Scenes of Spirits

Graham Ashton

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Scenes of Spirits Review

by James Manheim

As brass quintets continue to gain popularity, some have diverged from the ensemble's entertainment function of distilling various kinds of music down to a consistent, easily enjoyed package. One of the most striking divergences has come from the Graham Ashton Brass Ensemble, a U.S. group that has offered several contemporary experiments. On Scenes of Spirits, the group interacts with musicians and composers from various cultures -- something that might seem difficult for a brass ensemble to do at anything more than the most superficial level. Ashton, a trumpeter, responds to the challenge with immersion in the music he is encountering, incorporating the brass ensemble into those languages rather than seizing upon obvious features of those languages and incorporating them into traditional forms. The brasses are stretched into new textures and are mostly used to complement the sounds of non-Western instruments. The detailed notes to the first piece, Raga (performed with Indian tabla player Ustad Kadar Khan and his wife, sitarist Bina Kalavant), are well worth scrutinizing for their detailed and conscientious approach to the problem of cross-cultural collaboration; the procedures devised by trombonist Jim Pugh, involving a set of 18 musical cues that coordinate the activities of the brasses and the Indian musicians, are among the most sophisticated experiments ever undertaken in this vein. The piece is very much a North Indian classical improvisation with a brass element rather than vice versa, and in all the music, with the partial exception of Irish composer Suzanne Farrin's All Sides Endlessness, the brasses serve to develop the music rather than set its foundations. Most of the pieces don't begin with the sound of brasses at all, and the characteristic chords of the brass ensemble appear only at the music's peaks of intensity. From Indian music the program moves on to a nicely grumpy set of four Japanese seasonal spirits; the Graham Ashton original Birdsong, with a didgeridoo drone (sometimes leaving its tonal seat, organum-fashion), brass quartet, percussion, and piano; Farrin's piece, for brass trio, bodhran, pennywhistle, and bass flute; and a Brasstango by Argentine composer and frequent Piazzolla arranger Carlos Franzetti. The program is so diverse that it's easy to forget you're listening to a brass album -- but the medium links all the music together. Highly recommended for contemporary music audiences, students of world music, and virtuoso performers interested in new experiments in collaboration.

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