by Safet Bektesevic
Sounds, vain sounds of conversations heard and forgotten. The buzz of elevators and revolving doors that never, never stop, beating irregularly like hurting hearts. The unsteady, strident noises from the other side of the street. Do our lives need some more pleasant rhythms, maybe?
Last Thursday the irregular sound of our footsteps had brought us to the Atrium at Lincoln Center for a date that was like a small wrapped gift. Inside, where at times it seemed primarily to be a place of retreat and relaxation in the midst of city hustle and bustle, we encountered stimulating, dazzling notes of Jazz, a genre that one finds in life like all that which, secretly, one needed, but did not expect to find – an oasis or a lost piece of a dream.
Braxton Cook and Jazze Belle had created a parenthesis of unsuspected notes that widens and widens ever since – which, like heartbeats, immediately took possession of the language of our veins. With the music’s vigorous and vibrant dynamics, these two ensembles made us bid farewell to the hum of indistinct sounds lost in uncomfortable silences, to the the grinding noise of elevators and doors, to the pandemonium of the busy hour, and brought us, if only for awhile, to that place that we all have left, but to which we all want to return. Like inadvertent lovers, they took us on a date only to raise before us a spectacle that made us escape from our own arduous routines, and from the incessant, grueling, even maddening march of the typical New Yorker, the one who does not even sit down to heave a sigh of relief.
Let the strident noises in the street be silent, let the arduous race cease for a moment…these great musicians offered us what we longed for without knowing it: a chair for when we were exhausted, a break from the seemingly unbreakable noise of the city (and of life), and music that spoke squarely to our experiences and to the human condition. With these artists’ warm, liquid notes, the atrium revealed itself for what it truly is: an oasis for the urban traveler, where one can regain strength while drinking water in the form of bright, refreshing melodies before returning to one’s post in the frenetic march that takes place on the streets. The memory of the oasis accompanies us, showing us a rhythm in the veins of our wrist, a rhythm that palpitates, that moves us forward, that pursues new possibilities, and that is stronger than any other. At this point, I can only ask myself, “Where is the next oasis at?”
Chris Burton Jacome and Lawson Rollins are both gifted acoustic guitarists with individual voices, each with an innovative, flamenco-inspired approach and a new album out. Jacome imaginatively blends both rock and Middle Eastern melodies within a traditional gypsy flamenco framework, while Rollins brings a biting flamenco edge to his groove-oriented world jazz instrumentals. If flamenco or gypsy guitar is your thing, both of these guys should be on your radar, particularly since each has his best days ahead of him.
Jacome is a feel-good story: as a teenager, he wanted to be Eddie Van Halen, but was happily disabused of that fantasy when he discovered flamenco. He immersed himself in it the old-fashioned way, learning from the source from Roma in Spain. His new album Levanto is a fullscale ballet, a theme and variations complete with dancing – as a purist, he’s continuing a centuries-old tradition that blends music with dance, legend and storytelling. Dynamics are his strong suit: he’s the rare guitarist you actually want to hear more of (lots more of, actually – as with Rollins, he’s sometimes conspicuously absent on his own album). Backed by the vivid, incisive violin of Jennifer Mayer, Adrian Goldenthal on bass, Kristofer Hill on percussion and a trio of brassy vocalists (Chayito Champion, Olivia Rojas and Vanessa Lopez), the group alternate between fiery dance instrumentals, dramatic ballads, poignantly fingerpicked passages and a lot of tap-dancing. Jacome makes artful use of the Arabic hijaz scale as well as interpolating catchy rock passages within the compositions’ stately architecture. The problem is that as an album, the segues are jarring – just when a song seems about to sail joyously over the edge, here come those dancers again. It’s easily solved once you upload the tracks and sequence them yourself (it should be emphasized that fans of oldschool flamenco will have no problem with this; however, a lot of momentum gets lost if you just leave the tracks in their original order). What this really should have been is a DVD – it leaves the impression that there’s a whole side to the spectacle that doesn’t translate if the audio is all you have.
Rollins comes at flamenco as a jazz player with blazing speed and a wealth of original ideas: by the time the fifth track begins, he’s delved into rhumba, samba, Cuban son and back again. Like Jacome, he has an inspired cast of characters behind him including Charlie Bisharat on violin, Dave Bryant on percussion, the great Iranian composer Kayhan Kalhor guesting on kamancheh on one track and Airto Moreira, Flora Purim and their daughter Diana Booker contributing backing vocals. Rollins tosses off one lightning phrase after another, sometimes handing them off to Bisharat, other times to the wryly muted trumpet of Jeff Elliott. He imaginatively works the traditional descending scale of flamenco music in all kinds of new ways, even adding some tersely textural electric guitar beauty to the title track. The highlight of the cd is the triptych at the end, the Migration Suite, upping the ante with biting, Middle Eastern flavored arrangements and motifs. The problem here is the production: when there are horns here, they’re so compressed that they sound like a synthesizer, an effect that compromises all the playing here, even Rollins’. Where the Brazilian vocalists might have been able to contribute something memorable, they’re as buried in the mix as the Jordanaires on an old Elvis record. Even Kalhor gets flattened out. There may be a reason behind this: one of the cuts here was a “most added” track on easy-listening radio earlier in the year. Which on one level is fine, Rollins deserves to be heard – but in a context that does justice to the fire and imagination of his playing, his compositions and the peers he plays with. More than anything, this reminds of the work of another quality guitarist, Peter White, whose series of world music-inspired acoustic instrumental albums about 20 years ago typecast him as an easy-listening, smooth jazz guy rather than the world class player he is.
Lucky Arizonans can see Chris Burton Jacome play the cd release show for this one at the Chandler Center for the Arts, 250 N Arizona Ave. in Chandler on May 2.