Tap Dancing In The Sand is a magnificent compilation of less-vocal-than-usual compositions by Robert Ashley in strict cooperation with Ensemble MAE from Amsterdam (they’re none other than the former Maarten Altena Ensemble, minus the founder), a great chamber group with whom the American artist worked over the course of several projects. It might result as a surprising treat for many – as it happened to this reviewer – since the quality and richness of this music probably exceed any expectation. Ashley – who specializes in text/speech operas – has clearly influenced artistic entities such as Laurie Anderson; yet this CD shows that his ability in writing instrumental scores follows standards that are possibly superior to the ones of the works for which he is respected. This is an utterly gratifying listen, a collection of five delicately unobtrusive infusions of compositional sapience coming in a refined digipack complete with a booklet with full lyrics and notes from the composer. The title track features him in person, reciting the words along a constant harmonic change dictated by an elegant pianistic propulsion. His reading is counterpointed by reeds and strings similar to a parallel enunciation, the trombone curiously sounding like Charlie Brown’s teacher’s voice, a fascinating combination ending with the instruments left alone for the closure. “Outcome Inevitable” is a crepuscular piece mixing doses of Bryars and Reich, which begins with a curious clean-toned jazz guitar pushing the whole into an irregular pulse-based series of melancholic sketches enriched by melismatic vocalizations by Noa Frenkel. “Hidden Similarities” presents a text recited, in succession, by all the members of MAE upon a rarefied background; about this, Ashley writes “it shows my belief that the use of the voice is in every way as important as technical skills on an instrument” and, indeed, a good method for appreciating this kind of material is considering the spoken element as an orchestral hue. “In Memoriam ESTEBAN GOMEZ” (sic) is a slow undulation of trembling pitches, alluring and hypnotizing at one and the same time, continuously shifting from consonance to slight dissonance then becoming a little threatening when percussion and gentle distortion creep in. It comes and goes, impalpable and inscrutable, downright impressive. “She Was A Visitor” (from 1967!) is another mesmerizing moment, a ghost chorale of repeated phrases, sustained tones and hissing whispers that ends the show with an additional touch of mysterious beauty, the perfect signature to a release that can be declared a masterpiece without any question. In my book, the best Ashley ever heard.