It is a fair bet that most of you have never heard of Dennis Rea, a much travelled guitarist, multiple band member and composer, and a long term resident of Seattle. Dennis and I go back some time now, as I have written about the man and his music many times over the years. To give you an idea of the many diverse chapters covered by his musical back pages, take a look at this discography retrospective, compiled back in 2012: HERE.
Dennis’s travels over the years included a long stint in China and Taiwan, where he also lived and worked for a time. He has written a fascinating book on his time there, entitled Live at the Forbidden City: Musical Encounters in China & Taiwan which you can read about HERE. His time in the mysterious country led to the 2010 album Views from Chicheng Precipice, a thoroughly lovely and beguiling travail through Dennis’s interpretations of Chinese music that is a delight to the ears.
Recorded over many years, Giant Steppes is Dennis’s second travelogue/interpretive album, this time centred on a vagarious trip through the music of Tuva, a region that straddles Mongolia and Russian Central Asia, and is about as remote – both geographically and culturally – as a Westerner can get. You can get the fully illustrated 65-page story of how Dennis came to be in such a rarefied location in the accompanying book, which is available as a free download HERE.
The musicians on the album comprise a core of fellow Seattle denizens, who have all known and worked with Dennis on various projects over the years, and also the vocal delights of Juliana & PAVA, a Seattle-based Russian choral folk group of reputation, and Tuvan throat singer Albert Kuvezin. The opening track Live at Gaochang (Uyghur Suite) eschews the ethnic musicians and sticks to the Seattle core on a slowly unfolding theme drawing from traditional tunes on a 1980s collection entitled Uyghur Music of Xinjiang. The Uyghurs are in the news right now for the abuse they suffer as a Muslim minority in China, and the eerie nature of the mournful last few minutes of this piece conjure howling winds across the lonely Steppes, to fall on our info-saturated but disconnected Western ears.
Stripped back to just Dennis’s keening guitar, the meat on the stirred bones of Altai By and By is Juliana & PAVA’s multi-layered vocal harmonics, deconstructing at one point to a series of delighted hollers and whoops, making for a combination of melancholia and joy. The vocal group’s work on this is a treat for the ears. The amazing vocal feats of Albert Kuezin feature on the vibrant Wind of the World’s Nest, Dennis’s interpretation of the Tuvan style. Albert’s throat singing puts most of the “barbed wire garglers” of extreme metal to shame, his throat singing technique producing seemingly impossibly low registers, yet remaining entirely legible. The video below, while not on the album, will give you an idea.
We end with The Fellowship of Tsering, and back to the Western musical core. An almost carefree romp through the deep influences that weave their way through this album comes to an abrupt halt, and a call to prayer from the sonorous dungchen horn takes the listener to another place. Tibetan monastery blues, and the rolling thunder of prayer wheels creak and groan in the roiling seas of collective consciousness. A troubled aura of wonder, a fear of the unknown, makes this a kind of anti-ambience, a kind of polar opposite of the quiet bit in the middle of Close to the Edge. Just as suddenly as the sprightly tune disappeared, it’s back to take us home. What a strange but enthralling trip it has been!
It is possible that some might view this work as obscurantism, but once you dig beneath the surface – once more, I urge you to read the book – you will find a world that you probably knew very little about opening up before you. Giant Steppes, like its natural predecessor Views from Chicheng Precipice, is an obvious labour of love by a man who is deeply connected to his muse, and for that reason alone is worth the time of any serious music lover. Oh… and it’s fun too!
01. Live at Gaochang (Uyghur Suite) (16:39)
– Uyghur trad., arr. Dennis Rea
– Sources: Yaru, Morning & Ejem from 1980s collection Uyghur Music of Xinjiang
02. Altai By And By (8:46)
– Russian trad., arr. Juliana Svetlitchnaia & PAVA/Dennis Rea
– Sources: I Was Angry & My Dear Bridesmaids, songs from Altai Krai in Russian Central Asia
03. Wind Of The World’s Nest (9:56)
– Tuvan trad., arr. Dennis Rea, lyrics Galsan Tschinag
– Source: A fragment of Tuvan song Baezhin, otherwise original in a Tuvan vein by Dennis Rea
04. The Fellowship Of Tsering (14:07)
– Jampa Tsering, arr. Dennis Rea
Total Time – 49:28
Dennis Rea – Electric Guitar (tracks 1,2,3 & 4), Resonator Guitar (1), ‘Mellotron’ Guitar (1), ‘Throat’ Guitar (3), Organ Guitar (4), Kalimba (4)
Dick Valentine – Alto Sax (track 1,3), Sopranino Sax (1), Flute (3 & 4)
Greg Kelley – Trumpet (track 1)
Stuart Dempster – Didgeridoo (track 1)
Greg Campbell – Electric French Horn (track 1)
Don Berman – Drums & Percussion (track 1)
Juliana & PAVA – Vocals & Hurdy-gurdy (track 2)
Albert Kuvezin – Voice (tracks 3 & 4)
Wadim Dicke – Electric Fretted & Fretless Basses (track 3), Electric Bass (track 4)
Brian Oppel – Drums (track 3)
Greg Powers – Dungchen Horn (track 4)
Steve Fisk – Keyboards, Sounds, Rhythms & Creative Processing (track 4)
Daniel Zongrone – Drums & Percussion (track 4)
Tibetan Prayer Flag & Prayer Wheel Field Recordings courtesy of Avosound
Record Label: MoonJune Records
Country of Origin: U.S.A.
Date of Release: 21st January 2021