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“Sneha,” a haunting ballad first recorded in Thailand in the mid-1960s, has become an iconic standard in that country and beyond. It occupies a pivotal spot right in the middle of Kengchakaj Kengkarnkja’s Lak Lan. Sung without artifice by Sirintip Phasuk, the Thai lyrics convey the hesitation of one who recalls a heartbreak but dares to hope that love will return.
Bangkok-born pianist and composer Kengchakaj has set his arrangement of “Sneha” in a similar middle ground — between his native music and the jazz he has embraced as a New Yorker — by backing the melody with rubato piano rhythms out of Keith Jarrett’s book. The entrance of drummer Nolan Byrd, and some measured reverb, create a sparse but sumptuous dreamscape that heightens the uncertainty depicted in the lyrics. It’s the perfect centerpiece for Lak Lan (the title, which translates into “paradox,” embodies the push-pull of cultures that shape this music).
The album’s syntheses of East and West provide a steady stream of eclectic delights. Kengchakaj composed all the other songs on Lak Lan, and he has cast his net wide in evoking a sense of artistic “in-between-ness.” “Sneha” melts effortlessly into “Deceptible,” which borrows from the billowy hip-hop of Robert Glasper; Pat Metheny’s influence shows through in the melody and piano-guitar voicings on “What Called Home.” The septet roars through the hard-bop melody of “Fa(c)t” but plays a different role on the fusion-energy “6849,” which shimmers with dissonant chords before alto saxophonist Shai Golan’s guttural, quasi-free solo. On several tunes, Phasuk becomes a pure orchestra voice, carrying a wordless lead or engaging in voluptuous three-part harmonies with the two saxophones.
Don’t think that this constitutes a collection of knock-offs. Echoes of Kengchakaj’s predecessors don’t overshadow his own vision; they tie the whole project together, thanks to his ability to blend Thai tradition with undisputed jazz. You’ll easily spot the Asian scales and rhythms, but Kengchakaj’s great skill lies in the subtle balancing of these elements throughout the disc. Rather than traipse through a no-man’s-land between East and West, Kengchakaj straddles the border on this beguiling debut. — Neil Tesser