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Music Review: Ameranouche Trio Awake

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One of the most amazing things about the guitar is the diversity of sounds and music that it can create. As a generation raised on electric and pop music we've been woefully underexposed to just what this instrument is capable of. Even the most causal listen to those performing in the classical or jazz genres would be enough to open one's eyes to its potential. Anyone looking for an approachable, yet interesting and exciting, introduction to one of the guitar's other worlds, should pick up the latest release by the New England based trio Ameranouche, and experience what they have to offer.

Awake is their second CD and it's a sterling example of how a guitar can be exciting without the use of an effects box or feedback. For eleven tracks Richard Sheppard on lead guitar, Ryan Flaherty on rhythm guitar, and Xar Adelberg on stand up bass, pluck, strum, and pick out a mixture of swing, flamenco, and jazz influenced guitar that picks you up right from the first note and doesn't stop moving until the last. Even better is the fact it's obvious they're having fun with what they're doing making it impossible as a listener not to get caught up in their pleasure and excitement.

I have to admit to a rather limited exposure to what's known as Gypsy Jazz, so I'm not in a position to compare Ameranouche's capability of performing that genre with other artists working in a similar vein, or to comment on it within that context. However that doesn't prevent me from being able to appreciate the talent level on display and the fact that they are obviously highly proficient at what they are doing. What I heard when listening to Awake was something that sounded like it had a foot in both the Old and New worlds. The sharp staccato syllables of a flamenco beat blended with the melodic trills of jazz guitar and a grounding bass line are examples of how they draw upon the old to inspire the new in order to create something that sounds familiar, but which still catches you by surprise.
Ameranouche Promo Picture_sm.jpg

It's very rare to find a trio in popular music that doesn't have one person as its central focus with the other two musicians serving as support. Heck, that's the case with most bands these days no matter how many members; there's a couple of leads and than the rest of them. That's definitely not the case with the Ameranouche Trio. For although Sheppard plays the leads on each song, there is never the impression that he is the lead. In part this could be due to the fact that they have recorded both guitars at the same volume ensuring the listener can always hear both Flaherty and Sheppard, but I think there's something more involved. For it's not just the guitars you can hear clearly at all times, but you're also aware of the job Adelberg is doing with her bass to tie her two flamboyant band mates together.

Listeners, like me, who aren't used to hearing three distinct parts being played at once might find the music on Awake a little disconcerting at first. A normal tendency is to want to latch on to the most prominent sound we hear and follow it while letting everything else fade into the background. Normally that sort of thing is engineered in the studio by the producer, so the "lead" receives most of a listener's attention. In this case though you have two, if not three, different sounds, of which none are dominate, so you can't just follow one of them. However, once you recover from this initial state of confusion, you'll discover something really astounding – you are listening to all three at once as a single entity; a piece of music instead of a collection of solos.

The opening track of the disc, "Ameranouche Swing" is a great example of this for right from the start you are aware of all three musicians. Sheppard is picking out a complex and fiery series of notes that twist and twirl around the steady chop laid down by Flaherety, while Adelberg's bass isn't so much heard as felt running, pulse like, underneath. What I found most refreshing about the band was their ability to change moods from cut to cut without it effecting their intensity. So even though on the third track, "Awake", Sheppard's playing hasn't lost anything in the way of speed or flair, there's something about what Adelberg and Flaherety are doing with the rhythm that give the song a more relaxed, mellow feel. It's a fine example of how well they each complement the others in creating something greater than what each individual is playing.

I was taken aback the first time I heard the fourth track, "Into The Free", because the last thing I was expecting on this type of recording was vocals. It's not the only track on the disc with vocals as "Secret Promises", the ninth track, also has singing on it, but as it was the first, it remains the one that sticks out in my mind. As with everything else about this disc their vocal harmonies are spot on. Each of them have voices, that if not the strongest in the world, are suitably melodic for what they are doing. For while they are singing words, it's the additional layers of sound that they create with their voices that really add to the music. Like adding stucco to paint gives a wall additional texture that makes it more interesting to look at and touch, their vocals give their sound extra depth and additional spice that makes it all the more captivating.

Awake by Ameranouche Trio is invigorating and exciting music that is a timely reminder of not only how versatile the guitar is but that jazz music can be a lot of fun. There is a joie de vivre about all the music on this CD that makes it almost impossible to listen to without smiling. Brilliantly and lovingly played music is hard to come by these days no matter what the genre which makes this release all the more special. If you've not heard this trio before you're in for a real treat, and if you have you don't need me to tell you how good they are.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • david stevenson

    I have been listening to and enjoying the new CD lately. One of the first things I noticed: Xar, the bassist, is a real find for this band! She plays with great instinctual dynamics and establishes an exhilerating momentum, whilst “holding down the bottom” as well. Some exceedingly cool tunes are found on this CD, and Shepp seems truly inspired on these cuts – they bring out the best in his playing. He continues to follow his own star and these manouche, samba,latin-tinged tunes provide a good format for him to do so. Although there are to be found many strong references to the tradition, the listener discovers more of a sense of improvising his own lines, and taking these improvs wherever they lead him to – some unexpected places -unpredictable, fresh. The originality of this project hits you immediately – so, to the extent that one values originaltiy, one will appreciate it fully. The thing that comes to the forefront in listening to this is just how much different stuff Shepp can play; he can play very long without repeating his ideas -an accomplishment, I think, of considerable value and hard – very hard – for most players to achieve: in short, no two of these improvisations sound alike, and some of his playing accesses this very cool “outside” place at times. The big surprise for me is to discover just how much he has slowed things down – less concerned with maintaining high speed than with coaxing melodic ideas (I am listening to a jazzy piece right now that is actually conversational in texture, slow enough to sing along with). Ryan’s rhythm contributions are likewise impressive and provide, together with Xar, a foundation that acts as both cohesional glue and forward-propelling momentum. In total, very impressive and this album occupies an interesting place in relation to the genre.
    Unconventionl surely, but in the manner that some of the best jazz musicians exude unconventional musical instincts – call it originality. Nice work Ameranouche!