Middle Eastern Jazz Alchemy at the Asia Society
Four brilliant and individualistic musicians brought a riveting confluence of very disparate traditions to the cutting edge of 21st century Middle Eastern music Saturday night at the Asia Society. The world premiere of Sound: The Encounter featured Iranian bagpiper/reedman Saeid Shanbehzadeh played wry extrovert to Syrian saxophonist Basel Rajoub‘s unwavering intensity while percussionist Nagib Shanbehzadeh (son of Saeid) served as linchpin for the project, supplying grooves that were alternately slinky, stately and downright funky. Eclectic Philadelphia-based oud virtuoso Kenan Adnawi also made intricately ornamented and sometimes haunting contributions throughout the show. The material was a fascinating and esoteric mix of traditional vamps, pulsing original jazz and a lively, intoxicatingly swirling blend of the two.
The backstory is that Rajoub and the elder Shanbehzadeh first encountered each other at the 2011 Shanghai World Music Festival, where each checked out the other’s show and realized that they should collaborate. Another random encounter on a Paris street jumpstarted a series of rehearsals, which followed over Skype. In developing their material, the bandleaders found considerable common ground, especially that each of their styles has a Bedouin influence, although that nomadic people’s music is sung in Farsi in Iran and in Arabic in Syria.
The players’ individuality rapidly emerged: Shanbehzadeh senior danced, cavorted, whirled and played his bagpipe (which looked like a headless, inflated sheep) on his head, Hendrix style. Rajoub’s steely focus and steady gravitas matched with the sometimes somberly booming, sometimes hypnotically undulating, sometimes rapidfire percussion. Rajoub spent much of the show in the moody low registers of his tenor sax, playing what were essentially baritone lines with a spare, sober clarity while his reedman partner switched from bagpipe, to double-reed flute, to goat’s horn on the last number in the set with a shivery, trilling microtonal approach that brough to mind Moroccan jajouka music. His instruments supplied the lion’s share of the microtones that typically define Middle Eastern music; Rajoub’s attack was typically limited to the occasional bluesy, jazzy melisma.
The Shanbehzadehs hail from the port city of Bushehr in southern Iran, so it made sense that they’d open with a traditional fisherman’s song, which they turned into a subdued go-go groove with the bagpipe keening over it. Rajoub brought an absolutely noir slink to a brooding Rumi love poem; a bit later, they juxtaposed cool tenor sax against ecstatic flutework for an even more stark contrast, to illustrate another Rumi poem that could loosely be translated as “drunk on god/drunk on love.” Rajoub and Adnawi teamed up for an intricate, lively, conversational duo improvisation for soprano sax and oud. After inspiring plenty of spontaneous clapping and singing along, the trio encored with a rather radically reanimated but no less swinging take on the opening number, encompassing what were doubtlessly centuries of music while adding their own devious wit and energy.
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