In 1990 Michael Brook, a New-Age guitarist and producer, collaborated with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, a Pakistani singer of Sufi devotional hymns, to create the album Mustt Mustt, an early example of ancient-meets-ambient hybridism. Khan was already a major celebrity in many Eastern countries -- where they called him "The Voice of the Century" -- but most Americans were unaware of him until 1995, when Khan's powerful, fluid singing set the tone for Tim Robbins' Oscar-winning film Dead Man Walking. Khan wrote half of the songs on the film's soundtrack, perhaps the most memorable being the wailing "Execution." It wasn't long before Khan became a cause celebre among music-business insiders: Peter Gabriel performed with him on VH1, and everyone from Mick Jagger to Eddie Vedder cited him as a personal favorite. The late Jeff Buckley was a very big fan and spoke to Khan for Interview magazine. In the article Buckley gushingly referred to the revered singer as "the man whose voice healed the fuck out of me."
Khan had long been excessively overweight and in poor health. On his last world tour, in 1996, he was unable to walk across the stage without assistance. His last collaboration with Brook was that same year, on the album Night Song. Khan died of a heart attack on August 16, 1997, at the age of 49.
Khan may posthumously find a new audience among the jungle/drum 'n' bass crowd thanks to Star Rise, also known as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan & Michael Brook: Remixed. The disc features nine songs revamped by various members of the "Asian Underground" -- young, predominantly British electronica artists of Middle Eastern descent -- such as State of Bengal, Aki Nawaz, and Talvin Singh (the man who put the Asian Underground on the musical map with the 1997 compilation Anokha).
Singh turns in a respectfully updated version of "My Heart, My Life," but the best tracks here come from artists who aren't afraid to use Khan's voice as yet another instrument to be sampled, looped, and distorted. Asian Dub Foundation's take on "Taa Deem" blends Khan's baroque vocal rhythms into a half-reggae, half-jungle dance track; that's a whole handful of cultures in just one song. But "Lament," remixed by Earthtribe, is the CD's standout, a bona fide pop song with Khan's voice soaring over an ominous soundscape of muffled drums and dark sitar.
Purists and traditionalists -- who criticized Khan before his death for his increasing commercialism and Westernization -- might find this project more than a little distasteful. There's certainly something odd about hearing the late singer's highly spiritual voice used as a hook for trendy, club-oriented dance music. Yet only one or two of these remixes take the easy way out, paying "tribute" to Khan by simply layering jungle beats over his singing. For the most part, this CD achieves a truly interesting mix of traditional Eastern music and ultramodern electronica. Khan, who was always willing to embrace both the religious and the secular, probably would have been pleased.
-- Rafer Guzman
Where the Hell Am I?
South Florida's most sought-after bass player steps into the spotlight with this shimmering collection. More than a year in the making, Where the Hell Am I? is an audaciously confident debut, one that weaves thickly layered rockers and sparing ballads into a seamless whole. It is by far the finest local release of the past twelve months.
From the sweetly lilting power-pop of "Ain't It Hard" to the anthemic wallop of "Uniform," there is not one clunker among these dozen tracks. Sabatella's voice is an instrument of crystalline beauty, an almost fragile baritone capable of muted intensity ("Goodbye My Love") or raucous embellishment ("Julian"). Likewise the arrangements vary enough to avoid the wash of guitar-based monotony. A loping organ riff paces "The Light," while acoustic guitars lend "Prayer for Today" a folkie feel. The most charming song of all is "Reverend Maddog," a rocket-fueled, talking-blues song that is instantly memorable.
Having faithfully assisted countless local players over the last decade, Sabatella has plenty of favors to cash in, and he does so wisely. Joel Schantz lends his inimitable fretwork to the lamenting "Sad Woman," while Diane Ward's lusty pipes provide backup on "Memory Coast." The tinkling piano of Amanda Green (Sabatella's main squeeze) dignifies "Wash Me Away."
But the cameos only succeed because of the abundant talents of the songwriter. Indeed, it is the melodic strength of his compositions that marks Sabatella as a rare find. Don't let his low-key manner and session-man rep fool you. If Where the Hell Am I? is any indication, stardom awaits.
-- Steven Almond
Tenor saxophonist Javon Jackson, a former sideman and protege of the late, legendary drummer Art Blakey, is building a career on diversity. He's recorded songs from composers such as Muddy Waters, Charles Mingus, Tony Williams, Egberto Gismonti (the famed Brazilian guitarist), and even Frank Zappa. Jackson continues this tradition on Good People, which includes Brazilian music, bebop, free jazz, organ-flavored soul, and the obligatory tribute ballad.
Jackson has assembled a talented and eclectic group: John Medeski on organ, Peter Washington on bass, and Billy Drummond on drums, along with the guitarists Vernon Reid (of the rock band Living Colour) and Fareed Haque (a well-known session player who's a virtuoso in his own right). They all provide worthy and occasionally excellent individual performances. But rather than create an air of complexity or versatility, the mix lacks focus, indicating the absence of a unifying theme or identity.
The disc kicks off with "Ed' Oxum," a Calypso-flavored Brazilian tune. Haque's fluid classical guitar, Jackson's fluttering tone, and the Caribbean-style percussion from Drummond (aided by Cyro Baptista) create a song that could lead a daiquiri-drenched conga line. But the mood swings the other way on the next track, Tony Williams' free-jazz composition "Emergency." Drummond leads the song with a two-minute drum solo that sounds more like an exercise than a musical statement, and the rest of the tune sputters aimlessly.
On the other hand, "Good People," a Jackson original, makes an effective argument for the sax player dropping covers from his repertoire altogether. It's the CD's highlight, building a Seventies funk groove during which Reid and Haque lay down blistering solos, and Medeski pulverizes his organ keys.
The ballad "Diane" creates a late-night, last-dance-of-the-evening vibe with Jackson's breathy, precise phrasing and the album's only bass solo. But then comes another dud: "Flor de Canela," a Carlos Santana tune that disintegrates into free-jazz meandering and ends up sounding like a nine-minute song introduction.
The bebop-flavored "Naaman" ends the CD on an up note, showing Jackson at his brightest. But by then many will have been turned off. Good People shows that Jackson is an accomplished melodist and a potentially great songwriter. Yet he needs to focus and find a sound that will allow him and his accomplished sidemen to celebrate a variety of musical styles with consistency and range. If Jackson can do that, he might well become a bandleader worthy of his legendary mentor.
-- Larry Getlen