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Weekly Alibi Big Medicine

R. Carlos Nakai Takes Native Music to the Outer Limits

By Michael Henningsen

AUGUST 23, 1999:  Armed with a cedar flute and a deep understanding of Native American rhythms and musical tradition, R. Carlos Nakai has long sought to pursue his music to the ends of the Earth. Working first from a quasi-New Age platform -- a context that proved easy to swallow among a diverse cross-section of listeners searching for a palatable way of familiarizing themselves with Native American music and culture -- Nakai released his renowned Canyon Trilogy in 1989. Not only did the evocative triple CD result in Nakai becoming the world's premier Native American flautist, it also managed to garner Gold status, a first for Native American music.

With Canyon Trilogy, Nakai presented the world with a view of Native music from his own perspective, a slant that relied as heavily on improvisation as it did on tradition. The results were stunning: Nakai wove an intricate tapestry of gentle melody, fascinating expressiveness and color, and made it commercially viable. He also sparked a renaissance of the flute within and outside of Native culture. But Nakai has never been content to remain standing in place for very long -- even when that place happens to be at the top.

During the next decade, Nakai continued to push forward, collaborating with such experimentalists as Paul Horn, Peter Kater and William Eaton, but occasionally returning to the tradition in which his music is grounded. Which brings us to the present. Late in 1998, Nakai appeared with a new recording, and once again it represented a shift in musical direction. The album, titled Big Medicine (Canyon Records), remains the first to feature the R. Carlos Nakai Quartet, a contemporary jazz group consisting of Nakai on flute, whistles and hoop drum; Will Clipman on drums and percussion; AmoChip Dabney on keyboards, saxophones and vocals; and Mary Redhouse on bass and vocals.

Even for listeners without the stomach for anything slightly resembling New Age music, Big Medicine is likely to blow across the ears like a warm spring breeze. Nakai has perfectly adapted his ever-evolving musical vision for contemporary jazz. Nakai's melodic themes are cast against groove-oriented compositions for an overall effect that's at once comforting and awe-inspiring. His 21st record since signing with Canyon Records in 1983, Big Medicine is exactly what its title implies: music that is too spiritual in nature to be fully explained, but readily accessible to anyone willing to lend an ear.

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