Culture & Criticism From the Far Distant Realms
ROMANCE OF THE VIOLIN. Joshua Bell. Sony Classical. The most remarkable thing about Joshua Bell’s playing is the layered textures he creates with his violin: More then a mere instrumentalist, Bell is able to conjure the body of distinct and separate voices with each note that resonates from his instrument. At once, the listener is thrust into the dark and cavernous confines of the concert hall, lost in the tapestry of the music as it bends and soars across the room.
Romance of The Violin, Bell’s new record, is a true showcase of the Grammy-winning musician’s immense talent – a definitive statement telling the world that this man exists on a plane all his own. The arrangements for the album were done by Craig Leon, who is noted in classical circles for his work with Luciano Pavarotti. For this record, Leon built an actual “setting” for each of the songs — it’s almost as if he has constructed an individual stage on which each of the pieces is meant to play, thus allowing Bell’s violin to create and then recreate the song as it progresses from beginning to end. And the results, they’re truly stunning. Listen to the tones and echoes that Bell is able to sift from the tips of his fingers on Puccini’s “O Mio Babbino Caro” or Dvorak’s “Songs My Mother Taught Me”: the sweet and mystical cadence of the music built on invisible threads of melody, the notes sweeping and galloping, pausing now mid-air to breathe. Listen: these are the perfect and clear strands of music through which we draw infinite breath.
On Romance, Bell is playing a magical instrument — his “Gibson ex Huberman” was created by Antonius Stradivarius in 1713. This violin was actually stolen from Carnegie Hall in the 1930s, only to resurface again in the 1980s after the thief made a deathbed confession about his crime. Soon after, Bell purchased it before it could be sold to a collector.
As I write these lines, “The Girl With The Flaxen Hair” is playing again: this record the pure and timeless by-product of the hands and sweat and inspired vision of Stradivarius: a man who must have dreamt the ghosts of this music some 300 years ago as he worked solitary in thought to create Joshua Bell’s cherished violin.
CALEDONIA. Shana Morrison. Monster Music. Shana Morrison might be the great Van Morrison’s daughter, but her work as a musician has displayed a wonderful blend of range and individuality as she carves her own path in this up-and-down business. Caledonia was her first solo record, and it demonstrates her stunning voice — bluesy and dark, so triumphant and spiritual – this echo walking a tight-rope down the edge of a razor. Even though some of the songs feel “unfinished” on this record, it doesn’t alter the end result: Morrison’s music is driven by the vocals, and the rough edge of the production actually gives her sound room to soar.
As a young singer, Shana Morrison has already mastered many styles, and Caledonia lets us see her music begin to fully take its shape. “House of Mirrors” and the poignant cover of Van’s classic “Sweet Thing” are proof positive that she’s not some copy-cat act riding her famous father’s coat-tails, but instead, a serious artist dedicated to her own sweet vision. Also checkout her 2002 release 7 Wishes on Vanguard Records.
A HANUKKAH CELEBRATION. VARIOUS ARTISTS. THE MILKEN ARCHIVE OF AMERICAN JEWISH MUSIC. This release comes just in time for the 2003 holiday season, and features many fine selections that celebrate the holy season and the intricacies of the Jewish faith. Hanukkah is, in essence, about rededicating one’s self to Christ — which is exactly why this record was made. In Hanukkah we have a celebration of music meant to encourage people of all faiths to join together with their families at this the holiest time of year. All of the music here is good — but Samuel Adler’s “The Flames of Freedom” is absolutely stunning: melodious and subtle, sending wild bursts of shivers up all sides of the spine. Sadly, Americans for the most part have lost the meaning of Christmas, an endless haze of consumerism replacing the solemnity of the season. However, A Hanukkah Celebration attempts to bring us back to the real point behind why we acknowledge the birth of Christ: A feast with family recognizing the living. A silent prayer to the past remembering the dead. And a soft thimble full of music to help light and guide our way through the sacred leaves of darkness.
It seems hard to believe that vocalist Mary Fahl hasn’t been discovered by a wider audience: Fahl is, simply, a singer of amazing range and passion as her recent record, “The Other Side of Time, ” so forcefully demonstrates.
The collection, produced by Jeffrey Lesser (Lou Reed, Barbara Streisand, The Chieftains), hit the stores last May on the Odyssey/Sony Classical label and marks the diva’s emergence as solo artist. The album’s 14 cuts are all original compositions written by Fahl and a wide variety of collaborators, including Ramsey McLean, Bob Riley and renowned lyricist/composer Stephen Schwartz.
