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Out of Africa
Atanas OURKOUZOUNOV (b.1970)
Folk Song Variations [6:54]
Vojislav IVANOVIC (b.1959)
Café Pieces [25:22]
Carlos Rafael RIVERA (b.1970)
Canción [1:35]
Dusan BOGDANOVIC (b.1955)
Blues and Variations [5:46]
Alan THOMAS (b.1968)
Out of Africa [19:42]
Denis Azabagic (guitar)
rec. 4-6 October, 2011, and 19 December, 2012, Ganz Hall, Roosevelt University, Chicago, USA

First let’s clear up the misnomer: only one of these works relates to Africa, and that one was not written by an African. This is more like a quick world tour with guitar as guide, stopping over everywhere.
Things get off to an appealing start with the Folk Song Variations by Atanas Ourkouzounov, based on a Bulgarian tune. The melody doesn’t sound particularly Bulgarian; especially when I hear the first variation, I think of the gentle, welcoming sounds of the American midwest. Other variations add a number of moods and evocations to the mix. Café Pieces, composed just one country over in Greece by Vojislav Ivanovic, is a suite that moves far beyond Athens for inspiration. There’s a tribute to Piazzolla, a “Funny Valse” that does indeed have some exaggerated dynamics and even a sliding “ha-ha-ha” motif.
Carlos Rafael Rivera’s Canción packs outsize expression into ninety seconds, like Granados’ Dedicatoria. Dusan Bogdanovic, the third Balkan composer, turns to blues for his inspiration here. One variation has the rhythm of Beethoven’s syncopated “boogie variation” in the final piano sonata, but with the harmonies of the modern day; it just reminded me how far ahead of his time Beethoven was. Bogdanovic’s work gets increasingly exuberant as it goes; all to the good.
Alan Thomas’ Out of Africa is inspired by African and Arabic ideas, but it does not attempt to depict actual scenes, or to imitate folk music directly. That’s probably for the best. It allows Thomas to be more sincere in his voice, whether he’s evoking the stomp of folk dancing, painting a portrait of sunrise or writing microtonal music that deliberately - and I feel qualified to say, very skillfully - imitates the sound of the Arabic oud.
Guitarist Denis Azabagic is superb all the way through, and I can’t imagine the five composers being happier with performances of their works. It’s as if technical difficulties do not even exist, and his slow build-up from one near-silent thread of notes to a glorious full sunrise in Out of Africa bespeaks an equally impressive mastery of expression. The sound quality is pretty great, too. I wish the title and cover had been different-out of the Balkans?-but that’s my only complaint.
Brian Reinhart