August 2000

Andreas Vollenweider - Cosmopoly
Sony Classical CD-89096
Released: 2000

by Srajan Ebaen

Musical Performance *****
Recording Quality ***1/21/2
Overall Enjoyment *****

[Reviewed on CD]I’m an AV fiend -- not audio-video and all those crazy home-theater notions, but AV as in acoustical virtuosity, or Andreas Vollenweider if you want a slightly longer and harder to pronounce synonym. I’m a diehard fan, period. I’ve owned every one of his previous nine releases at one time or another. Besides the original and groundbreaking Trilogy, I find Book of Roses to be the strongest. Also, as an ex-orchestral musician myself, I really admire Kryptos for its truly symphonic complexity. Conversely, Dancing with the Lion and Eloian Minstrel are my two least favorites. For those compatriots who know the entire oeuvre as well, my preferences should prepare you for my comments on Cosmopoly.

If you’re an AV virgin, well, get with it friend. Andreas Vollenweider is one of those all-too-rare musicians who, from the very beginning, hit a truly inimitable stride and never turned back, preferring instead to stick to paths less traveled rather than revisit proven scenery. Not unlike a fake-proof maverick signature, he accomplishes this by fashioning a unique style of harp-driven poetic New Age fusion with strong but diverse chamber-music sensibilities, which have grown more orchestral in scope as the years and releases have gone by.

How far will this terribly gifted musician-composer cast his net this time? He’s collaborated with the cream of the crop for years to assure his shape-shifting ensemble the very best representatives of whatever styles he is reinventing. To wit, Book of Roses features Spanish flamenco-guitar wizard Gerardo Nuñez, the spine-tingling Siberian vocal shaman Namtchilak and the soothing harmonies of Ladysmith Black Mombazo, their individual trademark signatures all subtly but indelibly altered by interfacing with the Swiss. Kryptos accesses the forces of a full symphony orchestra with attendant mixed chorus, and, if I’ve mastered total recall, might even have found room for a wailing e-guitar.

For Cosmopoly, Vollenweider sets the table with a truly monstrous catch of expert specimens -- the collection is aptyl named. Always known for giving great flute with his group, Vollenweider here picks Carlos Nuñez, honorable seventh Chieftain and acknowledged as one of the world’s premier pipers (his breakout Brotherhood of Stars album on BMG [74321-45375-2] is a must-have). It also features Bask accordion maestro Kepa Junkera, who joins us here next to Bobby McFerrin and Djivan Gasparyan, master of the ancient Armenian oboe. Further inducements are the silvery vocals of Carly Simon, the oratory voice of Taoist author and T’ai Chi legend Al Huang, famed pianist Abdullah Ibrahim and the marvelous Brazilian tenor of Milton Nascimento.

From the opening Gaelic flute-harp duet, we shift gears into a dense urban jazzy groove replete with harp-delivered pop hooks before wushu goes griot. Bobby McFerrin transports us deep into the heart of Africa atop a Malinese-flavored tribal riff that exercises his famed vocal gymnastics while riding on lilting rhythms provided by, of all instruments, a Chinese Gu Cheng harp. Then, grüezi, now we’re in a Viennese outdoor bistro where harp and string quartet intermingle in an elegant, rubato-laden waltz that also bears faint reminiscences to Argentinean chamber music. Next thing you know, Gasparyan’s haunting duduk weaves its mournful spell around Vollenweider’s lithe harp before the Armenian breaks into a melancholy song that could spell longing for a homeland or the arms of a lost lover amongst this royal banquet, possibly my favorite treat.

But wait, there is much more. Our next destination is to somewhere near the lotus lakes of Cambodia or Vietnam. Some Scottish tourists inject local color, and Carly Simon lends her liquid vocal instrumentation; this tune shifts back and forth between two very unlikely musical idioms, juxtaposing a complete Oriental ensemble of pipa, erhu, sheng and dizi with Junkera’s trikitixa accordion and Nuñez’s Irish whistle. A brief detour has us participate in a free-jazz workout between harp and piano and then a seriously swinging McFerrin number plays touchdown. For ultimate kicks there’s a truly warped, far-out, slip-sliding dialogue between trombone, harp and raucously jiving keyboards that shows just how far-reaching Vollenweider’s musical ambitions and skills have become. Charmingly, amidst this track’s fade-out and laughter amongst the musicians, a disbelieving "is this on tape, man?" comment has been left for posterity.

What did I say my favorite track was again? Well, you get the idea. Cosmopoly is an unqualified home run. How about seducing absolute strangers instead? Next to Book of Roses, I couldn’t think of another Vollenweider album that so compellingly weaves accessibility and variety to lead a novice straight into the heartland of this Swiss genius.

Cosmopoly is thus a superb example of what I keep hoping to come across more often -- artistic finesse coupled with memorable musical content that makes certain demands on the listener while rewarding handsomely with very little effort. Check out for tour dates. If you have a chance to see the ensemble live, I can vouch from experience it is an unforgettable, deeply humbling experience.