The Balkan Clarinet Summit has produced one of the most soulful, enjoyable, and diverse collaborative albums in some time.
Attempting the fusion of folk, jazz, and classical styles is no easy feat. The results are often more conceptually interesting than enjoyable to listen to and it is frequently unclear who the audience for these types of fusions are supposed to be. So it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I approached the new collective calling itself the Balkan Clarinet Summit. Their record Many Languages, One Soul proposes an ambitious project: to take the most virtuosic clarinet players from across the numerous musical traditions of the Balkans and get them to improvise, compose, and collaborate together, while incorporating jazz and contemporary classical techniques into their various folk traditions.
As someone who has spent more hours than I care to recall tooling around the Balkans in the back of stifling, geriatric mini-buses while various forms of Balkan folk and popular music blared distortedly from the mini-buses’ stereos, I have some familiarity with the genres in question, and it was not altogether clear to me how such a fusion could be pulled off. Any uncertainty or dubiousness that I may have felt before hitting the play button on Many Languages, One Soul was almost immediately dispelled however, as the Balkan Clarinet Summit has produced one of the most soulful, enjoyable, and diverse collaborative albums that I have come across in some time.
Although apparently recorded live during the Balkan Clarinet Summit’s recent tour of the region in question, most of the tracks sound as clean and undiminished, as if they had been recorded in a studio. The jazz influence is very much in evidence in many of my favorite tracks on Many Languages, One Soul. The energy and rhythmic complexity that drives some of the finer moments here remind the listener of klezmer as its most toe-tapping. The real strength of Many Languages, One Soul is exactly what the name implies: remarkable diversity held together by thematic and stylistic foundations. Although potentially alienating so some listeners, I was especially pleased to hear several experimental pieces included in what is, in certain ways, a very traditional collection. "Snake Lick Jab" offers some John Zorn style weirdness to the mix that keeps the listener guessing and intrigued.
For those readers whose primary experience with the clarinet may be haunted, adolescent memories of honking, monotonous junior high school band classes lurching their way through half-recognizable renditions of R. Kelly’s "I Believe I Can Fly", allow the Balkan Clarinet Summit to rescue the clarinet from such grim associations. These tracks are galvanic, gorgeous, highly nuanced compositions. The eyebrow-raising virtuosity of the musicians involved is never allowed to overshadow the emotional depth or basic character of each piece. Slower pieces like "Za Moc Oza" are filled with slow-building melancholy, while the faster, more jazz influenced pieces like "Geamparale" will have the listener improvising wild jigs in her living room.
The energy, fun, and vitality in these pieces makes the deluge of tedious indie rock and third rate hip-hop that I am often confronted with seem especially unnecessary. For listeners unfamiliar with clarinet-based Balkan folk music, the Balkan Clarinet Summit might be just the breath of musical fresh air you are looking for. For those of us with personal experiences and connections with the Balkans, these tracks will provide a delightful, enlivened take on familiar styles.