DON ROOKE at the Music Gallery (197 John), Sunday (December 7), $16-$18. www.thehenrys.ca, 416-204-1080. Rating: NNNNN
There's a kind of armchair exoticism to Don Rooke's sublime new CD. Atlas Travel is the first solo set by the slide guitarist of Toronto abstract twang ensemble the Henrys. It could loosely be called a world music record, but in typical Rooke fashion, he's come at it from an unusual angle.
Rather than focusing on authenticity and simply playing music from around the world, Rooke sat in his basement studio, thumbed through an atlas and imagined what the music in places with names like Villa Huidobro, Filadelfia, Paraguay and Shimoda would sound like.
"This was initially conceived as a kind of fake world music record, where someone would actually be looking at a map and imagining the sound," Rooke confirms. "I like the image of someone sitting in their basement looking at the world. I initially had used country names, but that sounded too vague to me, so I ended up actually getting out a map and hunting down places that sounded interesting to me.
"They're pretty loose interpretations. Villa Huidobro is a town in Argentina, and there's a bit of a tango feel to that piece. Shimoda to me sounds kind of Japanese, but more in the space and simplicity of it, not really the music. And there's a tune set in Guadeloupe that has steel drums on it. Other times, the music has no relevance to the geography. Ron Allen plays Chinese flute on a tune set in Paraguay, for instance."
At the risk of encouraging the letter-writing wrath of Paraguayans upset that their national sound has been wrung inside out, let me say that Atlas Travel is anything but authentic. The clanking steel drums on Basse-Terre, Guadeloupe and Alexandria's wheezing pump organ occupy a geographic space all their own.
"There's obviously so much great, authentic world music out there," Rooke laughs. "This isn't that at all. I saved myself a few centuries' worth of research by faking it. I was going for textures, not authenticity."
Admittedly, global inspiration aside, Atlas Travel's sound doesn't differ wildly from the Henrys' own woozy music. In part, that's down to instruments, particularly the distinctive tone of Rooke's Kona slide guitar. If anything, the instrumental disc is more elliptical, filled with pauses, echoes and long periods of silence.
"I wanted to give these tunes such a spare treatment that it wouldn't really be fair to call it a Henrys record. There would be a lot of standing around. There are a lot of duos and trios, so I think it made sense to think of it as a focus on my instrument and a chance to try it out in different contexts."
It also gave Rooke the opportunity to reach out beyond the Henrys' open-ended lineup and work with players he's known for years as well as people he's never even met.
"Johan Hedin is a Swedish nyckelharpa player whose music I heard over the phone," Rooke explains. "It sounded like a violin with no vibrato, and I was just blown away. I arranged through a friend to have him play on some tunes, never having met him. I still haven't. I guess that reinforces the idea of travelling the world from your basement even more."