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Rabih Abou-Khalil: Morton's Foot

John Kelman By

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The definition of jazz is often a hotly contested topic. A more parochial view has it rooted in black American folk music, with somewhat narrow criteria that revolve around certain harmonies and rhythms. A broader view has it based in an improvisational spirit that can be rooted in the folk music of any country. Whether it is the unbridled passion of the Latin heart or the icy cool of the Scandinavian fjord, jazz is where you find it.

And it is just as possible to be found in the desert heat of the Middle East, with no stronger proponents than master oud players Anouar Brahem and, in this case, Rabih Abou-Khalil, whose latest recording continues to mine the juncture between Middle Eastern folk forms and a looser spirit of extemporization. But whereas Brahem has for the most part stayed within a more traditional instrumental setting, Abou-Khalil has, throughout the course of his fifteen-year career, shown a penchant for combining the most unlikely of instruments into a sound that is orchestrally rich and wholly unique.

Following the success of 2001's most unique big band outing, Cactus of Knowledge , Morton's Foot shoots for a more pared down sound. Oud, accordion, clarinet, tuba, voice and percussion may seem an odd conglomeration, but Abou-Khalil is able to see the purpose in any instrumental grouping. With this far-from-traditional lineup, the end result still has a group concept that covers all the expected bases: accordion as the chordal instrument, oud and clarinet as the front line, tuba and percussion as the rhythm section. And while each instrument tends to have its place, the sound is anything but stereotypical. Complex themes snake through irregular meters, instruments combine in subsets—at times for passages of almost chamber-like beauty—and the improvisation, both individual and collective, is of the highest order.

The surprise of the set is vocalist Gavino Murgia, whose voice is so deep and resonant that it can shake a set of speakers like the most robust bass. Murgia's ability to articulate difficult lines in an impossibly low register makes him truly the find of the session. How broad his reach can extend has yet to be determined, but his melodic contribution to the record takes an already distinguished ensemble sound one step further. His ability to double the tuba's bass lines, sometimes an octave below, is nothing short of remarkable.

The music on the disc ranges from the exciting "Ma Muse M'abuse" to the pensive "Il Ritorno del Languore" and the chamber-like "L'histoire d'un Parapluie." Abou-Khalil's recordings are never short of completely engrossing, blending his ethnic heritage with spirited and joyous playing in contexts that never cease to surprise. If an artist came out with but one album as good as Morton's Foot , he/she would be assured a place in jazz history; but the truth is Abou-Khalil manages to succeed at this level with almost every release.

Visit Enja Records and Justin Time Records on the web.


Track Listing: Ma Muse M''abuse; Morton's Foot; Il Ritorno del Languore; Lobotomie Mi Baba Lu; L'Histoire d'un Parapluie; O Papaia Balerina; Dr> Gieler's Wiener Schnizel; Il Sospiro; Hopping Jack; Waltz for Dubbya; The Return of the Maltese Chicken

Personnel: Rabih Abou-Khalil (oud), Gabriele Mirabassi (clarinet), Luciano Biondini (accordion), Michel Godard (tuba), Gavino Murgia (vocals), Jarrod Cagwin(drums, frame drums)

Title: Morton's Foot | Year Released: 2004 | Record Label: Enja Records

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