Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Rahim AlHaj’s Little Earth Breaks Down Barriers

A protege of legendary Iraqi oud player Munir Bashir, Rahim AlHaj was persecuted and jailed during the Saddam Hussein regime for writing a protest song questioning the Iraq/Iran war. Following his release, he was driven into exile, first in Syria and then eventually the United States, where his sponsoring agency, thinking he would prefer a desert climate, set him up in New Mexico. It wasn’t exactly what AlHaj was hoping for, but in retrospect it seems fortuitous. One of the world’s foremost oud players and composers in his own right, AlHaj’s latest album Little Earth is a cutting-edge collaboration with some unlikely but supremely well-suited suspects, several of whom he met in his new surroundings. To call what he does “world music” is accurate in the purest sense of the word – on this massive two-cd set, AlHaj mixes Iraqi oud styles with American Indian, Greek, Appalachian, West African, Australian aboriginal and Chinese chamber music, bringing out the best in a spirited crew of like-minded boundary-defying adventurers: a famous jazz guitarist, a world-renowned chanteuse, the scion of a prominent Malian musical family and one of the guys in REM. Yet despite the broad stylistic reach, AlHaj’s signature, steely intensity remains front-and-center: this is one of the most fascinating and gripping albums in any style of music in recent months.

All the compositions here are instrumentals with the exception of an Iraqi lullaby turned into an oud/flute duet with a brief vocal from Pueblo Indian flutist and craftsman Robert Mirabal, and a collaboration with Maria De Barros, a Cape Verde morna teleported to the Middle East. The pieces closest to AlHaj’s home turf wield the most power: the funereal Sama’i Baghdad, its haunting string chart played by the Little Earth Orchestra; the absolutely sizzling Dance of the Palms, and Qaasim, a requiem for his cousin, killed in Bush’s Iraq War, Stephen Kent’s oscillating djeridu lines meant to evoke the tears of the survivors. The others are somewhat more upbeat: to call them inventive would be an understatement. The Searching uses djeridu as a bass, holding down the low registers while accordionist Guy Klucevsek swirls over the incisive attack of the oud. Morning in Hyattsville, a duet with Americana jazz guitar legend Bill Frisell, evokes John Fahey or Leo Kottke at their brightest, with a wickedly unexpected shift into Middle Eastern territory from the guitar. Athens to Baghdad, with Peter Buck on twelve-string acoustic guitar, is gentle Tuatara/Tribecastan esoterica.

AlHaj also includes some richly intertwined pieces for oud and accompanying instruments, twisting and shifting shape until it’s hard to tell who’s playing what. The Other Time mingles oud with the West African kora harp of Yacouba Sissoko; River (the Passage) does the same, with some wildly interesting pipa work by Liu Fang. Other pieces set the oud against an unorthodox backdrop, whether a baroque-tinged piece featuring the Santa Fe Guitar Quartet, or the Andalusian-flavored Rocio, with oud over hypnotic sitar by Rosman Jamal Bhartiya. A listen to this ought to expand a listener’s brain at least as much as it did for the musicians involved. Talk about thinking outside the box! And what might be most impressive here is who’s not included on this album: no celebrity dj’s, no bedheaded indie rock dilettantes, no techno remixes. With all the amazing cross-pollination going on here, who needs any of that?

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January 12, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, folk music, jazz, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Some Observations on Winter Jazzfest 2011

As Search and Restore’s emcee explained Friday night at Kenny’s Castaways, the concept of Winter Jazzfest is to introduce new players, or older players tackling newer ideas. What he didn’t mention is that Winter Jazzfest is a spinoff of APAP, a.k.a. the annual booking agents’ convention, which until the past year didn’t even schedule jazz among its CMJ-style array of relatively brief sets showcasing an extraordinary amount of talent across the city. In a good year, APAP might draw 1500 people, most of them from larger community arts venues across the country. The Census Bureau has made a big deal about how their 2010 data shows an increase in attendance at jazz shows. Friday night’s crowd – young, scruffy, hungry, and overwhelmingly local – offered potent validation of that claim. We’ve said it before, we’ll say it again: great art has tremendous commercial appeal.

Drummer Mike Pride’s From Bacteria to Boys, whose run at Coco 66 in Greenpoint is one of New York’s more memorable residencies of recent years, explored how much fun there is in playing around the outer edges of funk. Artfully blending color and drive, Pride led his group – Darius Jones on alto, Peter Bitenc on bass and Alexis Marcelo on Rhodes – through a captivating, witty and too-brief set. All but one of their numbers (their catchy opening track, Surcharge, by a Berlin friend of the band named Uli) were originals. Themes were alluded to more than stated outright, Jones having a great time skirting the melody and then going way out into the boposphere on his own while Bitenc ran terse, hypnotic figures and Marcelo sent rippling washes out against the current.

