Book of Roses
No matter how many albums he sells, Andreas Vollenweider never gets any easier to peg. To some he’s just that harpist whose soothing, jazzy grooves have been a mainstay of laid-back fusion radio stations for the last 10 years. Others insist that because his music has a certain ethereal quality, and because he talks about his work in a vaguely metaphysical way, he must be a major avatar of New Age. At various times his work’s been defined as classical, even though classical music types tend to dismiss him as a pop lightweight; and it’s been classified as jazz, even though heavy jazz types do the same. But with Book of Roses, his sixth album, just about everybody’s view is in for some major revision. Because here he finishes the job he began three years ago with his world-music-oriented Dancing With the Lion, by creating an album that quietly erases the lines between some of our most cherished musical categories.
The album’s personnel list gives you a hint of what it sounds like. In the course of 16 ”episodes” (arranged bookwise in four chapters) musicians ranging from the Basel Sinfonietta to the Bulgarian Men’s Choir to flamenco guitarist Gerardo Nuñez and Siberian singer Saynho Namtchilak all make appearances.
Yet it’s not the spectrum of musical styles and colors per se that makes this album such an achievement but the skill with which Vollenweider weaves the many elements together. No conventional musical logic I know of quite explains how he brings off what he does in, say, Chapter One, where a distinctly medieval-sounding melody (”The Grand Ball of the Duljas”) segues gracefully into a jazzy tune with slide guitar, and eventually ends with the pristine vocals of ”Passage to Promise,” a song with lyrics by South Africa’s Joseph Shabalala and performed by Ladysmith Black Mambazo with Vollenweider’s harp dancing around them. Later on, there’s a fairly conventional Spanish chapter featuring Nuñez, but after that things go off the map with ”The Birds of Tilmun,” which combines sea sounds and the gorgeously pungent, closed-throat keening of Namtchilak. By the final moments of the piece she’s doing some kind of gut-wrenching, primitive chattering, her voice suddenly hurtling up the scale into outer space and evaporating into the whistling ether.
Why does so much of it work so well? Pure musical skill, for one thing: Vollenweider has always been a far better musician, both technically and in terms of his ear for idiosyncratic sound combinations, than he’s generally been given credit for. What matters most, though, is his open-hearted sensibility. For all the ambitious scope of this album, it’s neither grandiose nor pretentious; he touches on every musical tradition in Book of Roses so respectfully, modestly, and lovingly, that it’s finally no real surprise when they all bloom into a veritable global village. If this is what we mean when we talk about New Age, then I’m buying the first ticket. A-