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Trilok Gurtu with Simon Phillips & the NDR Big Band: 21 Spices

Ian Patterson By

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There's a certain logic underlying the union of percussionist/composer Trilok Gurtu and the NDR Big-band, as both have proved themselves open to musical exploration over the years. Gurtu, in particular, has consistently blurred the boundaries of music, and it is characteristic of his way of thinking to employ Simon Phillips—ostensibly a rock drummer— with a jazz big band, to bring a different groove to the mix. Wolf Kerscheck's stirring arrangements of ten Gurtu compositions are both sympathetic to Gurtu's melting-pot philosophy, and imaginative in their reach, and to this end the arranger deserves equal plaudits for what is a pulsating performance from the 21 musicians who give the CD its title.

Gurtu has long explored a hybrid Indian-African rhythmic vocabulary, notably on his outstanding CD Beat of Love (Blue Thumb Records, 2001), and the African slant is boosted by bassist Michel Abilo's beautifully funky grooves from his native Martinique. His simple, but highly infectious lines lend elasticity to the grooving, Frank Zappa-esque "Broken Rhythm"; the highly melodic refrain and tightly woven section playing, punctuated by Frank Delle's fine bass clarinet solo, makes for an album highlight.

There is tremendous subtlety to Gurtu's playing throughout, though he leaves most of the showboating to others. Saxophonist Lutz Buchner's beautifully crafted solo on the orchestral "Peace of Five" grows from warm lyricism, with the big band acutely hushed, to a rousing climax, buoyed by powerful, glowing ensemble brass and Phillips' tumbling rhythms. NDR trombonist Klaus Heidenreich solos languidly on the swinging "Balahto," and trumpeter Stephen Meinberg's urgent solo on the title track evokes electric-period Miles Davis, an effect also produced by Vladyslov Sebdecki's Rhodes on the rhythmically complex and punchy "Kurek Setra," which provides some of the most exhilarating ensemble playing of the album.

With Phillips and Gurtu working simultaneously at full stretch, it is possible to overlook the subtleties of Gurtu's playing. The powerful sonority of the tabla makes it a natural protagonist at times, but close listening reveals the layers of Indian, African and South American rhythms that infuse the music through Gurtu's employment of repenque, djembe, kanjira and cajon. Nevertheless, this is very much a big-band outing and Gurtu's role is largely subverted to the single voice of the band, playing the role of a wily colorist, rather than that of a one-man rhythm machine.

Roland Cabezas—Gurtu's' guitarist of several years—is employed primarily as a part of the rhythm section, and his fine accompaniment carries the flavor of West Africa, most overtly on the intro to "21 Spices," where he also solos, briefly, but athletically.

Considering that 21 Spices marks Gurtu's' first foray into big-band territory, the results are especially impressive. Highly melodic tunes, vibrant arrangements and strong playing all around combine to produce a winning formula. And, as with all the music Gurtu makes, it is utterly distinctive and difficult to hang a name on, but allow yourself to be seduced and it shouldn't really matter.

Track Listing: Peace of Five; 1-2 Beaucoup; Kuruk Setra; Balahto; Broken Rhythms; Jhulelal; 21 Spices.

Personnel: Trilok Gurtu: percussion and vocal; Simon Phillips: drums; Michel Alibo: bass; Roland Cabezas: guitar; NDR Bigband, conducted by Joerg Achim Keller.

Title: 21 Spices | Year Released: 2011 | Record Label: Art of Groove/Indigo

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