Nicolas Meier - From Istanbul to Ceuta With a Smile
(MGPCD009. CD Review by Alison Bentley)


  Guitarist Nicolas Meier's music is eclectic, like the culture of Istanbul and Ceuta (a Spanish city in North Africa), from jazz to the heady rush of complex Turkish and Flamenco themes, and more contemplative pieces.

Part 1 of the album is From Istanbul to Ceuta with a Smile. Meier, born in Switzerland but living in the UK, is steeped in Turkish music. On this album he plays the Turkish baglama, as well as nylon and steel-strung guitars and a Godin glissentar, bending the notes into evocative microtonal trills. Opening sets the scene with shimmering percussion from the imaginative Demi Garcia, and very fast harmonic minor guitar phrases- a sense of something dramatic unfolding with Lizzie Ball's Gyspy-tinged violin. Meier cites John McLaughlin as an early influence, and you can hear that in From Istanbul's Moorish, Flamenco 5/4 riffs, exhilaratingly fast, like the Mahavishnu Orchestra, but less rocky. Gilad Atzmon plays swooning exotic lines that fit perfectly with the vibe, then speeds up into some altered scale and major patterns set against the taut minor chords. James Pearson's piano sweeps us straight into With a Smile.

This track exemplifies Meier's carefully-crafted writing, where the solos emerge naturally from the rich soft focus background, with its sweet harmonies. The ensemble playing is excellent: Bernard Gregor-Smith (cello) was a founder member of the Lindsay Quartet, and Lizzie Ball is leader of Nigel Kennedy's Orchestra. Various instruments double on different parts of the haunting melody. When Pat Bettison plays harmonica in unison with Meier, it sounds uncannily and wonderfully like some of Pat Metheny's guitar synth sounds- another of Meier's cited influences.

One of Meier's early teachers got him to transcribe rock as well as jazz solos, and Meier also leads a Heavy Metal band- he's written books on both styles. To Ceuta brings us back to Turkey and Spain  with just a hint of Metal in the rocky urgency of the themes as well as Flamenco in the handclaps. Then the violin softens everything before Pearson's piano solo, where he  plays guitar-like trills before gliding up the keyboard in expressive Lyle Mays style.

Part II: The Gate of Memories feels like the emotional heart of the album: Memories (in the memory of Peter) is a graceful elegy for Meier's cousin. Garcia plays some ethereal hand drums and bells. Atzmon's clarinet sounds like a kaval in its breathy flickering- it's very beautiful. The track dissolves into The Gate, influenced by Meier's love of Piazzolla. Garcia is known for his Flamenco as well his jazz percussion, and here his cajón melds with Asaf Sirkis' sensitive Latin drumming and the luscious pizzicato strings. Lizzie Ball's sinuous violin solo calls to mind L. Shankar with Shakti.

The Wind opens Part III: The Lightness of the Wind. The changing time signatures are like gusts, as Meier's solo flutters like kites in the breeze; everything’s swept along by Sirkis' powerful drumming. Bettison's electric bass solo has a Pastorius-like joyfulness. The notes eddy away as the Lightness begins. Sirkis holds everything in check, like a horse waiting for the race, before his explosive drum solo.

The musicians are virtuosic as individuals and together they're superb.  Meier blends a heady mixture of cultures and styles, and I'm still finding new things to listen to in this recording. 

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