As we come upon a new year (and new decade), many music enthusiasts are constructing their “Best of 2019” lists. I decided to try something different. Here’s a non-hierarchical, subjective list of some of the albums, books, and other learning opportunities that inspired my own musical journey over the year. This will be the first of 3, picking out 4 albums in the “eclectic strings” category (outside the realm of classical violin performance) that were particularly inspiring to me.
SistaStrings – Lift (Magik Family Records):
SistaStrings is a Milwaukee-based violin and cello duo made up of Monique and Chauntee Ross They are trained with high levels of classical technique, but also have deep roots in gospel and neo-soul, and are putting all those pieces together to play and sing their way into totally redefining what “chamber music” looks and sounds like.
Lift, the duo’s premier recording opens with “Shea Butter Dreams,” which grabs my attention right away with bass line from a plucked cello dancing around bird-like trills from the violin, creating a complex yet memorable loop for this Brahms-meets-Lizzo groove of joy and empowerment, with rich vocal harmonies layered on top. Both vocally and through their instruments, this two-person orchestra and gospel choir are deeply in sync with each other. This especially shows through their creative reinterpretation of “Deep River,” that (with a little help from Schubert) turns the familiar spiritual into an achingly beautiful journey of longing for a better world.
Emily Wells – This World is Too _____ For You (Thesis and Instinct):
Evocative and pathos-filled violin solos are just one of the tools in the arsenal of multi-instrumentalist Emily Wells. Her one-of-a-kind musical sound gracefully blends acoustic and electronic music, putting on a one-woman show that takes the listener on a journey through almost every conceivable emotion. Her latest project is this 10-song album commissioned for the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Music Series, and offers a creative, thoughtful, and empathic response to the crises facing the world today
This World is Too _____ For You is among the most emotionally engaging pieces of music I’ve heard in a while. Wells alternates between sparse and minimalist musical landscapes and very dense musical loops – and then masterfully blends it with a voice and violin packed full of emotion. On songs like the gorgeously chill “Come on Doom, Let’s Party,” or the frantic classical hip-hop blend of “Rock n Roll Man” it’s easy to lose track of all the different musical sounds coming at all you all at once. Yet, together with everything works as a holistic sonic experience.
The beauty is all the more intensified by lyrics and multimedia that create a thoughtful meditation on the links between environmental degradation and how these issues intersect with other problems the world is facing. Issues of feminism, climate change, LGBT rights, violence, and poverty are touched upon through an agenda of liberation and justice, made poetic and personal. In “Your Apocalypse Was Fab,” (a Tori Amos reference) she creates fluttering, non-melodic violin parts suggestive of insects over the lines “play now, play now, play now, you pay later for price of this sin.” Which I take to mean, our consumerist society is consuming the earth (and each other) in harmful ways without considering how the consequences will affect us later. A far better way of living would be to be empathic and connected to each other and the earth – and it’s a way Wells’ lush and beautiful orchestration makes very enticing.
Che Apalache – Rearrange My Heart (Free Dirt Records)
North Carolinian fiddler Joe Troop moved to Buenos Ares, Argentina in 2010, and started a four-piece string band called Che Apalache (literally “Appalachian Friend”) with local musicians Pau Barjau (banjo), Franco Martino (guitar) and Martin Bobrik (mandolin). According to the band’s website, Troop originally intended to introduce bluegrass and old-time fiddle to his South American friends and students. However, this album demonstrates that the cross-cultural learning has gone both ways, as the band artfully and creatively links classic bluegrass string band sounds with elements from a variety of Latin American musics.
The best musical fusions are dialogues between equals, with multiple voices each contributing something and maintaining their own dignified distinction even as the final product becomes something totally unique. The highly skilled musicians of Che Apalache accomplish this goal very well – carefully replicating a variety of styles of music while allowing the mix to become a thrilling never-heard-before spin on those traditions. “María” starts out with polyrhythmic fiddle chops and guitar kicking off a tango. The plucked banjo and mandolin feel completely at home underneath call-and-response vocals very suggestive of tango masters like Carols Gardel. But then, seemingly out of nowhere, the groove shifts and slows down and we are treated to a masterful gypsy jazz inspired violin solo, which has to change very little while the banjo brings us back to Argentina with the initial groove and the musicians use their instruments as drums as the singing returns. Bill Monroe and company created bluegrass by brining influences from jazz and blues into old-time American fiddle music. That initial goal of learning from diverse musical elements and ideas while still being rooted in a folkloric tradition has been updated to make a very timely statement on the need to bring music and cultures together, and it makes for a very exciting musical project.
Michael Cleveland – Tall Fiddler (Compass Records)
Highly celebrated (including winning International Bluegrass Music Association’s Fiddler of the Year Award 11 times) bluegrass fiddle-player Michael Cleveland doesn’t mess around. He approaches all of his solos with breathtaking virtuosity, speed, and musicality that provides a textbook case in how to demonstrate a high degree of skill without sacrificing musical expression, or play quickly and maintain a pure tone. But even as someone familiar with him through humbling yet inspiring videos of Cleveland performing concerts and jams, this album blew me away for how “perfect” so many of the musical moments and fiddle solos were.
With just a few seconds of long double stop drones, “Arkansas” (composed by Flatt and Scruggs’ fiddler Jim Shumate) takes us off to the races. The A part of this tune features short, syncopated shuffle reflective of old-time fiddle, while the B part has a sudden jump to 3rd position and a clean “classical” tone. Through his improvised variation, Cleveland masterfully jumps between these two timbres on a moment’s notice, playing them both with a perfectly clear tone. This is playing that both makes me tap my toes and blows me away with the talent.
While this is a solo record, there are many masterful musicians, including some of the most celebrated names in bluegrass, and Cleveland is mindful of giving everyone an opportunity to demonstrating their talents. In “20 Cent Cotton and 90 Cent Meat,” Tim O’Brian bridges the gap between traditional old-time and modern bluegrass, his voice and mandolin grabbing your attention, while the fiddle, even as a background instrument, shines with amazing lines.
More coming soon! In the meantime, get just a taste of these and other notable recordings of the past year through this playlist: (and if you think there’s anything I missed – reach out to me and let me know!)