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Dewa Budjana: Zentuary

John Kelman By

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In retrospect, all paths have truly led to this. Four increasingly impressive recordings for Moonjune Records have brought Dewa Budjana together with a variety of high profile, top-drawer jazz musicians from the American west and east coasts. Each successive album, from 2013's Dawai in Paradise through to 2015's Hasta Karma, have found the Indonesian guitarist raising an already high bar with challenging yet eminently accessible compositions that, once the initial tracks were recorded, Budjana subsequently expanded in post-production with contributions by additional musicians from his native country and beyond, in addition to layering his own additional guitars and soundscapes.

Still, while the expansive breadth and depth of Zentuary may have seemed somehow inevitable, nothing could have prepared even the most ardent fan for this impressive collection of twelve new Budjana compositions, delivered by an exceptional core group featuring keyboardist/drummer Gary Husband, bassist Tony Levin and drummer Jack DeJohnette, in addition to the guitarist's largest cast of guests yet. It may be too early to call any album released so recently a masterpiece, but there's little denying earmarks that should, if there's any justice, result in Zentuary being regarded as not just a career high point for a guitarist who demonstrates that great musicianship and vision can be found anywhere in the world...but a true classic in the making.

Budjana's compositions are as detailed, finely honed and richly designed as ever, but Zentuary also features some of his most open-ended work to date. The easygoing groove and singable theme to "Uncle Jack," for example, deceptively bookends an 11-minute collective blowout, where DeJohnette puts down his drum sticks and, bolstered by Husband's equally inimitable kit work, moves to piano for the flat-out freest track of the set. Ebbing and flowing with a chemistry all the more remarkable for a core group of musicians—well-known names all—who have never played together before in any permutation or combination, it's a clear demonstration of Budjana's increasing comfort in such improv-heavy environs.

Still, Budjana—a star in his homeland as a member of Gigi, the rock/pop band together now for more than a quarter century—continues to demonstrate a particular strength in conceptualizing music on a grander scale. Its basic tracks were laid down in Woodstock, NY's Dreamland Studios in January, 2016, but were completed, over the ensuing months, in studio locales from the United States and United Kingdom to Indonesia and the Czech Republic.

If this is starting to sounds more like a James Bond film than a jazz recording, fear not: Budjana's comfort with both the more traditional jazz vernacular and the multiplicity of musical touchstones found at home in Indonesia renders Zentuary an album with broad appeal...but it's still undeniably a jazz record, albeit of the most modern kind. Its irrepressible energy and electrified performances definitely lean towards fusion, despite somehow transcending the high octane, high velocity music that's come to define the genre. Budjana's hailing from the world's largest island country—with more than 13,000 islands and a population of over 260 million people representing approximately 300 distinct native ethnic groups and 742 different languages and dialects—no doubt contributes to Zentuary's compelling suite of pan-cultural compositions, but it's just as much about how they're lifted off the printed page to picturesque life by Budjana, Husband, Levin and DeJohnette.

Zentuary's opener, "Dancing Tear," begins with a soundscape of plaintive vocals layered atop fretless nylon-string guitar and synth bolstered by Husband and Levin's foreboding rhythm section work. But within a mere sixty seconds everything changes as a more frenetic vibe emerges, with Levin's electric upright and Husband's effusive kit work driving a thematic, arpeggio-driven construct clearly referencing John McLaughlin's lifelong west-meets-east explorations...though this time, it's more appropriately east-meets-west.

Budjana takes the first solo, and it's a career-defining turn that still, fuzz-toned and staggeringly virtuosic as it is, never dissolves into flashy excess; instead, it's one of the most impassioned, beautifully constructed solos he's ever delivered—and it's still just Zentuary's first track. If there are any suggestions that his masterful technique is relegated solely to overdriven electric instruments, Budjana immediately follows that solo with a second, this time on nylon-string guitar, building to its own thrilling climax. Husband closes the tune with a synth solo of epic Mahavishnu Orchestra proportions...no surprise, perhaps, given that Husband has been keyboardist and percussionist of choice for over a decade in MO founder John McLaughlin's current 4th Dimension group—which is, coincidentally, in preparation to revisit the Mahavishnu Orchestra's legacy for an upcoming North American tour.

Knotty contrapuntal ideas mesh with the complex polyrhythms that drive Zentuary's largely episodic writing. Zentuary may shine a strong spotlight on Budjana, but it also provides plenty of space for Husband—a musician who first garnered a reputation for his unrelenting virtuosity behind the drum kit, but who has increasingly proven just as impressive on keyboards, whether it's contributing a motif-driven acoustic piano solo to the ferocious "Solas PM" (also featuring fellow Moonjune label mate/soprano saxophonist Danny Markovitch) or mind-bending synthesizer work on the following "Lake Takengon," where DeJohnette assumes Zentuary's drum chair for the first time on the record, demonstrating that as stylistically far-reaching as his reputation has long been considered, at nearly 75 he still has the capacity to surprise in the best of ways.

