By Pat Moran
Like the ancient network of trade routes which give Yo Yo Ma’s all-star collective its name, the Silk Road Ensemble is all over the map on their seventh studio album, Sing Me Home. This collection centers on notions of home, but with these musicians without borders, collaborators ranging from Chinese pipa player Wu Man to Irish fiddler Martin Hayes, heartland is a mutable concept.
Far-flung traditions entwine in often startling fusions. Rhiannon Giddens’ brassy blues vocal slips down a spiraling gypsy-jazz rabbit hole of stuttering accordion and Klezmer clarinet on “St James Infirmary Blues,” and Abagail Washburn’s fine-grained vibrato crests over sweeping homespun violins on the Antonín Dvořák-by-way-of-Paul Robeson spiritual “Going Home”—but she sings in Chinese.
Borders between genre and cultures are equally porous on “Cabaliño,” where a quickening tangle of flanged kamancheh, an Iranian bowed instrument, and warbling accordion spurs a Galician harvest chant to full gallop, and “Green,” where ululating shakuhachi, a Japanese bamboo flute, is overtaken by the unearthly shrieks and guttural Tuvan throat singing of American vocal group Roomful of Teeth.
Wu Man’s pipa wheels over Yo Yo Ma’s woody rolling cello on “Little Birdie,” evoking birds in flight while Sarah Jarosz’s dusky alto floats in the mid-range between earth and sky. And waltz-time cello-and-viola interpolations share the ballroom floor with Lisa Fischer and Gregory Porter’s swinging vocal pas de deux on “Heart and Soul.”
On Sing Me Home, even this familiar Hoagy Carmichael standard zeroes in on the Silk Road’s truth: The lure of home is not the destination, but the journey.