Theo Travis – the beauty of the ancient

My album of the year (see Prog Magazine Issue 125) may have been overlooked by a lot of music lovers, but its existence has now been brought into sharp focus through David Longdon’s contribution on it.

“Songs From The Apricot Tree” (Ethersounds) is the 11th solo album from Theo Travis, the much respected jazz saxophonist, flautist and composer, who has played with a diverse range of bands and artistes such as Robert Fripp, David Gilmour, Soft Machine, Gong, The Tangent, Steven Wilson, Brian Eno, David Sylvian and Bill Nelson.

What makes this album so different is because on each of the songs, he plays the duduk, an ancient double reed wind instrument originating from Armenia, made from a single piece of wood from the apricot tree.

The sound it makes can only be described as haunting, a sound which touches the soul and evokes mysteries from the ancient past.

Travis first heard it played by former Gong bandmate Didier Malherbe but he did not realise its full power and beauty until Peter Gabriel’s Passion.

Malherbe gave him a duduk and Travis’ lockdown project was to learn how to play it, discovering it was not an easy instrument to master. He has been taking lessons from Arsen Petrosyan, who appears on Steve Hackett’s recent acoustic album, “Under A Mediterranean Sky”.

Whatever he perceives his current level of ability to be, the album comprises 10 eclectic compositions, all of which showcase the achingly poignant tones and nuances of the duduk.

The first two songs, “If I Forget You” and “Love and Mourning” give a real sense of the emotions the duduk evokes – feelings of sadness and loss, perhaps very apt now for the track which follows.

That is Longdon’s intensely beautiful interpretation of “Brilliant Trees”, the title track of David Sylvian’s first solo album, the song co-written with Jon Hassell. It’s a gentle acoustic song which Longdon delivers with incredible tenderness, Travis staying relatively true to the original with the duduk replacing the electronica.

Gong fans will be delighted with the way he stays in tune with the spirit of the band’s “Magdalene” in which he uses multi-tracked duduks to produce its jazzy, psychedelic edge.

The meditative quality of the duduk is at its most plaintive on “A Quiet Prayer”, a spiritual incantation during which the text of a traditional Hebrew prayer is sung by Gaddy Zerbib.

Again, the mood changes through “The Shadow of Your Smile”, the jazz classic on which Soft Machine’s John Etheridge provides some resonant guitar underneath the shimmering melody line.

On “All I Know”, one of Travis’s older songs, the duduk is multi-tracked and looped, creating a trance-like musical state. “She’s Coming Home” has King Crimson’s Jakko Jakszyk delivering all the voices on piano-led ballad which sounds both contemporary and classic, the duduk taking the place of the guitar parts.

A combination of Middle Eastern rhythms and a haunting melody are the irresistible features of Travis’ reimagining “A Feeling Begins”, the composition which opens Gabriel’s “Passion” album.  

Closing the album, “Delusion Angel” has a modern jazz groove but within it, the duduk sounds even deeper and darker.

Among all the wonderful prog albums released this year, “Songs From The Apricot Tree” stood out because Travis has totally embraced the possibilities of this wondrous instrument and created a 45 minute meditative, magical musical journey unlike any other.  

For more information, go to Theo Travis’ website: https://www.theotravis.com/

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