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Music Review: Giya Kancheli – Themes From The Songbook

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I have always felt that comparing records by different artists was a somewhat lazy way of reviewing things. But in the case of Giya Kancheli’s new ECM release Themes From The Songbook, it seems appropriate. While the music is different in many ways, the record reminds me of two acknowledged masterpieces, by two truly legendary musicians.

Specifically, I am speaking about Miles Davis’ Ascenseur Pour L’echafaud (Elevator To The Gallows): Original Soundtrack, and Duke Ellington’s Anatomy Of A Murder. Neither title is generally cited as one of each artist’s greatest works. Yet both not only compliment the respective films, but stand alone as powerful recordings in their own right.

What Giya Kancheli shows us with each of the 20 tracks that comprise Themes From The Songbook is how much he belongs in such exalted company. The fact that he is able to express himself so well in such an (admittedly) narrow confine as that of soundtrack music is remarkable.

As with Davis’ Ascenseur, and Ellington’s Anatomy Of A Murder, you sometimes wonder if the film was edited around the music, rather than vice versa. With the short, emotive pieces on Themes From The Songbook, one gets the same impression. Credit certainly goes to the trio who actually play this music: Dino Saluzzi (bandoneon), Gidon Kremer (violin), and Andrei Pushkarev (vibraphone).

Dino Saluzzi is a master of the bandoneon – an instrument much more familiar to European listeners than it is to those in the U.S. The quickest short-form explanation of the instrument is that is something of an ancestor to the accordion. That definition hardly does justice to the sounds such an exceptionally brilliant musical architect as Saluzzi is able to convey through it, though.

The various themes conveyed here cover a wide range of intent. At times it is somewhat lighthearted, as with “(Main Theme From) The Role For A Beginner,” (a play by Tamaz Chiladze), or that of When Almonds Blossomed (a film by Lana Gogoberidze). There are also moments of intensely deep emotion, displayed most prominently in the seven various themes from Shakespeare plays he has composed for. In particular, the three different themes for the Bard’s masterpiece, Hamlet are outstanding.

While all of these various references may sound a bit pompous (for lack of a better word), the music is really not that way at all. The album is filled with superbly satisfying – and for the most part very soothing tones.

I admit upfront that I am very much a fan of ECM, and of Manfred Eicher’s choices as to what his label releases. Still, I had no idea what a beautiful disc I was in store for with Giya Kancheli’s Themes From The Songbook. Sometimes you just take a chance. In this case, the only comparisons I could come up with were two of the Twentieth Century’s giants.

 Miles and The Duke ain’t bad company no matter how you slice it.

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About Greg Barbrick