Kate MacLeod: December 2017 Album of the Month


Deep in the Sound of Terra
Courier Music 007

Would you believe me if I told you that the best Celtic music album of the year was made by a  woman who hails from Washington, DC and now lives in Utah? You should. Kate MacLeod's Deep in the Soul of Terra was inspired by her reflections on the natural splendors of the West and her artist-in-residence stint with the Entrada Institute, an environmental and heritage center that celebrates the topography and human geography of the Colorado Plateau. But fear not; this is not a cup of herbal tea with a wide-eyed New Age devotee, rather a serious reflection on nature and the music it inspires.

 MacLeod kicksoff with "Blue Sky Prelude," a piece that immerses listeners rather than hooking them with clever licks. It has grandeur and atmospherics galore, but of the kind that evoke adjectives such as dreamy, museful, and mystical. Like everything on the record, it takes it time so that we are saturated and sink into the arrangement. Take a listen* to "The Land Before Man" set; it will be one of the best eight minutes of your life. You might catch a Western vibe from Skip Gorman's backing mandolin and James Scott's evocative guitar, but the overall effect I akin to one of Alasdair Fraser's more introspective works. "Assonet Bay" is another in that vein, especially in the purity of MacLeod's fiddle notes. Still another wondrous piece is the "Sand in the Breeze" set, which opens with a semi-classical feel before settling into a quiet, calm place and cutting to a fast take out. If you want to appreciate how good MacLeod is, consider that Kevin Burke is on this track—as second fiddle. MacLeod also strikes a formal pose on "Ice on Lake Mohonk," which brings to mind a courtly dance, and which finishes with "The Mohonk Jig." Don't think raucous pub; if ever the descriptor 'stately' applies to a jig, it's here.

This album is as brilliant as it is thoughtful. "The Oregon Trail" has a lonesome opening that cuts to a casual long trail saunter; you slow things down when you are small and the land is vast. You might expect some lickety split string action on a tune titled "The Train Across the Great Salt Lake," but this one leaves the depot slowly, gathers pace gently—listen for the train effects added by the band Otter Creek—and then settles into a comfortable groove. It ends by gliding into the station, not roaring to a stop. On the album's final track we are treated to MacLeod's vocal on the delicate and instantly likable "Let the Dove Come In." If you like Celtic music salted with hints of classical, bluegrass, and old-time music, you're going to love this one.

Rob Weir  

*This house concert recording is  a stripped down version of the album recording.


Art Road Trip : Shelburne Museum in the Off-Season


SWEET TOOTH: THE ART OF DESSERT (through February 18, 2018)
HOOKED ON PATTY YODER (through January 21, 2018)
Shelburne Museum
Shelburne, Vermont

Summer places in the offseason generally exude one of two vibes: forlorn or tranquil. Luckily Vermont's Shelburne Museum falls into the second category, once you get used to the fact that most of the buildings are closed and you're sharing a big area with tens instead of hundreds. From May 1-October 31 the museum is the domain of families, school groups, and bused-in tourists; after that, the energy level plummets and mellowness prevails. Even the docents sense it; they grow gregarious and are as curious about you as you are of what's on offer.

Prior to the 2013 opening of the Pizzagalli Center for Art and Education (PCAE) dreams of spring was the only thing on offer. Now the Shelburne Museum uses it to showcase small exhibits and cherry-picked permanent collection items year round. Just four other buildings are open, but first a look at two wonderful exhibits that you're not likely to see anywhere else.

Sweet Tooth: The Art of Dessert is the perfect holiday exhibit. T'is the season to pig out, so we might as well redeem ourselves and think about calories as art. Sweet Tooth works because of its puckish humor and conscious lack of seriousness. It's also true to the spirit of Andy Warhol, who understood that pop culture had an aesthetic, so why not an oversized crumbled piece of metal painted as a Zagnut Bar? Try to pass by Margaret Morrison's sumptuous canvas titled Chocolates without drooling. How about designer shoes fashioned from cake batter, or Wendy James' call-it-like-it-is assemblage Empty Calories? But Chris Campbell steals the show with his short perspective-defying videos. My favorites were of a medical emergency in a field of Twinkies, a man being rescued from having fallen through the surface of a crème brulee, a dare devil motorcyclist launching skyward from a wedge of cake, and a hysterical scene of a snow blower plowing through a donut forest and spitting powdered sugar into the air. Great stuff that's guaranteed to put a smile on your face. 

