Next Door Conversation by Jerry Johansson (Review)

The album’s mix of musical traditions from around the world is both improvisational and intimate.
Next Door Conversation - Jerry Johansson

Much has been made about the universality of music, how it’s the one form of language that all of humanity can hold in common. Which, if that’s true, means that it’s at least theoretically possible to draw parallels between even the most disparate of musics: Tuvan throat singing and Kentucky bluegrass, for example, or Indonesian gamelan and Gregorian chant.

Unfortunately, most attempts at such parallels usually seems to result in so much dopey New Age pap. And the reason for this, I think, is that those musicians simply try too hard. Rather than trust that the listener will make the connections on their own (even if only on a subconscious level), or that the music will ultimately reveal them as it takes shape, musicians begin making one-for-one connections that ultimately end up robbing the music of any mystery or intrigue. And in their place is usually some tacky musical metaphor for humanity’s interconnectedness, the circle of life, blah blah blah.

Jerry Johansson’s Next Door Conversation succeeds where others fail simply because he doesn’t try. That’s not to say that the music, which consists of sitar, tambura, santour, and a traditional string quartet, is not artful and evocative. Johansson studied under Roop Verma, himself a student of such legends as Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan, and his sitar-playing borders on transcendant at times.

However, what this does mean is that there is an organic-ness and unpredictable direction to the music. This organic-ness, this unbridled flow, then allows it to evoke the expected Indian and Eastern sounds (there are several passages that remind me of traditional Japanese folk music), as well as contain passages that have distinctly European and Middle-Eastern tones to them. It’s easy to imagine in your mind’s eye scenes of Eastern European nomads waltzing against a backdrop of raga drones, Japanese shakuhachi flutes, and mournful klezmer arrangements.

Both of the album’s tracks — titled “Part I” and “Part II” respectively — run nearly half an hour in length, and Johansson and his collaborators use their lengths to great effect. There’s a heavily improvisational feel to the entire album, as if the players are always feeling each other out, throwing out this or that melody, chord, or arrangement to see what sticks, to see which one bears fruit with the rest of the players — all the while mindful to not go too far astray or too far off the deep end. There’s also an intimacy to the songs, as you can hear the players shuffle and quietly cough in the background, further rooting it in the here and now.

The result is an album that never seems to unfold in quite the way you expect, that always seems to contain some new little twist or turn that contains yet another unexpected — but always intriguing — musical connection. Connections that seem to spring up quite naturally, without any sort of coercion or agenda behind them, and which are all the stronger and more evocative as a result.

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