Ayman Fanous & Tomas Ulrich: Labyrinths
For some listeners, "free jazz" means a careless and chaotic jumble. It appears to contain no distinguishable musical patterns or progressions, and seems to be without any discernable influencesthough some may note the music's resonance with the complex polyphony of traditional New Orleans band music and its reflection of current political and cultural events. After almost forty years of musical exploration, even the most inspired and intrepid sonic expeditions are routinely dismissed.
But whatever label is hung on it, some music reaches out to surprise with fresh perspectives and unusual confluences. Such is the work of cellist Tomas Ulrich and acoustic guitarist Ayman Fanous.
The two have been playing together, in larger group contexts and as a duo, for some years. They met in Simon Shaheen's Near East Ensemble in New York City, and discovered that, despite differing personal backgrounds and musical approaches, each had a passion for creative improvised music. A number of concerts followed, from the Knitting Factory to John Zorn's nonprofit venue The Stone. They decided to finance their own recording and, in October, 2004, memorialized their efforts at Tom Tedesco's studio in Paramus, New Jersey.
For the past two years, the duo have been searching for a label to release the product. After rejections from numerous companies, Manfred Schiek, founder of the Berlin based Konnex Records, expressed an interest, and has issued the results of Ulrich and Fanous' perseverance on Labyrinths.
Creative improvised music is not inundated with cello players; Fred Lonberg-Holm comes immediately to mind. But the latter's playing encompasses an entirely different approach to that of Tomas Ulrich. The former's work with the Vandermark 5 and his own Valentine Tri displays a crisper articulation and less linear phrasing. Moreover, he tends to focus much of his efforts within the Chicago creative improvisation collective. Ulrich's playing, however, seems bolder. He is a musical polyglot, extending his work from the traditional spheres of Gary Smulyn's post-bop octet records, to Dom Minasi's nearly symphonic expression of "The Vampire's Revenge."
Inspired by a performance given by cellist Mstislav Rostropovich at age of eight, Ulrich made the decision to pursue the instrument seriously. He received music degrees from Boston University and the Manhattan School of Music and, since that time, has pursued an ambitious and diverse career. He can name pianist Anthony Davis, saxophonists Joe Lovano, Ted Nash and Anthony Braxton, violinist Jason Hwang, reed player Mark Whitecage, and drummer/percussionist Kevin Norton as colleagues. Although his own record dates are limited in number, those with a tendency to read musician credits in liner notes will find his name in unexpected places.
As with cellists, there are few acoustic guitar players performing free improvised music. Fanous is, more than likely, unknown to all but the very most assiduous listener. His appearances are generally limited to those concerts he is able to organize and produce himself in the Washington, D.C. and Richmond, Virginia areas. Nevertheless, his efforts and industry reputation have been amply articulated, and have attracted bassist William Parker, guitarist Joe Morris and violinist Mark Feldman to travel hundreds of miles to perform with him in non-traditional venues.
But the listener is to be forgiven for any unfamiliarity with Fanous. His artistic visions and interests are limited to amateur excursions; he has an entirely different day job. Fanous focuses his professional attention upon the genetic of psychiatric illness, particularly schizophrenia, suicidal behavior, and personality disorders.
Fanous' influences are disparate, yet comparable to those of Ulrich. The former's Egyptian roots make the music of oud virtuosi Anour Brahem and Simon Shaheen obvious attractions. The music and compositions of Anton Webern, Cecil Taylor, Derek Bailey and Leo Brouwer are important contributions to his palate. Moreover, his interest in the Moorish influence upon Spain led to an intense interest in flamenco music. Paco De Lucia is a favorite, and his spell is a constant presence throughout Fanous' playing.
The ECM work of Pat Metheny also provided an early inspirationand the guitarist's work with saxophonist Ornette Coleman on Song X (Nonesuch, 1985) galvanized a deep, personal revolution; Fanous discovered the possibilities of free playing. Fanous' articulation of the harmolodic possibilities of improvising on the guitar, within the context of both European and near-East traditions, is not only compelling, but unique.
It is necessary, however, that I admit to full disclosure. Fanous is an old friend with whom I have been listening to, and discussing, music for over twenty years. During such a period, each of us has developed a passion for improvised music. Such acquaintance, however, does not belie the obvious talent and unusual perspective his playing has to offer the curious listener.
Labyrinths is not necessarily an easy record. Nor is it intended to be simple. It is the unfettered expression of two musicians seeking to dispel expectations and lead the listener to generally unexplored territory. Like many albums of substance, its appeal may not be necessarily and immediately apparent. But the performances demand repeated and careful observations which will reward and, perhaps, educate.
When he is in concert, Fanous often plays the bouzoukee, a long-handled, gourd-shaped string instrument which originates from Byzantium and still played in traditional Greek performance groups. He limits his playing here to a six string classical guitar. Ulrich performs upon a traditional and unamplified cello.
The album begins with "Alluvial , which means pertaining to alluvium (the Latin means "to wash against ); it thus refers to soil or sediments deposited by running water. Fanous' intention in so naming the composition is to reference the annual flood of the Nile, carrying silt into farmlands to fertilize the fields. It begins with the stark and sharply articulated harmonic notes from the acoustic guitar. Fanous suddenly ceases, and Ulrich gently enters. The musical line gradually crescendos to create a sweeping statement, his bow gliding across the strings, almost intoning the listener to a mystic ceremony.
"Sekhmet is a reference to the warrior goddess of Upper Egypt. She is depicted as a lioness, whose breath is said to have created the desert. The performance is thus, perhaps not surprisingly, the most frenzied on the album. Ulrich bows with such ferocity that the listener is unsure of the instrument being played; single notes are not decipherable and the listener is left with an image of slurred and blurry action. Fanous does not necessarily engage Ulrich in his display. Rather, the two are almost embattled. The piece concludes abruptly, and surprisingly, after less than two minutes.
As might be expected, some of the compositions reflect the the musicians' own personal experiences. For example, "Chiclana, Vere is a meditation by Fanous on summer amusements; it is the most obviously approachable composition on the album. Fanous and his wife Eva, who is from Sevilla, enjoy visiting a beach about thirty minutes south of Cadiz, in a town called Chiclana. They go almost every summer. Their daughter Verena, whose nickname is "Vere ("vay-ray ) enjoys playing on the beach. It is an impression of vacation and witnessing the natural and uninhibited enjoyment of a child.
The piece is meant as a meditation on the scene. It is the antithesis of an American beach, with board walks and corporate entertainment. Rather, native beauty provides needed rest upon a becalmed mind. The track begins with Fanous articulating a Spanish melody. Ulrich gently enters, annunciating a plaintive idea. The two weave within one another, until Fanous boldly articulates a Spanish theme.
In short, Labyrinths is a record that may, at first, appear to be yet another routine excursion into "free jazz But it is so much more. The instrumentation is unusual. The compositions are unexpected. The influences are, at times, confounding. But the album reflects the greater depths and perspectives that can only be created by musicians with a vast vocabulary of the world's musical languages.
Tracks: Alluvial; Mariposa; Distant Shores; Inter Alia; Labyrinths; Sekhmet; Chiclana, Vere; Murmur; Incantation; Reflections; So Long Utopia (Tess).
Personnel: Ayman Fanous: classical guitar; Tomas Ulrich: cello.