Review: Behrooz Mihankhah, “Lydium”

Behrooz Mihankhah, “Lydium”

Comfort zones: we all have them, and we are often hesitant to leave them. But experience gives proof that venturing outside them is frequently rewarding – like discovering a new favorite culinary dish for the first time.  In my own music, I put a premium on lyrics and verbal storytelling, but I also have an admiration for those who are able to paint a scene and communicate an emotion without words.  Pianist-composer Behrooz Mihankhah is such an artist.

For context, Mihankhah has a rich and varied background in music that pours forth from his cultural roots in Iran, as well as in his time spent in India and his current home in the Maritimes of Canada.  East meets west to tremendous effect in his compositions, and his debut album “Lydium” (released last Friday) is ‘Exhibit A’ on how to fuse musical cultures.  Here, Mihankhah applies this approach to four original compositions and to four works by such diverse sources as jazz great Joe Henderson, French classical composer Erik Satie, and the brilliantly adventurous jazz legend John Coltrane.

The lead-off song/title track is aptly named.  While I understand that Mihankhah named it after his exploration of lydian scales in this piece, it bears notice that lydium is also the name for a type of tiny, intricate, evergreen succulent plant.  Both definitions are good descriptions of the song “Lydium.”  The start of the song gives the sense of verdant green springing up from the ground and spilling over the forest floor.  The horns are reminiscent of Sufjan Stevens’ early work, or Allison Miller’s song, “Otis Was a Polar Bear.”  Later in the song, the guitar solo drops in and brings a dreamlike respite.  The song feels like an adventure that invites the listener to explore further what they have discovered.

And there is much to explore here.  The second track, “For Open Borders,” prominently features the taar (or “tar”) – an Iranian stringed instrument that plays a part in the ensemble in the first song, but that steps to the forefront here.  The track is intriguing from the first measures, and the insistent bass line propels it forward.  It was fitting that, as I listened through this piece, I noticed this note that Mihankhah gave in the notes for the album: “This album was recorded at the Music Room in K’jipuktuk in Mi’kma’ki (Halifax, Nova Scotia) on the unceded ancestral territory of the Mi’kmaq people.”  This is a sobering reminder from an artist who is clearly aware of the importance of place, and of the culture native to a place.

Behrooz Mihankhah

Another highlight here is “Halcyon,” an audio journey that quickly brings the listener into a feeling of lightness, of running to get up to speed to take flight.  In many ways, this tune feels like it picks up where “Lydium” leaves off.  About a third of the way through, the instruments whirl and swerve like a murmuration of starlings.  Near the midpoint, a trombone ambles in and lends its considerable voice to the mix.  The song reaches its apex as the saxophone dances and then soars, Coltrane-like, over the piano and bass that lead the rest of the band in the main motif.  The drums hold the undulating rhythm together beautifully.  Mihankhah ends the piece by himself, on piano, allowing the listener to exhale as he brings it in for a landing.

And this is all just to speak about Mihankhah’s original pieces.  He also brings his own unique flavor to a couple of all-time classics – and favorites of mine – Satie’s “Gymnopedie” and Coltrane’s “Naima.”  “Gymnopedie” is delicately handled, and sounds like a standard interpretation, until the taar makes its entrance and lyrically emotes the main melody line.  The purposely sparse arrangement of only these two instruments makes this track both soothing and intriguing, like tasting a variation on your favorite pastry – you know you like it, though you can’t initially place what is different.  

As for “Naima,” I came to this track with high hopes, and it did not disappoint.  Mihankhah and his band captured the tenderness and complexity of emotion that Coltrane wrote into this ballad, though with a different palette, with the taar again acting as a voice and carrying much of the lead melody, instead of a saxophone taking that part. Mihankhah and company do this jazz standard justice.  In both cases, these renditions of classics come with a sense of discovery.  Or, possibly better-put, of rediscovery.

I could elaborate on each of these pieces, as they each contain surprises and treasures of their own.  But I would invite you, dear reader, to try them for yourself.  Behrooz Mihankhah approaches his work and leads his skilled band with the deftness of Jon Batiste, allowing moments of improvisation within his larger cinematic vision for each piece.  And he offers an intriguing musical palette that is sure to challenge and delight that of your own.  Sometimes, stepping outside of your comfort zone is the best way to start on an adventure.

Learn more here: www.behroozmusic.com

Matt Wheeler is a Lancaster County, PA-based singer, songsmith, stage-banter conversationalist, husband, & special-needs father. And an avid vinyl record collector, a purveyor of random facts, & tour-er of Canada (southern Ontario is a favorite destination). Ever since being introduced to Great Lake Swimmers' music through Pandora in about 2009, he has had an appreciation for Canadian music.

Matt's songs & stories, including his classic literature-based project "Wonder of It All," can be found at www.mattwheeleronline.com.

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