Levi Chen with
Lisa Franco & Michael Masley,
Celtic Zen
(Yin Yang Records, 1997)

In the stressful days of the middle and late 1980s -- my high school and college years -- I listened to a lot of music by the likes of Kitaro and Andreas Vollenweider. Typically classified as "new age" musicians, they had an advantage over a lot of the other artists filed in that damning slot -- they had substance and melody to their music, not just ambient sound.

Celtic Zen reminds me a lot of those days. That's both good and bad -- good because Kitaro and Vollenweider both have an incredible amount of skill as composers and performers, and bad because I outgrew my yen for that style of music a long time ago.

OK, so I'm not likely to be found spinning this disc very often. But is it good? Absolutely.

The primary performer here is Levi Chen, who straddles the unlikely chasm between the gu zheng (Chinese harp, or zither) and the electric guitar. Joining him on this album are Lisa Franco on Celtic harp and Michael Masley on cymbalom (hammered dulcimer). There's also a fine collection of guest musicians, including Lin Cheng and Karen Hwa Chee Han on erhu (a two-stringed Chinese violin), Tina Tourin on Celtic and lap harps, Suzanne Teng on bamboo flute, Susan Craig Winsberg on alto flute and tenor recorder, Gil Morales on viol de gamba and cello, Peter Ozanne on pan pipes, Laura Bryant on recorder, and percussionists Brent Lewis, Aaron Plunkett, Brendon McNichol, Dave Varty and Bill Burgess.

Combined, they've produced music that is evocative and sensual. The musicianship here is outstanding. While it tended to fade into the background for me and the tracks mostly blurred together, I found Celtic Zen to be very relaxing, and certain portions managed to reach out and yank my attention back to the music.

There are hints of Celtic stylings throughout, and of course the Irish harp is featured heavily, but I'd be hard-pressed to recommend this to someone as a Celtic recording. Rather, it draws on numerous global musical traditions, blending them together seamlessly. Most of the tunes are originals composed by Chen, Franco and Masley.

If you're a fan of ambient music, if you enjoy soothing sounds and gentle melodies, Celtic Zen is a must-have. If you want something with a bit of punch to it, look elsewhere.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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