ARTIST: FISHTANK ENSEMBLE

TITLE: WOMAN IN SIN

RELEASE DATE: 2010

LABEL: INDEPENDENT

By Joel Okida

Fishtank.jpgThe ever chameleonic Fishtank Ensemble have once again added more colors to their palette, spilling over into a pastiche of songs, traditional and new, retaining their own style, but honoring the sources. This is an epic musical variety show except all the performances are performed by four talented musicians and some added guests.

Their third recording, propagated from a group pared down from 2007's Samurai Over Serbia, is Woman in Sin. There's nothing like a live show by Fishtank Ensemble, but if studio production loses some of the visceral of the powerful group's 3D presence, it does allow for insightful listening where one can bear audible witness to the group's attention to detail on each of the twelve tracks, not to mention the wide range in which they can operate.

That they seemingly cover this broad range of musical genres is one source of appeal. The fact that the Ensemble is instrumentally adept at how they do it, is another.

Upright bass player, Djordje Stijepovic, gets more elbow and bow room here, and shines brightly on his own song and weighs in vocally on duets with lead vocalist, Ursula Knudson. With chops honed from years of playing in Eastern European bands and rockabilly credits racked up here in the states, he can give a fierce live performance and brings these elements to your audio doorstep. A combustible combination of Romany raging and slap bass is embodied by Djordje's Rachenitza and vocally he is the instigator that incites the party with Opa Opa. As an aside, guest musician, Dan Cantrell, adds a sensitive but soulful accordion to the exceptional Rachenitza Stijepovic's galloping lines on CouCou help flavor the song behind Ursula's purring vocals. He joins Ursula again in vocal duet on the Kolo Suite with his bass slapping percussively alongside Fabrice's frenetic bowing.

On another highlight, the vocally silent, but stiletto sharp flamenco guitar of El Douje (Douglas Smolens) shares the limelight with Ursula's soaring saw and vocal earthiness, via his self-penned, Pena Andaluz. And his Django rhythm and riffs in the aforementioned ever- so lively, CouCou, bounce along with the rollicking piano, bass, and violin ensemble.

Fabrice Martinez, always gets acclaim for his violin prowess with words like fiery and feverish, but truly, if this recording does nothing else, it is a testament to the breadth of his abilities, as if he's been playing each of a variety of styles all of his life. Rooted in the caravan music of the Roma (listen to Am Furat de la Haidouks, a tour de force or the closer, the Kurdish traditional, Nedim), Martinez can switch "ears" and whip out a period solo on CouCou with a violin trumpet as if he sat in Paris cafes for a long spell (well, maybe he did that too. If so, I'm coming back as him.)

While Fabrice brings a focused near austere intensity to his playing, then the wild card is Martinez's wife, multi-instrumentalist, and vocalist extraordinaire, Ursula Knudson. We got some doses of her vocal prowess and more than a few hints of her abilities to sing popular music as well as the Balkan canon from their first two CDs, but now there are these otherworldly examples of what her voice can do with a different songbook while embodying the time, personality, and the genre, but stamping individuality on each of her tracks. Listen to the merging of musical saw and her matching upper register vocal accompaniment on the title track and then check After You're Gone with its Billie Holiday-era style and spunk and the sassier-than-Josette Daydè CouCou. Would Django and the Quintette du Hot Club de France approve of this? One could imagine that there would be at least a little jealousy on Django's part. And Daydè might have been excused even sooner from the Hot Club had the Fishtank opened the show. Ah, but best not to tamper with the legends of the past. It's a new era with a new band that's hot enough to blaze their own path. And let's not forget the chaser for Ursula's cover songs; a sultry rendition of an already heated classic, Fever. Maybe the ghost of Peggy Lee sat in, parked her soul in the studio and let Ursula warm her spirit back up and fuel the new take. Whatever- we get it nice and hot.

There are, in fact, too many moments of magical interplay between the band members to cover in this article. The term ensemble is appropriate because the musical ends are justified by the tight cohesive effort given by each of the players. Fishtank Ensemble is that rare group that is not only good as the sum of its parts, but can boast individuals who can stand in the spotlight and more than hold their own. Woman in Sin is sinful only if you don't get a copy and listen.

Joel Okida is a struggling artist, struggling writer, and struggling musician. It occurs to him that life is all about the struggle. Fortunately, he did not take up acting. However, he's not half-bad as a zydeco dancer and the ability to make a mean gumbo and lovely walnut tortes has gotten him by.