Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The New York Arabic Orchestra Casts a Spell at Lincoln Center

At their sold-out performance Friday night at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, the New York Arabic Orchestra reaffirmed their place as one of this era’s most vital New York ensembles. Leader Bassam Saba had played several of the pieces on the program with a small five-piece group a week earlier in Brooklyn. Fleshed out with full string section, ouds, flutes, bass and percussion, the songs took on a lush, epic sweep that was nothing short of transcendent. Saba toured with his countryman Marcel Khalife for two decades: the two composers share a broad, pan-levantine eclecticism and an ability to deliver an emotionally charged wallop. This show did that, but it also played up all kinds of subtleties and unexpected, entertaining flourishes. With the orchestra behind him, multi-instrumentalist Saba could play an entire song on a single one instead of shifting from oud, to flute, to saz and back again like he did at Prospect Park the previous week, giving him the chance to take his time and expand on his often plaintive, poignant themes.

Characteristically, the bill included several Saba compositions as well as vintage Middle Eastern material. Wonderful Land, the title track from his excellent new album, opened with Saba playing a hypnotic solo taqsim (improvisation) on the rustic, clanky Turkish saz lute. Then the orchestra took it aloft on a magic carpet of strings, with a stately call-and-response between the saz and the ensemble, and a graceful solo for the percussion section. Diverse, debonair Lebanese-American singer Naji Youssef joined the group along with a choir for a vocal tune, the baritone crooner’s elegant microtonal inflections contrasting with joyously romping flutes. Then it was back to the instrumentals with two increasingly tricky, polyrhythmic variations on Lebanese folk themes, Saba’s flute front and center. Midway through, a spontaneous clapalong emerged in the crowd.

There were three more vocal numbers (a couple by paradigm-shifting Lebanese songwriters the Rahbani Brothers), one lushly swaying, a couple of them more lighthearted. While in most Middle Eastern dance-pop, the orchestras have been replaced by synthesizers and drum machines, it was heartwarming to hear the roots of those melodies as they were originally written to be played. Saba’s Nirvana, a lavishly memorable suite, featured an arrangement that cleverly shifted voicings among orchestra members, with a biting oud solo against pillowy strings. They closed with a classic Egyptian piece, packed with trick endings, a bracing solo from the first violinist and an even more intense one from Saba, once again on flute. As before, the crowd became an auxiliary percussion section as the piece wound out, and they didn’t miss a beat, all the way through to its playful, cold ending.

The New York Arabic Orchestra are the New York Alliance Française’s artists-in-residence for 2011, with a gala fundraiser coming up in November with Marcel Khalife. The ensemble’s next performance is on September 11 at 7 PM at Merkin Concert Hall, as part of Musicians for Harmony’s 10th Anniversary Concert for Peace.

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August 9, 2011 Posted by | concert, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Friday Night in Brooklyn: Lebanon to Mali

Friday night at Prospect Park, the monsoon lasted for about fifteen minutes. Then, almost magically, the sun came out and shortly thereafter Lebanese-American multi-instrumentalist Bassam Saba and his ensemble – cello, violin, upright bass and drums – took the stage and turned it into a Wonderful Land. That’s the title of Saba’s latest album, and it’s an understatement. Saba’s sweeping, sometimes dreamy, sometimes majestic compositions span the entirety of the Middle East as well as Europe, exemplified by the eclectic Waltz for My Father, which began with a gently swaying baroque-tinged Bach-like theme based on a Russian folk melody and then shifted abruptly but gracefully to the desert. The opening mini-suite, Nirvana, followed a similar course. Saba welcomed the slowly growing crowd with a casually meandering oud taqsim before signaling the group to join him for a warily joyous levantine dance. Throughout the show, Saba would switch instruments mid-song, just as he did here, the piece’s windswept melody afloat on his bittersweet flute lines. This was soul music in Middle Eastern modes.

