Babaghanoush is a Middle Eastern spread made from chopped eggplant and a type of sesame paste called tahini. It's often classed among Greek cuisine, but every country with a coast along the Mediterranean has at one time or another tried to claim responsibility for the invention of the dish. But now Babaghanoush has succeeded in turning the tables. Sort of.
The Babaghanoush under review is a band, not a food, and has not laid claim to these Mediterranean countries themselves so much as it has appropriated their respective musical heritages, blending them into a single delectable style. The resulting sound on Aphrodite Moves on, Babaghanoush's debut release, is biggermuch biggerthan the quartet itself; though at home in the New Age vogue of Los Angeles, where the group formed in 2001, it extends far beyond into more substantial and exotic territory.
Guitarist Dimitris Jimmy Mahlis has included seven original charts along with his arrangements of two traditional Greek songs, "Karapataki" and "Open the Door Lenio." His "Club Bollywood," a reference to the all-singing, all-dancing Indian movie industry, sees him going note-for-note with saxophonist Antti Suzuki while Jerry Watts (who occasionally has his deep bass line mirrored by Mahlis) and drummer Ralph Humphrey lay down a complex polyrhythm. The song begins with the aura of mystery and philosophical questioning that seems to characterize oriental music, but gradually evolves into something optimistic and sunny. The solos are smooth, controlled and deeply melodic. What makes it jazz-like and therefore familiar to Western ears is the return to the mysterious head at the conclusion.
The four-minute "Sudhammi" is an Eastern-influenced rock boogie. Mahlis' guitar snarls, growls following a quick drum intro. Watts pulses forward. Suzuki and Mahlis meet, going note-for-note again, then depart on some ecstatic tangents. Humphrey keeps time with an intricate, lightning-fast beat, growing more spirited, aggressive and elaborate as the song continues. "Koufoula" has an equally enviable deftness and delicacy. But it is the thirteen-minute "Twirling," a beautiful, rhythmic fusion epic, that makes Aphrodite Moves on such a joy to listen to.
Flaws exist, but they are relatively minor. The album's supremely irritating moment comes with the close of the title track, on which Babaghanoush repeats the same string of four notes for three minutes with minimal change in emphasis. "Karapataki" suffers a bit from this tendency toward bland repetition, too. The first variation (in the form of Mahlis' solo) from the traditional tune doesn't clock in until the three-minute mark exactly.
Aphrodite Moves on is nevertheless an excellent album from a quartet that could just have easily have turned out some multicultural kitsch for the benefit of the ethnically hip world music crowd at the WOMAD Festival. Instead they've recorded a skillful and surprising debut. This particular Babaghanoush should please all types of palates.
Personnel: Dimitris Jimmy Mahlis, guitar; Ralph Humphrey, drums and percussion; Antti Suzuki, saxophones; Jerry