Rabih Abou-Khalil: Morton's Foot (2004)
It's not enough for Lebanese oud player Rabih Abou-Khalil to bring the Middle Eastern oud tradition to his reinvented version of world jazz. He also brings in the accordion (in the hands of Luciano Biondini, an Italian) for European emphasis, the tuba (Frenchman Michel Godard) for a touch of New Orleans funk, and bass vocals (Sardinian Gavino Murgia) for pure exoticism. The international ensemble that performs on Morton's Foot brings its array of influences together for a freeform improv-rich jam that feels joyful even its most pensive moments.
Abou-Khalil wrote all eleven compositions on the record (the last is a mere eleven seconds long, so it doesn't really count). Their serpentine melodies often call for unison playing from melody instruments, though counterpoint and harmony also play important roles. A minor key and melismatic delivery marks most of the tracks, but they feel much more like calls to dance than melancholy laments or prayer music. At times they recall the Balkan-jazz fusion of Dave Douglas's Tiny Bell Trio and Pachora, both in melodic emphasis and blocky rhythms, but your mileage on this front may vary.
Abou-Khalil prefers to share the driver's seat with clarinetist Gabriele Mirabassi and accordionist Luciano Biondini most of the time. His oud playing tends to be explicit and straightforward, carefully phrased and often somewhat hypnotic. Godard usually parks his tuba inconspicuously in the low end, bumping along very rhythmically and providing a propulsive kick that matches the drums. When Murgia sings (on three tracks), his surreal rumbling immediately draws attention because of its unnaturally low pitch and emphatically rhythmic delivery. For me, his amazingly accuracy and creative phrasing really steal the show.
You can pick a labeled box to drop Morton's Foot into, but that would be a mistake. Take it at face value, draw inspiration from the varied strengths of each player, and you'll find yourself moved. This is a top pick of 2004, without a doubt.
Track Listing: 1. Ma Muse M'Abuse (6:26) 2. Morton's Foot (8:16) 3. Il Ritorno del Languore (7:28) 4. Lobotomie Mi Baba Lu (7:16) 5. L' Histoire d'Un Paraluie (6:08) 6. O Papaia Balerina (6:21) 7. Dr. Gieler's Wiener Schnitzel (7:19) 8. Il Sospiro (6:57) 9. Hopping Jack (7:39) 10. Waltz for Dubbya (4:08) 11. The Return of the Maltese Chicken (0:11)
Personnel: Rabih Abou-Khalil: oud; Gabriele Mirabassi: clarinet; Luciano Biondini: accordion; Michel Godard: tuba; Gavino Murgia: vocals; Jarrod Cagwin: drums, frame drums.