Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Tarek Yamani at Lincoln Center: A Haunting, Ceaselessly Shapeshifting Vision of the Future of Piano Jazz

Playing to a rapt, sold-out, mostly under-30 crowd, Beirut-born pianist Tarek Yamani opened his Lincoln Center concert last night with an a cumulo-nimbus chordal crescendo and then took the band spiraling and rippling through a long, chromatically slashing series of variations on a hundred-year-old Egyptian classical melody. Bassist Sam Miniae danced between the raindrops as drummer Jean John boomed and rattled the rims, Yamani parsing the passing tones in the minor scale for every fraction of intensity he could find. From there the music rose and fell, sometime hypnotic, sometimes with an elegant neoromantic gleam, to a long, insistent peak. It was like witnessing peak-era 70s McCoy Tyner with more Middle Eastern influences.

Yamani’s distinctive style is a confluence of Arabian Gulf khaliji music and American jazz, with a healthy dose of Afro-Cuban groove as well. It’s no surprise that Yamani gravitated toward jazz, considering that khaliji sounds have more African swing than Levantine sway. It wouldn’t be outrageous to call the self-taught pianist and composer Beirut’s (and now New York)’s answer to Vijay Iyer.

Even so, it was impossible to predict how funky the night’s second number, Hala Land – a Nordic Latin Middle Eastern swing prelude of sorts – would get, from John’s irrepressible shuffle as Yamani teased the crowd with an easy resolution he wasn’t going to give in to anytime soon before pinwheeling and then icepicking through a subtly shifting series of Arabic modes. Yamani revealed afterward that although the melody is considered iconically Lebanese, its origins are actually Turkish. “It’s like falafel – it doesn’t really matter,” he grinned.

The night’s third number was an original in 10/8: “If you’d like to count, please do, but do it silent,” Yamani deadpanned. The blend of catchy Afro-Cuban acerbity, Middle Eastern otherworldliness and emphatic, punchy, ceaselessly shifting meters made sense considering that the pianist is also the author of a popular book on polyrhythms. Miniae ran circles and pounced, John gave it bounce and strut.

Ashur – named after the “Egyptian god of sex,” Yamani smiled – was a friendly, methodically crescendoing, wickedly memorable Kind of Blue-style theme and variations that John kicked off hard. Then Yamani completely flipped the script with an expansive take of Lush Life, subtly pushing it further and further toward the Middle East but finally opting for energetic wee-hours postbop lyricism. Then he launched into a tireless, grittily insistent arrangement of paradigm-shifting Egyptian composer Said Darwish’s workingman’s anthem The Melody of the Movers, circling and rippling over the rhythm section’s propulsive swing. 

The trio closed with a cantering detour toward Cuba and then a glisteningly jubilant melody that Yamani explained is claimed by pretty much every culture throughout the Levant. It was amazing how light and seemingly effortless Yamani’s touch remained after all the evening’s exertion.

Auspiciously, this concert was booked not by Lincoln Center but by their Student Advisory Council, whose agenda is to make the world of the arts in New York “a more inclusive and accessible space,” and help discover new talent who might be flying under the radar. Challenged to find an act worthy of the venue, third-year Juilliard percussion student Tyler Cunningham won the competition by suggesting Yamani after seeing the pianist listed on a bill at National Sawdust, where a friend works.  A specialist in symphonic percussion, the personable, articulate Cunningham gravitates toward postminimalist composers like Marcos Balter but has the kind of eclectic taste required in a field where he’s going to be asked to play outside the box more often than not. Cunningham also has a revealing interview with Yamani up at The Score, Lincoln Center’s online magazine.

The next show at Lincoln Center’s atrium space on Broadway just south of 63rd St. is this March 29 at 7:30 PM with Portuguese fado-jazz crooner/guitarist António Zambujo. The show is free; the earlier you get to the space, the better.

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March 24, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Ochion Jewell Quartet Play Haunting, Sepulchral, Deep Blues and North African-Infused Jazz in the West Village

Of all the possible universes where improvised music can go, the Ochion Jewell Quartet chose to explore one of the most interesting ones last night at Cornelia Street Cafe. The opening set of their album release party for their new release, Volk, was the reverse image of your typical cutting contest, everyone trying to say as much as possible in the fewest possible notes, a challenge to see who could play the quietest. The four – tenor saxophonist Jewell, pianist Amino Belyamani, bassist Sam Minaie and drummer Qasim Naqvi – displayed the camaraderie that comes from years of close collaboration (in this case, in a much more frenetic unit, the Bedstuy Ewe Ensemble). Mirroring each other and framing each others’ time in the spotlight – a sepulchral, ultraviolet one, such that the music was – their commitment to the subtle architecture and unselfconscious gravitas of Jewell’s slowly unwinding, blues- and North African-infused melodicism was singleminded. And beyond the chatty staff at the bar, the crowd locked in on the alchemy being created onstage.

Jewell rose from a predawn smokiness to a squawk or a squall a grand total of three times in maybe fifty minutes onstage, and the first lasted just a millisecond. Otherwise, he he held to a rustic, carefully considered approach, even when spiraling through one of the many looping Andalucian or Berber-inspired phrases that brought to mind an especially tuneful take on Steve Reich just as much as they echoed rai or gnawa themes. Only on occasion were the four all playing at once, both Jewell and Belyamani letting the bass and drums – who in places on the new album are so sepulchral that they’re almost invisible – take centerstage. What a treat it was to hear Miniae go to the bottom of his sonic well for the pitchblende bowing that opened the set – and what a thrill it was to watch him interpolate high harmonics into those deep-riverbed washes so seamlessly as to become a one-man string section. Likewise, Naqvi went for extended technique only when it really counted: his flickering use of his hardware, muted hand-drumming and a single bowed cymbal riff brought to life a phantasm rather than a poltergeist.

Belyamani – whose allusively chilling, judiciously resonant phrasing is one of the album’s most powerful assets – was especially chill here, holding much of that in reserve as he painted lowlit lustre and aurora borealis glimmer with minute variations on open fifths and minimalistically ornamented Middle Eastern phrases. They picked up the pace midway through with a mashup of the blues and gnawa, Jewell’s aching red-clay lines low and somber beneath Minae’s artfully plucked, bouncy riffs, articulated with the lively pop of a Moroccan bendir lute. They finally went around the horn with a fleeting, somber reinvention of Ennio Morricone’s Navajo Joe – “You’re never heard it like this before,” Jewell grinned – but they did that with the song’s head, nobody getting more than a bar at a time, a rapt, wounded one at that. Sometimes less is more than most people  can possibly imagine.

September 24, 2015 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment