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THE CHASE IS ON

At most record stores, Eagle Dances With the Wind, the Canyon Records debut by the Denver-based Native American duo Red Tail Chasing Hawks, is filed in the new-age section. And that's too bad, because, as Hawks pianist James Torres points out, there's nothing particularly new-agey about it. "We try to...
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At most record stores, Eagle Dances With the Wind, the Canyon Records debut by the Denver-based Native American duo Red Tail Chasing Hawks, is filed in the new-age section. And that's too bad, because, as Hawks pianist James Torres points out, there's nothing particularly new-agey about it. "We try to refrain from calling it `new-age,'" he says. "We prefer to call this music `spirit music.' Music for the spirit."

Calvin Standing Bear, who plays the siyotanka (the traditional Native American cedar flute) alongside Torres, is slightly less defensive about being inaccurately categorized. "Well, I suppose it's fine with us if they put us there," he comments. "I guess you have to put it somewhere. And it is true that new-age things have really taken a dive into the whole area of Native American culture. Even Carlos Nakai mixes some new-age attitudes, crystals and all that, into his music. And don't get me wrong--those can be good things. But," he concludes, "they do tend to get mixed up in basic native philosophies."

By the same token, the music of Red Tail Chasing Hawks isn't a strictly traditional version of Native American sounds. Torres and Standing Bear combine the ancestral sounds of the siyotanka with modern, jazz-based harmonies and improvisation. As a result, the duo's work exhibits a comforting yet tantalizing quality that recalls the haunting rural flavor associated with the recordings of Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays. But the subtext of the material on Eagle has little in common with the prettified complexities of the Metheny/ Mays collaborations. "New Spirit" concerns reverence for the Creator; the lovely "When We Walk Together" finds the protagonists traveling the so-called Red Road under the watchful eye of the Tunkashila (Great Spirit); and other tunes feature eagles in flight, prayers for a better world, meditation and celebrations of each new day.

Given the cultivated cynicism that's so prevalent today, these descriptives may imply that the Hawks' work is schmaltzy--well-intended but weightless. But there's a power in these pieces that cannot be denied. "We played in Albuquerque and Santa Fe recently, and we got a lot of letters about the music--how it affected people," Standing Bear notes. "They said it was soothing. Touching. Inspirational. Some even said that somehow it had changed them in a way--that it touched their hearts."

The genesis of this sound can be traced to the first meeting between Torres, of Chiricahua Apache heritage, and Standing Bear, a full-blooded Lakota Sioux who was born at the Rosebud reservation. Several years ago Torres attended an Indian church service during which Standing Bear performed with a spiritual drum group. Afterward, Torres recalls, "I asked Calvin to bring his drum group to help out on a benefit for the American Indian Women's Resource Center. Unfortunately, they never actually got to perform, but Calvin had brought his flute, and I asked him to play with me on this one song, `Buffalo's Heart.' He told me that he couldn't do it unless it was in the key of F minor, the natural key of the Lakota flute. And it was really weird, man: I had written that song years before, and it's in the key of F minor."

Soon thereafter, the partnership solidified. The two have other musical interests--Torres works frequently in the jazz community and Standing Bear studies guitar, an instrument he played in his youth. But their main focus is on the Hawks. They're already in the planning stages for their next album, tentatively titled Brother Hawk; like its predecessor, it will be issued by Canyon, a Phoenix, Arizona, company that's been releasing Native American music since 1951.

Torres and Standing Bear say they appreciate Canyon's support. But they claim that they're proudest of the response they received from higher powers. "When the music was finished, we had a ceremony," Standing Bear explains. "It was the first time that James had ever attended a ceremony that we had. I let him know what was in my heart and that I was going to confront the Great Spirit Wakon about this music. But the spirit that came was Thunder Eagle. And he told us that the spirits were satisfied with this music that we had put together.

"From then on, you can imagine how my heart felt," he continues. "My heart felt glad, because I knew there are a lot of people out there exposing music that have never really asked the Creator what he thought. But we know that the Creator is aware of what we are doing and what we are headed for."

And where, exactly, are the Hawks going? According to Torres, "It was like the spirits said that we have to discipline ourselves and present our music in a helpful manner, with the people in mind. And if we do this, the music will be heard like thunder around the world. We have been blessed with this music and this project, and we're looking forward to taking it to the hilt."

Red Tail Chasing Hawks. 8 p.m. Friday, November 3, Common Grounds, 3484 West 32nd Avenue, free, 458-5284; 4-7 p.m. Saturday, November 4, Squaw Mountain Arts Gallery, Idaho Springs, free, 423-9008.

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