Daniel Powell 1:30 p.m., Nov. 19
Middle East meets West at the Museum of Making Music
Last night, the Museum of Making Music concert featuring A.J. Racy and David Borgo, titled "Tales Of The Reeds," was a smashing success, drawing a full house of enthusiastic listeners.
Racy, who is a professor of Ethnomusicology at UCLA and a multi-instrumentalist of world renown, opened his set, which was part concert / part demonstration, playing the Minjayrah, a small Lebanese shepherd flute, accompanied by the remarkable percussionist Souhail Kaspar, on Dumbek, a Middle-Eastern hand drum. Racy elicited a thick, breathy tone and a mind-boggling ability to bend and twist notes at every turn. Kaspar made his ceramic bodied drum sound like a combination of bongos, tablas and bass drum all at once.
The reed master continued with a demonstration of the Nay, a classical Arab end-blown reed-flute, by playing a Sufi melody over the Frame drum of Kaspar. While Racy laced the intricate melodic curvature with melisma, Kaspar's frame drum sounded like a double bass drone layered under soft rain on a tin roof. It was amazing how interlocked their constantly shifting rhythmic dynamic came off.
Next up was the Suffayrah a recorder-like, folk whistle flute. Playing a melody from his homeland of Lebanon, what was remarkable was the expert control of vibrato exhibited by the master.
From there, Racy demonstrated how he could make even the smallest folk instrument, or the cheapest plastic toy instrument, wail like an operatic soprano. He delivered compelling expositions on Irish Whistle, a child's Pennywhistle (on which he warbled "Ave Maria" like a Theremin player on acid), and various fruit shaped Ocarinas.
He also displayed his mastery of several Middle Eastern members of the Lute family, the Oud, and the Buzuq.
Especially compelling were his essays on a variety of double-reed, and double-pipe instruments. The double-reeds all exhibited a nasal, shimmering vibrato quality, while the double-pipes featured his astonishing capacity to utilize circular breathing-- enabling one pipe to carry a drone while melodies were exercised on the other.
Kaspar was what really transformed the demonstration into a concert. No matter what drum he was playing, it always sounded like a percussion choir. He even played a couple of tambourines and made then sound like a full drum kit.
After a short intermission, David Borgo and double bassist Rob Thorsen took the stage. Opening with a quirky version of a Sun Ra tune, "Egypt Strut," Thorsen laid down a loping vamp, while Borgo orbited bluesy riffs with occasional multiphonic overtones.
Borgo seemed to be mining the rich area between the works of John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, tone wise, and he even managed to squeeze a quote from the Ellington warhorse, "Caravan," in, for good measure.
Gershiwn's, "The Man I Love," was performed on the Hmong free reed flute, giving it an otherworldly quality, as well as stretching the boundaries of intonation a bit.
Billy Strayhorn's lovely "Isfahan," followed, with Borgo on tenor, choosing to take it at a slow swing, rather than in ballad form. Borgo demonstrated his own unique perspective on vibrato here, reminding me of Coleman Hawkins. Thorsen soloed first, outlining the harmony with grace and assurance, even at the speedy clip in which he conversed.
Borgo brought out a PVC version of the Slovakian overtone flute to begin his original, "Miko" with a short, rubato intro that drew wheezy, ghostly harmonics into the night air, before switching to his gorgeously reverberant soprano saxophone to layer his 'Trane like melody over the dark bowing of Thorsen.
This was Borgo's supreme moment for me. He has a complete mastery over the horn, and when he soloed it was a fascinating blend of the dry vibrato of Steve Lacy with the chirping dynamics of Wayne Shorter.
Racy and Kaspar returned to the stage for the finale, a composition of Racy's called, "Promenade", which served as a sort of West meets Middle East throwdown, ornamented by improvisational solos from all four musicians.
An unannounced encore followed, I'm guessing it was a Lebanese folk tune, based on the unison clapping from the large contingent of Lebanese music lovers in the audience, who suggested, with their tumultuous applause, complete approval.