Drummer-led albums can be somewhat pale affairs. After all, the ability to swing hard and play various grooves does in itself not necessarily suffice to create well-rounded, highly personal pieces of music. Climbing the Banyan Tree, though, is different. It is all about melody, the central element in bandleader Momin's approach to drums.
Rather than more or less enthusiastically swaying through his parts in set tempos, Momin builds up tension by pulling back and forth his time, in the way of a singer or a violin player. Hunched over his carefully tuned drum kit and various percussion items, he concentrates on building a dynamic scope of attack and tone shaping. As such he follows a path that before him has been trodden by people like Andrew Cyrille (who was one of Momin's teachers) and, within a somewhat more traditional framework, Chico Hamilton.
Through the efforts of Momin's sidemen (Shanir Blumenkranz on bass and oud, Jason Hwang on violin) the combination of instruments works very well together. With the percussion weaving in and out, oud and arco violin freely circle around each other, as do bass and pizzicato violin, the pizzicato violin at times assuming the function of the oud. The oud is a fretless Arabic lute, which carries an age-old, highly respectful musical tradition in the Near East.
In the local way of making music each musician organizes his part from the same melody, depending on the characteristics of his instrument. Intonation then becomes an art in itself, giving way to much more melodic subtlety than is possible in the rather clunky Western well-tempered system, as exemplified in any given keyboard instrument.
One could compare the basic approach of these musicians to this Arabic concept of performing, albeit with a much more free sense of improvising. Hwang's very musical glissandos and skillful intonation only deal with the terror of well-tempered tuning when he feels like it. As such, his well-versed playing skills dip into the full potential of his instrument. Blumenkranz keeps his bass and oud parts a bit more close to the ground, but very effective and musical nonetheless.
As the great Willie Dixon remarked, Arabic music has the same feel as blues. One might describe this music as highly improvised Oriental blues.
Although Momin's compositions at times suffer from a triadic simplicity which goes a bit too far beyond plain folksy, these players are so well versed in the concepts of improvisation that they don't let a minor detail like that inhibit them.
Climbing the Banyan Tree is a pearl of a record, as unassuming as it is beautiful. Idiosyncratic as the basic idea may sound, from its extended improvisational stylings it manages to present us through its universal bluesiness with a deeply enjoyable, high quality listening experience.
Track Listing: 1.Dai Genyo; 2.Weeping statue; 3.Instance of memory; 4.Peace for Kabul; 5. Gyarah; 6.Song at dusk; 7.String drum tarana; 8.Gathering; 9.Parting with a view
Personnel: Ravish Momin-drums, percussion, voice, percussion;
Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz-bass, oud;
Jason Kao Hwang-violin.