Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

CD Review: Marcel Khalifé – Taqasim

One of the most intensely beautiful albums of recent years, a high point in the career of the world-renowned, Lebanese-born oud player, songwriter and composer. Time may well judge this cd to be a classic. Khalifé has emphasized that he wanted it to be plaintive without being maudlin. His methodology: to write strictly for the low tonalities of the oud, upright bass and percussion. The result is perhaps more successful than anyone could have imagined, an extraordinarily lyrical achievement, the low frequencies making it as hypnotic as it is riveting. Taqasim (Arabic for jam or improvisation) is a suite consisting of three roughly 20-minute instrumentals. It’s deep, rich, and gorgeously melodic, yet at the same time very disquieting.

Taqasim is first and foremost a homage to controversial, maverick Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, a writer who has profoundly influenced Khalifé’s work over the years. “The man who is in harmony with his society, his culture, with himself, cannot be a creator,” Darwish wrote, and this album bolsters his argument. Not everything here is troubled: there are several upbeat, frankly optimistic passages, but ultimately this is an anguished, tormented work, something one would expect from a composer who’s been exiled for fighting for peace and refusing to submit to the status quo for decades.

Part one begins with Khalifé introducing a stately, resignedly mournful theme, to which bassist Peter Herbert responds deliberately and methodically. From there, it builds to a surprisingly upbeat dance. Part two is set mostly in darkness: this time, the bass introduces its theme with quiet anguish, bowed notes quietly wailing into the upper registers, a melody that a violin or ney flute would typically carry. This time Khalifé responds with aplomb. But in stark contrast with the suite’s first movement, the dance moves deeper and deeper into the shadows, a nimbly negotiated labyrinth of permutations of the ominous Arabic hijaz scale. The third movement quickly grows lush, and pitch black. Khalifé’s theme is apprehensive, climbing briskly to a false exit with a bass solo and then, with what sounds like an oud orchestra, building to another long, eerie dance. Cinematically, it’s rain in an olive grove. But it’s unseasonably cold, and the wind grows harsh, tearing at everything in its path. The outcome looks bleak, but the group perseveres. And then it’s over.

Recorded at Water Music in Hoboken, NJ (a studio quickly gaining the legendary status of places like Abbey Road or the Hit Factory), the room where the group recorded has amazing natural reverb, the result being a vast wash of echoey textures that make the three instruments here frequently sound like thirty. Khalifé is one of the great innovators of our time, a musician who refuses to accept any preconceived limitation on his oud playing. Characteristically, Taqasim is a showcase for both his remarkably chordal approach and his lightning-fast attack on the strings. Both bassist Herbert and percussionist Bachar Khalifé (Marcel’s son, who also plays with the genre-bending Parisian psychedelic Middle Eastern jazz group Bace Quartet) play with an intuitive sense that borders on the telepathic. If this is just a jam (though from the intricacy of the melodies here, it’s likely a good percentage of it was composed beforehand), it ranks with Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue as one of the best ever captured live.

July 25, 2008 - Posted by | Music, Reviews

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