Fahl’s career began in the early 1990s, as the lead singer for October Project.” While having a somewhat limited fan-base in America, “October Project” was a critically acclaimed band that had amassed a loyal following in Europe. Fahl’s vocal style with the group was rich, soulful and evocative — stitching together the American and British folk movements, recalling the old-time troubadors who played the East Chicago club circuit in the 40s and 50s.
After six years with “October Project” refining her style, Fahl set out on her own, and the results have truly been startling. Earlier this year, Fahl’s music was featured in two separate films: She contributed the moving “Going Home” for the Gods and Generals” score, and penned the lyrics for the poignant “The Dawning of the Day” for “The Guys” soundtrack. “Dawning,” in collaboration with composer Mychael Danna, is about the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. The piece brims with melody and raw emotion — bloody, graceful and impassioned –sending the same chill up the spine that the classic “Danny Boy” conjures.
“The Other Side of Time” is a brilliantly conceived album of broad proportions. The music here is varied – with soulful folk-tinged numbers and Celtic-flavored ballads set against a straight ahead Rock and Roll beat. And through it all, Mary Fahl’s voice shines as bright as rain water on the windows at dawn. Stand out tracks include the Gospel-flavored “Redemption,” the softly poetic “Dream of You,” and the mesmerizing “Ben Aindi Habib,” which is based on erotic poetry written by Moorish women in the 11th and 12th centuries. However, the true centerpiece of the record is the wonderful “Paolo.” This love song, driven by Scott Healy’s sweet piano line — mixing the intensity of the late Richard Manual’s style with the subtleties of Carol King’s playing — tells a story of deep loss: the narrator having embarked on a secret journey, exploring the insides of her wounds, remembering this face in the distant past, drowning in the shadows of what once was.
Take a moment and carefully listen to “Paolo,” marking the way the singer’s voice seems to rise all the way to the edges of the sky, the echo of each chorus swelling and gesticulating endlessly: Mary Fahl is on the verge of a long and inspired career.
This interview was conducted by telephone this past spring.
Well, I was born and grew up in a suburb of New York called Rockland County, which is about 45 minutes north of Manhattan. I later went to McGill University in Montreal and studied medieval literature. I also participated in alot of theater while I was a student. After I finished school, I came to New York with the idea of pursuing a career in acting. Because I had this ‘big’ voice, I tried to get into alot of musical theater pieces. But, sadly, I always lost out to the soprano (laughing) …
No, not exactly. Since things weren’t going anywhere with acting, I decided to leave the states and go to Europe with my sister. In truth I was running away, but going to Europe ended up being a great experience. In Holland you could actually check out vinyl records from the library! And I like to say that’s how I got my informal graduate degree in music. I checked out all kinds of records and listened deeply to them. That library was a most wonderful gift for me. After a year and a half in Europe I came home, and shortly afterwards I joined October Project.
In 1989 or 1990. I’d come back from Europe and was considering beginning a post-graduate pre-med program at Columbia. That’s when I met Julie Flanders, who introduced me to her boyfriend, Emil Adler. They were formulating a band –Julie was doing lyrics and Emil was writing music. When I heard his music I felt my voice would go great with his sound, and the band formed from that. We did gigs around New York for a couple of years, and were signed by Epic. We did 2 albums for them, but we never had that one big radio hit, and the label dropped us in 1996.
Well, it seemed pointless to me to stay. I was told in no uncertain terms that I would never be able to write for the band. It was just time to move on. I didn’t want to sing one person’s songs over and over again. I started doing live solo shows in 1998 and 1999, and eventually signed on with Sony Classical.
To a degree, it’s an unconscious thing I guess. I don’t think anybody can help writing in this way. But for me, the melody comes first, and I’ll have fragments of lyrics around, and then I’ll try to fit them together with the help of who ever I might be working with at the time. But I work alot on the melody. I don’t like lazy writing and I don’t write from a riff. I let the melody tell me what the song wants to say. Looking back, I’d say “Paolo” is definitely auto-biographical. I wrote it in 1997, and it came out all at once — melody and lyrics. It came out of my own life, and it also marks the point where I started to gain confidence as a writer. On the record, my favorite piece is still “Ben Aindi Habibi,” it’s so beautiful, so sensual.
That’s kind of hard for me to say. It’s probably easier for another person to trace that. I do love movie music though. And I love that dark German quality you can hear in Nico’s work. I also think I’m very influenced by Tom Petty. As a song writer, he hits those emotional spots and he’s very direct. Petty builds a song a certain way so it hits the bull’s eye emotionally. I also like Joni Mitchell. She’s seminal to song writing in this era, although I don’t write like her. I’m not that confessional. As a writer, I’m always looking for that haunting sound ‘just on the edge of creepiness.’
