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The Breathing of the World: Songs formed from the words of Sacred Poetry (2006)
Michael Crouch; Megan Sullivan; Melissa Spevacek (vocals)
John Ragusa (flutes); Don Wallace (bass); Rick Quintanal (drums); Tim Moran (saxophone); Emily Taube (cello); Rob Silvan (piano); Paul Avgerinos (engineer)
rec. 2006
SKY HOOK MUSIC 2711 [45:54]



Jazz pianist-composer Rob Silvan’s latest offering is nothing if not ambitious, attempting as it does musical settings of psalms, the gnomic poetry of 13th and 14th century Eastern mystics and the works of 19th and 20th century Western poets: T. S. Eliot, W. B. Yeats and Emily Dickinson.

The subtitle of this collection – Songs formed from the words of Sacred Poetry – signals the musical idiom, a moody mix of jazz and New Age spirituality, and the performers’ personal responses to the texts. And, although one might think it a given in this context, Silvan says his aim is to reveal the ‘essential wonder and beauty of this poetry’.

The underpinnings of this work are clearly jazz-inspired, with a hint of blues and Gospel thrown in for good measure. This eclectic approach is summed up in Silvan own very broad definition of jazz as ‘an international cross-blending of standards, current waves, tropical styles, original composition and improvisation and whatever else may come up in the moment’.

Now that we know which of his many hats Silvan is wearing here, how does it all sound? Certainly rather different to the bass-led, more bluesy pieces of earlier albums, such as Eye of the Blackbird and Beneath It All. In this new disc Silvan appears to have modulated into an altogether different key, finding a much more transparent, intimate musical style, with instruments economically deployed.

Occasionally the quasi-Eastern flute and saxophone melodies seem a little hackneyed (as does the vaguely Ravelian piano intro to John Giuliani’s On This New Morning). The flute does the imitative honours again in the Dickinson setting, Hope Is the Thing With Feathers; here, more than anywhere else, one longs for some musical whimsy or flash of humour to pierce the pall of earnestness.

Elsewhere the vocalists (singly or in brief duets) have a more difficult job to do in illuminating the texts. Michael Crouch and Megan Sullivan share most of the singing, the voices closely miked. Diction is generally fine, although some listeners may baulk at the Americanisms in the translations (‘quit’ and ‘gotten’). Not surprisingly at nodal points in these pieces the vocalists signal the moments of spiritual radiance (or, in the case of the Hafiz and Rumi poems, ‘Sufi ecstasy’) with repeated phrases (‘Hosanna, hosanna’, and ‘Lift your foot. cross over’). This may seem a rather crude device, albeit one familiar to ascetics and visionaries, which has its roots in the Gospel tradition. Silvan’s work in this genre is best heard in the album You are worthy of all God’s Love, recorded with ‘his’ Talmadge Hill Community Church choir.

An ambitious enterprise then, but like so many collections of this nature it suffers from a dearth of musical imagination. Certainly there is a broad range of cultural and musical traditions at work here but in the rush to inclusiveness – even the cover artwork seems indeterminate – none stands out. Only occasionally, as in the Yeats setting The Lake Isle of Innisfree, do the music and words really take flight. Here, suddenly, there is genuine engagement as the music captures the authentic cadences of Celtic folk poetry.

Of course one must not forget Silvan’s contribution as pianist, reflective and ecstatic by turns. But for all his skill and intelligence as a performer there is still a nagging doubt, that the piano’s limited palette is reflected in the blandness of the overall canvas. That said it is a disc directed at a specific jazz/New Age/ambient audience and is probably best auditioned with a glass of Chardonnay in hand and the lights turned low.

The disc is rather short measure at a shade under 46 minutes. It comes in a double gatefold case with the texts clearly printed on four sides. The disadvantage is that there is no room for biographical details or background information about the music and performers.

That said, those who want to find out more about Mr Silvan’s many activities as a teacher, music director, jobbing musician and composer/ arranger, should check out his website at:

Dan Morgan


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