R. Carlos Nakai,
In Beauty We Return:
The Best of Nakai

(Canyon, 2004)

One of the vanguard of early Native American musicians, R. Carlos Nakai has been recording native flute music for more than two decades. This collection, In Beauty, We Return, is a one-disc retrospective of the growth and new musical directions explored by Nakai and his colleagues. His recording career has encompassed 13 albums, and this anthology gives a representative cross-section of the full range of Nakai's musical journey, from powerful solo selections exploring traditional melody and rhythm through to fusion ensemble experimentation and fully realized orchestral pieces. Throughout this exploration, the quality of the engineering and sound quality remains uniformly high.

As is frequently the case in retrospective albums, the selections are presented in roughly chronological order, and thus, the first four pieces are from Nakai's early solo work. Of particular note in this section is the opening "Shaman's Call," "Red Streaking into Water" and an especially evocative "Song for the Morning Star."

The next three offerings are grouped as "Quiet Collaborations," and each explores somewhat different ground. The first of these, "Carry the Gift," is an effective musical exchange with guitarist William Eaton, while "Eye of the Wind" allows the European flute of Paul Horn to explore new duet territory with Nakai's native instrument. The up-tempo "Kamui" brings the musical energy of the envelope-pushing Wind Travelin' Band, one of several arguably fusion-oriented groups adding new dimension to this disc.

There follow three offerings collectively labeled "Rhythmic Collaborations." The first of these, "Feather, Stone and Light," brings the first voices into Nakai's music to excellent effect. This gives way to "Crow Canyon," to my taste, the weakest offering on the disc (perhaps betraying my bias away from jazz fusion), the work of the R. Carlos Nakai Quartet. On the other hand, "My Wild Heart Sings" brings a marvellous collaboration to the fore, as a vocal drone counterpointed by strong guitar work open up a musical exploration that takes the listener to many different emotional places.

The closing three selections in the disc are the orchestral collaborations. The first of these, "The Lake That Speaks," is an effective tone poem that builds on a fantasy by James DeMars. Next is the orchestral reworking of the second solo piece, "Whippoorwill." While I prefer the solo version, the orchestral arrangement by Billy Williams is an effective remounting of the piece. The disc closes with a full-blown reading of the traditional hymn "Amazing Grace." While it is almost impossible to do lasting harm to this piece of music, and though I own several dozen versions of this durable work, my general preference with this number is "less is more," and this orchestral treatment does nothing to change my thinking. For those seeking a new look at an old standard, there is meat for your feast in this offering.

This, then, is In Beauty, We Return. For any unfamiliar with the work of Nakai (as I was), it is a splendid introduction to the breadth of his career, and a strong inducement to seek out the rest of his catalogue (which I will most surely do). As such, it has accomplished precisely what our friends at Canyon were seeking to accomplish: it has introduced a new audience to the work of R. Carlos Nakai, and has created a new following for those devoted to a full exploration of the possibilities presented by Native American music both in its purest, leanest expressions, and in the larger context of broader musical expression.

- Rambles
written by Gilbert Head
published 17 October 2004

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