That’s a good question. There are sources inside you and you have no idea where they come from. My concentration in college was Chaucer. I do like archaic languages and there’s a definite romantic side to me. But I can’t draw any definitive lines. The most important thing for me is that a song must be singable, it must have a melodic nature. And when I’m performing on stage I want it to happen all over again as if I was just writing it.
I am not a classical singer and I have never been trained. I have my own techniques which I use to keep my voice fresh. I have many vocal influences, and I hope the eclectic nature of these influences come through when I’m singing.
Well, I’m really good at doing nothing (laughing). I read alot, and spend alot of time walking my dog. I also have been rehearsing alot lately, organizing for my upcoming tour. And of course always listening to music.
He’s one of Ramsey McLean’s friends and I met Tony through Ramsey a couple of years ago. He’s an exquisite bassist — melodic and tasteful. I love his playing and try to match my players with the songs.
I had heard that Sony Classical was doing the soundtrack for the movie, and I began researching the book on which the film is based. I decided to write a song and submitted it on spec. I wanted to write a song that would fit the film, a simple soldier song with a Celtic tone. I collaborated on it with Glenn Patscha and Byron Isaacs.
Yes, I wrote “The Dawning of the Day” to help tell the story of the firefighters. The Director Jim Simpson wanted it to sound like it had been written 300 years ago, he wanted something in the form of an old Irish hymn. And that’s what I did. I only had two days to write the lyrics, I was literally up for two days straight working on it. I felt I had a responsibility not to make it corny and not to let it fall into cheap sentimentality like a lot of the 9-11 stuff does. Instead, I wanted to really honor these men.
I call it “The Other Side of Time” because it seeks to pull together thematically all of these different things. It pulls together that place in dream and memory where there is no past or present or future, that place where they just co-exist simultaneously.
Mount Shasta may be small – a hamlet hidden away in the far reaches of Northern California – but there’s still some marvelous music being made there, as demonstrated by these varied selections:
SO MUCH MORE. Robin Taylor and Gentle Thunder. Robin Taylor Productions. Robin Taylor is a singer-songwriter from Mount Shasta – a startling talented musician whose work on this record is likely to gain the notice of pop and soft-rock radio jockeys throughout the state. So Much More, like most of Taylor’s music, is piano based and a definite departure from much of the new music hitting the bins – so many records today driven by the hollow grind of guitar, no true mix of textures and tones to draw the listener home.
And that brings us to the true gift of this record and of Taylor’s voice: Through the pearl of song the singer now takes you on a journey through the holy mysteries of sound and echo, this mystical ride through the mists of the netherworld; listen: the half-whispered rivers of a lone voice guided by Gentle Thunder’s drumming, the hollow strains of dulcimer and flute resonating and burning, filling against the sharp fitful edges of the silence:
“Petals on the ground, smell like flowers in my mind
I let you touch me here, where it hurts
Mounted on a white horse, sacred sanctuary
Placed inside me, is the bird, before the sun
Silent stands the knight as he unfolds the scroll,
With the word inscribing shadow’s ancient wall
Revives the hungry echoes
whispers in dark chambers
And now twelve of them, plus one already here,
And oh open the door
Oh for heaven’s landing
Ooh oh open the door
Ooh oh for heaven’s landing.”
“Heaven’s Landing” and “I See You” are absolute standout cuts — love murmurs of the soul, soaring and riveting and sweet, poetic and deep and gripping, they’ll make you want to hit your rewind button over and again as you try to figure out where the beautiful storms of this voice have risen from.
END OF TIME. Tony Burrell. Divine Mountain Music. Guitarist Tony Burrell has been playing music for nearly four decades. And during that time, he’s become a premiere player — this quintessential “session man” whose work brims with a delicate precision: “All of creation is vibration,” says Burrell. ” Sound is vibration [and] I play with tonal qualities that reach everyone’s heart.”
End of Time, a five song sampler recently released by Burrell, shines a big light on this vision, revealing one of the best kept musical secrets in all of California. More than anything, Burrell’s work demonstrates great range, his playing this crisp fusion of Coltrane-inspired jazz and straight ahead rock and roll. When I initially played Burrell’s sampler I heard the sweet mix of the late Michael Bloomfield’s style merging into the acidic rhythms of former Door’s guitarist Robby Krieger – an evolving sound caught half way between the old time wail of the blues and down and dirty grunge rock. “Late For Work” is the standout on the CD — a piece perfectly suited for the dance floor or as background for a motion picture. This sampler only makes us more eager for a full-length record.
See anthonyburrell.com for more information.