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Stereophile: Record To Die For -
Stereophile: Recording of the Month
For the Ghosts Within, Robert Wyatt's collaboration with Gilad Atzmon and Ros Stephen, is a set of seven standards from jazz, theater, pop, and film, balanced by four provocative originals. Stephen recorded strings, double bass, and a scratch vocal first; Wyatt added proper ones later; and this was handed off to Atzmon, who added reeds, winds, electronics, and accordion, and produced the finished product. The process sounds cold and disembodied; the recording, anything but. It opens with Johnny Mercer's haunting "Laura," with Wyatt providing one of the most vulnerable vocals of his career over Stephen's Sigamos String Quartet, Richard Pryce's upright bass, and Atzmon's alto saxophone. It's riveting for its nocturnal nakedness despite the warmth of the strings. "Lullaby for Irena," by Stephen and Alfreda Benge, begins with murky electronics and Atzmon playing an Eastern modal theme on clarinet. The strings introduce Western classical harmony before Pryce and Wyatt enter, haltingly, allowing the musical spaces between his words their full measure. It is a love song so full of gratitude it is nearly heartbreaking. The title track, by Atzmon and Benge, features Tali Atzmon on lead vocals with various reeds winds, accordion, and even a Palestinian shepherd's flute by Gilad Atzmon. The exotic, sampled percussive effects create a sense of haunted drama as Stephen and Wyatt underscore them with a backing chorus that transports the listener to an aural terrain between jazz and Middle Eastern folk styles. These three tracks provide a blueprint for most of what follows: Wyatt's vocal interpretations of Thelonious Monk's "'Round Midnight," Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life," and Duke Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood" stand outside the jazz repertoire, but, because of Wyatt's extraordinary, uncategorizable voice, offer a fresh, expansive, and elegant reading of standards that don't lose their connecting threads. That said, the version of "What a Wonderful World" bears all the traces of Wyatt's wickedly political sense of irony and humor, without sacrificing the simple beauty in the melody that betrays -- due to Stephen's string arrangement -- a deceptively complex harmonic system.Two songs are questionable. "Where Are They Now" is an original which begins as complex New Orleans jazz-cum-theater music before getting a stomping hip-hop treatment from rapper Aboud Hashem (Stormtrapp of Ramallah Underground); along with Wyatt's vocal, it feels out of place. The other is a re-recorded, very abstract version of Chic's "At Last I Am Free." Wyatt's single version is so striking and expertly delivered that this one, with lush strings, bandoneon, and clarinets, feels overdone and disconnected. These two minor complaints aside, For the Ghosts Within succeeds as both collaboration and an aural portrait of what a complete standards recording by Wyatt could offer.
© Thom Jurek /TiVo