I might have suggested therapy had you told me beforehand that an exhibit on hooked rugs would be one of my favorite art shows of the year. I absolutely adored Hooked on Patty Yoder. Yoder (1943-2005) loved sheep and she honored them in the very wool she sheared from them on her Tinmouth, Vermont farm. The centerpiece of the exhibit is Yoder's Alphabet of Sheep, 26 themed rugs, each with an alphabet embedded somewhere in the design. Some are in plain view, others are so cleverly disguised that finding them is an adult version of Where's Waldo? Everyone gets into the act, including the docents; apparently no one has yet located the namesake letter in H is for Hannah & Sarah, A Civil Union, Yoder's rug in honor of Vermont's legalization of same-sex partnerships in 2000. You can't stop looking for the letters and because you look long and hard you doubly appreciate the intricacy and skill of Yoder's designs. I suspect you'll also walk away having confirmed that the line between fine and folk art is little more than 
snobbish convention.

It was certainly not a view shared by Electra Havemeyer Webb (1888-1960), the wealthy heiress whose collections of both folk and fine art led her to found the Shelburne Museum in 1947. The Webb Gallery and the Electra Havemeyer Webb Memorial Building are now both open in the offseason. In the first you can see everything from luminist paintings to oils of country life, but its star attraction is Andrew Wyeth's ambiguous and unsettling Soaring. Do the vultures circle coincidentally, or does decay reside in the farmhouse below? On a cheerier note, I thought I had gone through a wormhole connecting Vermont to Northampton, MA when I saw a painting from Ashfield artist Edwin Romanzo Elmer (1850-1923), whose work is featured at Smith College, and several from Charles Burleigh, Jr. (1848-82) whose work is currently featured at Historic Northampton. If you need more high-falootin' stuff, it's always a joy to stroll through the Webb Memorial Building and marvel over priceless French Impressionist masterpieces, but the building, which recreates rooms from the Webbs' New York City apartment, also tells another story—the trappings of great wealth abound but it also feels like a place in which actual people lived rather than a—wordplay intended—museum.

In that spirit, the newest building to be winterized is the Dorset House, which is devoted to bird decoys. I've never hunted nor cared much about decoys, but I was pleasantly surprised to the degree that the collection has been reorganized and rationalized in ways akin to the weathervanes and trade signs in the Stagecoach Inn (next up on the winterization list, but currently seasonal). In other words, the decoys are now presented as folk art, not just fowl hunting aids.

And folk art is what the Shelburne Museum is really all about. Though you'd have to go back after May 1 to see it, everything else in view is devoted to folk art. But I can't recommend highly enough getting there to see the exhibits currently at the PCAE. Savor the desserts and find the missing H. Take in the Wyeth, admire the Impressionists, and finish off with some decoys, a stroll around the Round Barn, and a visit to the gift shop. The pace is relaxed and it will cost you less than half of what you'll shell out when you return after May 1.

Rob Weir   


World Music: Asaran Earth Trio, Akshara Ensemble, Tribalistas, Safron Ensemble and More


Global Music Gems and Rocks

Looking for something unique for the holidays? Put down those generic CDs from interchangeable one-name pop tarts and give the gift of world music. I've included a few projects that didn't connect with me but might fit your tastes.

The promo for the Asaran Earth Trio jokes that "a Brazilian, a Croatian, and a Hungarian walked into a bar…." That bar is in New York City, where the three have made their mark in various jazz ensembles. I can't imagine that anything they do in those groups parallels the beauty of their collaborative project Why Should Your Heart Not Dance? Sometimes modern recording is too damn slick for its own good. Not here. These three women—Anne Boccato (Brazil), Astrid Kuljanic (Croatia), and Artemisz Polonya (Hungary)—use only hand drums and claps to color their voices and they often don't bother; a cappella singing shines on its own with three gem-like voices such as these. Asaran spotlights global traditions, songs, and styles. "Foreign Lander" is a plaintive song that was once part of Jean Ritchie's repertoire, but is rendered by the trio in ways suggestive of The Wailin' Jennys. Eclecticism is the order of the day. "Viva o Jackson" is creative noodling with jazz scat and complex inter- and cross-weaving backing vocals. A cover of the standard "Bye Bye Blackbird" is also scat-enhanced." The jazz wrappers contrast with a song such as "Patacoada," which comes off as a Brazilian nonsense boasting song crossed with a yogic chant. In others shift, there are the  joyous village feel of the Italian folk song "L'Amante Confessore," and the darker more soulful Hungarian offering "Szeki Lassu." It's hard, though, to imagine anything more stunning than "Kis Kece Lányom," which is actually a Hungarian children's song but here sounds like a madrigal round in a Gothic cathedral. This amazing recording epitomizes the idiom, "You could have knocked me over with a feather." ★★★★★

