A new configuration for the kora, and it’s a remarkably snug musical fit that is as intriguingly intertwined as Scandi-Senegalese duo Ellika and Solo’s meeting of kora and violin, and as stately a piece of work as Ballaké Sissoko’s cousin Toumani Diabaté’s ventures into classical kora crossover.
The Malian’s former Label Bleu label-mate, Frenchman Vincent Ségal, brings his classical cello background and work with trip-hop experimentalists Bumcello to an album that was recorded, apparently in de rigueur straight-no-overdubs takes (oh, how they must have rehearsed!), in Salif Keita’s studio in Bamako (Ségal also crops up on the latest Salif Keita album, La Difference).
And as the title suggests, Chamber Music possesses a small-scale formality and refined air, although the improvisational characteristics of Sissoko’s instrument aren’t completely discarded. Instead his crystal-clear melodies work their way around and through Ségal’s vivid, often melancholy, tones, never venturing too far from their resonant anchor, and often in unison with the Frenchman’s instrument whilst always just pushing the extemporisation envelope enough to hold the attention.
There’s little of the intensity we heard on Sissoko’s 2005 album Tomora. These feathery melodies build slowly, floating just within reach of the listener whilst Ségal…well, what drama and variety he brings to his instrument, at times light-touch and violin-like, at others grabbing the spotlight with rumbling, trembling rhythms, and at others offering the merest velvety murmur whilst Ballaké teases out repeated melodic motifs.
Fans of Anouar Brahem will relish the way Histoire de Molly (one of three Ségal compositions) constructs a simple, nagging melody which is revisited and developed at the end of each short improvised wander – an impressive restrained use of space and obvious musical empathy displayed here - and another highlight is Future, which opens with what sounds like the growl of a Mongolian throat singer (Vincent’s cello has a disconcertingly human timbre at times) then fades into a study in pinpoint mellifluous minimalism.
Additional elements such as bolon, balafon, karignan scraper and guest singer Awa Sangho complete the picture of an exemplary album that arguably confirms Ballaké Sissoko as the pre-eminent practitioner of his craft, completing as it does a trio of truly masterful releases by the Malian following Tomora and the 3MA collaboration of 2008. As equal partner on Chamber Music, Vincent Ségal must take his share of the plaudits for that.