Released in 2010, Gathering Echoes is Keith Waithe's first studio album in four years. Waithe, a Guyanese-born flautist, here plays with his Macusi Players, plus special guests including a string quartet.
Even on first listening, a number of things struck immediately, only reinforced on subsequent listens. One of these is the less than great recording quality and frequently less than optimal mix. However, even after making allowances for these factors, other flaws remain very obvious.
Genre-bending is one thing. Done right, it can be beautiful, even brilliant. This is quite another thing. Sadly, Gathering Echoes tries to be too many things yet ends up being none, and it certainly doesn't manage the genre-bending with any degree of success. On paper, the concept and idea of Gathering Echoes sounds great. In practice, I regret to have to say it just doesn't work. It tries to be jazz, but in the final analysis its only real jazz connection of any kind is that the album includes a couple of Billie Holiday standards, and a Nina Simone one. It tries to be world music that blends Guyanese Native American, Guyanese folk, reggae, and West African elements with a contemporary sound and throws in some hip hop, rock-blues guitar, and funk and even elements of classical music for good measure, and throws experimental/avant-garde and 'new age' elements at it, but the mix just doesn't come off.
Gathering Echoes ends up simply being very confused. The confusion already starts with the false assumption that there is a single Caribbean culture - an equally common assumption and misconception is usually also applied to Africa - which there isn't, there are huge cultural differences even within the anglophone Caribbean islands, e.g., Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago are as different as chalk and cheese, not to even mention the Spanish and French speaking islands, When it comes to Guyana, it is even highly debatable whether this should or even could be included in 'the Caribbean,' given that it is firmly ensconced on the South American mainland, and well to the south and east of the Caribbean Sea - English speaking South America would really seem so much more appropriate. So, bearing all this in mind, what exactly are 'Caribbean drums and percussion' meant to be?
It further has to be said that the Guyana described in Helen McDonald's lyrics in Guyana With Love bears little resemblance to the Guyana I encountered - spectacular scenery and wildlife, to be sure, but as racially divided a society as it's ever been my horror to encounter, in which the native Americans were generally considered - and treated - as somewhat less than human, especially by the East Indians.
The biggest problem with this music is that it is basically extremely self-indulgent and pretentious, and that for over an hour and a quarter. It has very little to say but says it extremely verbosely. Trying hard as it is, Gathering Echoes is going nowhere and going there very slowly. Many of the pieces would have benefited from having their duration cut in half, or less. Bob Marley's Redemption Song is somehow particularly grating with its seemingly interminable three minutes plus intro of mainly Waithe's flute before coming to the beef. Classics like this should not be allowed to be murdered like this. Over all, all the songs suffer from being over-arranged. Keith Waithe is trying altogether too hard to be clever, both as arranger and flautist.
Then there are the vocals of Helen McDonald. I was compelled to do a 'double take' here - surely this couldn't be the Helen McDonald (of among others Helen McDonald & The Descendants, The Helen McDonald All Stars, The Helen McDonald Trio, Yaaba Funk, and various other ensembles), a primarily jazz singer whom I had heard in various contexts and considered quite excellent? This certainly didn't sound like her and had to be a different singer of, coincidentally, the same name, surely? I trawled the web, far and deep, and even asked around to make sure. Alas, there is only one singer of this name, she is one and the same, to my still incredulous horror. I regret to say that Ms. McDonald really doesn't sound up to the mark at all on some of the tracks on Gathering Echoes. This recording does her no favours. Whether this was due to the arrangements not suiting her, or a few off-days, or a combination thereof, or whatever other factors, who knows. I'd certainly rather overlook Ms. McDonald's presence on this album, having found her rather excellent before in other contexts. All in all, here her vocals can only be described as at best less than notable. I would suggest that you very quickly forget that Helen McDonald participated on Gathering Echoes, so as not to allow this to marr your enjoyment of this otherwise talented singer elsewhere.
I must confess I had been rather looking forward to this album, having heard Keith Waithe in a couple of video clips that seemed intriguing and possibly promising. Thus, Gathering Echoes is sadly a huge disappointment and I am truly dismayed to be unable to give it a more positive review. As it is, this is probably one of the albums - if not the album - with the least to redeem it that I have ever reviewed. Even Waithe's flute, although perfectly competent, turns out as nothing exceptional. There are a good dozen jazz flautists (and possibly more that I haven't heard yet) on the British scene that Waithe could never hope to touch - not even considering jazz chops. I honestly wish I could be more encouraging and positive, but in all honesty that is just impossible without a complete loss of integrity.
Consistent this album certainly is, but not in any way one would hope any album to be. It could almost serve as an object lesson in how not to approach both genre bending and world music. And yet, last year Waithe was awarded a WOM@TT 'Best of British' award?
Keith Waithe's Gathering Echoes may sell to the less discriminating among an ex-pat and second generation (or more) descendents community, but it certainly has very little to commend it to a wider audience. The only method of obtaining this album that I have been able to find is directly through the artist's web site, so this very limited distribution should ensure the obscurity that would be the kindest fate for this album.
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