“We’re professional travelers. In between we play music,” laughed pianist Amina Figarova, who delivered a thoughtfully expansive set at Zinc Bar with most of her longtime sextet: Bart Platteau on flutes; Marc Mommaas on tenor; Ernie Hammes on trumpet; Jay Anderson subbing on bass and Chris “Buckshot” Strik incisive and playful behind the drums. To paraphrase Mae West, Figarova is a woman what takes her time. Deliberately and matter-of-factly, she developed her solos with a slow and inexorably crescendoing approach which still left considerable room for surprise. And yet, a sudden solar flare or martial roll from her left hand didn’t catch her band unawares: they have a supple, intuitive chemistry that comes with rigorous touring. The most captivating songs in the set were the most bustling: the vivid airport scramble Flight No., and a cleverly shapeshifting version of the deceptively simple, unselfconsciously assertive Look at That!

As the evening wore on, it became clearer and clearer that the clubs were on a tight schedule: concertgoers accustomed to small clubs going over time as the night wears on were surprised to see acts actually take the stage before their scheduled time. Anat Cohen regaled a rapt, absolutely wall-to-wall crowd at le Poisson Rouge with a program that mixed crescendoing, ecstatic gypsy/klezmer clarinet, Jason Lindner’s lean latin piano lines and balmy sax ballads. And later, 90-year-old drummer Chico Hamilton and his band reaffirmed that if you have swing and use it, you never lose it.

Back at Kenny’s Castaways, it was nice to be able to simply see Jen Shyu as she swayed and held the room with her understated intensity: the last time she played Lincoln Center, she sold out the hall. She’s one of the few newer artists who actually lives up to all the hype that surrounds her: she can belt and wail to the rafters if she feels like it, but this was a clinic in subtlety and purposefulness. The high point of the entire evening, at least from this limited perspective, was a slowly unwinding, hypnotic arrangement of a Taiwanese slave song. Shifting from English, to French, to Spanish and then to Chinese vernacular, Shyu underscored the universality of humankind’s struggle against brutality, against overwhelming odds. Bassist John Hebert ran mesmerizingly noirish circles lit up in places by David Binney’s alto sax or Dan Weiss’  effectively understated drumming, Shyu contributing wary, starkly pensive Rhodes piano from time to time. Their last piece bounced along on a catchy tritone bass groove, Shyu’s vocalese sometimes dwindling to a whisper, bringing the band down under the radar to the point where the suspense was visceral. It would have been great fun to stick around the Village for more, but there was another mission to accomplish: like CMJ, APAP requires a lot of running around. Which was too bad. The ease of access to such a transcendent quantity of music is addictive: if you do this next year, make a two-night commitment out of it and experience it to the fullest.

January 12, 2011 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 1/12/11

Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues, all the way to #1. Wednesday’s is #748:

The Bobby Fuller Four – Never To Be Forgotten: The Best of the Mustang Years

The two most popular “best albums” lists on the web both include something by Buddy Holly, and that’s cool – if you play rock guitar, he’s worth knowing. For us, it’s hard to shake the association with boomer nostalgia, not to mention that interminable Don McLean monstrosity that pops up during your trip to the grocery store and is still going when you leave. So in lieu of Buddy Holly we give you a vastly underrated early rocker from Texas, heavily influenced by Holly, who also died before his time. In the case of Bobby Fuller, it was a murder that was never solved, one that was particularly suspicious since the investigating cops in Los Angeles, 1966, appear to have withheld evidence. Which is tragic, because in his 24 years Fuller not only took rockabilly to the next level, he was also adept at surf music. And was a particularly good singer: he didn’t do the cliched hiccupping vocal thing like so many of his contemporaries. This massive 44-track box set approaches overkill – the last of the three cds include innumerable outtakes and even a shoe commercial – but it’s nothing if not exhaustive. The song everybody knows is I Fought the Law, immortalized (and taken to the next level) by the Clash, along with the similarly catchy Let Her Dance, Julie, A New Shade of Blue, Another Sad and Lonely Night and Love’s Made a Fool of You. The surf stuff – an irresistible version of Our Favorite Martian, and Thunder Reef, for example – hint that he could have had a whole other career in instrumental rock, or maybe even in psychedelia, if he’d lived. Here’s a random torrent.

January 12, 2011 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment