Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Carrie Newcomer: Everything Is Everywhere

By Mary Sheeran
I admit that the title of Carrie Newcomer's CD made me wince.  It sounded like something my mother would rant when she came into my bedroom, and on another level, yet another pretentious spiritual statement from some performer. The liner notes brought on more winces: “This album has been a very beautiful journey of music, love and spirituality.” What does that mean? (Everything is everywhere, apparently.) Music is always spiritual, involving breath, body and some mysterious transformable force. It is both mystical and mathematical, of the earth and of the air. So what’s so different about this venture? (I admit to being suspicious of specific music being proclaimed as “spiritual.”)

At first glance, then, the presentation of this CD seems just like so many others purporting to be special. And that’s a shame because there is a lot to admire in this CD once you get past the liner notes and move into the music. 

Newcomer shares music with Indian artists Amjad Ali Khan, Amaan Ali Khan, and Ayaan Ali Khan, with whom she collaborated when, in 2009, she went to India, invited by the American Embassy School of New Delhi to perform and work with students to create works of art based on the concepts of peace and justice.

I’ve listened to not a few such “I’ve gone to India” albums; but Newcomer seems to have done more than just the raga scat here.  She invited the extraordinary Khans, stellar musicians both together and separately, to join her as vocalists and instrumentalists. Amjad Ali Khan is a sixth generation master of the stringed instrument known as the sarod; his colleagues Amaan Ali Khan and Ayaan Ali Khan are seventh generation sarod players, both with solo careers.

The blend of her easy singing and the interpolations by the Khans point to a common origin of the two forms, folk music and Indian classical, a discovery that may well be the essential point of such a collaboration; although it sounds so easy, such work takes considerable effort. Indeed, the album required time on two continents, in India and Indiana.

The first two selections, “Breathe In, Breathe Out” and “Everything Is Everywhere” are dominated by Newcomer’s folk style, her collaborators being more subtle. With “We Were Sleeping,” we enter new territory. The Khans slip into the music with their haunting vocal backgrounds, the sarod mixing with Newcomer’s twangy guitar. Their presence weaves in and out of Newcomer’s simple texts, adding richness and surprise. It’s just what you want it to be, friends talking to each other in music.

Newcomer’s voice is clear and cool, a combination of Grace Kelly and Karen Carpenter, with pretty much one single vocal color. Her voice is the least interesting part of the CD. Not that it’s unpleasant, but it’s just too … nice. Her accompanying acoustic guitar or dulcimer is sensitive to word and music; her real gift lies in composing and in words, and in jazzing up rhythms that welcome east and west. Her words seem simple, but they go beyond the usual folk idioms. For instance, in “Dreaming”: “…In moments clean and clear, the echo bounces back with a lonesome sound down an endless track. We are born to time and light, clay and stone, a fleeting glance, skin and bone. And the world is wrapped in wind, and the fields are filled with dust that collects in rising rings of perfect loneliness.”

She’s not afraid to sit back and be simple, as in “I Believe”: “I believe that there are some debts that we can never repay and I believe there are words we can never unsay…I believe in socks and gloves made out of soft gray wool and…I know I get some things right but mostly I’m a fool…”I believe in jars of jelly put up by careful hands…” Jars of jelly? But that’s beautiful, and Newcomer understands all about caring hands from the sound of it.
The album’s final offering, “Fountain of Love” is the listener’s real reward. The Khans step forward, Newcomer steps back, and they make the most of the blend in a gentle, rhythmic journey, a raga that seems to emerge full blown from the previous offerings.

 All profits from this CD will go to the Interfaith Hunger Initiative, an all volunteer, not-for-profit organization bringing together two dozen faith communities in the Indianapolis area who work together to end child and family hunger. The initiative works to create a system of access to food through pantries in central Indiana and schools in foreign countries, feeding and supporting thousands of children and families. Visit the IHI Web site at www.interfaithhungerinitiative.org.
Carrie Newcomer. Everything is Beautiful. Carrie Newcomer: vocals, acoustic guitars, mountain dulcimer. Featuring Amjad Ali Khan, Amaan Ali Khan, and Ayaan Ali Khan: sarod and vocals. Jim Brock: drums and percussion. Steve Mascari: electric and upright bass. Gary Walters: piano, Wurlitzer piano, field organ. Malcolm Dalglish: hammered dulcimer and vocals. Chris Wagoner: violin and viola. Mary Gaines: cello. Krista Detor: vocal harmony. Kat Domingo: vocal harmony.  Produced by Carrie Newcomer and David Weber. 

The official Carrie Newcomer web site: www.carrienewcomer.com; the official web site for the Khan family is www.sarod.com.

 Writer/singer Mary Sheeran’s novel, Quest of the Sleeping Princess, unfolds during a gala performance of the New York City Ballet and explores George Balanchine’s relationship with music and making dances.  Her novel, Who Have the Power, explores cultural conflict, feminism, and Native American history on the American frontier. She has sung through several operas, oratorios, musicals, recitals, and cabaret shows. Her CD, “Through the Years,” is available from CD Baby.

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