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Tales From The Earth by Mark Weinstein/ Omar Sosa

Those who believe, with F. Scott Fitzgerald, that "There are no second acts in American lives" should check out Mark Weinstein. Originally a trombonist who developed a role for the trombone in Latin music while working with Herbie Mann, among others, Weinstein gave up music to pursue a career as a professor of philosophy. Eventually, he got back into music, but for his second chapter he picked up the flute instead of the trombone. Since then he has produced a series of highly interesting recordings that explore a range of cultural settings--Brazilian, Cuban, African and Jewish, as well as straight-ahead American jazz. He has a very definite opinion about the future role of the flute in these genres. As he told me, in my book The Flute in Jazz: Window on World Music:

"The prevalence of the flute in world music and the richness of its expressive capabilities, give hope to flutists who want to use the instrument to make a contribution to jazz. . The future for flute is to draw broadly from world genres, especially Latin American, African and Indian music, a direction increasingly evident among jazz musicians as world music--based jazz proves both a way to move beyond the epochal contributions of the fifties and sixties, and path toward new sonic terrain. The acoustic context of much world music is flute-friendly. . . Flute is without equal in its ability to blend with the string and percussion instruments used in much world music, and permits the basis in world music to remain true to its sound and texture even when the flute adds jazz harmonic, melodic and rhythmic elements extending the basic forms."

Weinstein's most recent release demonstrates his commitment to the flute in world music in his own work. And it was a big commitment. His previous sessions have drawn on the New York/New Jersey music community to find expert exponents of these various genres, from Cuba or Brazil for example, who have helped him assemble material and ensembles to record it. In this case, however, Weinstein went much further afield.

The full story of how this session came about can be read in a detailed blog that Weinstein has posted at his website. Artists commenting on their work in this way is a really helpful idea--I think more artists should do this. To quote from these notes:

"The session was put together by guitarist Jean-Paul Bourelly, a master musician and one of my all-time friends. . . Jean Paul was producing a concert in Berlin called the Black Atlantic, a week long festival of African based music from Europe, the US and other places. . . He mentioned that [Cuban pianist] Omar Sosa would be there and a number of African musicians including balafone virtuoso Ali Keita. Omar had recorded an album with me in 2001, Cuban Roots Revisited, and I knew he was originally a classically trained mallet player (vibes, marimba, tympani, the works) and so I had a brain-storm. Go to Berlin and make an album with vibes, marimba, balafone (an African marimba and the reason they play marimbas in Central and South America), African percussion and myself."

Weinstein acted on his brain-storm; the result is the music heard on this recording. Given the diversity of the musicians and the limited preparation time the results are remarkably successful. Weinstein describes the musicians as follows: "Me (a New York Jew), a Polish bass-player, three African musicians, Omar Sosa--a black Cuban, an African-American drummer, and Jean-Paul, of Haitian-American descent." As for the preparation: "We went into the studio with absolutely nothing, nothing planned, no music, not even a concept, and recorded two days of free-jazz based on African themes. It was amazing!"

Amazing indeed! I have been disappointed by a lot of the free music I have heard recently. Having worked in that genre with the Spontaneous Music Ensemble of London and others in the early 1970s, I have not much that has changed in that field in the subsequent 35 years. Too much free music is not really free--it falls in a very narrow stylistic range, creating a box for itself that it can never seem to break out of. And few free players seem to pay attention to dynamics, shape, nuance--in short, to musicality.

Tales From The Earth has a distinctly different character, primarily because, while it is free music, it is grounded in a traditional music tradition. Several tracks begin with the two African drummers and builds from there, with the other instruments, percussion, strings and eventually flute, laying down melodic and cultural layers on top of them. Other selections open with bass or flute but the rhythmic framework is never far away. Consequently, this cannot be said to be totally free music. The combination of African sensibilities with free jazz produces a genre of its own; this is certainly not African music in its pure form, and the freedom of the jazz players is curtailed by the structures that the more traditional musicians impose. But the various influences dovetail beautifully, and all of them create a perfect foil for Weinstein's flutes.

It should be added, of course, that the African influences are reflected in Omar Sosa, the Cuban, whose mallet work on vibes and marimba is central to much of the improvisation. The status of Cuban music as part of the African diaspara is well known. It is reinforced here, especially in the expression of historical and religious connections heard on the second track, Invocation, where, as Weinstein puts it, "three sons of Africa, one Cuban, still held to the same religion, and could join together in prayer." One manifestation of the sense of unity that pervades this session.

One Caveat, however. The end result heard here has been through extensive editing. Weinstein makes no pretense about this. It was unavoidable as he had to turn over four hours of music into one CD. He is very clear in his blog. "The real problem," he writes, "was finding the boundaries within the music that would enable us to extract an hour of music, divided into pieces of reasonable length from the extended improvisations." He continues,"Individual songs were edited out from the lengthy takes that we recorded. So the first day with three extended improvisations . . . resulted in seven different tracks. The second day was better organized, the improvisations shorter and more focused. But still a great deal of editing was required. A lot of great playing ended up being left behind."

There are, of course, purists who will object to this, considering it an aesthetic requirement to present free improvisation as it occurs, warts and all. But one might equally insist on reviewing, hearing, or reading early first drafts of great symphonies or novels, or of seeing raw footage before it is edited to create a movie. As a musicologist and, in an earlier incarnation as a literary critic, I have done my share of that, and I wouldn't recommend it. Editing is part of every creative process, unless you are a pure genius like Mozart or J.S. Bach whose original manuscripts show few, if any, revisions. Beethoven's notebooks or Da Vinci's cartoons are of interest to musicologists and art historians. It is the finished symphony or painting that the artist wants the public to enjoy.

In this case, the music we hear is the result of careful planning, spontaneous performance, then meticulous editing. The end result is what it is. Those who wish to experience free music in the raw should go hear some live music. Those who want to a fine example of the interface between jazz and world music should check out Tales From The Earth.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Mark Weinstein/ Omar Sosa
  • CD Title: Tales From The Earth
  • Genre: World Music
  • Year Released: 2009
  • Record Label: Ota Records
  • Rating: Four Stars
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