Higher Octave is a recording label that specializes in flavorful "international music." That doesn't mean ethnic or folk melodies particularly, although there's sometimes a hint of the old traditions.
Instead, the artists absorb the influences of many cultures while devising unmistakably up-to-date styles. They may even hale from one land while their musical hearts have found a home in another. A good example of that is best-selling guitarist Ottmar Liebert, a German who has made "nouveau flamenco" a popular modern form.Liebert is among those on the new "Higher Octave Collection," a tasty 20-track sampler that dips into albums by almost a dozen performers, from Europe, Africa, Japan and the Americas. The anthology has a subtitle, "Music From Around the World/For Around the Clock," and divides the themes into what are essentially two moods - "Daytime" and "Nighttime" - on two CD discs.
The time-of-day breakdown isn't mandatory, of course, or even logical, when you get right down to it. "Daytime" - the more party-spirited of the two - ironically opens, for instance, with "Barcelona Nights," a lively Liebert tune that instantly summons up flashing images of a flamenco dancer, feet flying, haughty head tossing and castanets clacking away. His "August Moon" is equally atmospheric, if more subdued. Guitarist Craig Chaquico sparkles on "Return of the Eagle."
Cusco, a European instrumental group with a Peruvian name, blows in with the dramatic "Northeaster," mixing strings, synthesizers and rhythm, and also engages in a playful "Flute Battle." West Africa's Soto Koto Band is bright and funky on "Kelefa," a sample of the happy gumbay (goom-bay) style. Other artists in this set include composer Randy Tico; Tri Atma, with Indian percussionist Asim Saha and guitarist Jens Fisher; and EKO, led by guitarist John O'Connor, an ensemble with a very pleasant sound (on "Morning in Martinique" and "Horse Latitudes") that's part folk (from here and there) and a lot pop.
Most of the same artists return for the mellower, dreamier "Nighttime" sequence, including Chaquico (the light-streaked "Summer's End"), Liebert (a slow, romantic "Starry Night," from his holiday album "Poets & Angels"), Cusco ("Seaplanet" evokes both the ancient past and the future with flutes and synthesizers) and the Soto Koto Band ("Kilimanjaro" mixes bird songs into the gumbay gumbo). We're also introduced to the light-jazzy music of William Aura; to Japan's Himekami and the lovely melodies "Isle of Gold and Silver" and "Tosa Dunes," with seashore sounds; and to the moody atmospherics of Nightengale's "On My Wings" and "Sky's Beyond."
"The Higher Octave Collection" nicely illustrates the entertaining possibilities of cross-cultural musical alchemy. It also whets the appetite for more music by some of the featured artists. With my interest piqued, I dipped into two of the recent albums that provided fodder for the anthology:
- Craig Chaquico's "Acoustic Highway" explores the solo possibilities of the electric guitar. Chaquico (Cha-key-so) was lead guitarist of Jefferson Starship during the hit-making band's heyday in the '70s and '80s, when songs like "Miracles," "Sara" and "We Built This City" caught the nation's fancy. His rock background is evident in the muscularity of this album's nine tunes, but the melodies, co-written and co-produced with Ozzie Ahlers, also reveal a jazz underpinning and, in spots, Les Paul playfulness.
Most are abstract as opposed to song-lyrical in structure, but the titles and descriptive notes in the album's notes work with Chaquico's singing electric guitars to suggest visions of a "Mountain in the Mist"; "Sacred Ground," which evokes Indian imagery without cliches; and the imaginative "Angel Tears." There's nothing lethargic or sleep-inducing about Chaquico's instrumental style.
- Himekami means "princess goddess" in Japanese. The name is also an umbrella for the compositions of Yoshiaki Hoshi, a keyboardist teamed with violinist-guitarist Junpei Sakuma and percussionist Yuki Sugawara on albums like "Journey to Zipangu."
Landscapes, nature and myths inspire Himekami melodies, which are reminiscent in places of Kitaro to Western ears, though the arrangements are less dramatic. "South Seas of Light," for instance is a lilting pop confection. "The Wind, in Vast Circulation" is airy and lithe, like a dance of leaves, and "Phosphorescence" quietly elegant. None, though, matches the magical "Isle of Gold and Silver," tapped for "The Higher Octave Collection."
RATINGS: four stars (* * * * ), excellent; three stars (* * * ), good; two stars (* * ), fair; one star (* ), poor, with 1/2 representing a higher, intermediate grade.