Al Orkestra: Where Are We Now? (2009)
Sometimes the best music comes from the most unexpected places. British ex-pat Joe Higham has been living in Belgium for 20 yearsfirst studying, now teaching and gigging with a cadre of undervalued Belgian players. Plenty of artists cite a collection of influences, but this saxophonist/clarinetist and his Al Orkestra concoct a truly wonderful mélange, with touchstones ranging from progressive rock and the British Canterbury scene, to the trippy jazz of Sun Ra and the freer tendencies of the late Elton Dean and Harry Miller; even a taste of Frank Zappa. But it's Higham's linking of these elements into a pervasive Middle Eastern atmosphere that gives Where Are We Now? it's greatest distinction, the result of his extensive studies of the Arabic ney, an end-blown wooden flute.
But Higham doesn't play ney here, and while his melodies are redolent of the Middle East, neither is this "world music." This is free-blowing music, with a powerful rock energy married to greater harmonic sophistication.
The group packs a lot into its music. Higham's deceptively titled "Simple Dan(ce)" has a whirling dervish of a melody, but it's only revealed after bassist Olivier Stalon and drummer Stephan Pougin's pulsing intro, pushing it four-on-the-floor well, alternating four and then three, as irregular meters abound throughout the disc. When the trumpet/sax front line heads into the convoluted melody, the changes, and guitarist Jacques Pirotton's chordal accompaniment, come straight out of Canterbury territory. Higham's alto-sounding tenor solo winds its way through a vamp that seems to pick up harmonic steam, leading to a complete dissolve where trumpeter Jean-Paul Estiévenart (The Wrong Object) surfaces over a section that feels free but whose cued figures speak otherwise. Kicking in a variety of effects, Pirotton solos with reckless aplomb, Stalon and Pougin remarkably in synch as he layers harmonics, dense power chords and Hendrixian wails into a solo that manages to lead logically and inevitably back to a head which gradually slows down like a turntable losing power.
And that's just one track. Higham is the primary composer/arranger, but there's nearly as much material coming from traditional sources as his own pen, though traditional means Turkish ("House of the Marriage"), Syrian ("Sal Fi-na Al-Lahdah") and Jewish ("Shpil-zhe mir a lidele"). Higham even blends his own Middle Eastern- centric "Al Hayawan" with the 18th century British song, "The Slaves Lament." Through it all, what defines Al-Orkestra is not the fine playingthat's a given it's the arrangements, which are deliciously unpredictable. How does a tango mix with Jewish music? Well, "Shpil-zhe mir a lidele" is the answer, though only in part. Pirotton's twangy, distorted solo sounds more like Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit," while the penultimate cacophony of clarinet and trumpet over tumultuous drums and bass finally resolves into a more eminently lyrical closing.
That Higham and Al-Orkestra have been operating largely beneath the radar, is a crime. That Where Are We Now? is one of the most innovative, cross- stylistic, cross-generational blends of the year is a certainty.
Track Listing: House of the Marriage; Sal Fi-na Al-Lahdah; Saz Sameai; Valse Immonde; Al Hayawan/The Slaves Lament; Maflous; Shpil-zhe mir a lidele; Aqsaq Effendi; Simple Dan(ce); Horo Krivo (unlisted bonus track).
Personnel: Joe Higham: saxophone, clarinets; Jean-Paul Estiévenart: trumpet; Jacques Pirotton: guitar; Olivier Stalon: bass; Stephan Pougin: drums.