Sunday, September 26, 2010

CD Review – Another Place and Time, by Heidi Anne Breyer

Heidi Anne Breyer’s latest CD, Another Place and Time, takes you to the destination indicated by the title, a feat that can be accomplished only by powerful and evocative music, such as that contained on this excellent recording.

Breyer manages this with gentle and soothing piano-based compositions that quietly work their way into your senses. It almost feels like osmosis -- the music absorbs you and you absorb the music.

While Breyer’s piano is the center of attention here, the album wouldn’t be what it is without the support of a fine lineup of master musicians, including Eugene Friesen on cello, Charlie Bisharat on violin, Jeff Oster on flugelhorn, Jill Haley on English horn, and David Cullen and Will Ackerman (founder of Windham Hill Records/Private Music and the album’s producer) on guitar. Rather than joining in a tsunami of sound, the instruments are individually paired with the piano on various tracks, resulting primarily in a collection of duets that stir the soul.

With the exception of a track co-written and co-performed with Ackerman, Breyer composed all the other tracks, including one performed entirely on guitar by Cullen. Breyer’s songwriting, inspired by the artwork of her life partner Alexander Volkov, is as masterful as her brilliantly understated piano playing.

Although the album is named after one of the tracks, it’s the tune Chaconne for Our World that truly transports me to another place and time. There’s just something about the pairing of the piano and the horn on that track. But then again, there’s just something about the entire album.

--Raj Manoharan

Sunday, September 12, 2010

CD Review – Egypt: Mother of the World, by Riad Abdel-Gawad

I’m not comfortably familiar with Middle Eastern music, but I know a good musician when I hear one, and Riad Abdel-Gawad certainly fits that bill.

On his second album, the Egyptian-born composer-performer (a Harvard graduate with a PhD in musical composition) showcases his exemplary violin (kamanga) playing in exotic Middle Eastern tuning and scales. Abdel-Gawad is a master of both his instrument and the music he produces with it. He plies his trade with unfaltering, steady, and confident note-precision virtuosity. The music is equally challenging and kinetic, with constantly changing time signatures, tempos, melodies, motifs, and riffs, all within the same song.

Abdel-Gawad has a great band of musicians backing him up: Mohamed Foda (Fouda) on nay (bamboo flute), Saber Abdel-Sattar on qānūn (plucked dulcimer), Yousri Abdel-Maqsoud on bongos, duff, and riqq (tambourine), and Hesham Makarem on the oud (lute). Although Abdel-Gawad is the lead composer and performer, he functions simultaneously as bandleader, soloist, and ensemble player. Through it all, Abdel-Gawad’s fellow musicians stay with him every step of the way, never missing a beat. This is one of the tightest, well-coordinated musical units I have ever had the pleasure of listening to.

The recording quality and presentation of the music is top-notch, as well. The sound is so intimate and well-defined that it feels as if you’re right next to the bandstand. The packaging material is also exquisite, with beautiful art on the cover and in the CD holder, and a glossy sixteen-panel foldout featuring vivid color photography of the artist and his violin amidst Egyptian landmarks, as well as detailed descriptions of the meanings, inspirations, and intentions behind the music.

All around, this is an exceptional offering from a dedicated and innovative artist. If you’re looking for a great introduction to Middle Eastern music, this is definitely a wonderful place to start.

--Raj Manoharan

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

TV – Trek into History

Forty-four years ago today, William Shatner logged his first Stardate entry as Captain James T. Kirk of the starship Enterprise on NBC’s Star Trek. Thus began a sci-fi and pop cultural phenomenon that would trek far beyond anyone’s expectations.

Shatner played Kirk for the following three years, later voicing the role on the 1973-1975 NBC Saturday morning cartoon and then returning as the character in live action for seven big-budget theatrical motion pictures from 1979 to 1994.

The franchise has lived long and prospered beyond Shatner’s participation, with four additional television series spanning 18 consecutive years, as well as four additional movies and counting.

Shatner hasn’t done badly for himself, either. He has maintained the highest, most visible profile of any Star Trek actor, writing several Star Trek and other science fiction novels and starring in several TV shows, including T.J. Hooker, Rescue 911, TekWar, Boston Legal, and the soon-to-premiere CBS sitcom $#*! My Dad Says. Let’s not forget Shatner’s long-running stint as the spokesman for, the latest incarnation being his role as the Priceline Negotiator.

Shatner’s career can basically be divided into two phases: Star Trek and William Shatner.

But Star Trek is where it all began, 44 years ago today.

--Raj Manoharan

TV – Them Duke Boys!

Click for more on the Dukes Ride Again.

