Brooklyn Rider

Those of us who remember when portable music meant a shoulder-mounted boom box might also recall a time when the Kronos Quartet were the only string quartet to play music from territories west of Los Angeles, east of the Volga or south of the Mediterranean. The machines have shrunk, but string quartets have expanded their territory. Today's young ensembles don't even need to plunge into global internationalism; they've grown out of it. The string quartet Brooklyn Rider came together for Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Project, so its interests lie well beyond the borough. Its first recording was Silent City, a bewitching collaboration with the Persian fiddler Kayhan Kalhor. Passport, the group's almost contemporaneous second disc, is just as itinerant and equally seductive. It makes a fairly random assortment of cultural stops, from Yerevan to Mexico City to Forest Hills, Queens, all linked by a distinctive Brooklyn swing. The album opens with a suite of Armenian folk songs transcribed for string quartet by the priestly ethnomusicologist Komitas Vardapet and performed with muscular conviction and fragile wistfulness. It feels like a small hop to "La Muerte Chiquita," a ballad by the Mexican pop band Café Tacuba, which the composer Osvaldo Golijov has transformed through the application of perfumed lyricism and whispering harmonics. The players of Brooklyn Rider are also members of an elastic society of New York-based musicians who treat the world's musical traditions as if they were separated by little more than a couple of subway stops. Another fellow traveler is Ljova, a violist and composer who specializes in what might be termed Eastern-European avant-folk and who wrote "Crosstown," a lovely nocturne with a plaintive sax-like solo above a bluesy plucked bass. But the disc's keystone work is the 14-minute "Brooklesca" by the group's violinist Colin Jacobsen. It has the feeling of a shape-shifting, key-switching, rhythm-bending jam session, shot through with Persian motifs and Gypsy bravura. The beat is rock & roll-solid, the improvisational style elastic and relaxed, and the inventiveness assured. Jacobsen and his quartet mates play it as if the music were in their blood stream, or at least in the atmosphere of their heterogeneous borough.