Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019

by Ian Mann

December 18, 2013


Recommended for the sheer beauty of the performances.

Hristo Vitchev / Liubomir Krastev


(First Orbit Sounds Music FOSM 191)

Guitarist and composer Hristo Vitchev has been a regular presence on the Jazzmann web pages since 2009 when I reviewed his quartet album “Song For Messambria”. Since then he’s issued two further band albums “The Perperikon Suite” (2011) and “Familiar Fields” (2013).  He has also recorded two intimate duo albums with his regular pianist, the Brazilian born Weber Iago, “The Secrets Of An Angel” (2010) and Heartmony” (2012). All of the above recordings are favourably reviewed elsewhere on this site. 

Common to all these releases is a strong sense of melody that owes something to Pat Metheny, but Vitchev also draws on the folk music of his native Bulgaria, this despite having been based in the San Jose area of California for many years. He’s a prolific composer and all of the above albums offer evidence of his accomplished writing skills and all are immaculately sonically crafted with the CD covers also featuring Vitchev’s own distinctive artwork. 

“Rhodopa” is named after a mountainous region in Bulgaria and teams Vitchev with his countryman the clarinettist Liubomir Krastev in a duo context. This is a partnership that equals Vitchev’s pairing with Iago with regard to empathy and intimacy. There’s a real rapport between the two Bulgarians as they explore the traditional music of their homeland. Indeed “Rhodopa” represents something of a departure for Vitchev as the programme includes only two original compositions plus two fully improvised vignettes alongside five arrangements of traditional Bulgarian folk tunes. The originals and the improvisation take their cue from the traditional pieces as Vitchev and Krastev maintain the same bucolic mood throughout the album. The music is often breathtakingly beautiful and is a tribute both to the playing and to Vitchev’s arranging skills. He mainly plays acoustic guitar, sometimes approximating a harp like sound, but also adds a little piano. Krastev’s clarinet playing is vivid, versatile, and wonderfully expressive -  the range of sounds, colours and emotions he conjures from his instrument is hugely impressive.

The album begins with the traditional tune “Devoiko Mari Hubava” (translation “Beautiful Young Lady”) . Krastev’s expressive clarinet twines around Vitchev’s chords, it’s very much a “folk” clarinet style that recalls other Balkan musics. Vitchev has remarked that Krastev can make his clarinet sound like anything from a bagpipe to the kaval, a type of traditional Bulgarian flute. Krastev embraces a wide sonic palette here but the intelligent and sympathetic playing of Vitchev, including a lengthy passage where the guitar assumes the lead, is also crucial to the success of the piece.

Similar virtues can be found on the following “Oblache Le Bialo” or “Little White Cloud”, another stirring folk melody. It’s interesting to hear Vitchev in a new context, one in which he frequently adopts the kind of rhythm guitar role common to instrumental folk groups. Here the emphasis is on sympathetic chording and supportive time keeping rather than the guitarist’s own virtuosity. It’s a part that Vitchev plays well but his moments in the spotlight are also well worth waiting for.

The Vitchev original “Silent Prayer” features the composer on both guitar and piano, his simple chording the platform for Krastev’s airy clarinet ruminations. The composer’s melodic gift is much in evidence and as the piece expands the use of uncredited string synths conspires to create a kind of wide-screen effect, a nod in the direction of Mr. Metheny perhaps. However I’m not entirely convinced that the use of such technology is necessary or appropriate in the context of an otherwise all acoustic album.
At a little over two minutes the brief “Improvisation # 1” is a striking example of the empathy and rapport between the two musicians. It sounds almost through composed and the melodic content is as high as ever.

The Vitchev original “Blues For Clever Peter” adds a modal jazz feel to the range of folk influences. It encourages a virtuoso performance from Klastev above Vitchev’s inventive and sophisticated chord patterns and arpeggios. There’s a stunning solo from Vitchev that I assume makes use of overdubs. If it’s the real time work of just one pair of hands then it’s even more amazing.

The duo return to the traditional Bulgarian folk repertoire with “Lale Li Si, Zyumbiul Li Si” (translation “Are You A Tulip, Are You A Hyacinth”). The tune is a depiction of a young man’s musings upon which type of flower he should compare his beloved to. And yes, the piece opens slowly like a flower, gradually unfurling and blossoming into full bloom. There’s a quiet intensity about this gentle and tender music that is hugely affecting and at ten minutes plus it forms the album’s centre piece.

By way of contrast “Improvisation #2” taps into the energy source that informs much other Balkan and Middle Eastern folk music. It’s positively effervescent and at a little over a minute far too brief. However the duo retain something of the playful mood in a vivacious arrangement of the traditional Bulgarian folk tune “Polegnala e Todora”. The title translates as “Todora Took a Nap” but there’s no hint of tiredness in the bright and lively playing here.

The album concludes with the traditional “Hubava Si Moia Goro” (translation “You Are Beautiful My Forest”), a delightful homage by the duo to their homeland. Yet again it’s exquisitely melodic with Khrastev’s clarinet swooping and soaring, the music simultaneously a celebration of a shared heritage and the lament of an exile. Vitchev has expressed his desire to “capture the deep emotional character of Bulgarian music” and this is something he and Khrastev express brilliantly here and throughout the album.

“Rhodopa” has less jazz content than Vitchev’s previous recordings but it’s still a typically accomplished piece of work with some excellent playing from both Vitchev and Krastev. The guitarist adopts an ego-less approach to the music and gives his compatriot free rein on the beautiful Bulgarian folk melodies. It’s a recording that reveals a fresh side to Vitchev’s playing, as he frequently adopts the role of accompanist and concentrates almost exclusively on acoustic guitar. It’s thus a record that looks forwards as well as backwards, which somehow seems appropriate as I write these words just prior to the turning of the year.

It’s very different to Vitchev’s previous recordings but is recommended for the sheer beauty of the performances.

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