The first thing to notice about this cd is that the leader plays bass guitar. That's acoustic bass guitar. In Hellborg's hands this is a bass in name only. He plays it, for most of this cd, as if it were a guitar, using it to establish the melody, to improvise, and to play in unison with either of the other melody instruments, the ney (an obliquely blown flute) and the violin. The only clue that it is not a guitar is that the notes are lower than one generally hears from a guitar. The rest of the time he plays it like an electric bass, pulling and popping the strings, using his thumb as a mallet, with such effectiveness that one might infer (correctly) that he is at home with the electric instrument as well. (For more information about Hellborg, visit http://www.bardo.com/)
The other instruments, with the exception of the violin, are also noteworthy for their rarity in Jazz. Each is an instrument typical of Arabic music. The riq is a percussion instrument similar to a tambourine, and the derbuka is a percussion instrument similar to a clay pot.
With three percussionists, a bass guitarist, and only two melody instruments, which never play together, this is a rhythm centered ensemble. It is rhythm that breathes life into this music, propelling it forward without stop. At the forefront of that rhythmic drive is Hellborg, taming it by the liberal use of silence, or by letting notes dissipate for several measures.
The music itself is a fusion of Jazz and Arabic music. As such it is reminiscent of music by Rabih Abou-Khalil (Nabil Khaiat plays frame drums with Abou-Khalil, and Hellborg has toured with Abou-Khalil). Both share the same rhythmic drive. Abou-Khalil prefers larger ensembles, while Hellborg has stripped his band down to little more than the bare essentials. This, consequently, feels somewhat closer to Arabic music. The melodies do not sound like anything that might have been written on Tin Pan Alley. On the other hand, the improvisations, although guided by that insistent percussion, embody the heart and soul of Jazz.
Those who already listen to both Jazz and Arabic music will surely love this. I encourage the rest of you to give it a spin; I bet you'll find it as infectious as I do.
Track Listing: Aram of Damascus, Sham, Akkadia, Aram of Zoba, Salah al Din, Suriya. Total time: 54:34.
Personnel: Jonas Hellborg: Bass Guitar; Mased Sri al Deen: Ney; Hadi Backdonas: Violin; Nabil Khaiat: Riq; Tarek Malas: Derbuka; Mahfouz al Hosaini: Derbuka.