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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1717

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Taarka: Adventures in Vagabondia
by George Graham

(Independent Release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 3/6/2013)

Back in the early 1980s, there arose what came to be called the New Acoustic scene. Most people trace the origins back to mandolinist David Grisman, a versatile artist who was playing with both bluegrass bands and people like the Grateful Dead. Grisman was commissioned to create the music for a film about a Gypsy, and he turned for inspiration to the music of the late jazz guitar virtuoso Django Reinhardt, who founded a uniquely European flavor of jazz on acoustic instruments not that dissimilar to the lineup of a bluegrass band. Grisman enlisted the great violinist Stephane Grappelli, who was part of Reinhardt's Quintet of the Hot Club of France, and they created music influenced by that group, but also applying a bluegrass texture with instruments such as Grisman's mandolin. Grisman put together a group of then-young, eclectic acoustic musicians who were playing bluegrass but were steeped in rock and were influenced by jazz.

Grisman's recordings, though they caused some consternation among bluegrass purists, turned out to be very influential and created an active eclectic acoustic scene which continues to this day, and which has prompted a lot of bluegrass bands to become a lot less traditional.

Recent years have also seen a revival in the jazz world of the Django Reinhardt style performed by younger generations of musicians, such as the Hot Club of Detroit and Pearl Django. And that has spun off something of a revival of Gypsy-influenced music in the jazzy acoustic setting.

This week we have a band that absorbs that influence and goes a lot of other places in an acoustic setting. The group is called Taarka and their new CD is called Adventures in Vagabondia.

The core of Taarka is the husband-wife duo of David and Enion Pelta-Teller. David, then known as just David Teller, grew up in Virginia listening to bluegrass and Celtic music. He started guitar at age 8, learning from his musician father. By age 14, he was studying classical and jazz guitar at the North Carolina School of the Arts, and then took up the mandolin, deciding to specialize in it. He was part of a bluegrass band called TheMuseMeant in based in New Mexico, and then moved to New York to study jazz, which is where he met Enion Pelta.

Ms. Pelta studied classical violin from an early age, but was encouraged to improvise by her father, a jazz musician. She studied music the Peabody Institute while majoring in English at Johns Hopkins University. Afterward, she played in various groups including punk bands.

Teller and Ms. Pelta became musical and marital partners and moved around quite a bit, before settling in Lyons, Colorado, with its active acoustic and bluegrass scene in the area.

The named their band Taarka, with a double-"a" after the "T" after an Indian word for the roasting of spices, though they found a lot of other definitions for the word in various languages. Initially, they were an instrumental group with varying personnel, primarily showing their Eastern European, and Gypsy influence. but gradually over the years, they have become more eclectic. Their new CD Adventures in Vagabondia is their fifth release, and parts of it trend toward Americana, and about half of it is vocal.

This recording has a number of guests. One of the regulars is acoustic bassist Troy Robey, who comes from a jazz background and academe. Robey often tours with the group. Other of the notable guests include Darol Anger, the fiddle player in Davis Grisman's early New Acoustic group, and Grant Gordy, who has also played with Grisman. Guitarist Tyler Grant is a championship bluegrass flat-pick style player.

This generous album ranges from the jazzy New Acoustic style in the Grisman mode to some more traditional styled bluegrass and old-timey-sounding original tunes, to an interesting cover of a Gordon Lightfoot song. The group tends to succeed better with their instrumental music, but their vocals are generally appealing.

The opening track is one of their stronger vocals, a piece called Wandering, which combines a kind of progressive bluegrass sound with lyrics adapted from a Carl Sandburg poem. <<>>

In the general form taken by the CD with alternating vocal and instrumental tracks, the next piece is a composition by David Pelta-Tiller called Rats of Gramercy Park. It's in the eclectic New Acoustic style, nicely performed by the Pelta-Tillers on mandolin and fiddle with Troy Robey on the bass. <<>>

A vocal track by David Pelta-Tiller is called Go to the Edge, which with its minor key and quick tempo evokes a bit of the Eastern European influence that was the group's specialty. Enion Pelta-Tiller is heard on both her regular five string violin and a baritone violin by means of overdubbing. <<>>

Also containing a baritone violin is the piece called Follow the Swallow. In this case that instrument is played by guest musician Ben Blechman, who was also the tune's composer. It's another of the album's highlights. <<>>

Taarka turn their attention toward the sound of traditional American folk with their original tune Up on the Mountain written by Enion Pelta-Tiller. Bluegrass guitar picker Tyler Grant makes an appearance on this piece that sounds like a very old folk song. <<>>

One of my favorite instrumental tracks on the CD is an original piece called Lay Low Jig by David Pelta-Tiller. It's in the 6/8 time signature of a jig but gets rather more eclectic musically than a traditional Celtic dance tune. <<>>

About the only time that the group does not succeed particularly well in on the track called Faun Song. It's a vocal that's got some rock influence complete with an electric guitar solo. But the group's eclecticism on the piece does not gel very well. <<>>

On the other hand, the album's magnum opus also has a little rock energy, together with drums and electric guitar. The piece is called A Whole New You: Reprise and it brings both the energy level and the band's creativity in composing and arranging to a high point. <<>>

Adventures in Vagabondia the new fifth album by the Colorado based, husband-wife led group Taarka, is a nice eclectic collection of mostly acoustic music that carries on the New Acoustic direction founded in the 1980s by people like David Grisman. The Pelta-Tillers started their group with an emphasis on Gypsy swing and Eastern European influence, but by this recording, they have cast their net more widely. Not all of it works brilliantly, but it makes for enjoyable listening. And even when what they try does not work quite as well, I still give them points for effort. They have assembled a good bunch of musicians to work with them, but the majority of what you hear on the album is the work of Mr. and Mrs. Pelta-Tiller.

Our grade for sound quality is about an "A-minus." The acoustic instruments are generally well-recorded, though I noticed a couple of instances of momentary distortion on the vocals. The dynamic range, how the recording reproduces the differences between loud and soft, is a little better than average in these days of over-compressed CDs.

With bluegrass bands getting more eclectic, there are not so many recordings appearing in the wide-ranging New Acoustic style. Adventures in Vagabondia by Taarka is a nice entry in the world of eclectic acoustic music.

(c) Copyright 2011 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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