Concert Review—Ballaké Sissoko and Vincent Ségal, Kora/Cello

It was a rich musical synergy this week at the Old Church—the concert blending the sounds of the distinctive Kora harp, with antiquity roots in Africa, with more contemporary guitar and cello, with definite jazz lilt.

Two ensembles presented that evening—the Portland Kora Project trio, followed by the duo of Ballaké Sissoko and Vincent Ségal. The kora harp is an instrument worth taking note of, especially as it shone in the hands of this evening’s performers, with some two dozen strings reaching down from its neck and across the bridge of its resonating gourd.

The opening set by the Portland Kora Project gave a glimpse into the sound spectrum of the kora — without the visual cues, the first impression is that of classical (western) harp, with a range of timbres from the bright high notes to the deep bass strings. With two kora from which to chose, Will Dudley brought the instruments to life with a mix of scale passages (pentatonic, for the first pieces) along with rhythmic ostinato patterns, from which he was able to deftly pull out floating melodies. This was in pleasant counter point to the guitar work of Ben Finley—the two of them had playful exchanges of harmony and melody, all supported by the solid and engaging percussion work by Darian Patrick. On its own… were that the only ensemble of the evening, it would all have been well worth it.

The second set brought out Ballaké Sissoko on kora, balanced out with the ‘cello in the hands of Vincent Ségal.  That these two have played together for years soon became self evident—their ease in collaboration of musical ideas, the back-and-forth exchange so smooth as to be one musician playing two instruments.

The tone was set as Sissoko opened the first piece with a substantial solo on the kora.  As he breezed down the scale of the harp, he effortlessly tucked in small sections of trills and grace notes, done so smoothly as to almost suggest a vibrato on the individual notes of the passage.  The cello and kora shared melodic content for most of the piece, each having some moments of solo work.

The advent of the second piece turned the tables around. Ségal provided his own distinctive opening pizzicato passages enhanced with small wooden shakers attached to the bridge—where each note plucked generated its own accompanying percussion section. Then, picking up the bow, he embarked on an extensive section played in high harmonics, and in so doing brought out a whistle, almost whispered in the wind, the harp gently in the background.

One of the evening highlights followed with a large scale composition, which transported the audience from the beautiful Old Church concert hall to a vast expanse of nature—calling forth sounds of humming birds in flight, a babbling brook splashing over a waterfall, all running to the sea. The voices of the two instruments complemented each other, some repeated passages drifting toward gamelan-like meditation, then to be turned in a different direction with perfect ensemble, as if the two instruments were lifted by the wind and gently moved to a new setting.

Other pieces took on quite a different tone, one with brisk rhythmic patterns of 10 and 12 in the harp, against which the cello built a long melodic ascent. The instruments also negotiated a fundamental difference between them—whilst the harp inherently has a set of diatonic notes from which to draw, the cello is not so limited. In two of the latter pieces this was expertly dealt with—one had an underlying folk melody in the harp, while in broad counterpoint the cello moved through a long descending chromatic passage.

The evening ended with a satisfying encore, and deep appreciation by the audience. The Sissoko/Ségal duo brings forth a rich synergy of different instruments and musical traditions, a fusion unique on its own. Neither folk music nor jazz, but their own invention, of which we can only hope to hear more.

PDX Jazz has brought forth yet another exceptional ensemble to the Pacific Northwest; there will be an ongoing series of such concerts the next few months, all in anticipation of the week long PDX Jazz Festival in February. They are to be congratulated for their efforts on keeping such life to this music, vitality to the jazz scene in Portland.

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