The album's more aggressive stance finally takes a breather on "Sunikala," with its more ambling groove driven as much by Levin's muscular but spare bass lines as it is Husband's similarly spartan backbeat. Introducing the first of two appearances by the Czech Symphony Orchestra, its lush textures lean more towards a progressive rock feel...no surprise, given Levin's long association with the genre as a member, in addition to his tenure with Peter Gabriel, of all but one King Crimson lineup since 1980. The tune's progressive ambience is further supported by guest guitarist Guthrie Govan, who contributes a solo as viscerally soaring as any of his existing work as a member of the power trio Aristocrats and as a former member of progressive singer/songwriter Steven Wilson's band from 2012-2015, heard on the ex-Porcupine Tree founder's The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories) (Kscope, 2013) and 2015 follow-up concept album, Hand. Cannot. Erase (Kscope), amongst others.

Beyond contributing a wonderfully finger-picked acoustic guitar solo that follows Govan on "Sunikala," the idea that Budjana would recruit such a highly regarded, masterful and evocative guitarist—truly a guitarist's guitarist—into his own project only speaks to the Indonesian's innate humility and desire to do everything possible to serve the music. By this time in his relatively short career on the international jazz scene, he's already well past the need to prove himself, but recruiting a guitarist of Govan's repute is as much a reflection of Budjana the man as it is Budjana the musician.

Levin's reputation has, for the past four decades, been largely in the progressive rock sphere, so it's easy to forget that he first emerged as a jazz bassist in the mid-to-late '60s, with an early career résumé filled with impressive names ranging from Mike Mainieri, Buddy Rich and Deodato to Herbie Mann, Ben Sidran and Gary Burton. Driven by DeJohnette's signature cymbal work and coming before Budjana's own searing, linguistically rich work on "Dear Yulman," the bassist takes a commanding electric upright solo whose lyrical touches, deep-in-the-gut resonance, personal idiosyncrasies and reverence to the heart of the song would be unmistakably identifiable, even if his name wasn't listed in the credits.

If it's true that we are all the confluence of our own lives' experiences, then Levin is but one of Zentuary's many examples of how these exceptional players prove not just capable of bringing any and all of their extant career work to bear, but are equally adept at meeting new contexts head on, in this case Budjana's infusion of Gamelan—though, in Levin's case, his early days in Crimson were informed by this specifically Javanese and Balinese music—and other musical concepts unique to Indonesia.

But it works both ways. Budjana's writing and playing may be inextricably tied to the music of his homeland, but it's equally true that this increasingly exceptional guitarist and composer—who, like many other aspiring guitarists found in countries around the world that may be separated by culture, language, religion and more, must have spent countless hours woodshedding the music of personal heroes—reflects, with Zentuary, a multitude of references including John McLaughlin/Mahavishnu Orchestra as well as the under-the-hood detail of Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays' writing, amongst other inspirations. But what distinguishes this 100-minute, two-disc set of music from previous Moonjune recordings is that, while there's no denying a unique voice that has been emerging with increasing clarity from one album to the next, with Zentuary, Budjana—the writer and the guitarist—has reached the point where his influences may still be felt, but they no longer dominate.

Instead, all the influences that have played a part in shaping Budjana's emerging music have now become subsumed in that very confluence of life experiences that define the guitarist's work. Budjana's writing is stronger than ever, as is his playing, which goes far beyond actual notes played—though his ability to be both pyrotechnic and eminently musical remains specifically impressive—and is, indeed, as much about his astute choices of instruments and/or sonic alterations, whether it's delay, reverb, distortion or even a touch of ring modulation, applied to a variety of electric and acoustic instruments.

The end result—with additional guest appearances from one of Britain's most impressive saxophonists, Tim Garland, alongside fellow Indonesians including vocalists Ubiet and Risa Saraswati, as well as suling flautist Saat Syah—is an album that capitalizes on all the growth and lessons learned with Budjana's previous Moonjune releases. Zentuary is as revolutionary an album for Budjana as Imaginary Day (Warner Bros., 1997) was for Pat Metheny Group, This Land (Nonesuch, 1993) for Bill Frisell, You Never Know for Peter Erskine or Khmer (ECM, 1997) for Nils Petter Molvaer.

If Zentuary represents Budjana's fullest delivery on promises made with Dawai in Paradise, Joged Kahyangan, Surya Namaskar and Hasta Karma, this career milestone also portends new promises upon which this increasingly impressive guitarist, composer and bandleader will, no doubt, continue to deliver in the years to come.

Track Listing: CD1: Dancing Tears; Solas PM; Lake Takengon; Sunikala; Dear Yulman; Rerengat Langit (Crack in the Sky). CD2: Pancaroba; Manhattan Temple; Dedariku; Ujung Galuh; Uncle Jack; Zentuary.

Personnel: Dewa Budjana: all guitars, soundscapes; Tony Levin: electric upright NS Design bass (CD1#1-5, CD2#1-5), Chapman Stick (CD1#6); Gary Husband: drums (CD1#1-2, CD1#4, CD1#6, CD2#1, CD2#4-5); keyboards and acoustic piano (CD1, CD2#1-4); Jack DeJohnette: drums (CD1#3, CD1#5, CD2#2-3), acoustic piano (CD2#5); Danny Markovitch: curved soprano saxophone (CD1#2, CD2#4); Tim Garland: tenor saxophone (CD2#2); Guthrie Govan: guitar solo (CD1#4); Saat Syah: custom-made Indonesian suling flute (CD1#6, CD2#3); Ubiet: vocals (CD1#3); Risa Saraswati: vocals (CD1#6); Czech Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Michaela Růžičková: orchestra (CD1#4, CD2#6).

Title: Zentuary | Year Released: 2016 | Record Label: Favored Nations

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