, or thumb piano, is the classic instrument of Zimbabwe. It consists of approximately 20 to 24 flattened metal prongs which are fastened at one end to a wooden resonator body and has a chiming, cyclical sound. Many jazz musicians have explored the possibilities of the mbira, from bassist William Parker to Israeli saxophonist Assif Tsahar and multi-instrumentalist Peck Allmond, but nobody had turned the mbira into their main instrument like self-taught West Coast musician Richard Crandell.
Crandell, 62, released several albums of his original music for guitar in the eighties, has played with fingerstyle guitar masters such as John Fahey and Leo Kottke, and learned mbira tuning from Zimbabwean Ngoni Makombe, a mbira player in Thomas Mapfumo's band, to whom he dedicated this disc. In the liner notes he chooses to emhpasize that he shares his birthday with Eric Clapton, Celine Dion, Norah Jones, and Vincent Van Gogh, curiously enough.
On his first Tzadik disc, Mbira Magic, Crandell explores his modified mbira as an instrument that fits beautifully within the sound worlds of minimalist composers like Terry Riley and Phillip Glass. He uses the multitracked instrument for improvised tapestries on constantly repeated phrases, without any real linear progression of the tunes, as on the opening track "Eleven"; and composes childlike melodies, like the one on "Message from Mozart" and the closing track "Bolivian Lullaby." But the most captivating tracks are the three collaborations with percussionist Cyro Baptista, who accompanies Crandell in a restrained manner. Baptista supplies a propulsive rhythm to "Steelhead," adds gentle resonating bells to the hymn-like "Bells," and plays hand percussion on "The Island," a fascinating improvisation on a chord progression.
Mbira Magic offers a fresh reflection on the great tradition of this ancient and simple instrument, but also on its endless possibilities in the hands of a mature musician like Crandell.
Personnel: Richard Crandell- mbira; Cyro Baptista- Percussion (tracks 2, 5 and 6)