If you haven’t heard Rhiannon Giddens yet … well, just listen:
Gifted with a glorious, classically trained voice plus extraordinary skills on banjo and fiddle, equally at home with African-American spirituals, Celtic “mouth music” and opera, Giddens is the kind of protean musician that comes along once in a generation.
Founding “postmodern string band” the Carolina Chocolate Drops, writing music for Bob Dylan’s words on The New Basement Tapes, winning a MacArthur Genius fellowship, acting in CMT’s Nashville series — Giddens has gone from strength to strength in a remarkably short time, earning every step up in her meteoric rise. Seeing her live in the summer of 2015, I walked away giddy, as she and her band effortlessly filled a Cape Cod town hall with irresistible rhythms, utterly committed performances that ran the gamut from a tear-inducing take on Dolly Parton to funked-up Appalachian folk tunes — and that powerful, powerful voice.
For her third solo album (after 2015’s Tomorrow Is My Turn and 2017’s Freedom Highway), Giddens has teamed with Italian pianist/percussionist Francesco Turrisi, who filters early Mediterranean folk music through the prism of jazz. Recorded in Dublin, Ireland in five days with minimal preparation and few overdubs, There Is No Other soars, sears and astonishes — breaking your heart one instant, healing it and setting off fireworks of exhilaration the next, commanding your attention throughout.
Words can only approximate the sweep of traditions and times woven together here. Folk ballads from Appalachia, Italy and England, jazz via Hermeto Pascoal (a Brazilian collaborator with Miles Davis) and vocalese pioneer Oscar Brown, classical arias by Carlisle Floyd and Samuel Barber — they’re all subsumed into the spell that Giddens (on banjo, violin and viola) and Turrisi (on piano, accordion, lute, banjo, and percussion) conjure up. This music is warm, determined, melancholy, driven and delighted by turns, seamlessly flowing from one track to track, each its own thing, each part of a greater unity.
And Giddens’ singing — again, gorgeous beyond words. On “Gonna Write Me A Letter” and her own “I’m On My Way”, she’s an unstoppable force of nature; on “Pizzica di San Vito” and “Briggs’ Forro”, a rippling vocal breeze above dancing beds of rhythm; on “Wayfaring Stranger” and “The Trees on the Mountains”, the cry of a broken heart devastated by life and love; on “Brown Baby” and her gospel-tinged “He Will See You Through”, the voice of maturity, determination and hard-won belief. Nothing human is foreign to her — the wisdom of generations and the optimism of youth come together to devastating effect.
I recommend There Is No Other without hesitation — it’s one of those albums that Duke Ellington might have termed “beyond category”, resonating deeply with the core of our shared humanity. As Giddens and Turrisi put in in their liner notes,
From the beginning of our musical partnership we have been struck with the commonality of the human experience through music; how instruments, modes, and the very functions of songs and tunes are universal from culture to culture. There are very real and documented yet unheralded historical links between many of the instruments we play; and yet others of the connections we have here arise solely from our artistic instinct; but either way, the overwhelming feeling we have is that there is no Other.
Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi tour North America from September to November; tour dates are here. In the meantime, listen to There Is No Other for yourself:
— Rick Krueger