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Memphis Flyer Turn Up That Noise

By Stephen Grimstead

APRIL 17, 2000: 

Ian Anderson The Secret Language of Birds, (Fuel 2000)

Pretty and plush. Pastoral, too. Yet, heads up. Quite a bit like the jaunty, acoustic moments which punctuate Jethro Tull's immortal Thick As a Brick and other Tull gems like Heavy Horses. If you are a fan of that side of his band's musical output, then Ian Anderson's new solo release should satisfy nicely.

Devotees will instantly relate to the album's updated version of the English folk tradition, which long ago became Anderson's trademark style. The inspired instrumental performances, graceful lyric writing, squeaky clean production, and abiding intelligence come together seamlessly to make The Secret Language of Birds one of the most civilized collections I've encountered. Anderson has succeeded in creating the sort of music that makes you feel smarter, more highly evolved, and cleaner than you felt before hearing it.

As to the album/song title, Anderson notes that "birds are the not-so-silent witnesses to what goes on behind windows with partly drawn curtains, and that intrigued me as a notion for a song." Always the adroit wordsmith, in "The Secret Language of Birds" he poetically drapes the wooing process in a becoming garment of well-written lyrics: "Lie in the stillness, window cracked open/Extended moments, hours for the taking/Careless hair on the pillow, a bold brushstroke/Painted verse with a chorus in waiting/Stay with me and learn the secret language of birds." "Panama Freighter" finds a like-minded protagonist engaged in the same pursuit, this time in a foreign scenario. In a deft swipe at the outmoded arrogance of Empire, the English fellow gives these assurances to his prospective lover: "Don't intend to dress you in silver threads, like some trophy in sublime seclusion/Won't try to educate or civilize you."

Anderson's mongrel flute technique has never sounded more mature, organic, or robust. And, of course, he still has a way with the acoustic guitar, mandolin, and other non-electric instruments. (Very honorable mention goes to Andrew Giddings, whose performances on accordion, piano, marimba, and various "orchestral sounds" do much to add sparkle to this gorgeous set.)

There are two good bonus tracks included here. "In the Grip of Stronger Stuff," which was originally released on Anderson's Divinities: Twelve Dances With God (an instrumental album that came out in 1995), and a slightly subdued version of the first couple of minutes from the aforementioned epic, Thick As a Brick. I'm not quite clear as to the reasoning behind the inclusion of these tracks, but their presence certainly does nothing to diminish the CD's merit.


Turtle Island String Quartet Art of the Groove (Turtle Island)

The wonderful and exhilarating Kronos Quartet have probably logged considerably more limousine mileage and accrued more PBS Brownie points, but there's a somewhat bigger place in my heart reserved for the noticeably funkier Turtle Island String Quartet.

Like Kronos, TISQ's various incarnations have bent furnace-forged categories and messed with smug preconceived notions since the '80s, and the present crew shows no sign of letting up anytime soon. If there are predictable characteristics associated with this group, those are the consistent high quality of their work and the fact that they gravitate toward jazz permutations.

Violinists David Balakrishnan and Evan Price, violist Danny Seidenberg, and cellist Mark Summer do not disappoint on Art of the Groove, a very impressive new offering from a hip ensemble which filters modern music through a centuries-old music-making machine (the string quartet, that is ), guided by the superb sensibilities of Balakrishnan and his compatriots.

TISQ bow, pluck, slap, and otherwise impart new vigor into pieces such as jazzgod Chick Corea's "No Mystery," crossover classicist Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story mainstay "Cool," and venerable museum-piece Dave Brubeck's "Blue Rondo a la Turk," while flexing yet more by taking on Minnesota's one-of-a-kind, weird-assed six/twelve-string guitarist Leo Kottke's "Oddball," one of the CD's more playful moments (along with Balakrishnan's own "Fruitcake").

When I was a kid, I hated "jazzed up" versions of songs I considered to be untouchable, perfect. However, as the years rolled by and the cavities developed, I began to appreciate the idea of passing musical material around and digging upon so-and-so's take. If you understand what I mean by that, I urge you to investigate Art of the Groove.


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