In the realm of instruments from off the beaten path in jazz, the oud remains one of the most intriguing. On a series of ECM albums, Anouar Brahem has experimented with the eleven-string lute in a variety of settings, but he tends to fashion close ties with his Tunisian cultural aesthetic. Lebanese oudist Rabih Abou-Khalil has been more adventurous, with a series of albums ranging from the solo Il Sospiro
(Enja, 2002) to the unorthodox Cactus of Knowledge
(Enja, 2001) big band. Morton's Foot
(Enja, 2004) was a particular high water mark, combining Abou-Khalil's penchant for hypnotic rhythms with uncommon instrumentation featuring Gavino Murgia's remarkable vocals.
Journey to the Centre of an Egg represents a significant departure from precedent. While his previous albums have been collaborative affairs, the compositions have virtually always been by Abou-Khalil. Here he is joined by percussionist Jarrod Cagwin and German pianist Joachim Kühn, whose music has ranged from post-Coltrane modality with the late Polish violinist Zbigniew Seifert to the solo Allegro Vivace (ACT, 2005), finding surprising common ground between Bach, Mozart, Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. Not just another document from a performance collective, however, Journey to the Centre of an Egg represents the first time Abou-Khalil has collaborated compositionally, co-writing all eight tracks with Kühn. The result is Abou-Khalil's freest and most successful cross-cultural album to date.
While Kühn's European aesthetic clearly informs the material, Abou-Khalil's own cultural frame of reference remains intact. Still, although "Shrewd Woman and "Little Camels revolve around harmonically static vamps, Kühn's accompaniment introduces a level of abstract impressionism that's new, even for the stylistically intrepid Abou-Khalil. Cagwin's mix of drum kit and frame drums provides the pulse that gives the tracks weight and focus, but what is most remarkable is how Abou-Khalil and Kühn, rather than feeling like polar opposites, find a nexus point that feels both familiar and new.
The communication between Kühn and Abou-Khalil is in full view on "Die Brücke, where Cagwin again provides a consistent foundation over which Kühn and Abou-Khalil can interact, empathically feeding off each other's ideas. The connection the trio shares transcends mere listening skills. The ebb and flow are so natural as to feel scripted, even when they are clearly not.
"Natwasheh and Kadwasheh the longest piece on the disc and one of two to add Wolfgang Reisinger on drumsis even more remarkable, dissolving into a completely free section that might not be anything new for Kühn, but is for Abou-Khalil. The way the quartet migrates from total abstraction back to loose formas informed by classical music as it as jazz and the cross-culturalis reminiscent of early Oregon recordings like In Concert (Vanguard, 1975).
To understand Abou-Khalil's commitment to ongoing experimentation and evolution, one need only check out a handful of his recordings. But with Journey to the Centre of an Egg he moves into new and daring territory. This, his freest album to date, is another high point in a career that's evidenced nary a misstep.