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Reviews: Dark Clouds - Stu Goldberg, Cassius Khan

Reviews: 2

Site review by Christine Tham October 14, 2006
Performance:   Sonics:    
If you are the sort of person who likes jazz but runs away whenever the phrase "world music" is mentioned, don't be put off from giving this album a listen. Yes, the promotional blurb does say "Innovative, all acoustic, multicultural World Music" [not my capitalization] but this is a very listenable album even if you prefer your jazz as American as apple pie or a hamburger.

The liner notes say that this album grew out of a set of jammin' sessions between pianist Stu Goldberg and tabla-vocal performer Cassius Khan (after Stu saw Cassius perform at a local gig). The music on this album sounds polished, but reflects a lot of it's improvisational roots.

Indeed, the opening piano solo of the first track (Ragamala) sounds like it could have been an excerpt from a Keith Jarrett solo concert. It is a beautiful, rather expressive, melancholic piece (Stu says in the liner notes Hurricane Katrina was very much on his mind when he was playing this piece). The tablas complement the piano very well, and the end result did not sound that "ethnic" to me (or maybe truly good music always sounds "universal" regardless of it's influences). On the surround mix, the pianos were very much fixed to the front left/right channels, but the tablas were positioned a little more expansively on the soundstage. The front centre channel seems to be mainly used for reverb on this track.

The second piece, Rain, is probably the most "commercial" and easy to listen to piece on the album (I can almost imagine this song getting airplay on an adventurous radio station), and features Jennifer Lauren Goldberg singing accompanied by pianos and tabla, and background vocals by Cassius. On the surround mix, Jennifer's voice is almost entirely panned to the front centre, whilst Cassius's background vocals and the percussion are imaginatively mixed and panned across the entire surround soundfield.

Keherwa is percussion duet featuring Stu on Frame Drum/Udu Igbah and Cassius on two differently tuned tablas. On the surround 5.0 recording, make sure you have full range speakers all around you (or have bass management enabled), as there's quite a lot of low frequency content on this track (as well as the next, and last track).

The last track, entitled Dark Clouds, had the strongest multicultural "feel" to me, and I was instantly reminded of the soundtrack to the film "Gandhi". A lot of it was a duet between Cassius and Jennifer and the music seemed an appropriate blend between the East and West. Cassius's voice seems to come from the front left, but Jennifer's voice (heavily drenched with reverb) is panned all over the place. Stu's piano playing wraps around them in a subtle, and yet enticing way.

A note on the difference betwee the surround and stereo mixes. Normally, I tend to prefer the surround mix on SA-CDs as they sound a bit more expansive and the additional channels often impart extra "punch" and apparent resolution that makes the stereo mix sound dull and congested in comparison. However, on this album, I prefered the stereo mix, which sounded a bit better defined and less brittle. This is apparent from the very first track where Stu's piano sounds a bit more alive and natural on the stereo mix, and just a little strained and dull on the surround mix. However, the rather imaginative pans of the vocals on tracks 2 and 4 are certainly enjoyable on the surround mix.

I was curious about the apparent difference in the sonics between the mixes, so I read the album booklet notes a little closer. The album is a multi-mic, multi-track 44.1kHz 24-bit recording done using MOTU's Digital Performer and Altiverb was used for convolution based reverb.

I wondered if different reverb settings were used for the multi-channel mix compared to the stereo mix, and received the following reply from Stu: "... for this project I used multiple stereo Altiverb instances, using multiple different impulse responses (samples of actual acoustic spaces), selectively panned, to create the ambiences on the multichannel mixes. My goal with the surround ambiences, particularly on the piece "Dark Clouds", was to create an imaginary three dimensional world where the fantasy of all the vocal overdubs, piano & percussion could thrive & develop. I wasn't going for "sonic realism", recreating an actual acoustic room - as I said, I could've done that very easily with an Altiverb preset. I saw this project as an opportunity to create a filmic soundscape in 3D."

All in all, this is a well recorded and mixed album, although I would have preferred the vocals a little less "wet". The use of compression and limitng is nicely restrained, resulting in a lot of "openness" to the sound but at the same time the recording should not be too difficult to reproduce on most equipment.

A final note to "SA-CD purists": no, this is not a DSD recording, nor is it a high bandwidth PCM recording. However, in my opinion, there's plenty of resolution even on 44.1kHz 24-bits, and it does have some advantages (in terms of minimizing quantization noise and being more tolerant of jitter). If you are the sort of person who avoids 44.1kHz recordings, listen to the album and judge for yourself - at the end of the day it's the results that count, and the results in this instance are quite pleasing indeed.

Review by Edvin October 10, 2006
Performance:   Sonics:  
Stu Goldberg is an accomplished pianist/percussionist with a wide variety of styles under his collar. On this SACD he shows his skills as an improviser and catalyst. Most of the music is bourne out of the moment within a certain framework and I must say that I enjoyed it a lot. What fascinates me the most about this SACD is the closeness of the musicians, how Goldberg together with the expert tabla player Cassius Khan and vocalist Jennifer Lauren Goldberg are creating chamber music. And the funny thing is that when I once started listening there was no way I could have stopped before the disc was ended. That says a lot.

Four titles, the first is called Ragamala and lasts for over twenty minutes. Piano and tablas in interplay. Sometimes I was reminded of the great Swedish pianist Jan Johansson because of the clarity, and then the music changed into a sort of Elton John-ish funky pop song. Not for long though. Great sensitivity from both musicians and they create a piece that is both engaging and hypnotic. I love all those sounds from the tablas with their rising and falling notes. The tabla man goes berserk and the piece ends most beautifully with some delicate playing. Very exciting indeed!

Rain, a piece written by vocalist Jennifer Lauren Goldberg. Her voice is close-miked to great effect. She is very present in my room. A lovely, slightly nasal quality sings of love and the wonders of nature. Many overdubs with Cassius Khans vocals adding spice. A rather melancholy song that is an absolute charmer. Great producing from Goldberg and the song really takes wing with the added percussion and rhythm section. Goldberg´s piano playing is very sensitive throughout.

The third piece is called Keherwa and it features some great playing from two percussion players. All the nuances are perfectly caught by the engineers. Lively and vigorous.

Dark Clouds, the masterpiece. The vocals here by Cassius Khan is at times as if from another world. I am utterly fascinated by his ability to change his voice, to make a sort of tremor that we haven´t heard since Purcell. He sings in Hindi and Jennifer Lauren Goldberg answers in English, with loads of vocal overdubs. A fantasy. But then Khan appears with his scary voice - how can he make these sounds? The second section opens for some super virtuoso tabla playing. This sounds like a procession. A proud music with tablas absolutely all over the place.

To end this Khan sings some, for me, strange and exciting things and the layers of vocals are again lovely. Khan is shaking his vocal chords and the music is gathering tension. To hear is to believe! The whole thing floats, the skies open and the rain falls.

I have listened to this in the 5.0 version and it is a masterpiece of engineeering. The rears are used rather sparingly, no gimmick here. The surround sound is used to great and tasteful effect.

World music. Well, the world is getting smaller and I welcome every influence into my small world.

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