The Cubist movement in painting, spearheaded primarily by Pablo Picasso in the early years of the twentieth century, attempted to represent all possible views of a person or object on a two dimensional surface. The resulting chaos of shapes and colour resulted in images that seemed to bear no resemblance to reality, yet have managed to strike a chord in viewers so that they have become some of the most famous works in modern art. Picasso's "Guernica," his Cubist representation of the German bombing of the Spanish city of Guernica during that country's Civil War in the 1930s, is as now readily identifiable as many of the works of Leonardo De Vinci and other traditional painters from previous eras.
However, this does not prevent the word "Cubist" from conjuring images of disjointed faces, with noses in places you'd normally expect to find ears, to mind. So when I first read the title of percussionist Jerry Leake's new CD, Cubist, released through his own Rhombus Publishing imprint, I couldn't help thinking that listeners would be in for a bit of a dissonant ride. For if one were to try and literally express Cubism with music, wouldn't you have to try and show all the sides of the music at once? What kind of noise would that result in? Would you have to play songs backwards and forwards at the same time in order to hear everything?
Thankfully Leake and those who have accompanied him on this new CD haven't taken it quite that literally. Instead what they have done is reached out to the world's various musical traditions to explore what each has to offer and combine them on one recording. The title of the disc refers not to the structure of each song as much as it does to its content as it presents the many faces and sides of music from around the world. Everything from classical Indian to hip hop are performed using traditional as well as modern instruments. Whether its Leake himself on tabla and balafon, or Mister Rourke spinning turntables, it seems like they've attempted to integrate as many conceivable instruments as possible into this project.
This still sounds like it could be a recipe for chaos, as the idea of following traditional music from Tibet up with a rap song doesn't really sound very appealing. However, the result, while a little frantic in places, ends up being far more coherent than you'd think. While the nearly 80 minutes of music on the disc are divided up into 16 tracks, I seemed to always end up listening to the disc as if it were one long composition. That's not to say that the individual tracks are not distinct unto themselves, but they also have enough in common that the flow from one to the next is so natural that you barely notice any transition.
Each of the songs has used one culture as its base, and then been built up around that. For instance the opening track of the CD, "Aldebaran," opens with a decidedly Far Eastern sound that continues throughout the track. The gongs and bells which serve as its opening fade out to be replaced by violin playing the melody, but the theme they began is continued by the glockenspiel that punctuates the rhythm. Nearing the midpoint, the gongs and bells return, and, much like the bridge in a pop song, acts as a break between the opening and concluding halves of the song.
Throughout the disc each track has one predominant theme, but underneath layers upon layers of percussion instruments from various places around the world are being played. Listen, for example to the thirteenth song on the disc, "Chrysalis," and underneath the lead percussion instrument, in this case tabla, and the guitars playing the melody, you can hear a variety of bells, shakers, bells, gongs, and other instruments punctuating the sound. While this could have become an unholy mess resulting in nothing more than noise, through careful engineering and skillful playing it ends up sounding as if the various percussion pieces are working like the voices in a barbershop quartet singing in perfect harmony.
By placing each instrument at a different point in the stereo spectrum during recording you hear each individual sound clearly. As a result you can almost visualize the instruments laid out in a line and "see" how they are working together in harmony. Even as one replaces the other, a shaker is removed and a gong is sounded, the tabla is a consistent sound in the centre of the line holding them all together. Much like a lead singer provides the melody for others to harmonize to, it provides the beat which every other instrument relates to.
Not every song is so complex, but each of them combine elements in a similar manner as the one described above with the same amount of success. In this way each of the disc's 16 tracks not only allow the listener to experience the different ways in which rhythm and melody can be expressed, they also contribute to the overall "picture" the CD is creating of music. There's no way that one song could present all "sides" of music in the same way that a cubist painter is able to with his subject matter on canvass. The result would be a horrible cacophony. By creating a series of individual tracks that work together as a whole, Leake overcomes that obstacle and presents as true a vision of cubist music as I think possible.
Cubist is not only an interesting experiment, the music on the disc is well played and intelligent. Combining elements from various traditions and styles is not an easy task, but Leake and those he has chosen to work with on this disc have done an excellent job in finding interesting and exciting ways to manage that job. Not only have they found a way to ensure each style retains its own distinct qualities, but they have also found a way to ensure they work together in harmony.