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Azure Carter & Alan Sondheim - Avatar Woman
CD (Providence, RI)



-Buried
-Dark Robe
-Surely
-Among The Ferns
-World
-Making Boys
-Blood Tantra
-Avatar Man with Dream Woman
-What Remains
-Marriage to Language
-Buried II
-Credo




Azure Carter : vocals and songs
Alan Sondheim : violin, dan moi, suroz, sarangi, electric guitar, oud, cura cumbus, electric saz, viola, cura saz, pipa
Christopher Diasparra : tenor and baritone saxophones
Edward Schneider : alto saxophone

Reviews:
(Disaster Amnesiac) As Disaster Amnesiac listens to Azure Carter and Alan Sondheim's great new CD, Avatar Woman, I keep reflecting on the concept of American Folk Music and its relevance within our culture, currently and in the past. I am also thinking of Pop, but in a way that juxtaposes the more subtle and accomplished blending of styles and influences of Pop from long ago against the more linear and ridiculous form that Pop has morphed into as time has gone on and people have seemingly stopped caring about anything but the most easily comprehended bites. It strikes this listener that Avatar Woman is a very subtle and beautiful blending of those two elements (among many others, of course). The more overtly Pop feel of the music comes from the clearly intoned alto vocals of Azure Carter. Disaster Amnesiac hears many different influencers within her fantastic delivery: Billie Holiday, Anita O'Day, and Ella Fitzgerald, from that Golden Age of Female Vocalizing, all seem to emerge from her singing. I hear the American Pop reflections of Harry Partch and the Beats from her lyrics, ones that describe and detail the observances of the smaller, but often so much more poignant, aspects of our lives as we live them. In the perfect utopian visionary state that exists in the mind of Disaster Amnesiac, Carter would be as big a figure in the Pop vocal landscape (and the ones of Jazz and Rock, for that matter). Her incantations are mesmerizing in their subtle simplicity, so much more powerful, in their restraint, than those of whichever divas are currently being foisted upon the American public by the Big Money Music Machines of New York and Hollywood. Avatar Woman's Folk element comes not only from Carter's "humble" vision, but also from the Alan Sondheim's artful expression on any number of stringed instruments from all over the globe. He coaxes micro-tones from violin, dan moi, suraz, sarangi, electric guitar, oud, etc. The listener is treated to his subtle backing of Carter's vocals; if one chooses to focus deeper into his playing while the singing is happening, one hears his freaked out aspect. That is to say, the man has such control, he essentially sounds as he is playing completely Free (as in Jazz), even while being an accompanist. Of course, he gets plenty of time to wail and solo, and when those spaces are approached, just be prepared to listen to universes growing and collapsing within their sound worlds. Saxophonists Christopher Diasparra and Edward Schneider give earthy, inward, and rooted contributions to several tunes. The entire ensemble sound is one of controlled, focused torsion; the sounds are close, warm, intimate, even at their furthest ranges. Their control is the control of Folk musicians, working within their own worlds and owning them. Avatar Woman is fine example of the kind of subtle blends that can so easily happen in America, if only its citizenry cared about such things en masse. Come on, my fellow country men and women, let your Freak Flags fly again! - Mark Pino

(Aural Innovations) Though new to me, Alan Sondheim has been around for a long time. His 1967 Riverboat album is notable for its inclusion on the Nurse With Wound list, and he recorded albums for the ESP-Disk label. The list of instruments he is credited with on this album is what first caught my attention. In addition to electric guitar and violin he also plays dan moi, suroz, sarangi, oud, cura cumnbus, electric saz, viola, cura saz, and pipa. His partner, Azure Carter, is a singer/songwriter whose lyrics on the album are, to quote the promo sheet, “related to and/or inspired by Second Life, an online virtual world.” Along with Christopher Diasparra on tenor and baritone saxophones and Edward Schneider on alto sax we have the dozen songs that make up Avatar Women. Instrumentally the music is stripped down, with Sondheim playing solo instruments, and switching among the various pieces in his stringed arsenal. He’s a gifted musician, the songs typically consisting of frantic yet incredibly passionate soloing. When the horns join in they are usually restrained and never dominate their stringed ally. In fact, it’s not uncommon for the horns to be the pastoral counter to Sondheim’s frenzied playing. Carter’s vocals are a mixture of singing and poetic narrative, which contrasts but nicely melds with the music to create a uniquely intriguing combination. Stylistically the music is a witch’s cauldron, the whole being a kind of Avant-Ethnic/Traditional/Shamanic/Jazz blend. Representative tracks include Buried, on which Sondheim’s stringed instrument has a trippy Middle Eastern bazaar feel, playing a slightly dissonant and dronish yet pleasantly hypnotic melody, which sounds very nice combined with Carter’s vocals. Sondheim plays a frantic melody on Dark Robe, again with a Middle Eastern flavor, though there is a strong avant free-improv element. And when the horns join in it gives the music a strangely ethereal jazz quality. On Surely the music has elements of some traditional, perhaps Celtic pub style, yet it’s also got that Eastern vibe, shaken and stirred within a shamanic free-improv jazz context. Later in the piece Sondheim’s playing takes off like a maddened experimental Bluegrass musician, joined by slowly jazz soloing sax. I love the Eastern mystic meets banjo pickin’ hillbilly style on World, accompanied by wailing jazz horns. Making Boys is similar though Sondheim’s playing becomes frenzied, tempered only by the vocals and subdued horns. Avatar Man With Dream Women and Buried II are a little different, with Sondheim playing what sounds like an electronically enhanced jaw harp, again making for an interesting contrast with Carter’s vocals. In summary, Avatar Women might have succeeded even if it were Sondheim alone. His playing had me transfixed throughout. But combined with the vocals and horns we’ve got one of the most compelling blends of styles I’ve heard this year. Aural Innovations readers with experimental tastes will appreciate the (I’m sure unintended) Psychedelic elements. - Jerry Kranitz

