Reviews

Various Artists
The Real Bahamas Volumes I & II
(Nonesuch)

Three decades ago, in the days before world music was called such, the Elektra Nonesuch label created the Explorer Series, releasing several dozen LPs that took listeners around the globe. The forays to such little-known but musically fertile sites as Peru and Bali tickled the imaginations of mind-expanded flower children, the same demographic that, grown and with a greatly expanded buying power, would eventually fuel a profitable music-industry niche built around consuming world cultures one shiny aluminum-plated disc at a time.

Back in 1965 two of those baby boomers, Jody Stecher (now a San Franciscan guitar teacher and recording artist) and Peter Siegel (who went on to found his own New York-based label), made a trip to the Bahamas, a newly independent country a hundred or so miles east of Florida, to capture their own recordings in the field. Among black Bahamians they found a music hard to categorize but easy to like, based in Protestant hymns and spirituals and sea chanteys but gently syncopated in folksy settings evocative of the West African origins of the island nation's majority race. The fruit of their recording sessions, two volumes titled The Real Bahamas and released in 1966 and 1978, showcased an entrancing, intimate song style different from the more familiar "Banana Boat" sound of pop calypso and the saucy danzons of Cuba.

Best-known of the Bahamians was Joseph Spence, a stonemason, former sponge fisherman, and eccentric man-about-Nassau, who later, because of releases on this and other American labels, became a cult idol to such guitarists as Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal. Spence's extraordinarily virtuosic and eccentric "talking" guitar style, accompanying his low, gravelly voice, appears on several of the tracks, notably "Don't Take Everybody to Be Your Friend" and "Mary and Joseph."

Seemingly unique to the Bahamas is the rhyming spiritual, a form based on West African call-and-response. On the Bahamas collection, Frederick McQueen and friends perform a fascinating variant. With both "Sheep Know When Thy Shepherd Calling" and "Out on the Rolling Sea," McQueen improvises a rapid, intoxicating rap on the biblical themes while the songs' refrains are repeated by his fellow singers. The spirituals sung by Sam and Bruce Green evoke the mysteries of early American gospel recording groups like the Mitchell Singers.

Stecher's updated liner notes and Guy Droussart's luminous photographic portraits reflect the fortunate devotion of a handful of non-Bahamians to a Caribbean folk form, most of whose practitioners have since died. The respect that the young amateur musicologists brought to their project is obvious also in the ingenuous presentation of the music: There are sparklings of laughter and spoken commentary and plenty of musical "mistakes," none of which distracts from the recordings. In fact, the absence of cloying studio overproduction and dancehall enhancements is part of what distinguishes this reissue from much of the more recently recorded world music. It just may return aging flower children and younger explorers of good sounds and feelings to a happier time and place.

-- Jeff Kaliss

Miya Masaoka Trio
Monk's Japanese Folk Song
(Dizim)

Everywhere you look someone is revamping tunes by bebop iconoclast Thelonious Monk. Pianist Marcus Roberts, longtime cohort of archconservative Wynton Marsalis, has certified Monk's genius among the Lincoln Center elite. High-octane avant-gardists Junk Genius have documented the majesty of Monk for post-punk jazzheads. Even the legendary pianist's son, T.S. Monk, recently overhauled his dad's repertoire with stylish big-band readings.

Fine efforts one and all. None, however, matches the Miya Masaoka Trio's ability to render Monk's tuneful simplicity in all its idiosyncratic depth. Local hero Masaoka plays the 21-string koto, a traditional Japanese zither that sounds something like a harp with the warmth and expressive nuances of a classical guitar. From a technical vantage, the unwieldy instrument is ill-designed to meet the challenges of Monk's angular phrasing, unusual intervals, and dissonant chord clusters. But on Monk's Japanese Folk Song, Masaoka manages to breathe life into the artist's songbook -- via the koto -- with a surprising naturalness.

Like traditional Japanese musicians, Monk made keen use of silence and space in his compositions. Masaoka exploits this connection by hinging her arrangements on the pauses between the notes. Pregnant with tension, the non-playing instants beget a bracing moment-to-moment anticipation for the listener. Ultimately, familiar melodies like "Epistrophy," "Evidence," and the classic "'Round Midnight" resolve in imaginative, unexpected ways. Yet the songs retain their fundamental essence throughout.

"Monk's Mood" is especially riveting. Light-years removed from the composer's 1947 recording, Masaoka's translation skews the tempo (by slowing down or speeding up unpredictably) and the harmony (by apparently giving world-class bassist Reggie Workman carte blanche to flesh out the bottom end). Despite its clear departure from the original, this free-feeling duet invokes the spirit of Thelonious Monk. Workman's sudden bolts into the upper register echo Monk's quirky flash, while Masaoka's impeccable timing and bent blue notes distill the deep rumination and anxious urgency rumbling beneath the composer's funky exterior.

For Monk, every note is invariably connected according to the intrinsic logic of each piece of music. The Masaoka Trio clearly understands that to know Monk is to know the song.

-- Sam Prestianni

 
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