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Michael Leonhart and the Avramina 7 - Seahorse and the Storyteller

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Artist: Michael Leonhart and the Avramina 7

Album: Seahorse and the Storyteller

Label: Truth & Soul

Review date: Apr. 30, 2010

Seahorse and the Storyteller is the first full-length album from Michael Leonhart and the Avramina 7. The record includes all sorts of Daptone veteran studio musicians: Binky Griptite and Homer Steinweiss of the Dap-Kings, Tommy Brenneck who plays with The Budos Band, as well as Luke O’Malley and Nick Movshon of the Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra. Leonhart’s own impressive resume includes work with Steely Dan, Mos Def, David Byrne, Brian Eno, Yoko Ono and Wynton Marsalis among others (not to mention the record for the youngest Grammy recipient in history).

The psychedelic Afro/bhangra funk tunes on Seahorse are dependably funky and nicely crafted with vibrant layers of rhythm, melody and brass. Leonhart’s arrangements make use of unconventional harmony and tripped-out lyrics accompanied by an armory full of percussion instruments. It’s music to dance to, but also an album that tells a weird story about talking maritime creatures “who meet, fall in love and begin piecing together the mysteries of their pasts.”

Lyrically and musically, Leonhart’s around-the-world tour in 12 songs is innovative. “Scopolamine” rides through the hallucinations of Crayola (one of the album’s protagonists), as the chorus asks, “Is that the scopolamine speaking?” over a mean baritone sax ostinato. Those sounds morph gradually into curioser realms of panned, multi-layered vocals, accompanied by a choir of interweaving woodwinds.

Over the course of 42 minutes, though, the groove gets a little monotonous, and even the tight production job — so good at maximizing the impact of each of the dense layers — starts to lose its attraction. And so, the melding of the Beatles with Fela Kuti, Bollywood funk and Middle Eastern inspired scales grows a bit tacky, especially when Leonhart uses them to represent the exotic and the strange.

Guitarist Derek Bailey famously made a pretty big stink against decontextualized musical mixing in his treatise on improvisation: “Tunisian chanting, Maori chirping and Mozambique stuttering are combined with the African thumb piano, Chinese temple blocks, Ghanian soft trumpet… and the Canton one-legged monster to provide an aural event about as far removed from the directness and dignity of ethnic music as a thermo-nuclear explosion is from a fart.”

Exaggerated in his denouncement of meaningless musical appropriation as Bailey may be, he makes the point that musical bricolage is worth very little if it’s only used as a means to expand a limited imagination. While I’m all for musical borrowing, it does seem like a cheap trick when instruments or techniques are simply lifted from another tradition in order to represent terra incognita.

By Miki Kaneda

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