Michael Brook has been a fixture on Echoes since we launched in 1989 and he recorded one of the first Living Room Concerts from the London apartment he lived in then. He’s remained a fixture on the show with inventive releases and collaborations. Penumbra continues this tradition.
In the 1990s, Michael Brook built a segment of his multifaceted reputation as a world fusionist, working with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Hukwe Zawose and U. Srinivas. He returns to that sound and one of his best collaborations with Armenian duduk master, Djivan Gasparyan. It’s been 12 years since their last album, Black Rock, and they don’t just pick up where they left off. There’s a more playful sound to Penumbra, while simultaneously being maybe even more soulful than Black Rock.
The album opening “Adagio in G-minor” is a moody rendition of the already poignant composition by Tomaso Albinoni/Remo Giazotto. I don’t think they imagined it played on duduk, but the instrument is the very embodiment of the composition’s melancholic mood. The “Adagio” serves as something of a palate cleansing, clearing the way for the musical kaleidoscope that unfolds on Penumbra.
They’ve taken a more open approach than that employed on Black Rock, with songs that have greater variety, shorter durations and multiple motifs. Haunted house ambiences, string ensembles, gypsy dances, twangy guitar loops, and big band horn sections unfold in layers . On “Guttapercha,” Brook and Gasparyan navigate a circuitous root from Brook’s spaghetti western guitar riffs that morph into a minimalist sequence spinning through lo-fi drums, free-rhythm improvs, snaky Sun Ra Egyptian-exotica flutes and Flamenco palmas. That’s all in about four and half minutes.
Penumbra is less rhythmically driven than Black Rock, with percussion outbursts serving as bas reliefs like the rhythm breakdown and psychedelic guitar on “Chiarescuroed.” Brook and Gasparyan can get into TV channel surfing mode, especially on the surf music sound of “Bonined.” Gasparyan is adrift amidst the Farfisa organ, twang guitar and Tijuana Brass horns. I don’t think they hang ten much in Armenia.
But despite the occasional ADD moves, the album holds together, largely because of tunes like “Pascal.” Brook moves from the understated to the epic with a slow build of winding electric guitar before Gasparyan comes in, joined by tremulous strings, a brass section holding ominous whole notes, and a military snare drum marching the track to that brand of slow motion oblivion perfected by Arvo Pärt.
Penumbra is playful and contemplative, joyful and melancholic, and it’s a surprising and welcome return from one of the best world fusion collaborations of the 1990s. It’s not set for physical release until September 23, but of course, it’s available for download now from Michael Brook’s website.
John Diliberto ((( echoes )))