Cara Stacey: Things That Grow
South African multi-instrumentalist/composer Cara Stacey brings an extensive academic background and highly developed sensibility to her twelve-inch album Things That Grow. In addition to classical training in piano, she's developed impressive facility as a southern African bow player and as a vocalist. After completing a BMUS in musicology from the South African College of Music (University of Cape Town), she earned her Masters in musicology and is currently completing her doctoral research through the South African College of Music and SOAS (London), specializing in the makhoyane (a traditional instrument from Swaziland with a gourd-resonated musical bow and thus sometimes referred to as a Swazi guitar). Things That Grow presents her as a solo artist, but she's also a member of the Inclement Quartet and plays with percussionist Sarathy Korwar in Pergola.
Yet while the album is, formally speaking, a solo release that highlights Stacey's African bow playing, it just as often assumes the character of an ensemble project. Considerably enhanced by the contributions of Shabaka Hutchings (reeds), Seb Rochford (drums), Ruth Goller (bass), Crewdson (real name Hugh Jones) (concertronica), and Dan Leavers (synths), the eight-track collection includes compositions by Stacey and Hutchings as well as improvisations. Needless to say, the recording sets itself apart from others in featuring the makhoyane, uhadi (a single-string mouth bow that produces sound when the string is struck by a thin stick), and umrhubhe (as a treated stick is drawn across the instrument's string, the bow's pitch is changed by string plucks and whistling sounds are generated by the mouth acting as a resonator), and in the way it integrates them into a small-group context.
The recording's distinctive soundworld is established when “Oscillations” opens with Stacey playing the umrhubhe, with its hypnotic bowing pattern eventually joined by her whistling vocal effects and Rochford's drum punctuations. The ensemble dimension comes into play in the second track when “Dark Matter” adds Goller's swinging bass lines and Hutchings' sing-song clarinet melodies to an Afro-funk base. With the music possessing such rhythmic insistence, it would be easy to picture the material rising to a potent broil in a live context.
While not an oil-and-water proposition, “Sunbird” aims less to fuse the instruments than juxtapose Stacey's rhythmic patterning and the luscious harmonic textures generated by the others (including some free-wheeling treatments by Crewdson's concertronica, an unusual controller instrument that looks and functions like an electronically customized concertina). The cyclical tenor patterns Hutchings generates via circular breathing on “Circadian Clocks” can't help but invite comparison to Colin Stetson; during “Music of the Spheres,” on the other hand, the echo effects that multiply Hutchings' sax combined with Stacy's and Crewdson's contributions lends the track a spacey, Sun Ra-like vibe.As interesting as Stacey's solo spotlights are, it's ensemble pieces such as “Dark Matter” and “Theta Waves” that are the album's most engaging. In these settings, we get the best of both worlds: her distinctive bow playing and the Afro-jazz swing of the other musicians. A key strength of the album is the balance Stacey strikes between tracks that spotlight her instruments and those that include the other musicians; that she also allowed non-traditional sounds such as Crewdson's to appear on a release whose primary instruments are traditional ones is also commendable. And though the listener comes away from the recording better informed about African bow instruments, Things That Grow never feels like a musical lesson or academic exercise but rather an appetizing treat for the ears.