Essentials: Gryphon Trio ‘Broken Hearts & Madmen’ Album Review

With Broken Hearts & Madmen, the Canadian chamber music group Gryphon Trio came up with one of the great album titles of all time. With material from such a diverse crowd as Nick Drake, Leonard Cohen, Laurie Anderson and Lhasa de Sela, the record was made in a live-like atmosphere of complete takes and closely-miked quarters. The result is absolutely breathtaking in its attention to detail, with every note carved from their love of the songs and their obvious ease with each other.

Such is hardly the case in most attempts of classical musicians taking on disparate genres, but crossover music is replete with musical surprises. The Ebene Quartet delighted us some months back with their audacious release Fiction, but Gryphon Trio surpasses that notable quartet handily. Several factors facilitate their success, among them the guest vocals of Patricia O’Callaghan and presence of jazz bass player and producer Roberto Occhipinti, a classically trained musician renowned for his work in Latin music, and who has toured with experimental hip-hop band Gorillaz.

Patricia O’Callaghan is no stranger to cabaret, Cohen, or classical. In fact, she’s one of the best singers ever to come out of Canada. Born and raised in Northern Ontario, Canada at seventeen she lived in Mexico for a year as an exchange student. It was there that she had an epiphany one day and decided she should become an opera singer. Up until that time she could not decide whether to become a rock star or a nun and she thought opera was the perfect melding of the two: all the discipline and undebauched life of a nun, but she would still get to sing. She has performed and recorded previously with Gryphon Trio.

Together nearly 25 years now, with more than a dozen recordings and a coveted Juno Award to their credit, the group is composed of musicians each having a stellar career in his (her) own right: Annalee Patipatanakoon on violin; Roman Borys on cello and Jamie Parker on piano. The trio excels at the traditional chamber music repertoire. However, with their exciting performances of the Argentinian modern tango compositions of Astor Piazzolla they have re-invented chamber music. Anyone who has heard their take on Piazzolla (who famously stood the tango on its head) will understand that Gryphon Trio was more than ready to tackle this project. In addition, their adventurous multimedia production of composer Christos Hatzis’s epic work Constantinople, scored for mezzo–soprano, Middle Eastern singer, violin, cello, piano, and electronic audiovisual media, has thrilled audiences across North America and at the Royal Opera House in London.

Broken Hearts and Madmen is an exquisite piece of work, bringing together the works of writers and musicians known for extreme states of mind: it’s no secret that passion, heartbreak, and artistry go hand in hand. Mental imbalances often inspire creative spirits, while at the same time driving those talents to extreme actions: Cohen in self-exile on a Greek island, the suicide of Nick Drake; the list goes on. This record is a tribute to those states of mind. Far from being a dark or depressive work, this album also contains several romantic melodies from Mexico, Argentina and Chile. Particularly touching is “Cucurrucucu Paloma” composed by Tomás Méndez. Another standout track is the trio’s version of Elvis Costello’s “I Want You.”

As for the Leonard Cohen song, the trio chose “The Gypsy’s Wife”, from the classic 1979 album Recent Songs. It’s one of the finest lyrics he ever wrote, supported by a haunting Gypsy violin track.

And where, where, where is my Gypsy wife tonight
I’ve heard all the wild reports, they can’t be right
But whose head is this she’s dancing with on the threshing floor
whose darkness deepens in her arms a little more
And where, where is my Gypsy wife tonight?
Where, where is my Gypsy wife tonight?

Gryphon Trio has recorded a work of catharsis and self-renewal, one of almost overwhelming tenderness. Long regarded as one of the finest chamber music groups in the world, with Broken Hearts & Madmen they have widened their audience considerably and burnished their enviable reputation.