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Album Review

Bassist Jonas Hellborg doesn't have quite the visibility or reputation of fellow bassists Bill Laswell or Jah Wobble, but on this CD he displays an equal (if not superior) facility for musical synthesis — along with absolutely monster chops that elevate him far above either Laswell or Wobble and place him much closer in jaw-dropping technique to the legendary Jaco Pastorious. The most impressive aspect of this recording, however, is not Hellborg's technique, or that of his long-term collaborator, guitarist Shawn Lane, but the integration of the two players into a relatively pure East Indian frame of reference. It should come as no surprise that Hellborg was once part of John McLaughlin's reincarnated Mahavishnu Orchestra (replacing the original bassist, Rick Laird), but Hellborg goes further than McLaughlin, and much further than Laswell's one-size-fits-all ethno-funk, essentially adapting his style to the Indian classical tradition. Hellborg makes some interesting choices, also, in the composition of the working group assembled for the recording, adding only an Indian vocalist, V. Umamahesh, and two percussionists, V. Selvaganesh and V. Umashankar, who play the ghatam and kanjeera, two types of hand drums used in the Southern Indian musical tradition. Hellborg and Lane assume roles normally taken by the sitar, sarod, vina, sarangi, or other Indian stringed instrument, with Lane also apparently simulating a tamboura (the Indian drone instrument) on occasion. Hellborg shows his respect for the tradition by featuring both vocalist and percussionists throughout the CD — not a commercial move by any means, given the quavering, non-Western quality of Indian vocals and the intricacy of Indian rhythms. The CD includes several examples of konokol, the vocal "scatting" often used as a memory device by Indian percussionists, which in one piece, "Anchor," is presented as an extended duet (almost a duel) between the two percussionists. (In this piece, the two musicians slip into a funky, syncopated rhythm that actually suggests Al Jarreau or Bobby McFerrin.) When Lane and Hellborg do take their turn in the spotlight, they don't disappoint. Lane's long, sinuous lines (heavy on the sustain) are sometimes double-tracked, creating the illusion of two instruments exchanging riffs, and one of his "voices" sounds very much like a high-pitched violin, which is a common instrument in contemporary Indian classical music. Another of Lane's instrumental voices comes very close to the sound of a lap steel guitar. On "Mirror" he sometimes plays quartertones so skillfully that his origins as a Western guitarist (and a rock guitarist, of all things) are almost totally obscured. Hellborg most often uses his bass as rhythm instrument, complementing Selvaganesh and Umashankar, but he extends himself in short bursts, playing double- and even triple-time in seeming fits of rhythmic exuberance. And he opens "Mirror" with a distorted legato rock riff, giving the piece a thick bottom end not normally found in Indian music but nonetheless strangely appropriate. Hellborg stretches out most on the languorous "Vehicle," where his microtonal note-bending sometimes approximates a sitar at the low end of its range. And on the program's final short piece, "Escape," when Hellborg trades licks with the percussionists at a typically breakneck pace characteristic of the final section of a raga, it's hard to imagine many other bassists who could survive such an encounter, let alone thrive. This CD is a curious but elegant masterpiece, and for sheer virtuosity and soul rivals the very best of McLaughlin's work with the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Shakti.

Biography

Born: 1958 in Gothenburg, Sweden

Genre: Jazz

Years Active: '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s

A wild improviser, bassist Jonas Hellborg leans more toward rock than jazz. Drawing inspiration from Jimi Hendrix, Arabic music, and Lifetime, Hellborg began playing professionally in the mid-'80s. After some session work (including Pil's Album, Ginger Baker's Middle Passage, and sessions with John McLaughlin's new Mahavishnu Orchestra), he released The Word on Axiom in 1991. The album features Hellborg's acoustic bass, drums, and a string quartet....
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