My colleague, political advisor, sports-baiter and friend, Phillip Walker introduced me to the music of Rabih Abou-Khalil, the Lebanese master oud player who is also an accomplished composer and arranger of jazz music. And a bringer together of equally talented musicians from all around the world to make music.
Born and raised in the cosmopolitan climate of Beirut in the sixties and seventies,Rabih Abou-Khalil leaned to play the oud, the Arabian short-necked lute, at the age of four. In the Arab world this instrument is as popular as the guitar or the piano in the West and is the composer’s instrument par excellence. The Lebanese civil war forced hirn to leave his country in 1978 to study dassical flute in the German city of Munich, where he was tutored at the Munich Academy of Music by Walther Theurer. The analytical preoccupation with the European classical tradition enabled him to grasp Arabic music from a further, theoretical position, opening his eyes to the possibility of operating simultaneously within musically divergent systems. Whereas Arab instrumentalists were content to imitate human voice techniques, Abou-Khalil set out to explore new ways of playing his instrument. Music critics have even recommended his accomplished technique as a “study for jazz guitarists”; his ballads, on the other hand, rekindle memories of the poetic dawn of Arabian culture, without ever sounding even remotely traditionalistic.
Rabih Abou-Khalil has asserted himself in the avant-garde as a composer as well as an instrumentalist. This is not just because he is ahead of his time – but because he also questions what others might pursue without further reflection. With his original composing technique, his unconstrained, yet daring approach to dassical Arabic music, he has found a musical language entirely his own. Commissioned by the Südwesrfunk (Southwest German Radio), Abou-Khalil wrote two unusual compositions for string quartet in his own rhythmically and melodically charged style. The maiden performance with the Kronos String Quartet was the highlight at the Stuttgart Jazz Summit in 1992. On his CD, “Arabian Waltz”, with the Balanescu String Quartet he successfully integrated the string quartet – for centuries the domain of European classical music – into his musical language.
What superficially appears to be a chance encounter between opposing instruments and a seemingly antagonistic dash of talents from different musical worlds is in fact the result of a well pondered upon concept. Under Abou-Khalil’s guidance these undeniable differences by no means descend into Babylonian confusion. On the contrary, the cosmopolizan musicians from different cultural backgrounds draw inspiration from their shared intuitive understanding of the serious challenge they face in interpreting Abou-Khalil’s music. The intellectual and emotional identification with these compositions unleashes charges of enthusiasm in each of the players, inciting new heights of musical mastery. Yet the temptation of individual one-upmanship is never as strong as the collective innovative endeavor and exploration into uncharted terrain. The highly varied works by Abou-Khalil – all nonetheless derived from this very elixir – now stand in their own right, extending so far beyond convention that they somehow elude all fixed categories. Abou-Khalil’s music thrives on creative encounters and not on exoticism. From a combination of diverse cultural elements something very personal and coherent emerges. Thus it would be fruitless ro mull over descriptions such as Orient or Occident, jazz, world music or classical.
Commissioned by the BBC Concert Orchestra to write music for orchestra, Abou-Khalil wrote works that were performed in London and Chichester. For another project for the German city of Duisburg he chose ro collaborate wim the Ensemble Modern, one of the most renowned orchestras specializing in contemporary music. “While working with Rabih Abou-Khalil, I was starkly reminded of a saying by Herbert von Karajan: ‘Do not pIay the bar along with the music, play across the measure’.” That was how Dietmar Wiesner, the flute player of the Ensemble Modem, summed up his impressions from the rehearsals: “Unbelievably fine, irregular rhythms, masterfully formed into melodic chains that remain in a floating condition, never setting to land, and thus reaching a high level of charm that relentlessly pulls the listener imo its magic.” (http://www.enjarecords.com/bio.php?artist=Rabih%20Abou-Khalil)
Blue Camel is the pinnacle to date of Lebanese oud player Rabih Abou-Khalil‘s achievement as a jazzman. In both mood and scope, it can almost be characterized as a new Kind of Blue. Both tense and reflective, it is perfect for listening after midnight. Abou-Khalil brings back Charlie Mariano on alto sax and Kenny Wheeler on flügelhorn and trumpet, and they generally alternate solos with Abou-Khalilhimself. Rounding out the roster is Steve Swallow on bass, Milton Cardona on congos, Nabil Khaiat on frame drums, and Ramesh Shotham on South Indian drums and percussion. They form a tight ensemble and play comfortably with each other. The album opens with “Sahara,” which contains both one of Abou-Khalil‘s tunes, a mesmerizing melody that could be either Arabic or jazz, and one of Abou-Khalil‘s best solos, a well-defined interlude that delightfully features the unique timbre of the oud. “Tsarka” begins with a fast break on the oud that turns out to be one of the two motifs on which everything is built. After it is elaborated for a few bars, the oud comes back with another building block. Then we get some stunning improvisations, especially from Abou-Khalil. “Ziriab” opens with a trumpet solo in which Kenny Wheeler tests the compass of his instrument, backed up with some atmospheric sounds from the udu drum; then Abou-Khalil enters with another great tune for everyone to build on. The title track is nothing but fun. Seductive percussion ushers in Wheeler and Mariano playing in unison for a tune that is somewhere between Duke Ellington and the court of Baghdad. As the percussion bubbles along, Milton Cardona‘s congos adding a Latin flavor to the proceedings, Abou-Khalil steps up with a very fast and rhythmic, if not very tuneful, solo. Midway through the track, Mariano blisters the paint with a screeching sax workout that bridges the Arabic and the Latin, while remaining all the while pure jazz. Even Steve Swallow gets a chance to feature his bass after which the ensemble brings it together and takes it home. Some of the other tracks are not as good as the ones mentioned above, but they are all listenable and very atmospheric. The aptly named “A Night in the Mountains” is a slow, thoughtful walk, perfect for silent contemplation. The album ends with “Beirut,” named for the Lebanese city torn by civil war from which Abou-Khalil had to flee many years ago. The track begins with a quiet oud solo and then builds to something more chaotic and striving. Blue Camel may not be a perfect album, but it demonstrates better than any other that a fusion between jazz and a musical form from another culture is possible and can work to the advantage of both. Plus, it’s just great listening. (AMG)
04. Blue Camel
05. On Time
06. A Night in the Mountains
07. Rabou Abou Kabou