Showing respect and audacity in equal measure, the music of Lebanese oud player/composer Rabih Abou-Khalil has always stretched musical boundaries and traversed time. His is a music which embraces tradition, and challenges it. On Songs for Sad Women Abou-Khalil marshals a stripped-down ensemble which plays with air akin to intimate chamber music, yet with the soul of timeless folk music.
The combination of Armenian 'duduk,' (a double-reed instrument related to the cornet whose origins pre-date both Christianity and Islam), the bizarrely-shaped 'serpent,' (a baritone cousin of the tuba which looks to have sprung from the imagination of an Asian calligrapher), frame drum and oud, makes for sound, which is at once familiar yet difficult to define. On "Songs for Sad Women' the middle east meets North Africa, and folk and jazz flirt and dovetail, riding in each other's currents.
Abou-Khalil's oud playing is understated and tasteful, much in the vein of guitarists Jim Hall or Bill Frisell, particularly in the way his solos seem to evolve from nothing, gradually seducing the listener. A case in point is his wonderful solo on "How Can We Dance if I Cannot Waltz?" that typifies the 'less is more' approach. On "Best if you Dressed Less" we can discern the odyssey of the oud from the middle east to the Iberian peninsula and its influences. Here Abou-Khalil's more vigorous playing sounds like a slower flamenco rasgueando. Elsewhere, his oud provides tremolo tension or plays unison lines, and in truth, he has never sounded better.
In recent years Abou-Khalil has often eschewed the bass for euphonium, tuba and here, the serpent. It is employed in much the same way as a bass, but also lends a brassy richness to the unison lines and at other times acts as a drone. In the hands of Michel Godard it is also transformed from accompanying role to a leading one on "Para O Teu Bumbum" where his solo, though almost comedic belies a tremendous technique. The other half of the rhythm section, Jarrod Cagwin, plays beautifully throughout the album. He animates the music with his shimmering brushes, light, deft touch on the frame drums and tambourine, which shimmies and swings like a belly dancer's coin belt.
This is a fine group, surely one of the best that Abou-Khalil has brought together. Gevorg Dabaghyan excels on duduk; his mournful, passionate solo on "Mourir pour ton decollete" is as expressive as the human voice, on a song which could be a lament for every mother from Al Quds to Beruit, and from Turkish Kurdistan to Baghdad. On "Best if You Dressed Less" the duduk sounds like an Indian flute. Despite the title of the album, the music is not all wailing lament; although leaning towards the melancholy there is much beauty in the playing, passion too.
This is a highly satisfying addition to Rabih Abou-Khalil's impressive discography; graceful and poetic, and one that lingers in the memory.
Personnel: Rabih Abou-Khalil: oud; Gevorg Dabaghyan: duduk; Michel Godard: serpent; Jarrod Cagwin: frame drums, drums.