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J. Mark Scearce: The 99 Beautiful Names of God, John Cheek, piano. ©2009 Albany Records, CD (duration 71 min., $16.99). Available from Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, NC, or www.albanyrecords.com.
In times of political turmoil, artists turn to their work. Offering the listener a refuge in music, composer J. Mark Scearce shares his own contemplative journey. The 99 Beautiful Names of God, performed by pianist John Cheek, is a collection of pieces, each inspired by spiritual references found in the Qur’an. Divided into four “Books,” each of the short elegant compositions bear a stamp of originality.
From the outset, and not surprisingly, one hears the subtle influences of Western art music; American jazz and familiar hymns. Bookended by a quotation from "Amazing Grace," they range in length from two-measure “amens” to more developed, anthem-length compositions. And like the names, Scearce creates contrasting moods through textures and color. Some are spacious, like "The Sublime" — ringing like church bells; others have densely packed clusters of sound. Like a contemporary version of plainchant, some bear a single melodic line ("The Protector") and others include rich, jazz-like sonorities. With a knack for spinning lovely tunes, Scearce writes ethereal melodies that linger in the mind ("The Wise"; "The Hider of Faults"). Still others are terse, chilling statements that evoke fear and trembling ("The Avenger"). Miniatures in counterpoint that resemble Bach Inventions ("The Guide") provide contrast with Rachmaninoff-like flourishes ("The Destroyer").
John Cheek’s performance is brilliant. He’s equally adept with jazz-like riffs and classical arabesques. Coaxing one luscious tone after another he transforms the two-dimensional world of musical notation into a beautifully choreographed dance of sound. From the effervescent "The Praiseworthy" to the languid "The Thankful," Cheek’s sound is warm and articulate. There are delightful extra-musical touches: silently dampened tones, Buddhist chimes (B-flat, chime of compassion), chanting, plucked piano strings and the ringing sound of a tuning fork. Cheek executes these so delicately they add sparkle without becoming cliché. Instinctively choosing when to adhere or disregard the composer’s markings ("The Propitious," for example) or fill in his own dynamics, he sculpts phrases into breathtaking works of art.
The 99 Beautiful Names of God does not break new ground. Scearce’s intention was to write healing music for a colleague to play, and the work is more like an intimate portrait. Next to hearing a live performance, the best way to experience the music is through a good set of headphones. Be prepared to be gently swept away. And regardless of your spiritual bent or musical preference, the recording will provide rich, meditative and nourishing sound. Accessible, beautiful and skillfully performed, this CD works in small sections, but it’s even better if one sets aside the entire 71 minutes.