The mbira, or thumb piano, has broken free of its indigenous African origins for some years now, but few beyond its native inhabitants have mastered the instrument. White Plains, New York, musician Richard Crandell, however, has taken the mbira to heart and head, making the metallophone's chiming resonances very much his own. Self-taught, with a background well-steeped in the music of fellow minimalists and innovators such as Leo Kottke, Steve Reich, and John Fahey, Crandell's tightly designed and salubriously executed works are an absolute wonder, primarily because they're so damned beautiful to listen to.
One might think that the mbira has a limited tonal range, and to some extent it does, but here on Spring Steel, Crandell manages to sidestep both cliché and obviousness by exploring variable timbres, tunings, and tendencies. It doesn't hurt that he's sometimes accompanied by percussionist Cyro Baptista, who provides his own Latin American flavorings to the aural fiesta. Right off the bat, with the utterly sublime "Inner Circle," it's clear Crandell's onto something. Attaining a smooth flow of sound that feels like tumbling down a river of woodblocks, Crandell weaves a most definite type of trance music that might well suggest Reichian tropes; of course, thanks to Baptista's own sparse yet effective array of percussive accents (shakers, rainsticks, triangles, other myriad noisemakers), this "fifth-world" music, "minimal" that it is, says more about places and timeframes than most so-called pirated "world" music.
The rest of Spring Steel follows the same kind of moiré patterns Crandell sets up at the beginning of the recording. Of course, the art of keeping this all from becoming simply a one-trick pony is varying the speed of play or altering the clusters of notes in seemingly simple yet deceptively ingenious ways. The best example of this is throughout the nine-plus minutes of "Zen Dagger," where Crandell's labyrinthine thrums dance magnificently around Baptista's shaker tableau; only Nana Vasconcelos' little-known but extraordinary solo recordings approach these for sheer innovation. As it is, getting up close and personal with Crandell's unique soundworld nearly opens up Castaneda-like dimensions; it's zen and the art of mbira maintenance.
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