Another flute tune, Breeze from the South, Saba told the crowd, was meant to evoke a specifically Lebanese ambience, “Like from New Jersey to New York,” he grinned. He opened a traditional Lebanese folk melody with a long improvisation, drummer April Centrone eventually adding a stately bounce on daf frame drum. Saba switched to the jangly, overtone-rich Turkish saz lute for the album’s title track, a hypnotic feast of jangle and clang over pedaled bass, a tricky hypnotic rhythm and a mysteriously swirling cymbal solo by Centrone (whose ability to get a standard rock drum kit to sound like an entire Middle Eastern percussion ensemble was absolutely stunning – her elegant solo toward the end of the show drew the loudest applause of the entire set). They closed with a slinky Egyptian piece with a vintage 1940s ambience, violinist Megan Gould joining in tandem with Saba before reaching ecstatically for the night sky and taking the show out on a high note over the hypnotic bounce and rumble of the drums. And if the cello had been higher in the sound mix – it was practically inaudible beyond the front rows – it would have taken the blend of instruments up yet another notch. Saba leads the exhilarating New York Arabic Orchestra at Damrosch Park out back of Lincoln Center on Friday, August 5 at 7:30 PM.

Malian chanteuse and hoteliere Oumou Sangare and her band headlined. Sangare is an important figure there, a powerful lyricist whose fearlessly feminist stance has won her a global following. To an American audience unfamiliar with the languages she sings in, that aspect of her music is unfortunately lost. Behind her, the band launched into an endless series of grooves that touched on soukous and Afrobeat in places, while exploring themes from both the north and the south of her home country, the south being her home turf, one of the reasons why her music has little in common with the dusky, hypnotic desert blues for which Mali is best known. With the ping of the kora (West African harp), the clang of a Gibson SG guitar, snappy, trebly, fusionesque electric bass, drums and djembe, the group shifted quickly from one song to the next. After awhile, the tunes blended together to the point where it was hard to keep track where they’d been. Which seemed to be intentional. This was a dance party, Sangare leading the way with her charismatic presence and powerful, frequently dramatic alto voice.

July 31, 2011 Posted by | concert, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: Bassam Saba – Wonderful Land

Truth in advertising: this is a wonderful album, one of the year’s very best. Multi-instrumentalist Bassam Saba leads the New York Arabic Orchestra, arguably America’s most vital large-scale Middle Eastern music ensemble. This is a richly diverse, emotionally resonant collection of original compositions, a tribute to Saba’s native Lebanon. Here the composer plays ney flute, western flutes, saz (Turkish lute), oud, buzuq, bansuri flute and violin, joined by an inspired, virtuosic cast of Megan Gould on violin and viola, William Martina on cello, Peter Slavov on upright bass, and April Centrone and Jamey Haddad on a drum store’s worth of percussion instruments.

The album begins on a lush, vividly pastoral note with the ten-minute suite Nirvana, morphing from a stately dance theme into a sprightly, swinging scherzo and then a distantly haunting ney solo over terse oud and percussion. The ensemble end it with a beautifully majestic crescendo, bringing up the strings and oud. A similarly understated majesty rises later on the evocative Breeze from the South, Saba’s conversational arrangement for oud and buzuq building to a joyous, anthemic theme. Saba’s bansuri flute taqsim opens the goodnaturedly hypnotic Orange Dusk, its loping beat mimicking the sway of a camel making its way methodically across the desert. The title cut takes an apprehensive oud taqsim intro up into a joyous levantine dance with a terse simplicity worthy of Mohammed Abdel Wahab, followed by a long, expressionistic buzuq solo. U Vrot Vastoka (At the Door of the Orient) works tension between the distantly threatening rhythm section versus Saba’s peaceful ney (which cleverly nicks a western spy show melody).

Waltz to My Father, based on a Russian folk melody, could be Henry Purcell, strings cleverly echoing the flute theme – and then suddenly it’s back to the desert, to the here and now with the shifting, trance-inducing pulse of the bass. The group introduce a rattling, increasingly apprehensive oud-fueled East African taraab feel on Afrocola, a homage to Patrice Lumumba. The album concludes with Story of the Dried River, a dreamy, minimalist flute-and-percussion mood piece. It’s to think of another album as warmly and captivatingly atmospheric as this that’s come out in 2010.

July 7, 2010 Posted by | middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment