let me dissemble just a bit more. The picture of Craven on the back of the CD has him wearing a very loud shirt and sporting a beret to which he has Photoshoped a dangling tassel. This is typical of his wit and, I suspect, his total disregard for genres. If one must apply one, small combo jazz fits the bill for much of it, though Craven insists his music is a mash of his various influences: Thelonious Monk, Django Reinhardt, Lester Young, The Monkees, Flatt and Scruggs, and Michael Jackson. Say what? Don’t look for keyboardist John Burr to help out; the opening track “Up with the Crackadons” has organ riffs worthy of Booker T. Jones, and percussionist Kendrick Freeman lays down classic snare drum jazz rhythms and Craven rips off some mando lines that dance and swoon. That’s followed by “Forrocious,” with slightly atonal accordion and the feel of a Parisian cafĂ© habituated by surrealists. Then a barrelhouse piano opening for Craven’s whimsical song “Get Off It!” a piece that’s somewhere between Spike Milligan and Spike Jones. You get the picture. Don’t label it; just give it a listen. It’s smart, exciting, and it would plow down a fern that got in its way.--Rob Weir

Watch Craven and his band work in and through several grooves on this extended video. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=73oyhKK97KI


Republic of Strings; Always Bold, Even When Not on the Mark

Generation Nation
Compass 7-4427-2
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Originally published in SingOut! 54:4

Newgrass, the blender mix of bluegrass and other genres, has been around for so long that the very term is an oxymoron. But if you think that you’ve heard every permutation possible, reserve judgment until you listen to Generation Nation, the latest collaborative project led by fiddler Darol Anger. It’s a bit like grafting a Grateful Dead concert to a string band. Take a hard listen to “Polska Upstairs” as it’s about as close to a conventional melody as this album gets. If you’re a listener who absolutely needs to hear strong melodies, feel dancey pulses, and hum signature hooks, steer clear of this recording. If, on the other hand, you like music whose loose weaves leave big spaces for jams, innovation, and free form jazz, this is the ticket. Anger doesn’t cover chestnuts; he cracks them open. There is, for instance, Chris Webster channeling Aretha Franklin on “Chain of Fools.” Her vocals are strong, sexy, and reminiscent of Franklin’s 1967 hit single, but Rushad Eggleston’s cello lines and the fiddle meanderings of Anger and Brittany Haas are miles from what Jerry Wexler had in mind. Anger describes “The Seagull” as an “origami,” an apt way of describing the ways in which the instruments fold into each other’s musical space; and the album’s final two tracks, “Rain Dance” and “The Tan Hut,” are so meditative and experimental that I wondered for a moment if Phillip Glass produced the record. I can’t say I enjoyed every track of this record, but I was always intrigued. -- Rob Weir