In a satisfying stylistic experiment, Lebanese composer and oud player Rabih Abou-Khalil has decided to put together an album of jazz numbers with no Western instruments other than Glen Moore’s standup bass. There is Yassin El-Achek on violin, but the violin is almost as much a Middle Eastern instrument as a Western one. El-Achek usually remains in the Middle Eastern style of playing, but occasionally, as on “Wordless,” he double-stops and trills like Paganini.
The tracks are nicely constructed, and the improvisations are not allowed to run amok or become shapeless. The tunes are, as usual with Abou-Khalil, Middle Eastern melodies with phrases and turns that nod at Western notions of what “Oriental” music sounds like. This conceit paves the way for the extremely rare event of Abou-Khalil covering someone else’s song. And which did he choose? Duke Ellington’s “Caravan,” the all-time most famous faux-Arabic jazz number! The song turns into a duet between El-Achek’s violin and Selim Kusur’s nay (Arabic flute). It’s fun but lightweight compared to the album’s originals. All the instrumentalists are in fine form, particularly Glen Velez, who really shakes his tambourine as well as pulling out his snare drums for several numbers. Abou-Khalil has never been better as a performer, especially on the opening of “Remembering Machgara,” where he makes his oud sound like an electric guitar. It helps that the album is unusually well-arranged, even for Abou-Khalil, and well-recorded, even for Enja, everything sounding wonderfully present and defined. This album represents the expatriate Lebanese composer-musician in his prime. – Kurt Keefner