ALBUM REVIEW: Lama Lobsang Palden and Jim Becker – ‘Compassion’: Chicago meets Tibet in exploratory fusion

2020. The year. Hmmm. Must try harder. Have you developed your favourite epithet for the year yet? Is it flowery, descriptive; is it, perhaps, more choice and Anglo-Saxon, a punchy descriptor? 

Maybe we could persuade Arab Strap’s Malcolm Middleton to do a rerub of “Autumn”, from his 2005 album, Into The Woods. I mean, that opening line. (Warning: don’t click through if robust lyricism offends thee).

Music is more important this year than ever; and let’s be honest, it’s always been pretty damn essential. There’s a need for music that speaks to our rage; a need for music that speaks to our fears.

And there’s very much a need for music that speaks to our souls, our heart rates, our sense of wellbeing. Which is where we come to Drag City’s latest release, a collaboration between Tibetan healer Lobsang Lama Palden and Califone, Iron & Wine and Boxhead Ensemble musician Jim Becker – a man who fully knows his way around a guitar and how to elicit nuance from it, as you’ll be aware if you know those bands’ work (and if you don’t, well … I mean you so should).

So how did a collaboration such as this – a fusion of traditional Tibetan music and the work of Jim, whose previous work neatly cusps the ridge between the unspooling folk-Americana of Califone, and the beautiful and impressionistic soundscape improvisation of Boxhead Ensemble?

Well, here lies the tale. Three years before recording began. Jim had been to the Lama for healing. Lobsang Lama Palden was brought up in the disciplines of Buddhism, receiving tuition in the monasteries of Amdo, the northernmost of the three traditional regions of that country. He had been recognised at a young age as a tulku: a reincarnation of a Nyingma guru yoga master. 

He completed his training in India; he’s now based in Illinois and offers tuition and healing through meditation and yoga, and employs sound therapy.

It was as Jim was leaving his first session that the Lama said to him: “You and me, we make a record.” It wouldn’t come about immediately; but the Lama had planted a seed.

As a musician, he enjoyed and was inspired by the therapy, which employed chants, bells, gongs and percussion. The sessions put him in mind of the soundtracks to Satyajit Ray films: sonic dreamscapes indicating emotional and spiritual depths. Sessions began informally in 2013 at Lama’s house on a portastudio, and continued over a year; the project fleshed out, gained new angles. Jim tuned his instruments to the tonic pitch of a drum or gong involved; it was decided to include environment recordings: waves breaking and the like. 

Tape upon tape was filled with sonic exploration – more than seven hours. There was editing, overdubbing and finally complementary musical additions from the wider Chicago experimental scene, including cellist Teddy Rankin-Parker, leftfield jazz man Rob Mazurek, and Rob Frye, brought extra verdancy.

Thus was fashioned Compassion: a cycle of music born of the need for healing. The theory holds that we should be kind, kinder, to everyone, beginning with ourselves; compassion is the beginning of that process.

And it’s “Compassion” that leads out the nine tracks here. It’s a deep work, the Lama chanting in the pentatonic scale, ditting and speaking in traditional ceremonial form. Gongs fill out the percussive range, as do standing bells. There are drones in the bass and the midscale; flutes weave. It’s one of those pieces of music which, when you’re deep into listening, have no beginning or end. It’s eternal, music. It’s whether you’ve tuned in or not at a given moment.

Waves wash an aural shore to segue us into “Tara”, which we’ve embedded below for you; the sussuration blends into ringing drone, as flutes caress. The Lama is in there, chanting in a circular style, but he is within, without; the underpinning drone brings an edge. There’s a thin silk of backwards masking dancing through. The flutes, duel, glide on the edge of dissonance in tonal clusters. More than six minutes in the Lama is left unaccompanied in chant, the flutes just reprising. It’s a very potent track.

His chant guides us gently into the gentle guitar arpeggio of “Blessings”. Western strings bring this very close in to that beautiful Chicago postrock improvisational style. Chords and bass notes bow and warp. The Lama’s chant is joined in souldeep polyphony by the amassed voices of Quinn Tsan, Becky Levi and Clara Palden. Beautiful. It has a short, exceedingly psychedelic coda in the muscular, throaty chanting of “Healing.” 

“Protection”, another short passage at two minutes, sees Rob Mazurek step out with mournful, expressive cadence in conversation with an assonant traditional woodwind instrument, Strings interject; “Calling The Spirits (Emptiness)” opens portentously with the profound bass note of the long dungchen horn. Jazz brass, other more outré effects pull the sound out towards the Talk Talk of Laughing Stock  – and further. There’s rising dissonance, tonality, even an element of skronk buried in there. The mood shifts between calm and unsettling, like watching a stormy sky rush past. It’s complex and deep, elemental, waay experimental.

New age? Pshaw. Away with you now. You’re somewhere very high, the vista is bleak but astonishing; the oxygen is thin. The intermissional “Peace” marches forth sternly in fuzz electronica and processed, husky throat singing. It’s a darker cousin of those moments on The KLF’s Chill Out.

It blends straight into another longform study, “Oneness”: the tension releases, shafts of sun break through in off-kilter Chicago folksiness. A five-note lilt is joined by a pair of flutes describing liquid melodiousness. Strings race through microtonal lifts, the Lama intejecting. From Tibet, this track pulls out to a wider American Midwest roots tradition, while remaining wholly leftfield.

Our journey through Compassion brings us nearer to earth in the final sonic ritual of “Purification”. The Lama chants with an almost playful syllabic bounce; waves wash; the female voices breathe a wordless chorus with flutes flighting like swallows. In conclusion, the waves wash us clean.

It’s a really intense journey. The first thing you need to do? Grab a scrap of paper; an old envelope, anything. Write ‘new age’ ‘pon same. Now burn it. What Compassion brings is often very beautiful and infused with an ancient other tradition; at other times it can be a very edgy listen. Imagine the Chicago Underground Trio if they were based in Lhasa, and you’re partway there. There are fusions of Tibetan, folk, postrock, free jazz, all shimmering and shifting and seeking.

If you embrace any of the following artists or albums, then Compassion is quite probably a record for you to investigate: Laraaji, Talk Talk’s Spirit Of Eden, The Zodiac, Cosmic Sounds; 1960s’ Indian hippy trail odyssey Call Of The Valley; the compilation Chicago 2018 … It’s Gonna Change; Alice Coltrane’s Universal Consciousness; Geir Janssen’s Cho Oyu 8201m – Field Recordings From Tibet … it has elements of all these, sometimes connotative.

It’s music for immersion, for pondering, for the inner state.

Lama Lobsang Palden and Jim Becker’s Compassion will be released by Drag City on October 9th on digital, CD and vinyl formats; you can order direct from Drag City, here, or from the Lama and Jim’s Bandcamp.

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