A magical musical tour of the Middle East
BEIRUT, Feb 06, 2013 (The Daily Star - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
The introduction of the saxophone into the classical idioms of the Middle East and North Africa is not a new phenomenon.
Pioneered by Lebanese composers like Ziad Rahbani and Toufic Farroukh, "Oriental jazz" -- the melding of Western jazz instrumentation and modalities with the quarter-tone scale of eastern music -- continues to be explored by younger performers like vocalist Rima Khcheich and contrabassist Tony Overwater, her principal instrumentalist.
Syrian trumpet- and saxophone-player Basel Rajoub aspires to something different, though with similar results. His current collaboration, The Basel Rajoub Trio, finds the front man blowing through a broad swath of the saxophone family. He's backed by Feras Shahrestane on qanun (a stringed instrument akin to a zither) and percussionist Khaled Yassine, whose beast of a drum kit includes a wide range of hand drums and symbols.
The ensemble calls its musical style "fusion Oriental," a multifaceted melodic tour of the region that combines Armenian, Iranian, Syrian, Turkish and Asian influences. In spite of the jazz overtones of the saxophone, an instrument incapable of fully adapting to the required scales, Rajoub is in fact striving to achieve a sound as close to classical Oriental music as possible.
Named after Rajoub's sister Asia, the group's first album is produced by fledgling local label Edict Records and was launched last week with a performance at Hamra's Masrah al-Madina.
The album is a pleasant mixture of classically inflected pieces, driven by the accomplished Shahrestane. The strings are overlaid with the soft, piping tones of Rajoub's saxophones, reigned in to a woody whisper reminiscent of a Turkish ney (an end-blown wooden flute), and bolder, brassier pieces in which the two instruments tangle and collaborate, call and respond, over Yassine's wild percussion.
"Jasmine Tree," the opening track, is a soothing eight minutes of soulful, jazzy sax, accompanied by softly strummed arpeggios and harp-like runs on the qanun. Yassine's gentle, unobtrusive beat gives the track forward momentum without dispelling the song's dreamy atmosphere.
This opening number contrasts markedly with the album's title track, which follows it. "Asia" is faster, with a dancing melody reminiscent of gypsy music. Its rich opening sequence provides the first clue as to Shahrestane's considerable talents, the qanun's complex harmonies combining with Yassine's melodic, tabla-like drumming and Rajoub's warbling, Balkan-sounding melody to create a blend of distinctly Asian influences.
The highpoint of the album, "Asia" is a complex track with a catchy refrain and a highly effective pairing of qanun and saxophone.
Together they carry the haunting melody, gradually quickening the tempo to create a sense of urgency that leaves the listener hanging as the song comes to a sudden close.
Snatches of this refrain echoed though the record, particularly the closing song "Gypsy Home," creating an ambient nostalgia as it progresses, as though the performers are struggling to remember a half-forgotten dream.
The later tracks never quite succeed in recapturing the energy of the title track. These looser, more improvisational melodies have a meandering, slightly aimless feel, which might get some heads nodding but is unlikely to incite anyone to dance on the table.
The trio are undoubtedly accomplished, but it is Shahrestane who particularly shines, both in live performances and on this album. His perfectly timed pizzicato demonstrates the range of the classical qanun, from which he is able to coax a shower of notes as soothing as a lullaby, or wring out a profusion of chords that seem far too powerful and complex to have come from this instrument.
"Asia" is as varied in its moods as in its musical influences, running the gamut from joyful excess to ponderous passages of improvisation, to melancholy, introspective laments. Rajoub's soulful saxophone gives each track a clearly defined melody, but doesn't succeed in holding the attention in quite the way a vocalist might.
A pleasant, unobtrusive collection of songs, "Asia" is an album to add a bit of background color to your day, versatile enough to be played anywhere from a dinner party with friends to a long family drive to a low-key first date with a bottle of wine. It just may not be memorable enough to get you humming in the shower.
"Asia," by the Basel Rajoub Trio is released by Edict Records. Find more information at http://www.edictrecords.com
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