Sunday, August 19, 2018

Rich Eclecticism on Rinde Eckert’s First Solo Album

courtesy of Sacks & Co.

As I write this, Rinde Eckert’s name is staring down at me from a poster that has been on the wall of the office I made out of the second bedroom of the unit where I now live in San Francisco. His name is part of a poster made by the Brooklyn Academy of Music for a visit by the George Coates Performance Works to perform Coates’ “The Way of How” at the Next Wave Fall Festival in 1983. (That performance introduced me not only to Eckert but also to Coates’ “resident composer,” Paul Dresher.)

By the time I moved to Los Angeles in 1985, Dresher and Eckert had begun to collaborate on what amounted to chamber opera projects. One of them, “Was Are Will Be,” amounted to a hyper-charged linguistic romp; and, unless I am mistaken, its creation involved consulting with linguist George Lakoff. The scariest effort, however, was Slow Fire, which amounted to a penetrating examination of post-traumatic stress disorder at a time long before PTSD had become part of our everyday working vocabulary. Eckert’s acting was so intense that I was afraid to approach him to let him know how impressed I had been. (I eventually had a chance to chat with him about two years ago in the lobby of Z Space, when I went over to cover Paul Dresher’s Schick Machine, another examination of a deranged mind, that Eckert had directed.)

With all of that background, I was more than a little curious when I learned that Eckert had recorded his first solo album, The Natural World; and that album will be released by National Sawdust Tracks this coming Friday. Once again, seems to have been tardy in creating a useful Web page for this release (although they offer a fair number of Eckert’s earlier albums); but Bandcamp has created a Web page for pre-ordering the entire album for digital download. National Sawdust will host a release show and party two weeks from today.

Even before one starts to listen, the back cover of the album makes it clear that The Natural World is an exercise in eclecticism unto an extreme. This really is a solo album, since Eckert provides his own accompaniment. However, the diversity of instruments he plays, which are enumerated on that back cover, is more than a little awe-inspiring: piano, electronic keyboards (with samples), accordion, South American wood flute, hand percussion, tenor banjo, dobro ukulele, banjo ukulele, shruti box, and penny whistle.

The back cover also informs the listener that eleven of the thirteen tracks are original compositions. One exception is the traditional folk tune “Black is the Color,” for which Eckert provides his own arrangements. The other is “Cantata,” which credits Johann Sebastian Bach. This refers to the hymn theme of the BWV 192 cantata, Nun danket alle Gott (now thank ye all our God), which Eckert sings against a drone that one rarely encounters in Bach’s own music. (The theme itself is not “original Bach” and is usually attributed to Johann Crüger.)

Several of the tracks just involve wordless singing. There is often a sense that Eckert discovered a melodic line through improvisation and then sang along with himself as he proceeded to develop his discovery. On the other hand “The Singer Sings” reflects on the traditions of Indian classical music. After each phrase that Eckert sings, he offers a spoken translation of the text he has just delivered.

One might think that the entire album is a tongue-in-cheek reflection on the sort of eclecticism one was likely to encounter at those folk festivals that were so popular back in the Sixties. Mind you, those festivals took a lot of ribbing even at the height of their popularity. My own favorite attack came from the “Folk Singer’s Blues,” one of Shel Silverstein’s well-aimed arrows of scorn:
Well, I'd like to sing a song about the chain gang (whap!)
And swingin' twelve pound hammers all the day, (whap!)
And how a I'd like to kill my captain (whap!)
And how a black man works his life away, but

What do you do if you're young and white and jewish?
And you've never swung a hammer against a spike?
And you've never called a water boy
Early in the morning
And your only chain is the chain that's on your bike? yes
Your only chain is the chain on your bike
One does not encounter such cynicism on The Natural World, nor is there any sense of irony underlying any of the tracks. Instead, the tracks come across as the highly personal reflections of a performer who has been seriously eclectic over the course of his career. There is very much a what-you-hear-is-what-you-get quality to every track on this album; and, for each selection, “what you get” is likely to be an opportunity for personal reflection on where we all are now and how we got there.

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