That’s right! Them Duke boys are back, never meanin’ no harm and causing all manner of mayhem in Hazzard County. The Dukes of Hazzard returns to CMT weeknights at 7:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m., beginning with a marathon of 33 classic episodes on the weekend of September 10-12.

The 1979-1985 CBS series – about cousins Bo, Luke, and Daisy Duke and their Uncle Jesse running afoul of the corrupt, corpulent Boss Hogg and his shifty-eyed, beagle-loving henchman, Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane – set the stage for the action-comedy adventure shows of the 1980s, such as Magnum P.I., The Greatest American Hero, Knight Rider, The A-Team, Simon and Simon, Matt Houston, and Remington Steele. The show’s single greatest contribution to the genre was gravity-defying car chases complete with multi-angled point-of-view shots: in front of the car, underneath the car, behind the car, behind the tires, etc. In fact, cars lifted off so often on the show that even the show’s narrator and theme song composer-performer, Waylon Jennings (“The Balladeer”), once proclaimed that “Hazzard is the only county that needs an air traffic controller for the cars.”

CMT first aired The Dukes of Hazzard back in 1997, which was a banner year for the classic show. Not only was the series airing every weeknight at 7:00 p.m., but the original cast had reunited for a major network television reunion movie appropriately titled The Dukes of Hazzard Reunion. The only cast member sorely missing from the reunion was the late Sorrell Booke, the criminal and curmudgeonly but cuddly and lovable Boss Hogg. Naturally, Sheriff Rosco took over for his former mentor and was now Boss Rosco. The Dukes’ second and last reunion movie, Hazzard in Hollywood, aired in 2000.

I had the pleasure and honor of interviewing both John Schneider (Bo Duke) and Tom Wopat (Luke Duke) separately over the telephone for the occasion of the CMT reruns and the first reunion movie. I also wanted to interview James Best (Sheriff Rosco), but the CBS publicist wasn’t sure if he was still alive, so that was a lost opportunity. By the way, that reminds me: I had better head on over to James Best’s Web site,, and order an autographed copy of his autobiography before he really is gone. As Sheriff Rosco would say, “I love it, I love it, I love it! Kyugh, kyugh, kyugh!”

--Raj Manoharan

Monday, September 6, 2010

CD Review – Heart Strings, by Steven C.


For his latest recording, Heart Strings, pianist Steven C. traveled to the famed Abbey Road Studio in England to lay down gorgeous melodies with the backing of the London Symphony Strings. The result is a musical work of art that exudes elegance and class.

A piano combined with orchestral strings could be ripe for dramatic, over-the-top bombast. Thankfully, Steven C. forgoes keyboard histrionics in favor of subtle, nuanced phrasing whose quiet beauty is underscored by the sweet serenity of the strings.

The interplay between soloist and ensemble creates a synergy that infuses the album’s fifteen tracks with delightful buoyancy that rolls off the ear like a sonic waterfall. All the tunes have their own individual voice and yet have a singular, unified character that enables them to segue from one to another seamlessly.

The tranquil nature of the album provides the perfect environment for relaxation and reflection. It also satisfies on an emotional level. As the title suggests, the music created by Steven C. and his collaborators will tug at your heartstrings.

--Raj Manoharan

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Movies – Changing Lanes

There are movies, such as the ones listed in my profile, that I will watch over and over again for as long as I live. And there are movies that, regardless of whether they’re good or bad, once I’ve seen them, I’m good for life. And then there are those movies that fall into neither camp but were so compelling the first time around that, when the opportunity arises, I would watch them again. Changing Lanes is one such movie.

The 2002 drama aired last Thursday on My9 Network in the New York City area, and once again I found myself deeply engrossed in the drama of two motorists (Ben Affleck and Samuel L. Jackson) who, after getting into an accident on a New York City highway, proceed to turn each other’s life upside down and in the process become unraveled by their own doing. What starts out as a road rage thriller turns into a soul-baring personal journey of self-discovery and the quest for ethical equilibrium in a world in which the end justifies the means.

Dylan Baker exudes reptilian slime as a cyber “fixer” who helps Affleck unleash virtual demons on Jackson. And the outstanding William Hurt provides great support as Jackson’s Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor, who tries to rescue Jackson from demons in a bottle.

I am not a fan of Affleck, and Jackson is more fun and larger than life in his big franchise roles such as the Star Wars prequels and the Marvel superhero movies and kitsch such as Shaft, Snakes on a Plane, and The Other Guys. However, Changing Lanes stands among the finest work of both of their careers and is a cinematic gem worth seeking out.

--Raj Manoharan