Global Beat Fusion: Flutes, Pianos, and Otis Redding

The first time I really experienced the largeness of little was while watching Morphine perform at Rutgers University in 1994. The deceptively simple configuration of bass, drums, and saxophone exploded into a variety of textures and colors, so thickly entwined and sonically confident that I was hard put to believe an orchestra was not hidden behind the stage. Since that time, I've come across a number of musicians who know how to make much of little; with his quintet Brass Ecstasy, trumpeter Dave Douglas has done just that, mining the southern brass traditions to create Spirit Moves (Greenleaf).

Joined by trombone, French horn, tuba, and drums, Douglas's eleven songs--eight originals and three covers--offer a nice array of downbeat blues and uptempo bangers. His take on Hank Williams's "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" is a slow swinger, a generous offering honed by an expert craftsman. The rollicking beat on "This Love Affair," paying homage to Rufus Wainwright, opens the record beatifically. Perhaps the most inventive cover, Otis Redding's "Mister Pitiful," Douglas offers a tribute to what he believes to be one of the greatest horn lines in a pop song. His cover does justice to the original. His personal songwriting is, as expected from such a prolific composer, equally enthusiastic and gratifying.

One of the true joys of music journalism is receiving that unexpected package, containing an artist I was unfamiliar with that blows my mind. Enter Laurence Hobgood. The pianist has been around for some time, playing with vocalist Kurt Elling since 1995. His latest recording, When the Heart Dances (Naim Jazz), features Elling on three tracks, and bassist Charlie Haden, whom I am very familiar with, on all but two songs, the solos "Sanctuary" and "Leatherwood." Most of the album is Hobgood and Haden, the latter playing a dependable counterpart to Hobgood's gorgeous playing, completely relinquishing any sign of ego for the more youthful pianist to display his most exceptional talents.

And yet, sucker that I am for vocals, it's the Elling tracks--"First Song," "Stairway to the Stars," and the winsome, heartbreaking "Daydream"--that I return to again and again. The last time I came across a vocalist that struck me in this manner was when newcomer Sachal Vasandani released the stunning Eyes Wide Open in 2007. It's no wonder Elling has been nominated for eight Grammys, and no wonder that he became tight with Hobgood: they capture you, absorb your attention, become close friends to your playlists from the day they enter.

The day Hobgood's album arrived, another sleeper showed up: Gary Stroutsos's Within You Without You (White Swan). I have a personal vendetta against both the concept and the execution of New Age, one we can thank (or blame) William Ackerman for. The guitarist had good intentions when self-releasing In Search of the Turtle's Navel in 1975, but the monstrosity it created--namely, Windham Hill--helped this musical "style" underlie any sappy, over-sentimentalized acoustic-guitar and flute driven album recorded since. Add to the fact that flautist Stroutsos is covering the famous Beatles song as George Harrison intended it--as a raga--and I was worried.

Yet I promised myself some time ago to listen to every album that comes across my desk, and I do, all twenty or so a week these days. Some I admittedly skim; others, like Hobgood, and then Stroutsos, keep me tuned in. Integrating bamboo flute, cello, and clay udu drums into the mix, Stroutsos offers an elegant tribute to the most Eastern seeking of the Fab Four. The remaining eight songs are worthy of mention, as yes, it is an album suited for meditation and relaxation, and in that context it works wonderfully. I enjoy his "Journey into Stillness," but even more so the title track, which keeps appearing in my iPhone as I walk through the less meditative (though equally inspired) streets of Brooklyn.

Straddling these many worlds is Italian composer and pianist Ludovico Einaudi, a diverse musician whose catalog ranges from very poppy and sometimes cheeky piano-pop to heart-wrenching classical performances. Whitetree (not of Gondor, but of Milano and Berlin) is his foray into electronics, produced with the Lippok brothers, Robert and Ronald. Their debut, Cloudland (Ponderosa Music & Art), points to Varese and Stockhausen for historical context, treating technology as waves and sheets of sound, very tasteful addendums to the pre-established classical tradition. Einaudi knows the tricks of his trade, and so attempts to break from it. This is not a rare occurrence; still, the men and women who aptly pull off the feat are worth honoring. Einaudi and friends well deserve the accolade.