Akshara Music Ensemble features Carnatic and Hindustani music as filtered through Western and classical traditions. Carnactic music is common to Southern India and is usually sung or played in singsong instrumental patterns, which is what Akshara mainly does. As in much Indian music, their pieces develop in movements; there are just five tracks on In Time, but the recording is over 46 minutes long. This East-meets-West musical feast brilliantly realized was composed by Bala Shandan, who is also one of two percussionists. "Mind theGap" has a bang-the-can sound, even though the percussion is traditional. Like others on the album, Jay Gandhi's Bansuri (flute) gives the piece air through which instruments such as hammered dulcimer, violins, cello, and tabla float. "Mohana Blues" is actually more pastoral than bluesy and has segments that evoke the calmness of Japanese music; that is, if Japanese music also featured kecak chants. (Think the Balinese monkey chant sequences in films such as Baraka and Koyaanisqatsi.) There is so much that impresses on this release: the chase-its-own tail outro to "Opus in 5," the build and drama of "Shadjam," the bell-like tones matched by growling cello in "Urban Kriti…." It is a rare blend of ancient and fresh." ★★★★

If you think the term supergroup is an American thing, think again. Tribalistas brings together three Brazilian artists whose names are as familiar there as Elvis in Memphis. Singer/composer Arnaldo Antunes made his mark in movies, punk, and rock (Titans); singer/percussion wizard Carlinhos Brown in various Afro-Carib styles; and many consider Marisa Monte to be the second greatest popular music singer in Brazilian history. Their album Tribalistas (1) is a genre-confounding collaboration that's somewhere between rock, pop, folk, and jazz. The synergy is obvious, as is their veteran professionalism. Watch the clip of "Diaspora" and you'll see Antunes literally orchestrate the piece, but listen to what happens on its own, including a very cool tempo shift and Brown's subtle keening. If "Fora da Memoria" recalls something Sergio Mendes might have done, it's because  Brown was once part of his band. "Trabalivre" is energetic and edgy, with small, gritty pushes at the ends of stanzas nudging the music to another level. In "Um só" the three sing with and against each other and connect everything with catchy melodic hooks. Learn why these superb artists have enough Latin Grammys, MTV awards, and other hardware to open an Aubuchon. ★★★★

I have no idea what to make of Noaccordion, the brainchild of Oakland-based Onah Indigo. Let me quote her album PR : "Balancing trap's gritty edge with serene vocals and dubbed-out accordion licks, Gurukula ripples with energy, yet radiates calm, as the sounds of bhajans and songs in Kannada entwine with an atmosphere of unfolded paradise, with its organic beat." Huh? Trap is a hip-hop style that evolved in the South, bhajan is a South Indian religious song, and Kannada is a language/ethnic group. That said, pieces such as "Goalie" and "Oonana" are essentially a series of beats, unusual electronic sounds, and submerged echoing vocals. "Response" is rare in that we hear a discernible South Indian melody. Listen; maybe you'll what I'm missing. Is this hypnotic or performance art quirkiness? I lean toward the latter.

Onah Indigo attempts what the Saffron Ensemble accomplishes. Their album Will You also seeks universal connections through unique channels: a coming together of American, Canadian, Indian, and Persian musicians whose compositions incorporate the poetry of Rumi, a 13th century Iranian poet, as filtered through Indian grooves, Western jazz, and a saxophonist (Tim Ries) who has toured with The Rolling Stones. If, on your screen, this looks to be convoluted, listen and you'll find coherence. I was hooked from the first notes of "Sweet Caroline" (not the Neil Diamond hit). Kevin Hays' delicate piano notes set the mood for trance instrumentation that dance to Dibyarka Chattersee's tabla beats. Pieces such as "If I Can't" and "Quiet Turbulence" evoke the ambience of 1950s beatnik clubs in which poetry was read atop quiet background music, but if you're tempted to dismiss non-English spoken word as dull, listen to passion in Katayoun Goudarzi's voice. It is as if she accesses the unifying stillness that counters the cacophony of human differences. If that doesn't impress you, listen when she sings. Her tones are ornamented and mellifluous. Listen to how she comes in later to build s "A Thread." The mix of sitar (Shujaat Hasain Khan), piano, tabla, flute, sax, and vocals thrum to global vibes, even on "Void" in which the silences are as important as the sounds. ★★★★★  

Astrid Kuljanic (of the Asaran Earth Trio) has her own band, the Transatlantic Exploration Company. It's much more of a soft jazz ensemble, one in which she's backed mostly by accordion and bass. Sample the moody café style version of the Croatian traditional "Oj vi Mlade,"the faintly Latin twist she puts on the Dizzie Gillespie standard "Night in Tunisia," the free form "Portrait," and the sultry, sparse "Wild in the Night" from the Ensemble's album Riva. This album isn't really my cup of tea, but it might be yours. ★★ ½