A Meeting By the River Gets Liquid!

Like West Meets East (Angel/EMI 36418 LP) the famous Ravi Shankar/Yehudi Menuhin collaboration from 1966, this 1992 get together between the guitarist/musicologist Ry Cooder and Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, a classically trained Indian musician you may have unknowingly seen playing the Mohan Viña (an instrument he devised) in the DVD “A Concert For George,” attempts to mesh Eastern and Western musical sensibilities.

While the Shankar/Menuhin record paired two classically trained musicians playing Eastern and Western classical music, this one crosses rougher terrain, with the Eastern classicist comparing musical notes with the less formally trained, but eclectically informed Cooder.

V.M. Bhatt’s Mohan Vinã (inspired by the North Indian instrument the Vichitra Vinã), is a big, hollow bodied “F” holed acoustic slide guitar variant featuring a dozen sympathetic drone strings tensioned on an “auxiliary” neck, located next to the three melody and five drone strings running the length of the main neck. It’s played lap-style, with strings both picked and slid upon using a heavy steel rod. The result is an instrument capable of both tugging at the heart seductively and soaring freely above a complex weave of continuous textures.

Cooder brings his slinky, bottleneck slide guitar to the proceedings and while it’s a less ephemeral, less complex instrument than the Mohan Vinã, its spare, angular, cooler presentation better delivers the western sensibilities at the core of Cooder’s musical consciousness that ranges from the Tex-Mex border to the Bahamas to Hawaii.

This collaboration came about after luthier Rick Turner heard an earlier Bhatt recordings and suggested to WaterLily founder and engineer Kavi Alexander that he get a copy to Cooder who was sufficiently impressed to arrange for a collaborative session that Alexander was invited to record using his minimalist analog recording techniques.

So, in September of 1992 after ten hours of film scoring in an L.A. studio, Cooder drove to Santa Barbara, CA where, in a motel lobby, he met Bhatt for the first time in. The two headed over to the Christ the King Chapel, where Alexander had set up his Tim De Paravini built 1” 15 IPS two track analog tape recorder and custom vacuum tube driven Blumlein microphone array. The slide guitar duo were joined by Tabla player Sukhvinder Singh Namdari and on Dumbek (another kind of drum), Cooder’s then fourteen year old son Joachim.

The results are four, approximately ten minute long improvisations that are among the most pure and sublime you are likely to encounter on record. The communication begins tentatively with Bhatt in the lead suggesting an Eastern motif and Cooder following with a cautionary strum. As Bhatt snakes his way East, Cooder finds an in and lays out some parched Paris, Texas-like accents that Bhatt picks up and runs with heading West. Cooder grabs it and heads East and the two are off as the tabla enters, driving the rhythmic thrust forward with the two slide guitarists trading complex, harmonically exquisite runs to the tune’s graceful conclusion.

Passionate, mysterious, intricate, earthy, ethereal, moody and mystical, the rich musical improvisations on this recording defy categorization. Though unplanned and totally improvised, the music’s orderliness and logical flow makes it seem somehow pre-ordained. Listen to the snaky, sinewy “Ganges Delta Blues” and you’ll be won over instantly.

The recording is as astonishing as the music: a harmonically complex, three dimensional, two-microphone purist production that will easily takes its place at the top of the sonic heap in your record collection and that’s a guarantee. Cooder stage right, Bhatt stage left, the percussion taking up the space in between, this is among the most spacious, convincing three-dimensional recordings you will ever hear.

When first issued in 1993 on CD, during vinyl’s darkest days, though there was talk of an LP edition, it never materialized. The CD sounds plenty good, mind you, but those of us still into vinyl could only imagine how a well-made LP version might sound.

Fifteen years later, thanks to Acoustic Sounds’ Chad Kassem, the wait is finally over. Not only do we finally have the vinyl edition, we have it as a double 45rpm 180g set!

CD playback has improved greatly since 1993 so before listening to the vinyl I refreshed my memory with the CD, which still sounds great. Great, yes, but not evencloseto the serenity and transparency of the vinyl. Now the scrim is lifted, air fills the space around the instruments and you are in the church. String transients and drum skin textures only hinted at on CD come to life. A late-night listen with the lights out must! An essential record in any 21st century vinyl collection.

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