Randy Armstrong

The cover of the box set Dinner on the Diner boasts, "two CDs and 64 pages of recipes, photos, and travel adventures ...," and, sure enough, the first page of the liner-note booklet I flipped to contained instructions for Sea Bass/Salmon Baked in Salt from Mary Ann Esposito. Later pages include recipes celebrity chefs Dorinda Hafner, Graham Kerr, and Martin Yan concocted as they slaved in the kitchens of the world's most elegant trains.

A promo sheet explains the not-so-organic origin of this TV, CD, and publishing project. "As market research determined that the most popular television documentaries involve cooking, global travel, and trains, New Hampshire-based world-music innovator Randy Armstrong was enrolled into creating a soundtrack to the acclaimed PBS series, Dinner on the Diner." This reminds me of the tongue-in-cheek book published a few years back by Alan Coren called Golfing for Cats, which sported a swastika on the cover. The rationale was that since golf, cats, and Nazis were three subjects that racked up huge paperback sales, the author would assure bestseller status by jamming in all three. But there's no trace of that kind of irony here, except perhaps in employing Armstrong to emulate the traditional music of Spain, South Africa, Scotland, and Southeast Asia when the real stuff is readily available.

Multi-instrumentalist Armstrong has "shared the stage" with Dizzy Gillespie, King Sunny Ade, and others, the liner notes ambiguously inform us -- during or after a concert, and in what capacity, though, is never made clear. But there's no mistaking his prowess on acoustic guitar, especially in the Spanish-music set, or his compositional abilities. The man has a gift for ersatz ethnicity. Taste is another matter. When Armstrong cinches up the guitar synthesizer on "Tarifa" with the intention of evoking "the cry from the minaret," we're well into a journey to the mythical land of Kitsch. And when he saddles the Anglo-sounding concert choir from Phillips Exeter Academy, a New Hampshire boarding school, to perform South African mbube, of all things, the ground underfoot grows dangerously soggy. The Southeast Asian omelet was even more tricky. "Thai music is particularly difficult to understand, and playing it is not my specialty," Armstrong confesses in trying to score the appropriate accompaniment for a Thai traditional dancer onboard the Orient Express. Once again he acquits himself with a pleasant sounding stew containing plenty of rich gravy, but my question is, who's coming to the table? The Ellipsis Arts label has a history of assembling high-quality world-music anthologies, such as the Time to Listen music of China box set and the flamenco compilation Duenda. But with this gastronomical railroad soundtrack, they've gotten off on the wrong track. Kitchen magicians will opt for the cookbook that's sure to follow, travel buffs will buy a copy of the PBS video, but world-music aficionados should avoid this set like a cut of bad beef.

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Bob Tarte