Ever Since I heard the Kronos Quartet do a version of Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze" I've been a sucker for well performed string arrangements of popular music. So it's no wonder I was blown away when I heard my first track from Kishi Bashi's new live album from Joyful Noise Recordings, String Quartet Live.
Bashi is not only a gifted violinist he's also an incredible singer - think Rufus Wainwright playing a violin and you'll have a fairly good idea of what I'm talking about. Being completely unfamiliar with his work prior to this release I was taken aback by not only his virtuosity but the versatility he displayed with both his voice and his instrument. He has a wonderful clear voice which can soar above the music into a scale's heights without ever once becoming shrill.
As to his violin work, it's not the usual type of electric sawing you get with most pop music. Instead you have an obviously trained musician whose turned his talents to pop music instead of orchestral. His bowing, his touch on the strings and his ability to evoke a variety of emotions with his instrument are all indications of someone who has worked long and hard to understand its intricaciest.
The aforementioned first track I heard is the lone cover on the CD, the Talking Heads "This Must Bet The Place (Naive Melody)". As a long time fan of the band I'm not easily impressed by others doing covers of their music. However, Bashi and his String Quartet had me from the first notes. Not only did their arrangement sound magnificent, they captured the energy and the spirit of the song. On top of that Bashi's singing lent the song the air of wistful hopefulness it needs to make it work.
The other eight tracks on the disc are all original Bashi tunes reconfigured for string ensemble. The songs are all taken from his previous releases and are each tiny masterpieces of musical perfection. From the uptempo and fun "Mr. Steak", about the star crossed love affair of a steak dinner, to the beautiful and haunting "Manchester". Each song is a new adventure in listening as Bashi and the quartet remind us once again that anything electric instruments can do, acoustic instruments played well can do just as well, if not better.
However, this doesn't mean Bashi has ignored the potential for utilizing modern technology. The third track, "Atticus In The Desert", features his musical partner Michael Savino (aka Tall Tall Trees) on banjo. While you can hear Savino's contributions on most songs, here he comes to the fore. A duet between banjo and violin might sound strange, but don't dismiss it until you hear them together.
First of all, forget any preconceived notions you might have about what a banjo sounds like or what's its capable of doing. Not only does Savino coax sounds out of it, with the aid of foot peddles and electronics, you've never heard the instrument make, he also plays it like a drum. With its hide head the banjo is a natural drum and played with the flair, and subtlety, shown here it becomes an incredibly versatile instrument. The contrast between the sounds of Bashi's violin and voice with the ring of the banjo makes for a stunning aural display.
As its title suggests String Quartet Live is a live recording. In the past live recordings have sometimes had inferior sound quality as compared to studio recordings. However, not only does this disc sound as good as anything done in a studio, it manages to capture the excitement and emotion of the live concert. Bash's enthusiasm and passion at playing with the string ensemble are obvious in both his playing and his comments in between songs. You can almost hear him feeding off the energy of both those accompanying him and the audience's reactions to the songs.
Kishi Bashi is a phenomenal talent and String Quartet Live is an amazing showcase for both his abilities as a violinist and vocalist. If you know his work already I'm certain you will be impressed by these new interpretations of familiar tunes, and if you've never heard him before this is an incredible introduction to the man and his work.
String Quartet Live will be released on Friday, November 13 2015 - make sure you pick up a copy.(
Article originally published at Blogcrtiics.org as Music Review: Kishi Bashi - String Quartet Live - A Violin Virtuoso)
(Originally posted November 2015)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.