Natural Selection... A Sampler

Various Artists

Zebra Acoustic Records, 1998

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


As much as I love good old American rock and roll, there's a part of me that sometimes longs to get away from the volume, shouting and electric guitars. I think that's what first got me interested in things like classical music, the Narada record label in the '80s and - God help us - new age music, from time to time. When you really need a few moments to yourself, there is honestly nothing like hearing a song with hints of Celtic music, a good piano solo piece or Beethoven's Sixth Symphony.

One label I find myself going to more and more is Zebra Acoustic, an offshoot of the jazz/fusion label Zebra. We've already reviewed a few of their artists, David Pritchard and Pierre Bensusan. Now, for those who might be interested in some of the things they've read about these artists and who might not be ready to sit through an entire album out of fear of the unknown, there's help in the form of Natural Selection... A Sampler.

Featuring two tracks from seven of the label's releases, this disc covers the spectrum of acoustic music quite well, and serves as a very nice smorgasbord of all their delicacies. Sure, there may be one or two that you're not fond of, but two tracks isn't that much of an investment of time.

Bensusan gets the most coverage with two tracks from his career retrospective Nice Feelingmy_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 (which we reviewed here a few weeks ago) and paired with flutist Didier Malherbe on Live In Paris. The two selections from Nice Feeling, "4 a.m." and the title track, show the absolute mastery that the French-born fingerstyle guitarist has with his instrument. Anyone who is a lover of solid guitar work will be hooked by these two tracks. (I'll get back to Bensusan in just a moment.)

Speaking of solid guitar work, Pritchard's cuts from Unassigned Territory (which we also have reviewed) are wonderful examples of his talent. Everyone I have ever played his disc for has fallen in love with his tone and guitar work; "Stairs" and "Brazil" should have the same effect on you.

With all the wonderful guitar work on Natural Selection, it's surprising to hear a few examples of work that disappointed me. Gavin Lurssen impressed me with "Venetian Rush Hour," the first featured cut from his Restless album. But the title track seems to be less rich in tone and style, and is a major letdown coming off of "Venetian Rush Hour". And while I've already sung the praises of Bensusan, when he teams up with Malherbe, it's almost like his guitar work becomes second in importance to the flute - and the overall sound suffers as a result.

Natural Selection has one group of singers who might take a little time getting used to - Bulgarian Voices (Angelite) with Moscow Art Trio & Huun-Huur Tu. The two selections from Mountain Tale are intriguing (sometimes, it sounded like they were singing backwards to my untrained ear - I've not cultivated an appreciation for Bulgarian singing yet), but it wasn't anything that would have had me running for the "skip track" button. It's almost like listening to other-world folk at times; maybe that's why I found it intriguing. But don't be disappointed if you find you can't bring yourself to get through these selections. It's not the easiest thing to listen to at times.

Of the remaining artists on Natural Selection, Vince Mendoza with the London Symphony Orchestra presents an interesting picture of what classical music in the late 20th Century can sound like. Both "Impromptu" and "Sanctus" are curiously engrossing. Rounding out the selections are Thomas Beckmann and Johannes Cernota, who perform music by Charlie Chaplin written for the cello and piano. "Limelight" and "There's Always One You Can't Forget" harken back to the days of silent films - which both of these tracks could easily fit to. It's an intriguing listen - though it got a little tired quickly.

Natural Selection is the kind of disc that should get the listener interested in any of the seven groups of artists that are highlighted here. Don't be surprised if you find yourself checking out many of these artists after listening to this - proof positive that the sampler has served its ultimate purpose.

Rating: B+

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© 1999 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Zebra Acoustic Records, and is used for informational purposes only.