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West Side Story Reviews continued
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West Side Steel - a CD Review

By Mike Flowerday

Regular readers of these pages may recall that a couple of years back I showered praise on 'Firebird Suite', the debut CD album by Los Angeles-based guitarist Michael Perlowin, who had achieved what few artists manage: he had created not only a completely original and distinctive work of art, but by taking a bunch of classical themes leavened with one or two jazz themes, and centring his arrangements round the unique voice of his pedal steel guitar, had effectively created a personal musical genre into the bargain.

And now the man is back, with a totally different venture for the pedal steel, but once more an absorbing, innovative and rewarding suite of music, invested with considerable intelligence and a quite "different" take on what music-making is all about. On this occasion Michael has turned his attention to Leonard Bernstein's 'West Side Story' music, including not only the popular songs from the show, but also Bernstein's Symphonic Dances. Perlowin carefully analysed the score for the Broadway show, the film music, the operatic version, and several previous guitar-based interpretations, and says he learned from them all, but at the end of the day he again comes up with something entirely personal and fresh.

Perlowin's versatile musicianship is given full rein over no less than nineteen tracks of Bernstein's celebrated melodies, during the course of which he effectively deploys not only pedal and lap steel guitars, but an impressive variety of electric basses, non-steel guitars, and other string instruments. My own favourite moments include both 'One Hand One Heart' and 'Maria', two love themes where the distinctive yearning pitch-shifts work beautifully; a lovely loping 'America', with the various steel parts conversing, and two great, swinging jazz-inflected numbers 'Cool', which is just that, and 'Jump', which certainly does. Some great interplay between the steel lines and Dave Beyer's drums on these two. But really there are numerous detailed pleasures on this fine work, which sometimes reveal themselves more fully only on subsequent hearings.

Although this review is appearing in a jazz magazine this would not be regarded as a jazz recording. However, any jazz enthusiast who is attuned to the music of artists like Bela Fleck, Pat Metheny and Bill Frisell will find a lot to enjoy and admire here, and I have no hesitation in recommending it to any music-lover with functioning ears who wants to hear something that little bit out of the rut.

Michael Perlowin is presently working on his third album. His stated aim is "to do something new and different with each recording", and I wouldn't bet against another gem emerging in the fullness of time.

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