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In the universe known to many of us as “world music,” there have been many efforts at cross pollination: artists bridging musical borders across genres, styles and cultures. Some of the most challenging hybrids have occurred when musicians mixed Western and Eastern — particularly Indian — musics and instrumentation. There have been some notable efforts coming out of the Jazz world over the years.
One of the earliest I knew of was driven by British guitarist John McLaughlin and his Mahavishnu Orchestra in the early 70s and his later group Shakti, an assemblage featuring all Indian musicians in addition to him. Those latter recordings are particularly jaw dropping and in their own way as progressive and challenging as his earlier electric rock-jazz assemblage. Slightly less manic, but no less creative or challenging is the work of Ralph Towner and his group Oregon which blended some Indian instrumentation into works of improvisation that sometimes floated into New Age spaces to oft wonderful result.
Fast forward and now we have Grammy award winning classical guitarist Sharon Isbin releasing a spectacular collaboration exploring Northern Indian classical music. On Strings For Peace she teams up with three master musicians including Sarod legend Ustad Amjad Ali Khan and the results are at once exciting and calming. Unlike McLaughlin’s thrilling Shakti (and later Remember Shakti) projects — which can put the novice listener on edge just listening to their incredible gymnastic feats of musical daring — Strings For Peace finds a more meditative pulse that is satisfying end to end, yet no less brilliant technically.
Its just the approach that is a bit different, with each of the four Ragas bringing you into its environment, like so many beautiful sunrises. One of the hallmarks of this release is how it crosses all these barriers without sacrificing a sense of melody, mystique and mood. In the best way, Strings For Peace draws you into its hourlong journey with virtuosity at every twist and turn.
In the words of Amjad Ali Khan (from the album’s liner notes): ”each of the artists brings the spirit of sharing the great unique treasures of their own artistic traditions, as well as finding common ground in ragas and medieval modes. The idea is to achieve a cross-fertilization at both the cellular and cosmic levels of two classical music traditions, which are often held to be radically different.”
Fidelity wise, Strings For Peace sounds quite fantastic and I suspect the result is a combination of the rich instrumentation and great recording gear as well as a sensitive mix aesthetic. Produced by Isbin, Khan and Kabil Sehgal, the album was recorded in New York at Reservoir Studios. I looked up the studio’s website and had an “ah ha” moment when I saw that they have a vintage Neve mixing board there for tracking. So the sound they captured — assuming they used that board to record on analog tape or high resolution digital formats — was likely processed through those legendary Neve electronics which helps to deliver that rich warm sound. Mixing and Mastering was done at Resound India and there again, an “ah ha” realization: what a smart idea to employ engineers who are likely (and again, I’m guessing here) more experienced with the unique sonic traits of instruments like the Sarod. That perspective may have helped to deliver such a round sound out of a CD.
The combined effect was apparent to me: by the time this music reached its final destination — in my case it was a CD I played on two different Oppo Universal players I own as well as my car stereo — the sound coming out of my speakers was enveloping like a favorite comforter. Don’t expect to hear harsh digital edges here, yet all the instrumentation is distinct and bold, delivering the best of Isbin’s lush nylon string classical guitar against the Sarod’s sparkle and the punchy pulse of a Tabla.
Strings For Peace is proof that a CD can sound good if handled with care. It may even be a demo worthy disc for some of you. My only hope is that at some point we get a higher resolution version, perhaps on Pure Audio Blu-ray Disc. I mean, if this CD sounds this nice at 16-bits and 44.1 kHz, a 96/24 or higher version might sound even more wonderful. Heck, I’d love to hear it remixed into surround sound, personally, putting the listener in the middle between all the musicians. Fingers crossed. Until then I’m more than thrilled to add this CD into my collection and you should too.
At press time there were no plans for Strings For Peace to appear in any of the streaming services. You can and should support the artists by buying their albums as most artist make little from streaming. Click on the title anywhere in this review to jump to Amazon or buy it at your favorite music store.