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Familiar Fields
Hristo Vitchev Quartet

The musical bond beween guitarist Hristo Vitchev and pianist Weber Iago is as strong as that of Chick Corea and Gary Burton, with proof being their two sublime duet recordings, The Secrets of an Angel and Heartmony, as well as three small group sessions under Vitchev's name. For the Familiar Fields quartet date with regular bassist Dan Robbins and new drummer Mike Shannon, Vitchev chose nine gems to play from his vault of more than 270 original compositions. As usual, as one listens to Vitchev's music, the words lyrical, impressionistic, spiritual, and passionate come to mind, and also Vitchev's term "heartmony," which he defines as "the simultaneous combination of feelings and emotions, especially when produced by experiences, memories, and stimulations pleasing to the heart, body, and soul."

"Ballad for the Fallen" has a streamlined, inviting theme with a catchy hook, and it engenders staunch solos from Robbins, Vitchev, and Iago, the guitarist's mercurial, the pianist's prancing joyfully. The piece's character and execution recall Pat Metheny at his most luminous. Shannon's forceful workout over a guitar/piano vamp serves as the track's conclusive resolution. The affecting, circular melody of "Wounded by a Poisoned Arrow" invites a tautly focused Vitchev improv, his bustling lines spinning an intricate web. Iago follows in rapturous flight, after which the duo weave harmonically around the thematic framework. Shannon's agile and precise drumming stands out during the spiritually rich "The Prophet's Daughter." Iago's solo is both reflective and affirmative, Robbin's vigorously commanding, and Vitchev's laden with cascading phrases.

Iago's rhapsodic prelude to "They Are No More" leads into Vitchev's pensive recital of the sparse, staccato theme. Robbins' resonating bass punctuations are a key asset as the guitarist unfurls a heartfelt, ringing solo, as well as during the endearing ebb and flow of Iago's statement. The reprise finds the leader's melodic musings enhanced by the pianist's fertile arpeggios and runs. For "Familiar Fields Pt. 1 (Departure)," the composer's sultry chords and the delicate theme itself are interspersed with Iago's robust tones, prior to Vitchev's quick-fingered ruminations. Shannon's busy yet apt patterns are again an essential element. Iago's unabashedly lyrical essay precedes the theme's return, and some turbulent interaction between Robbins' throbbing bass, Shannon's driven commentary, and the pianist's adamant expressions. "Familiar Fields Pt. 2 (Return)" finds Iago's single-note intro transformed into the fleshed out, earnestly repetitive melody. Iago's powerful solo builds relentlessly, his formations rolling and tumbling with vitality. Vitchev makes a belated first appearance for a diversion that careens without caution through a zestful series of extended lines. The pianist then provides a brief, but satisfying thematic summation.

Vitchev's opening vamp and the soothing melody of his "The Mask of Agamemnon" develop invitingly, with Robbins adeptly and stirringly contributing the initial solo. Vitchev's improvisation contains a pleasantly refined sound that belies the intensity of his declarations. Iago is on fire from the start of his sweeping turn. Vitchev and Iago intertwine in presenting and embellishing the reflective, undulating "The Fifth Season." The pianist steps forward with a melodically lucid and absorbing solo, which the guitarist responds to with one of his own, his sparkling constructions twirling irresistibly. The recap simply underscores Vitchev's ability to create unassuming, unadorned tunes that never fail to cast a spell. "Willing to Live" is dedicated to Vitchev's grandmother "for her never ending desire to keep living and fighting!" (Vitchev is originally from Sofia, Bulgaria, but now resides in San Francisco.) Iago's captivating intro evolves into the yearning theme in seamless collaboration with Vitchev. The pianist's tender presentation ensues, only to be reinforced by the leader's deliberate outpourings that occasionally break free emotionally. The selection winds down with a lengthy, loving exploration of the theme's essence by the quartet, in totally engaged accord.

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Scott Albin