Over the last decade the oud, the Middle Eastern lute, has become a beguiling and familiar sound on culturally outward-looking jazz recordings. Tunisian player Anouar Brahem has expanded the vocabulary of the instrument with every new recording, and Lebanese player Rabih Abou-Khalil has presented it as a frontline voice in modern settings.
On Divine Shadows, his fourth solo release, Tunisian oudist Dhafer Youssef places the instrument in front of an electronic nu-jazz background. On Na'ama, his first oud recording, Israeli guitarist Amos Hoffman brings a jazz sensibility to the traditional language of the instrument. The two albums testify to a breadth of future possibilities.
The Vienna-based Youssef here continues the journey he began with his third solo recording, Digital Prophecy (Enja, 2003). He keeps searching for new sounds, and develops his fusion of the Sufi trance music tradition with mesmerizing, electronic, heavily sampled soundscapes.
Youssef still relies on his team of Norwegian musicians, notably guitarist and producer Eivind Aarset, a close collaborator of Norwegian nu-jazz pioneer Nils Petter Molvaer, together with Molvaer familiars Audun Erlien (bass), Rune Arnesen (drums) and Jan Bang (programs). The creative trumpeter Arve Henriksen, with whom Youssef has toured during the last two years, is also featured. The new ensemble is augmented by Danish percussionist Marilyn Mazur and the Oslo Session String Quartet.
Perhaps the most beautiful tracks on Divine Shadows are those where Youssef's purified oud playing is set against a veiled electronic background. On "Miel Et Cendres," "Winds And Shadows" and "27th Ethos," the oud blends wonderfully with the arco lines of the Oslo Session String Quartet, and the clever hand percussion of Mazur complements the timbres and colors that Youssef and the string players conjure together. On these cinematic tracks, Youssef creates a seemingly plain soundscape, but with each listening other, deeper layers are revealed.
On "Odd Poetry" Youssef, Aarset and Henriksen hone their close musical affinity, one featured so magnificently during the London Jazz Festival two years ago. Youssef's oud hovers over the metallic lines of Aarset's guitar, and the breathy tone of Henriksen's trumpet counterbalances Youssef's fragile, wordless vocals. The addition of the string quartet at the coda of this track re-emphasises and intensifies the theme that Youssef, Aarset and Henriksen articulated earlier.
Other standout tracks are "Postludium," where Youssef duets with Henriksen's Eastern-sounding trumpet, and the closing "Un Soupir Eternal," featuring the gentle trio of Youssef, singing and playing, Henriksen, and the lurking guitar of Aarset. Unfortunately Youssef and Henriksen don't return to the extended vocal duets they performed at their unforgettable London festival performance.
Divine Shadows is the most crystallized statement by Youssef so far. He's not shy of venturing into new sonic regions, still respects the ancient tradition of the oud, and offers a captivating vision integrating both the past and the future.
Visit Dhafer Youssef on the web.
Amos Hoffman is one of the most accomplished guitar players on the small Israeli jazz scene, and has also played the oud since he was eight. Brief snippets of his oud playing have previously been heard on the recordings of Israeli bassist Avishai Cohen and the 3 Cohens.
Hoffman began to study the oud while living in New York alongside Lebanese teacher Bassam Saba, an associate of Palestinian player Simon Shaeen. Na'ama, named after Hoffman's daughter, is his second solo release after The Dreamer (Fresh Sound, 1999), and is built on original compositions, most of them referencing traditional Arabic maqams or scales.
Unlike Youssef, Hoffman doesn't try to discover new musical territory, but still, his unassuming and straightforward playing finds new colors in the oud. The tender accompaniment of bassist Omer Avital and percussionist Rea Bar Nes, the latter especially while playing the marimba, offers Hoffman great flexibility. On the captivating "Na'ama," Hoffman and Bar Nes improvise on a simple lullaby melody, while on "Longa Abu Musa" they stretch the traditional form of the longa into a swift run of solos.
The twelve short tracks on Na'ama don't deviate to a significant degree from traditional oud playing or tune structures, but they showcase a highly gifted player, who successfully combines his Western musical education with one of his homeland's musical traditions.
Tracks and Personnel
Tracks: Cantus Lamentus; 27th Century Ethos; Miel Et Cendres; Winds And Shadows; Odd Poetry; 27th Ethos; Persona Non Grata; Postludium; Eleventh Stone; Ivresse Divine; Un Soupir Eternel.
Personnel: Dhafer Youssef: oud, vocals; Arve Henriksen: trumpet, electronics: Eivind Aarset: guitars, electronics, programming; Audun Erlien: bass, bass balalaika; Marilyn Mazur percussion; Rune Arnesen: drums, programming; Jan Bang: programming; Oslo Session String Quartet.
Tracks: Third King; Takasim Nahawand; Samai Nahawand; Kiryat HaYovel; Na'ama; Takasim Higas; Takasim Rast; Samai Siga; Longa Abu Musa; Takasim Rayat; Shargia; Lonely Sands.
Personnel: Amos Hoffman: oud; Joshua Levit: ney; Ehab Nimer: violin; Omer Avital: bass; Avishai Cohen: bass (11); Tomer Zur: percussion; Rea Bar Nes: percussion & marimba.