Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble. Sony Masterworks 88883 71092 2.
Remarkably, as of this writing the Silk Road Ensemble has been in business for some fifteen years. How is that possible? I just reviewed their first album only...some fifteen years ago. Anyway, as you probably know, and quoting from their Web site, “Inspired by the cultural traditions of the historical Silk Road, the Silk Road Project is a catalyst promoting innovation and learning through the arts. Our vision is to connect the world’s neighborhoods by bringing together artists and audiences around the globe.”
They are “an internationally minded performing arts nonprofit with cultural and educational missions to promote innovation and learning through the arts. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma founded the Project in 1998 taking inspiration from the historical Silk Road trading routes and using the Silk Road as a modern metaphor for sharing and learning across cultures, art forms and disciplines.”
Further, “The Silk Road Ensemble draws together distinguished performers and composers from more than 20 countries in Asia, Europe and the Americas. Since the Ensemble formed under the artistic direction of Yo-Yo Ma in 2000, these innovative artists have eagerly explored contemporary musical crossroads. Their approach is experimental and democratic, founded on collaboration and risk taking, on continual learning and sharing. Members explore and celebrate the multiplicity of approaches to music from around the world. They also develop new repertoire that responds to the multicultural reality of our global society.”
There have been up to sixty members of the Silk Road Ensemble, but most of them do not work together at the same time. The lineup of musicians on the current album, A Playlist Without Borders, includes Kinan Azemeh, clarinet; Jeffrey Beecher, bass; Mike Block, cello and voice; Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz, oud, acoustic and electric bass; Nicholas Cords, violin; Sandeep Das, tabla; Patrick Farrell, accordion; Johnny Gandelsman, violin; Joseph Gramley, percussion; Colin Jacobsen, violin; Siamak Jahangiry, ney; Kayhan Kalhor, kamancheh; Dong-Won Kim, percussion; Yo-Yo Ma, cello; Wu Man, pipa; Cristina Pato, piano, gaita; Shane Shanahan, percussion; Mark Suter, percussion; Wu Tong, sheng, bawu, suona; and Kojiro Umezaki, shakuhachi.
Obviously, the program of A Playlist Without Borders contains varied items representing varied countries and cultures. There are seven items involved, totaling a healthy seventeen tracks and seventy-six minutes of music. You may not like all of it, but there’s a little something in here for everyone.
The first selection is one of the longest, "Playlist for an Extreme Occasion," an eight-movement piece by jazz pianist and composer Vijay Lyer. It begins with a vibrant rhythmic thrust and then moves on to a number of other dance forms and variations. Lyer says he wanted the music "to connect with audiences in any situation and communicate a real joy in creating music in the moment." Thus, there is a sort of infectious improvisational jazz style to the largely up-tempo tunes. They're easy to like.
"Night Thoughts" by Wu Man uses several percussive and wind instruments to produce a distinctively airy and meditative sound. "Saidi Swing" by Shane Shanahan uses a traditional Arabic rhythm that is quite invigorating. And so it goes through the rest of the tracks, with traditional Turkish, Iranian, Gypsy, and even Cajun music.
The final number on the program, called "Briel," is by avant-garde American composer John Zorn. It's one movement from his longer "Book of Angels," and while it is hardly what we might call "classical," it has a definitely cinematic feel to it, beginning in a kind of Native American mode and then turning to any number of other influences including Jewish klezmer and conventional jazz. It is probably the most joyous track on the album. I'd liked to have heard more of it.
The Silk Road Project, Inc. made the recording for Sony Masterworks at Futura Studios, Roslindale, Massachusetts in March 2013. The sound is relatively close and well delineated, but not exactly natural in terms of width or depth. It's a little more pop oriented than that. Still, the definition is fine, without being forward or aggressive, and there is a pleasantly warm acoustic bloom around the instruments. Frequency response, dynamic range, and transient impact seem adequate to the occasion.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here: