Ric Sanders Group
CD Stock: Heliopause Records HPVP101CD
You may know Ric Sanders (violin) from his work with Fairport Convention since the mid 1980's. Here he teams up with Vo Fletcher (guitar) and Michael Gregory (drums, percussion) for a recording of instrumental music made just weeks after 9/11 in Lincoln Cathedral. The music is drawn from a wide mixture of sources and played in an eclectic mix of styles, from folk to gentle rock and on to jazz.
There are some excellent tracks, but first, let me get the bad news out of the way. Frankly, some tracks leave me cold; in particular the Chick Corea tune "Crystal Silence" and the Jimi Hendrix song "Little Wing". I find these boring. Miles Davis' "It's About That Time", book-ended by Joe Zawinul's "In A Silent Way", meanders on for the best part of 20 minutes in a rather self-indulgent way, as if Ric is obsessed with his violin sound, at the expense of forward propulsion and harmonic interest. Certainly there are a lot of unusual violin effects, including much bending of notes and the use of a violin as a percussion instrument, but I get no pleasure from sound effects. Paul McCartney's "Calico Skies" and George Harrison's "Life Itself" are just too laid back for my taste.
But wait, there are ten tracks here, and the rest are all winners. First up is "Threedom", a jazzy syncopated improvisation on a tune by guitar man Vo Fletcher. Vo and Michael Gregory are full partners in this performance, instead of supporting actors behind the star, Ric Sanders. The way guitar and violin play in unison, then against each other, prodded in different directions by the delicate percussion accents, is a joy.
This track, and four more, are repeated in alternate performances on a second disk, but this time recorded specially for headphone listeners in binaural sound. On my AKG K1000 cans the experience is wonderful, with an improved feel for the acoustics of the cathedral. The recording engineers couldn't resist playing a few tricks, with the instruments moving around from one side to the other, to show what could be done. This only detracts from the experience, but then if you have a Ferrari, you have to press the pedal to the metal once, just to see what it's like, don't you?
Just for the hell of it, I tried listening to these tracks through my Wilson Benesch speakers. Instead of the nicely projected sound of disc 1, the sounds appear trapped behind the speakers and have little life. So you won't want to listen to these binaural tracks through your speakers unless, of course, you clamp your speakers to the side of your head. (That more or less describes the AKG K1000).
In a very different vein, Ric is at his lyrical best in his own composition "Remembrance Day". Here he plays a lovely slow folk melody, first gingerly, then repeating the theme several times with growing confidence and rhythmic innovation, much as Ravel used in his Bolero. This track is very touching, and Ric's clear and singing tone brings majesty to his vision. I could well see the influence of the terrible events the world witnessed that very month.
Best of all is "Tune For The Land of Snows", composed by Chris Leslie. This track also allows full interplay between these three most accomplished musicians, displaying a wide range of musical styles, including exotic Spanish rhythms from Vo, some other-worldly percussive effects from Michael, and double stopping and high harmonics from Ric. This track lasts over thirteen minutes and is worth the price of admission.
Two more Ric Sanders compositions "A Lifetime's Love" and "The Rose Hip" round out the first disk. The former sets the mood for the lengthier tracks to follow, and the latter features a gentle folk melody tinged with sadness and some blue notes.
To complete the second disk, two tracks, including the wonderful "Tune For The Land Of Snows" are presented in DTS format, to play on your surround sound system, and then another as an MPEG Video to watch on your computer. The DTS tracks sound warm and gentle, possibly a reflection of the less elevated state of my surround sound system. The video track repeats the "In A Silent Way" / "It's About That Time" combination. It shows what is missing in this performance - an audience. I think the presence of a live audience might have helped to temper the ascetic tone of this track. The video reveals why the instruments are shifting from one side of the head to another in the binaural recordings. You can see the soundman, wired up for recording, slow dancing his way through the track. The musicians aren't moving - the microphones are! This is to simulate the effect of you the listener moving around the cathedral -- no wonder I found that aspect disconcerting.
Never mind. How many disks offer quite such a variety of formats? Fine sound throughout, with little warmth but an emphasis on clarity, appropriate to the locale. And if there is a lot of sadness in the music here, well that's understandable.
So there you have it -- a mixed bag, but with plenty to interest a wide range of listeners. If you like lyrical folk violin music, you may enjoy the tracks I'd rather skip. And if you're a headphone listener (or your name happens to be Ric Sanders), then this album has your name written all over it.