It might sound like you’re stepping into a day spa, but there is much to respect about percussionist Tom Teasley’s latest exotic set, “The Love Of The Nightingale.” Created in tandem with D.C.’s Constellation Theatre Company to accompany a production of the same name, it’s a whirlwind vacation through Middle-Eastern sounds, brilliantly crafted time signatures and enough atmosphere to make you feel like you actually are lost in some blistering desert, sweating through your Sirwal.
You’ll feel like you’ve heard this stuff before — think something like the soundtrack to “Slumdog Millionaire” — but the reality is that the intricacies with which Teasley approaches his craft run deeper than the Jordan River. Having served as a cultural envoy for the U.S. State Department, the D.C.-area artist certainly knows his way around a tabla. Or a mbira. Or a djembe. Or a gong. Or … well … pretty much every instrument that falls into the non-traditional percussion section of your local Guitar Center’s catalogue.
He’s best when he’s at his most complex. “Seven Sages” is unfairly smart in how contradictory it is. Yes, you can tap your foot to it, and sure, the groove itself somehow finds a way to move through your soul, but the signature changes make it impossible to ever feel in total lock step. How Teasley pulls it off is a testament to his own high level of expertise, and even though he’s working on a platform above his peers, his ability to somehow make the performance feel accessible is second to none.
Likewise for “Bacchanal” and “Nine Muses.” Led by a killer Melodica (you can probably count on one hand how many times you’ll read that phrase in your life), the percussionist’s djembe work lines up fabulously with the frame drum parts he concocts. So much so that you feel like you never quite appreciate its complexities as much as you should. “Nine Muses,” meanwhile, is a gaggle of excellently subtle and deceptively busy brush parts that keep things moving at all costs. At nearly six minutes, it’s the most expansive moment on a record impossible to be contained.
The only real knock on “Nightingale” is its tendency to slip into mildly grating repetitiveness, which, in fairness, isn’t a product of Teasley’s skill set; rather, it’s an essential component to the genre of music he’s mastered. “Dance of Aphrodite,” the only track that doesn’t feature the drummer on every instrument, relies on a tedious djembe that wears itself thin by the time things settle. “Kronos” then dumbs down the formula a bit too much, its slow tempo making it the de facto ballad of the bunch. There’s some pretty stuff going on within the depths of it all, but it doesn’t touch on the bona fide gorgeous textures found elsewhere.
Like, for instance, on the title track. Hearing the mesmerizing mbira combine with Teasley’s floating flute is a lesson in sound being the true arbiter of peace. Thoughtful and layered, it should be enough to put any set of ears at ease with its tasteful back-beat and Amazon illustrations. “Toccata” picks the pace up a bit, amounting to what may be the most atypical Middle Eastern sound the record provides. For proof, check the incredible mallet kat runs that pierce through the groove with a sniper’s precision. Yeah, this might all be tied to a theater production, but this is thing sounds tailor-made for the silver screen.
Which, in essence, is what the entirety of “The Love Of The Nightingale” embodies: Music written to supplement and not necessarily shine. It’s only one in a series of elements that help tell a story. This is the kind of stuff that crafts a sonic painting, the soundtrack to a type of art that can transcend platforms. It’s rich in volume, ambition and execution, the epitome of the impact music can have when it means much more than a mere combination of sounds. In Tom Teasley’s case, it’s a travelogue. It’s a portrait. It’s a snapshot of a place in time and it’s a way to expand the scope of traditional pop music boundaries far beyond predictable mid-tempos and 4/4 time signatures.
So, yes. You can dismiss it as little more than background music if you want. But you’re missing the point. “The Love Of The Nightingale” is yet another color on Tom Teasley’s pallet. The fun is that the more he experiments with shade, the more fascinating his canvass becomes.
** 2 1/2 STARS OUT OF 4 **