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Exploring the World in Song

Jazz expert finds musical inspiration and energy in choirs of many cultures. MUSIC: REVIEW

WHEN one thinks of choral music, what often spring to mind are the great classical vocal works of Western civilization - Bach, Mozart, Handel, and so on. Yet since the broader recognition during the past few years of groups like the Bulgarian Women's Choir (Le Myst`ere des Voix Bulgares) and South Africa's Ladysmith Black Mambazo, choral music has taken on new dimensions. Now there's a new choral collection called ``Voices'' that will change anyone's limited understanding of choral music forever.

The beautifully packaged set - three CDs in a cloth album-sized box with a beautifully illustrated, informative booklet, put out by Mesa/Bluemoon Recordings - presents 33 choruses (more than 1,000 singers) from Japan, Tibet, Germany, Bulgaria, India, Venezuela, Africa, England, Bali, Sweden, the United States, Israel, and the Soviet Union.

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It includes gospel choirs, Sufi choirs, Tibetan monks, harmonic choirs whose singers produce more than one tone at a time, traditional Western-style choruses, and even singing whales!

``Voices'' was compiled by the prominent German jazz critic and producer Joachim-Ernst Berendt, who founded the ``World Music Festival'' in Berlin in 1966 and has produced more than 300 jazz albums.

Mr. Berendt, whose book ``The Jazz Book'' has sold 1.5 million copies, has written for practically every jazz magazine. He has produced 20 other books including two about listening - ``The Word is Sound'' and ``The Third Ear.''

Why would a jazz critic take such an interest in world choral music? In a telephone conversation from Switzerland, Berendt says ``It was not so much an interest in choruses, but an interest in spiritual music.'' And he adds, ``Some people feel that it was a break between my jazz work and my spiritual work, but it wasn't a break, it was a gradual opening up.... I'm still very much in jazz. But I have become much more open to other music, and especially spiritual music in all the cultures of this planet.''

Berendt became interested in the spiritual side of music while working in jazz.

``It makes sense that one of the sources of jazz is called `spiritual,' the Negro spiritual,'' he says.

``I always felt this spiritual part in jazz, but I think most musicians did not - you know, when the tunes came from American popular music and had to do with love and flirting and romance.''

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Berendt had a long-standing friendship with John Coltrane, the late saxophonist and jazz innovator of the '60s.

``It's only since Coltrane that so many musicians became aware of the spiritual side of jazz ... maybe with [Duke] Ellington a little bit, but this strong consciousness of spirituality in jazz is only since Coltrane.

``When you talked with Coltrane you always talked about spiritual matters, much more than about music. I could say that Coltrane turned me into a spiritual human being....I think I have always been this, but Coltrane very much made me aware of this.''

Berendt came by his spiritual inclinations naturally.

``My father was one of the famous Protestant preachers in Germany,'' he said. ``He was of the leaders of the anti-Nazi movement in the Christian churches. He was killed in Hitler's Nazi concentration camp of Dachau. So, from my whole childhood on, I had a strong spiritual background.''

A world traveler, Berendt lived in Bali for a year, and has been to Japan about a dozen times. ``Jazz led me to Japan and all these countries and then I discovered there's more to the world than just jazz.''

Berendt worked on the ``Voices'' collection for two years, using recordings he had been collecting in his travels since the '60s. Berendt says ``it was not just doing a compilation of different types of music, but I wanted to give it some form, some consistency. I melded it together so that it all makes sense, for instance when you hear the strong, ecstatic ``Ketjak'' from Bali, you think this is the highest point of the whole record in intensity, and then there comes the Dies Irae from Mozart's ``Requiem'' which is even stronger....then it goes down again, it all flows like the movements of a suite.''

Listening to ``Voices'' is a little like being an armchair traveler. From the jarring intensity of the Singers and Dancers of Bona, Bali, to the trance-like intonations of The Harmonic Choir and Overtone Choir Dusseldorf, to the hand-clapping, foot-stomping joy of the Abyssinian Baptist Gospel Choir of Newark, New Jersey, to the warm a cappella of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, it's a rich sampling of human voices from around the world that brings out both their distinct differences and their remarkable similarities.

Berendt is currently working on a project in Vienna combining spiritual music and poetry from different cultures and traditions.

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