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Domina Catrina Lee - Songs from the Breastbone Drum (2010)

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By Pico

Ever since the music business as we know it first came into existence, there have always been musicians for whose need for artistic purity and/or just out of financial necessity has made them into “do it yourself" musicians, producing homemade music for a limited audience. More accurately, a portion of that audience who actually were able to find them. Recent advances in technology has allowed these DIY types to make their own music and deliver it to the masses more inexpensively. It's also made it possible for them to produce recordings approaching the level of sophistication of major studio and major record level quality.

Still, Domina Catrina Lee's Songs From The Breastbone Drum takes the whole DIY game to a higher level. A swirling, probing mix of progressive jazz, classical, new age and ethnic fusion with an overall avant-garde bent, the acoustic guitarist and composer Lee singlehandedly created for the most part a realistically sounding string quartet, tablas, sitar, electric bass, drums, flutes, woodwinds, whistles, synths, piano and even the really exotic instruments, like a Turkish stringed instrument called a saz. She didn't accomplish this the way Pat Metheny did with his last album, though, she used more economical means. All of this was made possible with the increasingly accessible tools of DAWs, MIDI orchestrations and software-based synthesizers.

None of this gee-whiz stuff would mean a thing if Lee couldn't figure out how to leverage what limited resources she at her disposal. She understood the challenge of making this record: “I am working in a tight, 'money challenged' personal environment where personal inventiveness remains the needed element." Having faced challenges and obstacles all her life, the Singapore-born and based Lee was prepared to meet this one. Told by her family her hands were too small to play guitar, she forged ahead and learned it anyway without much formal training, and proceeded to soak in a dizzying potpourri of styles from the mind-expanding modal experimentations of John Coltrane, to the passionate fire of Mahavishnu Orchestra to the minimalist modern composition genius of Terry Riley and Steve Reich. Her music and her playing reflects that lack of formal training in the very best way: there is always a tendency to go off beaten paths and play things that sound right from a gut level, not an academic level. She even taught herself the audio engineering know-how needed to be able to make such a clean, spacious recording.

It all begins with the folk-ethnic-chamber jazz of the light but exploratory “Songs From The Breastbone Drum" where she alternates between thematic sections and improvisational sections. Lee has been compared to the seminal world jazz group Oregon, and on here (as well as elsewhere on the album), she pays explicit debt to their groundbreaking sound. Her acoustic guitar even approximates Oregon guitarist Ralph Towner's rich, harmonic quality, and for this song she tosses in some painstakingly programmed oboe and piano solos.

There are stretches of serenity in this recording, and it wouldn't rise much above your basic new age/soft jazz fare if it didn't have some abrasive elements and shifting rhythms; Lee sprinkles in plenty of those moments throughout the record. For instance, for “Fire Naked Prelude," she strums and picks around on a very detuned guitar, leading into the bass-anchored, Indian-percussed sparse acoustic guitar ruminations of “Fire Naked Boom." Other selections are parts of suites, like the austere synth washes of “Ballad of the Forgotten." The second part of this suite is actually a cover, the traditional English folk ballad “Scarborough Fair" made into an enduring hit by Simon and Garfunkel. Lee reconstructs the harmony enough that it allows her to take her guitar further out than a strict interpretation, but you will recognize the song as she lets a virtual oboe lazily state the melody. Other suites include the “new" music new-age and classical dual pieces contained in “The Shape Shifter," which feature pleasing timbres and interesting arrangements. “Even The Outsider" suite is a return to Oregon territory.

Right in the midst of all this carefully arranged and conceived music, Lee cuts loose with “The Story So Far," a space age post bop track number could have been a leftover track from Allan Holdsworth's The Sixteen Men Of Tain. You might think that this is where Lee trades in her self-described “$200 throwaway budget acoustic guitar" for some sleek, expensive tricked-up electric, but you'd be wrong. She gets all the some tonality from that budget guitar via the creative use of tube amplifier simulation plug-ins.

This album is truly one that's best listened to as a whole; while many songs have their own character, they flow from one to another like chapters of the same book. Technology has made Songs From The Breastbone Drum possible, but it is resourceful, out-the-box thinking from Domina Catrina Lee that really drives this record.

Songs From The Breastbone Drum, Lee's third, is available electronically from bandcamp.com. The great thing about this site is that you can sample complete streams of every track of the album before making the purchase. Adventurous music seekers should find plenty to like in these streams to convince them to download a copy.

Purchase: Domina Catrina Lee—Songs From The Breastbone Drum


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