Voices Instrumental in Jazz
Six Degrees Records
Vocalist Natacha Atlas seems to embody the modern musical millennia: She was born in Brussels and raised in one of its Moroccan suburbs; her compositions and singing reach into and crisscross storied European and Arabic musical traditions. Primarily co-written and performed with multi-instrumentalist Samy Bishai along with pianist Zoe Rahman, a chamber orchestra and 20-piece Turkish ensemble, Mounqaliba is most likely the clearest representation of Atlas' ambitious vision so far. "What I hope I have achieved is to match the lyricism of classical music with the inherent poetry of Arabic," she says, "through the juxtaposition of western classical string sections with traditional Arabic instruments, classical Arabic poetry against abstract impressionism, traditional Arabic percussion with smoky jazz kits..."
The strings, percussion and other instrumentationespecially Rahman's unaccompanied and gorgeous "Bada Al Fajr" soloprove quite complementary and evocative, but Atlas' voice dominates their colorful landscape with a sound that's simply magic and is both timeless and modern. Her voice curtsies to, then dances with, the twirling strings of the Arabic traditional "Muwashah Ozkourini," to call the instrumentation together beneath its wings, then swims in Arabic harmonic and melodic pools more than four centuries deep. Atlas directly juxtaposes this Arabic traditional against her hypnotic treatment of Nick Drake's somber elegy "Riverman."
"Riverman" flows into another pool of churning modern and ancient streams: "Batkallim," a swirling undertow of hip-hop and traditional Arabic rhythm that sputters and loops back into itself, rising and falling beneath her singing as she surfs its surface, then speared through by Rahman's thunderous piano and convulsing to full stop. Her piano introduction to the title track emerges as the ghost of these closing chords, a regal fluted melody ornamented by layers of strings and vocals that float down within the arrangement. "Mounqaliba" beautifully realizes Atlas' ambition of harmonizing the frameworks of Arabic and European classical music.
She also updates the wedding folksong "Taalet" with her "back for the future" aesthetic, and swirls the hip-hop beat and string arrangement into "La Nui test Sur La Ville" (from the repertoire of French chanteuse Francoise Hardy) like thick cream into dark black coffee. Atlas' steamy, moaning vocalese that closes "Sur La Ville" transcends the differences between European and Arabic languages because it uses no language at all, and accomplishes without words the ambitions of her music.
Authentic field recordings from Marrakesh, Cairo and elsewhere, along with snippets of psychological discussion of free will, also serve as mileposts on this remarkably programmed journey through Mounqaliba.
She Was Too Good To Me
Newly reminted in 2010's CTI Masterworks series, She Was Too Good To Me was originally Chet Baker's 1974 "comeback album," his first recording since a well-publicized mugging by junkie acquaintances (hardly "friends") that relieved the singer and trumpet player of his money, dope and most of his teeth. "Believe me," Baker once observed, "when a trumpet player has his teeth pulled, it's a comeback."
Creed Taylor's velvety production proves the perfect setting, and the standards "Autumn Leaves" and "Tangerine" prove that Paul Desmond's dry and airy alto saxophone is the perfect instrumental foil for Baker's tropical (steamy and lush) trumpet and vocal romanticism. Don Sebesky's arrangement tailors "Autumn Leaves" toward the poignant and melancholy, darker shades of Baker's trumpet, and shapes them as emotional counterweight to the more cerebral, crystalline sounds of Desmond's alto and Bob James' electric piano, all within a rhythm that seems to both float and swing. Baker's solos in "Tangerine" seem to neatly meet the ballad styles of Miles Davis and Freddie Hubbard halfway, while bassist Ron Carter moves its rhythm with stealthy, cool funk.
Taylor's production and James' keyboard also polish Hank Mobley's cool melody "Funk in Deep Freeze," equal parts bop and blues, to an icy sheen beneath Baker's trumpet, tethered between walking in space and walking the blues. In "It's You or No One," Baker's trumpet jumps and pops.