April 2000

Chris Spheeris - Dancing with the Muse
Higher Octave 48755
Released: 2000

by Srajan Ebaen

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality ***
Overall Enjoyment ***1/2

[Reviewed on CD]No florid fluff, but spicy flavors. No vapid simplicity, but virile sophistication. Chris Spheeris is a New Age artist who plays in a different league. He performs on a more elevated plateau than the shallow and poisoned marshes that so much of this genre has deteriorated into. He literally comes from a Higher Octave -- looking at this opening, you knew I just had to say that.

Dancing with the Muse blends vibrant elements of the Mediterranean and Indian into a transcultural melange that remains buoyantly afloat on rhythmic grooves, calls upon authentic instrumentals to inject global colors and samples vocal fragments to create a stylistic form that might be called New Age world fusion. Unlike the genre’s typically sugarcoated soundscapes that are more mood than actual substance, Dancing features fully developed sequential musical ideas that congeal as well-crafted, melodic, multi-layered songs. At times -- especially in "Invisible Hands" -- they approach a symphonic complexity not unlike Yanni’s. Telltale signs of artistic maturity manifest as carefully applied, finely wrought details that provide palpable textures, surprising harmonic twists and top-notch production values. Synth washes are used delicately and deliberately to set up atmospheric backdrops rather than serving as the main compositional carrier. Oboe, English horn, viola, violin, cello, oud and ney carry melodies or shorter motifs. Indian vocal percussion intermingles with hand drums, flamenco claps and tablas while Spheeris provides his trademark keyboards, guitars, bouzouki and of course, all of these original compositions.

The general mood, as the title implies, is decidedly joyful and celebratory. Besides being a formidable composer, Chris Spheeris is also -- or possibly even more so -- a very deft arranger. He paints with a gorgeously wealthy palette of fine-tuned tonal hues, assigning constantly shifting yet very specific instruments and synth settings to each passage and minuscule secondary material, often octave-doubling or tripling voicings to arrive at new tonalities without artificial mixing tricks. The result is a very acute sense of arrangement sophistication that actually overshadows physical instrumental dexterity and acumen. The bravura artistry and consummate virtuosity of, say, an Andreas Vollenweider ensemble or the tremendous chops of fellow guitarist Eric Fernanez -- his fantastic Magic Gypsy on Higher Octave [47705] is a very strong recommendation -- seem a small cut above what’s here, but this is not to be taken as a criticism. It’s merely a description of a different set of strengths. The entire album works exceedingly well and, in keeping with the genre’s inherent mission statement, is suffused with a lightness of spirit that’s damn infectious.

"Magaya" opens the journey with an oud solo and a brief free-floating ney and then shimmies along on a Arabic-influenced lilting beat while guitar and violin trade places following the simple yet sensuous melody with the typically Middle Eastern diminished second in the descent. A very ethereal oboe provides a brief interlude before the percussion-heavy refrain resumes, this time with an earthy cello in counterpoint to the violin. A muezzin-like Moroccan call to Allah announces the bridge that employs part of the original melody to set up a drum-heavy variant before the opening melody returns full circle to close out this number. The happy title track seems to immediately accelerate things with a driving Turkish rhythm and syncopated synth chords before the lithe keyboard solo, then taken up by the guitar, resets the apparent pulse. A wailing and warbling soprano ney adds a bit of desert drama while Gaetano’s raunchy Cante Jondo-derived vocal flamenco solo in the second reprise injects a certain unhinged wildness. Octave-doubled guitar/keyboard lines with cello below return, seemingly floating above the intricate hand percussion tattoo.

When everything’s said and done -- or heard -- Dancing with the Muse provides the listener with a full hour’s worth of happy-go-lucky tunes, each of which is a winner. Like a stimulating meal that leaves you energetic, these upbeat tunes are laden with liberal doses of invigorating aural spices. By licensing his album from Essence Records, Chris Spheeris makes a gorgeous debut for Higher Octave. With it the label has added a most valuable member to its resident stable of guitarist-composers that include the inimitable Govi and the most successful Strunz & Farah spin-off, the Lara & Reyes Latin guitar duo. If you think that New Age has to mean soft drivel from the fifth harmonic, think again. Chris Spheeris, while indeed possessed of a heavenly pedigree, seems on this occasion to favor a hefty degree of sensuous and earthly sinfulness.