(Monsieur Délire) Avant-folk songs with Azure Carter (nice voice, plaintive at times, and she occasionally gets close to Harry Partch’s speech-singing) and Alan Sondheim who plays here all sorts of stringed instruments (violin, viola, guitar, sarangi, saz, pipa, oud, etc.). Two sax players have guest appearances, but the bulk of the record revolves around the duo. The mood is often bleak or at least troubling, though some pieces (like “Credo”) are serene. The songwriting is slack, leaving room for improvisation. Strange, interesting, and Sondheim is an exceptional musician. - François Couture

(NewMusicBox) The description “folk music from another planet” has been used to describe the output of musical creators as diverse as Meredith Monk, Captain Beefheart, the English art rock duo Renaldo and the Loaf, and the proto-New Age jazz-fusion ensemble Oregon. In fact it’s an expression that even I was tempted to use when I wrote about recordings of the ancient Mayan-inspired compositions of Jeremy Haladyna and in fact did when I wrote about the fascinating sonic explorations of a Taos-based duo called Untravelled Path. But it’s always struck me as a somewhat disingenuous explanation for oddball sounds since, after all, who’s to say what music from another planet would sound like? It might sound completely bland. And certainly people on our own planet have been making pretty strange sounds for millennia. Yet it’s the first thing that comes to mind yet again as I ponder how to describe Avatar Woman, a collaboration between Providence-based singer-songwriter Azure Carter and her life partner, multi-instrumentalist Alan Sondheim. Carter’s magnum opus has been an ongoing performance/video piece called The Fairyland Around Us based on unpublished naturalist writings of Opal Whitely (1897-1992) who is mostly remembered for her mysterious and controversial childhood diary. Sondheim, though no relation to the iconoclastic Broadway composer-lyricist, has been an iconoclast of both music and words for almost as long as his more famous namesake. Back in the late 1960s, ESP-Disk issued two LPs of his experimental improvisations on a wide range of string, wind, and percussive instruments. In subsequent decades, he became even more devoted to experimenting with written language, becoming one of the pioneers of cybertext; one of his more radical techniques involves blurring poetry and computer languages. The 12 songs featured on Avatar Woman are admittedly somewhat less ambitious than some of Carter and Sondheim’s individual large-scale projects, but they are no less adventurous. Although all of the songs herein were composed by Carter, they sound the way they do largely because of Sondheim’s unusual performance approach to a potpourri of instruments from around the world—including violin, viola, oud, pipa, sarangi, electric guitar, electric saz, dàn môi (a Vietnamese jaw harp), and something that was totally new to me, a cura cümbü? which is a small banjo-like instrument that was developed in Istanbul in the early 20th century. On “Buried,” Carter’s extremely pretty sounding vocals on a ballad are prevented from being at all soothing by the presence of a truly off-kilter sarangi accompaniment—this has nothing to do with raga. Toward the end, the voice completely slips away and all that’s left is a reverb-laden double-stop. On “Dark Robe,” Carter’s voice sounds far less innocent; there’s an almost eerie creepiness to her tone quality as she sings about death stalking her against a backdrop of mostly plucked strings and occasionally drones from two saxophones played by Christopher Diasparra and Edward Schneider. “Surely,” in which Sondheim again accompanies Carter on a bowed string instrument, reminds me somewhat of G.B. Grayson’s performance of the creepy murder ballad “Ommie Wise” from Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, although half way through it sounds like Albert Ayler sat in on the session. The almost tender “Among the Ferns”—similarly arranged for voice and bowed string, but this time no saxophones—is based on poems by the Edwardian socialist and LGBT activist Edward Carpenter. For “World,” the electric saz strums madly as the voice and a saxophone weave melodic shards around it. In the alternate universe I often wish I lived in, “Making Boys” would be a Top 40 hit; in the real one I do live in, it sounds like what might have happened if Jacqueline Humbert sang Robert Ashley’s songs with Eugene Chadbourne. Sondheim’s erratic bowing offers the one element of variance in the hypnotic, austerely minimal “Blood Tantra”—I write this as a compliment! The dàn môi gets pulled out for “Avatar Man with Dream Woman”; much more flexible than most jaw harps, the instrument is capable of a very wide range of sounds, all of which seem to get used here. In fact, pun intended, the conclusion made my jaw drop. The saxophones return on “What Remains,” which is perhaps the most song-like track in the entire collection thus far; at times it’s almost hummable, almost. “Marriage to Language” contains my favorite lyric of the entire album: “Perhaps I understand what you’re saying but don’t understand why you are saying it.” The dàn môi returns for a reprise of “Buried”; the different instrument and different key almost make it sound like a different song. I could actually image folks in an arena singing along to “Credo,” the album’s closing track. Carter’s melody is positively anthemic, and Sondheim’s resolutely primal tonal electric guitar accompaniment rarely upstages it. Then again, I live on that other planet where this stuff is folk music. - Frank J. Oteri


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