Ghazal - The Rain - Kayhan Kalhor, Shujaat Husain Khan,Sandeep Das
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Ghazal
The Rain
ECM 1840 (www.ecmrecords.com)

cd cover Born in 1997, this ensemble created a series of albums over three subsequent years that merged Persian and Hindustani concert music into a new stream of classical balladry and improvisation. As satisfying as the studio recordings proved, none of those equal the pinnacle of beauty or concentrated metaphysic disclosed in The Rain, a live recital from May 28, 2001 in Bern, Switzerland. Released by ECM Records, international watchdog for established top-end performers breaking from tradition, it was perhaps only a matter of time before Ghazal received the opportunity to have their experimental sound captured in palatial acoustic splendor.

Heretofore, Ghazal have been true to their name creating romantic poetry songs, plus instrumentals, and mixtures of these with exceeding discipline, and a crucially heart-centered touch. Shujaat Husain Khan, the group's sitarist and singer, a direct descendent in a royal line of North India musicians, has found common aesthetic and emotional ground with Kayhan Kalhor, the accomplished kamancheh player and composer from Iran. Together they've woven mostly anguished but sometimes exalting meditations of love.

For those familiar with Ghazal, this new recording does not submit any new base material. Instead, three previous compositions, "Fire in My Heart," "Between Dawn and Dawn A New Truth" and "Traces of the Beloved," appear here in condensed but astonishingly refined versions, whose titles have also been reduced, to stage list shorthand: "Fire," "Dawn" and "Eternity." On display, as in studio efforts of the past, is the same comfortable yet searching dialogue between two sensitive improvisers. Here that communication of agreement and ornamental exchange also has a palpable ease, helped by a generously attentive Swiss Radio DRS audience.

What's special about this 53-minute concert is how smoothly it sketches inner agony and bliss, and in the process enacts the subtle, age-old transition from earthly pain to sacred joy. Heard either as one raga, or dastgah, two songs travel in heart-strained minor keys but give way to the major key glory and wordless reconciliation of "Eternity." Through this tripartite structure and confirmed concretely in the last third, Khan, Kalhor and tabla accompanist Sandeep Das have come upon what seems like a new kind of ecstatic device.

Much Asian classical music proceeds through different gears, beginning with slow elucidations, ending often with fiery racing climaxes, and often all in the same mode or key. But, the brothers of different lands have enlisted three modes for the set and do not accelerate too rapidly in the last, as can be customary in finales. They instead use simple circular phrases and variations of rising-returning figures, to articulate an amazing marriage of motion and serenity in just shy of twenty unusually patient, merciful minutes. Following a half-hour plus of parched sadness, the final track is an effulgent, tear-producing, architectonic flood of consonance. On course for the shores of the infinite, this slow steady crossing by humble rowboat is, as the name Eternity would imply, a wonder to behold all by itself.

Instruments that might be texturally questionable together wind up sounding like long lost relatives after the German label's cavernous yet delicate treatment. Resident recording engineer Andy Mettler has captured intimate images of the brassy sun-toned gourd-lute, rustic woody spike-fiddle, tactile hand drums, and smooth vocals at the resonant Chambermusic-studio at Studio Bern, and judiciously amended the live-mix with state-of-the-art digital reverb. The enhanced harmonic shadow is as sumptuous and flattering as is probably sensible or desirable. And the acoustic boost clinches the realization of sublime visions and powerful medicine, when the three gifted musicians of Ghazal find themselves on a perfectly pithy roll before a roomful of fortunate ears. - Steve Taylor

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