Lebanese pianist’s new LP reinvents classical Arabic tunes with a modern jazz trio
Tarek Yamani’s second album as leader is a fascinating, assured work that builds on the successes of 2012’s Ashur. Ditching the kooky tuba from that record’s line-up in favour of a straight trio, this time the pianist relies on his choice of material to tread fresh ground, rather than the sonic palette. Lebanese-born but now dividing his time between Beirut and New York, Lisan Al Tarab: Jazz Conceptions in Classical Arabic takes traditional and classical pieces from mid-20th century Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon (alongside a solitary original) and uses them as a launching pad for group improvisation. Very literally a cross of his two worlds, the pianist exploits the most expressive musical idiom of his adopted city (jazz) to explore, transform, transfigure and shed fresh light on the music of his rooted, real homeland.
Such a portentous project might run risk of failing under the weight of its own ambitious, but thankfully Yamani, bassist Petros Klampanis and drummer John Davis tackle their goal deftly. Recorded over two consecutive days in New York at a self-produced session this March, there’s a staggering level of interplay between the trio. Displaying an ECM-influenced lightness, countered with an edge of post-bop attack, the performances are at once both beautifully free and meticulously detailed; heads and segues are tightly wound, and only a single tune runs past the eight-minute mark.
At its best, the band’s textures – shimmering cymbals, searching bass explorations, spidery piano runs building to tub-thumping staccato chords – recall Chick Corea’s great trio work, or more often Brad Mehldau’s form-defining execution. But however sublime the group, it’s the unusual material – with its exotic scales and rhythmic complexities – which mean this album demands to be heard. From the wedding bounce of ‘Ah Ya Zein’, recast here as a fast bop, to the angled melodies of ballad-like ‘Zarani Al Mahboub’ and the slow-burning closer ‘Chemali Wali’, based on a traditional Iraqi folksong, it’s clear this project has something fresh to say – no mean feat more than a half century since the trio format became commonplace.
Beyond aesthetics the album is instructive, laying bare the shared (and often misplaced) qualities of Western and Arabic composition, and suggesting where differences lie – issues Yamani has spent his career exploring with his self-dubbed ‘Afro Tarab’ style, best epitomised here. For both jazz fans looking for fresh sounds, or regional music lovers intrigued by new forms, it’s a nigh-on essential listen. Best of all, while the album is released live in Lebanon today, there’s talk of a UAE-launch gig come October – not to be missed, we’d say.
Best of all, while the album is released live in Lebanon today, there’s talk of a UAE-launch gig come October – not to be missed, we’d say.
UPDATE: Lisan Al Tarab will be launched in the UAE with a gig at Jazz@Pizza Express on Saturday September 30, 8.30pm.
Lisan Al Tarab is available for download from August 19. Find out more at www.tarekyamani.com. The album received funding with a grant from the Culture Resource's Productions Awards Program (Al Mawred Al Thaqafy).