Hot on the heels of his acclaimed quartet release Familiar Fields, Bay Area guitarist Hristo Vitchev offers this collection of serene yet poignant duets with clarinetist Liubomir Krastev. Rhodopa celebrates the duo’s Bulgarian heritage with a gentle collection of tunes, some haunting and some hopeful. The music might be more accurately labeled as New Age rather than jazz, but its emotional depth and the virtuosity of the players far surpass most New Age recordings. Fans of the best Windham Hill releases or the mellower acoustic works of Pat Metheny or Ulf Wakenius should enjoy this album.
The title Rhodopa refers to a mythical queen in ancient Thrace. The myth holds that Rhodopa and her brother took on the names Hera (wife of Zeus) and Zeus, for which the real Zeus punished the pair by turning them into mountains. Today the Rhodope Mountains tower over southern Bulgaria.
Vitchev’s Bulgarian roots have inspired most of his previous recordings, but Rhodopa includes his first direct interpretations of traditional tunes from his homeland. The pair plays five traditional Bulgarian songs, two original Vitchev compositions and two Bulgarian-inspired improvisations. On each tranquil piece, Krastev’s clarinet weaves arabesque Eastern European motifs atop Vitchev’s lyrical acoustic guitars, which serve as the harmonic foundation.
The clarinet and other reed instruments are featured in many traditional Bulgarian songs, particularly wedding music. Most of these wedding tunes are far more frenetic than the songs on Rhodopa, but a similar sense of untethered spontaneity is evident in Vitchev’s and Krasev’s playing. At its core, Rhodopa is an intriguing marriage of Krastev’s masterful Bulgarian-influenced clarinet with Vitchev’s jazz chords and Western guitar phrasings. It’s a loose yet sophisticated amalgam that makes for a very relaxing listen.
Aside from the comparatively fast-paced and all-too-brief “Improvisation #2,” most tunes here are marked by a strong melodic theme that gives way to intricate interplay. The opener “Devoiko Mari Hubava” (Beautiful Young Lady) establishes the mood via a stirring melody and gentle improvisations. The longest track, “Lale Li Si, Zyumbiul Li Si” (Are You a Tulip, Are You a Hyacinth) is also one of the loveliest. It’s an old Bulgarian folk song in which a young man describes a girl’s beauty, and the version here is exquisitely tranquil. Just as striking is the Vitchev composition “Silent Prayer,” which has Krastev playing a hopeful melody while Vitchev adds simple chords on guitar and piano, as well as subtle synth atmospherics.
Vitchev’s lyrical approach to guitar is similar to Metheny and Wakenius, although his composing style tends to be more impressionistic. In fact, Vitchev’s first step before recording each album is to create an impressionistic oil painting of his musical concept. As with his previous releases, his latest painting ended up as the CD cover for Rhodopa.
by Ed Kopp
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