Jazz guitarist Hristo Vitchev lives in San Francisco. He leads several modern jazz formations and his debut album Song For Messambria, released on Orbit in 2009, was well received. He recorded his second album Secrets of an Angel in 2009 with Latin Grammy-nominated pianist Weber Iago. He has long been influenced by his fascination with traditional Bulgarian music. His seven movement Perperikon Suite, where he combined classic jazz, fusion and orchestral music proved popular with the audiences.
In 2012 he collaborated again with Iago and released Heartmoney on Orbit Sounds. Last year, the quartet of Iago, bass player Dan Robbins, drummer Mike Shannon and Hristo released the CD Familiar Fields, which was a beautiful, gentle album. Now Hristo has united with clarinetist Liubomir Krastev and the result is Rhodopa, released on First Orbit Sounds.
For those familiar with the gentle, surreal music of Hristo, this CD is a surprise because, while Hristo’s original sounds are still very much here, there are also a touch of blues, some improvisation — and he uses the sometimes manic playing of Liubomir to the full. It is, in my opinion, his best release to date and breaks Hristo out of the folky, ethereal box into which he had, hitherto, cast himself. The album shows us new dimensions to his compositions and demonstrates a maturity and coming of age for this multi-talented composer and musician.
The opening track “Devoiko Mari Hubava (Beautiful Young Lady)” is as surreal as might be expected, and is based on an original Bulgarian tune. But it surprises, as Hristo’s guitar weaves in a Spanish overtone into what is essentially a portrait painted by the two musicians and their instruments. “Oblache Le Bialo (Little White Cloud)” is another traditional Bulgarian melody and opens with a clarinet solo, joined after a few bars by the guitar before the melody is re-introduced and takes over. The tune is soft, sultry and captivating. Liubomir’s clarinet enters softly at first, but he builds the tune through the piece until by the middle section he is persuading his clarinet to deliver notes it really shouldn’t. Hristo’s guitar backs it up with driving rhythms before the whole piece relaxes again into taking you back to calmer waters.
“Silent Prayer” is Hristo’s composition. It is melodious and the melody is developed until it peaks with a mesmerizing clarinet part, backed by the gentle strumming of Hristo’s guitar. “Improvisation No. 1,” a Hristo composition, centers on the clarinet playing with a simple improvised melody and backed up by Hristo’s guitar. “Blues for Clever Peter,” another Hristo piece, introduces a bluesy riff which is conveyed throughout the piece, played with, taken apart and put back together again by both players. Liubomir clearly enjoys himself, developing the tune and using intricate changes, harmonics and improvisation while the guitar keeps everything on track with strong rhythmic playing. Then they swap with Hristo leading the blues on guitar, backed by Liubomir. They play blues like they were made to do so.
“Lale Li Si, Zyumbiul (Are You a Tulip, Are You a Hyacinth)” is a traditional Bulgarian tune and is slow, dark and melodic with supreme soaring clarinet playing from Liubomir in the center section. “Improvisation No. 2″ is a key track and sets a rhythmic melody from the start which is developed and played with by both players; it feels free form, almost. “Polegnala e Todora (Todora Took a Nap)” is another traditional Bulgarian tune — but it is not traditional when played by these two. They introduce their own quirky style and the improvisation lifts the spirit, though quite how Todora slept through this is beyond me. “Hubava Si Moia Goro (You are Beautiful My Forest)” is a gorgeous piece to finish the album with heartfelt, emotive solos from both musicians. Deep guitar chords are soloed over by the clarinet creating an intricate picture of waving trees and dales.
Rhodopa uses a mix of traditional Bulgarian pieces and compositions by Hristo and, typically of the man, every track has a bit which has an ethereal quality but, perhaps surprisingly, it is the bluesy places where Hristo has taken this album which have the most impact. The clarinet playing of Liubomir is perfectly adapted to blues and improvising and nearly every track is influenced by his style. Hristo often introduces an ethereal air which is then blown away by the playing of Liubomir, and it makes you smile.
Tunes which could remain surreal are taken apart with delight, re-molded and played with before being thrown back together as Liubomir gleefully adds his own very sweet touches. On track 9, “Hubava Si Moia Goro,” he surprises by suddenly taking the melody and tossing it to the elements where it is rolled around and disassembled before finally Liubomir brings it back to earth and returns it to Hristo to finish the album on a calming, gentle note. These are musicians in tune with each other and with the sounds they wish to convey. Hristo’s generous in the freedom he affords Liubomir — who, in turn, returns the compliment by delivering the melody back to Hristo who returns it to its original form with his exact, note-perfect guitar playing.
Rhodopa takes the listener on a journey through many moods, the two musicians compliment each other perfectly. This album is one to listen to over and over; I guarantee with each listen you will hear more.