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Chas Smith - Nakadai

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Artist: Chas Smith

Album: Nakadai

Label: Cold Blue

Review date: Jan. 28, 2009

The latest CD from composer/steel guitarist/inventor Chas Smith brings back to light some important previously out-of-print material and combines it with one new work. The first three pieces come from the original 1987 LP Nakadai, and taken together they provide an immersive experience of Smith’s unique sound world. “Nakadai” – named for the great Japanese actor – builds a rising and falling structure from long, drawn-out swells of pedal steel multi-tracked and echoed into cascading arcs. Each moment of the 14-minute piece unfolds with new, ever-shifting harmonic possibilities, and what might first be perceived as a cloud-like spaciousness begins to take on palpable weight and mass. “Hollister,” for solo pedal steel, explores the possibilities of glissando and wide tonal/timbral range inherent to the instrument; here, the shifting arcs of sound slide and collide into varied consonances and dissonances, with fuzz-toned textures and seismic, rumbling bass notes vibrating along with the hollow, clear-toned swells.

The two-part “A Judas Within” evinces Smith’s penchant for bestowing his most foreboding titles upon some of his most alluring and sensuous music. The first part, “Seduction,” gracefully blurs background and foreground, the steel guitar textures unfolding and enveloping a hazy, slowly-shimmering pulse of tuned mallet instruments that becomes all-encompassing in its density. “Betrayal” shimmers also, with what seem to be asymmetrically staggered rhythms played on pedal steel, vibraphone, microtonal chimes, and bowed and struck metal objects. The beating between frequencies generated by all this accrues into a complex and tactile construct of audible color and texture.

That blurring of the lines between sound and physical presence, between mass and weightlessness, seems to be at the heart of Smith’s music, and is again in evidence on the 2008 piece “The Ghosts on the Windows,” wherein spectral choirs, orchestral washes, and bell-tones rise from rolling waves of sound generated by steel guitars and instruments of the composer’s invention.

The CD’s closing piece is one of the most intimate pieces Smith has ever recorded. Originally appearing on a small-label anthology in 1991, “Joaquin Murphey” is a tribute to the great west coast steel player who had his heyday in the 1940s and ’50s. Murphey did much of his work while wearing cowboy clothes in western swing bands, a fact which should not deter appreciation of his being, to put it simply, a truly great musician in ways transcendent of genre. His fluid and expressive command of the non-pedal steel guitar was a musical miracle that more people should discover.

Smith’s piece begins with a single plucked note on steel guitar. It’s a note that rings with the same sort of bronzed, round tone that Murphey used. Sustained tones quickly rise, swell and commingle: sometimes finding lush/ tart harmonic clusters that echo perhaps, in a distant and abstract way, the diminished scale tonalities of Murphey’s jazz take-offs; at other times arriving at almost unbearably gorgeous consonances that echo the intensity of energy and emotion that suffused Murphey’s playing. “Joaquin Murphey” is an elegant, bittersweet piece of music, and indeed it seems a deep and fitting tribute to a person – and a sound – important to the heart and soul of the steel guitar itself.

By Kevin Macneil Brown

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