Nima and Merge “Separate Worlds” CD – Reviewed 2006

By Lorraine Kay

One of the most creative groups to come out of Southern California in recent years is a jazz fusion/world music, and progressive rock group called Nima and Merge, formally known simply as Merge. Their newest CD release “Separate Worlds” is a kaleidoscope of musical colors, enough to satisfy nearly every palette.

Headed up by Nima Rezai on stick and stick synth, the core group includes Dan Heflin on soprano and tenor sax, Brad Ranola on drums and percussion and Randy Graves on guitar and didjeridu. According to Rezai the members are old school mates, “We all sort of moved down here to LA at different times and kept pursuing it. The formula has been that I have been the bandleader and the composer and everybody else kind of chips in their part of it to create the sound that we have.”  

Originally the band was know simply as “Merge” but during one tour in Germany the band discovered there was another band already named Merge over there so they modified the name to Nima and Merge to avoid confusion and it stuck.

Now after two years in the making, the new studio album is complete.  Composed, arranged, and produced by Rezai with selections co-written by Dan Heflin, Randy Graves, and Bob Culbertson, and engineered and mastered by Toby Rosen.   With special guests Mas Koga on flute & alto flute, Ali Shayesteh on sax & bouzouki, Jesus Florido on 7 string violin, & Alex Postelnek on tables, the CD has an incredible mix of international sounds that create a new sound that is the signature of Nima and Merge.

Separate Worlds is the group’s third CD, the first being Merge’s debut CD that featured the original ensemble’s intense blend of world and rock music with a jazz-fusion aesthetic. Composed by Rezai with selections co-written by Dan Heflin on soprano and tenor saxophone – with Murray Gusseck on drums, and Chip Webster on keyboards & percussion.

The second CD was “Live in London”, recorded on their tour in 2003. This first live compilation showcased the trio’s raw and full sound featuring Rezai on Stick and Stick synths, Dan Heflin on saxophones, and Brad Ranola on drums.  Recorded by Toby Rosen throughout several venues in London during the 2003 London JOT Festival including: Trafalgar Square, Soho Square, and Golden Square.

The group can’t help but be original and unique. Their sound centers around its instrumentation – the Chapman Stick, an amplified 12-stringed instrument with which rhythm, melody, and bass are played simultaneously, soprano or tenor saxophone, and drums. The stick is a relatively new instrument created by Emmett Chapman some 30 years ago. An amazing and versatile instrument only a few have actually mastered it as a lead instrument. And Nima is one of those.

When asked what attracted him to the Chapman Stick  Nima credited his long-time teacher Bob Culbertson, ”He is one of one of the greatest players I have ever seen on the stick. I saw him play when I was about 17 or 18. I was pretty fascinated by it. And that sort of prompted me to start it.” In the beginning it still wasn’t his primary instrument like the bass guitar, but some physical limitations started creating problems for him where the bass was concerned. “I started realizing that my physical problems actually didn’t effect me that much when I played the stick. So that was a way for me to continue playing.”

“This instrument like any other instrument has its pros and cons. I wasn’t really a fan of the sound of it – sort of being on the fence in the beginning.  So that is one of the things I really spent a lot of time on – trying to make a better sound and at the same time trying not to mimic a bass player. I wanted to make it sound like an original instrument. I saw my teacher doing that as well. I saw that he wasn’t trying to do bass on one side and melody on the other.  And I always saw him interacting in such a way, almost as a harp player would do. And that’s what fascinated me. He is a solo player – most stick players are solo players, but I always liked the interaction of being in a group.  That’s one of the reasons I got a stick. I’ve sort of taken a different approach to it and try to fit it around the group and try to really use it primarily as a compositional tool.

And that is what makes “Separate Worlds” such a delight to listen to for any music lover. There is literally something for everyone.  As in all their music, the Chapman Stick and  Nima’s Persian origins find their way into much of the group’s music. His compositions take advantage of many traditional elements of various eastern music systems. Listening to the CD it is easy to hear the many combinations of West African, South American, Western rhythms and melodies from the other players intertwining to produce a sound that is fresh. Much of the group’s original material is based around these world influences, but the musicians strive to keep the music open to new expressions in the jazz tradition.

As a jazz offering, “Separate Worlds” spans the whole spectrum through its mixture of musical styles, ranging anywhere from straight ahead to avant-garde. Smooth phrasing and intense musical moments make for a somber yet compelling experience. Through this combination of dynamic contrasts and musical elements, the group has the flexibility to be at once intimate and powerful.

Reaching out to progressive-rock fans this CD offers up samples of this style of music enough to satisfy even the most avid prog-rock fan.  Power chords, elaborate drum fills, and virtuosic soloing find their place in compositions that contain a wide variety of movements, time signatures, and associated visual imagery – ultimate and original mood music. Simply put, Nima and Merge are a hybrid of jazz, fusion, progressive rock and world music and a group worth the attention, and “Separate Worlds” is a must for any CD collection..

For more information or to order “Separate Worlds” visit www.mergemusic.com.