Duo Sabil = Zabad: “Twilight Tide” – HM

Duo Sabil = Zabad: “Twilight Tide” – Harmonia Mundi 905279, 62:11 (3/30/17)  ****½: 

(Ahmad Al Kathib, oud/ Elie Koury; bouzouki/ Youssef Hbeisch, percussion/ Hubert Dupont; bass)

An original take on the traditional forms of Arabic music by an ensemble with tremendous aesthetic poise and technical polish.

In traditional Arabic music, the fretless lute, or ‘oud, is restricted to its role of accompaniment to the singer. It was inevitable, given the lively temperament of the instrument that it would, with the cross-fertilization of jazz, aspire to instrumental independence. Many of our readers will recall the novelty of these first East-West introductions. Ahmed Abdul-Malik’s, (bassist with Thelonious Monk) “Sahara Jazz” brought the ‘oud as well as African percussion and exotic instruments such as the kanun into the bebop culture of the late ‘50s. In 1967, Hamza El Din, likewise, brought the Sudanese ‘oud traditional into happy confluence with an improvisational sensibility, with a modestly jazzy bass and singing backing his mellifluous lute playing.

It was not until the late ‘80s and 90’s that the lute found not one but two monumental realizations as a fully independent instrument on par with its jazz and classical rivals. These two towering achievements appeared on the iconic German labels, ENJA and ECM. Rabih Abou-Khalil, Beirut born and German raised, is probably the most dazzling practitioner ever to wield plectrum on the instrument. His work involves a contradiction: loyal to the monophonic style of the maqams, Arabian modes, he avoids harmonic entanglements of European traditions, concentrating on an emotionally potent music based on melody and rhythmic complexity. (He even looks to Ottoman tradition for exotic 11/4 signatures). On the other hand, he imported major Jazz players to add layer upon layer of virtuosic energy. Performers as diverse and cutting-edge as Steve Swallow, Charlie Mariano, Kenny Wheeler, Sonny Fortune, and Glen Moore regularly appear along with diverse middle-eastern percussionists. Instruments ranging from the Medieval “serpent,” to harmonica, tuba, and clarinet give his music an expansive loquaciousness unrivaled in either jazz or so-called “world music.”

As rewarding and adventurous as Abou-Khalil’s oeuvre is, 20 some recordings so far, he may be surpassed by the remarkable work of Tunisian oudist, Anouar Brahem.  Tone, rather than velocity, prevail in a style that works outward from its Arabian modes towards a pan-Mediterranean aesthetic. His ensembles veer from a traditional percussion plus clarinet and/or violin to the improbable trio of ‘oud, accordion and piano. The latter group presents the challenge of negotiating polyphonic textures and modern harmonies. The bass and bass clarinet feature prominently (Dave Holland has collaborated memorably with Brahem) in achieving a stunning balance between light voice and a lower register undercurrent that creates momentum. Moreover, perhaps as much as any ECM artist, he has attained the sonic ideal of that label on his several recordings which have just gotten better with age.

Duo Sabil, which features Ahmad Al Kathib on the oud with partner Youssef Hbeisch on percussion, faces challenges and choices in exploring this musical terrain. The presence of the bass suggests modern influences, while the absence of reeds or flutes point back towards a more traditional concept. A bouzouki, a long-necked fretless octave mandolin with double strings tuned in unison accompanies the oud, offers a contrasting tone, but varies only slightly in style.

From the first track, Samai Part I sounds like Kathib has opted for a traditional approach, a strict mode Bayat divided into verse and chorus. The ‘oud has drunk from the same well as that of Anouar Brahem and flatters the ear with its light sweet voice. The ornaments on the ‘oud, encompassing every kind of tremolo, pizzicato, subtle vibrato, and glissandi known to the plucked instrument family, are on convincing display. The bass has little to do on this first piece or the following Samai Part II (which is a nice challenge to tap out as it is in 9/8 time), content to thump its tonic note like an oversized drum.

“Zabad,” which means “foamy ebb and flow,” perhaps the image of water at land’s edge, arrives in  the Hijazi mode with a minor second, which gives it a pronounced flavor like that of “za’atar.” The tune sways hypnotically, and the lute embellishes the mode with appropriate filigree. By now, it is clear that no amount of waiting will raise a chord on the horizon. This is relentlessly modal/melodic organization, and one wonders if the journey will be too long for the camels.

However, something rather marvelous happens midway through the record. Or perhaps, we just get comfortable with the modal premise and adjust our senses accordingly. The Rast Mode Prelude is beautiful duet between oud and bouzouki. Concentration is high and without percussion, the melodic line must animate itself with expressive nuance. I have not heard this repertoire approach so nearly the North Indian Classical Tradition in feel. When the rhythm enters, there is a joyful leaping about in a very tricky meter that becomes the highpoint of the record.

The problem of how to integrate the bass is solved very nicely in Awalem, on which Hubert Dupont takes a measured solo. Subsequently, as if having proven its worth, the bass asserts itself in some melodic antiphony on several of the remaining pieces. Nahawand probes yet another mode in a contemplative vein. Again, we are gratified to hear how maqams can be so strikingly individual and evocative of mood. Northern Breeze aims it vision at nothing less than the Anouar Brahem sound on both instruments. The theme of longing and coolness is wonderfully spacious and gentle. Apparently the breeze in question has nothing to do with the dreaded Hamasin that blows cruelly from the desert and inflames desire and violence.

Marakeb (boats) is a sleepy pulse. For lack of any other stimulation, the ear fixes on the delicate sound of Youssef Hbeisch’s darbuka and bendir. His playing is unfailingly musical and his use of dynamics first-rate. There are some moody improvisations by bouzouki and ‘oud. In the end, one cannot choose one over the other. The session concludes with Afternoon Jam. There is no concession to popular music here, although it is perhaps the freest piece. The bass has arrived at the furthest point from its static beginning and launches the piece on a daring solo against Youssef’s riqq. The lutes join the bass on a three part ensemble with some fine interplay.

With imposing standards of Brahem and Abou-Khalil to be reckoned with, this is a very well prepared and confident journey by Ahmad Al Kathib and his peers across a musical landscape. In the end, Sabil finds its way on a middle road, embracing traditional forms while reaching for the widest variety, infused by a deep knowledge of the modern achievements of the ‘oud in the hands of past masters. Moreover, this is a recording that gets better as it goes and with repeated listenings. As always, Harmonia Mundi has done a terrific job with the packaging.

TrackList:
Samai Parts I and II
“Zabad”
Rast Mode Prelude
Awalem
Nahawand
Northern Breeze
Marakeb
Afternoon Jam

—Fritz Balwit

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