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Joachim Kühn / Majid Bekkas / Ramon Lopez: Chalaba

Bruce Lindsay By

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The sleeve notes to Chalaba describe German pianist and alto saxophonist Joachim Kühn as a veteran "of the conscious avant-garde." This is certainly accurate—he's worked with Archie Shepp and Ornette Coleman, among others—but the description sounds rather forbidding, a portent of some serious and complex sounds for the mind but not the body. Thankfully it misleads: for while Kühn, vocalist and guembri player Majid Bekkas, and percussionist Ramon Lopez do produce some serious music, they also create some splendidly joyous tunes as well. Drawing on their combined roots in the musics of Spain, Morocco, Northern Europe and North America, these three musicians know how to deliver music that is thoughtful but also danceable.

Chalaba is the trio's third album, following Kalimba (ACT Music, 2007) and Out Of The Desert (ACT Music, 2009). The latter featured additional Gnawa musicians from Morroco, Bekkas' homeland, and Benin but Chalaba returns to the simpler line up of the first album. This gives a more spacious feel to the music, more freedom for the individual musicians, and a little more stylistic variation.

This variation is immediately apparent on Kühn and Bekkas' joint composition "Enjoy," which combines Lopez' reggae influenced percussion, Kühn's rolling piano phrases and Bekkas' fluid vocal and strident, funky guembri into an insistently danceable tune. Bekkas' "Asmaa" is dedicated to his daughter and flows beautifully, with a touch of flamenco and, thanks to Lopez' tabla playing, a flavor of Indian percussion. Kühn's "Back to Normal" and "The Second Egg" are more distinctly drawn from his avant-garde roots: Bekkas' guembri playing could almost be mistaken for a double bass on these tracks as he underpins Kühn and Lopez' delicate interplay.

The trio composition "Soon in June" begins with a duet between Bekkas' voice and Kühn's alto saxophone before Lopez bursts in, Bekka's takes up his guembri and things kick off in a serious fashion. It's the album's most visceral piece; powerful and affecting. Kühn's "Play Golf in the Fresh Air" is equally powerful, but more humorous, a driving, rock-influenced tune that bowls along with good-natured danceability and a slight air of mystery. The 66-year-old Kühn, by the way, is at pains to point out that none of the band plays golf: "We're still too young for that."

Track Listing: Enjoy; Asmaa; Back to Normal; Play Golf in the Fresh Air; Chalaba; Soon in June; Hamdouchia; The Second Egg; Momoun Saadiyamou.

Personnel: Joachim Kühn: piano, alto saxophone; Majid Bekkas: vocals, guembri, oud; Ramon Lopez: drums, tabla, percussion.

Title: Chalaba | Year Released: 2011 | Record Label: ACT Music

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