Review: Slide to Freedom II
By Doug Cox and Salil Bhatt
(Northern Blues Music)
Review by Douglas Heselgrave
Cross cultural conversations in music are nothing new, and the novelty that once accompanied the release of albums like Paul Simon’s Graceland has long since faded away. The world is getting much smaller and almost every week one can find new and unlikely collaborations between artists as different from one another as a New York DJ and a group of Tuvan throat singers. The variety of new world music recordings available is staggering, and whether one likes Persian jazz fusion or Senegalese hip hop, there is something to fit almost every taste. With so many potentially interesting collaborations vying for music fans’ attention, it would be easy for a gem like Slide to Freedom II to get lost in the commotion. That would be a shame as it’s an album that succeeds completely on its own musical terms. Unpretentious, loose and fun, Slide to Freedom II is the second album from Doug Cox, Vishwan and Salil Bhatt.
Vishwan Bhatt is one of sitarist Ravi Shankar’s most senior disciples and has long been considered amongst the world’s greatest Veena (nineteen stringed resonating slide) players. No stranger to cross cultural musical explorations, Bhatt collaborated with Ry Cooder in 1993 to produce Meeting by the River, a wonderful album of instrumental music that explored the common ground shared by western and Asian string traditions. Slide to Freedom II – like its predecessor - captures a joyful and spontaneous conversation with the blues filtered through Indian raga progressions.
The three first met when Vishwan Bhatt and his son, Salil - a veena master in his own right - were touring in Canada several years ago. Doug Cox has long been a veteran of the Canadian blues scene, having recorded several albums of traditional and original music over the years, while nurturing a passion for world music that was just waiting to come to fruition. When he first heard the senior Bhatt’s music, he recognized a kindred soul and began to communicate with him online about the varieties of slide music. When the Bhatts arrived in Canada to play a series of concerts, they contacted Cox who promptly asked to study with them. Vishwan refused this request, and instead suggested that they record an album together while they were on tour.
When the musicians first sat down together, Cox brought along his slide guitar, but the tonal qualities didn’t complement the Indian instruments, so he switched to a Gadgie – a resonating hollow bodied guitar made in England – and the sounds gelled to such an extent that it’s often difficult to distinguish between what where Cox’s guitar ends and the Bhatts’ veenas begin. This synthesis of tone creates a seductive flow to the performances as guitar and veenas effortlessly weave and dance around each other.
In addition to featuring delta inspired raga improvisations, Slide to Freedom I included versions of blues standards such as John Hurt’s Payday and Blind Willie Johnson’s Soul of a Man sung by Doug Cox. For the second album, Cox and Bhatt decided to bring John Boutte, a New Orleans gospel tenor on board to handle vocal duties. This was an inspired choice - for if there was one complaint about the first collaboration, it was that Cox’s voice was not on par with the divine fluidity of the music that arose out of their instruments. Boutte is a sensitive and emotive singer whose contributions to Make a better world, I scare myself and Amazing Grace raise the proceedings to a much higher level. For some people, the trio’s off the cuff recreation of George Harrison’s For You Blue, replete with psychedelic veena solos will provide reason enough to buy this album.
Even though traditional tunes on a collaboration like this offer a familiar place to begin listening from, the instrumental pieces are by far the most interesting cuts on the disc. Freed from conventional song structures, tracks like The Moods of Madhuvanti – a stellar ten minute blues raga – and the aching and wistful Blessings make this an essential addition to anyone’s music collection.
While it might be interesting to undertake a musicological excavation of the compositions on this album and deconstruct every phrase and find references to everything from twelve bar blues figures to Indonesian gamelan forms, it’s really beside the point. It doesn’t matter how much musical background a person has - Slide to Freedom II takes listeners on an exhilarating musical journey from beginning to end. Like a vintage guitar, this record improves with age and sounds better every time it’s played.