While it's easy to categorize the assimilation of diverse musical cultures as world music, the term has become over-utilized and often misrepresented. German-born pianist Joachim Kühn, Moroccan guimbri/oud player Majid Bekkas and Spanish drummer Ramon Lopez intersect on Kalimba, an album that should dispense with oversimplified categorization. Instead, assessed on its own merits as an album that looks to capitalize on the strengths of everyone involved, it carves out its own distinctive musical niche.
This isn't the first time that Kühn has rubbed shoulders with artists from different cultures. The pianist first emerged in the early 1970s as a stylistic free-thinker cut from similar cloth as pianist McCoy Tyner on albums including Man of the Light (MPS, 1977), a lost classic by the late and tragically overlooked Polish violinist, Zbigniew Seifert. Since then he's tackled increasingly ambitious and diverse projects including Allegro Vivace (ACT, 2005), which explores the unexpected nexus where Bach, Mozart, Coltrane and Ornette Coleman meet, and a remarkable cross-cultural collaboration with Lebanese oudist Rabih Abou-Khalil, Journey to the Centre of an Egg (Enja, 2006).
Kühn and Bekkas share the writing duties on Kalimba, collaborating on some tunes, going it alone on others. "A Live Experience, with Bekkas' simple lyrical message, manages to combine a kind of funky, 1970s-era Keith Jarrett with a pedal tone and harmonic sensibility that's subtly redolent of the Maghreb yet becomes aggressively open-ended in a more Western fashion during Kühn's probing solo. Lopez is the glue that binds Kühn's experimental nature with Bakkas' repetitive pattern on the guimbri, or bass lute.
Some tunes speak more strongly of individual background. Bekkas' "Hamdouchi feels ethnically authenticthat is, until the two-minute mark, where Kühn enters and propels the song into more stylistically ambiguity. "Kalimba Cali, featuring Bekkas on the African thumb piano, recalls Collin Walcott-era Oregon if one neglects his trance-inducing vocals.
Kühn's paradoxically named "Good Mood, with its dark textures and hypnotic underpinning from Bekkas, once again looks for a cultural meeting point, while the collaborative composition "Youmala creates its own kind of liberated space that feels like the ideal intersection, with Lopez both propelling the tune with a firm groove and playing improvisational partner with Bekkas and Kühn. Kühn's closer, the fiery "White Widow, is the most wholly Western-sounding piece on the disc, although there's more than a hint of Spain in its idiosyncratic theme, not to mention a taste of European classicism.
The beauty of cross-cultural collaborations is that you'll rarely hear the same result from different collectives. The same, of course, can and should be said about all music, but when one ups the ante by looking for common musical ground between disparate cultures on top of individual musical aesthetics, the results are bound to be more distinctive. That's certainly the case with Kalimba, an album which has plenty of conceptual precedent but sounds like nothing you'll hear anywhere else.
Personnel: Joachim Kuhn: grand piano, alto saxophone; Majid Bekkas: guimbri, oud, kalimba, voice; Ramon Lopez: drums.