“I think we’re in the midst of a mass awakening,” says Max ZT, “a kind of collective reprioritization. It feels like we’ve been forging our way through the darkness, and now the light is finally about to break through.”
With Daybreak, Max’s mesmerizing new album of hammered dulcimer music, the light has arrived. Recorded at home in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the fully-improvised instrumental collection channels all of the hope and fear and pain and discovery of these past few years into a captivating sonic journey that’s equal parts medicine and meditation. The songs here are spare and deliberate, calling on Indian, African, and Celtic traditions as they move with grace and wonder, and the performances are nothing short of entrancing, managing to showcase both Max’s virtuosic command of his instrument and the innovative approach that’s earned him widespread acclaim. A national champion performer, Max has been praised as the Jimi Hendrix of the hammered dulcimer by NPR, but Daybreak isn’t about fireworks or flash. Instead, the album is an offering, an ego-sublimating invitation to step outside of yourself and find peace and comfort in reflection.
“Taking all the kora techniques I learned in Africa and adapting them to the hammered dulcimer was a game changer for me,” says Max. “Instead of just playing single line melodies, which is what a lot of
Irish and American folk tunes were based around,
I could start playing chords and harmony and melody and improvisations all at once. I could perform in a way that sounded a lot bigger than just one instrument.”
Max’s endless curiosity took him to India next, where he began studying santoor (an early predecessor of the dulcimer) under the legendary Pandit Shivkumar Sharma. Thanks to a prestigious grant from the American Institute for Indian Studies, Max was able to live and work in
“Music has the power to transport us,” Max reflects. “I’m not a healer; I know an F# isn’t going to take anybody’s pain away. But at the same time,
I know that I can create an environment where people can engage in the kind of introspection they need in order to heal themselves. And that’s why
I made this album.”
A Chicago native who now calls Brooklyn home, Max had his first encounter with the hammered dulcimer—a rather unusual instrument that’s played by striking tuned strings with a pair of soft mallets—at the tender age of two, when, as his parents tell the story, he became so transfixed by a performance at a museum that he planted himself at the player’s feet and refused to budge. At seven, he began taking lessons on a rented dulcimer, and by his teenage years, he’d moved up to one of master luthier David Lindsay’s grand Concert Grand models, which featured an extended range and a floating soundboard designed to increase the instrument’s warmth and resonance. (Under Lindsay’s mentorship, Max would eventually begin building his own instruments, including the one he plays on Daybreak.) Max’s interest in the dulcimer stretched beyond the traditional Western folk music associated with it, though, and after learning about West African music in college, he headed to Senegal to study the 21-stringed kora.
Mumbai for two years, absorbing everything he could about the country’s classical music tradition and the philosophy behind it.
In the years to come, Max and his band, House of Waters, would go on to share stages with the likes of Ravi Shankar, Tinariwen, Jimmy Cliff, Bela Fleck, and Victor Wooten, score an Emmy-winning documentary for ESPN, and release two critically acclaimed albums on Snarky Puppy’s GroundUP Music label. In addition to his work with the band, Max would also tour the world as a solo performer and co-write with his wife, the Indian singer Priya Darshini, for her GRAMMY-nominated debut, Periphery. All the while, though, he never stopped looking for ways to serve others with his music.
“When the pandemic hit, it just seemed like every day brought news of some new tragedy,” Max recalls. “Between our living in New York and my wife’s family living in India, we were constantly hearing about friends and relatives who were sick or losing the people they cared about, and since we couldn’t travel to be with anyone in person, I decided to start sharing music as a gesture of empathy and compassion.”
Working out of his living room, Max began recording a series of improvisations that he could send to loved ones as they faced down pain and uncertainty. The songs were intended to be catalysts, doorways through which listeners could move toward some kind of relief and solace for themselves.
“The reaction was shocking,” says Max, who ended up recording improvisations for dozens of people. “I know music has always been a balm for me, but to see the effect it had on others, on such a direct, one-to-one level, was honestly incredible.”
When a friend invited him to join a pandemic-inspired collective art project, Max saw the opportunity to expand on what he was doing and record a full album, improvising for anywhere from seven-to-ten hours a day until eventually landing on the continuous 52-minute stretch that would become Daybreak. At once evoking Eno’s ambient works and Mary Lattimore’s harp compositions, the result—Max’s solo debut—is an immersive, cross- cultural work of patience and tranquility, a sonic salve for these troubled times.
Max ultimately split the complete recording into seven discrete tracks, each based around a series of distinct emotional and technical themes. Dreamy opener “All Of It” sets the stage, with ambient, apprehensive swells of dissonance that drift and hang in a state of perpetual suspension before eventually giving way to a more grounded sense of stability. He introduces the pulse of rhythm on lead single “In It,” adding shape and body to his performance with subtle bass lines and evocative chordal movements, and presses forward into more hopeful territory with the airy “Unattended” and shimmering “Backward Facing.” The path from darkness to light isn’t strictly linear here, though, and the minor progressions of “Yield” and eerily cinematic atmospherics of “And Bend” (which showcases the cloud, an original technique Max invented that creates a ghostly swirl of notes) remind us that it’s okay to feel the full range of our emotions all at once. By the time we reach album closer “Suscipe,” though, Max has delivered us to a state of transcendence, a place where
trepidation has given way to acceptance and any nagging thoughts of the past and have long since been replaced with a full embrace of the present.
“This moment is about more than just tragedy,” he explains. “There’s also been a lot of beauty these past few years in the way people have come together through the power of shared experience, in the way that so many of us who are constantly on the move have been forced to slow down and reevaluate what really matters. And because of that, maybe when we emerge from this, we won’t just go back to ‘normal.’ Maybe we’ll move on to a new and more intentional way of living.”
In the end, that’s the promise of Daybreak; not that a better tomorrow is possible, but that a better today is unfolding right before our very eyes.
Daybreak will release on April 8th, 2022, on Six Degrees/Soundbalm Records.