Tuesday, June 10, 2003

Nakai's quartet exceeds expectations

By Cecelia D. Johnson
Enquirer contributor

The promise of "mixed-up American music" lured a capacity crowd to the 20th Century on Oakley Square Sunday for an eclectic evening of audio inclusion and spiritual enlightenment.

Led by the world-renowned Native American flute virtuoso, the R. Carlos Nakai Quartet performed an intimate program that combined distinctly unique genres into satisfying sonic stew. Anyone expecting American Indian tribal drumming and flute was in for a pleasant surprise.

Nakai, considered an expert on Native American flute and classically trained on trumpet, gathered a group of equally accomplished players: Mary Redhouse, a Navajo educator and bassist with a five-octave range who describes her style as "eco-spiritual," percussionist Will Clipman and multi-instrumental "Amo" Chip Dabney on sax, keyboards and bass.

To dispel any preconceptions, Nakai asked how many Native Americans were in the audience. After a few hands went up, he said that anyone born on this land mass is a Native American (for the record, Nakai is of the Navajo-Ute heritage).

The music touched southwest native traditions through Nakai's cedar flutes; the chants and bird and animal vocalizations of Redhouse; the primal pulsations emanating from Mr. Clipman's assortment of drums and percussion; and the soulful urban sensibilities of Dabney's saxes.

"Amo Platu," from the quartet's most recent release, Ancient Future, found Dabney channeling the spirit of Rashaan Roland Kirk as he played alto and tenor sax simultaneously in an existential jazz groove. In "Talking Stick," Nakai's flutes and whistles led Dabney's reeds into rarified bop air while Redhouse randomly swooped in and out with her scat-like improvisation.

"Big Medicine" was a performance piece as Redhouse assumed the stance of storyteller through use of spoken word, chants propelled through percussion and fat bass lines sprinkled throughout with flute. She eased into an "intertribal" motif in an electric bass duet with Dabney on "Montana Grass Dance."

The quartet entranced the audience with the ebullient 12-song set for more than two hours.

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