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Tuesday Reviewsday: ancient Tuvan throat singing meets beat-boxing

Beatboxer and musician Shodekeh (left) performs with members of the Alash Ensemble
Beatboxer and musician Shodekeh (left) performs with members of the Alash Ensemble

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Every week we get a preview of new music for the week. This week music journalist Steve Hochman stopped by and offered these picks. 

Matt Wilson

Album: “Honey and Salt”

There are three words not often, if ever, heard together: Carl Sandburg swings! But swing he does in Matt Wilson's new offering, “Honey and Salt.”

It's a new album placing Sandburg’s words in jazz settings, some sung by Dawn Thomson, a vocalist and guitarist in Wilson’s ace quintet, and others spoken to the music. One in particular is actor Jack Black giving a reading of the Pulitzer poet’s “Snatch of Sliphorn Jazz” over some zig-zaggy soprano sax. Others that appear are some of jazz’s top musicians and composers, taking strictly talking turn here: Bill Frisell, Carla Bley, Christian McBride, Joe Lovano, John Scofield and Rufus Reid.

Wilson is known for trying a lot of different things in his career. But this one is really different. Especially different for anyone who only knows Sandburg for his succinct “Fog” portrayal (it “comes on little cat feet”) and, in a musical context, Aaron Copland’s stately settings of his “Lincoln Portraits” from his loving biography of the president.

Some of it recalls what others over the years have done with the words of Jack Kerouac or Allen Ginsburg. Sandburg was around at the time of the Beats, but few would associate him with that world. Yet he was ahead of those times, having fashioned himself a colorful folk singer, songwriter and song collector as far back as the 1920s. He was every bit the modernist, a chronicler of 20th century America, his poetry both playful and succinct, equally able to cast a light on the epic sweep of the nation as to spotlight the epic nature of the tiniest detail, all with just a few, perfectly chosen words. In Wilson’s astute vision, he’s much closer to Lord Buckley than Alfred Lord Tennyson. 

That vision is something Wilson has been working on it, arguably, for his whole life, but seriously for about 20 years. Wilson titled his first album as a leader, “As Wave Follows Wave,” for a Sandburg poem, and he set another poem, “Wall Shadows,” to original jazz back in 2003. “Honey and Salt” — the title coming from a 1963 Sandburg poetry collection — has its seeds in a 2002 Chamber Music American New Works Grant.

Fittingly, this is modern music, not just some Beat-era revival novelty. Sure, some (as cited) references that, but the reach is broad, stylistically, from the muted country tones of “Offering and Rebuff” (evoking those rustic midwestern roots) to the Cubist march of “Choose” (evoking Stravinsky, whose musical innovations launched the 20th century’s sensibilities that found their way into Sandburg’s writing). The yearning ballad  “I Sang,” featuring Thompson, sounds like it came from a Broadway classic. And then there’s the beloved “Fog.” The reading is by Sandburg himself, from a 1957 recording, which by the way won a spoken word Grammy. The accompaniment is just the skittering drums of devotee Wilson, matching the inherent rhythm of the words portraying those little cat feet — little hepcat feet.

Trio Da Kali and Kronos Quartet

Album: “Ladilikan”

With this bracing collaboration, the mercurial American ensemble Kronos Quartet and the Malian group Trio Da Kali have some “words of advice.” That’s the translation of the album’s title, “Ladilikan,” the title song being based on an American gospel song, “I’m Gonna Live the Life I Sing About In My Songs,” recorded in the 1950s by Mahalia Jackson.

“The words of advice the we sing in out songs - let us put them into practice!” sings Da Kali’s Hawa Kassé Mady, in her native Bambara language, with Fodé Lassana Diabaté’s balafon, an ancient African xylophone, and Mamadou Koutaté’s bass ngoni, a stringed instrument often cited as an antecedent of the banjo, blending perfectly with the Kronos’ crew’s violins, viola and cello.

The practice of the Kronos Quartet in its 44 years of existence has been constantly to redefine what a “classical” string quartet is and does, or more so to completely ignore the term “classical,” or any other genre label. And even after all this time it’s doing so at a furious pace — this album comes just months after “Folk Songs,” a set of American and English traditional songs with singers Rhiannon Giddens, Sam Amidon and Olivia Chaney singing. The practice of Trio Da Kali is much the same in regards to their Mandé culture’s griot traditions going back many centuries, arguably “classical” music as well.

But as that title song and its expansive nature so clearly, and compellingly demonstrates, the teaming even defies whatever expectations might be held for the combining of their approaches. This is not merely Mande songs with a string quartet — as worthwhile as that would be, and several pieces here hewing closer to that are sparkling in their shifting mixtures of bright colors and somber shadows, the precise pointillism of the balafon against the sinewy melisma of the strings, brought out vividly in arrangements by regular Kronos partner Jacob Garchik.

The true magic here, though, happens with songs that explore the routes of music from West African to the Americas, highways as active today, culturally, as ever. Much of this, of course, is in the language of gospel and blues. This comes with profound effect in the dark-hued bluesiness of “Garaba Mama,” anchored in West Africa, but reaching across oceans and across time. And on “God Shall Wipe Away the Tears,” originating as a 1930s African-American gospel song, it’s as if every tear shed in the unspeakably hard, tragic journey behind it is turned into shimmering light.

In the traditional Mandé song “Eh Ya Ye” Mady sings more words of advice (many songs in that tradition have that nature). With the musicians together setting a backdrop of  stern concern, she tells of a healer’s attempt to conjure spirits, foiled by his own lies. “It is bad to exceed your limits,” she sings, again in Bambara. With this album, though, any limits to the exciting combination of these creative forces have not even been revealed — if there are any.


Album: “Achai”

Let’s assume this is not the first time that Tuvan throat singing has been called “ancient Central Asian beatboxing,” with its mix of growling, whistling and rhythmic onomatopoeia, ofter all at once from just one performer, astonishingly. But perhaps it’s the first time that beatboxing has been called “hip-hop throat singing.”

In any case, what stands out most in the collaboration between the group Alash, which performs the centuries-old styles of its native Tuva, and Shodekeh, a Baltimore artist schooled in the decades-old art of beatboxing, is how naturally the sounds work together. 

That ancient-modern, local-global connections are not new for Tuvan musicians, even preceding the “discovery” by western ethnomusicologists.  Alash is deeply inspired by the legacy of their mentor, Kongar-ool Ondar, arguably the most prominent figure in Tuvan music of the past generation, he took the music around the world and brought music back with him until his too-early death at age 51 in 2013. 

Alash continued that legacy, working with such Western artists as Bela Fleck and, in 2013, becoming the first Tuvan group to perform at Carnegie Hall.