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Smile Down Upon Us

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How To Cure Our Soul
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Roomful of Teeth
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Smile Down Upon Us
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Mike Tamburo
Scott Tuma
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Martin Scherzinger: African Math
New Focus Recordings

Certainly no one would appear to be more qualified to take on a project of this kind than Martin Scherzinger, a South African-born composer and specialist in African music. What makes his African Math so fascinating is that it flips the script, so to speak, with respect to how the playing of African-influenced music is handled. Instead of drawing upon instruments such as the mbira and kalahari for the arrangements, Scherzinger uses piano, violin, and cello in the album's two multi-part compositions but in such a way that the Western instruments are “Africanized.” It's not uncommon for African musicians to perform pieces using European instruments such as accordions, guitars, and keyboards; it's far less common for Western musicians to play a classical setting using African instruments. But a close approximation of that happens on African Math when pianist Tom Rosenkranz, cellist Chris Gross, and violinist Jen Choi bring Scherzinger's Hallucinating Accordion and Mirror Notes / Slow Noises to life. The result is an engrossing fusion of Western classical and African musical forms.

Let's not forget that mathematics forms part of the title. In that regard, Scherzinger's music exemplifies many of the complex aspects of African music, among them interlocking rhythms, intricate patterning, and shifting downbeats. Being so fundamental to African music, rhythm is naturally a critical dimension of the album, instantiated in this case by plucked strings as well as polyrhythmic patterns played by piano and bowed strings. The music often swings breezily, the rollicking fourth movement of Hallucinating Accordion a case in point, and the arrangements comfortably alternate between a movement featuring a solo instrument (e.g., violin in “Hallucinating Accordion 3”) and others where all three appear.

The singing melodies and chiming harmonies of African music also are strongly accounted for in Scherzinger's compositions, nowhere more conspicuously than in the piano melodies whose insistent sparkle colours “Mirror Notes / Slow Noises 1.” In a kind of reverse mirror effect, there are moments where the compositional style suggests an integration of Western qualities into the African composition, something that occurs during the strings-only “Mirror Notes / Slow Noises 2” where the plaintive folk character feels indebted as much to American country as African folk music. Free of gimmickry and superficiality, African Math presents an authentic forty minutes of African-styled modern classical composition that for this project is realized by a piano trio, even if the material could just as legitimately have been performed by musicians playing traditional African instruments. Regardless of the instrumentation involved, the album offers a thoroughly engaging amalgam of Western and African elements.

May 2015