Review by Dawoud Kringel
New York City is one of those places where innovative musicians are the norm, rather than the exception. They lurk in the shadows, or stand on the world stage and bring their gems to listeners. One winter night, I went to Pianos in New York City’s Lower East Side. A friend was playing there, and hosting a jam session. I brought my instrument to sit in. Upon arriving, one of the opening groups was in the midst of their set. The room was filled with an astonishing display of virtuosity and musical beauty. I was impressed!
This was my introduction to House of Waters.
The trio consists of Max ZT (hammered dulcimer), Luke Notary (percussion) and Moto Fukushima (bass). Max ZT studied both the Mandinko technique of the Cissoko griots in Senegal, and under Pandit Shivkumar Sharma. He had released five CDs, won the National Hammered Dulcimer Championship, and was dubbed “The Jimi Hendrix of the Hammered Dulcimer” by NPR. Luke Notary began studying drums with his father, and later under Jamey Hahhad, Hamza el Din, Cheick Oumar Diabate, and Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri. His skills have allowed him to tour the world, including a world tour with Cirque du Soleil’s “Varekai.” Moto Fukushima has a background in jazz, Western classical music, and South American music, and has performed with Joe Lovano, Mike Stern, and Dave Weckl. Forming their Brooklyn Based trio, they’ve amassed an impressive list of accomplishments, including performing with Ravi Shankar, Tinariwn, Jimmy Cliff, KODO, and others.
Their recently released second CD Revolution had brought the band to a new level of musical communication in the studio. They have clearly found their groove, and the tracks flow with an easy grace.
The CD opens with a lively piece called “Martino.” The percussions and bass establish a powerful groove that morphs into a series of breaks and accents that move too easily to be called angular, but are too sharply defined to simply flow. “Chaca” begins with an Asian vibe that shifts into an African-esque rhythm. The melody sounds like a backwards track and floats over the groove rather than solidly making itself known. It is taken over by a bass solo that explores its way around the upper atmosphere of the piece. This relinquishes its position to the dulcimer, which leads the backwards melody through some changes. Unlike “Martino,” it fades and diminishes into the Asian vibe it started with. Many of their songs end with an abrupt break. “Clean Peace” is a watery song; its beginning is as defined as water. This condenses into a peaceful interplay between dulcimer and bass. An unorthodox working of the kalimba begins the title track, and evolves into a peaceful mood that makes one wonder what Revolution this song is describing. Subtle shift in the rhythm hint at an answer, but never implicitly state it. The end is another fade, a vague and indefinable cessation of the experience of this piece. The next piece, an unmistakably African piece called “Thiaroye” flows out of the void created by the previous song. “Sense” also fades in from nowhere, leading us into a joyful dulcimer dominated song that has almost a pop sensibility. A bass ostinanto begins “Agnolim,” which paves the way for dulcimer melodies that are both restful in their beauty, and stimulating in their slowly increasing complexity; yet diverging from a very simple harmonic structure only in a brief bridge that opens the way for the bass solo. “Sound of Impermanence” is a dreamy bass excursion. This is replaced by the next track, the pastoral “Sockets” (deceptively suggesting it is part of the previous song) that soon flies happily into its own series of climaxes and changes. A strong percussion groove lays the foundation for “Djigee.” This becomes a dulcimer led romp that was in itself a little startling, because the beginning groove does not at all suggest this. The effect is actually quite a pleasant surprise. As the song progresses, it shape-shifts into different rhythmic and melodic moods that ends abruptly on an unexpected chord. More African grooves begin “Sabula” and seamlessly manifest almost Pat Methany-esque modulations. “For and From” is blatantly African in its beginning, and fades to its end. “Possibility” fades in with a dulcimer pattern that unfolds and explores the contours of its own diminishment. The CD ends with a sad piece called “Ball in Cage;” suggesting that while our journey through the beautiful world the previous pieces created is drawing to its inevitable conclusion, and the mundane world waits for us outside this idyllic garden, we may still retain that beauty even if the world imprisons us in its sorrows, horrors, and infuriating mediocrity. The track features guest appearances by Brandon Terzic, Xalam N’Goni, and Chris Hale.
House of Waters recordings are actually quite different from the experience of their live performances, despite the constant level of professional execution in both. The CDs create an inner atmosphere: unless one actively listens, the effect of the music is almost dreamlike and subliminal. Their live performances are more actively participatory that excite and enrapture rather than subtly embrace. One thing about their music is a conspicuous lack of extended songs and solos. Many of their songs are around the three minute mark, and while there are plenty of solos, they never tax the patience of the listener.
Their CD release performance at New York City’s legendary 55 Bar is a good example of this. Maz ZT’s command of what looks like a fiendishly difficult instrument is effortless and virtuosic. Notary proves himself to be a brilliant and expressive percussionist. He is one of the “new wave” of percussionists that are rising from the corners of the musical world who masterfully plays everything and uses musical influences from everywhere. He also plays a pretty good kora. Fukushima is an astonishing musician. His approach to the 7 string bass utilizes techniques and concepts that range from the standard to the strange and unorthodox (a few examples of the later; one song where he used a capo on his bass; something I never saw anyone else do, or another song where he rubbed the strings with a plastic cable tie, and looped the sound and layered more loops on top of it). The band’s interplay and communication is flawless, the dynamics of their music and the pacing of their set list is always effective, and they succeed in creating a variety of moods. They explored their compositions with a joyful exuberance that is somehow reminiscent of the golden age of fusion (what Stanley Clarke once described as “when fusion was fun”). Yet the “world” vibe is never absent, and they create an almost new age feel without the annoying “aural prozac” effect that mars that genre. There were no moments during their performance where the packed audience’s attention wavered, and no moment where the music was not exciting, compelling, and pregnant with beauty, sublimity, and depth of meaning.
House of Waters is a band worth experiencing.