Nguyên Lê, Songs of Freedom

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When I was in a shambling improvising group back in the late ‘80s, we played a gig one evening at the old Lunch For Your Ears record store, in SoHo. As we were waiting to start, some incredibly ear-opening, kick-ass music come over the PA. I asked Manny Lunch what the track was, and he said is was “Shobarock,” the first cut on Trilok Gurtu’s new CD, Usfret. With Gurtu’s multi-limbed percussion, Jonas Hellboarg’s heavy bass guitar, Don Cherry’s evocative smears and Gurtu’s mother’s traditional Indian singing, it made a synthesis of the most up-to-date thinking in jazz and rock with world-music in a way that I had never heard before. A generation later, I recall that moment vividly while listening to Nguyên Lê’s Songs of Freedom.

This is almost a great record. Or better said, this is a record full of great musical thinking and playing that has a persistent flaw. Le has realized a bit of the Great Oversoul here, the part that makes pop culture global culture, a set of indirectly shared experiences, desires and pleasures that make us partners in the great experiment of society. He has curated a playlist of worthy hits – songs from The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley – and rethought them from an unselfconsciously globalist standpoint. His arrangements and playing are excellent and have an easy, free-flowing sound. Rather than forcing the juxtaposition of rock, jazz and non-Western musical styles, he accepts the mix as totally normal; all the elements belong together naturally. The flaw is in the singing. The various vocalists hit all the notes and rhythms, but none of them has the oomph this project demands. There’s no funk, there’s no blues, there’s no feeling of weight, experience or meaning. They don’t dilute the music, though, which is beautifully made, and despite my misgivings, I find myself listening to this over and over. You won’t be disappointed.

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