Somnambule - Writing About Music

Rubyana ~ Amazing Grace, Eponymous, Epistrophy

These three discs share the same players: Rubyana on flute, Al MacDowell on bass, Sharaye White on vocals, Frank Marino on drums, Yusef Ali on conga drums and Eddie Boubay on timbales. I must confess when I read the makeup of the group I was afraid that the music might be somewhat one dimensional, but for the most part I was wrong.

“Amazing Grace” contains five versions of the tune. The music is of course a spiritual but strangely brought to worldwide renown by a band of Scottish pipers.

A rich, heavy groove composed of drums, conga drums and lovely, rich bass lopes along like a big black panther. Rubyana plays flute at times like a silk sheet falling in slow motion, at times like a swirling whirlpool threatening to pull you under. There is something exotic, threatening, moody about the atmosphere here from the get go. Al MacDowell’s bass is particularly hypnotic, his style immediately recognisable to this listener from his work with Ornette Coleman. Here his playing is centre stage, more naked than in Prime Time – perhaps inevitably because of the sonic make up of Rubyana’s group.

The second version of Amazing Grace introduces Sharaye White who sings with bold assurance. When she repeats the phrase “sometimes I feel like a motherless child” over and over with altering emphases the effect is kaleidoscopic. This music is drenched in the blues, a muscular, determined blues that will get where it wants to go with or without your help. I would definitely recommend not standing in its way - I couldn’t be answerable for the consequences.

Version three ushers in Sharaye again and turns into more of a rhythmic workout… “I was lost but now I’m found”… “sometimes I feel like a motherless child” – these phrases are alternated repeatedly so that it seems impossible to know whether the singer is saved or forever lost or has achieved a new state might that is a composite of both suffering and salvation. Version four comes at the source material from a different angle beginning slowly and as if from the middle distance as a duet between flute and bass. Rubyana’s flute is louder and more expressive, flaring up like a firestorm, insistent on being heard. However at 17 minutes this track begins to pall about halfway through and might have benefitted from some editing. Version five is something of a shock as it introduces a drum machine playing rather metronomically as sole accompaniment for Rubyana’s soloing. This disc starts out strongly but by the end it feels a little unfinished.

The eponymous disk “Rubyana” begins with the track “I’m a Fool to Want You” which features Rubyana’s overblowing technique adding strength to the flute’s sound. Tracks two and four appear to be alternate versions of “Amazing Grace” from the aforementioned disk. “Epistrophy” is played on solo flute and streams and flutters in a heavily reverbed space. “Willow Weep For Me” is a 17 minute duet between Frank Marino on drums and Rubyana. Lacking the rhythmic drive of the “Amazing Grace” disk this release is harder to recommend as is the final disc “Epistrophy” which again features “Amazing Grace” as its first track. Its four remaining tracks divide up between three solo flute versions of Thelonious Monk’s “Epistrophy” and a single version of “Round Midnight” where Rubyana is rejoined by Al MacDowell.

These three disks leave a strange impression because of the apparent overlap of material which makes it hard to recommend all three together. If you are a fan of haunting solo flute you may wish to listen to the eponymous disk “Rubyana” or “Epistrophy”, but my preference is for the driving, spooked grandeur of “Amazing Grace”.
Colin Buttimer
August 2003
Published by All About Jazz