A curiosity as much as, if not more than, a musical statement, trombonist Roswell Rudd’s collaboration with this Mongolian-Russian quintet proves once again the avuncular slide-master’s ability to making memorable music with anyone.

Considering over a 50-year history Rudd’s playing partners have ranged from Dixielanders, members of Catskills hotel bands, avant-garde saxophone avatars like Steve Lacy and Archie Shepp, Canadian saxophonist Glen Hall on a CD that took author William Burroughs’ work as its basis, and local griots in Mali, that’s saying a lot. But BLUE MONGOL doesn’t reach the elevated level of some of those other projects.

That’s because the specific ethnic instruments and formally sung timbres the four other players bring to the CD repeatedly push the 13 tunes away from improv and towards more specialized World Music. Overly formalized and Orientalized, there are points at which it resembles gagaku or Japanese court music. This is odd in itself, since Mongolia is an even more rugged and underdeveloped country than neighboring China.

Maybe it’s because, except for Battuvshin “Tuvsho” Baldantseren, a throat singer who also plays limbe (flute), ikh khur (horse-head bass) and khomus (jaw harp) and who initiated the concept with Rudd, the other players hail from an ethos that treats ethnic music as Art Song. Singer Badma Khanda, for instance, may have a lovely voice for traditional rounds, but her lyric soprano warbling lacks bite most of the time, and at one point threatens to ooze into Enya territory. Rudd’s trombone obbligato to her singing seems as compatible as having a microwave in a yurt; Frank Rosolino backing Chris Connor it ain’t.

Additionally, combining the timbres of limbe, lochin or dulcimer, played by Kermen Kalyaeva, and yatag or zither, played by Valentina Namdykova, usually ends up sounding like courtly Elizabethan music much like the faux psaltery-oriented rondos Moondog and John Wolf Brennan composed.

As he showed in his excellent meeting with Malian kora player Toumani Diabate (MALICOOL Sunnyside Soundscape Series SSC 3008), however, Rudd’s roots-based soloing comes from a completely different, Africanized base. Yet on BLUE MONGOL, even when he gets the four to play a medley of familiar early American hymns and ballads on “American Round”, the attractiveness of the tunes, rather than their grittiness is emphasized. Of the non-Yanks, moreover, only Tuvsho’s sporadic breaks on khomus –

and when throat singing – bring some sense of guttural jug-band style physical freedom to the tracks.

All and all, about the only time there seems to be legitimate East-West sonic congruence is on two Rudd-penned compositions, “Buryat Boogie” and the title tune. Between the honky-tonk cadences of Rudd and the almost Scruggs-style picking from probably Kalyaeva “Blue Mongol” nearly transforms into a 1940s-style Hillbilly Boogie. Ayurov slaps his bass, Namdykova’s plucks harp-like arpeggios from the yatag and before the call-and-response instrumental finale, both Khanda – trilling – and Rudd – scatting – solo vocally.

Melding pulsations the way they should have elsewhere on the disc, “Buryat Boogie” features Rudd on mellophone and Baldantseren with resonating throat-singing exhortations and jaw-harp vibrations. Backed by horse-head fiddle drones, the contrapuntal meeting is as mellow as it is in-the-pocket. The postlude with Rudd on sprightly trombone, Baldantseren growling in time and frailing zither tones reaches a state of joyous intermingling.

World music fans and those interested in collecting every one of Rudd’s CD appearances – not an absurd notion in itself – will be pleased with BLUE MONGOL. Most others will lean towards the trombonists more focused improv work.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1.The Camel 2. Gathering Light 3. Behind the Mountains 4. Steppes Song 5. Djoloren 6. Four Mountains 7. Buryat Boogie 8. Blue Mongol 9. Bridle Ringing 10. Unirenge 11. American Round 12. The Leopard 13. Honey on the Moon

Personnel: Roswell Rudd (trombone, mellophone and vocals); Dmitry Ayurov (morin khur [horse head fiddle]); Kermen Kalyaeva (lochin [dulcimer] and khalmyk dombra [lute]; Valentina Namdykova (yatag [zither]); Battuvshin Baldantseren (limbe [flute], ikh khur [horse-head bass], khomus [jaw harp] and throat singing); Badma Khanda (voice)