I may not be the ideal person to review this, having this morning had breakfast with Luigi Nono's Madrigal for Solo Violin, 8 Tape Players and 8 to 10 Music Stands on the stereo. Really. But I do admire String Planet for (among other things) fighting the good fight as per the dignified viola, which over the 250 years since Palestrina has not had a lot of good music written for it. The late Frank Zappa helped out some by inserting a lengthy viola outrage in his 1980s modern classical suite for orchestra "Bogus Pomp," but the imbalance rermains. String Planet's Novi takes a few confident steps in that direction as well. Why does the viola get no respect? To coin a phrase. No idea; situated in the space between violin and cello in the string family, it appears from Novi's cheerily confident performances here that a viola can do well nigh anything either of its neighbors can do. The merry Euro-hoedown "The Race" shows off the instrument's prodigious middle register, to say nothing of some bouncy play-off of Chapman stick' whiz Larry Tuttle, String Planet's other mainstay. Some of Tuttle's lines here recall an electric harpsichord; very clever!
The 'stick,' first noted by me 2 decades or so ago when I saw one manhandled by Tony Levin in the 1981-1984 Mark IV version of King Crimson, is a multipurpose bass/guitar combination setup with six low strings and six high. This rather caps off the mad experimentation we've seen through the years with such anomalies (however well utilized) as Greg Lake's double-barreled stun-gun guitar/bass or Percy Jones' 5-string and Phil Lesh's 6-string basses. The 'stick' is a marvel of design, and a real virtuoso on the instrument like Trey Gunn can make your head spin.I have noticed that the 'stick' when not used properly comes off rather like something of an articulate bludgeon, but no fear! Tuttle is easily the equal of just about everybody on the above list. Check his easy 21st century 'walking' figure in the Eastern-esque groover "Gorilla Walk," Novi cascading through the multileveled melody with a Jean-Luc Ponty's flair. Once Novi has had her say, Tuttle goes for the 'high' strings and picks out a sitar-like response. Carpets of hand drums thicken and crack, sending everybody but Novi and Tuttle flying. It's great fun.
Where some of you might get confused (like, why did these nice folks send this to JAZZ NOW?) is, well, the question I just asked. Because STRING PLANET has no Jazz underpinnings at all, in fact the general tonal ambience here is rather 1990s Windham Hill. You remember them, that very pleasant combination of folk forms and late Stravinsky (or late Debussy, some say) that was so 'in' back in the day. But not everybody wants to go study with the Second Viennese School, so let's take this for what it is.
To go on: "Forgotten Messages" is lush and inviting in a French Impressionist way, with Tuttle as provider of bass and guitar lines simultaneously (exactly the sort of thing the ''stick' is good for); Novi double- and triple-tracks a delicious hook. Lauren Wood's voice settings on "Hold Me In Your Heart" and "All That I Want" are worth a listen, but they make String Planet veer a little close to pop for my taste. Again, however, fair's fair: it should be noted that Novi was a member of Chunky, Novi and Ernie (she also did that gypsy string break in the middle bit of the Doobie Brothers' 1970s hit "Black Water"), while Tuttle was a member of the Russia group for a decade. So yeah, it all mixes in. Usually with great wit, such as in the opener "Without a Word": Novi's drone sets up a rhythmic module from Tuttle and a set of hand drums, whereafter Novi swirls out a lyrical bit with aSoutheast Asian tang to it. Just lovely.
I would say that you may well put String Planet on and go back to sweeping out the garage, but you'd better have the CD player close at hand. You'll be hitting the REPEAT button very often. Music you can whistle but which doesn't kill brain cells! Very cool.
by Kenneth Egbert