San Francisco area jazz drummer Chuck Bernstein (some may know him as a writer for Modern Drummer magazine) discovered the Brazilian stringed instrument the berimbau, and decided to incorporate it in his music, putting the kit aside for this unusual project. Using his berimbau teachers/players, guitarists, and other instrumentalists at times in small group settings, Bernstein incorporates the percussive sound of his instrument in folk-blues contexts, with room for occasional ethnic overtones. The vocal quality of the berimbau is expressed but not exploited within its limited tonic range, as stretched harmonics are emphasized instead of extended techniques or heavy improvisation. There's a spare feeling to most of the selections, each one configured differently, some solo or with a singer. Where the actual playing is consistently honest and real, the deeper blues tracks are the most effective, reflecting the fusion of basic disciplines from the Mississippi River and the Amazon waters in Rio De Janiero. Of the more down-home selections, guitarist Sister Debbie Sipes appears in duet with Bernstein on the slow to develop, longish improv jam "Drop D," and the soulful, interactive "Kelley Blues." Lisa Kindred sings beautifully during Pete Seeger's "One Grain of Sand" that also brings a Native American element into play, albeit a bit off-key. The excellent drummer George Marsh -- no slouch when it comes to spontaneity -- whips up some blues/rock rhythms for "Kindred Spirits" and plays around a bit with Bernstein's berimbau on "Free to Grind." Trombonist Roswell Rudd makes a cameo appearance as "Plunger in the Funk," with bassist Sam Bevan, goes from effortless free improv to New Orleans two beat, while Bevan reappears on the traditional serenade "Darling Cory" in duet with Bernstein. Guitarist Greg Douglass exhibits the most chemistry alongside the berimbau, as his slide conjures earthy voodoo street cred in the title cut or the closer "Flight of the Golden Dragon." The duets with both viola and guinga berimbau seem more like exercises than actual tunes, although the throaty sound of the berimbau's figurative sonic signature is impressive on "All Your Desires" with dual guitars of the composer Paul Ledo and Ricardo Peixolo. "Viola for Stompin' Blues" has Bernstein and his teacher Dennis Broughton playing basic two-note phrases while exploiting the overtone possibilities the berimbau possesses. "Bahia Trance Blues" with Bira Almeida might be the most compelling and captivating single selection in a meditative mood. The berimbau has a limited melodic range, and some may find this music tedious. Others need to sit back and relax while the sounds play out on their own terms. Kudos should go to Bernstein for attempting something so singularly unique.
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AllMusic Review by Michael G. Nastos