Simon Shaheen & Qantara
Compact Disc: Ark21, 186 850 022-2
Arabian Oud and violin maestro Simon Shaheen first announced his keen genre-crossing interest on Saltanah [Water Lily Acoustics 51/1997], which featured inspired duet improvisations with Indian lap-guitar phenomenon Vishwas Mohan Bhatt. On the later live recording The Two Tenors [with legendary Arabian vocalists Wadi Al-Safi and Sabah Fakhri - Ark21/Mondo Melodia, 186 850 014-2/2000], Shaheen's two instrumental compositions "Dance Mediterrania" and "Al Qantara" first introduced his full ensemble. Its name was inspired by a visit to the old Andalucian town Alcantara, whose name itself is derived from the Arabian Al-Qantara, meaning "arch".
This year's Blue Flame is now entirely dedicated to exploiting the formidable talent of Qantara's master musicians. One brief glance at its roster demonstrates how apt the visual image of an arch spanning different cultures is (cueing up the actual album of course only compounds this further). The core formation is made up of Bassam Saba (Turkish nay and Western traverse flute – ex-musical director of the Beirut Symphony band, performed with Lebanese legend Fairuz); Jamey Haddad (assorted percussion, performed with Paul Simon and Dave Liebman); Steve Sheehan (assorted percussion, performed with Herbie Hancock, Omar Faruk Tekbilek, Paul Simon, Cheb Mami and Brian Eno); Lorenzo Martinez (assorted percussion, performed with Maynard Ferguson, Gato Barbieri, Flora Purim & Airto); Najib Shaheen (oud, founding member of the Near Eastern Music Ensemble); François Moutin (double bass/electric bass guitar, performed with Archi Shepp and John Abercrombie) and Adam Rogers (guitar, co-leader of Lost Tribe, performed with Michael Brecker, Regina Carter, John Pattitucci & The Gil Evans Orchestra).
Between each other, these musicians have released or appeared on more than 150 albums. Now add guest artists with equivalents chops: Billy Drews (soprano-sax, performed with Bill Frisell, Joe Lovan & Lyle Mays), Les Lovett (trumpet, performed with Mel Thorme, Woody Herman & Brian Setzer), Richard Sussman (piano, performed with Lionel Hampton & Buddy Rich), Ali Jihad Racy (bouzouq, performed with Kronos Quartet) and classical violinist Mark Peskanov. Blue Flame's ambitious scope of styles, experience and influences -- from Jazz to World Beat to Classical Arab music -- literally explodes on the aural canvas.
Certain tunes sway gently along some of those ancient belly dance rhythms - slow, odd-metered, limping and very seductive. Others are energetically propelled forward on hard-driving faster variants instead. Even the Police cover "Tea in the Sahara" is illuminated from a different perspective that retains familiarity while shifting the underlying where-are-we-from tenor. In each case, the sheer number of featured percussion instruments makes for a mind-bending variety and sophistication. From caxxixi, djembe and durbakka to bongos, frame drum and afuché; from crotales, cajon and agogo bells to sagaate, angklung and bendirs - Middle-Eastern, South American, African and even Asian sounds and patterns are represented and co-mingle synchronously to the beat of very different drummers.
One of the album's greatest strengths is the ease whereby the whole ensemble routinely shifts gears mid-tune. This happens repeatedly in each composition and manifests as a switch in the base rhythm and/or the predominant stylistic inflections. Those can span the gamut from Arabian modal taqsim improv to lively and gay Palestinian dance melodies. You feel caressed by a sudden West-Indies' island air (as in Les Lovett's trumpet solo on "Waving Sands" that's accompanied by a decidedly Jamaican groove) before a classical string quartet (on "Fantasie for Oud & String Quartet") becomes an entirely unexpected but masterful backdrop for Shaheen's oud. "Silk Tears" was spawned during a surprise meeting at a musical retreat in Chateau Marquatte/France, with former Billy Idol guitarist Steve Stevens. Very effectively, it blends WorldBeat and Jazz elements, with Shaheen's violin reminiscing in a Grappelli-like melancholy vein before Fiszman's electric bass solo sez "most definitely Jazz" and Steven's following guitar solo responds with "yes, and then some".
Another obvious Qantara forté is each member's virtuosity. It forges truly elegant exchanges or serpentine intertwined melodies that make you forget how very challenging these musical displays really are. The underlying rhythmic finesse, despite being devilish complex at times, never turns frenzied and strenuous. Like the melodic material, it always remains light on its feet.
Against eleven such very colorful ensemble settings, the true highlight of the album is surely the profound mastery of Shaheen's exploits on oud and Oriental violin. The metallic and percussive virility of his 1920's Nahat oud plays counterpoint to the more feminine lyricism and elegance of his 1773 Gagliano violin. Add high-quality mastering at Future Disc, Hollywood with HDCD encoding and one hour's worth of top-notch musicianship and well-conceived compositions without any filler material. Blue Flame unequivocally delivers on its creator's proclamation that it represents "the culmination of a lifetime's work". Call it Global Village contemporary chamber music of the highest order.
Should you find yourself falling for Blue Flame, be sure to also check out Bustan Abraham's Fanar [Nada Productions 13]. This is a similar instrumental formation from Israel -- adding the Turkish qanun zither and Indian guest instrumentalists Zakir Hussain (tablas) and Hariprasad Chaurasia (bansuri) – and their best release to date. It's equally colorful, mesmerizing, well recorded and another standout addition to your World/Jazz collection.
For another Middle-Eastern crossover exploit, albeit with a smaller percussion-less ensemble and less traditional roots than especially Shaheen's effort, consider Night Ark – Treasures [Traditional Crossroads 80702-6000-2]. This is a 24-bit re-mastered collection of the group's top compositions and highlights the artistry of Armenian Ara Dinkjian on various guitar-and banjo-related instruments, such as the ud, saz, cümbüs and Portuguese mandolin.