Native American flautist R. Carlos Nakai and Israeli cellist Udi Bar-David have packed 14 mesmerizing vignettes of just such music into the recent CD Voyagers, released on Canyon records last March. Though the print on the back of the CD indicates the music should be filed under “new age,” it seems that this music could find a comfortable home in many more categories than such a maligned and over-used descriptor. Elements of classical and Native American music, the flowing ragas of India, chamber and gospel are sprinkled heavily though the course of the album.
The free rhythmic nature of the duo’s improvisations and compositions certainly adds to the ethereal, often cinematic feel of the music, but it’s their attentiveness and awareness of each other, as on “Prayer From Jewish Life” that’s downright startling. Here, even the pace of their vibrato finds itself united, and the thoughtful layering of Bar-David’s cello and Nakai’s flute result in some haunting and utterly glorious incidental harmony. In the title track (part 12 in a series of improvised duets) Nakai bends, trills and flutters the notes with an uncanny tonefulness and precision, drawing mournful blue notes into the melody until the cello swoops in with a response that draws equally from Gershwin and traditional Jewish harmony. This is one of the most contemplative and hypnotic pieces on Voyagers, and it’s endowed with that magical ingredient that provides something new upon each listen- and this one warrants many.
“Lech Lamidbar (Go to the Desert)” demonstrates the other side of these artists in its sense of structure and energy, but retains the overall feeling of musical and cultural wanderlust in the percolating percussion of Will Clipman. “Crow Wing” is another notable demonstration of the duo’s sensitivity to one another, each delving deep into their instruments and unearthing new shades of expressiveness and phrasing. Their timing is remarkable here, too, a reminder that it’s not always what notes you play; it’s often how and when you play them that’s just as powerful. Consider too that the Native American flute is traditionally a solo instrument, but through a complete dedication and mastery Nakai has helped transcend its perceived boundaries, letting it veer into the ensemble territories of jazz and classical, as well as traditional Japanese music with the Wind Traveling Band.
So let’s just put this whole “new age” thing to bed, at least in regards to this particular album. Voyagers may have the look of yet another value-priced, pseudo-world music snoozer you’d probably never think about listening to, but if you crack it open and give it a shot you’re rewarded with some beautiful sounds that owe their genesis to a broad cross-section of musical disciplines and cultural traditions. In fact, it’s less that you actively “listen” to Voyagers than you merely spend some time with it in the air, letting it wander off to a handful of stunning places in the span of a mere hour.